The Chinese in Tasmania were very low in numbers (just thirteen in 1870), until businessmen in that year brought nineteen experienced Chinese miners from the mainland to work on the Mathinna goldfields. Following the discovery of payable tin in the north-east in 1874, the number of Chinese miners rapidly increased. They generally undercut European labour and quickly began to dominate the small-scale alluvial tin mining industry. Chinese leaders, such as Chin Kaw, sent to China to import men under the 'tribute' system, under which the tribute men paid part of their earnings to the syndicate that brought them out. Even without tribute, the Chinese were often preferred because of their experience and co-operation.
When many European miners left the tinfields temporarily to follow the Lisle gold rush in 1879, or in response to the fall in tin prices in 1880, the Chinese were able to take greater control and make a living from abandoned workings. They outnumbered European tin miners during the 1880s, when alluvial tin mining was at its peak and tin accounted for a quarter of Tasmania's export earnings.
By the time of the 1881 census, there were 874 Chinese living in Tasmania, nearly all tin miners. During the next ten years the number fluctuated around 1000, though some moved out of mining; by the time of the 1891 census, 12 percent were market gardeners. For two decades the Chinese outnumbered the Germans as the largest group of migrants in Tasmania with a non-English speaking background.
In Tasmania Chinese miners were generally better treated than on the mainland diggings. They were respected as law-abiding citizens and for their ability to work hard. They also took their share of community responsibility, actively raising funds for local schools and hospitals. Many Europeans in the remote mining towns joined in Chinese New Year celebrations, attended funeral ceremonies and formed close friendships with the 'Celestials', as the Chinese were known. Chinese businessmen in Launceston also became well-known, including the storekeepers Chin Kitt and Ah Katt. A Chinese Carnival was instrumental in raising money to extend the Gorge pathway to the First Basin. The Memorial Church in Launceston established a Mission to the Chinese in the somewhat vain hope of curbing the opium smoking and gambling prevalent among the community. Nevertheless, there was a strong Chinese connection and one room of the church hall is still known as the 'Chinese vestry'.
The Branxholm incident of 1877, where 'a rowdy lot of European miners' tried to stop a party of Chinese from reaching Ruby Flat, was reported as an 'outrage upon Chinamen'. Likewise, when European mining numbers decreased in the 1880s and public meetings were organised in an effort to control the influx of Chinese, their interests were so bound up with those of the townspeople, shopkeepers and mine owners, that the meetings were poorly attended. When Tasmania finally passed a restrictive law in 1887 imposing a poll tax on Chinese arrivals, the sum was only £10 compared with £100 in other Australian colonies.
Chinese miners established communities at Blue Tier, Argus, Garibaldi, Bradshaw's Creek, Moorina (Krushka's Bridge), Weldborough (Thomas' Plains), South Mount Cameron and Branxholm (Ruby Flat). Weldborough was their largest town. However, they stayed only long enough to accumulate enough money to return home to China as relatively wealthy men. While Tasmania was the only colony to allow unrestricted entry to Chinese women, most miners could not afford to import a wife. A small number married European women. The 1891 census noted 40 part-Chinese Tasmanians living in the Weldborough area.
As tin prices fell fewer men remained, and with the Federal Immigration Restriction Act (1901) the number of new arrivals was severely restricted. Those who stayed on the minefields were usually too old or infirm to return. In 1934, Hee Jarm, the last full-blood Chinese man in Weldborough, arranged with Launceston patriarch James Chung Gon for the transfer of the remaining Joss House in Weldborough to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery.
Those who stayed in Tasmania established themselves in other occupations, particularly market gardeners or merchants, gradually moving to the larger towns. By 1921 Hobart had become the largest Chinese centre, with market gardening on the rich River Derwent flats at Glenorchy and Moonah. More arrived in the state following the easing of immigration restrictions in the 1960s, many opening restaurants, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the relatively small number of Chinese can be found in a wide variety of professions and occupations.
Further reading: B Easteal, 'The Chinese in Tasmania 1870–1900', Honours thesis, UT, 1965; H Vivian, Tasmania's Chinese heritage, [Tasmania], 1985.