Who Were the Chinese ANZACS?

200 Chinese ANZACs fought for Australia during WWI

When World War One broke in 1914, Australia responded. Brave young men enlisted to defend their country, many giving their lives.

But not everyone was allowed to enlist.

Due to a policy known as “The White Australia Policy” those seen as not “white enough” or not from “sufficient European origin or descent” were barred from enlisting.

Chinese Australians took part in parades to celebrate Federation in Melbourne.

Image: Wikimedia Chinese Australians took part in parades to celebrate Federation in Melbourne.

Many Chinese-Australians born here after their parent’s migration to Australia during the gold rush in the 1800s were forbidden to enlist. But as Historian Emily Cheah Ah- Qune explains several managed to sign up earlier on in the Gallipoli campaign:

"Perhaps the rules were relaxed, perhaps medical officers were no longer as stringent in the criteria, and perhaps other young men saw what others had sacrificed for the country and went 'you know what? I'm going too'."

But most Chinese-Australians were turned away on sight:

We do know for a fact that some of the men who tried to enlist were barred from enlisting by medical officers because they were not substantially European enough.

218 Chinese-Australians served on the frontline, 19 were decorated for valour, 15 were in the White Horse regiment, and 40 lost their lives during battle.

One Victorian man Benjamin Moy Ling enlisted twice before being accepted in 1917 at the age of 31.

If Australia's good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for.

Today there are many families who are still hesitant to accept their Chinese heritage, due in part to The White Australia Policy.

Australian Kevin Hughes discovered his Chinese lineage after learning of three Chinese-Australian great uncles who fought on the Western Front. His last name Hughes was changed from Huey, and for a long time, Kevin believed his heritage to be Welsh.

Thomas Huey, one of his great uncles, was a writer and regularly sent postcards back from the frontline to his sister Rosetta:

“When the hot weather came on the stench was awful. There was dead Germans laying all over the place. Of course, we soon got used to all these sights. We had barbed wire paddocks just near us where the German prisoners was (sic) kept. They used to look awful when they was brought in, dirty and not shaved and half starving. Will let you know more later, as in a letter. From your loving brother, Tom."

One particularly famous Chinese-Anzac was the first Australian of Chinese descent to play first-class cricket. Robert George Poon played for Queensland and made international headlines before enlisting and joining the frontline in France as Lance Corporal with the 15th Battalion.

Hunter Robert

Image: Hunter Robert  Poon in Uniform, Wikimedia

Despite initial exclusion from the army, many Chinese-Australians made several attempts to enlist.

“They wanted to enlist, they loved their country and felt a real sense of belonging to it.” Tracy Lee, historian and teacher, explains.

Many young Australians died defending their country, heritage and life. Australia should never forget the courage and determination of the Chinese-Anzacs in a time of exclusion and discrimination.

On this day, please take some time to remember the brave women and men who died defending our country.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Lest we forget.

Header: Chinese Anzac Billy Singh, AWM: P08403.001

Related Articles

Discuss this article


Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
We use our own and third-party cookies to improve our services, personalise your advertising and remember your preferences. If you continue browsing, or click on the accept button on this banner, we understand that you accept the use of cookies on our website. For more information visit our Cookies Policy AcceptClose cookie policy overlay