1840 Chinese Steelyard Scale

Era: Cultural background: Collection:

Chinese steelyard scale c.1840-60 PHM
Chinese steelyard scale, c.1840-1860 Courtesy Powerhouse Museum

Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia.

Object Name
Chinese steelyard scale.

Object/Collection Description
A Chinese steelyard scale (do’tchin) consisting of a ivory scale rod with a brass pan and weight, all stored in a varnished, wooden, paddle shaped case. The case consists of two halves with the lid attached to the base by a rivet. The lid swivels open to reveal areas that have been hollowed out to fit the rod, weight and pan. The ivory scale rod has black dots marking off the weight scale. The brass pan is joined to the rod with four strings and the detached oval weight is also attached to string. Made in China, c.1840-1860. Dimensions: approximately 220mm long X 35mm wide X 10mm high.

In March 1851, Edward Hargraves wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald to announce that he had found payable gold just outside the New South Wales town of Bathurst. By 15 May over 300 diggers were in the area prospecting for gold and the Australian gold rush had begun. The following month further discoveries were made at Clunes in Victoria and later Warrandyte, Bunninyong and Ballarat. By the end of the year half the adult male population of the colony was at the diggings.

With so many people leaving for the gold fields, many businesses found it hard to keep operating. Ship crews deserted, leaving vessels stranded in port, shepherds left their flocks, government officials, clerks, teachers and policemen left their jobs in the excitement. Soon they were joined by thousands of immigrants from Europe, America, China and New Zealand keen to try their luck. Between 1852 and 1861 over 342,000 people arrived, often enduring appalling conditions on overcrowded ships. Conditions were not much better on land as tent cities sprang up to accommodate the burgeoning population and the cost of food and necessities sky rocketed.

The discovery of gold in New South Wales from the early 1850s saw a huge influx of migrants in search of instant wealth. The primary result of the gold rush was that the economy boomed and for a short time gold outstripped wool as the Colony’s primary export. Many of the people who came in search of gold were Chinese men. Drawn from their home villages mainly in Kwangtung Province by the first gold rushes in Victoria, California and New South Wales in the 1850s they usually arrived in organised groups of 30 -100 men. In 1861 there were about 13,000 Chinese in New South Wales with the majority 12,200 on the gold fields. Throughout the 19th century Chinese arrivals continued to the regions of New South Wales associated with mining, replacing those who had returned home or left for opportunities elsewhere.

Chinamen at work on the goldfrields. This engraving shows several Chinese gold diggers in coolie hats working in layered excavations. There is a long flume and possibly a sluice box centre and right of the image. The scene is at the Mount Alexander gold diggings near Castlemaine. The Australian news for home readers, August 25, 1863. SLVIC
Chinamen at work on the gold fields. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

This engraving shows several Chinese gold diggers in coolie hats working in layered excavations. There is a long flume and possibly a sluice box centre and right of the image. The scene is at the Mount Alexander gold diggings near Castlemaine. The Australian news for home readers, August 25, 1863.

The Chinese diggers moved from goldfield to goldfield within New South Wales and across the border. Constantly on the move, their presence and experience are evidenced mainly from the observations and interpretations of Europeans, from archaeological digs and from objects saved by families and community members. There are few written accounts and sources from a Chinese perspective. The Chinese attracted particular attention and local newspapers were quick to comment on their distinctive features, clothes, languages and habits – especially their tendency to travel en masse, their methods of transport, their diligence, tirelessness and productivity. Any admiration of their work ethic was offset by envy and resentment when times got hard. The Chinese were often scapegoated by disgruntled European miners as seen in the violent anti -Chinese riots at Turon (1853), Meroo (1854) Rocky River (1856) Tambaroora (1858) Lambing Flat, Kiandra and Nundle (1860 and 1861) and Tingha tin fields (1870). They were seen initially as oddities, later as rivals and then as threats to white Australia.

Lambing Flat miners' camp c.1860s SLNSW
Lambing Flat miners’ camp, c.1860s. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales

Although there were some remarkable discoveries on the gold fields, few people made their fortune and most drifted back to towns and cities looking for work. Some of the migrants returned to their countries of origin but the majority stayed. Australia’s first gold rush transformed the colonies. Convict transportation to the eastern colonies ceased, the population more than doubled, and agriculture expanded and new industries were established.

The scales are of historic significance as evidence of the long history of Chinese settlement in Australia and of the value placed on even very small amounts of gold. The scales have historic value to the themes of the gold rush experience, racial antagonism, the fear of the exotic and unknown, and ideologies that fostered the development of racially discriminative Colonial policies culminating in the first act of the newly Federated Commonwealth of Australia, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901.

The scales have aesthetic significance in the functional design and manufacture of Chinese gold fields objects in the 19th century. Commonly used by Chinese miners and storekeepers at a time when goods were often paid for in gold, they were designed to be highly portable to be packed away when moving from gold field to field by foot.

The scales provide a research tool for historians to explore the culture and politics of the gold fields and especially how the Chinese fitted into the social landscape in their transactions and dealings with European shop keepers and merchants. The Chinese traditionally bartered in gold.

Chinese Australians who reside in regional New South Wales are predominately descended from the early migrants to the gold fields. Objects such as the scales provide a means for these communities to recognise and acknowledge the hardships and racism experienced by their ancestors. Objects and collections from Chinese communities provide the material culture for the stories of ancestors. These objects and collections have a resonance across regional New South Wales and Australia.

The scales are well provenanced to the Powerhouse Museum Collection.

The scales are rare because they were made for a specific purpose and function and were used on the 19th century Australian gold fields. They are rare because few of these scales from the gold rush remain in public collections.

The scales represent the experience of the 19th century Chinese on the gold fields. The myths surrounding the Chinese created largely on the gold fields provided the seeds for the ideology for the Immigration Restriction Acts 1901.

The condition of the object is good given the rarity and fragile nature of the fabric.

The scales are a powerful interpretive tool in communicating the Chinese experience of isolation and ‘different-ness’, their success and industry as miners and shop keepers and their persecution by the wider European population on the diggings and in the wider community.


Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Their Ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.

Wilton, J 2004, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional NSW, 1850 – 1950, New England Regional Museum & Powerhouse Museum Publishing.


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The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

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Regional Services at the Powerhouse Museum is supported by Movable Heritage, NSW funding from the NSW Ministry for the Arts.