Ideas for a brighter future for all

Sustainability Lessons from Colonial Queensland

On a remote Queensland property, locations of Chinese market gardens are still discernible after a hundred years, evidenced by rich loamy soils, quality grasses and bigger trees. In Brisbane, however, freeways, bus and bikeways reveal nothing of the rich, organic Chinese market gardens that previously lined Ekibin (and many other) creeks of Brisbane.

Making with’ ( or sympoiesis) describes the concept around the complex of interrelationships that help life evolve to sustain life. It poses questions around who and what we work with to create the conditions for sustaining our lives, disrupting cultural and human centred views, emphasising the web of inter and/or intra actions affected.

This article focuses on the Chinese market gardeners of early Queensland who were cultivating fruit and vegetables on small parcels of land, often beside creeks, from at least the 1860s. Our research examines their traditional, sustainable and organic agricultural practices, and the complex interrelationships and micro-economies that flourished between Chinese market gardeners, European settlers, First Nations peoples and their local environments .

The market gardens in two Queensland locations are considered: Croydon, a hard-rock gold mining town in the Gulf Country; and the former Shire of Stephens, centred in Annerley, Brisbane. Croydon is on Tagalaka country, parts of which are under native title, while Stephens falls in the country of the First Nations people of the Yuggara language group.

A Chinese gardener. Photo by J. Helms in "The Queenslander", 12 January, 1918
Superior, sustainable methods

A 1911 study of the organic cultivation methods of China, Korea and Japan found them highly productive compared with American agricultural practices using artificial fertilizers. Driven by large populations and small land availability, these Asian countries evolved organic practices over many centuries, maintaining soil fertility though planting cycles and application of organic matter: wastes of body, fuel and fabric. These local practices became part of their traditions and heritage, ensuring long-term sustainable food production.

Chinese indentured workers (‘coolies’) and migrants quickly became known for their agricultural skills in Queensland. In 1860 the Darling Downs Gazette opined ‘we have much to learn from the Chinese’ regarding the ‘careful modes of manuring, irrigating, and cultivating … practised for ages by its extraordinary people’. The newspaper also noted the ‘scrupulous care’ taken in ‘the growth, training, and grafting of fruit trees’, ‘the production of vegetables’ and the breeding of domestic animals.

The need to adapt long-standing agricultural practices imported from the British Isles to Queensland’s vastly different climate was also recognised. An 1862 article complained that the ‘miserable attempts to grow vegetable products … are unworthy of our soil and climate’, suggesting that growers ‘adopt the example of that much-abused race the Chinese, and irrigate their land with liquid manure, husbanded up in receptacles provided for that purpose’.

Ekibin Creek in 2022
Ekibin Creek in 2022. Photo by Janis Hanley.
Annerley, the Stephens Shire

The Stephens Shire on Brisbane’s southside was named after a prominent Brisbane figure, T.B. Stephens, who owned significant property, which included a parcel of land along Ekibin Creek, leased to Chinese gardeners. Llewellyn Stephens, a descendent, tells of T.B. Stephens naming ‘Ekibin’ after the Aboriginal word ‘Yee Ke Bin’, referring to local edible water plants.

Clues regarding Chinese methods of production used in Queensland appeared in an 1888 Brisbane Courier article reporting on an investigation into ‘vile smells’ emanating from Sandy Creek in the Stephens district. This area housed two slaughter-houses, a fellmongering establishment and a tannery (established by T.B. Stephens), a manure depot and several Chinese gardens. A 1936 aerial image (below) shows the market gardens still under cultivation along Ekibin Creek. The sandy area is the Mount Stephens quarry, once the vicinity of the Ekibin Aboriginal camp.

The section of the creek where the stench was most putrid was the ‘blood hole’ of the Graziers’ Butchering Company slaughter yard. All the refuse — including ‘digested offal and bones from the boiling down’ — was directed to the creek via an open drain. On the opposite side of the creek was a tree on which was fixed ‘a Chinese apparatus for dipping up the semi-liquid matter with a bucket, from which it was emptied into a wooden race leading into the Chinaman’s garden’. It appears that market gardeners had been using a slurry of blood, bone and offal to both fertilise and irrigate their vegetable gardens.

Aerial view of Greenslopes 1936
Aerial view of Greenslopes, 1936

European slaughter yards, tanneries, fellmongers and boiling-down works located on the banks of creeks and rivers impinged on cultural uses of the land by First Nations people and had a negative impact on their fishing and food gathering practices; as did diverting water to irrigate Chinese market gardens and orchards. The Ekibin Aboriginal site at the base of Mount Stephens was downstream of these polluting and water-intensive industries, where the creek environs had traditionally provided edible bullrushes and other aquatic plants for food, basketry, ropes and nets.

Despite potential conflicts in land use, First Nations peoples and the Chinese were both excluded from ‘white’ society and subjected to unconscionable racism, pushing them to the margins. In some cases, marriages and relationships occurred between Chinese men and First Nations women at the margins.

While the sub-tropical climate of Brisbane is similar to the Guangdong Region of Southern China, from where most Chinese immigrants came in the 1870s and later, Croydon’s climate in the Gulf Savannah of Far North Queensland is extreme.

Chinese fruit and vegetable merchant, possibly known as 'Vegetable John' (Description supplied with photograph). He poses outside the steps of a house, with two baskets on a pole for delivering the produce.
Croydon, Queensland

Croydon is a six-and-a-half-hour drive west of Cairns. Summer temperatures reach 46 degrees Celsius, coinciding with “the wet”. The rest of the year is dry.

Croydon was declared a goldfield in 1886. The population grew instantly, comprising mainly Europeans but also several hundred Chinese people. Queensland’s Goldfield Amendments Act 1878, restricting Chinese mining licences, was already in place. The following year, the Chinese Immigrants Regulation Act 1877 (Qld) placed quotas and tariffs on Chinese people entering the state. In reaction, most Chinese shifted their attention to market gardening, with smaller numbers involved in retail and other services.

On 16 December 1898 a Croydon Mining News article described Chen Tie’s garden at Cork Creek, Croydon as ‘a very good example’ of ‘proper management’. Half of the forty acres was planted with fruit trees: mangoes, oranges, mandarins, lemons, shaddocks, citrons, custard apples, guavas, Chinese star-apple and longans. In some instances, ‘the trees are almost hidden under loads of fruit’. Ten acres were under pineapples and vegetables. Three men were sufficient to work the garden, with two horses and few implements. There was a well, but no pumping plant. The article surmised that it was worth seeing what irrigation ‘on a small scale can do … a lesson to Australians …’.

Six years later the Croydon Mining News of 27 August 1904 claimed that ‘the Asiatic cultivator is as firmly wedded to the irrigation habit as the European is to non-irrigation’, stating that Europeans cultivate a large area and wait for rain, while Chinese gardeners limit cultivation by the water available. Furthermore, the Chinese go for ‘close and intense’ cultivation, succeeding ‘under conditions which appear to Europeans insurmountable’.

" ...the Asiatic cultivator is as firmly wedded to the irrigation habit as the European is to non-irrigation’, stating that Europeans cultivate a large area and wait for rain, while Chinese gardeners limit cultivation by the water available."
Croydon QLD from Google Earth, 2023
A productive era quietly ends

Chinese immigration was essentially halted in 1901 with the enactment of what has become known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. Entry of non-European races was almost totally restricted through dictation tests, which could be given any number of times, in any language. The non-white labour force declined from that point, not being refreshed by new immigrants. Further legislative impositions followed: the Leases to Aliens Act 1912 (Qld) particularly impacted Chinese Market Gardeners, and the War Precautions (Aliens Registration) Regulations 1916, caught them up by monitoring locations and movements of ‘aliens’.

The Chinese market gardening industry ended quietly, as gardeners returned to China or chose to see out their final days in Australia. With their departures and deaths, Chinese skills, organic methods and adaptations of traditional practices to the local Queensland environments had all but disappeared by the 1940s.

Chinese Water Lift
Chinese Water Lift. Irrigation method on a farm at Eel Creek built by Wung Choo for irrigating his cabbages. From the 'Gympie Times', 25 December 1902.

This research is in its early stages. There is a long and significant documentary trail to follow, with places and people slowly emerging from the archive to again populate the creek banks and remote towns of Queensland’s early colonial period. Maps and aerial photographs will help locate these places along with local memories and walking the land.

Sustainability practices are one element of the stories of these market gardeners. ‘Making with’ draws together an assemblage of relationships, practices, place, interconnections, legislation, geographies, First Nations People, and settler expectations – all ripe for further exploration.

A myriad of creeks at the settlement’s margins sustained these early Chinese gardeners, and they, in turn, helped sustain the diverse communities they inhabited.


Dr Janis HanleyDr Janis Hanley is a resident adjunct with Griffith University’s Centre for Cultural and Social Research. A fellowship from the centre is assisting with the Croydon market garden research. Janis’s field is critical heritage, informed by new materialisms. Her work explores what heritage does, and its dynamic shaping of place.

Jan RichardsonJan Richardson is a PhD candidate at Griffith University’s Harry Gentle Resource Centre researching the presence of non-Indigenous ethnic minorities — including Chinese, Indians and Mauritians — in Queensland prior to 1860. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre in 2020-2021, undertaking a project on convict women in early colonial Queensland.


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