The Chinese in Western Australia were particularly persecuted for their use of opium, a drug which many imported alongside other groceries and dry-goods with little distinction.
Drug and liquor laws alike were stringent in the early decades of Western Australia’s 20th century, and while white men and women were being arrested for drinking outside hours and selling alcohol without the correct license, Chinese men of all social classes were being arrested for possessing opium and its paraphernalia. Unlike alcohol, there was no legal way to procure or use opium, so anyone caught with any amount of it was liable for prosecution.
Cockburn, with its proximity to the port at Fremantle and its connections with market gardening and dairying areas across the whole south-west area, found itself in the news several times as its Chinese residents were subject to police raids and arrests.
The opium cases
Ah Tong, Bibra Lake, 1913
The earliest record in Cockburn is from 1913, when the hut of a Ah Tong, Chinese gardener at Bibra Lake, was raided by a customs official and a mounted policeman. They found two ounces of liquid opium and four ounces of opium ash hidden inside his bed, and as Ah Tong was not home at the time of the raid, they issued a warrant for his arrest.
Raid on a Fremantle gambling house, 1914
In March 1914 several Bibra Lake market gardeners were arrested in a group of 19 Chinese men at a house in Bannister Street, Fremantle. They were charged with gambling and opium smoking, and a quantity of opium worth £40 was taken from the premises.
The house was run as a rest-stop for the market gardeners who came in from Jandakot, to provide them with meals before making the long journey back again after market.
However, the same premises had been raided a month earlier, when tins of opium had been found hidden in the rafters and several ‘opium beds’ with pipes and lamps were discovered in the rooms.
Beside the market gardeners from Bibra Lake and North Fremantle were well-dressed young Fremantle merchants and prominent Perth Chinese businessmen, a true cross-section of the Chinese community in the metropolitan area. All were arrested and charged, regardless of their social standing.
Lee Kee and Suey Wah, 1916
1916 saw Bibra Lake gardener Lee Kee send a 3lb package of opium to Suey Wah in Albany, putting it on the train at the Bibra Lake station. In the ensuing court case, it became clear that a Chinese merchant in Fremantle was in the habit of providing his customers with opium alongside their other groceries.
Lee Kee’s involvement was minor, and he was not charged, but it was clear that Bibra Lake, with a train station and a large Chinese community, was an important point of access for Chinese merchants distributing goods, including illegal ones.
Hi Lory, Bibra Lake, 1923
A big police raid took place at Hi Lory’s Bibra Lake property in 1923. In a situation worthy of a sketch comedy, six policemen piled into a rented taxi (there being no police cars available for their use) and drove to Bibra Lake, where they stopped a mile short of their destination and crept through the bush to catch the Chinese by surprise.
They searched one ‘Chinaman’s shanty, overlooking a well-kept vegetable garden’, but found nothing. In Hi Lory’s own two-room shack and grounds they spent two hours conducting an in-depth search, which included overturning an empty box only to find it housed a beehive, and removing hens from their nests to search apparently common opium hiding places.
In the end they discovered enough opium and paraphernalia to warrant fetching a second car and transporting Hi Lory (under the alias Young Gouey), Ah Quong, and Ah Wing to Fremantle to be charged. They were fined £10 each with costs.
Like many other practices, the raids and arrests for opium use petered out in the later 1920s, as less Chinese arrived in the state and the customs inspectors grew better at catching the hauls before they were distributed from ships entering Fremantle.