MY NAME IS SIMON KOO. I’m fourth-generation Australian. My great-great-grandfather, Koo Bing Fuk, came out from China in the late 1850s to the gold rush, got lucky (ha ha) working the tailings the white miners had abandoned, and by persistence and hard work made a few bob; enough to get a bit of a start, anyway.
Back then even a bit was considered a lot. Life wasn’t easy. All the maxims of the time recommended caution, and nobody is more frugal than a Chinese peasant. Never waste a grain of winter rice is the Chinese equivalent of A penny saved is a penny earned. Ah Koo, as he would commonly be known, needed no such advice.
After removing the ore that could be won with a moderate amount of labour, many white prospectors quickly became discouraged – at least, that was true for much of the human detritus that had washed in from the four corners with their arses hanging out of their trousers. Most had dreamed of a quick and lazy fortune, but finding gold usually meant backbreaking work from dawn to dusk and a bit of luck besides. They deeply resented the idea of those dirty yellow bastards – the celestials, Mongolians, Chinks, as they were variously known – showing them up by working hard and striking paydirt in claims the white miners had abandoned out of idleness.
It soon became apparent to all the layabouts, drunks and no-hopers that the celestials were fair game, not officially welcome at the diggings, or anywhere else, for that matter. So when they were pissed they’d play ‘Let’s go get us a Chink’. Beating up a Mongolian was considered an almost honourable pastime and certainly not an incident that need trouble an indifferent officer of the law. The many incidents of Chinese beaten to death were simply recorded as mining accidents.
A favourite trick was for a group of whites to corner a Chinaman and throw him to the ground facedown. One would sit on his legs, while another would plant a boot on his shoulder and another on his wrist. Taking a bowie knife, the ringleader would run it around the circumference of the pigtail, then rip it off the back of his head. This was gleefully known among the white miners as ‘hog-tailing’, a term borrowed from the Californian gold rush.
Soon the cry went up in New South Wales and Victoria: ‘The Chinamen are stealing our gold! No more, celestials!’ Both colonies quickly locked and chained the welcoming gate.
However, Ah Koo had arrived in the second wave of Chinese crammed into the holds of the three-masted barques from Shanghai that diverted to the tiny port of Robe in the free settlers’ colony of South Australia, where no restrictions or landing fees applied. Robe was a great distance from the nearest goldfields, so Ah Koo, along with others, walked more than 700 miles overland to the Yass area of New South Wales, ignoring the shorter journey to the Victorian diggings.
When I was at uni I went to the archives and searched through some of the old newspapers. There were numerous reports of farmers and townspeople seeing long files of Chinese in conical hats, their pigtails flopping behind them, snaking across the black soil plains of New South Wales. They wore blue cotton smocks and calf-length blue trousers, and bore heavy loads balanced on long bamboo poles.
Not long after Ah Koo arrived at the Lambing Flat diggings, on a night with a full moon that was so bright you could almost thread a needle by it, he woke suddenly to see a group of white