Chinese Gardeners

By the early 1900s market gardening in Perth was done almost exclusively by Chinese people. Many of the Chinese gardeners were from the Guangdong Province which was predominantly a rice, fruit and vegetable growing area. They were familiar with small scale, intensive and communal agricultural labour practices. Chinese wells were dug in the traditional Chinese style: 10 feet by 10 feet square and 4 to 5 feet deep, accommodated by the high water table of the wetlands.

Due to the Restricted Immigration Act 1901, people of Chinese origin were subjected to strict immigration policies including restrictions on owning land. They were not permitted to bring their wives and children to Australia. Culturally, Chinese women were often expected to stay in their ancestral villages to preserve the property rights of their families.  Many Chinese men lived much of their adult lives away from their families, sending money back to China and travelling back every five years or so to visit.

Racism against the Chinese swamp gardeners was common. Chinese people were banned from selling produce to government agencies and prohibited from selling produce at the Perth City Markets (Atkinson 1984).

I have the honour by direction of the board of Directors to ask… in respect to the Chinese gardens in the metropolitan area being taken over by the government … that some special effort should be made in having this menace to public health removed

Letter to Perth Town Clerk, 10 June 1913

Gradually as demand for land for buildings and parks grew, the Chinese swamp gardeners were pushed out of the Northbridge and North Perth area. In the 1920s an influx of southern Europeans established market gardens in outlying areas such as Spearwood and Wanneroo. Technological changes such as irrigation systems and fertilisers meant that more marginal land could be used for growing food.

With no children, and no new Chinese immigrants arriving in Perth, the Chinese swamp gardeners gradually disappeared from Perth (Atkinson 1984). 

Technical map of the Perth Chinese Market Gardens

Chinese Market Gardens and and Gardners in Perth – Leederville area 1911
Image copyright 
Atkinson 1984

Black and White photo of a Chinese Market Gardener

Chinese Market Gardener (name not supplied).
Image copyright 
State Library of Western Australia

Fong Gow 

At night I hear a horse galloping through the garden.
Panic needles my ribs. I imagine tended rows
trampled to pieces under its hooves.

When I run onto the allotment
the vegetables are intact, mutely
squatting in the swampy turf;
the horse is a shadow dozing in its yard.

In the other country my wife will be planting rice,
the daughter I begat but have never seen, strapped to her back.
Every five years a visit home and another child is introduced;
this is your daughter.

Forty five summers;
I tear strips of bark to shade seedlings,
shoulder yoke and watering cans;
the sun bakes the earth into a black scab,
burning the last traces of Quangdong
from the soles of my feet

Nandi Chinna (2014)