An old goldminer and her Chinese companion, 1901

Here’s a story about a remarkable old white woman and her friendship with a Chinese man. In June 1901, a reporter from Melbourne’s Argus newspaper accompanied Castlemaine’s most senior policeman, Sergeant CW Armstrong, and the reverend from the local Christ Church, Mr G Pennicot, on a tour of Castlemaine to investigate the situation of old-age pensioners in the town. Among their travels they met the unnamed woman and her companion. This is the account about them published in the Argus on 3 June 1901:

In a hut of rock and clay was found a woman, aged 63, who received 7/ per week. A strong, wiry, loquacious, rather pleasant old lady, she has had a chequered experience. For years and years she has lived with Chinamen, and, in the early days she is said to have donned male attire, and worked in the mines with her Chinese friends. She has been living in this hut for 20 years, surrounded by other Chinese huts. The hut has an earthen floor, and the place generally is comfortable enough for the old lady. She said she could manage fairly well, but, for the past five years, she has been supporting a sick Chinaman, whom she said, ‘I used to work on the reefs with.’ On being asked to show us where the Chinaman was, she led the way to the back, where another smaller hut was built, close to the back door. Inside this hut was a queer sight. It measured about 8ft. long by 6ft wide, and barely 6ft. high, with a deep hole in the floor, covered with planks, and a hole in the wall for ventilation. In a bunk lay the sick Chinaman. He has been lying there for fully 18 months, and was suffering from bedsores. His bed clothes were dirty and of miscellaneous description. He looked very ill, and on a box at his bedside was a pannikin of cold tea. In this 8ft. long room, on the opposite side of the bunk, were fowl roosts, where over a dozen fowls roosted every night, and the old lady, who could see nothing out of the way in this, laughingly said that, when the Chinaman is eating his rice or other food, the fowls generally hop on to the bed and box, and eat out of the same dish. The old lady seemed very anxious about the sick man, and said she had spent 9/ out of her last pension for medicine for him. The man will never get better where he is, and the authorities should see to his removal. (Argus, 3 June 1901, page 5)

I love this story for what it tells us about colonial life and about the kinds of personal relationships that occurred between Chinese men and white women. There’s the woman who dressed as a man and worked on the diggings. And how she had lived happily in a ‘Chinese community’ for decades. And the enduring friendship, which had perhaps once been something more, she shared with a Chinese man.

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