Celestial city: Sydney’s Chinese story

In 1888 several boats carrying Chinese immigrants sailed through Sydney Heads into a crisis that would shape the nation.

Chinese people had been arriving in Sydney for over 30 years, but by 1888 growing ill-will towards them turned into open hostility. The flashpoint came when immigrants aboard the SS Afghan, Menmuir and Guthrie were detained and deported under harsh new immigration laws hastily rushed through Parliament.

The ‘Afghan incident’ was catalysed by greed, fear and prejudice - the threat of cheap Chinese labour, compounded by prejudices demonising the Chinese and their way of life. It was a critical moment in the history of the Chinese in Australia, paving the way for the White Australia policy and the exclusion of Asian immigrants for the next 80 years.

Celestial City explores the causes and consequences of this nation-defining crisis through the stories of Sydney’s Chinese people who were there before, during and after this crucial moment in our history.

It celebrates the diversity of experiences and successes within the Chinese community by recognising the perseverance and achievement of individuals and families and the legacy this has given Sydney with such a strong and vibrant Chinese community today.

Past exhibition

  • 29 March 2014 - 12 October 2014