JIM SINCLAIR | Una Voce
‘Needed but not wanted: Chinese in colonial Rabaul 1884-1960’ by Dr Peter Cahill CopyRight Publishing, Brisbane, 316pp, hard cover, maps & photos included, cost: $35 or $40 includes postage & handling within Australia. Available in October from firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS IS AN IN-DEPTH, intensely researched, well-illustrated study of the history of the Chinese in Rabaul, from the first arrivals in 1884 to 1960. It is an ambitious and readable account, which should find a place in the library of anyone interested in PNG affairs.
There has been a Chinese presence in New Guinea from the very earliest days of the colonial era.
The New Guinea Chinese have been mentioned in passing by many writers – including the present reviewer – but there has been only one previous book-length attempt to tell the full story, Dr David Wu’s The Chinese in Papua New Guinea 1889-1980, published in Hong Kong by Chinese University Press in 1982, and not easily obtainable.
It is, moreover, a much more specialized account than Dr Cahill’s book, and it has not been unreservedly accepted by all New Guinea Chinese.
The book covers the story to 1960. Since that date the Chinese presence in PNG has dramatically increased and this is a trend that will undoubtedly continue, given the scope and scale of mining development in the country.
Dr Cahill’s book should assist decision-makers to better understand the mainland Chinese who will be among them in increasing numbers in the years to come.
Dr Cahill lived in Rabaul as a schoolboy, and his sympathy for and understanding of the New Guinea Chinese is apparent. Most New Guinea records were destroyed or lost during the Pacific War, and the researching of this account must have been a herculean task.
The story unfolds in chronological order, from the cruel beginnings in the era of Neu Guinea Kompagnie in 1885 to the movement of most Rabaul Chinese to Port Moresby and Australia in the years before Independence.
The New Guinea Chinese were treated as second-class citizens – both by government and the white majority - for most of their years in New Guinea, and Dr Cahill examines this situation with care and objectivity.
There is no doubt that the Chinese – hard-working, frugal, fruitful, pragmatic – achieved a very significant position in the business world of Rabaul (and later, Port Moresby). Some (and notably the early pioneer, Ah Tam) became very wealthy.
This commercial success is one reason why there is still resentment of Chinese store owners in PNG, as indeed is the case in many other parts of the world where Chinese have settled and thrived, usually at the expense of local merchants seldom prepared to work as hard as the Chinese.
There is also not the slightest doubt that the Australian government treated the Chinese in shameful fashion at the outbreak of the Pacific War. White women and children were evacuated to Australia in the nick of time just before the Japanese invasion, while the Chinese – men, women and children - were mostly left to their own devices.
Despite this, there are many instances of New Guinea Chinese helping Australians during the war, often at the risk of their lives.
This section of the book will be of particular interest to many readers. Another fascinating section deals with the eventually successful struggle by the Chinese to achieve Australian citizenship. I commend this book to all who have lived and worked in PNG.