Chinese Settlers in Atherton, Queensland

Old Chinese Temple

The Hou Wang Temple on the outskirts of Atherton, Qld.

Through a gap in our back fence we could see the lone building in the middle of a paddock. Surrounded by grass it stood solidly and silently. The building received few visitors but we knew it was significant and deserving of care.

The building was a Chinese Temple and was all that remained of a vibrant Chinese settlement in the town of Atherton in Far North Queensland. When we were living there at the end of the century the sound of voices were rarely heard around the Temple.

The grass had grown long.

The Chinese have contributed a great deal to this part of Australia, as miners, as farmers, as shopkeepers, as people. The discovery of gold on the Palmer River outside Cooktown was the magnet which attracted many Chinese to Far North Queensland.  By 1877  seventeen thousand Chinese and 1,400 Europeans were working the ground in an area where a significant Aboriginal population lived.*

The gold petered out at Palmer River but the Chinese remained in north Queensland farming and running other small businesses. Some moved to the Atherton Tablelands in the Great Dividing Range west of Cairns during the early 1880s. The Chinese turned to farming, their hand farming methods being very suitable for the local conditions at the time. Their contribution to agriculture in the area was widely recognised. On a visit to the Tablelands in 1905 the Queensland Minister for Agriculture said in a public speech in Atherton, “the Chinamen were largely the pioneers of the district, and made farming possible on the Johnstone”.

The Chinese community established themselves in the area. In 1903 the Hou Wang Miao Temple was opened in the thriving Chinatown. The National Trust observes that there were many Chinese Temples in North Queensland but the Atherton Temple is the only one of its type that has survived in Australia and New Zealand.

The Chinese had broken the soil and cared for it well. The War to End All Wars ended and soldiers streamed home. The farms the Chinese had tended were turned over to the returning men. Many Chinese moved to other parts of Queensland. Yet some stayed, including the caretaker of the Temple. Long after the Chinatown around it had disappeared the caretaker and a small number of elderly men maintained the Temple. It stayed in occasional use until the mid 1970s.

The grass grew longer.

We moved into our home behind the Temple at the end of 1998. That wet season exposed a problem for a family with children. There was broken glass and crockery embedded in the ground in near the back fence. It was Chinese. Looking over our back fence at the Temple I surmised that our backyard was on the edge of Chinatown’s rubbish tip. While I wanted to know more about it more pragmatic concerns intervened. The children were banned from playing in that part of the garden.

Just before we left in 2000 an archaeological dig was announced. Frustrated, I attended the community meeting about it. I would have loved to be involved but we were leaving the town in the coming weeks.

From afar I kept the Temple in my mind. At university I managed to explore a little bit of Far North Queensland history, but not as much as I would have liked. What I found has led me to conceive of this region as multicultural from the time the first settlers arrived. The British and Chinese as well as the Aborigines established a new way of living there.

The grass grew.

We returned to Far North Queensland on holidays this summer. Amongst the catching up with family and friends and the obligatory tourist activities I visited the Temple with my eighteen year old daughter. People can no longer wander up to the front door as we once did, but now the visitor can better appreciate the significance of the Temple and the role of the Chinese in Atherton.

A visitor centre has been established in the old post office on the main road near the Temple. It tells the story of the Temple and the Chinese families that lived in the area. Inside I learned that many Chinese had entered North Queensland through the Northern Territory. In the displays we read about the story of Lee Leong who walked two thousand kilometres from Darwin to Cooktown. This is hard country; one wonders how many died on their way.

It is fortunate that before they died some of the old members of the Atherton Chinese community recorded their memories and family stories. I enjoyed listening to them while my eighteen year old daughter was absorbed with the visual displays.

I am writing this in my Sydney lounge while following the tweets of a conference being held in Cairns about the Chinese heritage of Northern Australia. On Twitter we wondered whether the Chinese should be identified as settlers or sojourners in northern Australia. The little I have shared suggests that the Chinese of Far North Queensland can be regarded as settlers. They moved in very shortly after the British arrived, they dug the land, felled the trees and planted crops which had never grown there before. While I did not see reference to it at the Visitors Centre, the Chinese in Far North Queensland also had to grapple with the ramifications of the taking of Aboriginal land.

Some Chinese were clearly sojourners and returned to live permanently in China. Yet it is important to recognise that some Chinese stayed in Far North Queensland despite the difficulties in Australia such as hostile legislation which made residency difficult. The family histories displayed in the hall next to the Temple show families who evidently regarded Australia as home. They married in Far North Queensland and had children there. They contributed to the local community both economically and through local sports. Like other settler families they occasionally travelled back to their country of heritage for visits.

We were shaken from our reverie in the exhibition at the visitors centre by an invitation to have a guided tour of the Temple itself. A lot of work has been done to restore the Temple since we left Atherton and now volunteer guides help visitors understand it better.

Outside, we walked along a straight gravel path that had not been present when we had lived there. The archaeological work has enabled the National Trust to determine where the main street of Chinatown lay as well as the buildings on it. Along this street little monuments have been erected highlighting different aspects of everyday life when Chinese lived here.

I will stop now at the threshold of the Temple. The story of the Temple interior can be left for another day. Looking out towards the creek I observed another change from when we lived nearby. The Temple is no longer in a paddock. It now sits in a well maintained reserve.

The grass is cut.

Gravel street and Atherton's Hou Wang Temple in the background

All that is left: the main street of Atherton’s Chinatown and the Hou Wang Temple.

*Markus, p. 72.

Further Reading

And if you enjoy Twitter, follow the conference tweets at #chinainc on Sunday 22/2/2014.

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4 thoughts on “Chinese Settlers in Atherton, Queensland

  1. Love your story of the temple in Atherton Yvonne, have fond memories of being there and looking at the pottery pieces in the long grass and then inside the temple itself! ‘hearing’ the voices of the last in the silence . I have read this story several times and it still resonates.

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  2. Currently in China trying to find Great Grandfathers’ village. Thomas Lee Hong who married Jane Warfield from England arrived in Atherton from Cooktown in early 1900’s. Wondering if there’s anything regarding them connected to the Temple. They had 2 boys. “Jim” my Grandfather and “Fred” his brother. Nice read and always stirs the inner spirits when I come across articles like this!
    Regards Colin

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    • You have a fascinating family history Colin. It sounds like you should contact the information centre at the Atherton Temple to see if they have any information for you.

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