MHC Forum 1999

Linking Threads


Stories from Regional NSW

Dr Janis Wilton

The patterns and tones of migration and settlement in regional NSW(2) have characteristics which highlight differences between metropolitan and regional experiences. The focus here is on these differences as a way to raise issues which at first may seem specific to the regional experience but which, in many cases, are significant for all parts of the state. The focus is particularly on the presence and contributions of immigrant Australians from non-English-speaking-backgrounds although the issues raised have wider applications.

Regional Characteristics

Immigration patterns

The main impact of overseas immigration in regional NSW was during the first 100 to 150 years of European settlement. It was in this period that immigrant arrivals pushed frontiers into and against Aboriginal people. Among the vanguard of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh arrivals were small, but significant, numbers of Germans, Chinese, Greeks, Italians, Indians, Lebanese and others. Urbanisation altered this pattern. From the late nineteenth century and particularly after the Second World War, it was the metropolitan areas which attracted most of the population, among them the vast majority of overseas immigrants. Small numbers of immigrant Australians from non-English-speaking backgrounds and their descendants continue to settle in regional areas, however their presence is arguably swamped by the visibility and vocality of their metropolitan counterparts.(3)

A closer look at immigration and settlement patterns in regional NSW can remind us not just of the cultural diversity but also the spatial and temporal diversity and complexity of our migration heritage, and of the different coloured and textured threads needed to weave the heritage cloth.

Settlement patterns, sites and memories

Census and immigration statistics, community histories and local knowledge have established particular features of migrant settlement patterns in regional NSW. These features underpin the varying ways in which migration heritage is acknowledged, respected, lived and presented. The patterns are familiar although the impact of geographical and temporal distance, the different histories of communities and localities, and the impact of urbanisation have created distinct characteristics.

Concentrated and continuing settlements

Some localities in regional NSW have been the focus for relatively concentrated and continuing settlement by members of particular ethnic communities. Examples include German immigrants and their descendants around the towns of Jindera, Walla Walla, Culcairn and Holbrook in the Riverina; Italian immigrants and their descendants in and around Griffith in the Riverina, Lismore on the north coast and, more recently, around the tobacco growing districts on the NSW/Queensland border; and Sikhs in the north coast town of Woolgoolga.(4) In these areas the stamp of diverse cultural heritages and differing migration histories resonate in tangible and less tangible ways. There is, for example, the Jindera Museum located partly in the building of the Wagner and Rosler store which was established in 1874 by German immigrants and which now houses a wealth of objects marking the German - as well as Scottish and English - influence in the area. There is the new museum in Griffith funded and created by members of the local Italo-Australian communities, and there are the many stores, cafes and businesses which utilise and promote the Italo-Australian heritage of the area. There are the memories, experiences, memorabilia, photographs and objects which are treasured within families and which still inform and shape contemporary lifestyles and artforms.

Temporary settlement

There are also some localities which, for a finite period of time, provided places of work and settlement for significant numbers of immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds or provided places of transition into or away from life in Australia. The goldfields of the central west and the tinfields of the northern tablelands offer obvious examples. At their height, like goldfields and mining sites elsewhere, they could boast a very culturally diverse population. There were also the many rural towns which, during the late nineteenth century, had distinct Chinese neighbourhoods with stores, cookhouses, temples, butchers, market gardens. In the Riverina, for example, there were what at the time were called 'Chinese camps' in Albury, Narrandera, Hay, Deniliquin and Wagga Wagga. There was the forced location of groups of people to the internment and prisoner-of-war camps of the Second World War at Hay and Cowra, and to the migrant holding centres/hostels provided at Bathurst, Bonegilla, and Greta for post-war immigrants. There was also the great post-war experiment of the Snowy Mountains Scheme with its importation of a culturally diverse workforce.(5)

These immigrants, by and large, moved on. Only relatively small numbers of their members settled in the localities. Their contribution, presence and treatment, however, remains an integral part of the migration heritage of these towns and areas. It is overtly evident in, for example, the Chinese sections of local cemeteries; the permanent exhibition about Bonegilla at the Albury Regional Museum; the site of the internment camp for the Dunera internees and Italian prisoners-of-war at Hay; and the gardens commemorating the 1860/61 anti-Chinese Lambing Flat riots which are being created at Young.

Individuals and family groups

Settlement patterns in regional areas also include the movement and settlement of individuals and family groups. Some, as with Lebanese immigrants who moved from hawking to haberdashery and with Greek-Australians who established cafes throughout regional towns, moved along and were supported by ethnic community networks which extended around and across regional NSW and into Sydney.(6) Similar networks exist for the Chinese restaurants which, since the Second World War, have perhaps largely replaced the Greek owned cafes. The continuing existence of some of the earlier stores and cafes, the survival of facades and names, and the newer presence of Chinese restaurants with their distinctive features are reminders of the change and continuities in the migration networks which have ensured the presence of immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds as an integral part of the main streets of towns throughout regional areas.

There have also always been those individuals and families who settle in a regional area largely independently of community or family networks. Some, like those Indo-Chinese refugees brought in under the Community Refugee Resettlement Scheme of the 1980s, had little choice in their initial place of settlement. Others are motivated by work, personal relationships, and often distinctly personal reasons which then anchor them to areas in which there are few, if any, others who share their cultural background. Among recent immigrant arrivals in this category are the Filipino wives of Australian-born men who are dispersed throughout regional areas; the immigrants from diverse backgrounds who are attracted to work or to study in larger regional cities and towns like Albury, Armidale, Bathurst and Wagga Wagga; and those practicing artists and writers who elect to live and work beyond the cities.(7)

Fading links

In essence, the history of the immigration and settlement of immigrant Australians from non-English-speaking backgrounds in regional NSW is very rich and varied. The difficulty is that both temporal and physical distance coupled with urbanisation has seen a decreasing percentage of the state's population living in regional areas and, within that, a decreasing percentage of immigrants electing to work and settle in regional NSW.

All this has implications for the provision of appropriate services and assistance for the fostering and care of all aspects of migration heritage. It invites discussion of answers to the following questions:

Who are the custodians of migration heritage for regional areas? Where do they live? What have they identified, practiced and/or saved? Why?
What is involved in identifying, tracking and providing assistance for both the tangible and intangible aspects of migration heritage across temporal and physical space?
In what ways can state institutions, especially given their largely metropolitan base, assist?
What ethical issues (especially those relating to ownership, power, control and recognition) need to be addressed?

These are big questions. There are no single or simple answers. However, they are crucial for developing effective approaches to, and recognition of, the migration heritage of regional NSW. Arguably, they also raise important issues for experiences in metropolitan areas. The following discussion offers some further reflections and examples drawn from a NSW Ministry for the Arts conceived and funded project, Golden Threads: The Chinese in regional NSW. The emphasis is on looking at ways forward, beyond ethnicity, and at identifying ways in which our thinking and acting can enhance our understanding and promotion of the state's culturally diverse heritage and, ultimately, enhance and benefit our professional practice.

Regional Custodians

Given the scattered and often fragmented nature, spatially and temporally, of the contributions of immigrant Australians from non-English-speaking backgrounds to regional NSW, the custodians of those contributions are diverse. In regional areas, they include recently arrived and longer term first generation immigrants, the descendants - second and third generations and beyond - of immigrants, and members of local communities including local and regional institutions. The custodians of this heritage also include those immigrants and their descendants who now live in the metropolitan centres. The emphases, concerns and activities are varied, as are their ways of remembering, documenting and presenting their migration heritage.

In the Golden Threads Project, for example, Arthur Gar Lock Chang - now resident in Sydney - is among the long-term settled first generation Chinese immigrants who have shared their memories of life in regional NSW. He spent the first five years (1935-1939) of his Australian life working in the Wing Hing Long store in Tingha in northern NSW. His memories - and his visit to the store - provide insights into the ways in which the 'White Australia policy' influenced the immigration and work experiences of Chinese immigrants during the first half of the century.

Merv Shung lives in Narrandera. His father, George Hock Shung, became manager of the Sam Yett and Company store in Narrandera in about 1903. The store was located in the heart of the 'Chinese camp' in the town - a site now largely cleared of buildings. Merv Shung has shared his memories of growing up and working in the store, and of the oral traditions within his family about the Chinese pastoral gangs who were provisioned from the store and who had their time off in the camp. He has also shared objects and photographs about his family history with the local Parkside Cottage Museum: here you can view his sister's wedding photograph and wedding dress, and his mother's Chinese teapot and English cruet set. His brothers, sister and parents are buried in Narrandera cemetery. One brother died while in the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War.

Harvey Young is the grandson of Kwan Hong Kee (Percy Young) who came to Australia in 1885. By 1907 Kwan Hong Kee was the manager of the Kwong Sing store in Glen Innes which has remained in family ownership throughout the twentieth century. Harvey Young is the current owner/manager. The building has been altered over the years but its facade and sections of the interior retain the features - and the stories - of the part this Chinese-Australian store and its owners play in the retailing history of the town and in the history of the Chinese in Australia. Calendars from the turn of the century, the old cashier's pulley, framed Chinese proverbs, old packaging and goods, photographs, shop fittings and display stands made by the Chinese carpenters who worked in the store also mark the Chinese-Australian heritage of the store and of the town. Harvey Young has, as well, donated objects, images and other records to the Land of the Beardies Museum in Glen Innes. A display there on the Kwong Sing store occupies one section of the room devoted to 'Pioneers of Commerce'. The Kwan clan has also had a number of reunions, and third and fourth generation members are exploring their family histories and Chinese heritage. In 1990 Anthony Kwan-Gett, for example, created a series of photographs which commented on his Chinese-Australian identity and experiences.

Carole Gass is the Secretary of the Wellington Historical Society. Her parents were among the Chinese-Australian market gardeners whose vegetables have supplied the local market and beyond from the late nineteenth century to the present. Within her family are the objects, memories, photographs, memorabilia and cultural practices which keep these links alive. In her role as Secretary of the Historical Society she has also brought a significant collection into the care of the local museum. Her great uncle, William Suey Ling, was the owner of the Fong Lee store which closed in the early 1930s. At the time, remaining goods and records from the store along with a range of personal belongings (clothing and shoes) belonging to Alice Ling, William Suey Ling's wife, were packed into storage. About five years ago, these were brought from storage and placed in the local museum.

For Arthur Gar Lock Chang, Merv Shung, Harvey Young, and Carole Gass local museums are playing a role in collecting and presenting aspects of their Chinese-Australian heritage. They are partnerships which have emerged partly from the focus and nature of local historical societies and museums in regional areas. These organisations are - with some exceptions - the domains of Australians from English-speaking immigrant backgrounds especially second, third and fourth generation Australians. Their interests are to document and present all and any aspects of the histories of their localities. The majority of the museums and societies have their origins in the 1960s and 1970s in a climate which urged them to collect, collect, collect. Sometimes collections are documented, sometimes not. Displays are often a medley of objects. What is significant, however, is that objects, documents and photographs relating to the Chinese presence - and that of immigrants from other non-English-speaking backgrounds - were collected and are on display. They are there because they are a part of the locality's history. In collecting and presenting objects - and sharing memories and local knowledge - local historical societies and museums are indicative of how local communities have at least partly embraced the cultural diversity of their histories. They consequently - and often with quite different emphases - join immigrants and their descendants as the custodians of those aspects of our migration heritage which link to diverse cultural backgrounds.

The challenge is to work with and for the very varied groups of people represented by the small number of examples given here. As heritage advocates we need to appreciate those aspects of their histories which custodians treasure and wish to share, acknowledge the different emphases and work already in place, establish appropriate forms of assistance, and encourage further partnerships at both the local and regional level. The challenge is also to ensure that these different experiences with their varied, and sometimes conflicting, layers of meaning are accommodated in the various ways in which the state documents and presents its migration heritage.

Tracking & Caring for a Statewide Heritage

Across NSW there is a relatively rich and very varied sense of our regional migration heritage but it is fragmented and it is in the care of a variety of different custodians. So it is with some urgency that, in the Golden Threads Project, we have experimented with ways to track this heritage and to assist families, descendants, and community groups to better document, appreciate and care for what they have and to place it in its broader contexts.

Golden Threads provides one model. Its focus is on local museums and their collections. Its task is to assist with the research and recording of relevant information, offer transliteration and translation of Chinese characters, construct contextual details which locate the objects as part of a very rich history and heritage, provide advice about how to care for the collections where they are, and help identify where and how to seek financial and other assistance for conserving, interpreting and displaying our Chinese heritage.

To keep track of the work, and to provide an accessible method for returning information to the owners of collections, the Golden Threads Project has constructed a custom-made computer database which links objects, sites, places, people, and customs and events. The database could be adapted to track artists, writers, stories or different types of emphases within or across communities, across time and across space. It has already, for example, been adapted to accommodate the variety of collections (objects, archival and photographic) now in the care of the Wing Hing Long store in Tingha. An important aspect of the database's approach, however, is the recognition that objects, people, places, sites cannot be extracted from their historical and cultural contexts, and that those contexts resonate through a variety of mediums and sources.

Created in Filemaker Pro the database has the ability to be put onto the internet, created into a CD-ROM, provide stand alone entries for individual museums, and supply printouts. The database itself and the information it is collating, is being used as the basis for the development of an interactive exhibition/experience which will tour local museums and invite ongoing participation from local communities. A preliminary and fixed exhibition titled 'Our Chinese Heritage, Our Museums' was held at the New England Regional Art Museum in Armidale.

Institutional Support

Golden Threads is dependent on the support - both in money and in kind - from a variety of state and regional institutions. In particular, support has come from the Museums Committee of the NSW Ministry for the Arts, the Powerhouse Museum, the NSW Heritage Office, Carnivale, the New England Regional Art Museum, and the University of New England.

The Project provides an example of state institutions located in the metropolitan area working with regional institutions and with coordinators based in regional NSW. The mix is important. It emphasises that work in regional areas can have an effective regional base and can have effective partnerships with the wide range of expertise, resources and community links available in Sydney. It also reinforces the approaches adopted by community based projects, whether in metropolitan or regional areas, which are conceived and developed with close partnerships and consultations between participants, coordinators and institutions.

In this context of institutional support, the role of the Golden Threads' coordinators has largely been to match needs and assistance, to alert individuals and organisations in regional NSW to the types of assistance available, to introduce staff from state institutions to significant heritage collections and activities in regional areas, and to assist in filling in funding applications.

In concrete terms this has, for example, entailed providing advice, assistance and support to the Oxley Museum in Wellington in applying for Ministry for the Arts funding to conserve and display their collection of Chinese-Australian costumes. It has involved alerting the NSW Heritage Office and the Museums Committee of the NSW Ministry for the Arts to the significance of the Wing Hing Long store in Tingha, and then working with the then owner of the store, with Tingha residents, the local council (Guyra Shire Council) and staff from the Powerhouse Museum to see the store transfer from private to public ownership and, after over a century serving as a Chinese-Australian general store, begin a new life as a museum. It has involved the Project providing a selection of objects for the NSW Heritage Office to use as the focus for an exhibition on Chinese heritage, and also organising an introduction for Heritage Office staff to aspects of our Chinese heritage in regional NSW. It has also involved the Project in calling on staff from the Powerhouse Museum to provide workshops, advice, materials and suggestions for museums and those aspects of their collections and activities relating to the Chinese presence.

The list could go on. The emphasis throughout is on working from a base which acknowledges the important role that a wide variety of individuals, families and local organisations play in keeping alive and presenting our culturally diverse heritage, and working with them to identify and seek appropriate forms of assistance and support.

Ethical Issues

In developing Golden Threads and building on the coordinators' respective long term work as an oral historian and as a regional museum director, it is starkly apparent that ethical issues are a key concern. They revolve around issues of ownership, power, control and recognition, and they require acknowledgment of the various tensions implicit in working across cultural, spatial and temporal borders.

Regional/metropolitan - rural/urban borders

Many individuals and organisations in regional areas are uncomfortable, even angry, about what is perceived as a stripping of resources from regional areas, and an overconcentration of resources in metropolitan centres. The frustration at the perceived imbalance in resources is sometimes heightened when 'professionals' and 'experts' from state institutions visit. They can be regarded as outsiders, as people with no understanding of the constraints and pleasures of living and working outside the metropolitan area, and they can be seen suspiciously as colonising agents attempting to impose their values and practices and seeking to take away any objects or knowledge of particular value. Conversely, there is arguably a view among some staff at state institutions that, for example, local museums in regional areas are, by and large, unredeemable cabinets of curiosities to be treated mainly as quaint leftovers from an earlier period. Arguably, there are also perceptions of regional NSW as the seat of conservatism and as a place of intensely parochial views and activities.

It is essential that we bridge this regional/metropolitan divide, and do so in an ethical way that respects and acknowledges the different backgrounds, expectations and knowledge of all participants. It is also essential that projects are genuinely collaborative: building on the different perspectives and experiences.

Cultural borders

As in the metropolitan area, there are a variety of attitudes towards cultural diversity in regional NSW. It cannot be forgotten, for example, that the history of the Chinese presence in regional NSW includes the history and impact of Australian racism.

It cannot be forgotten that Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party did attract some significant pockets of support in regional areas. It cannot be forgotten that Australians from non-English-speaking backgrounds are still often the targets of snide and discriminatory remarks about cultural practices, and that newly arrived immigrants in regional NSW confront a social, cultural and political environment in which their presence and needs are not well serviced. On top of the diminishing resources confronting most people in regional areas, newly arrived immigrants have little access to culturally appropriate assistance. They tend to be highly isolated and alienated.(8)

These barriers and negative features, however, need to be balanced by the many examples of attempts to cross cultural borders and to extend an understanding of what constitutes the history and heritage of regional NSW to include Australians from culturally diverse backgrounds. The successful examples hinge very much on ethical practices, and on the ability of those involved to share and collaborate as equal partners in a project. This entails the need to respect and acknowledge cultural difference, and to ensure that collaboration and consultation are the key of any project development. Public historian Michael Frisch has used the term 'a shared authority' to capture this sense of collaboration and a more equal distribution of power and resources, and the need to consider carefully in whose interests decisions and actions are taken and whether, ethically, they are the interests of those who ultimately own and care for the experiences, sites, artforms, objects, and creations.(9)

Acknowledgment, respect and collaboration

Acknowledgment, respect and collaboration are key elements in a process which aims to work with the variety of individuals, communities, organisations and institutions across the state who are the custodians of our migration heritage. A government policy - and a Migration Heritage Centre - urging us to take action is important but the success depends on the way that policy and action are implemented. There is a temptation, for example, for state institutions to take the easy way out and colonise those existing projects or efforts which they can accommodate. It is far more challenging, and enriching, to work out ways in which collaborative partnerships built on mutual acknowledgment and respect can be developed, and there are examples from which we can learn. Some succeed, some fail. All provide a base from which we can start.

Concluding Comments

This view from regional NSW invites us perhaps to add to the variety of threads which link our state's migration heritage. It reminds us that our cultural diversity has temporal and spatial components which need to be addressed. It asks us overtly to place ethical issues at the centre of our practice. It requests a discarding of the regional/metropolitan divide in a way that both recognises differences and acknowledges similarities, and which promotes an appreciation of our statewide heritage. It urges us to have a greater awareness of work done, being done and needing to be done before embarking on new projects. It exhorts us to appreciate the diversity and complexity of our cultural heritage, and to work with the custodians of that heritage to ensure that their needs, concerns, interests and emphases are given a central place in the ways in which we construct and imagine our past, present and future. Above all, it promotes the effective outcomes possible provided there are genuine partnerships between all participants.

1 Acknowledgments: Thanks to Joe Eisenberg, joint coordinator of the Golden Threads Project; to the various institutions supporting Golden Threads; to other participants in the Migration Heritage Centre's forum; and to the many individuals and local organisations throughout regional NSW who have willingly shared their stories and experiences. I can only hope that, while the views I express are my own, they sit comfortably with the concerns and perspectives of all who have contributed to my understanding of migration heritage in regional NSW.
2 For the purpose of this paper, regional is taken to encompass all parts of NSW outside the Sydney metropolitan area with a particular emphasis on those parts outside Newcastle and Wollongong and their environs.
3 For a detailed overview of settlement patterns based on the 1991 census see Ian Burnley, Atlas of the Australian People - 1991 Census, Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, Canberra, 1996, especially Chapters 2 and 4.
4 For example, I.H. Burnley, 'Rural cultural mosaics: immigrant communities in rural Australia' in I.H. Burnley, The Social Environment: A population and social geography of Australia, McGraw Hill, Sydney, 1976, Chapter 5; Rina Huber, From Pasta to Pavlova, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1977; Lesley Jenkins, The Power of the Land - Il Potere Della Terra: A social history of Italian settlement in Lismore - Una storia della attivitą dell'insediamento Italiano di Lismore, The Italians in Lismore Working Party, Lismore, 1993; .Helen Andreoni, 'Immigrant women in an isolated rural community' in Kerry James (ed.), Women in Rural Australia, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1986, pp.96-115; and Marie De Lepervanche, Indians in a White Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1984 5 For example, Glenda Sluga, Bonegilla: 'Place of No Hope, 'History Department, University of Melbourne, 1988; Siobhan McHugh, The Snowy, William Heinemann, Melbourne, 1989; and Christopher Keating, Greta, Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, Sydney, 1997.
6 For example, the monographs entitled Hawking to Haberdashery, Greek Cafes and Cafeowners, and Hong Yuen: A country store and its people in Janis Wilton, Immigrants in the Bush, (school resource package), Armidale CAE and Multicultural Education Coordinating Committee, NSW Department of Education, 1989.
7 For example, Burnley, Atlas of the Australian People, especially pp. 143 and 190-192.
8 For example, Hurriyet Babacan (aka Elin Azra), 'Out of sight, out of mind: issues facing non-English-speaking communities in rural Australia' in A.W. Anscombe and Robert Doyle (eds), Aboriginal and Ethnic Communities in Rural Australia, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, 1998, pp. 41-51. For an exploration which crosses cultural diversity, arts and regionalism and challenges us to embrace broader social and cultural values see Linda Carroli, 'Outer limits, inner space: diversity, difference and regionalism' in Cultural Linkages, Regional Galleries Association of Queensland Conference Proceedings, Brisbane, 1995, pp. 36-44.
9 Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the craft and meaning of oral and public history, SUNY Press, Albany, 1990. See also Rob Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds), The Oral History Reader, Routledge, London, 1998, especially Part III entitled 'Advocacy and Empowerment'. On a more practical level see Lesley Jenkins, Talking Together: A guide to community oral history projects, Oral History Association of Australia (Queensland Branch), Brisbane, 1999.