Australia’s ‘Chinaman’ place names spark racism debate, calls for change

Australia has more place names that contain the racial slur “Chinaman” than any other country with significant Asian migration, new research reveals, with Australians from all walks of life saying it makes them uncomfortable and normalises discrimination.

There are 253 place names containing the words “Chinaman” or “Chinamen” in Australia, think tank Per Capita found, far outnumbering other nations with a “similar history of anti-Chinese legislation and exclusion”.

Laurie Pearcey, an Australian executive at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said names of places like Chinamans Beach in the affluent Sydney suburb of Mosman reinforced racist behaviours among children and adults.

“I remember playground taunting of Asian children with cries of ‘ching-chong Chinaman’ while other kids would stand there pulling their eyes to one side and making themselves bucktoothed,” he said.

“They were literally turning themselves into caricatures of Chinese people, which appeared far too often in pre-federation Australian newspapers.”

One infamous cartoon from the period predating the federation of Australia in 1901 was The Mongolian Octopus published by Sydney-based magazine The Bulletin in 1886 alongside xenophobic articles about Chinese arrivals. It depicted a Chinese man’s head with narrow eyes and buck teeth attached to octopus tentacles grasping at representations of typhoid, cheap labour and immorality, among others.

Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at Per Capita, said the tally of racially charged names in Australia would have been even higher if road and track names had been included in the count.

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A view of Sydney Harbour. There are at least 253 place names with the words ‘Chinaman’ or ‘Chinamen’ in Australia, including in Sydney. Photo: Bloomberg

New Zealand’s official gazette showed there were 13 places with the word “Chinaman” or “Chinamen” in their names, Chiu said. In the United States, there were 21 – while in Canada, there was only one.

Unlike Australia, these countries have had “explicit discussions” about changing the names of these locations, he said.

“It is jarring how these place names are used as if there is nothing wrong with it. We would never name a place or even refer to someone as a ‘Chinaman’ today, which speaks volumes about the term.”

Mosman’s municipal council says Chinamans Beach got its name from the Chinese market gardens established there during the late 19th century, while historians like the University of Sydney’s Sophie Loy-Wilson say it could have been named after Chinese anglers who fished nearby.

Either way, they hark back to the waves of Chinese migration during the 1800s gold rush that later fuelled anti-Asian sentiments. In response, the White Australia policy was implemented in 1901 to curb Chinese migration, before ultimately being abolished in 1966.

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An Australian-Chinese family pay their respects to dead relatives at a cemetery in Melbourne. Photo: Reuters

Back then, Australia viewed non-white groups as “less advanced than white people in all ways, especially morally and intellectually”, according to The National Museum of Australia’s online article about the White Australia policy.

This painful history is what bothers Melbourne-based Asian-Australian writer Mabel Kwong.

‘[Chinaman] is similar to the word ‘chink’, that is often regarded as a racial slur. I’ve had Anglo-white Australian strangers approach me in the street and yelled ‘chink’ in my face in spiteful tones,” she said.

“Hearing and seeing the term in local places reminds me how the Chinese were not always welcomed in Australia. It belittles what it means to be Chinese, and [suggests] that you are ‘beneath’ others if you’re Chinese.”

At the same time, the offensiveness of the word can depend on the surrounding context in which it is used.

“There are cultural nuances at play when it comes to using ‘Chinaman’,” Kwong said, adding that ethnic Chinese family and friends from Singapore and Malaysia also referred to Chinese people from China as “Chinaman” without malice.

‘Chinaman’ origins

The terms “Chinaman” and “Chinamen” emerged as derogatory racial slurs in Australia during the 1800s, primarily in news publications coinciding with the country’s gold rush, according to a 2017 paper by Jimmy Feng, a geographer at the State University of New York College.

The use of these words in newspapers peaked in the 1850s, when the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived, and again in the 1880s, as “a white Australian nationalistic pride” was on the rise.

“Anti-Chinese sentiment in print peaked … in a period of fierce economic competition and perceived ‘otherness’ of the Chinese,” Feng wrote.

“Analysing news items of decades past admittedly offers only one perspective, but there was, without question, bias against the Chinese by the white Australian press.”

The paper further found that while xenophobia was no longer as explicit today, “fragments of the ideology stemming from white nationalist policies established in the past continue to linger”.

In recent years, racism towards Asian-Australians surfaced during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many reporting being spat on, verbally abused and beaten.

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The Australian-Chinese Ex-Services Monument in Sydney commemorates ethnic Chinese soldiers who fought for Australia. Photo: Ronan O’Connell/Handout

Persistent racist ideologies that have endured since the derogatory terms “Chinaman” and “Chinamen” first arose in Australia’s colonial past could make having discussions about their removal from place names difficult, according to Helena Liu, associate professor of management at Bond Business School.

White supremacy remains pernicious in Australia, where racial difference is only tolerated and “multiculturalism” often serves as a mere cover against addressing deep-seated racism, according to “Precarious Multiculturalism: The Racialised Experience of Asian In/Exclusion in Australia”, a joint research paper Liu published in February with Kyoung-Hee Yu and Chris F. Wright.

“I do believe colonial and white supremacist legacies have a persistent hold in Australia because we, in general, struggle to admit to our racism,” Liu told This Week in Asia.

“Not admitting to racism makes it impossible to be accountable to racism, and thus change has been slow. Grassroots and policy changes to promote multicultural inclusion have often been met with backlash and for every two steps forward, we take one step back.”

Liu’s observations coincided with recent right-wing criticisms of political commentator Laura Tingle’s characterisation of Australia as a “racist country”.

According to Liu, the roots of anti-Asian prejudice continue to run deep in Australia, though they now manifest in less overt forms compared to the 19th century.

“White Australian leaders across business, labour, political, and religious spheres characterised Asians as slavish indentured servants,” Liu, Yu and Wright wrote in their paper. “Asian migrants were also seen as contaminated as they were dependent on carrying out dirty, dangerous, and difficult work”.

While such overtly prejudiced attitudes may not be openly expressed any more, discrimination against Asian-Australians persists in more subtle forms such as their exclusion from business and political leadership positions, Liu said.

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Pauline Hanson, an Australian senator and founder and leader of the right-wing, populist One Nation party. Photo: AFP

Anti-Asian immigration rhetoric by Australian politicians such as Pauline Hanson, a Queensland senator and leader of the right-wing One Nation party, has fortified negative public views with phrases like “swamped by Asians”, which she used in her maiden speech to parliament in 1996.

But the “yellow peril” trope is not limited to Australia, according to Dr Leung Wing-Fai, a sinologist who specialises in culture and the media at King’s College London.

The focus on the “danger and deviance” of Asian people was especially pronounced during the pandemic, whether manifested through caricatures or news reporting, she said.

Change on the way?

Pierre Yang, a Chinese-Australian lawyer and politician, called last year for 26 places in Western Australia with the “racist and derogatory” term Chinaman to be renamed.

Writer Kwong agreed that renaming these sites after people would be more meaningful, as it could help acknowledge the “individual stories” of different Chinese- and Asian-Australians, rather than perpetuating a broad, reductive label.

Not every Chinese person is from China or has lived in China
Mabel Kwong, Asian-Australian writer

“While many among the Chinese diaspora share cultural similarities, each Chinese person is also an individual person. Not every Chinese person is from China or has lived in China,” she said.

The existence of Chinese gardens and fishermen in 19th century Australia, which may have led to the “Chinaman” naming convention, showed Chinese immigrants were agriculturalists who knew how to work the harsh land and provide food, including to white Australians, said historian Loy-Wilson.

These Chinese pioneers had a permanent connection to Australia and were integral to the country’s early development and survival, she said.

Pearcey suggested that, at the very least, there should be explanatory signage or commentary at these places to provide historical and social context around the use of the term “Chinaman”.

“Australia’s politicians are fond of saying the nation is the most successful multicultural country in the world,” he said.

“While in many respects this is true, this only works if the nation is upfront about its less than celebrated record of state-backed racism and widespread social fearmongering against Australia’s Asian neighbours.”

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