Bar-Lun Sui-Yee Wui
(Barron River Memorial Festival)

Chinese farmers

SAFCA Stratford Freshwater Community Association

Chinese junk passing down canal on North Johnstone River.
Image: Cairns Historical Society (A5493

By the early 1880s Chinese had established farms on the Barron River and were cultivating bananas. Chinese who were not naturalised were not allowed to buy land and so in order to raise crops they would lease land from farmers and landowners. The majority of the land they leased was not cleared and was leased for five years at one shilling per acre per year. The Chinese farmer would clear the land in order to grow crops and at the end of the five year lease the farmer increased the rent as high as £5 per acre per year as a result of the increased value due to it being cleared.

Some Chinese stayed on their blocks and made a living by market gardening, but many moved on to other uncleared blocks to make as much as they could while the rents was low. Bananas offered a quick return on these recently cleared blocks and by 1885 there were many banana farms on the rich alluvial soils of the Barron River, Freshwater Creek and Redlynch Valley. The fruit was taken into Cairns on sampans and by 1890 there was a large fleet trading up and down the river, most of the boats having been built along the river bank.

Chinese Sampans on the Barron

Down the Barron River…they [the Chinese] took their fruit to the wharves on their picturesque sampans – locally called junks – with their square cut sterns, bluff bows and single large lanteen sail ribbed with bamboo cane. The sampans varying from 25 to 35 feet in length, carvel built with a good ‘sheer’ fore and aft looked very graceful unloaded. The cuddy was aft generally made of cut down oil drums with cross bars laid to hold cooking pots. The fleet, the work of a Chinese boat builder with yards on the Barron, was housed in boat sheds lining the river.
Jones, p.252.

A sample of Chinese industry can be witnessed at Stratford where a Mongolian is rapidly building a boat to carry 15 tons for the Barron River trade. The vessel is in the familiar junk shape and the tools used are fearfully and wonderfully made, but the Chinaman is getting there just the same.
Cairns Post, 26 February 1890.

There are now quite a fleet of Chinese boats trading between the Barron River and the Cairns wharves the proprietors making with a charge of 3d per bunch for bananas about £5 a week each. The boats are well made and sail remarkably well.
Cairns Post, 28 January 1891, p.2.

Missing boat

The Under Secretary for the Treasury has received a telegram from Mr. J. K. Forbes, sub-collector of Customs at Cairns, stating that it has been reported to him that a banana junk manned by two Chinese left Cairns for the Barron River at 4 o’clock last Wednesday afternoon, and nothing has been seen of the vessel or its occupants since. As it had been blowing very strongly from the south-east it was feared that some accident had happened. Mr. Forbes added that he had despatched the pilot cutter to search the beach north of the Barron, and in the vicinity of Double Island.
The Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 8 March 1898, p.4

Barron River Memorial Festival

Around 1890 two Chinese men drowned when their boat carrying bananas capsized at the mouth of the Barron River. The Chinese community honoured their memory every August by sailing to the mouth of the Barron and burning candles, scattering joss paper and throwing provisions overboard in order that ‘the deceased might not hunger on their journey to the celestial abode.’

This annual event became known as the Bar-Lun Sui-Yee Wui, (Barron River Memorial Festival) and from around 1930 onwards it was held at San Remo (Machans Beach). A pig was roasted in the oven at the Lit Sung Goong Temple in Cairns and then the Chinese families travelled across the Barron at Stratford and down the rough bush road to the beach, many of them riding on the back of Ah Tong’s truck. At the picnic site lanterns were hung from the trees and there was an altar and a large timber model of the boat that had sunk.

SAFCA Stratford Freshwater Community Association

Chinese banana garden on Barron Flats, 1899, with gardener’s bark hut.
Photographer: Alfred Atkinson.
Image: Cairns Historical Society (C1620 and C1773)

The local Chinese on Sunday morning last paid their annual tribute to their departed countrymen in accordance with their customs by which the seventh month of their year which corresponds with the eighth month of our year is set apart for the purpose of literally speaking ‘laying their ghosts’. About ten o’clock on Sunday morning a multitude of crackers were let off near the Adelaide Company’s wharf and shortly afterwards a small sailing boat laden with Chinese set out of the inlet amid the sound of tom-toms and other instruments. The course taken was towards the mouth of the Barron River where some time ago two Chinamen [sic] were drowned. On arrival there candles were burnt and joss paper scattered in honor of their joss. A quantity of provisions were taken out in the boat and some of these were thrown overboard in order that the deceased might not hunger on their journey to the celestial abode. Many of our local European merchants contributed towards the cost of the excursion Messrs Burns Philp and Co subscribing £5. It is rather strange that the one Chinaman who in previous years refused to subscribe towards the cost of these ceremonies has since been numbered among the drowned and his forgiving countrymen on Sunday last dropped provisions in the water that drowned him.
Cairns Post, 20 August 1901. p.2.

Note the ‘Chinaman’ who refused to contribute and then drowned may have been the man found in the Barron by E Martin floating a short distance below the rice mill in 1896.
Cairns Argus, 29 January 1896 p.2.

Besides celebrating the traditional calendar festivals the Chinese at Cairns initiated a purely local ceremony connected with the annual laying of ghost, known as ‘Bar-lun Sui-Yee Wui’ or Barron River Memorial Festival. It resulted from the capsize of a banana-carrying junk all of whose occupants perished when it foundered at the mouth of the Barron River during the floods of 1890. The purpose of the ritual was to appease the spirits of the drowned persons who might otherwise turn into ‘kuei’ or malevolent ghosts and try and inflict a similar fate on the living. By a twist of fate one Chinese in Cairns who refused to contribute to the cost of the ceremony was himself drowned and this doubtless gave credence to fears about the evil intent of the spirits.
Top Sawyers, C May p.75.

[one of the annual festivals may have been] …a local tradition based upon the tragic loss of countrymen in a boating accident. Around 1890 the community suffered a great loss when a Chinese boat loaded with bananas sank at the mouth of the Barron River. Out of this disaster a local ceremony developed, the Bar-Lun Sui-Yee Wui, or Barron River Memorial Festival which lasted until 1941.
Sandi Robb, p.43.

Between 1930 and 1940….Privately many Chinese families observed Chi’ing Ming (laying of ghosts) at home, but the Bar-Lun Sui-Yee Wui or Barron River Memorial Festival continued to be an important social and spiritual event which involved the whole community. Held at Machans Beach (near the mouth of the Barron River. At the time Machans was known as San Remo), it was always a well attended day. The pig was roasted in the Lit Sung Goong Temple oven and then loaded along with lanterns, deities, crackers, incense, Temple paper and banners, onto a truck belonging to a leading merchant firm such as Lee Sang. The Chinese community would then make their way to the beach on the back of Ah Tong’s trucks, or by private motorbikes or family cars along rough bush tracks. The event was far from informal. The site was well organised and set up, with preparations being carried out in the week before including the construction of a paper effigy in the shape of a man. This would be burnt at the end of the ceremony. At the site a makeshift altar was erected under a canvas shade cloth. A table was positioned to take the two ceremonial candles and many large incense sticks. These were lit and fruit offerings such as apples and bananas positioned about the roast pig. Lanterns adorned the trees and removable painted timber panelling decorated the altar site, while an entrance arch further back marked the memorial picnic site which was adorned with a large timber model of a boat, representing the Chinese boat which sank in 1891. By 1939 the day was known as the Chinese Annual Memorial Picnic…As it was regarded as a formal occasion, men and women dressed smart and casual for the day when honouring those who had gone before them. As part of the community fun, sports were organized such as running events and high jump. Trophies were given out as prizes.
Sandi Robb, pp.117-8.


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