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Archaeologists Unearth Trove of Artifacts From 19th-Century Australian Chinatown

Chinese immigrants created a community in the Frog’s Hollow neighborhood of Brisbane

An archival photo of the main street in the Frog's Hollow neighborhood of Brisbane, Australia (Cross River Rail Project)
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Excavations in Brisbane, Australia, have uncovered an array of artifacts from a lively 19th-century neighborhood known as Frog’s Hollow. Archaeological work took place as part of the Cross River Rail project, which is set to expand the city’s railway lines.

The trove of roughly 200 items includes ceramics, tobacco and opium pipes, leather goods, bottles, and home goods, reports Tony Moore for the Brisbane Times.

As archaeologist Kevin Rains tells the Times, the objects belonged to a multicultural, working-class community that included what may have been Brisbane’s first Chinatown. Based on the range of artifacts found, the neighborhood appears to have hosted eateries, pubs, a saddlery, leather shops, grocers and boarding houses.

“The items we've found show us that it was a very ethnically diverse population, there being a red-light district—or slum, as the media of the time called it,” says Rains. “It was originally developed as a warehouse district as it was close to the wharves, with sailors and workers who moved through the many boarding houses and hotels there.”

Ceramic shards
Shards of ceramics found below Albert Street in Brisbane (Cross River Rail Project)

Frog’s Hollow derives its name from its location in a low-lying, swampy part of town bisected by Albert Street. An excerpt from the book Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History describes Frog’s Hollow as dilapidated and unsanitary—conditions exacerbated by the mildew, rot and dampness of the swamp upon which it was built.

Radical Brisbane notes that the neighborhood featured a cluster of brothels, as well as bars, opium dens and gambling rooms. Rains tells Jessica Hinchliffe of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that two small, intricately decorated metal needles used for cleaning and packing opium pipes were among the most intriguing artifacts unearthed during the dig.

The center of the area’s nascent Chinatown was a group of nine shops called the Nine Holes.

“It was a low commercial terrace and it was called that as it had nine tiny shops in it,” says Rains to the ABC. “Most of the tenants in it were Chinese businesses, but there were also European and British businesses, and South Sea Islanders working and living in the area as well.”

Opium picks
A pair of decorated metal opium picks (Cross River Rail Project)

Brisbane experienced an influx of Chinese immigrants—many of whom had come to Queensland during the gold rush at Gympie, as Rains tells the Timesduring the late 1800s. By the 1880s, “the gold rushes began to peter out,” he adds; due to legislation preventing Chinese people “from prospecting and working in the gold fields, … [many] moved into Brisbane and began setting up business there.”

White Australians targeted the Chinese community of Frog’s Hollow with virulent racism in both the press and in everyday life, according to Radical Brisbane. On May 5, 1888, an anti-Chinese mob numbering more than 2,000 roamed the area, terrorizing Chinese businesses and homes, breaking windows with rocks, looting stores, and shouting bigoted comments.

Despite these difficult conditions, the residents of Frog’s Hollow endured. Excavations at the Nine Holes site have yielded such well-preserved specimens as leather boots and horseshoes, but Rains tells the ABC that his favorite discovery is a concrete slab with the paw prints of a small dog or puppy stamped into its surface.

“This tells us a bit more about the domestic life, and that it wasn’t all vices and drugs and alcohol,” he says. “There were many ordinary people getting on with their ordinary lives.”

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