Australian wives in China

Agnes Breuer was one of a small number of non-Chinese women who travelled to southern China with their Chinese partners between the 1880s and the 1930s.[16] These women came from diverse cultural, social and religious backgrounds: from Australia, New Zealand, England, Europe, America, Canada, Hawai’i and South America. They had met and formed relationships with Chinese men who themselves had travelled overseas—to work as indentured labourers, to find riches in the colonial goldfields or as part of continuing familial migrations based on business and kinship. In Australia, intimate relationships had formed between white women and Chinese men since the mid 1850s, with numbers increasing as the Chinese population established itself in the colonies with the Victorian and NSW gold rushes.[17] Marriage records show that between the 1850s and the turn of the century, there were about 2000 legal marriages between white women and migrant Chinese men in Australia’s eastern colonies, probably with similar numbers involved in de facto relationships of various kinds.[18]

The Chinese men who came to Australia were primarily from the areas in southern China around Canton, inland from Hong Kong, and it was to these same areas that their white wives accompanied them on journeys home. Hong Kong itself, with its British and Eurasian population, was the destination for some;[19] others travelled inland to the ancestral towns and villages in the Pearl River Delta region, as Agnes Breuer did. Agnes travelled to Shekki, the bustling county capital of the district of Zhongshan. Zhongshan and other parts of Guangdong Province such as Taishan, Kaiping, Dongguan and Zengcheng had prospered through the influence of significant overseas migration during numerous decades; by the knowledge, technologies, goods and money transferred from Chinese overseas. Agnes’s father-in-law, Lum Mow, the ‘well-known Chinese merchant, formerly of North Queensland, but now resident in China’, had returned to Shekki in the late 1920s after nearly three decades as a merchant in Townsville.[20] The family was originally from a village called Seung Hang, several kilometres out of the town, but Lum Mow built his family a substantial and modern home in Shekki itself.

With the opening up of Hong Kong and Canton throughout the course of the nineteenth century, it was not only Chinese who were travelling back and forth. Non-Chinese claimed a presence in southern China, and there were numbers of British, Australian, American and European women resident in Hong Kong and Macau and in the Chinese Treaty ports. Most of these women had come to China with their husbands, who were employed in trade, missionary or government services. Other women came independently as missionaries (including some who lived outside the established foreign communities of the larger cities), as travellers and holidaymakers.[21] The differences between the experiences of these women and the wives of Chinese men were, however, significant. They might have shared feelings of homesickness, unfamiliarity with their surroundings and isolation—as well as those of excitement, adventure and discovery—but the experiences of wives were particular. When in China, non-Chinese wives became absorbed into their partners’ families and into local cultures and communities in intimate ways that other non-Chinese women did not; theirs was an experience of Chinese domestic and family life usually inaccessible to foreigners. The experiences of wives in travelling to and from China were also shaped by the discriminatory attitudes and exclusionary policies of white expatriate communities and of governments at home.

Figure 7.2: ‘Water Front, Shekki, Canton, June 1932’, taken during Agnes Breuer’s visit to China.

Figure 7.2: ‘Water Front, Shekki, Canton, June 1932’, taken during Agnes Breuer’s visit to China.

Courtesy: Liz McNamee

[16] It is difficult to know with any certainty the precise numbers of non-Chinese wives who travelled to China. There are scattered references to them in a range of sources. See Bagnall, Kate 2006, Golden shadows on a white land: an exploration of the lives of white women who partnered Chinese men and their children in southern Australia, 1855–1915, PhD, University of Sydney, Section 5.

[17] On the history of Anglo-Chinese relationships in southern Australia, see ibid.; Hales, Dinah 2004, ‘Local histories: Chinese–European families of central western New South Wales, 1850–80’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, vol. 6, pp. 93–112; Rule, Pauline 2002, ‘A tale of three sisters: Australian–Chinese marriages in colonial Victoria’, in Kee Pookong et al. (eds), Chinese in Oceania, Association for the Study of the Chinese and their Descendants in Australasia and the Pacific Islands, Chinese Museum and Victoria University of Technology Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Melbourne; Rule, Pauline 2004, ‘The Chinese camps in colonial Victoria: their role as contact zones’, in Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald and Paul Macgregor (eds), After the Rush: Regulation, participation, and Chinese communities in Australia 1860–1940. Otherland Literary Journal, no. 9.

[18] See Bagnall, Golden shadows on a white land, Section 2.

[19] On the interactions between Chinese, Europeans and Eurasians in Hong Kong, see Lethbridge, Henry 1978, Hong Kong: Stability and change, a collection of essays, Oxford University Press, Hong Kong, pp. 175–7. On Eurasians in Hong Kong, see Lee, Vicky 2001, Hong Kong Eurasian memoir: identity and voices, PhD, University of Hong Kong.

[20] Certificate of domicile for Lum Mow, 1 March 1904, NAA, J2482, 1904/57.

[21] For discussion of white women in China, see, for example, Hoe, Susanna 1991, The Private Life of Old Hong Kong: Western women in the British colony, 1841–1941, Oxford University Press, Hong Kong and New York; Croll, Elisabeth 1989, Wise Daughters from Foreign Lands: European women writers in China, Pandora, London.