As early Chinese immigrants aimed to settle into life in Australia, it was evident that there was a need to overcome the language barrier. Some publishers printed phrasebooks that specifically catered to life in the Victorian Goldfields through the use of the names of various towns and colloquial terms.

Most were set out with the Chinese meaning in Chinese characters, along with the English meaning and then a line with Chinese characters which approximated the phonetic sound of the English meaning. This method of sounding out the words was effective. Understandably, it led to the distinct pronunciation of some words forming the exaggerated Chinese accent.

Many of these phrase books were published in Canton as it was the primary area from where people emigrated to Australia. A large number of phrasebooks were also published in Hong Kong, due to the nuanced understanding across cultures where British law and society were well understood by publishers.

The dates that the various editions of the phrasebooks were published can be deduced by the kinds of terms it references e.g. references to steam trams or the kinds of activities the publishers anticipated its readers would undertake. These were indicative of the time period. Activities such as market gardening and dry cleaning came to the fore later than mining among the Chinese immigrants.

Here is an example of the table of contents for one of the popular phrasebooks:

  • words for greengrocers
  • words suitable for the use of stores
  • words suitable for carpenters to use
  • words suitable for use in court
  • words suitable for pressing for debts
  • words for applying for a situation (job)
  • words suitable for use in ordering cloth
  • words suitable for buying clothes, shoes, socks
  • words suitable for cooks to use
  • words suitable for hawkers
  • words suitable for use to let house & gardens
  • words suitable for making bargains
  • words suitable for use on board steamers
  • travel by train and bus around Sydney
  • troubles in the streets
  • buying medicine from dispensaries
  • terms of relationship

This demonstrates the breadth of activities undertaken by Chinese immigrants.

Here are some examples of anticipated conversations:

Buyer- ‘how cheap’

Seller- cheaper than anyone else in Sydney

Madam-will you let me have three cucumbers for twopense?

Seller– No madam I am sorry you cannot, they cost me more than that each, plus labour– profit small, money hard to make-

Madam– very well let me have half a dozen, come round for money tomorrow-

Seller– no madam, cannot do that-

Madam- why?-

Seller– don’t sell on credit-

Madam– why is that?-

Seller– capital too small- a certain lady owes me nearly 3 pounds and it has been more than 6 months and she still has not paid me back yet-

Madam-are you afraid that I may run away—

Seller– oh no not at all because I have but little capital now, I can't get them on credit- if I had some more capital then I would not mind—

Madam– well I don’t want to buy any today-

Seller– very sorry I cannot oblige you

These honest conversations anticipated by the publishers are quite humorous in retrospect but also telling of the issues that arose when dealing with potentially insensitive Australian customers.


Cantonese-English Phrasebook, dated 1862. Phrase and words contained within the book show that it was specifically designed for Chinese going to gold rushes in California, Victoria, and New South Wales. The phrases were particularly designed for merchants. Chinese Museum Collection 2012.26.1