Image Chinese fruit and vegetable hawker, Brisbane

TLF ID R8180

This black-and-white photograph shows a Chinese fruit and vegetable seller, or hawker, known as 'Vegetable John' according to the accompanying rather derogatory description of the time, posing at the steps of a suburban house. He is wearing Western-style clothes and is resting his shoulder pole and two very large open-weave cane baskets on the ground. The baskets appear to contain fresh produce. A household garden and picket fence are in the background.

Educational details

Educational value
  • By 1888 Chinese market gardeners provided almost all of Brisbane's fresh fruit and vegetables and the man shown would have sold fresh produce, probably on a regular basis, directly to householders in the suburbs. His stock would have included tomatoes, cauliflowers, herbs, potatoes and leafy vegetables such as lettuces. Many Chinese market gardeners also sold produce at the Roma Street Markets through an agent.
  • This man would have been part of a Chinese community in Brisbane of around 450 people, some probably ex-miners from the gold rushes. In the early 1880s Chinese people tended to be employed as market gardeners, furniture makers, servants and traders. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (one of the Australian laws known as the White Australia Policy) caused a great decline in the Chinese population and the original Chinese market gardens disappeared.
  • The man was probably a member of a group, typically of up to ten people, who leased a market garden and, since most would have had limited English, he would have been assigned to sell the produce as the one most familiar with the language. Such groups often had links with urban Chinese storekeepers who sometimes helped with financial support. This teamwork and networking brought great success, encouraging them to continue to work in Australia.
  • The hawker's huge carry baskets and their connecting pole would have made him stand out in Brisbane and would have emphasised his difference in the eyes of his customers. Although his wares were essential, he probably would have been treated with suspicion and subjected to discrimination.
  • By hawking produce Chinese market gardeners ensured vegetables became a cheap staple in the Australian diet and contributed greatly to the health of communities such as Brisbane in the late 19th century, often supplying the only fresh produce there was. Chinese market gardens were spread throughout several suburbs, where a few old lychee and mango trees are still growing.
  • At the time market gardening was regarded as a traditional 'Chinese job' in Australia, not subject to competition from Europeans, who were mostly uninterested in the work. In the second half of the 19th century more than 100,000 Chinese arrived in Australia, largely from the poor southern areas around Guangzhou, and were often resented for 'taking jobs', even unwanted jobs, being culturally different and achieving success through their labours.
Year level

4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9

Learning area
  • History

Other details

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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
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  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
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