The Chinese in Colonial Rabaul: An Informal History

28 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2014 Last revised: 4 Jul 2014

See all articles by John D. Conroy

John D. Conroy

Australian National University (ANU) - Crawford School of Public Policy

Date Written: June 27, 2014


This paper is concerned with the economic history of immigrant Chinese in colonial Rabaul and its hinterland (in German, later Australian, New Guinea) over almost a century to the Independence of Papua New Guinea in 1975. It is a companion piece to another study concerned with how Tolai people of the hinterland accommodated themselves to the colonial market economy (Conroy, forthcoming). Without pretension to novelty in the historical narrative it asserts the value of viewing events through the lens of 'informal economy', as constructed by Keith Hart. The Chinese are shown as operating an informal economy parallel to, and inter-penetrating, the formal colonial market economy. That formal economy conformed with norms of Weberian 'rational-legal' bureaucracy, guided (in the case of the Wilhelmine state) by an ideology of 'national-economic purpose'. Under Australian administration, and after the Pacific War, the prevalent intellectual model became one of 'economic development'. Under both administrations, however, Chinese demonstrated to the Tolai that it was possible to participate in the market economy without complying fully with bureaucratic norms. The Germans found it difficult to confine Chinese to dependent and subordinate roles, and Chinese often colluded with Tolai to frustrate German (and, later, Australian) efforts to regulate economic activity to their own advantage. The paper describes the growth and increasing formalization of Chinese business in Rabaul, while noting a continuing strain of informality in their economic activity right up until Independence. It suggests that knowledge of the history of the early colonial-period Chinese may be useful for understanding the character and trajectory of 'new' Chinese settlement in Papua New Guinea in the twenty-first century.

Keywords: Overseas Chinese, informal economy, regulation, colonialism, bureaucracy, entrepreneurship, German New Guinea, Papua New Guinea, Max Weber, Keith Hart, Peter Bauer, Bernhard Dernburg

JEL Classification: F54, F63, J15, N97, O15, O17, Z13

Suggested Citation

Conroy, John David, The Chinese in Colonial Rabaul: An Informal History (June 27, 2014). Crawford School Research Paper No. 14-07, Available at SSRN: or

John David Conroy (Contact Author)

Australian National University (ANU) - Crawford School of Public Policy ( email )

ANU College of Asia and the Pacific
J.G. Crawford Building, #132, Lennox Crossing
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200

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