“From the Gold Rush to the Property Rush: Cantonese Speakers” – Musings from an Australian Perspective

This read through of Barry Li’s The New Chinese: How They Are Changing Australia has now brought us to Chapter 2 – ‘From the Gold Rush to the Property Rush’. I’m attempting not to make it a dry, analytic recap; rather I try to add my thoughts and comments to Barry’s own, from the perspective of an Australian who’s studying Mandarin and spent a bit of time here and there in China, and one who’s trying to get more Aussies interested in learning about our giant Asian neighbour.

The first section headline of this chapter is ‘Cantonese Speakers’, which is definitely not my area. Having struggled enough with one Chinese language, the thought of trying all over again fills me with unfathomable sadness and despair. I do regularly get asked whether I’ve learnt Mandarin or Cantonese which always surprises me; from a quick search it seems the only university institute to offer Cantonese studies is the Australian National University in Canberra, and it’s only an introductory course with a primary purpose to serve as a comparison to Mandarin. I also get asked what the differences between them are, so here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Cantonese is spoken in the southern province of China, Guangdong, which is also known as Canton (I really only ever hear my grandmother say that). There’s contention as to whether Cantonese is a dialect or a language outright – here’s a great article from The Economist that explains that deeper. People in Hong Kong also speaks Cantonese, but due to British rule for a long time, you can (I’ve heard) easily manage with English alone there.
  • Mandarin is the official language, said in Chinese as pǔtōnghuà, and meaning ‘the common tongue’. It uses ‘simplified’ characters, which are altered versions of traditional characters. Simplified characters started coming in use and taught in all schools during the 1950s.
  • In contrary, Cantonese uses traditional characters in its written form. Cantonese then gives a completely different pronunciation of these characters to Mandarin. For example, if a mainland Chinese learnt traditional characters and then spoke a passage aloud it would sound totally different to someone in Hong Kong or Guangzhou doing the same.
  • Just to add it to the mix, the official language in Taiwan is Mandarin. Although Taiwan employs traditional characters, their pronunciation of them is orally someone from Taiwan and someone from mainland China should be able to understand each other.


The Chinese part in the Australian Gold Rush is well documented in some regions, while other aspects are only coming to light now. Earlier this year the Victorian state government apologised to the Chinese community for the unjust policies placed on Chinese migrants during the 1850s. To restrict the number of Chinese entering the colony there was a limit of one Chinese entry per ten tones of ship cargo, and that migrant was then additionally charged 10 pounds to disembark in Victoria, the equivalent of many years’ wages. To avoid this regulation, some ships put down in South Australia, at either Adelaide, Kingston or Robe and the migrants would walk to the gold fields. Robe to Bendigo is 500km while from Adelaide it is 800km. Over 15,000 Chinese miners arrived in this way in Robe alone. To commemorate the 160th anniversary of the first trek, a group of Australian-Chinese, some whose ancestors were part of that original migration, walked from Robe to Ballarat and then to Melbourne.

There’s a lot more to understanding someone’s background than simply saying, “oh, he speaks Chinese,” which is what Barry Li is addressing in this section. Knowing really what ‘style’ of language they speak gives you a better insight into where they are from, what their culture could be, perhaps a popular food in their local restaurants, and maybe even their political alignments. All these help, especially when meeting someone new, in not making a terrible faux pas or 洋相 yáng xiàng (and this time, that word’s the same in both traditional and simplified characters!)


Photo taken in Hong Kong, May 2017. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.