The image above is of the front cover of a phrasebook used by Cantonese speakers living in Victoria during the gold rushes of the 1850s. This powerful document helped Chinese arrivals in Australia navigate their way through a culturally and linguistically different society. It gave those who used it a voice, breaking down language barriers, preventing misunderstandings and helping to build friendships.



While people with Chinese ancestry had been a part of life in Australia since the 1820s, Chinese arrivals really started to become a significant part of the non-indigenous population during the Victorian gold rushes. (In fact, if you take into consideration the interaction of Chinese merchants with the Makassan trade in trepang (sea cucumber), their contact with Australia dates back perhaps a century or so earlier than this.) During this time the total population of the colony of Victoria more than doubled in just two years – from just over 97,000 in 1851 to just over 222,000 in 1853.1 It continued to grow by the tens of thousands until the late 1850s. The Chinese-born proportion of Victoria’s population grew the fastest of any birthplace over this period but was never more than about six percent of Victoria’s total population, which was dominated by people born in Britain, Scotland and Ireland.

In response to this increased Chinese migration, racially discriminatory restrictions were introduced to control Asian immigration through the 1800s. In 1901, after Federation, the Immigration Restriction Act was passed and laws were also put in place to prevent Asian-Aboriginal marriage or cohabitation. The Immigration Restriction Act used a dictation test to keep out non-white immigrants and the growth of Chinese migrants slowed. It was only after the gradual lifting of these policies and administrative practices post World War II that the proportion of Australians with Chinese ancestry reached the same levels as during the mid 1800s.

During the gold rushes Chinese prospectors and entrepreneurs came mainly from southern China, particularly the province of Guangdong, and spoke Cantonese. They were mainly men who, like all the other hopefuls arriving with them, hoped to make their fortunes and give their families a better life. As well as prospecting, they became involved in other economic activities such as market gardening and agricultural labouring, and opened cafes, restaurants, stores and traditional Chinese medicine practices, to support both the Chinese and wider mining industry. The phrasebook was key to helping them build relationships with their communities.

The phrasebook was compiled by a Cantonese scholar, ??? (pronounced Zhu Rui-sheng in mandarin and Jyu Seuh-sang in Cantonese) who lived for some years in the Castlemaine area.2 At the Chinese Museum, we are still investigating who the publisher of the phrasebook was and where it was published, but it is thought to have been published between 1857 and 1862. We do not know how many copies were published and sold but we do know that multiple editions were produced.3

The phrasebook provides users with a traditional Chinese translation of a selection of English words and phrases along with two pronunciation guides to assist users pronounce the words in English – one written in standard Cantonese dialect and the other in See Yup dialect. See Yup translates to four counties and refers to one of the dialects spoken in the four former counties of Xinhui, Taishan, Kaiping and Enping in southern Guangdong province. At the start of the book is a list of Victorian and Californian towns and goldfields suggesting that Chinese going to these places are its target audience.

The phrases selected by Jyu Seuh-sang reflect the kinds of situations he imagined would require English to be spoken. He made this selection based on his own personal experience. While users of the phrasebook may have struggled to be understood using the English pronunciation guides, they could ask others to read the English phrases they wanted to say and it could be used as a mnemonic to help learn English. Phrasebooks like these were highly valued by later Chinese immigrants.4

Read a page at a time, phrases often link together suggesting conversations and encounters. These conversations and encounters give us a rare insight not only into the nature of cross-cultural relationships during the gold rushes but of the voices of the Chinese who lived through it.


As well as practical phrases related to travelling, the book also covers conversation. In this case, a discussion of how successful prospecting or business might be going. It is worth noting that these phrases are designed both to assist the user say the English phrase and to understand an English phrase that might be spoken to them.


There are only a few pages with lists of words like this list. There is no list of numbers, days of the week or words to help tell the time. China at this time still operated on a lunar calendar which would have complicated these translations. The other page is the one page in the phrasebook that discusses food. These phrases would have been useful in general conversation over a meal, and for Chinese running eating establishments. It is likely that many white Australians ate their first Chinese meal on the goldfields.


Social tensions are inevitable when you have large numbers of people living in close proximity to each other. On the goldfields everyone was competing for a chance to make their fortunes. On some fields, Chinese became scapegoats for the problems and frustrations of others. Often portrayed as victims in these encounters, these phrases show that Chinese were prepared to defend themselves, physically and with words.


There are also a number of phrases in the phrasebook which show that Chinese were not only prepared to use the legal system to defend themselves but also that they expected that justice would be served.


A few phrases in the phrasebook also relate to women’s affairs. Some suggest encounters in which a hawker might be selling goods. These phrases suggest the kind of conversation which might occur between a woman and her domestic servant. They may also have been useful for those Chinese men who formed intimate relationships with white women.


In addition to providing phrases for dealing with difficult situations, the phrasebook has plenty of phrases to assist with everyday conversation, discussing other people and providing useful words of advice.


Although the phrasebook was produced for use by Chinese men on the Victorian and Californian goldfields, surprisingly few phrases relate to mining. Many more relate to doing business. Here we see some phrases to help explain pricing to customers. There are others which assist with bargaining and giving and receiving credit.

Further Information

‘Language, A Key to Survival: Cantonese-English phrasebooks in Australia’ (includes visual, video and educational content), Culture Victoria website, published 2013 (http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/language-a-key-to-survival).

‘Historyonics: Goldrush era phrasebook empowered Chinese entrepreneurs’, Waleed Aly’s interview with Sophie Couchman, 26 February 2014 (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/drive/historyonics3a-goldrush-era-phrasebook-empowered-chinese-entre/5283748)

Couchman, Sophie and Ercole, Silvia, ‘How Gold Rush Immigrants Can Talk to Today’s Kids:Using Nineteenth-Century Cantonese-English Phrasebooks in the Classroom’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Vol.6, 2013.

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Historical Population Statistics []
  2. Thanks to Ely Finch for advice and assistance with translation and Cantonese Romanisation. []
  3. For more information about this and other Chinese-English phrasebooks in Australia see the Chinese Museum’s award winning story on the Culture Victoria website: ‘Language, A Key to Survival: Cantonese-English phrasebooks in Australia’ (http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/language-a-key-to-survival). []
  4. See video interview ‘Learning English in 1950s Australia: Mr Ng’s experience’, Culture Victoria website, http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/language-a-key-to-survival/13594/learning-english-in-1950s-australia-mr-ngs-experience. []
Dr Sophie Couchman is chief curator at the Chinese Museum (Melbourne) and an Honorary Research Fellow at La Trobe University. She recently edited the book "Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance" with Kate Bagnall.