Published: May 2017
Author(s): Michael Woods

This paper examines the experiences of Chinese settlers in the Cairns district of northern Queensland, Australia, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a potential early expression of a ‘rural cosmopolitanism’ that has more recently been associated in the geographical literature with contemporary international migration. In contrast to other parts of Australia, where Chinese immigration was associated with mining and with racial tensions and segregation, Chinese settlers around Cairns tended to be farmers and store-keepers, and contemporary accounts hint at a degree of tolerance and cross-community interaction that suggests an early form of rural cosmopolitanism. Moreover, the mobilities and aspirations of the Chinese migrants prefigure those of present-day ‘cosmopolitan’ migrants, whilst the discourses of anti-Chinese agitators are echoed in the concerns, fears and prejudices of current anti-immigration sentiments. Drawing on in-depth archival research, the paper documents the dynamics, experiences and relationships of Chinese settlers and debates concerning their presence, from the 1880s to the depletion of the community in the 1910s under pressure from anti-Chinese legislation. In so doing, the paper seeks to draw lessons from this historical perspective for our understanding of international migration to rural areas, and for the possibilities for rural cosmopolitanism in the twenty-first century.