The Silk Merchant Who Rocked The Boat

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

The 1892 Royal Commission into the alleged bribery of the Police in Number 4, the current site of Sergeant Lok, set alight an already volatile tension between the Chinese and Europeans in The Rocks. But the man at the centre of the accusations are as much a mystery to us today as he was in 1892.

Big Trouble in Little Canton

Against the backdrop of White Australia Policy, racial tension has always run high in The Rocks.

In NSW, the arrival of the Chinese began in the 1850s with the gold rush, with many settling in The Rocks between George, Argyle, Cambrige and Essex Streets, creating an area known as "Little Canton".

The Chinese in George Street transformed the European spaces they occupied, creating laundry stores, trading centres and markets.

"First impressions are bad...We have arrived in a den of Chinamen", remarked fresh arrivals combing by the P. and O. boats.

For many years, local whites had resented the Chinese presence in the Rocks, and has disorganisedly opposed it. but in July 1891, a group of shopkeepers met in a private room in the Fortune of War Hotel, and formed the Anti-Chinese Gambling League.

Mr. Goldtown

A few weeks after the formation of the Anti-Chinese Gambling League, a respectably-dressed, well-educated Chinese silk merchant attended one of their meetings.

Brought up to the law in Canton, Goldtown was a confirmed member of the Church of England, and was said to be "very remarkable...on account of being such a good English scholar... one fo the best educated Chinamen that has come to this country..."

But aside from introducing himself as a Silk Merchant, little was known about Mr. Goldtown.

"He represented that he was a consul of China, and represented about twenty-five Chinese merchants in the city, who desired him to attend the League for the purpose of assisting in its objects".

So what was his purpose at The League?

Bribery at No. 4

At this infamous meeting of The League, Mr Goldtown presented twenty-five pounds - one for every anonymous Chinese merchant he represented.

But more than just money, Goldtown informed them of the bribery of police at No. 4 Police Station. He told the league that 2 pennies from every shilling at the local gambling-houses' prize funds each week was set aside for the police.

The rumours of the police bribery was not news to The League, but this was the smoking gun they were waiting for.

Soon afterwards, in September of 1892, the League formed a deputation and officially took their grievances to the Colonial Secretary, Sir Henry Parkes.

A Royal Commission Begins

The chief complaints of the deputation were that "the gambling houses of Lower George Street were blatantly illegal, paying inflated rents, attracting larrikins and being rude to women, causing "respectable' pedestrian traffic, which would normally have flowed along George Street on its way down to the Quay and soun into the city, to find other routes, thus damaging the area's legitimate businesses."

But most pointedly, it accused the local police of NO 4 Station, the Rocks, of taking bribes - gold watches and diamond rings - in return for allowing the houses to remain open for business.

In responding, Sir Henry Parkes separated the issue of the police taking bribes from the other charges against the Chinese.

If that proved true, he said, and 'that subscriptions were made with the view of rendering their services as conservators of peace and good order to the Staes useless, he would immediately investigate the matter.

The Vanishing Silk Merchant

Little else is known about the Silk Merchant, and the Chinese community generally exhibited mixed feelings about him. At first impressed by his skills and respectable appearance, his subsequent involvement in gambling and bad debts soon made enemies.

After their initial meeting, the members of the League went to Quong Tart, a respected Chinese businessmen, to enquire regarding Goldtown's status. Tart said he believed he was a respectable man, but when other 'respectable Chinese' were asked, they were told that he was 'no good'.

Becoming afraid of attack by his countrymen, he had come to the last two meetings of the League by cab.

Some speculate that Goldtown's motive had been to cause all gambling-houses, except the ones in which he had an interest, to be removed.

Whatever the truth behind his motives, by the time of the enquiry, Goldtown has 'cleared out'. Many believe him to be sent away by a gambling syndicate.

Excerpts from Many Inventions, historical archaeology and the Chinese in The Rocks, Sydney, 1890-1930. Lyndon, 1996, the Australian National University.

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