Private Collection

Chinese Gardener's Yoke

The Story

Title(s) of Object:

Chinese gardener’s yoke.

Brief Description of Object:

Carved timber yoke.

Location of Object:

This yoke is in private ownership and is held in an unspecified location in the Bega Valley Shire.

Accessibility of Object:

The yoke is in private ownership and is generally not publicly accessible. However, it may be loaned to local museums for specific exhibition projects and will be available for public viewing during those times only.

History and Provenance of Object:

Wooden yoke, formerly used by Chinese market gardeners at Pambula to carry water and produce during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Like so many other areas in Australia, the Chinese began moving through the local district during the goldrush era. Once The Gulph, Kiandra and other fields went into decline, miners began returning to the coastal zone, with some of the Chinese opting to settle in various towns across what is now known as the Bega Valley Shire. Described as industrious and hardworking, they turned their hand to a range of enterprises including market gardening, establishing themselves at various places including Pambula and Bega as well as Cobargo, Candelo, Bermagui and Merimbula.

Around Pambula, they had a number of gardens including one opposite the swamp land in Monaro Street; and another on the river flats at the corner of Sandy Lane and what is now the Princes Highway. Among the many Chinamen known to have worked these allotments over the years were Willy, Wey Lee, Ah Kee, Ah Tin Gut, Charley Ah Lum, Ching Pong (or Grandfather), Jimmy Ah Kin, Joe Ah Yup and Lamie (also recorded as Lammy and Lammie). Like other parts of the Colony, there appears to have been no females amongst their number, many of the men having left wives and children behind in China.

The Pambula Flat, although rich and fertile, was a flood plain, so not surprisingly the almost annual inundations impacted on the Chinamen’s gardens. During the particularly severe 1919 floods, Joe Ah Yup’s plot was almost completely destroyed by the rising waters, only a few tomato and pumpkin vines surviving for him to harvest daily to make a few shillings. As with those elsewhere, Pambula’s Chinese gardeners lived in small timber huts on their allotments, the result being that whenever waters rose to serious levels, the men on the flats were forced to seek refuge at the local court house.

Those who worked the land in Monaro Street occupied a weatherboard cottage recalled by former local resident Terry Dowling as “…a respectable little joint, right in the middle of their garden, then they had a few other sheds, I suppose tool sheds that they’d put their carts in and things like that.”

Chinese gardeners across the district grew an assortment of fruits and vegetables including potatoes, carrots, parsnips and melons, the yield being peddled from house to house using small hand carts or baskets suspended from wooden yokes. Peanuts were also a regular crop in the market gardens of the Far South Coast, although these were mainly for the consumption of the Chinese population rather than the wider public.

During the 1890s, Joe Ah Yup arrived in Pambula, quickly becoming a popular part of the local community. The respect with which the townsfolk came to regard him was evident in 1927 after he made plans to return to China, local media reporting that “After 30 years a citizen of Pambula, Joe Ah Yup leaves for China on Saturday. During his residence here, he has proved himself to be most law abiding, honest and straightforward. His purse was always open to every charitable and sports object and he never had to be asked for his annual subscription to the hospital. Joe will be greatly missed by the children when he fails to do his rounds on Saturday afternoons with his fruit baskets. A collection was initiated prior to his departure, when he was presented with a set of pipes by the townspeople as a small token of esteem and appreciation of his past citizenship.”

After Joe’s departure, Lamie moved to Pambula. He had previously worked on the Ayredale property before moving to Bega in 1920; and later Candelo. Former Bega resident Kevin Tetley recalled him as “…the Candelo Chinaman, who on one occasion, risked his life by swimming through the flooded creek at Candelo to save a human life. Nothing Lamie loved more than drinking long beers and cracking jokes with the ‘white fella’ in old Granny Ellis’s Church Street bar.”

Taking up residence in a cottage at the rear of Baddeley’s tannery, he worked the gardens on the opposite side of Monaro Street. Terry Dowling remembered that he had a large egg-shaped growth on his neck and was already an old man by the time he arrived in the township. Believed to have been the last of Pambula’s market gardening Chinamen, it was reported in 1934 that Lamie, the “…well-known Chinese identity…” had been taken to the Lidcombe State Hospital and Home for Men in Sydney where he passed away in 1941. He was 85 years of age.

Further to the north, groups of Chinese also settled in Bega - by 1884, those living in the immediate township numbered 22, more than doubling to 48 just two years later. At the same time, 98 were recorded as living in the Bega Valley.

They established their market gardens on the “Race Course Farm” in East and Carp Streets; on the “Fairview” properties which took in Fairview, Ravenswood, Meringo, High and Nelson Streets; and in Bega and Parker Streets; either renting or purchasing the necessary cultivation land. And like other local residents, their living conditions varied greatly - some moving into cottages around town while others shared huts in the gardens, which was itself described as "...quite a Chinatown...".

During the latter part of the 19th century, these men were reportedly dominating the local vegetable market scene; and by the early 1900s, market gardening in the valley was done almost exclusively by the Chinese who supplied virtually the entire population, delivering door to door on a nearly daily basis. Among those known to have worked the Bega gardens at various times were Ah Tin, Chin Chew, Gin War, Sum Mong Chung, Ah Yee, Ping Sung, Quon Hon (alias Ah Poo), Goon Ding, Ah Tong, Hing Chong, Ah Moo, Ah Yee, Chan Ghin, Wy Lee, He Ti, Lok Pon, Tin Chee, Ah Why, James Ah Hong, Ah You, Ah Say, Ah Ping, Ah Soo, Lun Ting (also known as Georgie), Ah Sing (or Bungeye) and Ah Yah.

Although cultural differences were predictable, the Chinese residents were, for the most part, valued members of the community. A former resident of Pambula described them as "...bloody good people..." while the inhabitants of Bega regarded them as “generous” and “good natured”.

Nonetheless, articles in local newspapers serve as a reminder that 19th century racial conflict was not unheard of. One long-time resident of Pambula recalled some of the town's youth raiding the Chinese gardens, stealing vegetables and throwing stones at their homes; behaviour that was repeated in Bega. In 1891 “…a cowardly assault…” was also reported on: “…several Chinamen were conversing and playing fan tan in the house of Gin War, a Chinese gardener… [when] a stone weighing about 3 lb was thrown through the window, striking Ah Tong a terrible blow on the head. This was immediately followed by a half brick; and the Chinamen rushing out, observed three men on horseback, galloping away at full speed. Ah Tong was knocked insensible, and was attended by a Chinese doctor who was there at the time. Dr. Evershed was called in subsequently, and found it necessary to stitch the wound. The injured man is in a very low condition, but it is thought he will recover. Senior-sergeant Church was at once informed of the affair, but so far has received no clue as to the perpetrators.”

A number of the Chinamen who settled in the district married local women and adopted European culture and habits including taking English language and math lessons from private tutors and converting to Christianity.

Others preferred to maintain their own customs and practices, donning pigtails and observing Confucian rituals. These included the traditional ceremony of feasting their departed dead known variously as the Ghost Festival, Hungry Ghost Festival or Yu Lan, taking roast meats, rice and gin to the graveside, before returning to the gardens to partake in their own banquet. They also marked the burial of their countrymen with rice, colourful candles and fire crackers; and maintained their own language. In 1887, Bega court day was reportedly lengthy “…owing to much of the evidence having to pass through the interpreter, and the celestials were mostly sworn in in the orthodox fashion by blowing out a lighted match."

Chinese residents were also responsible for introducing "fan-tan" to the district. A gambling game similar to roulette, the former Wesleyan Parsonage near the Fairview gardens was, ironically, a popular venue for the amusement. In 1892, local police raided what was referred to as a "...gambling den..." arresting 27 Chinese and European participants, all of whom received fines of between 10 s and £5, while the "...keeper of the den..." was forced to pay out £50 for his crime.

“Celestial” funerals also attracted a deal of public attention, as an 1878 report illustrates: “As soon as the procession of about 30 Chinese came in view, a sensation was created amongst the waiting crowd, on account of one Chinaman being seen to walk on one side, carrying the matting of a large tea-chest converted into a bag. The conclusion immediately arrived at, was, that a bag of rice was to accompany John on his long journey. The procession drew up in common fashion to the grave, the body being borne in a cart. The coffin, an ordinary one, was no sooner taken out of the cart, than it was lowered down the hole and the filling in of the grave commenced without further parley. When about half-filled in a three-quart billy, containing a small quantity of rice and pork, was taken out of the bagging before mentioned and deposited amongst the gravel, and the filling of the hole was continued to the finish…Half-a-dozen Chinese coloured paper candles, and several thin reeds or canes were then lighted and stuck in the soil at the foot of the grave. A lane was formed by the Chinamen, and one of their number passed through. With his arms extended like a hoop, he made an easy waving gesture two or three times. The 30 Chinamen then decamped in a body. Before being placed in the coffin, the body was attired in a new suit of Chinese clothing, hat and boots included. Small change was then distributed amongst those present when the coffin was closed.”

As the 19th century turned over to the 20th, the district’s Chinese population began to wane and in 1918, a report noted that “There is an exodus of Chinese from around Bega to the Flowery Land, and they had a big dinner last Sunday to celebrate the winding up here…” Then, in 1929 “...after a long lapse…”, it was announced that “Bega is to have a Chinese gardener...Years ago there was quite a colony of Chinese gardeners here, but the advent of Mr. Reeve and his sons with up to date methods drove them away... Now, we understand, a Chinese from Nowra has taken part of the racecourse farm for a market garden.”

Among the customs, traditions and practices brought to the area by these Chinese arrivals was the use of wooden yokes. Effective in distributing the weight of a load across the shoulders, they used them to carry full watering cans to their gardens and baskets of produce around the townships; as well as shifting loads in other circumstances such as dirt and tailings on the gold fields. Today, however, few tangible examples of these and other remnants of these early local pioneers have survived through to the present.


Chinese arrivals to Colonial Australia commenced in the 1840s as part of organised schemes to fill the demand for much needed farm labour. The “Celestials” (as they were then known) were brought in to work as shepherds and farm hands and once here, undertook much of the hard, physical agricultural labour that had previously been done by convicts. The first of this group landed in 1848 and by 1853, around 3,000 contracted workers had arrived. Originating predominantly from the impoverished areas of Southern China, especially the Canton (now Guangzhou) region where economic, political, population and environmental problems were rife, the lure of paid employment on offer in the Australian colonies proved appealing.

Although most intended to return home after their five year contracts were up, the discovery of gold in the 1850s and ‘60s in Victoria and New South Wales created increasingly attractive financial reasons to stay on. The finds also brought new arrivals, many going into debt to secure their passage under a “credit ticket” system and usually landing in groups of anywhere from 30 to 100 men. By 1861, New South Wales had a Chinese population of about 13,000, more than 12,000 of whom were working on the goldfields.

Formed into well-organised and well-equipped parties, they headed for new finds at places such as Braidwood, Hill End, Kiandra and The Gulph, working diligently in groups under the direction of a “head-man” or boss who arranged the purchase of claims and supply of provisions and tools. Working methodically and using methods of damming, sluicing and drainage different to their European counterparts, these teams often produced better results, a factor which undoubtedly contributed to anti-Chinese sentiment.

As gold returns began to wane during the 1870s, the Chinese immigrants, almost all of whom were men, sought other occupations, with many moving into, among other pursuits, market gardening. Using techniques and practices brought with them from China, they often established their plots near lakes or on swampland, areas that tended to be ignored by others. Many were also familiar with small scale, intensive and communal agricultural practices, growing produce in densely cultivated gardens and sharing the various tilling, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting and packing tasks. And because of their cooperative labour practices, new arrivals were always available to replace those visiting their homeland or returning to China permanently.

By the latter part of the 19th century, Chinese immigrants were having a significant impact on the development of the market gardening industry throughout Australia. During the 1880s, populations extending from metropolitan Sydney through to smaller rural and regional areas were reliant on Chinese market gardeners for their regular supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables and by the 1900s, thirty percent of all Chinese in New South Wales and Victoria were engaged in market gardening, peddling their produce from door to door around settlements large and small in baskets hung from a shoulder yoke or small wooden hand cart.

Irrespective of their marital status, many Chinese men, particularly those from the poorer areas, spent much of their adult lives away from their families, sending money back to China and visiting every five years or so. Eventually though, with everything going according to plan, after many years of hard work they could return to their homeland, hopefully with sufficient finances to allow for a comfortable retirement.

Despite the large numbers of Chinamen who had arrived, very few women also made the journey. In 1861, for example, the Chinese population on Victoria’s Bendigo goldfields included 5,367 men and just one woman. By 1881, New South Wales had 10,141 Chinese males compared to 64 females; and in 1891, 13,048 and 109 respectively. The reason behind this disparity lay in cultural values - women were expected to remain in their ancestral villages both to preserve family property rights and to care for elderly relatives.

With the exception of arrivals originating from Great Britain, the Chinese are now considered the oldest continuous migrant group moving to Australia - and this despite the various government enacted anti-Chinese legislation that remained in place for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Fabric, design, manufacture and condition:

A handmade wooden yoke used to carry buckets of water and baskets of produce. It consists of a piece of timber rounded on the upper surface and hollowed out underneath to fit comfortably over the shoulders. There is a semi-circle cut into the centre of one edge to fit around the neck. The yoke tapers to a rounded point at each end.


Unknown but probably local.

Used by:

Unidentified Chinese market gardeners at Pambula, probably during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Production / manufacturing date:


Comparative examples:

Collection: Description:

Australian National Maritime Museum Yokes used by 19th century labourers of Victorian goldfields

Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Chinese water carrying yoke

City of Moorabin Historical Society Chinese market gardener’s wooden yoke with two watering cans

Cheese World Museum Hand carved wooden bucket yoke

Tweed Regional Museum Wooden yoke

Buderim Historical Society Wooden yoke

Buderim Historical Society 2 x wooden yokes

Buderim Historical Society Wooden yoke

Ballarat Gold Museum Chinese yoke

Redland’s Museum Chinaman’s yoke

Redland’s Museum Handmade China man’s yoke

Works depicting/highlighting this object:

Historic photographs of this object:

Historic photographs associated with this object:

The particular significance of this Object:

This timber Chinese shoulder yoke is a highly significant and evocative illustration of a vital but often forgotten aspect of local, regional and national immigrant heritage.

Important as a tangible link with the Chinese market garden industry which was once so widespread throughout the district, the yoke provides valuable insight into the lifestyle of this group locally and beyond during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is also indicative of the hard manual labour performed by Chinese market gardeners, contributing to our understanding of the work practices of this group locally and beyond.

A characteristic and immediately identifiable item, it is a rare tangible reminder of the cultural traditions and practices brought to the region by the Chinese and represents an essential aspect of their migration story in Australia. It is indicative of the 19th century journeys and settlement patterns of the Chinese immigrating to Australia and the Bega Valley region and provides a valuable extant link with their crucial market gardening activities in the district.

Representative of 19th and 20th century Chinese presence in Australia, the yoke contributes to our understanding of the history of migration and cultural diversity in Australia generally and in the Bega Valley Shire in particular. It provides valuable insight into and evidence of the traditions, customs and practices brought with the new arrivals and maintained by them after arrival.

As one of only two locally associated timber Chinese yokes known to still exist in the area, it is a rare surviving example of a once common type; and an excellent representative example of the equipment introduced into Australia by Chinese immigrants and used by them for various activities. A reliably provenanced item, it is an outstanding physical reminder of Chinese market gardeners and a unique tangible link with their presence locally.

A valuable tool with which to explore the story of the Chinese market garden population in rural and regional areas, the yoke offers opportunities to promote greater understanding and appreciation of their contribution to local and Australian history. A powerful interpretive tool, it has much to offer in communicating the experience of the Chinese in rural and regional New South Wales; and contributes to a range of themes and storylines including migration, migrant groups and migration journeys; minority cultural groups in rural and regional Australia; rural and regional industries; food production and distribution; labour, work and employment; land use patterns; developing settlements, villages and towns; settling, developing and building the region; and the local economy and economic influences.


Main theme:






Coming to live in the Bega Valley Shire

Other themes:







Ethnic influences



Environment – cultural landscapes


Land tenure



Settler heritage in Bega Valley Shire

Working the land in Bega Valley Shire

Economic survival in Bega Valley Shire

Cultural landscapes within Bega Valley Shire

Exploiting the mineral resources of Bega Valley Shire

Constructing boundaries within Bega Valley Shire

Working in Bega Valley Shire

Thematic storylines:

Settling, developing and building the region

Developing the settlements, villages and towns

Land use patterns

Rural and regional industries

Rural and regional industries – Agricultural and pastoral

Migration, migrant groups and migration journeys

Migration, migrant groups and migration journeys - Chinese

The economy and economic influences

Labour, working and employment

Geographically associated places / sites:

Associated / linked places / sites / items / people:

Former market gardens site, Monaro Street, Pambula.

Former Baddeley’s tannery site, Pambula

Former gardens site, corner Sandy Lane and Prince Highway, Pambula

Former garden site, East and Carp Streets, Bega

Former Fairview garden site, Bega

Former garden site, Bega and Parker Streets, Bega

Chinese soapstone carving and base, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Chinese soapstone carving and base, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Chinese pottery soy sauce bottle, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Chinese bowl and spoon remnants, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Chinese pottery ginger jar and lid, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Chinese pottery ginger jar, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Chinese pottery tiger whisky bottle, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Chinese pottery bean jar, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Chinese opium vials, courtesy of a private collection.

Image courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

Photograph of Chinese Dr. Ah. Yek, private collection.

Heritage listings (statutory and non-statutory):

Further information:

Lee Chittock with Kevin Tetley, Kevin Tetley on Bega’s Chinese History,

Encyclopedia of South East History - Chinese Gardener’s Timber Yoke

Encyclopedia of South East History - Chinese ginger jars

Encyclopedia of South East History - Chinese bean jar

Encyclopedia of South East History - Chinese soapstone carvings

Encyclopedia of South East History -Chinese tiger whiskey bottle

Encyclopedia of South East History - Chinese soy sauce bottle

Encyclopedia of South East History - Chinese opium vials

Encyclopedia of South East History - Chinese communities

Contributors to this ‘library’:

Angela George and Pat Raymond, February 2019.

Acknowledgements, Rights and Permissions:

Acknowledgement of Angela George and Pat Raymond.

© Angela George and Pat Raymond. All rights reserved.

References and bibliography:

Australian Bureau of Statistics, The Chinese in Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, 2012

Australian Town and Country Journal

Baddeley, Ben & Alma, pers. comm.

Baddeley Family Papers, private ownership

Bassett, Jan (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Australian History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2nd ed., 1994

Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal

Bayley, William. A., The Story of the Settlement and Development Bega, Bega Intermediate High School, 1942

Bega Courthouse Burial Index, 18871 - 1918, Bega Valley Genealogy Society Inc., 1996.

Bega District News

Bega Gazette

Bega Standard

Bench of Magistrates Books, Eden / Bega, 7 April 1847 - 5 April 1870

Bennett, Vida, pers. comm.

Chinese Australians, Wikipedia, 2018,

Chinese Museum,

Chinese on the Goldfields, Sydney’s Living Museums, n.d.

Chittock, Lee and Tetley, Kevin, Kevin Tetley on Bega’s Chinese History, Youtube video, 2010,

Cobargo Chronicle

Dowling, Terry, pers. Comm.

Eden Courthouse Burial Index, 1856 - 1918, Bega Valley Genealogy Society Inc., 1997.

Fan-Tan, Wikipedia, 2019,

George, A. C. (“Bubby”) (comp.) History of Pambula – Old Records, Early Days unpublished notebook

George, Allan, pers. comm.

Ghost Festival, Wikipedia, 2019,

Gilbert, Lionel A., The Last Word: Two Centuries of Australian Epitaphs, Kardoorair Press, Armidale, 2005

Pambula Voice

Queanbeyan Age

Russell, Robert Murray, 1846 – 1958, A History of Tanja: Compiled to Commemorate the Centenary of Tanja Public School, Tanja Public School, Tanja, 1978

Southern Star

Whelan, Betty, pers. comm.

Williams, Michael, Chinese Settlement in NSW – A Thematic History,

New South Wales Heritage Office, Parramatta, 1999

Images courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.