While in Hong Kong I’ve been reading, and really enjoying, Huifeng Shen’s book China’s Left-Behind Wives (NUS Press, Singapore, 2012). The book tells the story of women who stayed in China while their husbands migrated from Fujian province to Southeast Asia between the 1930s and 1950s.
Shen interviewed a number of these left-behind wives, all in their 80s or older, and their oral history testimonies provide a poignant insight into some of the most intimate aspects of their lives — the sorts of things that I struggle to uncover in my own research. Although the women in Shen’s book are from Fujian not Guangdong, and their husbands migrated to Southeast Asia not Australia, her work rings very true with what I know of the lives of wives of Chinese men in Australia. One of the most fascinating things for me, who approaches the subject from an Australian perspective, is seeing the Chinese side of story, particularly where it comes to the question of first and second marriages.
My research has uncovered the unhappiness that many Australian wives felt on discovering that their Chinese husbands had wives, and sometimes children, in China, and the difficulties Australian wives faced when they travelled to China with their husbands. Shen’s research shows that overseas marriages and overseas families created unhappiness, and hardships, for Chinese wives too. Shen notes that — as the result of often long-term separation from their husbands and feelings of fear, jealousy, hurt and betrayal — ‘many fankeshen [left-behind wives] hated the second wives of their husbands, especially the fanpo [‘barbarian’ foreign women], even if they never met them’ (Shen 2012, p. 100).
Some years ago, when I was in a ‘Cuban’ village in southwest Taishan, I was told a story about foreign wives. The story went that foreign wives of Chinese men would give their husbands a dose of poison before they made a return visit to China, a poison that could be reversed only if the man returned overseas to his foreign wife for the antidote within a particular time. My informant stated that this was the cause of the death of his uncle, who had been a laundryman in Cuba in the 1920s and was known to have had a Cuban wife.
I was very interested then to read in China’s Left-Behind Wives that the emigrant communities of Quanzhou, Fujian, also ‘believed that fanpo sometimes … cast spells or hexes on the male migrants who married them’ (Shen 2012, p. 101 n. 58). Furthermore:
Wives who visited their husbands overseas were very careful when they met an overseas wife, believing that the woman might cast spells that would make them sick or insane, or cause them to die. Wives were particularly wary of food and drink provided by an overseas wife, suspecting something harmful might have been added. Hong Q [a left-behind wife interviewed by Shen] said she experienced stomach pain after eating with her husband when she visited him in the Philippines. She did not eat any food prepared by the overseas wife, but she believed that the woman put a spell on her by touching her hand three times (Shen 2012, pp. 100-101).
I came across China’s Left-Behind Wives by accident in the bookshop here in Tsim Sha Tsui, but I’d suggest you seek it out a bit more proactively. As Shen notes in her conclusion, ‘the story of the left-behind wives is not merely an appendix to male migration history but a subject worthy of study in its own right, and an integral part of the history of women, the history of migration, and the history of China’ (Shen 2012, p. 216). Here, here.
The village of Shiquli in Luokeng, Xinhui (新會區羅坑鎮和平村石渠里) sits at the heart of one of my ongoing research projects. Victorian-born James Minahan (1876-?) spent more than twenty-five years in Shiquli, from the age of about five to thirty-one, when he returned to Australia. Arrested as a prohibited immigrant after failing the Dictation Test on his arrival in early 1908, his case proceeded to the High Court (Potter v. Minahan 1908) and he was eventually granted permission to stay in Australia. Whether he did or not I still don’t know, even after exhausting every lead I have found in the archives in Australia and now visiting Shiquli for a third time.
While I might not yet have uncovered James Minahan’s fate, I have discovered that the tiny village of Shiquli sent dozens of men to Australia from the 1860s into the twentieth century. The earliest were gold-miners, with some becoming storekeepers, but many in later years were simply gardeners. While I was in Shiquli last Saturday, we found a poignant piece of material heritage that reflects this history.
Stashed away in a shed next to one of the few huaqiao houses in the village — the house of Chen Zhidian 陳稙典 (pronounced Tsun Zek Din in Xinhui dialect), built on his return to the village in 1948 (22°27’08.14″N 112°55’47.93″E) — was an old shovel that was said to have been brought back from Australia many years before. Once the dirt and a bit of the rust was cleaned off, I could just make out the words SAVAGE and SYDNEY underneath an insignia of a six-pointed star in a circle. Bingo!
The shovel has now been acquired by the fine gentlemen of the Kong Chew Chan Clan Culture Research Association (岡州陳氏文化研究會), with whom I was visiting the village, who plan to treasure it appropriately. I promised to find out what I could about the shovel’s origins, so this post is a brief outline of what I’ve been able to find out online from China (honestly, what would we do without Trove?).
W. Savage & Co., the manufacturers of the shovel, were originally based in Newcastle, New South Wales. In 1926, a notice was published in Sydney’s Daily Commercial News that a new company, W. Savage & Co., had been registered to acquire the business of W. Savage & Co. at Newcastle. The company were wholesale and retail storekeepers, general merchants, ironmongers and engineers (Daily Commercial News, 12 January 1926). In the late 1920s the company was the Newcastle agent for a range of building and hardware products and machinery, including:
W. Savage & Co.’s involvement in shovel manufacturing began in mid-1928 when they set up a new factory at their premises in Parry Street, Cook’s Hill, Newcastle (Newcastle Sun, 2 July 1928).
A Mr Gaythwaite, ‘an experienced shovel-maker from Cumberland, England’ had, a number of years earlier, come up with a new design for a shovel which he patented under the name ‘Gaylac’. The shovel had corrugations on either side of the handle that were said to strengthen the shovel across the back of the blade and counteract leverage stress. Gaythwaite began manufacturing the shovels in partnership with a Mr Black in around 1926, just in their spare time, and distributing them in the Cessnock and Kurri Kurri districts in the Hunter Valley.
The shovels proved very popular and so Gaythwaite and Black went into partnership with W. Savage & Co. By 1929 ‘Gaylac-Star’ shovels featured prominently in W. Savage & Co.’s advertising (Newcastle Sun, 5 August 1929).
The shovels were made in Australia from entirely Australian materials — the billets were made by BHP and rolled by Lysaght’s into sheets from which the shovels were cut. They were then pressed into shape with a machine, tempered in an oil bath, and set and balanced by hand.
By the end of 1931, W. Savage & Co. was based in Sydney. In December that year they were in court arguing over the rent they could charge for the commercial premises they still owned in Parry Street, Newcastle (Newcastle Morning Herald, 23 December 1931). These premises had been for sale in mid-1930 and it seems likely that this was when W. Savage & Co. relocated to Sydney. The business was one of several in Parry Street that were broken into in August 1929 (Newcastle Sun, 24 August 1929), at which time a safe in the W. Savage & Co. offices was blown open and cash and a cheque were stolen.
W. Savage & Co.’s move to Sydney came around the time of the Great Depression (1929-1932), and it seems that it was after the difficult times of the depression that things took off. There aren’t any advertisements or articles about the company in the newspapers between 1929 and 1932.
In 1934 and 1935, Savage & Co. appeared before the Industrial Commission in a dispute over wages for two ironmongers they employed to manufacture shovels using a ‘specialised process’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 1924, 26 February 1935, 27 February 1935).
By the mid-1930s, the shovels were no longer being advertised as ‘Gaylac-Star’ shovels, but simply as ‘Star’ shovels, part of an expanding range of ‘Star’ products that included forks, scoops and spades. Their high quality was said to come from ‘years of experience in the heat treatment of the best quality Steels — the usage of first grade Handles — and the employment of highly skilled artisans’ (Newcastle Morning Herald, 12 October 1935).
In 1940 a fire broke out in the George Street factory caused by a burst oil pipe leading to the furnace. Twelve employees escaped from the fire, but overhead pulleys and other machinery were damaged (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 1940).
Export manifests show that W. Savage & Co. were exporting their shovels in the 1930s and 1940s to places as diverse as Papeete, Calcutta and Suva (Daily Commercial News, 25 January 1936, 12 June 1946, 30 December 1948).
The National Museum of Australia in Canberra has a Star shovel in its collection. It is part of the Claude Dunshea collection (who seems to have been a miner, judging from other items of his in the museum’s collection). The museum’s shovel has a very short handle, while the one in Shiquli has a long handle as shown in the 1930s advertisements.
For the first ten years of her married life, Ham Hop lived the life of a gum saan po (金山婆 jinshanpo), a Gold Mountain wife. Soon after they had married in Hong Kong in 1900, Ham Hop’s husband returned to Australia where he was a produce merchant in Victoria. Exactly where and how Ham Hop spent the years between 1900 and 1910 is not clear, but in June 1910 her husband returned with permission to bring her to live with him in Australia for six months.
When they arrived in Melbourne in November 1910, Ham Hop was already about two months pregnant and so with the birth of her daughter falling at around the time she was meant to leave Australia, permission was granted for her to remain further, but just temporarily. Over the next two years, her exemption certificate was extended a total of five times (including because of a second pregnancy and the birth of another daughter), until she finally left Australia for good in May 1913.
Ham Hop’s case is one of the most-cited examples of the injustice and unfairness of the White Australia Policy in the early decades of the twentieth century — except mostly Ham Hop’s name doesn’t appear in such discussions. If she is referred to directly, it’s mostly as Mrs Poon Gooey or Poon Gooey’s wife, and her story is known as the Poon Gooey case. Yet this case is framed around some of the most personal and intimate of moments in a woman’s life — her betrothal and marriage, her reunion with her migrant husband, her pregnancies, the births of her daughters, her post-natal health, breastfeeding and the health of her newborn daughters. In the article I’m writing about the case I want to make her the centre of the story, not her husband, not the bureaucrats, not the law, not public opinion.
Records in Australia tell us only so much about the lives of Chinese who lived in Australia. In the case of Ham Hop, they tell us quite a lot about the three years that she was in Victoria, but what of the years before, when as a young woman she lived far apart from her husband, and of the years after. Snippets about Poon Gooey in Australian newspapers suggest that the family did go back to the village for a time at least, even though he seems to have been working in Shanghai in the mid-1920s. Ever-hopeful of research miracles, I decided to see what, if anything, I could find out in China. And so here I am.
Regular readers will know that I’ve been thinking about Ham Hop and Poon Gooey for quite some time now. Having first identified a name that I’m satisfied to call her, other than Mrs Poon Gooey, and establishing that her husband was from Kaiping, the next thing was to identify his home village.
Why his, I hear you ask, and not hers? Because it will be near impossible to identify where Ham Hop was from and even if I did, the likelihood of anyone there knowing anything about a woman who married out of their village more than a century ago is less than zero. In Australian records she is Ham Hop or Ham See or Hop Poon Gooey or Hope Poon Gooey. My best guess is that she was from Kaiping or maybe Taishan or Heshan, that her surname was Tan (譚) and her given name He (合), pronounced hup in Kaiping dialect.
There was more to go on to identify Poon Gooey’s origins — a passenger list that listed Poon Gooey’s origins as ‘Hoiping’, other Poons in Victoria from Kaiping, and student passports of Poon boys (held in the National Archives) that named the villages they came from — and using the various village databases I narrowed it down to a few particular villages. The villages are in Kaiping city, Yueshan town, Qiaotou village (開平市月山鎮橋頭村). I thought possibly, just possibly, someone in one of them might know something about what happened to Poon Gooey and his family after they returned to China one hundred and two years ago.
In Kaiping I’m staying at an organic farm, Jiayiyuan (嘉頤圓), and Selia Tan and her husband joined me here for breakfast (congee, roasted sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, choy sum, a type of steamed cake called faat tay and fresh hot soy milk) before we set out for the villages. It was a good thing breakfast was so sustaining because it was afternoon tea time before we stopped for a break.
We hadn’t made any contact with the villages before turning up, so after turning off the main road we just drove until we spotted the gate of one of the villages I’d identified from the village databases, Zhongheli (中和里).
Just turning up like this isn’t the most effective use of time if you have a really strict schedule and definitely want to contact relatives or see a particular family home while you’re in a village, but I think it’s more enjoyable to be able to wander at will, at least for a first visit. Getting the officials from the local Overseas Chinese Bureau involved takes away a lot of one’s freedom (my visit yesterday to Shiquli in Xinhui is a delightful but exhausting case in point — more on that in another blog post).
Many of the houses in Zhongheli village looked like huaqiao houses, and most of them weren’t being lived in. We spoke to one lady who said that she’d married into the village more than 40 years ago and had never seen anyone return to visit these houses.
Another man said that he’d be able to help us see a copy of the Poon genealogy and eventually we ended up in house of a very lovely older lady inspecting the copy of the genealogy her father-in-law had written out by hand many years ago. Unfortunately it was a copy of their direct branch only, and we didn’t find Poon Gooey’s name. From the dates of others listed in the genealogy, Poon Gooey is likely to have been of the 18th or 19th generation.
It turns out that there are eleven little villages (里 li) in the larger village (村 cun) of Qiaotou, all home to people of the surname Poon/Pan (潘). As people returned from overseas, they would find a new bit of land and build a new huaqiao village. Then as those villages became abandoned again when people moved to Hong Kong or went back overseas, more new villages would be built by those people remaining in the area when they needed more housing.
So, armed with directions for another of the Australian Poon villages I’d identified, we set off again. From the records I’d seen in Australia, I reckoned that this village, Zhaolongli (肇龍里), was most likely to be where Poon Gooey was from (or perhaps where he built a house on returning from Australia in the 1910s). The layout and architecture in the village marks it very clearly as a huaqiao village and from the village entrance we could see a diaolou (碉樓) and the roofs of several yanglou (洋樓) poking out above the roofs of the other houses.
We spoke to three gorgeous old men (with fantastic gold false teeth!) who told us that many, many people from Zhaolongli were Australian, but that their houses now mostly sat empty. In fact, they said, their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had all been in Australia, but they had no idea when they went or where they went to. They also told us that the village’s ancestral hall had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and all that remained was one of the front pillars.
The village is set out very neatly, facing onto a pond, with front and back gates (門 men) on either side. The houses are lined up in a grid pattern, with a lane way between each two houses, for light and air and for circulation. Huaqiao villages like this, built in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, were usually built in a very orderly pattern, with a building code that regulated the size of the houses and their layout.
At the very back of Zhaolongli, backing onto the hill, are four yanglou. While most of the other houses are single storey, the yanglou are much taller — three or four storeys. The yanglou are all abandoned and already fallen into disrepair, but once they would have been truly beautiful. And sitting high on the hill, the view from the upper floors and roof would have been lovely. One of the houses is in particularly bad repair, as trees (figs, maybe) are growing in the walls and the roots are creating large cracks separating the front wall from the side walls. The Zhaolongli diaolou sits outside the back gate of the village. Its door was firmly shut so we didn’t go in.
The third village I had identified was Nanjiangli (南江里), which is situated right next to Zhaolongli, although the road into the village comes in from a different direction. Nanjiangli, as the name suggests, is on the banks of a small and rather pretty river. It is smaller than Zhaolongli, but laid out on a similar grid pattern (although there is a lane way between each house, not every two houses as in Zhaolongli). Many of the houses in Nanjiangli, those towards the back of the village, have two storeys. At the back of the village is one smallish yanglou (three storeys).
Few of the houses in Nanjiangli are lived in — we counted about half a dozen — but there were some people around, including two elderly men cutting bamboo for firewood. They each had a radio, one playing Cantonese opera and the other playing a story. They didn’t know of any particular connection the village had to Australia, saying that people had gone to Hong Kong — but it’s likely that they were thinking of later generations, from the 1930s and after, and it’s possible that earlier generations had been in Australia (actually, I know they were from the student passport records).
Nanjiangli’s dialou is located outside the village gates, on a small hill. As we were clambering about through the bushes to take photographs, a man told us that it was open and that we should climb up to have a look. So we did. The stairs inside are concrete, narrow but sturdy. The diaolou, like many, is being used now for storing firewood and hay. We had hoped to be able to see over the roofs of Nanjiangli village from the top of the diaolou, but the view over the houses themselves was obscured by a beautiful grove of bamboo.
No one in these Poon villages could tell me anything directly about Poon Gooey and his family, but the visit was definitely worthwhile. I’m confident now to say that Poon Gooey was from Qiaotou village, Yueshan town in Kaiping, and I think my initial feeling about Zhaolongli was probably right.
Putting the pieces together, I suspect that their life after leaving Australia went something like this. In 1913, they probably went back to Kaiping, perhaps built a house, then lost all the money they had brought back from Australia after a bandit attack (from their appearance, Selia Tan thought the two diaolou we saw would have been built in the 1920s, so they perhaps weren’t there when the bandits attacked Poon Gooey). Poon Gooey then returned to Australia to set the family’s finances back on track, coming and going between Victoria and China between 1914 and 1918, when he left Australia for the last time. In 1925, Poon Gooey was definitely in Shanghai, so it seems likely that the family were among the many Cantonese who moved to Shanghai around this time. From there, who knows.
Another satisfying thing about the visit is that I’ve worked out Poon Gooey’s name. In an early immigration document, his name is written as 潘如, while the Tung Wah Times wrote it as 潘巍. From the Cantonese and Mandarin the family name makes some sense being transliterated as Poon (pun in Cantonese, pan in Mandarin) and other common spelling variations I’ve seen in Australian records include Pon and Pong. In Kaiping dialect it is pronounced more like pwun, where the vowel sounds is like the ‘oo’ in book.
But the characters for Poon Gooey’s given name were either 如, which is pronounced yuh in Cantonese and ru in Mandarin, or 巍, pronounced ngaih in Cantonese and wei in Mandarin. Neither of these sounds much like Gooey. But, when pronounced in Kaiping dialect, the two characters sound more alike — 如 is pronounced nguey and 巍 pronounced ngai.
I think the proper characters for his name are therefore 潘如 (Pwun Nguey), since it sounds most similar to Poon Gooey and is the name written on a document Poon Gooey himself used when travelling to Australia in around 1900.
To finish off our visit to Yueshan, we went to the market town where there is a Christian church. Poon Gooey was a Christian, and fluent in English when he went to Australia in the 1890s. Other Poons in Australia were also Christian. I wonder whether the Poon Gooey family worshipped in this congregation sometimes?
This morning I visited Chaolian (潮连), an island in the West River (西江) in the north-east of Jiangmen, to have a look at the many ancestral halls that can be found there. Selia Tan was my wonderfully knowledgeable guide and companion.
Once there were over 100 ancestral halls on Chaolian, but now about 50 remain. The oldest date from the Ming Dynasty, while the newest is still under construction. Although they are situated in the middle of a big city, the villages where the halls are located have been protected from large development because they are on an island and it has only been in more recent times that a bridge has been built.
Fang Yue Ancestral Hall Recreation Centre
Beginning in Jiaxing Road (嘉兴路) in Tanbian village (坦边村), we first visited the Fang Yue Ancestral Hall Recreation Centre (方岳家庙康乐中心). The hall is for members of the Ou (區) clan.
The original ancestral hall on this site dated from the Ming Dynasty, but was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. There are only a few stone artefacts from the original building remaining, including the stone lions that sit at the halls entrance.
Fang Yue Ancestral Hall was one of the earliest ancestral halls to be rebuilt on the island, with construction taking place in the early 1980s. Because the villagers were still wary of the possible political implications of rebuilding their ancestral hall, the new hall’s design is not very traditional and they decided to call it a ‘recreation centre’.
Along Lu Bian Hai Tian Street
From there we walked along Lu Bian Hai Tian Street (盧邊海田街), past ancestral hall after ancestral hall. I hadn’t quite believed Selia when she said there were so many, because most villages I have been to only have one ancestral hall. But there they were, all lined up one after another, sometimes interspersed with other buildings, or with buildings that didn’t necessarily look like ancestral halls.
During the middle of the 20th century, many halls were used for other purposes, including as factories, and not all have been restored or had additions removed. The street level has also been raised, and the lowest of the steps up to many of the halls have been swallowed up by concrete.
Minghuan Ancestral Shrine
The Minghuan (‘distinguished official’) Ancestral Shrine (名宦家廟) has been heritage listed because of the importance of the person it was dedicated to — a high-ranking official who became teacher to the emperor.
The shrine hasn’t been restored and here the destruction of the Cultural Revolution is very clear. The plasterwork and frescoes have suffered a lot of damage or been removed, and all the heads of the carved timber figures above the entrance have been knocked off.
Yang Zhai Lu Ancestral Temple
Many of the ancestral halls were not open since we were there around lunchtime, but as we were walking back along Lu Bian Hai Tian Street they started to open their doors again. We went into the Yang Zhai Lu Ancestral Temple (養齋盧公祠) to have a look.
As we walked through the gates Selia told me that this ancestral hall has a very lovely story attached to it.
Like many of the other halls, this one had fallen into disrepair and in around 2012 the clan members decided to raise money to repair and restore the hall. But as they weren’t as well off as some of the other villagers, all they could raise was the money to buy the materials for the renovation. Since they could not afford to hire tradesmen to undertake the work, people decided to volunteer their labour. Just inside the big front door is a display of photographs documenting the progress of their work.
As we were looking around, one of the caretakers came back from lunch and we started chatting to him. He was clearly very proud of the work that they had done and, while the quality of the work and the fittings might not be as lovely as in some of the other ancestral halls we saw in Chaolian, Mr Lu’s enthusiasm for the restoration project and his obvious love of the place made it seem all the more beautiful. And as a bonus, he showed us the two dragons tucked away in a storeroom!
Here’s a first post about what I’ve been doing on this long-awaited research trip to China. I’m spending a week in Jiangmen, a weekend in Xinhui and Kaiping, a few days in Zhuhai, a weekend in Panyu and a week in Hong Kong. The trip has been funded by an Australian Academy of the Humanities Travelling Fellowship.
After a day’s travelling from Canberra and a night in Hong Kong on Saturday, I caught the ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Jiangmen on Sunday morning. The trip lasts for a bit under three hours and takes you past Macau to Doumen, where the ferry stops briefly, before heading up the river to Jiangmen. I like the ferry — it reminds me of how important water transportation was a century ago and of how my Australian families travelled back to the qiaoxiang, in a series of boats that got smaller and smaller as they got closer to their villages.
The ferry port is some way out of the centre of Jiangmen and with only one taxi on offer (everyone else on the ferry seemed to be met by family or friends), I had a lively exchange with the taxi driver, whose meter was broken and who wanted to charge me a pretty extortionate amount for the half-hour trip. He claimed he wasn’t cheating me, I reckoned he was, but with no other option I hopped in and spent the trip answering his many and varied questions about Australia and why I could speak Chinese. After settling myself into my hotel, on Sunday night I had dinner with Selia Tan from Wuyi University and her university-student daughter. Although it was Sunday, for the university (and everyone else) it had been a work day to make up for the New Year holiday they had been given on Friday.
My main reason for coming to Jiangmen is to visit two villages, one in Xinhui and one in Kaiping, which I will do this coming weekend. But while I’m here I’ve also taken the opportunity to have a look at the Wuyi University Guangdong Qiaoxiang Culture Research Centre library. I’ve spent two happy mornings there, on Monday and Wednesday, muddling through material on Kaiping and Xinhui. It’s a small library, but has collections that focus on each of the Wuyi qiaoxiang districts, as well as more general material on Guangdong. The research centre also publishes material itself, including a new book by Selia Tan on the ornamentation and decoration of qiaoxiang buildings. I am very grateful to Selia for her help in making arrangements for my visit to the research centre.
They have some copies of qiaokan from the 1930s and 1940s, and a more extensive collection starting from the 1980s — but to do serious research into the qiaokan would need lots of time and an improvement in my reading skills, as well as visiting the local library/archives in Xinhui and Kaiping, which is where a fuller collection of qiaokan are kept. The library also contains a range of interesting books on qiaoxiang history and heritage, and in them I’ve found a few leads on Australian things, although nothing directly related to my two villages. I found a book on Chens from Xinhui who went to Australia — and while they weren’t my Chens from Xinhui, they are connected to a family I know someone else at home is researching.
Tuesday morning I visited the Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of Overseas Chinese. The museum tells the history of emigration from Wuyi, starting with nineteenth-century material and progressing through to the current day. Some of the highlights for me were:
contracts for borrowing money to pay for emigration
a shipping notice for ships travelling to Australia
coaching books and papers
seeing dear old Quong Tart, and William Liu, among the notable Chinese pioneers (but what of the likes of other Sze Yup notables like Yee Wing or Lowe Kong Meng?)
a photograph of a bus in 1929, and a life-size version of said bus that you can climb into!
The museum gives a nice overview of the history and is definitely worth a visit. The text panels and item labels are all bilingual. The museum guards on duty were a very jovial lot and I was just about the only visitor there.
On Tuesday afternoon I gave a talk at the research centre on Australian Chinatowns and the Chinese heritage of southern Australia. After walking to the uni in good time to set up my slides and whatnot, I realised that I’d left my handwritten notes behind in the hotel. Luckily my lovingly prepared 100+ slides saved the day! Selia Tan translated as I spoke, and we finished up after more than two hours of talking. It wasn’t a huge group, about 25 in all, made up of staff and students from the research centre, other students who were just interested to come along and hear, and a group from Xinhui who are interested in my work on Shiquli village (more on that in another post, I think). Also in attendance was a local journalist and to my surprise the front page of Wednesday’s newspaper featured my talk, with a small article inside. After the talk I went to dinner with Dorry Chen, also from Shiquli village, who is going to take me there on the weekend. She is a teacher in an international kindergarten here in Jiangmen.
The next couple of days are going to be a bit quieter, with just a short visit to a village here in Jiangmen today and some time to read and work on my DECRA application.
Following on from the 2013 Dragon Tails conference, Julia Martínez and I are organising a Symposium on Chinese Women in Southern Diaspora History. The symposium will be held at the University of Wollongong.
Date: Friday, 5 December 2014
Time: 9.00am to 3.30pm
Venue: Building 24, Rooms 201 and 202, University of Wollongong
Pauline Rule — Being a Chinese wife and mother in colonial Victoria, 1856–1900
Sandi Robb — Daughters of the Flowery Land: Chinese women in Queensland 1860–1920
Kate Bagnall — Family politics: Chinese wives in Australia, 1902 to 1920
Sophie Couchman — Chinese-Australian brides, photography and the white wedding
Julia Martínez — University education of Chinese women in the 20th century
Sophie Loy-Wilson — Daisy Guo’s Shanghai: Narrating the lives of Chinese Australian women in Shanghai before and after 1949
Paul Macgregor — Mrs Fabian Chow of Shanghai — journalist, radio star and goodwill ambassador: an Australian Chinese colleague of the Soong sisters
Professor Jan Ryan from Edith Cowan University will also be providing her reflections on Chinese women’s history.
The symposium is open to the public and there is no registration fee. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to Julia Martínez (email@example.com) by 31 October 2014 for catering purposes.
The administration of the Immigration Restriction Act in early 20th-century Australia was complex, contradictory, opaque, ambiguous and capricious. After reading through hundreds of individual case files of Chinese Australians created as part of this administrative system, I still find myself puzzled and surprised and confused when trying to comprehend what really went on. Why was a particular decision made? Why was one case treated so differently from another? Why was the law applied harshly at times, leniently at others? It is not an easy history to understand well, nor are its complexities easy to communicate simply. But this doesn’t excuse getting the history wrong, as is the case in the Museum of Sydney’s Celestial City exhibition.
The second-to-last part of the exhibition is titled ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ and explores anti-Chinese immigration restriction and the White Australia Policy. The introductory panel unfortunately repeats the mistake that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the ‘first law passed by the newly federated Commonwealth’. In fact it was the 17th piece of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament in 1901, the last one that year, after things like the Customs Act, Excise Act, Post and Telegraph Act and, significantly, the Pacific Island Labourers Act. An easy mistake to make perhaps since it crops up everywhere, but when visiting the exhibition it didn’t bode well for what was to come (especially as it was repeated in a following panel on ‘The White Australia Policy’). The introductory panel goes on to say that, under the Immigration Restriction Act, Chinese living in Australia were ‘denied the freedom to come and go between Australia and China':
… after 1901 Chinese were effectively exiled in Sydney, their futures uncertain. Those who had made their lives here were unwilling to risk returning to, or visiting, China for fear they would not be allowed to return. So they stayed in Australia, raised families and became the ancestors of generations of Chinese Australians.
Yet what follows in the exhibition are case studies and documents that demonstrate the mobility of Chinese residents and Australians of Chinese and part-Chinese descent. Historian Michael Williams estimates that 6000 or so individuals identified as ‘Chinese’ made over 26,000 journeys through the port of Sydney between 1902 and 1959 (Williams 2004: 37). If you have trouble imagining quite how many people that is, have a look at Tim Sherratt’s The Real Face of White Australia, an experiment in making the people in the archives of White Australia visible (using records from NAA: ST84/1 in Sydney). To me, this is not a population who were afraid — it is a population who were getting on with their lives, dealing with the bureaucracy as necessary, and testing and challenging the system on many, many occasions.
On the wall of ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ is an enlargement of the back of a 1903 Certificate of Domicile for cabinetmaker Tin Lee (NAA: ST84/1, 1903/261-270). The certificate has front and side portraits of Tin Lee, a handprint, official stamps and certification by Customs officer JTT Donohoe. The front of Tin Lee’s 1903 certificate and a piece of correspondence are also included in a display titled ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’. From the certificate it is clear that Tin Lee went to China on the Empire in December 1903. Certificates were valid for three years. The piece of correspondence, written by the Collector of Customs, Nicholas Lockyer, gives permission for the extension of Tin Lee’s certificate for one more year, to the end of 1907 (meaning that if he returned before that date he would not be made to sit the dictation test). On the front of Tin Lee’s certificate Donohoe has noted in red that the certificate was cancelled as Tin Lee had landed in Sydney on the Chingtu on 1 June 1907.
Considering that this information is all clearly stated on the documents included in the exhibition, it’s curious that the text reads thus:
Tin Lee was a cabinet-maker who had lived in Botany since 1888. After being here for 18 years he applied for an extension of his Certificate of Domicile, a proof of residency that allowed him to re-enter Australia if he left. His certificate was extended by one year, to 31 December 1907. This meant that if he departed Australia after that time, perhaps to visit family in China, he would not be allowed to return.
The curator seems to have completely missed the fact that Tin Lee was already overseas when the extension was applied for. The National Archives also holds a correspondence file relating to Tin Lee which dates from 1903 to 1941 (NAA: SP11/27, C1941/1178 — not digitised, and I haven’t looked through it) and a further six CEDTs documenting his travels back and forth over at least four decades. So, it wasn’t the case that once his certificate expired in 1907 that Tin Lee would be unable to travel overseas and return again — he was able to apply for a new certificate, and then another one and another one.
Also on display in ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’ are documents relating to Maggie Yee Lee, the Sydney-born daughter of cabinetmaker Yee Lee. Here the interpretive text is fine, although it states that Maggie and her siblings ‘needed a Certificate of Domicile … to re-enter Australia after their sojourn in China’. Strictly this isn’t correct, as many young Chinese Australians like Maggie travelled using their birth certificates as proof of domicile, but having a certificate certainly made sure that a return home to Sydney went as smoothly as possible. The text accompanying the other set of documents on display, relating to hawker and herbalist Charlie Hing, is similarly fine.
The final display in the ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ part of Celestial City is where the interpretation of the archival documents relating to immigration restriction really falls apart. The display is titled ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ and the main text states that the case in question involved the ‘repatriation’ of the eldest son of Braidwood resident Chee Dock Nomchong. The use of the term ‘repatriation’, which to me means ‘returning to the country you came from’ or ‘returning to your own country’, is wrong. George Nomchong, the eldest child of Chee Dock and Mary Nomchong, was born in China in 1887. He was left in the care of his grandmother in China when Mary went with Chee Dock to live in Australia. How could it be that China-born George Nomchong was being repatriated in 1908 when he was actually going to Australia for the first time?
Chee Dock Nomchong was a long-term resident of Braidwood and he was naturalised in NSW. So the term ‘repatriation’ seems to have been used in the exhibition to make the point that as the son of a naturalised British subject domiciled in Australia, George Nomchong might also have had the right to live in Australia — ‘As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901‘, it says. Except things were not this simple. The concept of nationality in Australia in the early 20th century was fuzzy and complicated by its intersection with ideas of race, but it was based on birthplace not parents’ nationality (meaning, for example, that children born in Australia to ‘alien’ Chinese parents were British subjects by birth) (Dutton 2000). George’s personal and familial circumstances might have meant there was a moral imperative to allow him to come to live in Australia, but there was not a clear legal one. The previous year the case Ah Yin v. Christie had been heard in the High Court, where it was decided that Ah Yin, the China-born-and-raised son of a Chinese man living in Victoria, did not have the right to live to Australia simply because his father was living here. Ah Yin was still in his mid-teens, a minor, yet George Nomchong was already twenty-one when his father applied for him to come to Australia. George was not a minor child dependent on his father and mother, but a grown man.
The George Nomchong case study in the exhibition includes seven archival documents, four pieces of correspondence and three CEDTs, each with accompanying interpretive text. The correspondence is taken from a 145-page Department of External Affairs file (NAA: A1, 1926/9963), while there is further material on the case in a Sydney Customs file (NAA: SP42/1, C1910/4678) not used in the exhibition. The CEDTs are from series NAA: ST84/1. The National Archives holds other later files about George Nomchong and his own wife and children, but these aren’t digitised (and I haven’t looked at them before) and they don’t appear to have been drawn on for the exhibition. The events covered in the 145-page External Affairs file are complex, but I believe that an important part of the story has been overlooked, either because it did not fit with the exhibition’s presentation of the story of George Nomchong’s ‘repatriation’ to Australia or because the curator simply failed to understand what happened.
Here’s Celestial City‘s presentation of the George Nomchong case.
Repatriating George Nomchong
In 1908 the Immigration Restriction Act was tested in an unusual case concerning the eldest son of Chee Dock Nomchong. The boy was born in China in 1887, three years after his father had been naturalised as a British subject, and was left in China with his grandmother while his parents returned to Braidwood. Twenty-one years later, Chee Dock began the protracted process of repatriating his son, known as George, to Australia. As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. However, as these immigration records show, he was subjected to the same scrutiny and surveillance that shadowed any Chinese immigrant after 1901.
Letter to A Hunt from Chee Dock Nom Chong, 21 March 1908 Letter to Chee Dock Nom Chong from A Hunt, 28 March 1908
‘By giving me some idea of the test I can acquaint him of it …’ writes Chee Dock Nomchong to Secretary of External Affairs Mr Atlee Hunt. However, since the dictation test could be given in any European language, not necessarily, as Mr Hunt admits, ‘one with which the intending immigrant was acquainted’, Chee Dock’s attempt to prepare his son for the test was futile. Customs officers selected the language most likely to eliminate ‘unwanted and undesirable’ immigrants. Between 1902 and 1909 the dictation test was given to 1359 people. Fifty-two were successful. After 1909 no one passed.
Refusal of Domicile for Chee Dock Nom Chong, 6 May 1910 Letter from James Gregg to Chee Dock Nom Chong, 18 May 1910
In 1910, on his way to Fiji, George Nomchong briefly visited his family in Braidwood. His father’s request that he be allowed to stay was denied, and George was subsequently deported as a restricted immigrant. His father pursued the case with a large petition, signed by the residents of Braidwood, asking that special consideration be given. The petitioners’ representative, Mr James Gregg, pointed out that this case different from ‘what the real framing of the Act was intended for’ because the immigrant in question was of a respectable family and the son of ‘one of the most liberal and best citizens we have in Australia’.
Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 20 May 1926 Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 4 May 1935 Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 12 May 1947
After years of waiting, and in view of the exceptional circumstances of the case, in 1913 George Nomchong was issued with a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test that was valid for four years. He worked at the Nomchong market gardens near Goulburn and for the next 40 years lived an uncertain life as a temporary resident, successively renewing his certificate until the dictation test was abolished in 1958.
(Off topic a bit, but why are Chee Dock Nomchong and George Nomchong referred to by their first names, while Atlee Hunt is ‘Mr Atlee Hunt’ or ‘Mr Hunt’?)
As I said before, George Nomchong — a man born in China to a Chinese mother (who at the time of his birth had never been to Australia) and a naturalised Chinese father resident in Australia — did not necessarily have a greater legal right to enter Australia under the Immigration Restriction Act than any other Chinese man of Chinese birth, and officials initially treated his case accordingly. Over the time between when Chee Dock Nomchong first applied for permission in 1908 and when permission was finally granted in 1913, however, the administration was learning that the Chinese community in Australia was not going to passively sit by and have their rights as Australians be dismantled. While the power ultimately remained with the government, family members and community leaders — mostly well-to-do, English-speaking, long-term residents of the merchant class like Chee Dock Nomchong — pushed and pushed and pushed in individual cases to attain fairer outcomes. Officials learned that the Chinese community would and could take cases as far as the High Court and be successful, as it had been with the Potter v. Minahan case in 1908, or it would cause the government serious embarrassment through widespread bad publicity over decisions that were seen as heartless and anti-Christian, such as the Poon Gooey deportation case between 1910 to 1913. Better to compromise in cases such as George Nomchong’s, where there were ‘exceptional’ or ‘special’ circumstances, than face the costs of defeat in the courts or the press.
From 1914 to 1920, George Nomchong was issued with a series of Certificates of Exemption — not Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test or CEDTs, as stated in the exhibition. Certificates of Exemption were like visitors visas, allowing someone to enter Australia and take up temporary residence for a set period. CEDTs on the other hand were issued to people already living or ‘domiciled’ in Australia granting them permission to return without having to sit the dictation test. Two different sorts of exemption for two different categories of people. George’s Certificate of Exemption was granted on his arrival in Sydney in April 1914, for a period of four years, and was extended in 1918 for a further two years. George then made a visit to China from May to December 1919, after being granted permission to return after his trip and remain for the unexpired portion of his exemption period. After a further application by Chee Dock Nomchong, in March 1920 George’s exemption was extended again for four years. This practice of issuing an ongoing series of Certificates of Exemption was not at all unusual — it seems to have been a common way that government officials worked around their own restrictions against permanent admission of new Chinese, a way to make allowances in ‘exceptional’ cases without setting an official precedent of permanent entry.
What is missed entirely in the Celestial City telling of George’s story is that in 1920 officials decided that his case should be ‘closed’ — that is, that he could remain permanently in Australia without having to keep reapplying for his Certificate of Exemption to be extended. A memo from Atlee Hunt in March 1920 informed the Collector of Customs in Sydney that ‘no further action need be taken to remind this Chinese of the expiration of his exemption as the case may be considered closed’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 21). Atlee Hunt had pondered how to resolve George Nomchong’s case, admitting that the government ‘had given him a CEDT last year and thereby acknowledged his right to remain’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 25). It is not clear from the file when, how or if the Nomchongs were informed of this decision, but after 1920 there were no further applications to extend George’s Certificate of Exemption. There were, however, applications for CEDTs, the first one issued in 1926 before George made a two-year trip to China. Apart from difficulties raised when three prohibited immigrants were found working on George’s Boorowa market garden in 1922, by the mid-1920s George’s right to live in Australia was settled. The CEDTs on display in Celestial City are not evidence of the precariousness of George’s presence in Australia, but rather proof that his Australian domicile was no longer questioned.
Although ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ seems to have been written based on the archives alone, I wondered whether family perspectives had entered into how these archives were read and how George’s life was remembered. There can be no denying that the system was unfair and that officials could wield their power in ways that created insecurity for migrant Chinese living in early 20th-century Australia. This insecurity, along with the basic inequality of the system and the intervention and interference of authorities in the lives of Chinese Australians (such as during the 1922 incident with the illegal workers on George Nomchong’s garden), is often rightly remembered by descendants who have heard first hand what life was like under White Australia. There is no mention, however, of Nomchong family members having been interviewed and their memories being incorporated into the George Nomchong narrative in the exhibition, so I can only assume that the curator has worked from the archives alone.
One later file about George Nomchong, dating from 1939 to 1942, might have helped the exhibition clarify his legal status and identify whether or not George had been granted the right to remain permanently. It appears that George Nomchong inquired about naturalisation in 1939, perhaps in response to the Aliens Registration Act 1939 (see handwritten note at the bottom of page 5 in NAA: 1926/9963). It is unlikely that he would have been granted naturalisation, but I can find no obvious alien registration documents for him in Sydney either (NAA: SP1732/4). The file that might answer such questions (NAA: A659, 1942/1/6634) remains, however, unexamined in the archives.
You might ask if it really matters that details in the Celestial City exhibition aren’t spot on. How much detail do people take in during an exhibition visit anyway? Isn’t it more important for them to get a strong general impression — in this case of the extent and nature of anti-Chinese ideas in 19th and early 20th century Australia — than fretting over minutiae? To me, getting facts wrong in an exhibition like Celestial City, which has obviously had a lot of money put into it and a lot of publicity created around it, seems like a wasted opportunity. I can almost forgive the exhibition for reducing the vibrant, diverse and fascinating tale that is ‘Sydney’s Chinese Story’, full of characters and life and surprising twists, to something more akin to ‘What Racist White People in Sydney Thought About the Chinese’.* But the history of the Chinese in Australia, particularly the history of discrimination during the White Australia period, is too important for us to settle for the sort of sloppy reading of the archives and failure of historical understanding shown in Celestial City. Instead we need to be measured, considered, rigorous and meticulous in the research we do and the historical stories we tell. To do otherwise is to leave ourselves open to accusations of dishonesty, inaccuracy, exaggeration and sensationalism.
* There is certainly a place for examining white Australian attitudes towards the Chinese in the 19th and early 20th century, but as Alan Mayne has stated, ‘By emphasising unrelenting European intolerance and aggression towards Chinese settlers, historians have tended to overlook Chinese agency and the permeability of racial boundaries’. A better approach is to work towards a more nuanced understanding of European discrimination towards the Chinese and, in doing so, ‘deny Chinese passivity and marginalisation, and point instead to Chinese strategy and many-faceted engagement with colonial society’ (Mayne 2004: 2).
Alan Mayne. 2004. ‘”What you want John?” Chinese-European interactions on the Lower Turon goldfields’. Journal of Australian Colonial History 6: 1–13.
Michael Williams. 2004. ‘Would this not help your Federation?’ In After the Rush: Regulation, Participation, and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860–1940, edited by Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald and Paul Macgregor: 35–50. Kingsbury, Vic.: Otherland Literary Journal.
About six months ago I embarked on a new endeavour. I took a redundancy from the public service and began to spend my days at home — researching, writing, doing the washing, weeding the garden and wrangling kids. After twelve years in the public service — my entire grown-up working life — it has taken me a while to adjust. I was used to being a breadwinner, used to juggling the hectic demands of full-time work around my kids and my crazy need to keep up my historical pursuits in my ‘spare time’. So I’ve been feeling strangely guilty about the time I have, now that I don’t rush off to the office every day. I have done some occasional freelance work over the past couple of months and will need to get back to more paid work again in the new year — whether as a freelance editor/historian or back in an office job, I don’t know. For now though I have the rest of the year to get done the research and writing I’ve been bursting to do and couldn’t fit in before. No pressure, right?
So, overly ambitious as always, here’s what I plan to do between now and January:
manage the publication production of my first book, Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, co-edited with Sophie Couchman, which we are about to send to the publisher, Brill (ongoing)
finish writing a chapter, tentatively titled ‘Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood’, for Paul Arthur’s edited collection Australian Culture and Identity: Transnational Perspectives in Life Writing, to be published by Anthem Press (by end of September)
sole parent for a couple of weeks while Tim attends conferences in Japan and London (September/October)
prepare two written papers, on ‘Early Chinese families in Australia’ and ‘Finding your Chinese roots’, for Congress 2015 Canberra (written papers need to be in four months before the conference!) (by end of November)
organise, with Julia Martinez, a workshop on Chinese women in Australian history at the University of Wollongong in early December, as well as preparing my own workshop paper on the arrival of Chinese wives to Australia under the Immigration Restriction Act, 1902 to 1920
organise my three-week research trip to Hong Kong and Guangdong for January 2015 — I’ll spend two weeks based at the Overseas Chinese Culture Research Centre at Wuyi University in Jiangmen doing fieldwork in Xinhui and Kaiping and then a week of archival research in Hong Kong (the trip is supported by a Humanities Travelling Fellowship from the Australian Academy of the Humanities)
redevelop my website and blog a bit more than I have been (I’ve got a few half-written posts I’d really like to finish!).
Looking at this long list of things I’ve committed myself to doing, I’m also very aware that sitting in my inbox are quite a few emails from people hoping for some help with their family history research. I love hearing from people whose family stories intersect with my research interests and I regret that I’m not able to respond to them all in a timely manner — catch me on a bad day and your email might sit there for weeks or months, catch me on a good day and you’ll get a reply straight away! I do try to catch up, but if you’re one of those people waiting for a response from me, I hope you understand that sometimes a pressing deadline, or a request from my four-year-old to take her to the park, has to come first.
In answer to that age-old question of why white women chose Chinese men as husbands in colonial Australia, here’s the thoughts of one Victorian woman, reprinted in the Queanbeyan Age and Newcastle Morning Herald from the Ballarat Courier in September 1882.
I quite agree with one who would like to be an old man’s darling, as the half of the young men don’t know how to treat their wives. Those wives have the life of a dog. I have two young friends. One has been married six months only, and her husband comes home drunk, beats her, and drags her about the house by the hair of the head, until she is black and blue. In the other case, no matter what meal is prepared for him, he swears at it, and says it is not fit for a pig to eat. He also tells his wife that he is going after a better-looking woman than she is, and he is not going to keep her any longer. Now, sir, I don’t wonder at girls being afraid to marry, and ‘Peter Simple’ had better not have anything more to say about Chinamen’s wives, as I am one. I have been married seven years, and I have everything I want. All I do is right; and I have the life of a queen. If I was a widow to-morrow, I would not marry one of my countrymen, for I am sure I would not get such good life. I know another young woman who married a Chinaman, and when her sisters saw how comfortable she was, they did the same; and now the sisters are Chinamen’s wives. I know a poor woman who goes out washing and scrubbing to keep herself and two children (one babe at the breast), while her European husband goes about spending his time and money on other women and then comes home and eats the foot his wife has been out slaving for. Now, Sir, give me a Chinaman before such men. The Chinese will keep their wives—and keep them well too—and treat them properly also.
I’ve been keen to see the Musuem of Sydney’s new exhibition, Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story, since it opened last month. So, with two weeks of school holidays and three kids to amuse, it seemed that a trip to Sydney was in order. I hope to have a chance to write up some more detailed thoughts on the exhibition, particularly on its treatment of gender, but for now I’m going to give some quick impressions from our visit. Our party of seven included two adults (one historian, one non-historian) and five kids, ranging from age 4 to age 11.
One of the first things you see walking into the exhibition space are large reproductions of two of the best-known anti-Chinese cartoons, images that are (to my mind at least) racist and offensive. One, which depicts the Australian colonies as beautiful young women working together to dispose of ‘the Chinese pest’ in the form of the large, disembodied head of a Chinese man, particularly caught the little kids’ eyes. The other cartoon, the Bulletin’s notorious ‘Mongolian Octopus’, also caught their attention. On surrounding walls are other large reproductions of illustrations of 19th-century anti-Chinese activities. These images were a sudden and unfortunate introduction for the kids to an exhibition that claims to celebrate ‘the diversity of experiences and successes within the Chinese community’.
These images dominate the space so much that our only real conversation in the exhibition was about racist ideals of White Australia, not about the old and deep connections that tie Sydney to China and the Chinese to Sydney. Supervising the kids meant I didn’t get to read everything for myself, or even to take note of other objects or text that might have told this deeper story in the first part of the exhibition. But if I didn’t see it, the kids certainly didn’t either. (I do have photographs, though, which I’m going to refer to again – it’s just first impressions here.)
The only other item in the exhibition that really caught the little kids’ eyes was a labour contract written in Chinese. Three of the little kids are studying Chinese and have spent significant amounts of time in China. They keenly tried to spot words that they knew. From memory, there is only this one piece in the exhibition in Chinese (actually, now I think about it, there is also an article from a Chinese newspaper and a Chinese-English word book). It would have been great to see more Chinese language material included in the exhibition (and yes, it does exist), particularly as the museum seems keen to attract a Chinese-speaking audience (there is a Chinese-language version of the exhibition catalogue).
When interrogated the day after we saw the exhibition, my 8-year-old said that along with ‘those cartoons’, the thing she remembered from the exhibition was ‘the speaker with the Nomchong thing’, an oral history recording with Lionel Nomchong. She said she listened to a bit of it until her 4-year-old sister came and snatched it off her. Such are the perils of visiting museum exhibitions with (even littler) kids.
The 11-year-old gave the exhibition a much more considered look than the four younger ones. A little way into the exhibition, though, she told me she was confused, although she later said she had ‘mostly understood’ what it was about. Her favourite part was the bit on hawkers and market gardeners – she liked the objects that accompanied it. And she liked Margaret Tart’s Chinese jacket (but hadn’t understood who it belonged to or why she had it).
And as for the impressions of my non-historian friend and me? She thought Celestial City was ‘shallow’, with that shallowness mostly coming from the dominance of White Australian voices throughout the exhibition. White Australians saying how the Chinese were good, White Australians saying how the Chinese were bad. She also didn’t feel she had learned anything new, that the ‘Yellow Peril’ material didn’t really expand her understanding of what life was like for Chinese at the time. Largely that’s how I felt about the exhibition too.
I would have loved to see some of the more recent scholarship on Sydney’s Chinese communities being drawn into the exhibition (e.g. Mei-fen Kuo’s Making Chinese Australia), as well as newer theoretical approaches such as transnationalism. I also have some real concerns about the historical accuracy in parts, the language used (e.g. ‘influx’), and parts of the story that are omitted (which I’ll blog about separately when I’ve had time to think it through a bit more). I had wanted so much to love this exhibition – and there is some great material there, even an item or two that were new to me! – but overall I’m afraid we all came away disappointed. Sydney’s Chinese story is just as fabulous as the exhibition’s publicity hype says it is. Unfortunately this exhibition just doesn’t manage to convey it.