SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 02: Performers prepare to take part in the Chinese New Year Twilight Parade along George Street on February 2, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. Thousands of Sydneysiders attended the annual parade to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year, over 2700 performers and 32 floats took part including 350 performers from Beijing, Shaanxi and Hunan in China. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

by Anita S. Mak and Helen Chan

Chinese settlement in Australia has a long history, beginning soon after the discovery of gold in Australia in 1851. Large numbers of men from China came to work in the goldfields in Victoria, hoping to return to their homeland when they had made enough money (Wang 1988). Some eventually stayed and had children with Australian women. Over time, the presence of a sizeable number of Chinese gold-diggers led to tension and hostility against them. In 1901 the Immigration Restriction Act was passed in the newly set up Federal Parliament, effectively closing Australia’s doors to immigrants from non-European backgrounds (Yuan 1988). It was not until the formal adoption of a non-discriminatory immigration policy in 1973 by the Whitlam Labour Government that significant numbers of Chinese, from various parts of Asia, migrated to Australia (Chan, H.M.H. 1988).

Culture and language maintenance

The extent of Chinese-language maintenance varies considerably among the ethnic Chinese in Australia. An analysis based on the 1986 census revealed that language maintenance was almost universal among the Chinese born in Timor, followed closely by those from Hong Kong and China. Chinese was used at home by 80 per cent of Malaysian-born Chinese, 70 per cent of the Singaporeans, 37 per cent of Thai and Filipino Chinese, and 22 per cent of Indonesian Chinese (Kee 1992).

Chinese immigrants in Australia have tried to maintain their language and culture by speaking Chinese at home, sending their children to Chinese weekend schools, frequenting or living in Chinatown where there are Chinese restaurants and bookshops, and supporting Chinese newspapers, television and radio programs (Yee 1981; Chan 1987). They also form and support Chinese associations which organise cultural activities and celebrate major Chinese festivals such as the Chinese New Year.

Despite the effort made to maintain language and culture, the use of Chinese at home decreases with the second and third generations. Analysis of 1986 census data showed that, even though 81 per cent of the single-ancestry. Chinese immigrant generation spoke Chinese at home, the level of maintenance dropped to about 66 per cent in the second generation and 16 per cent in the third and later generations. Among those with mixed ancestry the use of Chinese at home was greatly reduced, falling to 1 per cent by the third generation (Kee 1992).

The decline in the use of Chinese at home may be due to a number of factors. Yee (1981) found that parents with higher academic and occupational status tended to be more fluent in English and to use predominantly English, or both English and Chinese, at home. Fluent English was also seen as an important force in upward mobility while the Chinese language did not seem to have any useful function outside the home. It was, therefore, not surprising that even though most parents interviewed acknowledged the value of Chinese only half of them sent their children to the weekend schools.

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