Throughout the goldfields lie the graves of Chinese miners.
Over 40,000 came to Australia in search of gold. In some areas Chinese people outnumbered Europeans.
Golden Dragon Museum researcher Leigh McKinnon sees hardly a cemetery in the region that does not have some kind of Chinese connection. White Hills is one of the best preserved.
About 1000 early Chinese migrants were buried in cemetery.
More than 200 gravestones bear witness to their lives. Many of these are entirely in Chinese characters.
The stones date back to 1870, but Mr McKinnon knows from maps and death records that burials took place as early as the 1850s.
In these burial places Mr McKinnon can see the social distinctions that governed nineteenth century society in Bendigo and beyond.
The Chinese graves are segregated, lying on the flat land near the confluence of Long Gully and Bendigo creeks, where mine waste used to overflow.
While section is now at the front of cemetery it once sat at the back of the site.
It was the least desirable piece of ground.
In some cemeteries, such as Kangaroo Flat and Eaglehawk, the Chinese sections even suffered vandalism.
“You can see some of that lack of respect, and the way they were marginalised,” Mr McKinnon said.
“[In] quite a few goldfields cemeteries the Chinese sections haven’t always been treated with respect, because they were not European.”
The graves at White Hills give clear tell to the beliefs of these early Chinese settlers.
Paying respects was – and still is – important to the descendants of the deceased, Mr McKinnon said.
It was part of a complex idea that descendant needed to show respect, but also keep their ancestors happy.
“There is an element of looking after the places of the deceased, to prevent any misfortune to the descendants or the people living in this world,” Mr McKinnon said.
This belief meant a burning tower stood in many cemeteries. Here Joss money was set alight, to transfer it into the next life.
Gravestones were placed at the foot of the burial, and known as “footstones”. This way descendants could pay respect without actually standing above the body of their ancestor.
The miners resting with their ancestors
Nearly all Chinese immigrants from the goldfields came from one province.
The Guangdong province lay close to international ports like Canton, Hong Kong, Macau. So it was a natural place for people to travel to Australia from.
Among them was James Quon Kee.
A miner who lived in Golden Square, Mr Quon Kee raised a child and adopted son in Bendigo with his wife Lucy.
He – like the vast majority of people buried in the Chinese section – was born overseas.
Mr Quon Kee’s gravestone dates from 1913, but his remains do not lie under it.
Ten years after he died Mr Quon Kee’s remains were dug up, and taken back to his homeland.
Golden Dragon Museum researched Leigh McKinnon said this was common practice among Chinese people living on the goldfields.
He believes the custom came from the idea among the Chinese community that Australia was not their final resting place.
“A lot of the burials here were not intended as forever burials,” Mr McKinnon said.
The remains of many miners were disinterred, the bones cleaned, then sent in packages – or jars if there was flesh still attached – on a ship back to Hong Kong.
The remains were then taken to their home village, where they were buried to rest with their ancestors. These would be clan tombs, or burial spots, linked to family and ancestors.
The Australian context modified the traditional designs of tombs, Mr McKinnon said. Because there was no ancestral village or clan tombs, burials were more solitary and often temporary.
But the burial ground hasn’t been temporary. Over 100 years later, the White Hills Cemetery is a testament to the lives of these Chinese miners.
It is one of Australia’s few untouched Chinese burial grounds.
Mr McKinnon believes its condition is down to dedicated care.
“That story is certainly part of White Hills,” Mr McKinnon said.
“If it wasn’t for members of the local community, both Chinese and European, who cared about that heritage, it might not be in quite such good condition today.”
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