SS Tsinan – a Chinese inscription of gratitude

One of the Chinese calligraphic inscriptions on the sandstone wall in the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station includes the words “ganjie” (“感激”), which means “heartfelt thanks”. It was written by a Chinese crew member or passenger from SS Tsinan, which in the late 19th century was a new steamship operated by the British-owned China Navigation Company to facilitate trade between Hong Kong and the colonies of the British Empire, which included Australia.
So why thanks for the inconvenience of the quarantine experience at North Head? Although the dating of the inscription is today illegible, my hypothesis is that it was written during Tsinan‘s quarantine at North Head in March 1903. Travelling from Townsville to Sydney, the ship survived a cyclone in Far North Queensland in the capable hands of Captain Lindbergh and his crew, but not without loss of “an anchor and 60 fathoms of chain” (Evening News, 16 March 1903, p. 4). It can be imagined that the passengers on board, both Chinese and European, arrived in Port Jackson with a great sense of relief.

The crew and passengers from SS Tsinan were quarantined at North Head on 13 March 1903 (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1903, p. 8) and were released from quarantine three days later on 16 March 1903 (Evening News, 16 March 1903, p. 4). Prior to Tsinan‘s arrival in Sydney, its second engineer and a Chinese crew member were removed at Townsville; the former developed symptoms of smallpox and the latter, symptoms that were suspected to be smallpox (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1903, p. 8).

As to the steamship itself, it was first detained in the quarantine limit at Watsons Bay, where its crew and passengers were then transferred to North Head. At Watsons Bay Tsinan was fumigated, after which it went to Neutral Bay where its cargo was unloaded. After that was done, it went into quarantine at North Head (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1903, p. 8).


A separate society: discrimination and disempowerment

Under the White Australia Policy, Acts of Parliament were enacted to keep a significant non-white community such as the Chinese “in place”, so that they could never become equal or superior to white Australians in social position and status.

Chinese Lantern Festival

Among the badly faded Chinese calligraphic inscriptions on the sandstone rocks in the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station is one that stands out in terms of the timing of the inscription itself. In it a Chinese person from SS Taiyuan, then a regular maritime visitor to Australia from Hong Kong, made reference to the date of writing as “Yuanxiao” (元宵), which is an auspicious time in the traditional Chinese calendar, a time that brings families, friends and communities together in celebratory public space: the Lantern Festival.

Yuanxiao falls on the 15th day of the first month in the Chinese calendar, when the moon is full. Going by the Chinese zodiac, one can also learn from the inscription the year in which it was made.

Spatial arrangement and social hierarchy in quarantine stations

Contagious diseases inspire exclusion and segregation. The diseased are to be separated as far away from the healthy – and that means community, society and nation – as possible. This is because diseases are viewed to be “contaminating”. However, not all the diseased are equal, which result in different treatments being given to them. Under the White Australia policy, race was an important social marker in social hierarchy. The question of race superseded that of class: to be well-off but not to be white would still allocate one to an inferior position in Australian society. For it was inferior not to be born white in the first place; nature could not contend with humans when it came to social value and hierarchy, for humans can never exists as natural beings. Culture is discriminating in one way or the other. In cases of extreme prejudice and dislike in Australian racism, “coloured” people were shunned as if they were diseased.

Death; pollution; extreme liminality of cemeteries; Asiatics’ Quarters.

Historic Censuses on Chinese in Australia

In the 1925 Year book Australia, which was released on 1 January that year, there is a feature article called The Chinese in Australia.

When the first Census in the colony of New South Wales was conducted in 1856, there were 1800 Chinese males and only six Chinese females (1806 Chinese in total). The figures on the Chinese in the subsequent seven Censuses are as follows: 1861, 12,986 Chinese males and two Chinese females (12,988 Chinese in total); 1871, 7203 Chinese males and twelve Chinese females (7220 Chinese in total); 1881, 10,141 Chinese males and 64 Chinese females (10,205 Chinese in total); 1891, 13,048 Chinese males and 109 Chinese females (13,157 Chinese in total); 1901, 10,003 Chinese males and 159 Chinese females (10,222 Chinese in total); 1911, 7942 Chinese males and 284 Chinese females (8226 Chinese in total); and 1921, 6903 Chinese males and 379 Chinese females (7282 Chinese in total).

The declining trend in Chinese population between the years 1901 and 1921 was also reflected in the other States of Australia; in Victoria the Chinese population halved in its number, with only 6903 Chinese males and 379 Chinese females (7282 Chinese in total) recorded in the 1921 Census. In the same year, 16,011 Chinese males and 1146 Chinese females (17,157 Chinese in total) were recorded in the Census in Australia overall. Despite the great political turmoils in China after the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, which would motivate the Chinese to seek new lives outside their homeland, Australia’s White Australia policy was successful in keeping them out in large numbers, when at the same time indentured labour of the Chinese and other “coloured” people was a valuable commodity in Australian economy to facilitate regional trade and to address the problem of labour shortages since the cessation of convict transportation from England in 1840.


Race and quarantine

Under Australia’s Quarantine Act 1908, deadly communicable diseases such as cholera and smallpox had to be present on an incoming ship for it to be quarantined – crews and passengers were never quarantined on the basis of their race alone. However, once the criteria for quarantine were met, race immediately became a criterion that quarantine officers stringently applied: the segregation of non-Europeans, particularly the Chinese, from the white race was effected without delay. A separate area of quarantine for non-Europeans, called the Quarters for Asiatics, was set up in the major quarantine stations of Australia such as North Head near Sydney and Point Nepean south of Melbourne. Under the administration of Superintendent James Vincent, who took over the North Head Quarantine Station after Superintendent John Carroll’s permanent suspension by the Royal Commission in 1881, the Quarters for Asiatics, which existed below the Third Class Precinct and above the First Cemetery on a hillside facing west and overlooking Spring Cove, was pejoratively referred to as “Wexford Street”, a neighbourhood in Surry Hills just east of Haymarket where the residents were predominantly Chinese and regarded by many white Australians at the time to be a slum or an area of ill repute.