Chinese migrants began to make a home in the Cockburn district in the late 1890s, though there had been Chinese working in the Swan River colony from its earliest days. Reportedly mostly from the Guangdong province,
the Chinese were arriving in Western Australia in response to the gold mining boom and the chance to make money and improve their lives.
Anti-Chinese prejudice in Western Australia
They found, however, that their reputation for hard work, cheap labour, and lack of integration, had preceded them from other states: legislation preventing them from mining gold and fishing for pearl had already been put in place by 1890. The colonial government was intent on excluding the Chinese from participating in the social and economic life of the newly-rich colony in any meaningful way.
Because of these prejudices and restrictions, Chinese workers arriving either as indentured labour or free immigrants ended up in occupations that did not threaten the livelihoods of the wealthy and powerful: laundry work, furniture manufacture, specialist retail and wholesale trading and, significantly, market gardening.
Chinese market gardening innovations
The Chinese were well known for their willingness to grow produce in places and seasons when European growers considered the work too hard. Commentators in the 1890s noted that if it weren’t for the Chinese gardeners in the South-West, there would be no greens and vegetables on the market at all from midsummer through to autumn, and that the Chinese were the only growers who saw potential in swampy lands.
Moving into Cockburn: 1896 - 1910
Chinese growers began moving into the Jandakot district
, particularly around Bibra Lake, in the 1890s. By this time, Chinese grocers and retailers were well established in Fremantle and Perth, and the Cockburn area was rising as a market gardening zone close to these metropolitan centres. The lakeside plots of land were particularly attractive to Chinese growers, as they were used to using swampy land for cultivation. By the early 1900s they occupied the majority of landholdings on the western shore of Bibra Lake, and were increasingly moving outwards to other lakes and holdings in what was then all called Jandakot.
New types of landowners
Jandakot, being a newly-opened agricultural area, was attracting a lot of speculators: buyers who never intended to work their own land as gardeners, but rather took up a parcel of land and rented it out to farmers and families who wanted a chance to make money in agriculture.
The same was true of some older landholders, particularly around Bibra Lake, who had more land than they could work on their own. Though this was an issue that local gardeners were concerned about already, it became a larger one when those families and farmers turned out to be Chinese. Racial and cultural differences were suddenly an issue, and not everyone was happy about it.
The Chinese migrants were almost exclusively men, so there were no Chinese nuclear families working land as the Europeans were. They did not follow the Christian religion, and worked on Sundays. They also often took a lease as a group, so 15 men might appear on a landholding overnight, working as a well-oiled unit with no distractions.
In a young, isolated colony built on the back of prejudiced imperial attitudes, these differences were enough to set them permanently apart.
Early recordings of Chinese in Cockburn
The 1891 census recorded twelve Chinese in the rural area around Fremantle.
Sometime in the 1890s a two-room limestone cottage was built on the shores of Lake Coogee by Chinese market gardeners.
Their names were not recorded anywhere, but it is possible that they, or other Chinese gardeners on the same plot of land, gardened there until the 1920s.
The first recorded Chinese name in Cockburn was in 1896. A man called Sin Loo was recorded in Bibra Lake having an altercation over a cow with a white settler named W.E. Jennings. Jennings hit Sin Loo over the head with a bar and was sentenced to six weeks’ hard labour for assault.
According to Michael Berson, in 1897 John Cook leased 35 acres at Bibra Lake to Ah Gong on a peppercorn rental for 16 years. This rental was taken over in 1901 by a group of three Chinese men: Ming Wah, Ah Foo, and Wing Shing.
The beginnings of racial troubles
In 1905 two landholders in Jandakot leased their holdings to Chinese growers: Joseph and Levi Baker, brothers in the butchering trade at Fremantle, leased land to a group of 15 Chinese on the shores of Yangebup Lake, and Alex Ahern, a carrier in Fremantle, leased his holding at Jandakot to Chinese who offered £10 more per annum than any white grower could afford.
In 1906 a man named Ah Tong was recorded as working at the Bibra Lake garden of Wah Lee: he made the papers because he was suspected by authorities of having leprosy. The secretary of the Fremantle Roads Board brought a doctor out to the garden to inspect him, but the ‘dread disease’ turned out to be eczema, from which he had suffered for ten years.
Leprosy in Chinese populations was an old fear - since 1891 there had been Chinese lepers quarantined at the Woodman Point station, and rumours of their escape to terrorise the local populations were common.
The next decade would be one of the most unpleasant and uncharitable of Western Australia's immigration history, as white growers banded together to push for control and removal of Chinese men from any part of the market gardening industry. Supported flamboyantly by the press and by politicians of all stripes, Cockburn became a focal point for the racial tensions being felt in a shrinking Empire.