In the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, Chinese merchants occupied a special position in many British or ex-British colonies, such as the Northern Territory (‘the Territory’) of South Australia, as facilitators of labour supply and trade and as leaders and representatives of Chinese communities. They were recognised in these capacities by governments through exemptions from immigration regulations. The lack of restrictions on Chinese immigration to the Territory until 1888 enabled Chinese merchants to establish Chinatown and, in some cases, business networks that were transnational and transfamilial. Territory Chinese merchants were esteemed by local business and political elites and often included in official functions. The economic competitiveness of Chinese merchants in the Territory motivated a faction of European businessmen to push for limitations on employment for Chinese workers and for Australian colonies to uniformly restrict Chinese immigration in the 1880s and in 1901. The Chinese merchant leaders in the Territory protested against these ‘White Australia’ policies. The initial lack of immigration restrictions and later exemptions enabled wives, daughters and servants of Territory Chinese merchants to gain prominence in business and politics. This case study illustrates that ‘white’ policies were less about creating white nations as about constructing spaces for governments to benefit economically from ‘coloured’ people while keeping them in subjection.
Natalie Fong is a graduate of the University of Queensland, Birkbeck College (University of London) and Griffith University. She is completing her PhD at Griffith University on Chinese merchants in the Northern Territory, 1880-1950.One of her great-grandfathers was NT Chinese merchant Fong Siu Wing/Fong How. Natalie is a secondary school English and History teacher, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Redlands College, and a tutor at Christian Heritage College. Her latest publication is ‘The Emergence of Chinese Businesswomen in Darwin, 1910-1940’ in Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia, edited by Kate Bagnall and Julia Martinez (Hong Kong University Press, 2021).