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The Chinese in PNG Cover

The Chinese in Papua New Guinea: Past, Present and Future, Edited by Anna Hayes, Rosita Henry and Michael Wood. Published 2024 by ANU Press, Australian National University, Canberra.  Free PDF can be downloaded here. Paperback version also available for $60 plus postage

TUMBY BAY - My first extended encounter with the Chinese in Papua New Guinea was in Mount Hagen in 1967.

There were several Chinese stores in the town, and a great restaurant. I think the Chinese community also had something to do with the picture theatre that was built around 1968-69.

One of the stores sold traditional trade goods and had a fast food bar where I sampled fish and kaukau chips for the first time.

My favourite store was the Aladdin’s Cave run by the Ping family, where there were wonderful electrical goods including record players, radios and tape decks.

The family was very friendly and happy to have a yarn any time of the day.

The Chinese in Mount Hagen, as I imagine was the case in other towns, were accepted as part of the scenery without any appreciation of their history in the then Territory.

The truth is that Chinese seafarers and traders had been visiting what is now Papua New Guinea for several hundred years before it was annexed by the British and the Germans.

They did not, however, permanently settle anywhere.

After the Germans arrived in New Guinea they brought Chinese labourers to work on their plantations.

When Australia took over New Guinea in 1914, there were close to 1,400 Chinese in the territory who represented nearly half of the non-Indigenous population. 

In Papua, where gold mining was the major economic activity, the British adopted Queensland legislation which specifically prohibited Chinese from the goldfields. This discouraged migration in general.

In 1906 Australia took control of Papua applying the so-called ‘white Australia policy’.

This made it virtually impossible for any Chinese to settle there. In a 1954 census there were only four Chinese people and a few mixed race people living in Papua.

The new Australian Administration in New Guinea, in contrast to the Germans, actively worked to discourage further settlement of Chinese. Their rationale was to protect European settlers from Chinese competition.

The Chinese living in New Guinea were regarded as inferior by Europeans and were forced to live in separate settlements and to use separate schools and hospitals.

With the outbreak of war in the Pacific, European women and children were evacuated but no provision was made for the evacuation of Chinese women and children.

In 1951 the legal status of New Guinea-born Chinese was changed from ‘aliens’ to ‘Australian Protected Persons’ and they were able to vote, marry and change jobs and place of residence without permission from the colonial Administration.

In 1957 further changes were made to the legal status of the Chinese population when those born in New Guinea, or who had arrived before the commencement of the civil Administration in 1921, were allowed to apply for Australian citizenship.

This was later extended to those Chinese who had entered New Guinea on a temporary basis before World War II and also to people of mixed race.

As Australian citizens, the Chinese in New Guinea were then free to move to Australia and, significantly, to Papua.

They were also free to acquire land on the same basis as Europeans and they were to be paid equal wages.

Prior to these changes the Chinese in New Guinea had largely lived in Rabaul, Lae and Madang.

With the changes, large numbers migrated from New Guinea to Papua, particularly to Port Moresby.

These were what Professor James Chin, the author of one of the essays in the volume, and others refer to as the ‘old’ Chinese of Papua New Guinea.

They were basically PNG-born Chinese who had lived in PNG for several generations.

“Their spiritual ‘home’ was Rabaul, East New Britain Province. Almost all were Christians and they used English as their primary language – they seldom used dialects, even among themselves.

“They sent their children to Australia to study, and many took out Australian citizenship so that their businesses could be classified as ‘national’.

"They took pride in long-term relationships with nationals and in playing a major role in community affairs (fundraising for charities, church activities, etc.) and fostered close relationships with PNG politicians, who generally saw, and continue to see, them as part of PNG society.”

Whenever I think about the Chinese in these modern and conflicted times, my antiquated mind comes back to people like the Ping family.

However, as this volume of essays makes plain, there is now much more to be considered when thinking about the Chinese in Papua New Guinea.

Not least are what Professor Chin of the University of Tasmania refers to as the ‘new’ Chinese and the ‘mainland’ Chinese.

The ‘new’ Chinese are mostly from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

The most influential are the Malaysian Chinese, as represented by such companies as Rimbunan Hijau, which dominates the logging and timber industries and has diversified into other businesses, including retail and The National newspaper.

The ‘mainland’ Chinese are the most recent arrivals who began to arrive in large numbers in the early 2000s after Chinese state-owned-enterprises began to set up operations in PNG.

At the same time large numbers of small traders from mainland China arrived and set up small businesses, many of them illegally in ‘reserved’ categories, like kai bars, designated only for Papua New Guineans.

The ‘new’ Chinese, particularly Rimbunan Hijau, were able to influence PNG politics using bribery and inducements but have now been out-influenced, both politically and economically by the ‘mainland’ Chinese.

The ‘mainland’ Chinese involved in state-owned-enterprises have direct links to the People’s Republic of China.

Apparently the level of corruption in PNG is something they innately understand and which they are very comfortable working with.

According to Professor Chin, ‘mainland’ Chinese are seeking to drive PNG away from Australian influence politically so as to incorporate it under their own orbit in the economic sphere but also in the sense of security and military interests.

The essays in the volume are derived from a conference and workshop held at James Cook University in Cairns in November 2020.

The conference was initially set up to evaluate a large collection of documents and artefacts donated to the university by ex-kiap Laurie Bragg.

However, the participants more or less subverted the scope of the conference by submitting a range of essays which tended to concentrate on the involvement of the Chinese in PNG.

As such, the essays represent a rather mixed stew of disparate interests, tangents and research initiatives which the editors acknowledge have been challenging to bring together as a coherent narrative.

For the general reader the essays are presented in a typically academic manner, which doesn’t make for easy reading. Despite this, diligent digging reveals some very interesting material.

As the editors suggest, the collection will hopefully encourage more research.

Given the importance of both the poorly understood history of the Chinese in PNG and modern developments in that regard, it is hoped that this will be the case.

A coherent account of Chinese history and interest in PNG would be a valuable contribution in this era of geo-political tension in the Indo-Pacific of which PNG appears to be sitting smack bang on top of a crucial hinge point.


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Richard E. Jones

Well, Phil, along with many other ASOPA graduates I was in Rabaul towards the end of 1963. It was there that we heard of the assassination of U.S. president John Kennedy.
But our Saturday nights were spent in the 'glory' of the Kuomintang club, run by Chinese folk, where music, beer and dancing all went together. Not to forget rum and coke refreshments.
As a bit of a left-wing believer I recall making an untimely reference or two to the defeated Chiang Kai-shek and had to be warned by fellow partygoers such as the late Ray 'Skull' Lonsdale to tone it down. The club members and its helpers were all Nationalists and completely opposed to Chairman Mao.
Mending fences with the club owners and officials after those brusque opening moments were managed. And many of still left on the planet will never forget Skull's Saturday night exits from that very Kuomintang club.
He'd head off through the main doors with an exquisite mixed race girl from Kokopo slung over his shoulder with her feet nowhere near the ground.
Oh, the Rabaul glory days ! Never to be forgotten.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The photograph on the cover of the book is of the Wong family taken on 15 January, 1954. It was provided by Vyvyen Wong, who has a distinctly readable essay in the book.

In the latest PNGAA Kundu magazine (June 2024) there is an article by Patricia Chow called "The Road to Officialdom - Hell and Back - The Mid-Twentieth Century Citizenship Debate" which covers the same ground as my article above.

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