The Chinese Christmas Box

Chinese trader
‘A Chinese trader making presents to his customers’, The Graphic, 24 December 1887

Australia’s food history is more multicultural than you might think. Yes, for many years, the Anglo/Irish traditions of meat, bread and tea may have dominated our tables. But the vegetables that appeared on those tables were likely to have been grown by Chinese market gardeners.

The Chinese played a significant role in our food history. As early as the 1830s, Chinese immigrants were being employed as farm hands and cooks in rural Australia. The gold rushes of the 1850s attracted many more. Some returned to China – perhaps a little richer for their labours. Others stayed, many becoming gardeners and traders.

I discovered the following story about the tradition of the Chinese Christmas box in a post from historian Kate Bagnall on her blog “The Tiger’s Mouth“. Kate is a Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. She researches and writes about Chinese Australian history and heritage. It was first posted on 23 December, 2013. Kate has kindly given her permission for me to reproduce it here.

The Chinese Christmas Box

Early on Christmas morning 1879, the residents of Lambie Street, Cooma, received a visit from their neighbour, Jimmy. With a Christmas greeting, he presented them each with a dish of new potatoes and a piece of prime pork, products of his Lambie Street market garden (Manaro Mercury, 31 December 1879). From childhood I’ve loved the sense of history that Lambie Street exudes, with its iron-roofed stone and brick cottages and their snug verandahs. It was Cooma’s first street and Jimmy’s garden would have sat on the low side of the road, an area that ran down to the creek and was subject to flooding.

Chinese Christmas Box
A Chinese Christmas box’, Illustrated Australian News, 31 December 1880

Jimmy’s small act of Christmas cheer was repeated over and again by Chinese hawkers, gardeners and storekeepers around the Australian colonies. European businesses also made gifts of a ‘Christmas box’ to their customers, but the generosity of the Chinese at Christmas was something that lingered well into the twentieth century, continuing on after European traders abandoned the practice. The memory of the Chinese Christmas box lingered even longer. A 1937 article reminiscing about the early days of the Tambaroora goldfield remembered the prosperity of the Chinese stores of Sam Choy, On Ti Kee, Sam Gon Shin and Ah Tye, achieved through the regular custom of the white population. ‘Perhaps it was the never failing Christmas box forthcoming at the Chinese stores that attracted a certain amount of patronage from the whites’, the article suggested somewhat unkindly. White women dealt regularly with the Chinese, particularly with the hawkers who brought high-quality fresh fruit and vegetables to their door each day, and a number of illustrations from the newspapers and journals of the time depicted their congenial Christmastime meetings.

The Chinese were best known for their gifts of jars of preserved ginger; it was ‘the very best of its kind, and as such [was] a very acceptable addition to the Christmas Day dessert’ (Newcastle Morning Herald, 28 December 1908). Others like Jimmy of Lambie Street presented customers with fresh produce or nuts, fans or handkerchiefs. In 1917, the civic-minded Chinese gardeners and fruit hawkers of Wagga even presented the district hospital with a cheque for £14/10/ instead of giving their usual Christmas boxes to their customers (Albury Banner, 14 December 1917).

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