Chinese in Toowoomba



The squatters on the Darling Downs desperately needed labour to work on their properties. Because they were unable to obtain any other type of labour, Chinese were brought to the colony. This provoked considerable controversy as mentioned by Maurice French in 'A Pastoral Romance'. He cites an Englishman who informed a Brisbane paper in October 1847 that the squatters should not be allowed to foist an inferior race on the colony.

However late in 1858, despite these objections, 56 Chinese were brought in and snapped up by the squatters. They worked well as shepherds and shearers. Their numbers increased rapidly and many were paid the tiny sum of 12 pounds per year including food and lodging. When their knowledge of English improved, they realised they were being 'ripped off' and in some cases, took their employers to court. Some riots also occurred due to their unhappiness. However, Hector Holthouse in 'Up Rode The Squatter' said that the Chinese, when given a fair deal, worked well and remained an important part of the outback scene for many years.

The Chinese were staying on the Downs. By 1856 there were 227 Chinese living there. The first indication that Chinese were living in the Toowoomba area were reports that they were living in cottages on the north-eastem outskirts of Drayton. One Chinaman, Lo Kai, was sentenced to two years jail after robbing the Bank of New South Wales, Toowoomba, in the early sixties. When discharged he committed the same offence again and was given five years for his trouble!

Probably the first Chinese store in Toowoomba was conducted by .John Van who opened a butcher's shop in James Street in 1868 which he followed with a grocer shop opposite where the Federal Hotel now stands. Market gardens were springing up along the creeks in the late 1860's with one of the earliest being in the area bounded by Ruthven and Bowen streets and the East Creek. Ah Young also had a store in this block. The Groom girls (father was William Henry Groom - Toowoomba's Mayor on numerous occasions) lived nearby. They worked for the Royal Hotel and visited the garden for vegetables for the inn.

Another large garden was located on the corner of James and Kitchener streets. The Chinese used a large waterhole to water their plants. A report of the time described the appearance of the gardens. The beds were intersected by narrow channels and supplied with water raised from the swamp by an inexpensive and simple piece of machinery. The result was a never-ending supply of vegetables. The report neglected to mention that often human waste was used to fertilise the vegetables. Buckets were balanced by the use of beams across the shoulders of the person distributing the fertiliser.

On 31st January, 1870, Gee Lee was sentenced to death in Toowoomba for murder. He was hung in the Toowoomba jail on 7th March 1870 together with Jacky Witton, an aborigine. Gee Lee was a carpenter by trade who had come to Queensland from Canton about 3 years before. Both men were buried in the pagan section of the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery. .

Chinese stores were appearing in Russell Street and other town areas by 1870. Russell Street was 'close to being a China town' (Anne Fisher, USQ masters degree student). There were the normal Chinese stores but one sold fruit as well as offering shaving and haircutting to customers whilst another sold pies near the Horse and Jockey Hotel (now the Shamrock). The 1870's were a difficult period for the Chinese. They were blamed for poor sanitation including polluting West Creek with human waste to using human waste to improve the quality of their vegetables. An outbreak of typhoid fever occurred in 1878. One of the reasons given for the outbreak was the Chinese use of cesspit contents on their gardens. A Commission of Inquiry made a number of recommendations to improve the situation including that the gardens be closely supervised and that they not be allowed in heavily populated areas of town.

By 1883 Hock Sing had established a store in Ruthven Street. He called the store Kwong Sang and later changed his name to Kwong Sang. The store became a centre for all Chinese activity in town and a Buddist temple was set up in the store. Kwong Sang, followed by his son Diamond Lum, carried out all kinds of social work for his countrymen. When Govenor Lord Lamington was in Toowoomba he would regularly visit the store. Lord Lamington himself employed Chinese as his servants. Kwong Sang's store remained in Toowoomba until the 1950's when it was closed. The altar was moved to Diamond Lum's home in Phillip Street.

A big event in the history of the Chinese in Toowoomba was the visit of the Chinese Commissioners in July 1887 who had come to enquire into the welfare of the locals. Newspapers reported that their visit drew more people than had that of the Governor! Those in authority spoke highly of the Chinese in the community but the local press were still inclined to ridicule them at times.

Post Office directories of the 1890's reported that there were still a fair number of Chinese in business in the town. An unusual business for Toowoomba was a peanut garden occupied by an Chinaman (name unknown) in Hume Street. The only way the Hospital could exist in the early days was with the financial support of the local people. Many Chinese market gardeners and shopkeepers contributed to the fund.

Racism raised its ugly head in Toowoomba in March 1903 when a group of ladies, with the support of the local clergy, decided to teach the Chinese the English language in a hall In Russell Street. Opponents of the scheme asked why these 'dirty Chinese' should receive such a benefit. Fortunately, there was considerable indignation about the complaints, which accordingly were treated with the contempt they deserved.

In the early twentieth Century there were still a number of Chinese storekeepers in the town. Included amongst them was Claude Poon, an oxy welder and repairer who opened a shop in Little Street. Little Street also contained several cottages owned by Chinese.. The Poon family contributed much to the Toowoomba community. They owned a market garden in Sir Street which sold fruit and vegetables. One became a teacher and represented the state in sport.

The first Chinese restaurant in Toowoomba was opened in Little Street in the 1920's. It was said to cater mainly for the Chinese who lived in the vicinity. The Lane was known for many years as Chinese Lane. A local paper reported on the annual tomb festival, one of which was held in April 1921. A large group of Chinese met at Kwong Sang's store and travelled to the cemetery. They offered and burned joss sticks and papers and let off crackers. Presumably they also provided food for their ancestors. The provision of food is still a custom today with fruit being left on the graves of a few Chinese at the Toowoomba Garden of Remembrance.


There are only three tombstones to Chinese in the 'pagan’ section of the Toowoomba cemetery. There are others buried there who have no headstones. The religious sections have a number of Chinese buried in various spots as well. It is highly likely that many others (bones?) were returned to China after death.

A Chinese herbalist, Harry V.Lee, advertised in the paper in the 1920's. He was in business for many years. Most of these years he had his store at 107 Russell Street.


In 1957 Diamond Lum opened the 'Cathy Cafe'

in Ruthven Street. A little later his 'Kwong Sang' store was demolished to make way for the Burke & Wills car park. Today there are very few reminders of the 'forgotten race'. Despite extensive searches, there appears to be almost no photographic evidence of the existence of the Chinese in Toowoomba with the exception of that in the Cobb & Co Museum. The only Chinese businessman who has been here since the 1960's is Vat Low. However his business was closed recently and is now available for purchase. His business was in Russell Street. He was described as the unofficial Chinese 'ambassador' in Toowoomba. There are many Chinese restaurants in Toowoomba but most are, I think, recent arrivals in the city. There has been a tremendous influx of Chinese students into the University of Southern Queensland, bringing a considerable influx of capital into the city as well as contributing to cultural activities. In the past, the Chinese have also contributed to the progress of the Darling Downs. Some of these contributions have included:­

1. Providing the squatters with a source of labour where no others were willing to work for them.
2. All the servants working for such people as Lord Lamington were Chinese.
3. The market gardeners provided a diverse range of fruit and vegetables where no other source was available.
4. The Chinese stores also provided a wide range of ‘different’ products which were not available elsewhere.
5. People such as Kwong Sang were fine members of the community. In the 1900's he became a 'naturalised' member of the country.
6. The Chinese contributed in large numbers to the hospital finances.



DANSIE Bob A Short History of Gowrie Creek Toowoomba City Council, June 1998

Darling Downs Gazette

FISHER Anne The Invisible Pioneers: Chinese Storekeepers in Toowoomba, Queensland (1868 to Circa 1930) - MA Thesis USQ

FRENCH Maurice 'Conflict on the Condamine' DDIP 1989

FRENCH Maurice 'A Pastoral Romance' Uni College of Southern Queensland 1990

FRENCH Maurie Pubs, Ploughs & Peculiar People USQ Press 1992 FRENCH Maurice Travellers in a Landscape: Visitors Impressions of the Darling Downs 1827 - 1954. USQ Press~"

HOLTHOUSE Hector Up Rode the Squatter

Miscellaneous material contributed by Beris Broderick which are held at the Toowoomba Historical Society.

Queensland Post Office Directories

Toowoomba Chronicle

Toowoomba City Council Ratees books

Toowoomba Shopping Guide 1947

(Some of the material below is similar to that contained in the Chinese Walk, above, but is included because it may have more detail)

Hector Holthouse Up Rode the Squatter

In the closing months of 1848, 56 Chinese were brought in. They were snapped up by the squatters. The Chinese worked well as shepherds and shearers. Many more were brought in to be paid the princely sum of 12 pounds per years all found. Before long about 300 on the Downs who worked well until they learned enough language to realise how low their wages were. Some riots occurred due to their dissatisfaction. However, the Chinese, when given a fair deal, worked well and remained an important part of the outback scene for many years. Holthouse also alleged in his book that the North Queensland Aborigines, as well as their coastal cousins, were cannibals who agreed that Chinamen made the best eating!

Many of the 618 foreigners in the Northern districts in 1851 were Chinese. Some 56 arrived on the 'Nimrod' late in 1848. Squatters paid 15 pounds for the fare and 6 pounds for annual wages and rations in return for a five year contract. Tom Leslie, who was in China from 1848 to 1857 and arranged the hiring and transport of many Chinese, said that they were excellent shepherds and servants. By 1852 there were probably 300 Chinese looking after 450,000 sheep. (A Pastoral Romance) Despite this favourable report, there were many problems between the squatters and the Chinese and often the Chinese were brought to court for alleged breaches of their contracts despite their lack of knowledge of English. Chinese were bashed and assaulted on some occasions by white workers and by aborigines. (A Pastoral Romance)

In 1856 Census there were 227 Chinese on the Darling Downs. ( A Pastoral Romance).

Obviously, Chinese shepherds were around, for in1853 at Drayton Magistrates Court, three Chinese shepherds were released from their contracts with the Crows Nest and Perserverance Runs for non-payment of wages. The magistrate then hired them himself! (Pubs, Ploughs & Peculiar People.)

Drayton properties c.1859 -Sec.6, Lot 3 had been purchased (by Wm Handcock?) from the Chinese, Kim Tae, and included a good cottage and fenced cultivation patch
(Pubs, Ploughs & Peculiar People.)

In 1860 the Chinese had established 'real cottages' on the north-eastem outskirts[of Drayton]. (Pubs, Ploughs & Peculiar People.)

1861 the Downs employed 26% of all Chinese in Queensland. (Pubs, Ploughs & Peculiar People. )

455 Ruthven Street, near where the Cafe Alexandra stood on what was the first site of the Bank of New South Wales. - The bank was held up twice by a Chinese - Lo Kai. On the first occasion he sought change for a sovereign. When the teller opened a bag he threw flour into his face, grabbed the bag and ran away. He was soon captured and got 2 years in jail. When he was released he noticed that the bank was empty of customers so jumped the counter and with the aid of a tomahawk, held the teller up and again grabbed a bagful of money. He was captured just up Ruthven Street and received 5 years

One of the first Chinese businesses was a butcher's shop in .James Street. John Van was one of the first Chinese to establish a business in Toowoomba. In 1865 he was working as a cook in Drayton then in 1866 he was a waiter at the Railway Hotel in Toowoomba. In January 1868 he established a butcher's shop in James Street. Later in the same year he established a grocer's shop, also in lames Street (opposite the Victoria Hotel).

According to 1870's Rate books, Ah Young had a shop with a cultivated garden in the area bounded by Ruthven & Bowen Streets and the Swamp. The property was owned by Arthur Hodgson.

The Groom family occupied their house in the 1860's in Ruthven Street , approximately where Rumours is now located. Opposite their house was a Chinaman's garden where Lucy and Audrey used often to visit for vegetables for the 'Inn' .(Royal Hotel)

From an interview with Mr Walter Roocke and Fred Winter in the 1980's­
"The Chinaman's garden was on the comer where the motel is now. That used to a big waterhole, on the corner of James & Kitchener Streets."

On 31 January 1870, Gee Lee was sentenced to death in Toowoomba. He was hung in the Toowoomba jail on 7 March 1870. On the same day Jacky Witton was also hung. Gee Lee's father was Nein Low and his mother is unknown. The minister who attended the hanging was Dr W.L.Nelson of the Presbyterian church. Geo Lee was born in Canton, China and had been in the colony for 3 years. He was a carpenter. He was single and was buried in the Toowoomba cemetery (Pagan section).

The 125th Anniversary publication of the Chronicle in November 1985 reported a Toowoomba resident in 1870 complaining of health risks in the swamps. The resident said of the Chinese "..One could judge the efficacy of an abundant water supply by inspecting the vegetable gardens in lower Ruthven Street belonging to the Chinese. Intersected by narrow channels, the beds are constantly supplied with water which is raised from the swamp by an inexpensive and simple piece of machinery. The result is a never-ending supply of vegetables, choice selections of which are disposed of on the spot, and the second quality and refuse, hawked around the town by Chinese vegetable sellers. Eight to ten men are currently employed on vegetable production; a large quantity of which finds its way to Dalby".

Notes from Anne Fisher's Master's degree thesis.

By 1870 number of Chinese operated stores, particularly in Russell Street. Russell Street was close to being a China town. One alderman wanted the railway moved as the greengrocers and Chinese Tartars did not support the railway.

Amongst the business men in 1870 were storekeepers Joss Hew and Hop Lee, whilst a Chinese pie-man established himself near the Horse & Jockey Hotel. (now Shamrock) A new store opened in the Argyle Rooms (corner Ruthven & Margaret) in Feb.1871. Charlie Sin San Faw sold fruit as well as shaving customers for threepence and haircutting for sixpence. He later moved to a store opposite the Post Office which was then on the corner of Russell & Ruthven streets. Kim Sany Luny operated a store with 2 room house on the comer of Ruthven & .James Streets in 1870/1.

In August 1871 a resident was unhappy about the state of the swamps and blamed Chinamen for the state of filth, particularly the family who lived and had their shop over the West Swamp. The Chinese had no toilet or garbage facilities and used the swamp as a disposal for all manner of waste. (See also, A Short history of Gowrie Creek)

The Darling Downs Gazette of 23 June 1873 referred to serious flooding in Toowoomba. It said there was a strong current running through the Chinaman's store on the south side of Ruthven Street. The location was thought to be just south of Chalk Drive near where a pie shop now exists. It is said that the Chinese store owner also had a market garden there because there were many Chinese market gardens along the swamps at that time. (see also, A Short History of Gowrie Creek by Bob Dansie June 1998.)

A Commission enquired into the outbreak of typhoid fever in 1878. It was blamed mainly on the contamination of wells by sewage. One of their 10 recommendations was that the Chinamen's gardens be supervised. They had, in the past, made liquid manure from the contents of cesspits. Their method of dispersal of the manure was with two watering cans hung around their necks. The Commission recommended that market gardens be in future prohibited close to thickly populated areas of town (A Short History of Gowrie Creek.)

By 1883 Hock Sing had established a store with a partner and called the store Kwong Sang. By 1901, he had applied for naturalisation. He took the name Kwong Sang as his own. The store operated for over 70 years. Kwong Sang was leader of the Chinese community, a role taken over by his son Diamond Lum. Kwong Sang acted as an employment agent, arranged medical help if a market gardener was ill, and ensured that the remains of Chinese were returned to China. He was highly respected by Europeans, too, Governor Lord Lamington regularly visiting his store. Kwong Sang's store housed a Buddhist altar and many Chinese worshipped there. When the store was closed in the 1950's the. altar was removed to Mr & Mrs Lum's home and the Chinese continued to use it for worship.

In 1888 Leong Hong operated a store in Ruthven Street. He had previously worked for Governor Sir Arthur Kennedy as had other Chinese. He committed suicide in the same year because of gambling debts.

General Notes 1877 to 1885 - author unknown

Governor Sir Arthur Kennedy and family regularly visited Toowoomba, especially during the summer.

The Governor's servants were all Chinese except one lady's maid for Miss Kennedy


Early 1890's report on Neil Street Neil Street from South to North East side


Mr Fogarty's cordial factory

A couple of small cottages

Then Chinamen's garden and swamp Then Laurel Street

Early 1890's report on Ruthven Street East side South to North


Union Hotel

Mengles Bootery and repair shop Andrew Schlater

Keogh's furniture shop and factory Hotel

Kwong Sang

UNION Street

John Atkinson general store

H.Stevens and Bush Schaffers Boarding house

Charlie Ah See - Chinaman


Commercial Hotel

2 small Chinamen’s shops

Young's blacksmith shop

Bowen Hotel


Early 1890's -report on Campbell Street East to West -north side


Charlie Campbells residence built about 1881

next Chinaman -peanut garden

The north side of Russell Street between 1887 & 1890s..

2 Chinese cottages after the garden and a boarding house.

Chinaman's shop -over Ruthven Street just 2 doors Ruthven St side of European Hotel-now National

After pub then Lockie Chinaman's shop (2 Native bears running around shop)

A late 1800's report, mentioned in the 'Chronicle' of 28 April,1951

- gave a description of early central Toowoomba. It included Kitchener Street which was then called East Street, on the corner of Margaret Street. On the creek bank was Tommy Yung’s Chinese garden

Darling Downs Gazetter 25/2/1889 - Tommy Yung cultivates the watery cabbage on a lot of Hume St

In the Darling Downs Gazetter of 26 April 1890, advertisements were placed asking for tenders for leases along the Swamp Reserve. Swamp Reserve No.3 ,with an area of 5 acres 2 roods and 18 perches was situated in James and Perth Streets and bounded on the west by Water Street. The advertisement says that the reserve is now occupied by Chinese gardeners

John McKinney started his tobacconist and hairdressing shop between Kwong Sang and Lippold's Gun Shop.

Not far on the other side of Union Street, Charlie Su had a china shop.

The community in the early days was of great financial help to the hospital. Some of those who contributed in 1893, for example were:

Kwong Sang 10/6, Luck Wah 21/-, Yee Lee 10/6, Lui Yonga 2/-, Gue You 2/-, Chung Mung 2/-, Ah Lean 2/-, Kema Yong 2/-, Chum Yenen 2/-, Wang Hoop 5/-, Chu Gueng 4/-, Chup Pong 3/-, Ah Vuen 4/-, Chung Kin 4/-, Wang Colt 2/-, G.Youie 4/-, Ny Yuen 3/-, Ton Pow 2/-.

According to R. A. Dansie in Hospitals and Health, the group included … “the humble Chinese shopkeepers and market gardeners who at this time had their small farmlets along East Creek.”

1904 Post Office Directory

Water Street -Ieft hand.side from Herries Street - James Dempsey, then Hy Seip. Anthony Street - left hand side from Neil St -.Jane Lee, Leo Annand etc

James Street left hand side - Stuart Street Tommy Ab Yung - gardener

Russell Street right hand side from Neil Street - Yow Wah before corner of Ruthven Street

Russell Street - left hand side from Neil Street - Kee Sing, before corner of Ruthven Street

Ruthven Street - eastern side next to Carl Mengel, bootmaker. Further south, near the corner of Herries Street and next to the Union Hotel was fruiterer, Kee Sing

Another Chinese to die (from natural causes) in the Toowoomba jail was Ah Bull, a shepherd aged 70. He died on 2 July 1890

In early 20's - Dong On was a fruiterer in Ruthven Street, whilst Ah Chan ran a store in the same street. Lam Poon, a fruit hawker, opened a shop in Russell Street opposite the Taylor Memorial Institute. Claude Poon ran a business as an oxy welder and repairer in the inner city area behind Falconer Motors when its showroom was on the corner of Ruthven & Little Streets.

By the 1920's Sing War and the Kargoi Brothers operated businesses, whilst the first Chinese restaurant had opened in Little Street. A number of Chinese lived in this street and it is believed that the restaurant largely catered for them. This was the period when Chinese business community was at its peak.

Diamond Lum attended South Boys School. In 1957 Diamond Lum established a Chinese restaurant the 'Cathay Cafe' and ran it for many years

In 1920 a plan showed Sing Kee as occupying a shop on the southern side of Russell Street between Ruthven & Neil Street, just east of a lane.

Another Chinese tombstone in cemetery is that of Jimmy Fat, died 7 March 1921 aged 57 years.

1947 Shopping Guide

552 Ruthven St - Kwong Sang, Chinese Merchant -est.1883 Cnr. James & Ruthven Streets -Oriental Hotel

54 Russell St - S.K.Chiu - fruiterer

107 Russell Street - Harry V.Lee -Chinese herbalist

Quang Sang Collection of artefacts was donated to USQ by the widow of Diamond Lee

Miss Jean Robinson, a former HHH member, remembered when the Chinese gardeners had their vegetable gardens all along the East Creek. They were very hard working and really knew how to grow vegetables. They lived in old corrugated iron huts. When any of them were sick they used to send for Dr Mackenzie who used to come out to them but would pick up Mr or Mrs Lum to come with him to be interpreters. When gardeners could not get work Mr Kwong Sang and his wife had sheds at the back of their place in Ruthven Street where they housed and fed the out-of-work gardeners.


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