The tiger’s mouth

Thoughts on the history and heritage of Chinese Australia

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.

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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.

Racist cartoons at the start of the Celestial City exhibition

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).

Kids examining a 19th-century Chinese labour contract, Celestial City exhibition

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.

Handprint and identity photographs on the wall of the Celestial City exhibition

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.

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Over a decade ago one of the most useful tools for Chinese Australian history research was developed as part of the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation project – an English-language index to two of Australia’s early Chinese-language newspapers, the Tung Wah Times and the Tung Wah News. For someone like me, whose Chinese reading comprehension skills were rudimentary at best, the index meant there was some practical way to find relevant material in the newspapers. Articles I located, for example, provided evidence of Chinese Australian attitudes towards intermarriage between Chinese men and non-Chinese women, something that was difficult to ascertain from other sources.

My best find was an article that related to a story I was told during fieldwork in Taishan in 2003. The story told of how foreign wives of Chinese men would give their husbands doses 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 within a particular time for the antidote. 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. The article in the Tung Wah News provided a second example of this same story, suggesting that it was an urban myth of sorts among the qiaoxiang villages.

Unfortunately, with time the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation website, and the Tung Wah index with it, could no longer be maintained and it was archived by La Trobe University. The index lost functionality in this process, meaning that searches no longer worked and only a certain number of items in the index were browsable.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

Thanks to the hard work of Sophie Couchman and Tim Sherratt, the Tung Wah Newspaper Index has been redeveloped and a sparkly new version is now up and running. The index can be searched or browsed, as you’d expect. But Tim has also made sure the index includes Linked Open Data and a basic API and has made the code and data available on Github.

Happy hunting, everyone!

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A little note about searching for Chinese names in the National Archives’ RecordSearch database, specifically in early 20th records of the NSW Collector of Customs. There is a consistent transcription error in item descriptions where capital Q has been transcribed as capital Z. This means that names like Quoy, Quan, Quay, Quock have been entered as Zuoy, Zuan, Zuay, Zuock. The examples I’ve come across are in ST84/1, where Customs Inspector J.T.T. Donohoe’s rather lovely handwriting seems to be the problem. Something to remember if you can’t find records under the correct spelling.

Quong Quay's Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test, 1907

NAA: ST84/1, 1907/471-480

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Early on Christmas morning 1879, the residents of Lambie Street, Cooma, received a visit from their neighbour, Jimmy. With a Christmas greeting, he presented them each with a dish of new potatoes and a piece of prime pork, products of his Lambie Street market garden (Manaro Mercury, 31 December 1879). From childhood I’ve loved the sense of history that Lambie Street exudes, with its iron-roofed stone and brick cottages and their snug verandahs. It was Cooma’s first street and Jimmy’s garden would have sat on the low side of the road, an area that ran down to the creek and was subject to flooding.

‘A Chinese Christmas box’, Illustrated Australian News, 31 December 1880

Jimmy’s small act of Christmas cheer was repeated over and again by Chinese hawkers, gardeners and storekeepers around the Australian colonies. European businesses also made gifts of a ‘Christmas box’ to their customers, but the generosity of the Chinese at Christmas was something that lingered well into the twentieth century, continuing on after European traders abandoned the practice. The memory of the Chinese Christmas box lingered even longer. A 1937 article reminiscing about the early days of the Tambaroora goldfield remembered the prosperity of the Chinese stores of Sam Choy, On Ti Kee, Sam Gon Shin and Ah Tye, achieved through the regular custom of the white population. ‘Perhaps it was the never failing Christmas box forthcoming at the Chinese stores that attracted a certain amount of patronage from the whites’, the article suggested somewhat unkindly. White women dealt regularly with the Chinese, particularly with the hawkers who brought high-quality fresh fruit and vegetables to their door each day, and a number of illustrations from the newspapers and journals of the time depicted their congenial Christmastime meetings.

‘A Chinese trader making presents to his customers’, The Graphic, 24 December 1887

The Chinese were best known for their gifts of jars of preserved ginger; it was ‘the very best of its kind, and as such [was] a very acceptable addition to the Christmas Day dessert’ (Newcastle Morning Herald, 28 December 1908). Others like Jimmy of Lambie Street presented customers with fresh produce or nuts, fans or handkerchiefs. In 1917, the civic-minded Chinese gardeners and fruit hawkers of Wagga even presented the district hospital with a cheque for £14/10/ instead of giving their usual Christmas boxes to their customers (Albury Banner, 14 December 1917).

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On 18 September 2013, I presented a paper on the transnational Chinese family in Australia as part of the Australia in the World seminar series organised by Marilyn Lake at the University of Melbourne.

You can read (a slightly revised version of) my paper (pdf, 1.3kb) or have a look at my slides.

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Selia Tan, who was one of our keynote speakers at Dragon Tails 2011, is involved in running short-term cultural heritage exchange programs for ‘overseas Chinese’ teens. The programs focus on the Sze Yap (Wuyi) district in Guangdong, so would probably be most relevant for kids with Sze Yap, or more broadly, Cantonese ancestry.

The program lets them experience and understand more about the historical and cultural development of the Wuyi district through visiting historical buildings, particularly the diaolou, learning Chinese and Chinese traditional arts, immersing themselves in local families, experiencing village life, participating in volunteer activites in the local community and more.

Sounds fun!

 

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I will be in Melbourne in September to speak as part of the University of Melbourne’s ‘Australia in the World’ history lecture and seminar series. I’m feeling very honoured to be included on a program with Joy Damousi and Sheila Fitzpatrick. If you’re in Melbourne on 18 September, I’d love to see you there!

Download the New Migration Histories flyer (pdf, 468kb)

New migration histories

In conventional histories of the nation, migrants have usually been represented as making a particular ‘contribution’ to the ‘national story’ in their capacity as members of an ethnic or national category. It is usually assumed that they come to stay eventually becoming members of the ‘migrant nation’. Recently, this narrative has been complicated by transnational frames of historical analysis that allow us to see the various ways in which migrants have lived ‘both here and there’ (in Adam McKeown’s words) both in terms of their subjective experience and in movement between old and new homelands. It has also been recognised that migrants’ lives can’t be reduced to an ‘ethnic’ experience, that ignores the formative economic, political, religious and familial dimensions of migration.

The transnational Chinese family in Australia

Kate Bagnall has published pioneering work on Chinese Australian family migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the migration of white Australian wives of Chinese men to China. She works in Canberra as a print and web editor as well as a historical researcher.

Australian Greek migration, war memory and its legacies

Joy Damousi is Professor of History at the University of Melbourne. Her current project is Greek War Stories, which examines memories of the Second World War and the Greek Civil War in post-war Greek migrant communities.

‘New Australians’ from the Soviet Union via DP camps

Sheila Fitzpatrick is an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney and Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago. Primarily a Soviet historian, her current ARC project is about displaced persons from the Soviet Union who ended up in Australia after the Second World War.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013
4.00pm – 6.00pm

Gryphon Gallery
1888 Building
The University of Melbourne
PARKVILLE VIC 3010

Admission is free.
Bookings are required.
Seating is limited.

To register visit:
alumni.online.unimelb.edu.au/newmigration

For further information please contact Emma Shortis
eshortis@student.unimelb.edu.au or phone 9035 8358.

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I spent today at the National Archives in Sydney, looking at records for my Paper Trails project. My helpful reference officer, Judith, had warned me that there were 77 boxes in SP115/1, the series I need to look through. On my arrival though she told me she’s miscounted and there were, in fact, about 140. I managed to get through about 28 today. I’ll be there for the rest of the week but I’m not sure I’ll get through the remaining 112 boxes in the next two and a half days!

Series SP115/1 contains documents relating to non-white people – mostly Chinese, but also Syrian, Indian, Japanese and others – arriving into Sydney between 1911 and the 1940s. The series is arranged by ship, with each item relating to a particular voyage. Although I’ve looked at particular items in this series before, this time I’m starting at Box 1 and looking through every file, all 1780 or so of them. You may well ask why.

Although most of the documents in the series are CEDTs, which can also be found in other series (mostly ST84/1), the papers relating to Australian-born Chinese are often unique and unable to be found elsewhere. Details about these individuals might be recorded in the Register of Birth Certificates (SP726/2), but the documents in SP115/1 can include original birth certificates and other statements about identity and family background. One nice find today is the 1902 Hong Kong birth certificate of Harold Hoong, son of Julum Hoong and Rosalie Kinnane, who were living in Yaumatei at that time (NAA: SP115/1, 04/02/1915 – PART 1). Early Hong Kong birth and marriage records were destroyed during World War II, so it’s nice to see one safe and sound. Other records relate to Harold’s Australian-born siblings William, Albert and Frederick.

As well as locating documents about Anglo-Chinese travellers I know about from earlier research, looking through the whole series is yielding people I haven’t encountered in other records. Today I’ve found about half a dozen new subjects – some from families I’d already identified, but others are completely new to me. Exciting.

I’m also making a record of all the Australian-born full Chinese (for my Threads of Kinship project) and any Chinese-born women (for a paper I’m working on about Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia).

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