The times we need racists


Market Gardener, 1893

Wait. What? Dodgy Perth is championing racists now? Of course not, but we must begrudgingly admit that bigots in the past have one good use: they give details about the lives of minorities which would otherwise be lost to historians. Don’t believe us? Let’s prove it.

Opposite the Brisbane Hotel is a patch of grass known as Birdwood Square. Most nights of the week you’ll find soccer players practicing there, and it hosts various events throughout the year. (Although it should be noted we mostly see it out of the Brisbane windows, rather than playing sport or doing non-drinking things.)

The original plan for the park was developed in 1917, and all sorts of exciting things were planned. It was to be laid out in avenues, lawns, shrubbery, and paths, with two hothouses and two shelters. Much more interesting than the current flat grass park which now exists.

The proposal also mentioned that in 1917 the land was currently a Chinese garden. And that’s all it said. To find out more we must turn to our racists. In this case, as so often back then, they were to be found among the journalists working for the scandal rag, The Truth.

How do we know the writer was xenophobic? Easy. The language used to describe the workers was ‘Chows’ and ‘heathens’, and a white woman who had a child with one of the Chinese market gardeners, and worked as their housekeeper, was ‘degraded’ by having a ‘half-caste’ kid. Pretty conclusive evidence we’d say. But what can we do with the information provided? We don’t want to discard it, because then we’d having nothing to say about the Chinese community living next to Beaufort Street in the early 20th century. But nor do we want to take it at face value. Instead, let’s pick it apart and see what’s of value.

According to our bigot, in 1903 there were four Chinese men running the market gardens, with sixteen men in their employ. A quick glance at the gardens, we are told, is deceptive. They can look beautiful with their spring foliage and fruit blossoms. And, of course, they provided food for the good (white) citizens of Perth.

But a peep ‘behind the scenes’ would disgust every right-thinking person, and probably put them off buying Chinese produce. The gardens were really a swamp, and there were piles of “evil-smelling manure, rotten old sacks, pieces of old matting, kerosene tins, old iron, and wire netting”. In other words, if not prejudiced against the workers, you might think this is like every other market garden. Ever.

The workers lived in rough housing on site, which revolted our journo, since he couldn’t imagine wanting to live in impoverished housing in a swamp. Naturally, this says more about the type of less-than-human the Chinese really were, than any socio-economic factors which might explain the choice of accommodation.

There is one factor more than any other which keeps coming up in accounts of Chinese market gardens. It is mentioned so often, it may even be true. Allegedly, and this sickened our white writer, one source of fertiliser was the water closets on site. The vegetables and fruit were being fed with human waste.

This topic is still controversial today, and the merits and dangers of biosolids (as poop is now euphemistically known) are debated over and over, with some claiming it’s the future and others decrying it as poisoning the crops. We don’t claim to have an opinion on the issue, but we do know that journalists working for The Truth wanted to expose this ‘crime’ as evidence no one should buy Chinese veg.

Worse, the workers, we are told, delighted in being surrounded by filth, “even if they know it will kill them”.

None of this would be easy information to come by, if it wasn’t for racists writing up lurid accounts, trying to discourage people from buying from the Chinese. Sure, it might be buried in a tedious government report, but the purple prose of a bigot can give an insight into the lives of those who aren’t usually documented in the history of our city.