The Disturbing History of Sydney's Rocks, the 'Birthplace of a Nation'

Jane Lydon (Australian National University)


Representations of the Rocks from its earliest days stressed its dangerous, rebellious, qualities: it was, as proclaimed by one of its early pubs, ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, a heterogeneous, shifting, subversive place outside the usual order of things. By the late nineteenth century, Sydney’s mainly Anglo inhabitants still eyed the Rocks’ exoticism, now enhanced by its relative age, with caution. Middle class attempts to survey and control it persisted, although some were attracted by its heterogeneity and seedy excitement. Most of the city’s foreign population clustered near the waterside, and from outside, in elite eyes, the Rocks represented the conflation of the city’s other – the poor, the immoral, the foreign Chinese. Against its supposed filth and degeneracy, the upright middle classes defined themselves. But from within, this untidy domain resolved itself into meaningful patterns created by women and their families, some living in the area for generations, pursuing their productive ways of life. Archaeological analysis of this key site reveals the actual complexity of cultural relations in specific historical context.

Since colonization, debate about race has played an important role in shaping Australians’ perceptions of themselves. This history of tension itself continues to play an active role in current political argument (e.g. Gray and Winter 1997). In recent decades, Sydney’s Rocks area has been promoted as the ‘birthplace of a nation’, and visitors to its nineteenth century relics and spaces shown a sanitized, consensual vision of White settlement which effaces differences of all kinds, including those of class, gender and race (Bennett 1993; Lydon 1995).

I argue that substantive investigation of cultural exchange between Chinese and Whites in Sydney’s Rocks area at the turn of the century may contribute to current debate in several specific ways. First, it demonstrates important flaws in arguments based on a notion of culture as monolithic and homogeneous, and cultural identity as structured solely by race, through revealing the multiple, contingent, dynamic nature of these social processes. Second, it demonstrates that related views of our history as consensual and White are also mistaken. Finally, one implication of such historical analysis is the perception of a convergence between our racist past and our supposedly tolerant present: a recognition which may serve to unsettle complacent understandings of our history as progressive, and of ourselves as having moved beyond conflict founded on ‘racial’ difference. Attempts to jettison aspects of our ‘racist bigoted history’ (John Howard, 25/10/96) will fail while the past is still so clearly seen to be entangled with the present.

The debate on immigration

In her maiden speech on 10 September 1996, independent Member of Parliament Pauline Hanson stated: “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 per cent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettoes and do not assimilate.” The legacy of the White Australia Policy is evident in the continuing resonance of Hanson’s views with the Australian community. Support for her position has been widespread, despite reports of increased attacks on people of Asian background, diminished numbers of tourists visiting from Asian countries, international perceptions of Australia as racist and a heightened social climate of racial conflict (Lydon 1997; and see Ricklefs 1997).

Views such as Hanson’s which articulate a desire for a ‘united’ Australia appear to rest on a monolithic and essentializing notion of culture, and of a community with shared values. Cultural contact is conceived as a linear, one-way process of ‘acculturation’, comprising the absorption of one, less powerful culture into another. Australian history is assumed to have been a shared, consensual past, experienced by a mainly Anglo-Celtic population. More recently, however, cultural theorists have demonstrated the complexity of cultural process (e.g. Dallmayr 1996; Thomas 1994), while Australian historiography has produced a more diverse past (e.g. Docker 1992; Gunew 1990).

Studies such as Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) have established the nature of cultures and identities, and the devices we use to conceive, construct and convey meaning about them, as a focus of analysis. Crucially, by questioning Western conceptions of ‘Oriental’ cultures, and their function in the service of imperialism and oppression, Said has cast doubt on the idea of culture itself. Alternative conceptions of these imagined totalities visualize culture as negotiated, present processes rather than an essentializing or unified entity, yet retaining the element of collectively constituted difference, which need not be static or dichotomous (Clifford 1988; Gardner 1993). The tension between the conceptualization of culture as fluid and negotiable, and ethnic identity as an ascriptive and contingent construction, on the one hand, with analysis of collective, or shared systems of meaning, the traditional object of anthropological analysis, on the other, is especially evident in Chinese history, often seen as the interplay between inherent diversity and a centralized bureaucratic empire administered by scholar-officials who shared ‘a remarkably uniform cultural outlook’ (Smith 1994). Allen Chun, for example, argues that the traditionally diverse origin and fluidity of identity of the ‘Chinese overseas’, ordered by kinship and dialect, meant that there was little to unite them except an ultimate destination, China, and a relationship as a bounded community vis-a-vis others (Chun 1996; Siu 1993). Recognition of identity as positioning helps us understand the ways that Chinese sojourners fashioned a range of multiple identities against both the authority of a Sinocentric core, and the hostility of foreign ‘host’ society (e.g. Reid 1996).

Following Said, many have theorized the cultural encounter in relations of imperial power. Against what has been seen as Said’s over-attribution of power to colonizers, Bhabha (1995) identifies a degree of autonomy, which is the effect of hybridity and mimicry in contesting and drawing attention to signs of authority as being nothing more than “‘empty’ presences of strategic devices”. By seeing colonization as fundamentally ambivalent, its absolute dominance, both within the subjected culture, and in our attempts to understand what happened in the past, is undermined: “not less effective, but effective in a different form”. Similarly, representations of the Chinese in Australia have often sought to present a dualistic, hierarchical relationship structured solely by race: without denying the power of colonial discourse, or of systems of exclusion such as the White Australia Policy, a more nuanced understanding which incorporates gender and class as analytic categories destabilizes this crude dichotomy (Lydon 1996).

Similarly, archaeological accounts of cultural exchange have re-considered processualist views of archaeological assemblages as structures functioning within culture, conceived as a differentiated social system acting as an adaptive mechanism between humans and the environment (e.g. Binford 1962:217-225, 1965:203-210, 1972). The New Archaeologists’ emphasis on functionalist explanation of social processes and cultural evolution aimed to identify relationships between variables in cultural systems; explanation was seen to be the prediction of relations between variables, and it was assumed that quantification could be used to assess the significance of associations, ultimately leading to laws of cultural process (Binford 1965:199). Within historical archaeology, an interest in ethnic identity developed from around 1970, entailing an instrumentalist notion of ethnic groups as self-defining systems (Barth 1969) and related concepts of ‘assimilation’ as a process perceived to eliminate the need for ethnicity, and ‘acculturation’ as one aspect of this process, removing “particular behavioural and material patterns that symbolically distinguish those individuals who are members from those who are non-members of the ethnic population” (Staski 1990:123-4).

This perspective can be criticized on a number of grounds. First, the view of culture (and of ethnicity as covariant with culture) as an adaptive mechanism which allows humans to adjust to their environment sees change in one ‘variable’ (social domain or cultural trait) as relating in a quantifiable and predictable way to change(s) in other variables. Ethnicity and status are often seen to be similar, and competing, variables: for example, Staski suggests that ‘foodways’ are more sensitive indicators of ethnicity than of status; McGuire argues that “economic status…should be considered the dominant social dimension evident” (Staski 1990:129; McGuire 1982:164). It assumes that quantification can be used to assess the significance of associations and cultural process (Binford 1972; for critiques see Hodder 1992:92-121; Staski 1990:128). An unproblematic link is made between culture and the material record: for example, the origin of artefacts or associations identified as culturally distinct are equated with cultural practices and thus ethnicity. These traits or associations of features are then seen to be ‘diagnostic’ of cultural practices. Baker’s study of Lucy Foster’s home in Massachusetts, for instance, investigates the archaeological visibility of Black African culture. He claims that a pattern comprising serving bowls as 40% of tableware, and chopped bones as 100% of faunal remains, was ‘diagnostic’ of an Afro-American site. He identifies a distinctive Afro-American architecture based on a 12 foot module (Baker 1980).

Several studies which investigate the symbolic dimensions of the material record (e.g., McGuire 1982; Praetzellis et al. 1987, 1996), make an artificial distinction between symbols and general cultural patterns, creating a false dichotomy between ‘normative’ culture, based on shared ideas, and functional utility. Further, in this approach material culture, like culture in its broader sense, is seen to have only a functional, adaptive role, and to reflect action in a passive and straightforward way. Changing proportions of artefacts are equated with cultural change. There is an assumption that degrees of similarity and difference in material culture indicate a specific and measurable degree of interaction; proportions of Chinese-made artefacts in an assemblage are argued to represent ‘social distance’ in a mechanistic equation of material and social patterns.

But differences are often the foci of interaction rather than representing social isolation and distance. As Hodder (1982) has shown, the signification of identity is generated by conceptual schemes which determine all aspects of social relations, and forms of self-conscious ethnic identification are echoed in other dimensions of material culture which do not overtly signify ethnicity. Assessment of functional use is determined by their cultural framework, and stylistic variation is actively produced and manipulated in the process of communication. Material culture plays an active role in creating, maintaining and transforming culture. The denial of the historical and cultural dimensions of activity obscures the dynamic, complex relationship between material culture and ethnicity. More sophisticated approaches toward cross-cultural exchange, as noted above, point to a need to understand the particular context of material culture in creating identity, to recognize its dynamic and manipulable character, and to explore its strategic symbolic meanings.

The Rocks

These theoretical insights inform my own substantive archaeological investigation. In examining interaction between the Rocks’ Chinese community and its White population, I address White perceptions of the Chinese, as well as Chinese responses to their new environment, turning inwards, for pleasure, or peace, but also outwards, to develop a form of communication which I refer to as ‘pidgin English’, built from ideas, cultural practices and objects (Lydon 1996b). I argue that the complexity of this situation challenges views of the Chinese-White encounter as wholly determined by White racism, providing evidence for a more contested relationship in which the Chinese asserted their own identity and objectives. It destabilizes dualistic oppositions structured by race, demonstrating that gender and class alliances crossed the racial line, while divisions within both White and Chinese communities fragmented supposedly coherent systems of cultural meaning. Finally, this more complex, ambivalent account of the Rocks’ history of cultural diversity undermines essentializing and monolithic notions regarding the process of cultural contact and exchange.

The Chinese community

Despite the restrictions on Chinese immigration imposed from the 1880s in NSW, and enshrined in what is known as the White Australia Policy, new Commonwealth legislation introduced with Federation, a substantial Chinese community developed in the Rocks from the 1850s, following major goldrushes in various parts of the country. As documented by a substantial body of historiography, White endeavours to exclude and control the Chinese had been continual since their arrival in Australia, and some argue that racism was an inherent part of the Anglo-Australian world view, sustained by 19th century anthropological ‘knowledge’ (Evans 1988; Cronin 1982; Price 1974; Yarwood and Knowling 1982; Curthoys 1973). The Chinese were despised as racially inferior, but because of their numbers and the competition they offered, were hated and feared (Markus 1979, Markus 1994). In the later nineteenth century the focus of Chinese settlement shifted further south to its present-day location, around Belmore Markets, but the Rocks remained a key station on an intricate international network of commerce and communication.

We know little directly of the Chinese experience through documentary sources, but at the site of Samson’s Cottage, in Kendall Lane, archaeological evidence for the household of Chinese merchant Hong On Jang was found. The data show how traditional Chinese social structures persisted, strengthening social bonds within the community through sharing food and drink, or reinforcing Chinese identity through the maintenance of medicinal practices (Lydon 1996).

There were also, however, profound divisions within the Chinese community, rooted in wealth and status within the Confucian social order, or caused by issues such as gambling and opium-smoking. In 1890 the Chinese in Sydney were classified by a White enquiry as merchants, storekeepers, cabinet-makers, market-gardeners, hawkers and gamblers (Royal Commission 1891-2). In this inquiry, the ‘village atmosphere’ of the Rocks emerges clearly, a landscape in which people constantly observed and assessed one another, deciding who measured up, was worthy of respect.

‘Pidgin English’

Cultural difference was blurred by a finer-grained knowledge which saw the creation of other kinds of alliances. The term ‘respectable’ for example, had meaning for Chinese and Whites, relying on appearance and the income required to maintain it. When White shop-keeper Thomas Nolan referred to the gambler Moy Ping as being, as far as he knew, a ‘respectable’ man, the commissioners press him further: ‘when you say respectable I suppose you mean respectable to look at?’ (Royal Commission 1891-2:35-36).

In the Chinese community also, wealth and business success signified the ability to adhere to ritual and rectitude; poorer countrymen – the gardeners and hawkers – would come, one by one, to give a merchant such as Way Kee their savings; they entrusted him with the books of their native place society. Loss of wealth caused a corresponding loss of face. So in this amalgam of economic, moral and material worth, signified by one’s outward appearance, the notion of ‘respectability’ represents a class-based conformity between Chinese and European views, expressed through everyday and material symbols such as clothing, accoutrements and general comportment.

In public, watched and distanced, the Chinese developed strategies of difference and similarity: the wealthy merchant, well-dressed in European clothes, moved in paths of respectability, executing his own goals mostly in private, relying on known, steady points in his social world. As well as following traditional practices, Hong On Jang’s household ate more meat than was customary in Guangdong, and drank European alcohol, taking advantage of newly available resources. Appropriation of cultural symbols such as transfer-printed dinner plates and cups to which merchants would have had easy access, created new structures of eating and drinking – perhaps peripheral to traditional Chinese day-to-day existence. But use of European forms such as tableware, tobacco pipes and jewellery, may have acted, as Praetzellis et al. (1987, 1996) have argued, to define their role as intermediaries between Chinese and European. Merchants, whose wealth and resources distinguished them from poorer countrymen, were ‘cultural brokers’ between Chinese and European communities, operating “on the boundary between their own insular community and society at large”. Hong On Jang, like many Chinese living in the Rocks, belonged to the elite merchant class, which by virtue of their commercial value and appropriation of European cultural symbols, were exempt from many of the restrictions imposed upon working class migrants. As shipping providore, Hong On Jang was a link between sources of supply and visiting ships.

Artefacts and images deriving from Chinese tradition, but which could also be understood by Whites, were deployed in pidgin forms of communication. Food and drink created a tangible expressions of social relationships which was manipulated and managed on public occasions. For example, merchant Quong Tart’s famous tea-rooms, incorporating elements of Chinese and European culture, often hosted events of significance to both communities. In March 1894, the merchants’ association, the Lin Yik Tong, presented visiting opera singer Miss Ada Crossley with a “China cup and saucer” (Quong Tart papers, 21 March 1894). Guanxi, the traditional Chinese art of interpersonal relationships, enacted using gifts, favours and banquets (Yang 1994), was transformed and manipulated in the Rocks to establish close ties with White ‘gate-keepers’ such as customs inspectors and policemen. This process is reflected archaeologically, for example in the popularity of Chinese artefacts such as ginger jars in European households.

This contingent and inventive cultural jargon comprised a wide range of social forms, including the 1890s gambling craze which swept Lower George Street; economic relationships; gender attitudes and relations; schooling; and manipulation of public displays, representing a complex system of communication which operated effectively across cultural lines. It indicates that alliances and understandings existed between Chinese and White despite the intensity of racism and colonial discourse at the turn of the century (Lydon 1996).


This picture of fragmentation within White and Chinese communities, of cross-cultural alliances and communication, and of the inventiveness and contingency of cultural identity and exchange in Sydney’s cosmopolitan Rocks, destabilizes dualistic constructions of past race relations. It contests notions of social process involving a consensual ‘monoculture’, and of an Australian past founded on such ‘coherence’. It challenges views of culture contact as a process of ‘acculturation’ and linear change towards a normative, homogeneous society. Rather, historical analysis reveals the diversity of nineteenth century Sydney, and that the contribution of immigrants such as the Chinese was also acknowledged by White contemporaries. Without denying the power of structures of thought and experience built along race lines, especially in late nineteenth century society, it is important to acknowledge the complexity of identity as a process.

Like the working-class advocates of the White Australian Policy early this century, the current anti-Asian immigration position points to economic competition and cultural incompatibility as the basis for exclusion. Historical experience shows that many elements of this argument are erroneous. Ironically, in the Rocks, the ‘birthplace of a nation’, this cosmopolitan history of cultural interaction and diversity challenges views which call for ‘one nation’, for cultural ‘coherence’, and cultural ‘unity’ which underpin arguments advanced by the likes of Pauline Hanson and her supporters.

Recent arguments by theorists of colonialism stress the need to reveal the specificity of ‘colonialism’s culture’ in historical context, to account for the ways its mechanisms and agents have operated, and continue to operate. Relativizing cultural and discursive regimes is one strategy which works to reveal the specificity and contingency of the present. Conversely, demonstration of the conformities between past and present can also jar our sense of progressiveness (Thomas 1994:21). As Greg Dening wrote recently: “the living need a history disturbing enough to change the present. I do not mean disturbing in the sense of destructive anxiety or alienation, but disturbing in the sense of awakening a consciousness that brings resolve to change” (1996:96).

In current debates regarding race, views such as Pauline Hanson’s employ a conception of Australian history which distances us from the events of the past, denying that we all, every day, experience the effects of White settlement. Prime Minister John Howard has avoided making conclusive comment on Hanson’s assertions, claiming that he is motivated by a desire to downplay them and minimize publicity. Howard has, however, made several statements with respect to the role of Australia’s past, and specifically our history of racism, in current debates, which accord with Hanson’s (and see Markus 1997). On the 24 October 1996 he criticized the high school history syllabus, stating: “mow of course we treated Aborigines very, very badly in the past – very, very badly – but to tell children who themselves have been no part of it, that we’re all part of a, sort of, racist bigoted history, is something Australians reject” (The Canberra Times, 26/10/1996). In Howard’s attempts to distance us from those troubled times, he too denies the links between past and present. The guilt of past injustices can therefore be repudiated and forgotten.

Significantly, the Opposition Leader, Mr Kim Beazley, has countered Howard’s denial of our shameful past by re-locating current debate about Native Title firmly in the context of a long-term national history. Responding to Howard’s address to the nation regarding the significant ‘Wik’ Native Title determination on 1 December 1997, Beazley stated “we face here the question of our history and our national honour… The fact is that we are making history… As we write our history over the coming days, the question is this – will it be one for which our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to atone, or will it be one that will make them proud of this generation?” (Sydney Morning Herald 2 December 1997). By inviting us to see current debates regarding race relations from the vantage point of the future, this view acknowledges that the past, the present and the future intersect in complex and inevitable ways.


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Nineteenth-century sources

Quong Tart papers, Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Report of the Royal Commission into Chinese Gambling and Immorality, NSW Parliamentary Papers, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly), 1891-2, vol. 8, pp.497-977.


The Sydney Morning Herald, September 1996-1997

The Canberra Times, September 1996-1997

The Australian, September 1996-1997