This week, in honour of Chinese New Year, The Past Present is focussing on this beautiful photo from an unknown photographer, taken in 1936. Although the focus of the photographers interest was the tannery belonging to R. W. Moody, today The Past Present is focussing on the Chinese vegetable peddler in the foreground. Once, up to a third of the Chinese community in Sydney was occupied in growing fruit and vegetables, while others provided accomodation and services to these market gardeners.
The first known Chinese settler in Sydney was Mak Sai Ying who arrived in 1818 and settled in Parramatta, eventually opening a public house called the Golden Lion. Following the end to convict transportation people were brought from China to work as indentured labourers for rural estates and by 1852 over 1500 Chinese had arrived. Of course, then came the gold rush and Chinese people arrived in large numbers to try their luck, though many returned to China later. As mining became less profitable for the Chinese many who remained in Australia turned their attention to the growing and selling of fruit and vegetables. Market gardening became a common occupation for the Chinese, especially as many of the Chinese in Australia had rural backgrounds.
There were more people involved in the market garden trade than just the growers though. The market gardens supported a whole variety of industries, from the gardeners who worked the fields to the people who owned the hostels where gardeners would stay when they brought their produce to the city. Although market gardeners and fruit and vegetable sellers are now seen as almost synonymous, market gardening was extremely labour intensive and although the growers may transport their produce to the sellers, they rarely sold it themselves. Often the fruit and vegetables were either sold by associated hawkers who travelled from house to house, or by green grocers and even large city markets, including Sydney’s Belmore Markets.