Chinese miners arrived in very large numbers in the Braidwood district from 1858 on. Their arrival was a reaction to the start of a sustained mining boom in the district in the previous year, the introduction of punitive taxes and immigration restrictions in Victoria and South Australia, and a reduction of the licence fee in NSW in 1857, now deemed a miner's right. By 1859 the Chinese miners were well established on the major alluvial fields in the Braidwood and Shoalhaven District, in particular Araluen, Majors Creek, Bells Creek, Jembaicumbene and Mongarlowe. At least 1500 Chinese miners at any one year between 1858 and 1862 were on the Jembaicumbene and Mongarlowe fields combined, and at least 500 on other fields. But these figures may have been considerably higher, for proportionately they were a very significant part of the mining population, and remained as such at least until the early 1870s, and on some fields, beyond. The remains of their diggings and camp sites can be found throughout the district, but in particular on the Mongarlowe goldfield and along the Shoalhaven River. Elsewhere in the district, but in particular on the Jembaicumbene and Araluen goldfields, many of the sites have been destroyed by gold dredging and farming.
In the Braidwood district the Chinese miners were, as elsewhere in Australia, willing immigrants. Although some paid their own way, most came on what is called the credit-ticket system, and were sponsored by merchants in Hong Kong and Australia. After their arrival they were monitored by headmen or bosses in association with fraternal organisations such as native place associations or secret societies (referred to as hui), the best known of which was the Hung Men Society. An extensive social network surrounded these men, securing their employment and taking care of their needs, as well as ensuring their financial obligations were met. Their organisation as miners also owed much to the kongsi, which was an economic organisation of shareholding partners, with several dozen members, sometimes more. The Chinese preference of working in large cooperative groups served them well, and much of their success can be attributed to this mode of working. They often purchased mining claims from European miners, thus allowing many Europeans to exit the diggings profitably and much sooner than may have otherwise been the case. Most Chinese miners left the diggings, not because they were hounded off, but because they had 'made their pile'.
The Chinese men were not just miners, but business entrepreneurs and market gardeners, both forms of enterprise constituting profitable and relatively secure activities, for many of their customers were Europeans. Chinese gardens were located on all the main goldfields and in and near Braidwood. Perhaps the largest was at 'Mona', just outside Braidwood. Several were located on the Jembaicumbene and Araluen goldfields. At Jembaicumbene a large garden was located near the Chinese village, and others on 'Glendaruel' and 'Durham Hall'. Chinese gardens were also located near Braidwood on the slopes of Mt Gillamatong, at Majors Creek, Mongarlowe and at 'Manar'. At Araluen an observer in 1896 commented that the Chinese gardens were the 'only pleasant colouring in the whole landscape'.
On the mining fields the Chinese miners lived in small mining camps or in larger villages located on the outskirts of the main European villages. The largest Chinese village was at Jembaicumbene; only a few Chinese people lived in Braidwood. Almost all Chinese men lived and worked in accordance to Chinese traditions and allegiances, worshipping in their temples and being buried in Chinese cemeteries. Chinese temples and cemeteries were located on the Araluen, Jembaicumbene and Mongarlowe goldfields. Most Chinese men were also members of fraternal associations such as the district associations or the Hung Men brotherhood. Very few of the Chinese men married, but when they did, they chose mainly European or Aboriginal partners.
Serious incidents of racial violence on the Braidwood goldfields were rare. One factor was the degree of economic co-existence and interdependence between the Europeans and Chinese. Thanks to their successful organisation and work habits, Chinese miners were in a position to purchase mining claims from European miners, and were also valued for their role as storekeepers and market gardeners. Other factors were the well-established presence of the police and courts in the district and the over-arching control of the fraternal organisations. An absence of violence did not mean that miners or townsfolk always welcomed the Chinese miners, and racial prejudices and ill-feeling still often surfaced, the local press sometimes referring to them in disparaging terms. But the Chinese miners were very well served by their mode of organisation to resist most incursions by Europeans and were well placed to force the issue with the European miners, rather than pursue disputes through the courts. That there were only limited incidents of this nature can possibly be attributed to the over-arching control of the district associations and hui. But there was much less control over disputes between members of different fraternal associations and clashes between groups of Chinese miners occurred on several occasions.
After 1875, the mining population - Chinese as well as European - was in serious decline because of falling yields and low rainfall. Many of the Chinese men and their families moved into the towns and villages, in particular Braidwood, and this movement was accompanied by a change in associations and allegiances. Almost all the town dwellers were members of a Christian church and when deceased were buried in the town cemetery. Two of the most notable Chinese entrepreneurs in this period were Mei Quong Tart and the Nomchong brothers, Shong Foon and Chee Dock. Quong Tart was perhaps the best-known Chinese person in late nineteenth century NSW, and a fine example of a Chinese immigrant who successfully bridged the racial divide and in so doing helped pave the way for many others to follow suit. He made his fortune on the Bells Creek goldfields and was a member and patron of many Braidwood institutions, such as the lodges, sporting clubs and the Anglican church. Quong Tart departed for Sydney in 1882, where he ran several successful businesses; he married a local woman, Margaret Scarlett.
Shong Foon Nomchong arrived in Australia in the 1860s and was a storekeeper on the Mongarlowe goldfields, later setting up a store in Braidwood He sent for his brother Chee Dock, who was living in California, in 1877 and the two men became business partners. In 1881 he married Ellen Lupton, a European woman; they had four children. After Shong Foon's death in 1889, the Mongarlowe business was sold and Chee Dock concentrated his business activities in Braidwood. He married a Chinese woman and became the patriarch of a large family with responsibility for Shong Foon's family as well as his own. Chee Dock's family were adherents of the Roman Catholic church and very highly respected in the town and district.
Chee Dock's family was heavily involved in philanthropic and charitable activities and owned many businesses. Some time in the early 1900s he added fruit and confectionery to his shop, developed a flourishing general store business and began a carrying business plying between Braidwood, Tarago and Nelligen. With the advent of motorised transport, he acquired a trucking fleet to carry a wide range of produce throughout the district and the south coast. Later he purchased several pastoral holdings in the district. Chee Dock's thirteen surviving children were almost all, whether male or female, involved in the family businesses, although some also started their own. One of his sons, Leopold (Mick) also managed several rural properties in partnership with his father, and ran a liquor business in town. Another son, Paul, began a movie theatre in 1913, and ran several other enterprises such as an electrical business, a furniture and drapery store and an auctioneer's business. The Nomchong family business did not close until 1980, after 103 years of trading and the family still operates important retail businesses in Wallace Street today.
But the Nomchongs were not the only Chinese people in town. Another Chinese entrepreneur was Nam You, a Braidwood storekeeper who ran a mining enterprise in the late 1880s in partnership with Quong Tart and the Nomchong family. He passed away in 1889. Also prominent was the Chuchin family, whose presence in the Braidwood district dates back to the 1850s. The patriarch Joseph married a European woman, Ellen Daley, and the family moved to Braidwood in 1883, where they ran a drapery store. One of his sons, Thomas, married Catherine Herbert and worked for a time as a mailman, market gardener and an interpreter for the Chinese people. One of his sons, William Alfred, married Annie (Pat) May Norman, and together they worked for about 50 years as café owners. The Ah You family could also date their presence in the Braidwood district back to the 1850s. The patriarch, James Ah You, married Annie Elizabeth Lathan (Lillie) and lived at Jembaicumbene until 1874, when the family moved to Braidwood, where James was a storekeeper. One of their sons, William Cecil, worked in various jobs, including as a coach driver and assistant storekeeper for the Nomchong family, before starting his own tobacconist's business. By comparison the Chewying family (original name Chu Ying) were late comers, having first lived in Moruya, where the patriarch, George was a fruiterer and chef, and later a storekeeper. He married Sophie Lupton, a Braidwood resident. His son, Albert, married a part-Aboriginal woman, Regina Duren, the family moving to Braidwood in the 1900s, where Albert worked as a mechanic and chauffeur for the Nomchongs. From 1949 to 1968 the family rented the Monterey café, which was run by Albert's son, Geoff, and his mother. In 1968 Geoff Chewying built a shop/café; he left the district in the 1970s.
A measure of the importance of the Chinese - Australian heritage to the town of Braidwood can be gauged by the number of buildings associated with them. A significant proportion of the commercial buildings in the town, almost all of which are on Wallace Street, have a Chinese heritage, much of it dating back to the 19th century. Fortunately, several photos exist of these buildings and members of the Nomchong family and employees. The buildings have changed little in appearance and are easily recognisable from the photos. Members of the Nomchong, Ah You and Chuchin families, and Nam You, are buried in the Braidwood cemetery.