Australia’s Asian songline

Australia’s Asian songline

Asian music culture was significant in colonial and early Federation Australia

From the 1840s and up until the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901 large numbers of indentured labourers, sojourners and immigrants came to Australia from various parts of Asia. They were the engines of the early Australian economy and the colonial nation-building project in pearling, mining, pastoralism, construction and transport, all of which depended crucially on Asian labour.

These workers brought diverse musical traditions to Australia. Nineteenth and early twentieth century written accounts speak of Chinese opera performed on the Victorian goldfields, flourishing Filipino string bands or rondalla in Darwin, annual Japanese Shinju festivals in Broome, Malay songs sung by the seamen of Thursday Island, Darwin and the west coast, Japanese acrobat companies touring to Melbourne and outback Queensland, Afghan singing and dancing celebration at the end of Ramadan in outback South Australia, Perth and Coolgardie, Sikh temple festivals in northern New South Wales, a Sinhalese opera club on Thursday Island, and a creole-style of song developed on the boat decks by Chinese, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Malay and Japanese divers and sailors in north Queensland, the Torres Strait and Broome.

Contemporary Indigenous rock bands, including Yothu Yindhi, the Wirringa Band and the Sunrize Band, sing of the annual visits by Macassans to the north coast of Australia, an important Asian–Indigenous contact that predates white settlement.


The story of Asian music-making in the first 150 years of white settlement in Australia is elusive and fragmentary, but it is worth pursuing for a number of reasons. Firstly, the evidence of musical activity that is slowly emerging indicates that the performance of some types of music from the homeland was meaningful and an important affirmation of identity for the Asian workers. For example, music and dance at celebrations marking the end of Ramadan for Muslims (generically referred to in the literature as ‘Afghans’) and processional music and dance heralding the Chinese New Year were reported quite frequently by nineteenth century observers.

Secondly, studies of Australian music have tended to be quarantined within discrete disciplines—musicology for the study of music of the white settlers, indigenous studies or ethnomusicology for Australian aboriginal music. This third Asian ‘songline’ in Australia’s musical history has largely been ignored not only by musical scholarship but also in other disciplines, where Australia’s domestic artistic engagement with Asia focuses on more recent developments in film, theatre, literature and the visual arts.

The interactions, musical and otherwise, between indigenous, white and Asian populations were a reality of life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and musical scholarship needs to reflect the permeability between the lives of the three groups, rather than treating them as isolated entities. A 1914 description in the Sydney Morning Herald,
10 January 1914, of New Year at Roebuck Bay vividly describes a soundscape of Asian, indigenous and white music-making:

What a picture that conjures up—a kaleidoscopic picture of white-clad pearlers, unclad aborigines, half-clad Malays and Filipinos, and gorgeously clad Japanese. For the pearling port is the most cosmopolitan spot in Australasia. And New Year’s Eve! Surely it was the maddest, merriest time the port had ever known … There was a blaze of bobbing lights, coloured lanterns on long bamboo poles; there was Malay music, with the cymbals dominant; Manillamen’s music, with a suggestion of old Spain; Chinese music from the joss-house, with the pipes screeching merrily, and Scots music, with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ over and over again.

Figure 1 (below) shows just how interwoven were the lives of the three populations. Captioned ‘Music at Afghan Town’, this photograph was taken by Alice Mary Hiddle at Hergott Springs (renamed Marree in 1917), South Australia, in 1909. The white woman operating the phonograph is Margaret Jane Hiddle, wife of storekeeper Arthur Barwise Hiddle and probably also the governess of the ‘Afghan’ boys who are gathered around the machine. An indigenous nanny looks on while camels occupy the background.

Fig 1
Fig. 1: Music at Afghan Town, 1909. [The State Library of South Australia, Item B58260/3]
What sounds were this audience of white governess, indigenous nanny and ‘Afghan’ boys listening to on the phonograph? It could theoretically have been music from India or Persia, for the Gramophone Company had already made over 5,000 recordings of Indian and Persian music during collecting expeditions in Calcutta and Tehran between 1902 and 1908. But it is more likely that they are listening to one of the recordings that HMV was already marketing aggressively in Europe, the United States and Australia—for example, American military band music, popular dance music, or possibly an operatic excerpt sung by Caruso, Melba or Chaliapin.

Most of the primary sources for the nineteenth and early twentieth century music-making activities of Asian workers are found in meagre accounts in newspapers, journals, diaries and travelogues that rarely provide information of any ethnographic depth. There could be a number of reasons for the relative scarcity of references. Perhaps there was simply just not a lot to report. Music is ephemeral—and we are dealing with oral traditions, at a time before the introduction or widespread use of sound recording technology.

In addition, prevailing nineteenth century thought regarded western classical music as the apex of human musical achievement. The music of non-white races was lower on the evolutionary scale, and not worthy of intellectual attention other than for comparative purposes. We have to rely on the observations of predominantly white male colonists whose descriptions reflected the current attitudes towards musical otherness. For example, the Mount Alexander Mail reported on the ‘hideous discords and caterwaulings of the Oriental’ [opera] on 5 January 1859 as follows:

In the marquee the instruments were of the rudest kind, and the enthusiasm of the performers only made the effect more ear-splitting. The performances really consisted of inexplicable dumb show and noise, to Europeans at least … .

In the case below, a report entitled ‘The Orientals’ in the Newcastle Morning Herald and MinersAdvocate on 14 May 1892 serves as a prompt for the writer to express his (or her) distaste for miscegenation and Asian or Pacific immigration to Australia in general:

The Adelaide Afghans and other Moslems have finished their Ramazan [sic] fast, and have been feasting and enjoying themselves for ten days to make up for it … Afghan music and dances have been proceeding every night lately. A good many of the mountaineers have married white girls … I need scarcely say it is a somewhat low class of female who mates with the Orientals. One was giving evidence in the Police Court the other morning with a baby in her arms, and it came out that she had married an Afghan, but was now living with a Chinaman. Whether the infant was half Afghan or half Chinkie did not transpire. What the Northern Territory will be like when Mr. Playford has filled it with Tamils, and Sir Samuel Griffith with Kanakas (not mentioning the 4000 Chinese on the spot, I don’t know, but I fancy there won’t be much perceptible difference between it and perdition.

Indeed, no sooner had Asian migration to Australia begun than strenuous legislative efforts were enacted to stop it. The window for an Asian presence in Australia was very narrow. The first anti-Chinese restriction legislation was introduced in Victoria in 1855, almost as soon as the first Chinese arrived on the Victorian goldfields; this legislation was replicated in the other states during the 1860s.

Both the Bulletin and the Boomerang were vigorously opposed to Chinese immigration. The Boomerang introduced the expression White Australia in 1888

In 1878 there was a mass anti-Chinese rally in Hyde Park, Sydney; in 1879 the trades unions opposed Chinese immigration; both the Bulletin and the Boomerang were vigorously opposed to Chinese immigration. The Boomerang introduced the expression ‘White Australia’ in 1888. Similarly, the Hawkers Act of 1882 was aimed at Muslim traders, and the Anti-Afghan League was formed in 1896. Racial vilification, fuelled by fear of economic competition, monopolisation of various employment opportunities, and miscegenation, was institutionalised in legislation that disempowered both Asian and indigenous populations. It culminated in the White Australia policy of 1901–1973.

Nevertheless, brief reports of the music-making of Asian populations enable a partial reconstruction of the soundscape. Sometimes there was an exchange of musical ideas. The ‘peripatetic parson’ Thomas Eykyn, visiting Thursday Island around 1890, reported in his book Parts of the Pacific on the adoption of a Japanese drum by Filipino musicians:

On Christmas Eve, after dinner at the residency, numbers of Manilamen labourers came to give their Christmas performance. Chinese lanterns swung from the flagstaff on the lawn, beneath which, with the aid of the moon, they danced and sang. The band consisted of a concertina, a penny whistle, and a lovely Japanese drum.

Other writers provide a little more musical detail, as in this account of an Afghan festival in the The Advertiser, 9 May 1892:

Ramazan [sic], the Moslem month of fasting, came to a close on April 28 … Saturday evening, May 7, was the tenth day since the new moon, and the festival terminated by a grand Afghan entertainment … Around the fire was a circle of Afghans seated on chairs. Two were strumming monotonous airs on the rebab, a sort of guitar, while a young Afghan in European dress chimed in now and then with an accordeon. Sometimes during the dances a drum accompaniment was necessary … .

We can learn a little of the legacy of early Asian migration through later accounts. For example, in 1932 the Mullumbimby Star reported on 29 September 1932 on the marriage of Frenchwoman Adrienne Lesire to high-caste Afghan Gool Mahomet. Of the six children of the marriage, the newspaper reported, the daughters ‘combine the veiled darkness of Eastern women with the vivacity of their mother’s people. Known as the beauties of the line, these girls speak three languages and are accomplished musicians, playing five instruments, including the stringed lutes of Afghanistan’.

index1 camel train
Fig. 2: Police Camp at Coolgardie, mid 1890s. State Library of Western Australia Item 791B/1]

Occasionally we are provided with a glimpse of music made more for private purposes than for public celebrations. For example, the Adelaide Observer reported on 16 July 1884 that ‘Afghans’, at a camel train camp at Crystal Brook, South Australia, treated the spectators to music from a guitar, and a gaily ornamented species of violin, varied with songs and improvisations.

Sometimes photographic evidence provides some further hints about Asian music-making. Figure 2 shows a group of white, indigenous and ‘Afghan’ men at the police camp in Coolgardie, WA, in the mid-1890s. An ‘Afghan’ man, front right, holds a rebab-type instrument, while another, far right, holds a hookah. How a rebab found its way into this composition is a mystery.

Figure 3 (below) provides evidence that the performance of Cantonese opera followed the secondary migration of Chinese workers from the Victorian goldfields to Queensland. Here, three Chinese gardeners from Irvinebank hold a plucked stringed instrument, the yueqin, and a bowed stringed instrument, the erxian, which were two of the five basic instruments (wujiatou) used in Cantonese opera.

The musical legacies of the first Asian arrivals have been celebrated by their descendants in various musical dramas created in the late twentieth century, including Jimmy Chi’s 1990 musical set in Broome, Bran Nue Dae, and Trepang, a 1996 indigenous opera performed in Yolngu Matha and Macassarese and directed by Andrish St-Clare.

Fig. 3: Three Chinese gardeners with musical instruments from Irvinebank, Queensland, 10 July 1908. State Library of Queensland Item D1-7-94]

In 1994, Gary Lee wrote a play called Keep Him My Heart: A Larrakia–Filipino Love Story, celebrating the rondalla music of the Cubillo Brothers Orchestra in Darwin and recounting the story of a Filipino–Spanish sail maker from Calape, Bohol, who arrived in Darwin in the late nineteenth century. He fell in love with a local Larrakia girl, Magdalena Lily McKeddie. Lily’s father, George McKeddie, was a Scottish free settler from Melbourne. He came to Darwin in 1874, where he met a Larrakia woman, Annie Duwun, with whom he had two children.

The accounts of nineteenth century Asian music-making in Australia give us some tantalising but superficial glimpses of these activities. The evidence affirms that, alongside the various styles of western popular and classical music that white migrants brought to the colony, there was an equally significant and meaningful migration of Asian music cultures.

The search for accounts of nineteenth century Asian music activities in Australia continues. Readers who come across primary references in obscure sources are invited to share them with the writer.

Featured image
Chinese zither players. Wikipedia, Public Domain.

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2 thoughts on “Australia’s Asian songline”

  1. The print by Tom Roberts,recently shown at NGA Canberra, and still titled ‘The Chinese cook shop’ 1887 etching on paper 30.4 x 15.2 cms, shows what may be an erhu at the bottom left by the woman’s leg in the foreground. Maybe the title could be ‘The Chinese cook’s hop’ ? The girl in the rear ground appears to be dancing.

  2. Hugh de Ferranti

    Even the groundwork for a history of music-making among Japanese in colonial and prewar Australia has yet to be done, I believe. (I hope someone can prove me wrong about that.) It seems there are some important photographic images in individuals’ collections. Photos reproduced courtesy of Yamamoto Noriko in Noreen Jones’ book Number 2 Home (Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 2002) are just one example. I would like to pool strengths and resources toward such a historical project, for which I would seek funding from the Japanese government, as a staff member at a national university in Tokyo. If anyone wants to get involved or share relevant information (or even dissuade me of this folly!), please feel free to contact me in English or Japanese:

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