By Ross Peddlesden
Did you know that Bundaberg once had a Chinatown? If you did, do you know where it was?
The next time you travel down Bourbong Street, past Tantitha Street, heading towards Toonburra Street, have a look around. Then try to imagine shops selling Chinese specialities, a selection of Chinese greengrocer shops, an overcrowded boarding house, a pub, illegal sly grog shops, gambling and opium dens, and perhaps a brothel or two.
It’s very different from today, but in the second half of the 19th century that’s what you would have seen.
It began with vegetables. There’s evidence of a Chinese market garden in North Bundaberg in 1869, when the town was only two-years-old. Later on, Chinese immigrants such as Willy Yick, Yip Gee and Billy Lee King sold vegetables that they grew in immaculately-tended gardens behind their shops in Bourbong Street. Another well-known market gardener was Ah Why. He grew vegetables and sold some of them from his shop. He also hawked some of his produce around town, balancing it on both ends of a “Chinaman’s Pole”.
One name has endured. YS Que Hee operated a mixed business in Chinatown, selling speciality goods, as well as vegetables grown in his market garden in Branyan. He’s remembered by a well-known street in East Bundaberg, though he would have pronounced it ‘Kwee Hee’, not ‘Cue Hee’ as we do today.
Now to the saucy stuff. There was at least one brothel in Chinatown, with the Chinese working women taking the decidedly un-Chinese names of Lily Langtree and Tittle Bruhne. It’s said the building was of corrugated iron, with small holes in the walls which were a temptation to the young men of the town.
Behind several of the businesses were opium dens. The local Chinese called it “twang”. Gambling rooms took place over traditional Chinese games such as mah jong. The sly grog shops were prepared to serve anyone who could pay, including other foreigners who were banned from drinking in white establishments.
There were a number of reasons for the decline of Chinatown, including demographic change and the development of more sophisticated markets. But there was another factor at play: the avowedly racist Anti-Chinese League, which had an active branch in Bundaberg. Some of its activities were quite sinister in modern terms, but others were farcical. At one point they attempted to prove that European vegetables were of superior quality to Chinese vegetables. When put to the test, apparently the sophisticated tastebuds of so-called ‘Bundabergians’ voted Chinese!
Acknowledgement to Bundaberg, From Pioneers to Prosperity by Neville Rackerman. Special thanks to Chris Spence, co-ordinator of the Bundaberg & District Historical Museum.
Ross is a member of the Bundaberg & District Historical Museum, as well as an author, Rotarian and passionate community volunteer.