The ‘Chinese question’ and colonial capitalism in New Gold Mountain

SBS’s New Gold Mountain sets out to recover the history of the Gold Rush from the marginalised perspective of Chinese settlers but instead reinforces the erasure of Indigenous sovereignty. Although celebrated for its multilingual script and diverse representation, the mini-TV series ignores how the settlement of Chinese migrants and their recruitment into colonial capitalism consolidates the ongoing displacement of First Nations peoples.

Justice for migrants and Indigenous people are not mutually exclusive projects, but the tendency to homogenise these struggles under the sanitised banner of multiculturalism decontextualises the interrelated histories of diaspora and dispossession. New Gold Mountain recognises white supremacy as a common enemy but fails to see how one oppression is implicated in the other. As a result, it is unable to envision a co-liberatory praxis that is both anti-racist and anti-colonial.

The show’s attempt to destabilise Eurocentric storytelling still privileges a colonial perspective, upheld alongside capitalism’s prerogative of extraction and domination. Non-white migrants can perpetuate the possessive logic of commodification and private property that is indispensable to white supremacy through assimilation. Despite being subject to the hierarchy of racial capitalism, migrants can align with colonial powers in order to enjoy the benefits of living on unceded Aboriginal land.


The prospect of prosperity attracted many Chinese gold miners to the new colony, commonly referred to as Dai Gum Saan, or ‘Big Gold Mountain’. By the mid-1800s, they made up 20 per cent of Bendigo and 25 per cent of Ballarat’s population on Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurung Country.

New Gold Mountain takes place in Ballarat in the same year as the Buckland riots (1857), the largest attack against Chinese people in Australian history. Two years prior, the Act to Make Provisions for Certain Immigrants (1855) was enacted. This formative anti-Chinese legislation, which was a precursor to the White Australia Policy (1901-73), placed restrictions on the number of Chinese migrants allowed to travel to Australia, including a tax of ten pounds to be paid upon arrival. On top of the standard mining license fee, Chinese migrants had to pay a monthly residence fee and annual ‘protection’ tax. Failure to produce a residence license could be apprehended without a warrant by any person. Chinese ‘protectors’, often former military or police officials, were appointed to reduce conflict between European and Chinese settlers. The state’s paternalism and segregation of camps did not help de-escalate rising hostility against the Chinese. Race riots continued, most notably in Lambing Flat (1860-61) and Palmer River Goldfield (1878).

The Clunes Riot (1873)—the first major strike in response to increased working hours on the weekend—was described by one of the union leaders as a heroic battle against ‘capitalist greed and the Chinese.’ After failed negotiations with local workers, the mining company employed Chinese labourers to break the strike. These were met with much antagonism from the local population, resulting in approximately one thousand white workers attacking 150 Chinese workers. Further intercolonial disputes ensued during the Australian Maritime Strike (1878), when the Australasian Steam Navigation Company replaced all their European workers with Chinese seamen. While the former were paid eight pounds per month, the Chinese were hired to work for three. Business owners have historically used foreign workers to undercut wages for the (white) working class. When white workers subscribe to the racist fear-mongering around scarcity, the ruling class succeed in dividing and conquering—blaming the exploited rather than the exploiters.

In 1878, leaders of the Chinese Merchants’ Association co-wrote The Chinese Question in Australia in response to the growing paranoia around Yellow Peril. They wanted to correct cultural misunderstandings fabricated through Sinophobic propaganda, as well as emphasise their economic contributions. Their self- descriptions aren’t far off from the stereotypical perception of ‘Asians’ today, as they characterised themselves as ‘patient, docile and persevering … indefatigable, obliging … temperate and law abiding…quietly and orderly.’ The model-minority myth assumes that Asian people are apolitical and passive, concealing their histories of organised resistance. Despite fighting for equal rights and treatment, the Chinese Residence Tax Revolt of 1859, which eventually overturned the colony’s discriminatory legislation in 1863, is rarely acknowledged, let alone venerated, to the same degree as white working-class movements such as the one that led to the Eureka Rebellion of 1854.

Seeking equality as a means to be afforded the same rights as (white) workers is not a right that the authors of The Chinese Question extended to First Nations Peoples. In their appeal to be accepted into the state, Chinese merchants and miners re-affirmed white supremacist notions of nationhood that undermined Aboriginal sovereignty, adopting Western constitutional forms of redress to seek colonial reparations. The invention of terra nullius, the belief that ‘there were vast portions of the Earth’s surface… almost destitute of inhabitants’ naturalised the Australian landscape as barren and unoccupied, able to be privatised and exploited into supposedly limitless commodity. This lie invisibilises the brutal violence of settler colonialism, the massacres and genocide required to seize the ‘land of great promise… rich in the precious metals and very fertile.’ Through their pamphlet, the Chinese Merchants’ Association sought to ‘become permanent settlers and valuable allies in the work of developing the resources of this vast territory.’


New Gold Mountain connects disparate characters whose worlds collide when a white woman’s body is found near a Chinese mining camp. The headman, Leung Wei Shing (Yoson An), tries to quell racial discord through a Mid-Autumn festival, inviting Commissioner Wright (Rhys Muldoon) to discuss rumours of a new ‘Chinese tax’. Ingratiating himself with the Commissioner, despite his obvious contempt for foreigners (‘We shouldn’t be here. We take your land, your jobs. Look the same, sound the same, more everyday’), Shing is loosely inspired by Fook Shing, the first Chinese detective employed by the Victorian Police Force. He demonstrates the usefulness of his loyalty as their token Asian (‘You have soldiers and police but they cost money. I may not be as wise or as strong but I am yours’), willing to neutralise any rebellion and pledge allegiance to the state. Code-switching between Cantonese and English, he uses his bilingual position to exploit both sides. His mercenary character reproduces the Orientalist stereotype of Chinese people as cunning, greedy and self-interested.

The question of whether the Chinese were a threat to the nation was and still is central to the formation and consolidation of white settler identity, but it is impossible to theorise on Asian-Australian identity without also understanding the structural inequality and history of anti-blackness.

Constructed in opposition to one another, the binary of deserving and undeserving citizens casts Asians as law abiding and hard-working, while Aboriginal people are considered lazy and welfare-dependent. The disguise of structural failures as personal shortcomings helps to criminalise Black and brown people as inhuman, irredeemable and less capable than migrants—whose commitment to upward mobility means they are more likely to embrace the ideology of meritocracy and aspire towards ‘whiteness’.

Tropes like the ‘tiger mum’ come from the belief that Asians are inherently industrious and high achieving. The looming threat of competition they represent and fear mongering around Chinese people ‘stealing’ jobs means they are something to be invisibilised or instrumentalised, too, before they surpass and eclipse white people. Feared for being overly productive in ways that are problematic and must be controlled, it their so-called exceptional status that makes them a threat. The yellow peril trope and the model minority myth are both complementary aspects of the same form of racialisation, in which economic exceptionalism and efficiency are the basis for exclusion or assimilation.

The model minority myth masquerades as a compliment, praising Asians for their success while simultaneously villainising and resenting them—if not taking credit for their achievements. Turned into targets of suspicion or envy to justify prejudice and scapegoating, Asians in the white imaginary become not just the infected but the infection itself.

China, perceived by the rest of the world as an imperial and impregnable fortress, lived in ‘contented isolation from the rest of the world’ until 1842, when the Treaty of Nanking was extorted from the Pekin government. Since then, the image of the Chinese migrant, associated with exoticism, disease and moral deviance, has taken on a pervasive quality (‘Like leaving the door open to flies’ as the Commissioner says). This is distinct from the racialisation of Aboriginal bodies as dying or ‘already dead’, which is shown through the character of Tom/ Durrumang (Zach Blampied), an Indigenous man whose clan remains unnamed but was a key witness to the crime. Tom/ Durrumang’s physical deterioration while incarcerated is not addressed or explained because his death is seen by the state as inevitable.

The structural invisibility of violence perpetrated against First Nations Peoples works alongside the hyper-visibility of and vigilance against migrants. All the characters in New Gold Mountain are subject to this concurrent dynamic of disappearing First Nations Peoples and policing the entry of refugees, which re-asserts the dominance of white nationalism as determining who gets to live on unceded Aboriginal land.

The Commissioner in New Gold Mountain refers to the local Chinese population as a ‘horde of human locusts,’ echoing sentiments made by Pauline Hanson in her 1996 maiden speech about being ‘swamped by Asians’. The rhetoric of being outnumbered or invaded by Asians reveals white Australia’s anxiety of being displaced in the same way they attempted to displace Indigenous people.

Hanson, of course, is often viewed as a fringe extremist who does not represent the majority of Australians willing to accept and tolerate foreigners. The problem with having such a cartoonishly evil character in the public sphere is that people are able to distance themselves from the ubiquitous nature of racism. Despite white supremacy being the constitutive logic of Australia through the conquest of land and eradication of its peoples, racism is still seen as an unfortunate stain on an otherwise unblemished history. Concentrating on a specific individual who unapologetically platforms xenophobia and wilful ignorance distracts from the ways violence is embedded into the institutions we have been socialised to perceive as innocuous, essential or even beneficial. The individual figure, in Australia media as well as in the show, acts as a synecdoche, allowing people to mistake these controversial figures for the source of racism, rather than mere symptoms.

Liberal progressives love to feed on the shock and indignation they feel when consuming stories about racism. Their outrage in response to shows like New Gold Mountain makes them feel as though they’re part of the solution, rather than replicating the problem through their ignorance. The belief that good intentions absolves them of responsibility and makes them immune to critique breeds a complacency that isn’t conducive to mobilising social change.

Easily co-opted into the ally industrial complex—a brand of anti-racism that only seeks to re-centre the white subject and alleviate individual guilt without any kind of structural critique—these so-called allies are more offended at the accusation of being racist than by the existence of racism itself. This moral posturing to acknowledge privilege as an end in itself, without renouncing it, is an example of what Tuck and Yang calls a ‘settler move to innocence’, fabricating the appearance of reconciliation without contributing to tangible reparations. How can viewers engage with these themes while inhabiting a pedagogy of discomfort that fosters collective reflection and solidarity, rather than reactionary guilt that results in defensiveness, fragility or deference?

Rather than an outright rejection and overhaul of the entire settler colonial project, liberal depictions of racism such as New Gold Mountain’s are more likely to settle for inclusion. This is because tokenistic acts of recognition and acknowledgement don’t disrupt the settler colony. Although they concede to instances of state violence, this can only be represented as something relegated to the past, to bolster narratives of ‘progress’ and a self-congratulatory ‘look at how far we’ve come.’

The source of New Gold Mountain’s grievance is that migrants were excluded from participating in and profiting from colonisation, which is ignorant of how Asians are given proximity to whiteness and conditional acceptance in order to perpetuate anti-blackness.

In the final episode, the British crown usurps the Chinese miners of their gold (‘In the absence of a valid license, I hereby claim all gold derived from these diggings to be the rightful property of the British crown’). The irony of this so-called injustice is that the gold does not belong to the Chinese, either. Although the audience is positioned to feel sympathy for them, they are part of the same colonial oppression that dispossess Indigenous people of their lands. The show leaves out the direct impact this has on First Nations peoples—their absence, besides Hattie and Tom/Durrumang is unsettling.

The focus on discrimination against Chinese people doesn’t point back to the originating violence against First Nations peoples. The only time potential solidarity is hinted at, although in a way that collapses difference and homogenises distinct histories of violence, is when Hattie, an Indigenous tracker, and Shing agree that ‘white people aren’t going to listen to me any more than you… Skin might be different but we are the same.’


When gesturing towards solidarity, New Gold Mountain calls attention to missed opportunities for intersectional links, trying to bring previously marginalised characters into strained relation.

Belle (Alyssa Sutherland), the recently widowed and newly pronounced owner of the ‘Ballarat Star’, has a vexing alliance with Shing. In their first interaction, he misogynistically assumes she is soliciting him for sex work when she mentions a business proposal (‘I’ve yet felt the need to pay for female company, though I suggest you’re a shade on the older side to demand too steep a value’). Their antagonism increases when Belle prints a story about Annie having a Chinese lover, which has violent repercussions for the local Chinese population. Shing accuses her of only printing the story because ‘she’s one of yours,’ and claims that if a Chinese person had died, she would not be as concerned about disseminating the so-called truth. Shing attacks her for ‘running a paper she neither earned nor has the sense to manage.’

The tensions between Shing and Annie take place across racial and gendered lines—Shing can only see race and Annie can only see gender. Neither can make the connection between sexism and racism, how they are both being oppressed by the same system. Shing wants to protect the Chinese settlers from racial attacks, while Annie is trying to make a name for herself in a male-dominated industry and prove she is capable of reviving the newspaper without her abusive husband.


While New Gold Mountain centres the oppression of racial minorities in Australia, it also explores the sexist structure that underpins what Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls the ‘possessive logic of patriarchal white sovereignty’. These intersecting oppressions of race, class and gender are often inextricably constituted and must all be equally addressed together.

Cheung Lei (Mabel Li), the only Chinese female character, tries to subvert the sexist and racist trope of the Dragon Lady but still repeats some of its underlying problems. The Dragon Lady has historically been portrayed on screen as assertive and ruthless, inscrutable in her Oriental otherness. By contrast to the submissive Lotus Blossom or the passive China Doll, who only exist to serve white men and be the object of their desire, the Dragon Lady’s deception and determination are what make her dangerous. All of these figures are highly sexualised but the Dragon Lady weaponises her sexuality to get what she wants, using her ‘exotic’ charm and beauty to seduce and ruin the male protagonist. Lei is no femme fatale, but still acts as a foil for Shing’s plans and performs a kind of sadistic pleasure in threatening him with her dramatic rendering of ling chi (‘death by a thousand cuts’).

New Gold Mountain attempts give Lei the dignity of a backstory, allowing the audience to understand her motivations and sympathise with the gendered expectations that have shaped her coldness. Although Lei appears delicate and demure, she has learned to exploit her invisibility against those who underestimate her. Being ‘unnoticed, unseen, unwanted,’ she realises, is ‘a gift, a weapon’. Her femininity and its power come from performing restraint. Proud of the ways she has evolved to harden herself (‘My father understands now, I am everything a man could be and more’), she knows that to show her emotions would be to give up her power.

Yet Lei’s desire to resemble the figure that oppresses her is still not enough to save her from having to ‘fulfil her womanly duties.’ While opposing the oppressive structures that seek to dominate and control them, the oppressed can still inadvertently defer to their internal logics and reproduce their violent epistemologies. As demonstrated by the Clunes Riot, anti-capitalism doesn’t automatically translate into anti-racism, in the same way that anti-racism can still reproduce hierarchies of domination if it isn’t anti-colonial. Anti-racism can still be used in service of capitalism when the trend towards ‘diversity’ is normalised without interrogating the prevailing logics of colonialism and how they’re constituted to begin with. The same can be said of a girlboss feminism that mistakes power for emancipation and upholds patriarchy through internalised misogyny.

Before her father’s intervention sends her back to China, Lei shares a connection with Belle. Despite their different racial backgrounds, their lives are foreclosed and determined by the men and patriarchal institutions that constrain them. Only Belle is able to transcend this and escape her fate as a woman because of her class position and inherited wealth from her late husband. This gives her the most privilege and power of all the characters—owning the means of media production means she gets to control the narrative and public perception.

In recent years, the counter-hegemonic response to being historically marginalised in society is to increase media representation. This liberal solution holds that visibility and speaking truth to power is inherently good and worthwhile. The problem with this claim is that rather than divesting from and dismantling structures of power, it is more interested in sharing said power. However, representation as an end in and of itself does not dismantle the systems of inequality that create uneven representation to begin with.

Empowerment, when it aims to make you alike or in proximity with your oppressor, is not the same as emancipation. This is why bell hooks advocates for choosing the margin as a space of radical openness, preferring it to the centre, which is always directed towards the oppressor. The language of grievance and redress demands the oppressed speak the oppressor’s language and use the master’s tools, foreclosing and limiting alternative articulations and visions of solidarity with other oppressed peoples. As Adrienne Rich writes, ‘This is the oppressor’s language, yet I need it to talk to you.’ Language is a place of struggle—so is silence, and the right to opacity it affords.


What becomes of language that exceeds articulation—which, when spoken to directly, recoils back into itself and resists capture? What happens to the things existing between people that language cannot reach or bridge? Language conceals more than it reveals, and its existence is already an admission of its limitations.

In a short scene in the third episode, Chinese miners escaping the Buckland Riots come to seek shelter and refuge with the Ballarat camp. The language barrier and various dialects cause conflict and miscommunication between them and the local Chinese population (‘Listen to this idiot. How am I supposed to understand that?’). This linguistic friction depicts a kind of messy diversity that challenges the Western homogenisation of Chinese people as a monolith. This is similar to the way in which First Nations cultures have been and continue to be mythologised by the white gaze, erasing and whitewashing their language and culture. White Australia can only tolerate diversity when it gets to control the narratives of progress, inclusivity and white benevolence it sustains.

The underlying impulse of language as a colonial tool is to objectify something which cannot otherwise be made sense of. To feel a sense of control over something that we do not and cannot know but want to totalise and subsume into our own ways of knowing. Unsettling the knowability that the colonial state imposes upon its subjects unsettles the colonial impulse to classify, categorise and contain. Moving against visibility and representation, towards silence and invisibility as a form of opacity and resistance, counters the need to universalise experience for a Western ontology.

Tuck and Yang’s ethics of incommensurability rejects the need for transparency according to Western hierarchies of knowledge. The word ‘incommensurable’ has roots in Ancient Greek mathematics, where it means the lack of common measure between magnitudes. How do we oppose our colonial desire to make the Other comprehensible according to our ways of knowing? How do we build our capacity to respond to the Other without demanding resemblance as the basis of recognition?

Rather than seeking recognition from the settler state, the potential for anti-colonial and anti-racist alliances across different oppressed groups pose a greater threat to white Australia when prioritising self-determination and co-liberation. In this regard, the language of intersectionality, when co-opted into neoliberal modes of capitalising on specific marginalised identities to gain social currency, can be more hindrance than help.

Having the lived experience of being oppressed is not enough without a larger political project, as oppressed peoples can settle for commodifying their trauma and once again pandering to the white gaze. The emphasis on language is always on what can be managed and contained within a colonial framework of mastery and domination. Having to give name to something to be considered valid in a system of grievance and victimhood reduces the complexity of identity to identity politics. If identity is not constituted in isolation but instead consists of unstable assemblages that can’t be disaggregated into discrete formations, how can we come to understand the asymmetrical subject positions we occupy in relation to power and subjugation?

The identities we have inherited are historically constructed through violent intimacies that bind and implicate us all in transversal ways. The paradoxical struggle of attempting to address structural inequality based on identity is the risk of reifying the very category you are trying to destroy. Reclaiming identities using the terms and underlying logic of the oppressor can still limit us to the predetermined field of their discourse. This leads to politics of recognition that are limited and ultimately reformist, requiring commensurability and resemblance as the basis of recognition. Reconciling Indigenous sovereignty with settler state sovereignty is impossible, especially when only signified and registered through settler frameworks of recognition.

No identity exists as a monolith and each experience of a particular identity implicitly creates gaps in our worldview. Far from believing that the end goal should be to ‘cancel’ any specific individual or assuage our own personal complicity and ‘privilege’, how do we expand our political imagination and vocabulary to simultaneously hold all the contradictory ways in which we are responsible—to what and whom do we continue to be responsible to?

If we are trying to educate ourselves towards a world where no one is the oppressor, not merely reversing who gets to be who in the master-slave relation, then why is being a white man a privilege? We must get ourselves out of the oppressor’s imagination, as it will always purposefully fail to fully encompass and comprehend our changing multitudes. How do we see ourselves through a different kind of imagining, one that can connect us outside vertical relations of domination? The ways in which we are implicated can conversely act as sites of mobilisation from which we can make new solidarities. Rather than focusing on the carceral politics of condemnation, how do we practise an accountability that is historical and collective, rather than just limited to the ethics of the individual, which is always already constrained by larger systemic factors out of their control?


The show’s final episode ends with a long shot of Shing as he is about to embark on a narrow path through Dja Dja Wurrung Country. The winding trail is empty and the trees obscure the surrounding landscape, but the audience is still able to glimpse a mother kangaroo and her joey peering at Shing through the dry branches and distant chirping of birds. The absence of Indigenous life manifests in ghostly landscapes and uncanny fauna but the violence that precipitates this spectre of colonisation is never directly addressed. Tom/Durrumang’s dying words to Hattie (‘Leave. Find your mob. There’s nothing here’) linger on in the vast and seemingly barren terrain.

According to its creators, New Gold Mountain is an attempt to ‘reclaim the image of the China man in the Australian landscape’—but it comes at the cost of Indigenous sovereignty. Surely there has to be a way to acknowledge the oppression of Chinese settlers without erasing the simultaneous and constituent, although distinct, oppression of First Nations peoples. Vying for visibility and representation invokes this zero-sum game of scarcity, where different histories must compete to have a place in public discourse, as if acknowledging one history required denying another.

The question is how histories of marginalisation and oppression can co-exist in multi-directional ways that allow for a fuller and more expansive re-imagining of our collective past.

Depending on where you stand, you see and are seen differently. The ways in which we are entangled reveal larger structures that are difficult to recognise when only focusing on a singular perspective. Collective memories are a collaborative process of meaning-making. There is no singular version of history that is capable of accounting for and synthesising all perspectives. History, culture and identity are not constructed separately, always malleable and under continual contestation.

New Gold Mountain endorses a kind of anti-racism that doesn’t centre decolonial praxis and as a result reverts to promoting settler futurities. It fails to explore the potential for anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-sexist alliances across different oppressed groups and is unable to construct new narratives that hold the incommensurability of these different oppressions—neither separating nor equating their interconnected struggles.

Christy Tan

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *