Journal of Global Buddhism 2022, Vol.23 (2)

Buddhism in the Far North of Australia Pre-WWII: (In)visibility, Post-colonialism and Materiality

Anna Halafoff ORCID logo

Deakin University

Kim Lam ORCID logo

Deakin University

Cristina Rocha ORCID logo

Western Sydney University

Enqi Weng ORCID logo

Deakin University

Sue Smith ORCID logo

Charles Darwin University


Buddhism was first established in Australia through flows of migrants in the mid-nineteenth century, and is currently Australia’s fourth-largest religion. Yet Buddhists have received significantly less scholarly attention than Christians, Jews and Muslims in Australia. Previous research conducted on Buddhism in Australia has also largely centered on the southern states, and on white Buddhists. This article shares findings of archival research on Buddhism in the far north of Australia, focused on Chinese, Japanese, and Sri Lankan communities working in mining, pearling, and sugar cane industries, pre-WWII. It documents the histories of exclusion, resistance and belonging experienced by Australia’s Buddhists in the far north of Australia pre-WWII, during times of colonial oppression and Japanese internment. In so doing, this article challenges dominant narratives of a white Christian Australia, and also of white Buddhism in Australia, by rendering Asian communities in scholarship on religion in Australia more visible.

Paul Croucher’s History of Buddhism in Australia describes the planting of ‘two bodhi tree saplings, said to be related to the tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment,’ on Thursday Island in the Far North of Australia in the late nineteenth century by ‘a cohesive little Buddhist community’ of Sinhalese from Sri Lanka (Croucher 1989: 5, citing Swan 1981). The trees were said to be ‘still flourishing’ in 1989 but the temple which the community constructed was no longer there. Croucher observed how this reflected ‘the truth of the Buddhist epitaph on a Sinhalese gravestone “Sabbe sankhara anicca,” or “impermanent are all component things.”’ In fact, the bodhi trees, or rather the single tree, perished soon after World War II (WWII), but Saranealis House, a Sinhalese jewellery store, built in 1897, remains largely intact in Thursday Island’s main street, as does Laifoo’s grocery store, the Japanese and Chinese sections of the graveyard, and frangipani trees gifted to the Cathedral by the Sinhalese (Sparkes and Shnukal 2004). The enduring presence of descendants of the Japanese, Chinese, and Sri Lankan families, who lived in Thursday Island when it was a booming pearling town at the turn of the twentieth century, is also evident in Thursday Island’s community (Nagata 2004; Ramsay 2004; Sparkes and Shnukal 2004).1

Figure 1: Thursday Island Cemetery. (Photo: Anna Halaffof)

The spread of Buddhism into Australia is typically thought to have occurred a century later, in the late twentieth century, with increased immigration following the lifting of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, known as the White Australia Policy, and the ending of the Vietnam War. Prior research on the arrival of Buddhism in Australia has also focused largely on the activities of white Buddhists in southern states from the 1970s onward (Croucher 1989; Rocha and Barker 2011; Barker 2016; Halafoff, Garrod, and Gobey 2018). Buddhists are currently Australia’s fourth largest religious group, comprising 2.4% of the population, following Christians (43.9%), Muslims (3.2%) and Hindus (2.7%), and Buddhists currently enjoy a higher positive public image in Australia than other religious minorities (ABS 2022; Barker and Rocha 2011; Markus 2021; Singleton et al. 2021; Weng and Halafoff 2020). Australian teens also have a strong interest in practices related to Buddhism such as mindfulness and meditation (28%), and a strong belief in concepts such as karma (50%) and reincarnation (29%) (Singleton et al. 2021). What is little known in and beyond Australia is that Buddhism and Buddhist deities, symbols, and rituals first arrived through flows of workers and migrants from Asia, particularly from China, Japan and Sri Lanka, as early as the mid-nineteenth century Gold Rush. The largest of these early Asian populations were across the Far North of Australia, in Broome, Darwin, Thursday Island, Cooktown and Cairns (ABS 1947a, 1947b; Croucher 1989).2

Regina Ganter (2005) writes that ‘(i)f we turn the map upside down and start Australian history where its documentation properly begins—in the north—the kaleidoscope of Australian history falls into a completely different pattern.’ She adds that it makes ‘nonsense of the idea of an isolated continent’ given Australia’s proximity to New Guinea and Asia, as ‘until World War II, whites were heavily outnumbered in the north by close-knit Asian and indigenous communities’ with a history of close relations. Indeed, it was in large part fears regarding the high numbers and successes of Chinese and Japanese communities—including Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians—in the Far North of Australia that led to the passing of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act (Yu and Wei 1999; Reynolds 2003). While prior research has documented and focused on race-relations in the north of Australia, particularly between Indigenous, Asian, and European Australians, there has been very little emphasis placed on the religious dimensions of these encounters in this scholarship, and of the religious lives of these Asian workers and migrants.

Figure 2: Frangipani trees outside the Anglican Quetta All Souls Memorial Cathedral, Thursday Island. (Photo: Anna Halaffof)

This article documents how Australia’s first Buddhists had a significant presence in the Far North both pre- and post-Federation.3 It mines existing academic literature, local history, and photographic collections to begin to piece together a historical account of Buddhism in the Far North of Australia up until the end of WWII, when numbers of Buddhists in Australia reduced significantly. It also draws on co-authors Anna Halafoff’s and Sue Smith’s more recent observations on the material presence of Buddhism, recorded on a fieldtrip to Mackay, the Atherton Tablelands, Cairns, Thursday Island, Darwin, Broome and Perth in late 2018, and to Cooktown in mid-2019 and mid-2021. Observations were recorded while visiting sites of significance including temples, cemeteries, sugar plantations, former mines, pearling areas, and market gardens.

We begin by outlining our analytical framework of post-colonial Buddhism (Gleig 2019), lived religion (McGuire 2008) and material religion (Houtman and Meyer 2012; Meyer 2012). All three frameworks disrupt the primacy of textual approaches, highlight everyday, embodied experiences and material aspects of religion, and contribute to recentering religious populations excluded in dominant narratives. We then draw on existing academic scholarship and research published by historical societies, to document the history of Buddhism across the Far North of Australia pre-WWII. Four brief case studies of Buddhist materiality in Darwin, Broome, Cooktown and Thursday Island are presented. In so doing, this article addresses the marginalisation of Asian Buddhism, and the history of Buddhism in the Far North region, in scholarship on Buddhism in Australia, and in scholarship on religion in Australia more broadly. It does this by making more visible the lived, hybrid, and complex religions of early Asian communities living in Australia, and the triangulated relations between Indigenous-Asian-European Australians (Ganter 2005). In so doing, it challenges the fantasy of a White Christian Nation (Hage 1998; Halafoff et al. 2021). This follows more recent developments in scholarship on Buddhism that have similarly sought to re-centre Asian and Indigenous voices in the early development of Buddhism in the United States (Imamura 1992; Nattier 1995; Pierce 2000; Quli 2008; Cheah 2011; Harding, Hori, and Soucy 2014; Williams 2019; Gleig 2019; Mitchell forthcoming).

Post-colonial Buddhism

One recent re-historicisation of Buddhism this article draws attention to is Duncan Williams’ American Sutra. As Williams (2019) notes, some Japanese immigrants in the early nineteenth century saw their journeys to America in vastly different ways to their white European counterparts. He writes:

The story of American has long been cast as one of westward exploration and expansion, beginning with settlers from Europe who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, and radiating out from initial outposts on the Atlantic coast across the plains of the Midwest… spread[ing] Anglo-Protestant values into lands supposedly empty of civilization…But what happens when we flip the map? For the hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants who crossed the Pacific to reach America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the American West was the Pacific East…just as settlers from Europe saw themselves as pioneers working their way westward as they spread their values and mores, these immigrants from Asia brought their own cultures and religions as they moved further eastward (Williams 2019: 1–2).

Drawing on extensive primary and secondary data on Japanese incarceration during World War II, Williams thus decentres the prevailing narrative of Buddhism in the United States as a foreign religion, and reveals the racist and dehumanising roots from which contemporary Buddhism in America was forged. By re-telling history from the point of view of Japanese Buddhist immigrants, Williams (2019: 4) frames Japanese Buddhist immigrants as modern, progressive and fearless in the face of oppression—the very embodiment of ‘religious freedom and civil liberties in American history.’

Williams’ account contributes a post-colonial revisioning of Buddhism in America by re-valorising ‘traditional’ non-Western cultures and worldviews, previously dismissed as primitive from a modernist perspective. According to Ann Gleig (2019), ‘post-colonial’ Buddhism refers to the scholarship on Buddhism which critiques the consequences of imperialism and colonialism by re-inserting the contributions of Asian Buddhist communities into articulations of religion in the West.4 This work can be considered an attempt to correct a so-called ‘ethnosangha oversight’ in the US, a term coined by Gary L. Ray (1996) and acknowledged by Buddhist Studies scholars during this time to describe the phenomenon whereby Asian Buddhist practices and temples were excluded in references to Western Buddhism (Nattier 1995; Pierce 2000; Rocha 2006: 187–91). These and other scholars’ works highlight the existence and contribution of Asian Buddhist communities, making the invisible more visible, to use Jan Nattier’s (1995) terms. In so doing, they unsettle racializing assumptions about Asian or so-called ‘ethnic’ Buddhists as backwards, superstitious, irrational, and merely an extension of Asian cultures (see, for example, Quli 2008; Harding, Hori, and Soucy 2014; Rocha 2006).5

It is useful to note that post-colonial revalorisations of Asian Buddhist cultures and worldviews have gained particular salience in America, whereby white supremacist ideology has strongly shaped articulations of ‘American Buddhism’ (Cheah 2011). In Australia, post-colonial analyses have thus far been less prevalent in scholarship on Buddhism, an issue that is addressed by this article. As mentioned above, there has been scant mention in existing scholarship of the contributions of Asian Buddhist communities in Australia before the late- twentieth century, and a much greater focus on the activities of white Buddhists (Croucher 1989; Rocha and Barker 2011). Croucher’s (1989) history, Enid Adam and Phillip Hughes (1996), and Rocha and Barker (2011), have all shown that Australia’s first and subsequent Asian Buddhist communities continue to experience racism and racialisation in the form of vandalism of temples and difficulties obtaining planning permits for the construction of temples. However, that is not the same for temples built by largely white Buddhist communities, as Sally McAra (2011) has shown with regard to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition’s stupa and Atisha Centre in Bendigo, Victoria. A decade ago, scholars examined intergenerational transmission among Vietnamese and Cambodian (Vasi 2011) Buddhist communities in Australia. Kim Lam’s (2019, 2020) more recent research on young Buddhists in Australia—of multiple ethnicities—has found that perceptions of Buddhism as an Asian religion contribute to the minimisation and concealment of young Buddhist practitioners’ religious beliefs and practices and renders Buddhism less visible in the Australian public sphere as a result.

Rocha and Barker (2011) also included a limited number of Asian Buddhist case studies, due to language barriers and the small number of scholars studying Asian Buddhist groups at the time. The editors drew on globalisation studies and studies of Buddhism in the West (Baumann 2001; Rocha 2006) to argue that Buddhism in the region has been strongly influenced by flows of people, ideas, practices, and material cultures into and out of Australia. Barker and Rocha (2011: 11; citing Spuler 2000) noted that Buddhism in Australia included common characteristics of Buddhism in the West, namely, internal diversity of traditions, the presence of ethnic and convert Buddhists, and emphases on democratic principles in elected Buddhist councils, lay practice, social engagement, secularisation and gender equity. They also added an additional Australian quality of anti-authoritarianism.

Findings from the Buddhist Life Stories of Australia (BLSA) project concurred with Barker and Rocha’s characteristics of Buddhism in Australia. This later study was a digital oral history crowdfunded pilot project, led by Anna Halafoff in 2015–2016, which recorded nineteen interviews with prominent Australian Asian and Anglo/European Buddhist leaders, including from Tibetan, Thai, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Chinese and Taiwanese traditions. Halafoff and her team also observed significant levels of appreciation and cooperation between lay and monastic, and Asian and Anglo/European Buddhists, and a deep connection with the Australian landscape, through Buddhist concepts of space and stillness, as additional characteristics of Buddhism in Australia, mentioned by Anglo/European and Asian Buddhist leaders alike (Halafoff, Garrod, and Gobey 2018). Both Rocha and Barker’s edited collection and the BLSA project have been relatively small endeavours, as research on Buddhism in Australia has never received substantive funding or scholarly attention in broader studies of religion in Australia, compared to research on Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

The persistent racism faced by Asian Buddhists, and also their relative invisibility in Australian history, studies of religion, and even in research on Buddhism in Australia, can perhaps best be understood by drawing on the work of Australian scholars focussing on whiteness and race-relations. Anthropologist Ghassan Hage (1998: 16–17, 20) states in White Nation that ‘whiteness’ is ‘a crucial component’ of ‘Australianness,’ as white Australians have constructed themselves as ‘governors’ and rendered non-white, including Indigenous and Asian Australians, as ‘passive objects to be governed’ ‘according to a White national will.’ Racism is both ‘numerological’ and ‘existential,’ regarding the scale of migration, such as ‘there’s too many Asians’ or ‘there’s too many Muslims,’ or a ‘racism of disgust’ at difference, and a belief in the superiority of whiteness (Hage 2014: 232–40). Hage (2014: 232–40) further explains how in ‘the White nation fantasy,’ the non-white presence is viewed as ‘one that poses problems,’ and ‘fear … is directed towards the aggressively independent and political non-Whites: the Aboriginal people and the migrants who deploy an Australian will outside the supervisory tentacles of White governmentality.’ By contrast, what Hage refers to as ‘the multicultural Real,’ is pervading and enduring. This is certainly evident in the cultural and religious diversity, the multicultural and multifaith ‘Real,’ of the Far North.

Similarly, instead of always stressing the problems, controversies and threats posed by diverse cultures and religions, as is so often the norm in scholarship, media, and policy, Meredith McGuire (2008) chose to highlight the complex, hybrid and peacebuilding aspects of contemporary ‘lived religion’ and its matoperial, embodied practices. The ‘material turn’ in the study of religion, has also shifted the foci away from texts and beliefs to places, bodily affect, aurality and aesthetics, rituals, heritage, and objects that mediate the presence of spiritual entities (Houtman and Meyer 2012; Meyer 2012). Material religion scholars argue that the focus on belief, the mind and the private sphere in the study of religion is due to a Western, Protestant bias tied to colonialism that deemed all other forms of religiosity as inferior. Rather, Meyer and Houtman (Meyer and Houtman 2012: 7) argue that:

Materializing the study of religion means asking how religion happens materially, which is not to be confused with asking the much less helpful questions of how religion is expressed in material form. A materialized study of religion begins with the assumption that things, their use, their valuation and their appeal are not something added to a religion, but rather inextricable from it.

Moreover, these scholars pay special attention to issues of power asymmetries, something at the heart of our impetus to write this article. Here we analyse diverse Buddhist heritage created by Asian communities in the Far North—from trees to tombstones, festivals, statues, and temples. In making this religious heritage visible, we join those post-colonial scholars contesting the national history of Australia as a European Christian country. What counts as national heritage is always contested since it involves negotiations of power and identity between different migrant groups. Indeed, the concept of heritage has its roots in processes of nation-building, colonialism, and imperialism. Here, our focus on religious heritage calls for the recognition of a complex and cosmopolitan history of Buddhism in Australia. Although some of this materiality has been preserved in museums in the Far North as heritage, so far it has not been included in scholars’ analyses of the inception of Buddhism in this country.

‘Two Australias’ and Triangulated Race Relations in the Far North

The Indigenous peoples of Australia—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—have inhabited the continent for over 50,000 years, with a rich diversity of languages, religions, nations and societies among them (Bell 2009; Carey 2009). European explorers were not the first visitors to Australia, as mainly Muslim Malays or Macassars from the south coast of Indonesia had likely been trading with Indigenous Australians since at least the early 1700s. Fishermen from this region travelled in their prahas in search of trepang, sea cucumbers, a culinary delicacy and medicinal in value that they also sold to the Chinese trading across Asia (Lockwood 1968; Ganter 2005, citing Macknight 1976). According to Ganter (2005) there were ‘a number of family links between [the Indigenous] Yolngu [people] and Makassar’ that ‘continue to link these people’ despite attempts to interrupt them by white settlement and government ‘harassment,’ which caused trade between them to first decline and then be forbidden in 1906.6

The British began to inhabit the north coast of Australia in the early 1800s for trade and defence purposes. Sugar, pearling, agriculture and mining industries were then established across the Far North in the mid- to late-1800s (Lockwood 1968). Large numbers of indentured labourers and migrants came from Asia to Australia. In 1881, there were 11,229 Chinese in Queensland, 3,804 in the Northern Territory, and 145 in Western Australia. By 1901, there were 6,762 Chinese in Queensland, 3,072 in the Northern Territory, and 1521 in Western Australia (ABS 1925).

Between the 1870s and 1890s, kidnapping and enslavement of Indigenous Australian people by Europeans was common in the north of Australia (Sickert 2003). Indigenous Australians also often worked for Europeans and Chinese miners and gardeners, and Japanese pearlers across the Far North, navigating tough conditions, and exchanging labour and/or sex for food, clothing, tobacco, alcohol, and opium. The Chinese and Japanese were said to treat and pay the Indigenous Australian workers better than the Europeans. Indigenous communities often set up camps on the outskirts of mining and pearling towns and/or near Chinese gardens and Chinatowns (Reynolds 2003; Lockwood 1968). Sexual encounters and relations between Indigenous women and European and Asian men were common, particularly given there were comparatively few European and Asian women in the Far North at this time. They ranged from violent and abusive, negative encounters of rape and trade, to mutually consenting casual encounters, short-term relationships and co-habitation, to long-term relationships including marriage, and resulted in the birth of many children (Reynolds 2003; Lockwood 1968; James 1989; Shnukal, Ramsay, and Nagata 2004). Ganter (2005) describes how ‘Asian/Aboriginal families formed the core of the polyethnic spaces that characterised the north… linked by family, friendship, residence or experience.’ However, both the Indigenous and Asian communities were seen as ‘problematic’ by state actors, and as ‘much as the state sought to distinguish between populations’ and to regulate their relations, Asian and Indigenous communities ‘resisted.’ Many descendants of these unions and long-established Indigenous-Asian-European families continue to live and operate businesses throughout the north of Australia.7

Indentured workers left Asia to take up temporary working contracts to escape poverty and to seek a better life in Australia. They worked in mining, pearling and sugar industries and also as servants and cooks for the Europeans. Many signed repeated contracts and many also chose to stay on in Australia and some were able to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions. Many became business owners and were able to employ other workers (Sickert 2003; Shay and Shay n.d.; Reynolds 2003). They were valuable contributors to business and community life, donating generously in numerous charitable drives for hospitals, disaster relief, and sporting events. They established ‘Chinatowns’ and ‘Japtowns’ (problematic, derogatory terms), and market gardens across the Far North to provide goods and services for growing populations including grocery stores, gambling houses and brothels, and temples, halls, hospitals, and cemeteries for their communities (Lockwood 1968; Yu and Wei 1999; Reynolds 2003; Sickert 2003; Shnukal, Ramsay, and Nagata 2004; Sparkes and Shnukal 2004; Yee 2006). Ganter (2005) writes: ‘Streetscapes in the northern colonial townships suggested Asia not Europe and white Europeans were a minority.’

Henry Reynolds (2003: vii, x) explains how, by 1901, the year of Federation and the introduction of the White Australia Policy, there were ‘two Australias’: ‘Southern, settled, overwhelmingly white Australia’ and the ‘cosmopolitan and multi-racial’ ‘towns of the tropical north—Mackay, Cairns, Townsville, Cooktown, Thursday Island, Darwin, Broome, Derby and Roebourne.’ These were home to Indigenous Australians, European settlers and non-European indentured laborers and residents including Pacific Islanders, Malays, Filipinos, Singhalese, Chinese and Japanese (Reynolds 2003). While the vast majority of them were men, Japanese sex workers found employment in Japanese brothels, and smaller numbers of Malay, Chinese, and European sex workers also worked across the Far North region in these mining, sugarcane, and pearling towns (James 1989; Sissons 1977a, 1977b; Nagata 1996, 2004). For example, in 1897, there were fifty-four Japanese sex workers living on Thursday Island (Nagata 2004). Among these migrants and workers were the earliest Buddhists and Buddhist deities, symbols and rituals in Australia, from China, Japan and Sri Lanka. Their religious lives are described in more detail in the case studies below.

Life in these Far Northern towns and cities was largely segregated according to race and economic lines. For example, in Broome, the English pearlers and their wives held court and employed servants from India and other Asian countries, ‘keeping with all of the excesses and hypocrisy as perfected by the British in India’ (Sickert 2003: 36). Broome residents, interviewed by Sickert (2003) between 1998 and 2002, recalled how it had historically been a deeply segregated and racist community. One of Sickert’s interviewees, Maxine Chi, granddaughter of Chinese pearler John Chi, recalled the following:

Aboriginal and Asian people had a common thread running through their history in Broome. Of being impacted on by policies… other people’s policies have always dictated how they lived their lives… The whole fabric of this town is based on oppressive labour, hierarchies, coercions, living under other people’s moralistic views of… who they should associate with and whether they are being a threat to the white establishment (Sickert 2003: 52).

Sickert (2003: 82) explained how ‘Europeans in Broome expected Asian races to remain socially and economically subservient, enabling white supremacy to remain unchallenged.’ However, as the population was mostly non-white, Asian businessmen and businesswomen were in an ideal position to provide for the needs of their own communities, and their Indigenous neighbours, and their economic success challenged these unequal power relations (Sickert 2003: 82–83). Lockwood (1968: 77–78, 80) recounts how the Chinese in the Far North were frequently called derisive names such as ‘chow, ching-chong, chink, yellow agony and yellow peril’ and ‘obnoxious Celestials.’ Leprosy, thought to have been introduced by the Chinese, further exacerbated racial tensions. Fears of cholera, and the plague spreading from Asia were also reported. Darwin’s Chinatown was described as ‘an unhygienic place’ and ‘a den of vice’ (1968: 152–53).

Reynolds (2003: 117) similarly explained how ‘[t]he very success’ of the Chinese and Japanese ‘both impressed and worried Europeans.’ It led to racist attacks by politicians who feared they ‘would take over the whole region.’ In response, the Chinese and Japanese leaders vehemently defended themselves and their right to remain in Australia (Yu and Wei 1999; Reynolds 2003). Reynolds noted that Australia’s first parliamentarians, based largely in the South, had an ‘anxiety of the looming proximity of…Asia and of the contradiction at the heart of the new nation’—that it was ‘a small European enclave [in a] continent at the bottom of the Asian hemisphere.’ ‘This tension,’ writes Reynolds (2003: viii), ‘was always most apparent in North Australia.’

This substantive presence and success of Asian communities throughout the Far North led eventually to the introduction of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act/White Australia Policy. While it no doubt dramatically restricted flows of Asian migration and trade to Australia, it did not decimate these communities entirely. Indeed, the negative effect it had on the pearling industry meant that the government shortly relented, granting exemptions so pearlers could once again employ whomever they wished to dive for pearl shells across the Far North (Lockwood 1968; Yu and Wei 1999). Large number of Asian Australians born in Australia or those who held naturalisation papers were also permitted to stay, and with new waves of European migration during this time, the Far North of Australia actually maintained its multicultural composition (Sickert 2003; James 1989; Yu and Wei 1999). In the 1921 Census, there were 17,157 Chinese, 2,740 Japanese, and 269 ‘Cingalese’/Sri Lankans in Australia (ABS 1947a). Journalist Ernestine Hill described cosmopolitan Darwin, in the Adelaide Chronicle as follows, on the 21 September 1933:

Five distinct communities flourish in that vivid patch of Australian tropic bushland. There are the neat attic cottages of the Greeks, incongruous beneath the Poinciana trees; the walled campog settlement of the Malays and Islanders; laced bamboo huts of Manilamen, on stilts; and the little bird-cage houses and shops of a village in Tokyo, incredibly clean and bare, with their matting beds, tiny shrines and miniature gardens—to say nothing of the paperbark mias and shacks of the aboriginal compound where all the tribes of the Territory are summer visitors. In the maze of the alleys that is Chinatown, where the joss sticks are ever burning before the tiger faced gods of Kwong Sung, and barefooted Oriental tailors bend to their sewing machines, you may lunch—if you have been lucky enough to make friends—upon salted fish roe and soi preserved eggs, spicy with age, boiled bamboo shoots, and shark fins, dipping your chopsticks in communal rice with trousered women of the East their faces a smiling mass (quoted in James 1989: 129).

Racial tensions however increased in the lead-up to WWII. Japanese boats were prohibited from entering territorial waters and landing in Indigenous territories. Many arrests of Japanese in Australia were made, and also disputed by powerful Japanese families and businesses. Darwin, Broome and Horn Island were bombed by the Japanese in 1941–43 but Thursday Island never was (Lockwood 1968; Ganter 2005).

Similar to the situation in the US during WWII, 1,141 Japanese living in Australia, including across the Far North were interned. They included second- and third-generation Japanese Australians (Nagata 1996, 2004). In 1946, all Japanese, except for those born in, or who had wives or children born in, Australia, were repatriated or deported to Japan, regardless of how long they had previously lived there (Nagata 2004).

The Japanese who could return to Thursday Island were welcomed back by their neighbours and resumed their lives there, although they had lost their livelihoods and homes. This was not the case in Broome and in Darwin (Nagata 2004). Chinese and Sri Lankan communities were also displaced across the Far North during WWII, ‘Chinatowns’ and ‘Japtowns,’ and many Chinese and Sri Lankan temples were destroyed, and while the bodhi tree on Thursday Island was still alive in 1945, it was in bad condition and died soon after (Ramsay 2004; Sparkes and Shnukal 2004). The Chinese and Sri Lankans who either stayed in or returned to the Far North also had to rebuild their lives. Despite the White Australia Policy, and WWII, smaller numbers of Chinese, Sri Lankan and Japanese immigrants and their descendants continued to live in and eventually prosper again across the Far North of Australia (Lockwood 1968; Sickert 2003: 170). By 1947, there were 9,144 Chinese, 157 Japanese, and 150 ‘Cingalese’/Sri Lankans in Australia (ABS 1947a). The material record of these pre-WWII Asian communities, and their lived religious practices, including Buddhism, also remains visibly present across the Far North of Australia.

Lived Religion and Materiality Up North

In the first Australian census conducted in 1911 there were 3,269 Buddhist, 3,501 Chinese Religion, 5,194 Confucian, and 663 Shinto adherents. In 1921, there were 2,065 Buddhist, 3,591 Chinese Religion, 2,692 Confucian, and 239 Shinto adherents. By 1947, there were only 411 Buddhist, 158 Chinese Religion, 357 Confucian, and 10 Shinto adherents (ABS 1947b) .8 This demonstrates the religious diversity among the Asian communities in Australia, the high numbers of these communities even after the implementation of the White Australia Policy, and the decrease in their numbers following World War II.

While there has been limited scholarly attention paid thus far to the lived religion of these Asian communities across the Far North, this section summarises what has been described in academic scholarship and begins to document what can be found in surviving historical and material records. This research is preliminary, given limited resources allocated to a pilot grant and short field trip across the Far North in 2018, but yields important discoveries worthy of further exploration. We focus here primarily on four brief case studies centred on the Northern Territory Chinese Temple and Museum in Darwin, the Chinese Shrine in the Cooktown Cemetery, the Japanese O-Bon Matsuri (Festival for the Ancestors) in Broome, and the Bodhi Tree and Sri Lankan Temple on Thursday Island.

Northern Territory Chinese Temple and Museum, Darwin

The material record of Chinese religions in the Far North of Australia includes that of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions, reflecting the hybrid practices of the Chinese communities. The oldest artefact of Chinese migration to, and religion in, Australia is housed at the Northern Territory (hereafter, NT) Chinese Museum in Darwin. It is a 13cm high soapstone statue of Shou Lao, a Taoist God of Longevity, seated on a deer and holding a peach. It was found in the roots of a banyan tree in Doctor’s Gully in 1879 during road construction, and is believed to have most likely belonged to Chinese labourers or market gardeners who first arrived in the area in the early 1870s (Croucher 1989: 2). A large bodhi tree stands outside the adjacent NT Chinese Temple, planted from a sapling from Bodhgaya, India, which was a gift from the largest Tibetan stupa/temple in Australia, Atisha Centre in Central Victoria. The NT Chinese Temple and Museum houses a collection of artefacts from, and photographs of, the original Darwin and surrounding goldfield Temples. They include two large stone lions that guard the Temple’s entrance, which originally guarded a temple on the goldfields.9

Figure 3: Bodhi tree, NT Chinese Temple and Museum, Darwin. (Photo: Anna Halafoff)

Gold was discovered in Pine Creek, south of Darwin in the 1870s and these discoveries brought large waves of mainly Chinese prospectors from Hong Kong and Singapore to the Northern Territory. The Chinese became the largest and most powerful cultural group in Darwin, outnumbering the Europeans, during this period (Reynolds 2003; Lockwood 1968).

Joss Houses, Chinese temples, were built in many towns and mining fields across the Far North including Darwin and Brocks in the Northern Territory, and Cairns, Cooktown, Atherton, Herberton, Mackay, Palmer River, Port Douglas, and Townsville in Far North Queensland, and in Broome in Western Australia (Waltham 2014: 9). The temples are called Miao in Mandarin, for example the famous Atherton Joss House, which has been restored and is open to visitors, is also known as Hou Wang Miao (Chinese-Australian Historical Images in Australia (CHIA) 2005). The term joss was derived from the Portuguese deus (God) and the temples were manned by attendants, not priests (Croucher 1989), and were where the Chinese performed their religious rituals, which bore resemblances to rituals and community life in China. When temples were built, building materials, ornaments and objects of worship were frequently imported from the Asian region (Kok 2008; Waltham 2014).

The presence of temples was indicative of a sizeable population of Chinese residing within a geographical vicinity (T. G. Jones 1997). The routines of Chinese lifestyle were focused on work and were somewhat mundane. By contrast, their religious practices were key aspects of their leisure time, which included ‘burning joss sticks, setting off fireworks, making offerings to the domestic alter [sic] and consulting the almanac…to ensure good fortune’ (Kirkman 1993: 266). Some of these temples had strong links with lodges associated with Chinese provinces or dialect groups that supported Chinese immigration into Australia (Kok 2008: 13). For example, The Chung Wah Society (formerly Wah On Society), which still manages the NT Chinese Temple and has branches across Australia, was formed in the nineteenth century ‘to promote better understanding between Chinese and Europeans’ (T. G. Jones 1997: 107). These efforts continue today to include ‘education and the exchange of culture and sport[ing]’ activities (T. G. Jones 1997: 107).

Darwin, Broome, Cairns and Cooktown also all have many markers around their former and/or current ‘Chinatowns’ with rich historical and pictorial descriptions. Traditional festivals such as Lunar New Year, Qingming, the Dragonboat Festival, Moon Festival and the Hungry Ghost Festival were some of those observed in Chinatowns, temples and cemeteries of the Far North recorded in local newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century (Inglis 1967: 40; Yu and Wei 1999; Broome Historical Society n.d.). The Lunar New Year is the most significant period of celebration for the Chinese people, and for ‘settling debts and performing rites to ensure the co-operation of the gods in the coming year’ (Kirkman 1993: 267). These celebrations were well-noted in the Northern Territory Times. In 1900, the festival’s procession was viewed as ‘filled with a barbaric conglomeration of sights and sounds strangely out of tune in an Australian town’ (T. G. Jones 1997: 76). It is, however, interesting to note that in 1902, with the assistance of a Chinese reporter, coverage was far more positive and highlighted the presentation of ‘the usual gorgeous glaze of colouring, green, red, and yellow being the predominant hues’ (T. G. Jones 1997: 77). Author and journalist Ernestine Hill also photographed Chinese temples, attendants, and processions on her travels in the Far North in the 1930s. This photography collection is housed at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

A large banyan tree part of remnant rainforest, known as “Galamarrma” to the Larrakia Aboriginal people for whom it is culturally significant, has withstood numerous cyclones and remains standing to this day in what was once Chinatown and is now Darwin’s Civic Centre. It is also known as ‘The Tree of Knowledge’ and according to a nearby plaque was ‘used as a meeting place’ where Chinese young people sat ‘with and learned from their elders and where wisdom was gained in its shade.’ It is a living reminder of the long and enduring history of triangulated relations between Indigenous, Asian, and European Australian in its “Top End”.

Figure 4: Kuan Yin statue, NT Chinese Temple and Museum, Darwin. (Photo: Anna Halafoff)
Figure 5: Lucky bat, NT Chinese Temple and Museum, Darwin. (Photo: Anna Halafoff)

The Chinese Shrine in the Cooktown Cemetery

Gold was first discovered in Palmerston, later known as Palmer River, near Cooktown in the 1870s. Chinese prospectors began arriving from other goldfields in the southern states in the mid-1870s. According to Shay and Shay (n.d.), in July 1875 the Chinese population on the Palmer was 9000, and had grown to 18,000 by 1876, and 19,500 in 1877, constituting 90% of the entire Palmer population. Nearby Cairns soon became the centre of much commercial activity in North Queensland, with links to Cooktown and the Palmer River goldfields, Port Douglas, the Atherton Tablelands, Innisfail, the southern cities of Australia, and to China and Hong Kong (Reynolds 2003).