NOW AT PEACE: The grave of Maryborough councillor James Chiam.
NOW AT PEACE: The grave of Maryborough councillor James Chiam. George Seymour

Looking back: The tale of a Maryborough councillor

ONE of the most significant and informative heritage sites on the Fraser Coast is the Maryborough Cemetery. Here thousands of memorials mark the final resting places of men, women and children.

At the heart of the cemetery is the Mortuary Chapel, built in 1883 and 1884 to a design by the highly regarded architect Willoughby Powell.

Powell also designed Baddow House and the Federal Hotel.

It is through this open structure that the paths coming from the various sections for different denominations converge.

It's not just the grand memorials with interesting stonework and statues that provide insights into our past.

Each and every monument in the cemetery represents a different strand in the history of our region.

One example is the large, but simple, memorial for James Chiam standing near the Walker St side of the cemetery.

Originally from Amoy in China, he arrived in Australia in January 1852 and soon after commenced a five-year indentured labour contract on the Boondooma Station.

He was by most accounts impulsive, hot-headed and obsessive, however he was also recognised for his intelligence and charisma. He was often before the courts for offences of one sort or another.

Chiam completed his indenture in 1857 and moved to Maryborough where he became a butcher.

By December of that year he was in custody on charges of assaulting a "respectable married woman" with the intent to commit a rape.

He was found guilty on the lesser charge of common assault and sentenced to four months of imprisonment in Brisbane Gaol.

He was in Maryborough at a time of growth and change and in 1861 the young town elected its first council. Of the six councillors elected, four would resign during the first year.

One of these resignations was George Howard.

At the by-election to fill his seat, Chiam was nominated as a candidate and won.

His victory was in fact a landslide, with Chiam receiving 81 votes, Southerden getting 14 and the final three candidates Melville, Brown and Wright only getting one vote apiece, presumably their own.

For the time, the nomination - let alone election - of someone of Asian background was remarkable. Maryborough had elected the first Asian man to public office in Australia.

Historic as it was, Chiam's success should not be seen as evidence of Maryborough being an early example of successful multiculturalism.

This was a protest vote organised by a group opposed to the town's newly incorporated status.

The strategy was that were Chiam to be elected it would bring the council into "contempt" with the result that the rest of the aldermen would resign in protest and in so doing cause the council to become defunct.

Chiam's first council meeting was not a success. He spoke very little and when he did it was in Chinese or a hybrid dialect.

He was threatened by the chairman with a fine of £5 for infringing the by-laws for speaking out of turn.

At his second meeting, he was the subject of some mirth for voting against a motion which he had actually seconded.

The political career of Councillor James Chiam was not off to a good start. As the Chronicle report of that second meeting concludes:

"... There being no other business the meeting terminated.

Alderman Chiam then rose and commenced to speechify, at the same time producing a document which he intended to read, but the Aldermen at once left their seats."

Chiam's political career was brief; he did not stand for re-election in February 1862.

However, it wasn't long before Chiam would be involved in another turning point in Maryborough's history.

In October 1862 the Ariadne arrived at Maryborough direct from Liverpool.

This is a very significant ship in the history of Maryborough, being the very first direct immigration vessel.

One of the immigrants on this historic voyage was nineteen year old Sophia Gorton.

Whether he met her on the wharves upon landing or later in town, Chiam and Sophia certainly became acquainted soon after her arrival as within a matter of days they were married.

However, things did not go smoothly and within a month he was before the courts charged with ill-treating her.

The relationship was a rocky one and by December 1862 it was pronounced entirely over, but they were later to reconcile for a period.

This man now buried in the Maryborough Cemetery was constantly before the courts on all manner of civil and criminal matters including disputes about payments, being prosecuted for carting without a licence, further assault charges, disputes about loans, not registering a dog, and even charged with keeping a ferocious dog.

He had a restless and contentious life but now lies in peace in our historic cemetery.

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