‘Chinese Market Gardens in Australia and NZ: Gardens of Prosperity’ by Joanna Boileau

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2017, 327 p.

Most Victorian country towns and suburbs that had access to a river with a floodplain  tended, at one stage or another, to have a Chinese market garden.  Not just in Victoria either-  there were Chinese market gardens right along the eastern coast of Australia, in Western Australia too, and in New Zealand. They’re largely forgotten now, as most had disappeared by World War II.  However, for about 50 years between about 1880 and 1930 the Chinese market gardens fulfilled an important role in providing fresh vegetables to urban markets.

Joanna Boileau’s book takes a transnational approach, locating these gardeners not just in sites across Australia and New Zealand, but back in China as well. The majority of Chinese immigrants to Australia and the Pacific from the mid19th century onwards came from a restricted area of Southern China, the Pearl River Delta region of Guandong Province.  There, a highly developed agricultural economy had reached the limits of its cultivable land in 1850, leading to mass emigration where single men travelled overseas to earn money to send home to their families. They had little capital, and indeed indebted themselves to family and labour agents in order to make the journey, but they took with them their labour and agricultural skills.

In Australia, the dominance of large scale pastoralism and agriculture for export or mixed farming meant that small scale, intensive market gardening as the sole source of income was considered of low status.  This opened up an economic niche that Chinese labourers filled, lured by the gold rush, but aware of the high prices for vegetables.  They also started up businesses in laundries and furniture making, but discriminatory legislation introduced in Victoria to curtail Chinese business opportunities left them few options other than market gardening and restaurants.

The gardens were run by profit-sharing syndicates of almost exclusively single men. They tended to live beside the gardens in small sheds in poor conditions, where they were often robbed. With time, these syndicates integrated the various occupations involved in food supply: gardening, hawking, running fruit and vegetable stores, and the wholesale fruit and vegetable distribution network.  Between 1910-1920 in Victoria, they attained a virtual monopoly of the business at the time.

But they worked hard. The Chinese market garden was highly labour intensive.  The soil was prepared, straight furrows were dug, seedlings were transplanted from their own seeds, they were watered by bucket over the shoulders two rows at a time, hoed, harvested, and prepared for sale. They were manured with fermented human excrement and urine, that was collected in large stone urns. This technique was admired by some, and abhorred by others.  Unlike European market gardeners, who tended to plant whole paddocks with the one crop, they mixed together different vegetables with differing harvesting times.  They dealt with plants individually, rather than as a bulk crop. Their intent was to have a steady supply of produce, cropped and earning monetary return as soon as possible.

However,  the number of Chinese market gardens began declining after 1910 and by WWII most of them had disappeared. With the enforcement of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, there was not a steady influx of new generations, and so the existing market gardeners became older and older. New Italian, Greek and Maltese arrivals were moving into market gardening from the 1920s and 1930s e.g. at Werribee in Victoria, and landowners now subdivided their land instead of leasing it for market gardening.

I suspect that this book has probably emerged from a PhD thesis, with its rather theoretical opening chapter that deals with diaspora, technology transfer, material culture studies and transnationalism. The book covers the eastern states of Australia, and New Zealand, so it really provides a good survey of Chinese market gardening. I found her account of the relationship between Chinese and Maori gardeners fascinating, and it marked a real difference between Australia and New Zealand in terms of the relationship between indigenous people and the Chinese.  Despite the broad scope of its analysis, she also identified individual market gardeners by name, something that the housewives on their back doorstep could do too, because of their familiarity with these men who called weekly with their vegetables.  The subject matter of this book may be rather specialized, but it reads very easily and really fleshes out with individuals a stereotype that has largely disappeared.

Sourced from: State Library of Victoria e-book (did you know that you can borrow them at home?)

Read because: We’re including Chinese Market Gardens in an upcoming display at Heidelberg Historical Society

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I’ve added this book to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

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One response to “‘Chinese Market Gardens in Australia and NZ: Gardens of Prosperity’ by Joanna Boileau

  1. There was still a Chinese market garden on the highway at Stawell when I lived there in the 1970s, been there 100 years probably. And TAG Hungerford writes about the Chinese market gardeners on the South Perth foreshore when he was a boy. (Can’t think of the name of the book – Wong Chu? – but Lisa and I have recently reviewed it).

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