Down the Mall | Wayne Gregson

OPENING: Access Australia Group chief executive Dr Michael Langdon with Crystal Sutherland and Amanda Ryan at the PepperGreen Farm opening. Picture: NONI HYETT
OPENING: Access Australia Group chief executive Dr Michael Langdon with Crystal Sutherland and Amanda Ryan at the PepperGreen Farm opening. Picture: NONI HYETT

Down The Mall often notes that if you stand in a place long enough, things start to make more sense. You begin to understand why things are and why they are where they are.

This happened again this week during the official opening of the bigger, brighter PepperGreen Farm in Thunder Street, North Bendigo.

Many Bendigo people know that the social enterprise property – run by Access Australia – is perhaps at the other side of Lake Weeroona, or at the northern end of the tram track, near the Joss House.

But as Thursday night’s official opening by Mayor Marg O’Rourke went on, it became clear that there’s really only one reason why all these things are in the one area: Chinese migration to the gold fields.

The area now known as PepperGreen Farm was once part of Emu Point, where early Chinese workers built the first brick kiln and where they first began to cultivate market gardens. And so, they needed a temple and the Joss House was built nearly 150 years ago. And workers needed transport, so the tram lines went there.

The really fascinating aspect is that these elements of a newly re-emerging precinct are still there, doing exactly what they did 150 years ago. What’s more, if they had never been there, Bendigo might not be here now.

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Studies of diets of the early diggers during the gold rushes show they survived mostly on mutton and damper. We will not go deeply into the consequences of that diet.

The government of the time banned the diggers from growing fruit or vegetables on their mine plots as the diggers did not own the land. They merely had a license to look for gold on it.

There was an application for that ban to be relaxed for the Chinese who were already growing astonishing amounts of fresh food in the few fertile pockets of land along the Bendigo Creek – notably Emu Point.

A plea to the Victorian government in 1853 noted that Chinese miners had made it possible for large populations to survive on the hot, rocky gold fields: “…and the mortality of children would have been very much greater than it really has been. Lease or sell half an acre of apparently worthless land to a small party of Chinamen, and, if there is access to any kind of water or manure, they will transform it, by their system of intensive husbandry, into a most prolific garden.”

Eventually, permission was given for the Chinese to farm the goldfields and sell their produce to the presumably grossly constipated, scurvy -wracked wider community. It could be said that the Chinese really got Bendigo moving.

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It is just possible that because of this, Bendigo was among the earliest places to develop a taste for Chinese food. Mitchell Street’s Toi Shan Restaurant is more than 150 years old and said to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in regional Victoria.