Based on re­search trips to Young, artist Ja­son Phu ex­plores the events sur­round­ing the Lamb­ing Flat Ri­ots.

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The Lamb­ing Flat Ri­ots oc­curred on the Bur­row­munditroy Land of the Wi­rad­juri na­tion. I pay my re­spects to the tra­di­tional own­ers of the land and elders past and present.

I ask my mother what’s the mean­ing of burn­ing in­cense? She half-heart­edly shrugs and says it’s just some­thing we’ve al­ways done

We burn these things for those from our past and the past be­yond that to right the wrongs but re­ally we burn these things for our­selves and in the past they burned the same things also for them­selves trust me

Late 2017, Mikala Tai, di­rec­tor of 4A Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Asian Art, called to ask if I’d like to be part of a project, with artist John Young Zerunge, ex­plor­ing the his­tory and reper­cus­sions of the Lamb­ing Flat Ri­ots.

The Lamb­ing Flat Ri­ots were a se­ries of ral­lies against Chi­nese min­ers that hap­pened from 1860 to

1861 in the Bur­ran­gong re­gion of cen­tral New South Wales, just out­side a town now known as Young. On Sun­days af­ter church, the mob of Euro­pean, Amer­i­can and Aus­tralian-born min­ers would as­sem­ble and march be­hind a ban­ner that read: “Roll Up, Roll Up, No Chi­nese”. They were ac­com­pa­nied by a brass band, which of­ten played Con­fed­er­ate mu­sic. They would move from plot to plot, vi­o­lently evict­ing the Chi­nese min­ers.

Dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion in China, Mao de­clared spar­rows were a pest that ate the crops. Ev­ery­one got their pots and pans out and banged them all day so the spar­rows couldn’t rest and they fell dead from the sky. The Pol­ish em­bassy re­fused en­try to the peo­ple who wanted to kill the spar­rows rest­ing in its con­fines. The whole cam­paign only stopped when ev­ery­one re­alised the spar­rows were the ones eat­ing the in­sects that ate the crops.

My mother told me about the time our fam­ily friend was promised refuge at the Pol­ish em­bassy. When he got to the gates, they re­fused him en­try and he was ar­rested. He told me how the pick­pock­ets would train in jail: put a bar of soap in some murky wa­ter and snap it out with two fingers.

By the 1860s, the gold rush had reached its end in NSW. Gold­min­ing was tough and la­bo­ri­ous work; not many struck it rich, let alone made a ba­sic liv­ing. The Chi­nese min­ers were from poor farm­ing back­grounds with fam­i­lies back home in a coun­try rav­aged by civil war, depend­ing on their in­come. They worked com­mu­nally for longer hours and sub­sisted on less than the Euro­pean min­ers. Al­lu­vial min­ing was hard work but could pro­vide a con­sis­tent re­turn. Euro­pean min­ers who chose to work by them­selves would only work the top of a plot and then move to an ap­par­ently more pros­per­ous plot. The Chi­nese would of­ten take over the aban­doned plot and con­tinue to reap small returns. This sup­posed good for­tune, and the fact the Chi­nese spoke and dressed dif­fer­ently, made them an easy quarry for the dis­grun­tled.

My par­ents never taught me I could be what­ever I wanted to be, but they did say, “What­ever you de­cide, work hard at it.” I didn’t re­alise un­til re­cently that hard work is a skill you learn, one my par­ents taught me, so I could ex­ist any­where. It is a les­son passed down from peo­ple who un­der­stand where you call home is some­times not your choice.

The most se­ri­ous riot in Bur­ran­gong hap­pened on

June 30, 1861. Three thou­sand men marched on 200 Chi­nese min­ers at Lamb­ing Flat. They beat them and set about cut­ting off their queues – their pig­tails – of­ten at the scalp. Some­times, they ripped them clean off with­out use of a tool. These queues were proudly dis­played af­ter the var­i­ous ri­ots.

Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, the Manchu en­forced the Queue or­der. The Han were forced to wear queues with the front part of their head shaved. This was prob­lem­atic be­cause the Han fol­lowed Con­fu­cian prin­ci­ples – hair was con­sid­ered pre­cious and should never be cut be­cause it was a gift from our par­ents. Many who moved over­seas, to the gold­fields of Bur­ran­gong and be­yond, con­tin­ued to wear these queues, for fear of reper­cus­sions on their fam­i­lies back home.

Once when I was a teenager

I was cut­ting my fin­ger­nails af­ter din­ner while watch­ing TV my fa­ther walked over and said that it was un­fil­ial of me to do that

I ig­nored him be­cause I was a teenager

At Lamb­ing Flat, the men looted the Chi­nese min­ers’ pos­ses­sions and burned their tents to the ground. They moved on to dif­fer­ent en­camp­ments af­ter that to do the same. There were no recorded deaths, but some of the Chi­nese men were never seen again. Some­times I meet peo­ple, very rarely, who are fa­mil­iar with the ri­ots, and the only point they seem to want to ar­gue is that there were “no recorded deaths”.

I am fa­mil­iar with num­bers be­cause I am Asian one mil­lion dead spar­rows is the same as four­teen mil­lion dead spar­rows

About 1300 Chi­nese min­ers even­tu­ally made it to the home­stead of James Roberts, who was known to be sym­pa­thetic to the Chi­nese. He let them stay on the land – cloth­ing, shel­ter­ing and feed­ing them. He had to send his fam­ily away for fear of reper­cus­sions. There were threats to burn his farm down.

In her Mean­jin ar­ti­cle, “Race and the Golden Age”, Gabrielle Chan points out that “At the end of 2016,

1262 asy­lum seek­ers were in off­shore pro­cess­ing cen­tres, a lit­tle un­der the num­ber Roberts had taken in.” What must it have been like to watch a thou­sand men slowly walk onto your prop­erty in the mid­dle of the night – cold, beaten and in fear – and to welcome them with open arms?

The de­scen­dants of Roberts still own and live on this land. They wel­comed us warmly to their farm and drove us around the prop­erty look­ing for places to film. I ten­ta­tively asked if I could set a length of ship­ping rope on fire for the project, spell­ing out “queue”. They told me they had plenty of gaso­line and a small fire truck.

I try to think of peo­ple with­out cars and warm clothes my un­cles tell me when they were posted in Harbin the ice city dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion they only had two things on their mind to find beer and to find warm clothes

I have al­ways known cars

I have al­ways known warmth and this beer is nice and cold in my hand

The town­ship of Young – for­merly Lamb­ing Flat – was once proudly con­sid­ered the birth­place of the White Aus­tralia pol­icy. It is far from that now. We are in­debted to the town for sup­port­ing what our project be­came,

The Bur­ran­gong Af­fray, but it is still a dif­fi­cult thing to rec­on­cile, to live with the past. My fa­ther al­ways said, “Love peo­ple when they are alive; when they are dead, they are dead.” He also said, “When you walk past a dead body, spit three times on the floor and rub your face three times to ward off evil, even if it is a cock­roach; bad spirits linger for­ever.”

When my fa­ther first ar­rived in Aus­tralia, he went straight to the pub. Two men ap­proached him in that friendly sort of way and of­fered to play pool for money. Not want­ing to seem dis­cour­te­ous to the lo­cals, he agreed, and they sharked him of some cash. My dad spent the next few months per­fect­ing his game. He wan­dered into the pub on a few oc­ca­sions and even­tu­ally bumped into the two men, who glee­fully rechal­lenged him. He smashed them in the game and walked out of the pub, leav­ing their money be­hind.

I am not from the prov­inces where the Chi­nese men who mined in Lamb­ing Flat were born. I do not speak their lan­guages. I am not from their time. I have never felt how tired they were, and I can­not fathom how much they missed their fam­i­lies, but I do have fear. Even in the short time I have been alive, this ha­tred has flared, and is once again. I fear that dur­ing these times we don’t see the faces of peo­ple just trying to be happy and safe; in­stead, we see the faces of the scape­goats to our frus­tra­tions.

I went back to Bei­jing as an adult and with­out my mother to visit her brothers they said to me with as much love as they could for the only son of their lit­tle sis­ter what you are look­ing for doesn’t ex­ist here

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JA­SON PHU is a Syd­ney­based artist.

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