Chinese migration to Australia has a long history, which is reflected in the Chinese burials in the Old Cemetery of Ballarat. In Ballarat, Victoria, during the gold rush there was a sharp increase in Chinese migration to the region as families travelled across oceans in search of gold. The population of Chinese reached its peak in Ballarat in the mid-nineteenth century when more than 20% of men in the town identified as such. The presence of Chinese culture in this town is preserved in the historic Chinese burials.
Life was tough for the migrants as they faced open discrimination in the form of levees and fees, and the racial tensions that lead to violence in some instances. In 1857 several Chinese miners were killed after their camp was attacked. The cemetery marks how these migrants remembered their dead in these turbulent times.
The most common cause of death at the time was mining-related accidents. The scarcity of funds meant that many bodies could not be returned to their home country and instead all that marked the burial was a headstone with the name of the deceased and the place where their ancestors died.
The gravestones themselves were placed far from the entrance of the cemetery. The distance reflects the isolation the Chinese experienced in mid-nineteenth century Ballarat. Many of the graves today are empty. This is because those that could afford it were re-exhumed and sent back to be buried with family in China. The hasty construction style implies that they expected that the burial was temporary.
Recent efforts to memorialise the Chinese presence in Ballarat involved the improvement of the Chinese section of the cemetery. A memorial garden and gate was built around the section so that the once isolated area is now a feature of the cemetery preserving the memory of Chinese role in Australia’s gold rush history.
- http://www.chaf.lib.latrobe.edu.au/brumley/brumley.htm – contains records of the burials
- 2004. After the Rush: Regulation, Participation, and Chinese communities in Australia, 1860-1940. Edited by Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald, Paul McGregor.