Top 3 tips for Chinese Australian family history research

Here are my ‘top 3’ suggestions on where to start your Chinese Australian history.

(Note: these suggestions are most relevant for New South Wales, and for tracing Chinese ancestors who arrived in Australia from south China before World War II.)

Wedding of Elsie May Chinn and Kum Mow, Sydney, 1917 (Sun, 18 February 1917, p. 16, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article221962375)

Top 3 sources

Look here first!

  • Birth, death and marriage records – You can search for and purchase copies of BDM certificates through the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, or get transcriptions through an agent. If you can, get copies of more than just your direct ancestral line (e.g. birth certificates for your grandmother’s siblings as well as your grandmother), since certificates often contain different bits of information. Also see if you can find church or parish registers and family notices in the newspaper.
  • Trove digitised newspapers – Try searching Trove using variations of your ancestors’ names, limit your searches by state or to a particular newspaper, or search more generally using a term like ‘Chinese’ and the place they lived.
  • National Archives of Australia (NAA) – Search in RecordSearch using variations of your family members’ names. The NAA collection is vast, but here’s an example of what you might find.

Top 3 research tips

  • Researching your Chinese Australian family is largely like researching any other Australian family. Some of the records you consult might be different (e.g. immigration, naturalisation or alien registration files), but the principles are the same. Contact your local library, historical society or genealogical society for help.
  • Chinese names were written down in many different ways in Australian records. Few records give people’s real Chinese names. Keep a list of each different spelling of your ancestor’s name you find, to use in keyword or name searches.
  • To trace your Chinese family back to China, you need to know their real Chinese name (preferably in characters) and their home province and district (‘Canton, China’ isn’t enough). During your research be on the look out for anything written in Chinese characters and make a copy.

Top 3 books

  • Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales, 1850-1950, New England Regional Art Museum in association with Powerhouse Publishing, Armidale, NSW, 2004
  • John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007
  • Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, revised edition, Halstead in association with the City of Sydney, Ultimo, NSW, 2008

Top 3 websites

  • Chinese Genealogy – a really helpful forum that’s especially useful for tracing your ancestral village
  • Chinese-Canadian Genealogy – the specifics are Canadian, but this site provides many ideas that can be applied to Australian research

Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young

In 2011 I wrote a blog post about a photograph of an unknown Chinese Australian family held in the State Library of Victoria collection. With very few details to go on, in my post I wondered whether I would ever find out the family’s identity. In this guest post, New England local historian Gill Oxley shares with us not only the family’s identity, but more about the interesting lives of Emma Tear Tack, nee Lee Young, and her reverend husband Joseph.

On 22 February 1899, an untitled article appeared on page 2 of the Ballarat Star. It conveyed news of the death of the retired ‘Government interpreter’ for the Ararat and Stawell districts of Victoria, Mr Lee Young. The article also served as an informal obituary, giving details of the life of Mr Lee Young, including his earliest days in Australia (following his immigration from Canton in about 1852) and his life on the goldfields of Victoria in the late 1800s. Towards the end of the article, mention was made of Mr Lee Young’s surviving four daughters and two sons. Two of his daughters were named as Mrs the Rev. James Ah Chue and Mrs the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack.

Mrs the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack was Emma, born at Ararat in Victoria in 1865 (Vic BDM reg. no. 19815), the second youngest child of Lee Young and his wife Elizabeth Wright.

Emma Tear Tack, c.1894 (State Library of Victoria H2005.34/103)

The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages gives Emma’s father’s name as Lee Young and her mother’s maiden name as Elizabeth Lyth. The maiden surname ‘Lyth’ is likely to have been either a mistranscription or else a mispronunciation, as Emma’s mother’s maiden name is given as Elizabeth Wright in official records of the births of most of Emma’s siblings. The record for Emma’s youngest sister, Jessie Lee Young, gives a different name again, with their mother’s maiden name given as Elizabeth Light – quite clearly a misinterpretation of ‘Wright’.

Elizabeth Wright was British born and had emigrated to Australia at about 20 years of age, arriving at Geelong on the ship British Empire on 8 March 1853 (PROV, VPRS 14: Register of Assisted British Immigrants 1839–1871).

Elizabeth married (‘John’) Lee Young in Victoria in 1856 (Vic BDM reg. no. 3704) and the couple had two sons and four daughters:

  • William Lee Young, born Ballarat 1859 (Vic BDM reg. no. 7102)
  • Matilda Lee Young, born Ballarat 1860 (Vic BDM reg. no. 2269)
  • Henry Lee Young, born Ballarat 1862 (Vic BDM reg. no. 12268)
  • Alice Lee Young, born Ararat 1864 (Vic BDM reg. no. 6746)
  • Emma Lee Young, born Ararat 1865 (Vic BDM reg. no. 19815)
  • Jessie Lee Young, born Ararat 1869 (Vic BDM reg. no. 20004).

At 20 years of age, in 1885, Emma Lee Young married Chinese-born Joseph Tear Tack (Vic BDM reg. no. 4357).

Joseph Tear Tack’s Victorian naturalisation record of July 1883 gives his native place simply as Canton, his age at the time as 35 years and his occupation as minister.

Memorial for letters of naturalisation for Joseph Tear Tack, 1883 (NAA: A712, 1883/Y7207)

From this we can assume that Joseph Tear Tack was born in Canton in or about 1848. He would therefore have been about 17 years older than Emma at the time of their 1885 marriage. Perhaps it was this age difference that caused the ‘little commotion in Chinese circles’ over their impending marriage, as reported in the Ballarat Star, and other Victorian papers, in May 1885.

‘General news’, Riverine Herald, 5 May 1885, p. 3

After their marriage Emma and Joseph left Victoria and set up home in the tin mining district of Inverell in northern New South Wales. Their first child, Elizabeth Edith Tear Tack, was born there in 1886 (NSW BDM reg. no. 24730). From the beginning of the 1870s, the Inverell district had a very large Chinese population, with Chinese workers being drawn to the area for the rich deposits of alluvial tin that were plentiful there, and for the business opportunities that also presented themselves with the need for fresh vegetables and other supplies in the booming mining district.

Joseph Tear Tack had been sent to Inverell (or more precisely to nearby Tingha) in mid-1884 by the Wesleyan Methodist Church to minister to the resident Chinese population in the area. He was one of the ‘success stories’ of the church’s Chinese mission in Victoria (‘Wesleyan Church, West Maitland‘, Maitland Mercury, 5 June 1884, p. 2).

According to the March–April 1891 edition of the NSW Government Gazette (p. 1892), Rev. Tear Tack was registered at the NSW Registrar General’s Office in Sydney for ‘the celebration of marriages at Tingha’ on 6 March 1891. Joseph Tear Tack and his family of four persons – one male (his eldest son) and three females (Emma and two daughters) – appear as living at Tingha in the 1891 Census (1891 New South Wales Census, Australia). Helen Brown, in her book Tin at Tingha (1982, p. 35), makes mention of the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack being appointed to serve as an ‘assistant Methodist preacher’ at Tingha between 1885 and 1893, and he is also mentioned by Ian Welch in his work on the Methodist Chinese Mission in Australia.

[Family group] [picture] (State Library of Victoria H2005.34/103)
All available evidence points to this lovely family photograph being the Tear Tack family, taken in the Inverell district some time between the years of 1893 and 1896. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location, the photograph is likely to have been taken either at Inverell, Tingha or perhaps at nearby Bundarra. The Tear Tacks’ youngest daughter, Alice Lucy, who does not appear in the photograph, was born at Bundarra in 1896 (NSW BDM reg. no. 2164). Therefore, we can probably assume that the date of the photograph is either 1894 or, at the very latest, early 1895.

To the best of this writer’s current knowledge, the people appearing in the photograph are (left to right):

  • Joseph Henry Tear Tack, born Inverell 1888 (NSW BDM reg. no. 26002)
  • the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack
  • Josiah William Tear Tack, born Inverell 1892 (NSW BDM reg. no. 17560)
  • Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young
  • Laura Matilda Tear Tack, born Inverell 1890 (NSW BDM reg. no. 16916)
  • Elizabeth Edith Tear Tack, born Inverell 1886 (NSW BDM reg. no. 24730).

The identity of the younger man standing back right is not known at this stage.

After working for some years in the Inverell/Tingha/Bundarra area, where their five children were born, the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack was sent by the church to Darwin in 1896. While living there he, Emma and their children survived a terrible cyclone that destroyed their house (‘Visit of a Chinese missionary to Lithgow‘, Lithgow Mercury, 5 June 1900, p. 2). Joseph was then sent to Cairns just at the turn of the twentieth century. There he was to establish a new mission and undertake Christian missionary work among the Chinese population in far north Queensland. Emma and children did not initially accompany him to Cairns, but shipping news indicated that ‘Mrs Tear Tack and five children’ sailed to Queensland from Sydney aboard the Aramac in November of 1900.

Tragedy struck the Tear Tack family not long after their arrival in Queensland, with Joseph Tear Tack dying of heart failure at Cairns in August 1901 (Qld BDM reg. no. C697). Joseph would have been approximately 53 years of age at the time of his death. Emma Tear Tack was only about 36 when she was widowed with five children. On 11 January 1902, a letter from Emma appeared in The Methodist under the title ‘Acknowledgement’. In it, Emma Tear Tack paid a moving tribute to her husband, Joseph, and thanked their many friends for their support in what she described as her ‘sore and heavy bereavement’.

Emma did not remarry and so remained a widow for the rest of her life. After her husband’s death, she returned to the support of her family of origin in Ballarat, Victoria, some time in 1903. She appears to have raised her five children there, before moving to Burwood, in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, at around 65 years of age (Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, Sands Street Index, 1861-1930).

Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young died on 28 October 1948 at 83 years of age at her home in Concord (NSW BDM reg. no. 27301). She is buried in the Field of Mars Cemetery at East Ryde in Sydney. A death notice published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 October 1948 noted that she was the loving mother of Elizabeth, Henry, Laura, Josiah, Lucy, and adopted daughters Marjorie and Molly.

Death notices for Emma Tack (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1948, p. 14)

I am very grateful to Kate Bagnall for originally posting the photograph of the Tear Tack family on her blog, to my cousin Etty Doyle Lang for pointing me in the direction of Kate’s post, and to the keen eye of Paul Macgregor who was the first to spot and recognise the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack in the photograph. I am also very much indebted to Paul for his encouragement, mentoring, collaboration and fine detective skills, and to our friend and colleague, Juanita Kwok, whom we also consulted in solving some of the mysteries initially presented by this photograph.

Gill Oxley
26 October 2016

Duped!

Recently I’ve been looking at a series of NSW naturalisation certificates held in the National Archives of Australia here in Canberra (NAA: A806). The naturalisation certificates in A806 are ones that were ‘cancelled’ by Customs officers after apparently being used by Chinese to attempt fraudulent entry to New South Wales.

In the 1880s and 1890s Chinese who were naturalised British subjects in NSW were exempt from paying the poll tax on entering the colony (£10 after 1881, and £100 after 1888). After the turn of the 20th century, naturalised Chinese used their certificates to prove their Australian domicile and avoid having to sit the Dictation Test on return from overseas. As a consequence, a trade in naturalisation certificates grew up within the Chinese community, as certificates were sold or passed on to others to use after a man had died or gone home to China for good.

Some of the naturalisation certificates in A806 have layers of hand-written notes on them, most of which are undated, which suggest the same certificates were used several times as re-entry documents – perhaps initially by the legitimate holder of the certificate and subsequently by someone else. A number have ‘£10’ written on the front, suggesting that the Chinese passenger was rejected and made to pay the poll tax to enter the colony. Some have Chinese notations (mostly on the back), giving personal details such as name, age, place of origin and length of time in New South Wales.

NAA: A806 (Chow Hock 1884/30)

A806 comprises three boxes and several hundred certificates, which I’ve photographed and am now working my way through in more detail. Eventually I will marry these certificates with other naturalisation records held in State Records NSW and also in immigration case files in the National Archives.

In some of the immigration cases involving naturalisation certificates I’ve looked at, including those in A806, it’s not altogether clear whether fraud was really being attempted or whether Customs officers were just being super cautious in the execution of their duties.

With one certificate in A806, though, the fraud was obvious – and it wasn’t the Customs officers who were duped.

In June 1915, a Chinese man arriving in Sydney on the Eastern from Hong Kong presented an 1896 naturalisation certificate belonging to ‘James Andersen of Kiama, a native of Finland’. The unfortunate fellow, who presumably didn’t read much English, was returned to Hong Kong on the same vessel.

NAA: A806 (James Andersen 1896/155)

The curious case of Ernest Sung Yee

This post is a written version of a presentation I gave to the second-year Hands On History (HIST274) class at the University of Wollongong on 7 September 2016. I was asked to speak about an interesting primary source and how I’ve used it in my research.

As a historian at the University of Wollongong I work in the field of Chinese-Australian history, researching the history of Chinese migration and settlement in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Much of my work concerns histories of women, children and the family, and I use methods such as biography and microhistory to write about the lives of people who have often left only a small trace in the archives. My PhD thesis looked at intimate relationships between white women and Chinese men in colonial New South Wales.

I mostly work with archival sources, with documents and photographs, but one particularly interesting source I’ve come across is a piece of Cine Sound newsreel footage from 1933 that is now held as part of the Universal Newsreel Library in the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The newsreel features a man named Ernest Sung Yee, who at the time was working at the municipal produce markets in Sydney.

Ernest, and the newsreel about him, relate to a particular research interest of mine that developed out of my PhD research – mixed-race Chinese-Australian families who went back to China.

Quite early on in my PhD research (in about July 1998) I went out to the National Archives of Australia in Chester Hill in Sydney. This was before the National Archives had digitised material online; in fact, it was even quite soon after they had put their collection database online for the first time. Armed with the Archives’ very first published research guide, I got started looking at records, box after box. Although it took me some time to understand the records I was working with, what I found profoundly changed the nature of the research I was doing and of much of my work since.

Chinese Australians were a very mobile group of people, travelling overseas for holidays, to visit family and for education and business. Under the Immigration Restriction Act – the legislative backbone of the White Australia policy – they could apply for travel documents that would allow them to return to Australia without having to sit the Dictation Test. The Dictation Test could be applied to anyone arriving into Australia (even those who had previously lived in Australia) and it could be given in any prescribed language – meaning that if the officials at the border didn’t want to let you in, they could administer the test in language you were sure to fail.

The records in the National Archives that I found so interesting and valuable were the thousands and thousands of identity certificates and immigration case files created by the Customs Department and Department of External Affairs documenting the overseas travels of Chinese Australians in the early decades of the 20th century.

Files of Chinese Australian travellers in NAA: SP115/1
Identity documents of Chinese Australians returning home through Sydney (NAA: SP115/1)

Somewhat to my surprise, these records included documents about many Australians of mixed Chinese and European parentage. This showed me two important things. First, that these mixed-race Chinese Australians were considered ‘Chinese’ rather than ‘white’ by the bureaucrats administering the White Australia policy. And second, that mixed Chinese-European families maintained ongoing connections with China.

Having lived in southern China myself, I became very interested in the experiences of white Australian wives of Chinese men and their mixed-race Anglo-Chinese children who ventured to China.

The immigration and travel records in the National Archives provide some details, such as who and how many and when and how, and in some cases, why. But, for the most part, they couldn’t tell me much about what happened between when someone left Australia and when they arrived back. I needed to find other sources for that.

I’ve found a few first-hand accounts by Anglo-Chinese Australians and New Zealanders that tell of their experiences as children and teenagers in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More common though are sources about, but not by, them – government files, missionary reports, and quite a number of newspaper articles.

Generally these accounts highlight the difficulties Anglo-Chinese Australian families had in adjusting to life in China, particularly those who did not stay in Hong Kong but ventured on to rural towns and villages in Guangdong province. At this time, the majority of Chinese in Australia came from a small group of rural counties in the Pearl River Delta region inland from Hong Kong. Many accounts tell of wives and children who returned to Australia because of apparent mistreatment by Chinese relatives, and newspaper reports about them are often highly emotive and sensationalist.

I’ve written three articles so far (centred on the Tart, Allen/Gum and Breuer/Lum Mow families) in which I’ve tried to read such sources against the grain, really thinking about the context in which they were written and the motivations of those who wrote them, to tell something of the varied experiences of Anglo-Chinese families in China. But one source I haven’t really used yet in my work is the newsreel from 1933.

Ernest Sung Yee and Charles Liu, early 1930s
Ernest Sung Yee, pictured in 1931, and Charles Liu, pictured in 1934 (NAA: J2483, 496/86 and SP42/1, C1934/4604)

The newsreel shows two men who both, in fact, came from mixed Chinese-European families – Ernest Sung Yee, born in Quirindi in northern New South Wales in 1901, and Charles Liu, born in Sydney in 1895. Both spent time in China as children, but it is Ernest who is the feature of the newsreel. Charles is there as translator only.

The newsreel title reads ‘Universal Newspaper Newsreel – Sydney, Australia – Native Anzac Raised with Chinese Soul in Curious Racial Mix-Up’.

Voiceover: Almost merchants. Here is a Chinese who … an amazing contrast. Working among the labourers … is Chinese. His parents died soon after taking him to China as a baby. Native villagers reared him and Ernest Soong Lee, as he was called, returned to Australia … Australian. Born of white parents in New South Wales … an English-speaking Chinese had to interpret him.

Ernest Sung Yee speaks in Cantonese.

Charles Liu: He like China the best. He like going back to see the wife and children, and his family.

The newsreel was brought to my attention by historian Geoff Robinson through the H-ANZAU listserv back in 2008. When I first saw it, I knew nothing about Ernest Sung Yee, but I was pretty sure that the story told about him wasn’t quite right. I knew of white step-sons of Chinese men who had been taken back to China to be educated in Chinese, and I thought maybe this was the case with Ernest too.

So I went back to those immigration records in the National Archives to see what I could find out, and from there have been able to piece together a bit of a picture of Ernest’s life, also drawing on birth, death and marriage records, and newspapers.

Ernest Sung Yee was the eldest son of Elizabeth Maher and Sung Yee, born at Quirindi in 1901. Elizabeth and Sung Yee had married in Quirindi in 1897. Ernest and his younger brother, Horace (b. 1905), were taken to China by Sung Yee in 1909. Their departure, when Ernest was 8 and Horace 4, came after the death of two baby brothers – Cecil (b. & d. 1907) and Dudley (b. & d.1908). After three years in China, Sung Yee returned to Australia, but the boys remained in China until 1921. On returning to Australia they went to live in Townsville, where their father was living and working. Ernest moved from Townsville to Sydney sometime in the late 1920s. He continued to make trips back to China over the 1920s and 1930s, having married and had a family in China. Under the White Australia Policy it would have been very unlikely that his wife and children would have been allowed to join him in Australia.

I have used Ernest’s story – the one revealed through official immigration files – as an example of the complexities of racial identity in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act, of how cultural markers such as language and education, and somewhat woolly notions of ‘Britishness’, influenced the treatment of Chinese Australians under the White Australia policy. Ernest was not your typical Chinese Australian – on immigration documents he and his brother Horace were both variously described as ‘half-caste Chinese’ or ‘Chinese’, but it was Ernest who had ‘light’ or ‘fair’ hair and blue eyes. From these descriptions and from his physical appearance in photographs it seems likely that neither of Ernest’s biological parents had Chinese ancestry, but he was still treated as ‘Chinese’ by Customs officials.

Portrait photograph from Horace Sung Yee’s CEDT, 1929 (NAA: J2483, 465/77)

Curious as Ernest’s case is, thinking back to my question about mixed-race Chinese-Australian families in China, and thinking about the negative portrayal of their experiences in many of the sources I’ve found, I wonder if the newsreel can in fact tell me something quite important. Could it perhaps point to the more hidden part of the story – one where Australian children like Ernest Sung Yee came to fit in, and belong, to the Chinese families and south China village communities in which they lived?

Further reading

Anglo-Chinese and the politics of overseas travel from New South Wales, 1898 to 1925’, in Sophie Couchman and Kate Bagnall (eds), Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, Brill, Leiden, 2015.

‘Crossing oceans and cultures’, in Agnieszka Sobocinska and David Walker (eds.), Australia’s Asia: Reviewing Australia’s Asian Pasts, University of Western Australia Press, 2012.

A journey of love: Agnes Breuer’s sojourn in 1930s China’, in Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woolacott (eds), Transnational Ties, ANU E Press, Canberra, 2008.

’Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood’, in Paul Arthur (ed.), Australian Identity and Culture: Transnational Perspectives in Life Writing, Anthem Press – Australian Humanities Research Series, forthcoming 2017.

Sources

  • Birth registration for Elizabeth Maher, 1872, Braidwood, NSW BDM 1872/7706
  • Birth registration for Violet M. Maher, 1897, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1897/6427
  • Birth registration for Ernest Sung Yee, 6 September 1901, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1901/35157
  • Birth registration for Horace Sue See Sung Yee, 24 February 1905, Quirindi, NSW BDM
  • BIrth registration for Cecil Sung Yee, 1907, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1907/7051
  • Birth registration for Dudley H. Sung Yee, 1908, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1908/28869
  • Death registration for Violet M. Maher, 1898, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1898/3024
  • Death registration for Cecil Lung Lee, 1907, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1907/2560
  • Death registration for Dudley Lung Yee, Quirindi, 1908/11105
  • Marriage registration for Lung Yee and Elizabeth Maher, 22 April 1897, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1897/4000

Note: I have not listed all the National Archives files relating to Ernest’s father Sung Yee or his brother Horace Sung Yee. These can be found through a keyword search for ‘Sung Yee’ in RecordSearch.

 

 

Confusions of citizenship

As I approach the end of my month in Canada I’m feeling like I know less than when I left home, in spite of a good many hours spent in the archives and in conversation with knowledgable people.

It’s a feeling that’s been growing over the past few days, and in the end I think my problem is that while I’ve done all that reading and talking I’ve formed new questions and uncovered complexities that I haven’t yet untangled in my mind.

At the centre of this niggling uncertainty is something that the Canadians themselves don’t seem to get quite right – the story of Chinese Canadian citizenship.

Yip Sang, who was naturalised in 1891, and some of his Chinese Canadian children. Chung Collection, UBC Library, CC_PH_00222 (photograph by A. Savard, Vancouver)
Yip Sang, who was naturalised in 1891, and some of his many Chinese Canadian children. Chung Collection, UBC Library, CC_PH_00222 (photograph by A. Savard, Vancouver)

The following paragraphs, from UBC’s The Chinese Experience in British Columbia, 1850–1950 website, are a case in point:

Prior to 1947, anyone born in the United Kingdom or another Commonwealth country, which included Canada, was designated as British subjects. A person received the rights and privileges as a British citizen even if he or she had migrated to Canada.

However, not only were Chinese immigrants not considered British citizens, even Canadian-born Chinese were categorized as aliens. Such Chinese could become British subjects only through naturalization. Only on rare occasions could naturalization laws be appealed by a judge if he or she decided that the petitioner would make a good citizen. Although some well-established, successful Chinese businessmen did become naturalized British subjects, the majority of Chinese could not.

Things changed when peoples of Chinese and Indian descent won the franchise in British Columbia and the Japanese Canadian community established the pan-Canadian National Association of Japanese Canadian Citizens Associations. The Canadian Citizenship Act, which came into force on January 1, 1947 was the first naturalization statute to introduce Canadian citizenship as an entity independent from British subject status. As the Canadian citizenship act also came into effect in 1947, anti-Asian measures such as the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1885 Chinese Head Tax, and the Continuous Journey Act were overturned.

While this question of ‘Chinese Canadian citizenship’ is a bit tangential to my exact project at hand – a study of the naturalisation of Chinese in BC to about 1915 – it relates to broader questions about the place of nationality and citizenship in the history of Chinese restriction or exclusion in the British settler colonies. And it relates to my interest in how Australia’s discriminatory laws of the White Australia period impinged on the rights of Chinese Australians, especially Australian-born British subjects of Chinese descent.

Something that I’ve heard a number of time while I’ve been in Canada is that the Chinese did not get Canadian citizenship until 1947, the implication being that this was another example of the discrimination they faced, including the head tax, immigration restriction (exclusion) and disenfranchisement. 1947 was the year that the Canadian Citizenship Act came into force. It was then that the legal status of Canadian citizen was created – before then the Canadian-born were British subjects, as in Australia.

(Complicating things a little is the fact that the Immigration Act 1910 introduced a definition of ‘Canadian citizen’, but according to the Canadian Government this didn’t count as ‘legal status’. Another puzzle to sort out, but let’s put that aside for the moment.)

The introduction of the Canadian Citizenship Act at the beginning of 1947 was followed by the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act (the Exclusion Act) later that year. The linking of these two events has been described like this by Lily Cho of York University:

With the beginning of Canadian citizenship, there was a national conversation about race and citizenship. In the first months of 1947, there were extensive debates in the House of Commons about the racial and ethnic identity of Canadian citizens. These conversations led directly to the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in May, 1947, and an end to the era of exclusion.

(Note to self: look at more of Lily Cho’s work, including ‘Redress revisited: citizenship and the Chinese Canadian head tax’, in Reconciling Canada: Historical Injustices and the Contemporary Culture of Redress, edited by Jennifer Henderson & Pauline Wakeham, University of Toronto Press, 2013, pp. 87–99.)

It’s also stated that the first Canadian citizenship ceremony of Chinese was held in Vancouver in 1947.

I know that British subject status was a different thing from Canadian citizenship, but what’s puzzling me is the almost complete absence of discussion of how before 1947 Chinese born in Canada were British subjects under common law, just like their white counterparts (for definitions see, for example, the Immigration Act 1910 and Naturalization Act 1914). And that Chinese migrants to British Columbia could be and were naturalised as British subjects from as early as the 1860s – my initial research suggests that up to 1000 Chinese were naturalised in British Columbia before 1915, and around 400 more were naturalised in Canada as a whole between 1915 and 1951.

I’m not far enough into my research to know whether Canadian-born Chinese or naturalised Chinese in BC argued their equal status as British subjects, as some in Australia did, to push back against racially discriminatory treatment. Perhaps they didn’t, and perhaps that’s why it’s not discussed much today. But if not, why not? And if British nationality was of no perceivable benefit in the face of discrimination, why did those hundreds of men choose to become naturalised?

5 things I liked about the BC Archives

Visiting a new archive, particularly overseas, can be a bit daunting. But I’m pleased to report that my time at the British Columbia Archives over the past two weeks was just lovely. Research discoveries aside, here’s 5 things I liked about the BC Archives.

1. Location and transportation. The BC Archives is centrally located in downtown Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia. It’s housed in the same building as the Royal BC Museum, just across from the BC Parliament and the Inner Harbour. This means it’s easy to get to on foot or by public transport, and it’s easy to find once you’re there. It also has lots of nearby eating places and somewhere nice to stretch your legs at lunch.

2. The staff. The archives staff are some of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met – from Lance on the front desk, to Steve and Raj the security guys, to the archivists themselves (of particular help to me were Claire, Katy and Ann). One little thing I really appreciated was being told the names of the staff I was dealing with; Steve on security would tell me the names of those working on the information and retrievals desks each day when I signed in. The staff also took the time to remember my name, too, which was nice when I was so far from home.

Reading room at the BC Archives
Researchers’ view of the BC Archives reading room

3. Opening hours and locker system. The archives are open 6 days a week, which means you can really make the most of a visit from out of town. They have what they call full service and partial service hours. During full service hours the archivists are on duty and you can request original material. In the partial service hours (4–8pm on weekdays and 1–5pm on Saturdays), you can freely access the mircrofilm collection (a lot of the material I needed was on microfilm) or you can have original material put in a locker for you to access once the archivists have gone home.

The handsome collection of book rests, foam and archival weights in the BC Archives

4. Copying records. There are no problems with taking digital photographs of original materials, and the archives provides a nice collection of book rests, foam and weights so that you don’t have to try to awkwardly hold bound volumes flat while you take photos. Super handy with some of the big registers I was looking at. For microfilm you can save images onto a USB stick.

5. Raccoon! On the first day of my visit a raccoon was fishing in the pond in native plant garden outside the archives. No moose or bears, but definitely my best archival wildlife experience so far.

Archival raccoon in the native plant garden outside the BC Archives

Canada research trip, July 2016

I’ve spent July is British Columbia, Canada, attending a workshop and conference, and beginning the Canadian part of my DECRA research. Along the way I visited as many Chinese Canadian heritage sites as I could. Here’s a run-down of my trip.

4–5 July: 2-day ‘Cantonese Pacific in the Making of the Modern World’ workshop (invitation only) led by Dr Henry Yu at the University of British Columbia. Participants included Henry Yu, Glen Peterson (UBC), Evelyn Hu-DeHart (Brown University), Elizabeth Sinn (HKU), Shirley Hune (University of Washington), Selia Tan (Wuyi University), Jack Leong (Canada Hong Kong Library, University of Toronto), Yuet-sang Leung (HKU Press), Paul Macgregor, Michael Williams, and Zoe Lam (UBC). Thanks to Henry Yu, I received financial assistance from UBC to attend this workshop and was accommodated at St John’s College, UBC.

6–8 July: ISSCO 2016 conference convened by Henry Yu (UBC) and Glen Peterson (UBC), held at the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel in Richmond BC. The conference was held over three days, with up to 6 parallel sessions and more than 200 participants. The papers included a mix of the historical and contemporary, and covered overseas Chinese communities in North America, Australia, UK, South America and the Carribean, and Southeast Asia. My paper was in the first session of the first day, so I was able to relax and enjoy after that. Two sessions that I particularly enjoyed were: the plenary session with Elizabeth Sinn and Selia Tan; and Panel 11: Intimacy, Class, Ethnicity and Power Inversion, with my UOW colleagues Cecilia Leong-Salobir and Claire Lowrie, Nadine Attewell (McMaster University) and Meg Foster (UNSW).

Audience for Panel 1, ISSCO 2016 conference, 6 July 2016

The conference happenings, including tweets by me, were Storified by Dominique Bautista (UBC) here:

9 July: Chinese-Canadian Relations in Vancouver tour, organised by the Chinese Candian Historical Society of BC and led by CCHSBC president John Atkins and Sarah Ling. We visited the Musqueam Nation, where we were shown around by Elder Larry Grant and visited the ‘City Before the City’ exhibition at the Cultural Centre; had lunch at Floata Restaurant in Chinatown, the largest Chinese restaurant in Canada, complete with lion dance; visited the Wong’s Benevolent Association in Pender Street; and visited the Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first classical Chinese garden built outside China (in 1986, two years before Sydney’s Chinese garden openened in 1988).

Meeting room at Wong's Benevolent Association of Canada, 123 East Pender Street, Vancouver
Meeting room at Wong’s Benevolent Association of Canada, 123 East Pender Street, Vancouver

10 July: Gold Mountain River Raft Tour, facilitated by the Hua Foundation with tour coordinator Sarah Ling and UBC’s Henry Yu. We set out from Richmond around 7am for a three-hour drive to the Fraser River north of Lytton – on the way Henry Yu shared with us the Chinese history of the places we passed, including New Westminster, Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope and Yale. After a make-your-own-sandwich lunch on the river shore, we piled into three rafts and headed downstream to Browning’s Flat, a 19th-century Chinese goldmining site with the rather remarkable stone water races. From Browning’s Flat we continued down river (seeing a herd of wild horses on the way!), back to Lytton and then back down the valley to Richmond.

These two tours were only some of the post-ISSCO events organised for that weekend. I couldn’t attend them all (!) but Dominique Bautista has Storified them here:

Me and Selia Tan at Lytton BC at the end of our Fraser River rafting adventure to Browning's Flat, 10 July 2016
Me and Selia Tan at Lytton BC at the end of our Fraser River rafting adventure to Browning’s Flat, 10 July 2016

11 July: Victoria Chinatown visit with John Adams and Barry McGowan (ANU). John Adams is a local Victoria historian who runs historical (and ghost) tours with his son Chris; John grew up near Chinatown and is currently writing a book on Victoria’s Chinese history. Starting at the Chinatown gate, John walked us past a number of significant Chinese heritage buildings including the Lee’s Benevolent Association and Chinese Public School on Fisgard Street, before we visited the Tam Kung Temple in the Yen Wo Society Building on Government Street. We popped our head into the Loy Sing Company on Fisgard Street, a cooked meat shop that has been in business for more than 130 years (but with changes of owner). We finished our walk by winding our way through some of Victoria Chinatown’s alleyways, including Dragon Alley, Theatre Alley and Dragon Alley.

Tam Kung Temple in the Yen Wo Building, 1713 Government Street, Victoria, 11 July 2016
Tam Kung Temple in the Yen Wo Society Building, 1713 Government Street, Victoria, 11 July 2016

12–13 July: Research at BC Archives, which holds the provincial records of British Columbia. Although post-confederation (after 1871) naturalisation was a federal function, it was administered on a provincial level by the county courts – hence naturalisation registers, applications and certificates for my BC Chinese are held in the BC Archives.

14 July: Victoria Chinese heritage visit with Selia Tan (Wuyi University), facilitated by John Adams, Alan Lowe (an architect and former mayor of Victoria), Henry Low, Alastair Kerr, and Tzu-I Chung and Delphine Castles (from the Royal BC Museum). We visited the Chinese Empire Reform Association building, which is now a rather gorgeous private residence; the Hook Sing Tong building, finished in 1913, which features a magnificent stained glass dome; the Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association building and its Fan Tan Alley shops, which have all recently been redeveloped; and the Lee’s Benevolent Association building. We also got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Chinese Canadian collections at the Royal BC Museum.

The Hook Sing Tong building on Herald Street, Victoria,
The Hook Sing Tong Charity Association building on Herald Street, Victoria, 14 July 2016. The association leases out the ground-floor shops and apartments (condos) on the first floor, keeping the top floor for its meeting room and offices.

15–16 July: Research at BC Archives.

17 July: Visit to Chinese Combined Benevolent Society cemetery at Harding Point, Oak Bay, which is a National Historic Site of Canada. The cemetery was opened in 1903 and officially closed in 1961. The cemetery is carefully laid out according to feng shui principles. The grave markers sit at the foot of the graves (rather than being headstones) and many inscriptions are solely in Chinese.

Chinese Combined Benevolent Association Cemetery at Harling Point, Oak Bay, Victoria BC, 17 July 2016
Chinese Combined Benevolent Association Cemetery at Harling Point, Oak Bay, Victoria BC, 17 July 2016

18 July: Research at City of Victoria Archives, looking at records relating to several naturalised Chinese merchants of Victoria.

19–22 July: Research at BC Archives.

25 July: Research in the Chung Collection, University of British Columbia Library.

26 July: Research in the City of Vancouver Archives (Paul Yee fonds, and Yip family and Yip Sang Ltd. fonds) and visit to the Museum of Vancouver. The museum had two exhibits relating to Chinese Canadians on show. The first, which is part of a temporary exhibition ‘All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds’, was a collection of Chinese restaurant menus from Imogene Lim (see the digitised collection from University of Vancouver Island). The second is part of their permanent exhibitions and highlights the history of Vancouver Chinatown, and in particular Yip Sang and the Wing Sang Company. The display features a fraction of the Chinese Canadian material they have (search openMOV for ‘Chinese’ or ‘Chinese Canadian’ to see digitised material). One of my favourite things was the fascimiles and translations of undelivered letters found in the Wing Sang building which you could open and read – Wing Sang acted as a post restante service for the Vancouver’s Chinese community. Another favourite was the well-worn silk baby carrier or mē dáai 孭帶 (which you can see on the back of the mannequin in the photo below).

Chinese Canadian exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver, 26 July 2016
Vancouver Chinatown exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver, 26 July 2016

27 July: Research in the Chung Collection, UBC Library, and catch-up with Henry Yu.

Lillian Ho Chong's birth certificate, City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S5-2-F004
Ho Gee or Lillian Ho Chong’s birth certificate, 1896, City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S5-2-F004. Lillian’s father was naturalised in 1905 after 23 years in British Columbia.

 

In memoriam

On 18 June 1888, the following in memoriam notice appeared in the Newcastle Morning Herald:

LABBAYU.—In loving memory of my dear mother, Mary Ann Labbayu, who departed this life June 17, 1887, after a long and painful illness; aged 43 years.

It is just twelve months ago to-day
Since my dear mother passed away,
Since I stood by my mother’s side
And saw her breathe her last.

She faded like some southern flower
Parched by cruel rays;
And now beneath the dark, cold sod,
My dear mother lays.

Inserted by her loving daughter, Aggie Hop War, Newcastle.

According to her death certificate (NSW BDM 11450/1887), Mary Ann Labbayu, age 42, died at Watt Street, Newcastle, after suffering cancer of the uterus for three years. She was buried in the Catholic section of Sandgate Cemetery at Newcastle (Portion Catholic 1, Section D Com, Plot 389).

Mary Ann’s death left her two daughters, Sarah and Mary Agnes (Aggie), aged 21 and 19, parentless.

Four years earlier, on 6 September 1883, they had lost their father, Thomas Labbayu, in a riding accident near their home at Greta. Thomas’s accident and the subsequent inquest received a long write-up in the local Matiland newspaper. Thomas was buried at Branxton Cemetery, with a handsome headstone erected by his daughter Aggie and her husband. Mary Ann inherited her husband’s estate.

Thomas Labbayu’s death certificate (NSW BDM 8600/1883) gives some interesting particulars about his life. It says he was aged 46 at the time of his death (meaning he would have been born around 1837), he was originally from China, and had been in New South Wales for 20 years (so would have arrived around 1863). He had worked as a contractor.

But this information doesn’t quite tally with the details given at the time of his naturalisation a decade earlier, in January 1874, and it’s these earlier details that are probably more accurate.

Thomas’s naturalisation certificates states that he was from Armoa, China (presumably Amoy), that he arrived in New South Wales in 1853, and that he was aged 30 in 1874 (meaning he would have been born around 1844). In 1874 he working as a carpenter and fencer at Greta, near Branxton, and had purchased land (NSW Certificate of Naturalization No. 74/12, in the name Thomas Labbayn).

Mary Ann Coyle and Thomas Labbayu married in the manse at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, East Maitland, on 17 February 1868 (NSW BDM 2561/1868). At the time of their marriage they were living at Buttai and Thomas was working as a woodsplitter. Mary Ann had given birth to a daughter, Sarah, two years earlier (NSW BDM 10383/1866, registered under surname Coyle), and in the year of her marriage to Thomas, they had another daughter, Mary Agnes (Aggie) (NSW BDM 11567/1868). 

When their mother died in 1887, Sarah and Aggie Labbayu were both already married. They had married young: Aggie was sixteen when she married James Sydney Hop War, and Sarah was eighteen when she married James J.H. Ah Chee, both marriages taking place at Greta in 1883.

Sarah married again in 1886, presumably after the death of her first husband, to a man named William Coulton — it was ‘Sara J. Coulton, daughter of the deceased’ who was listed as informant on her mother’s death certificate.

With William Coulton, Sarah had two children, Herbert and Mary, born in 1887 and 1888 (NSW BDMs 30336/1887 and 31671/1888). I haven’t immediately located the birth of any children with her first husband, James Ah Chee, but an immigration file from 1909 mentions a ‘half-caste Chinese’ man named Ah Chee who was the nephew of Aggie Hop War (NAA: SP42/1, C1909/2915).

View down Watt Street, Newcastle (Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle)

More can be discovered about the Hop War family. James Hop War was a successful cabinetmaker in Newcastle, where he and Aggie established a home in Watt Street. They had four daughters: twins Eveline and Florence (b. 1884), Agnes Amy (b. 1887) and Gertrude (b. 1889). James Hop War was naturalised in 1882. His naturalisation certificate stated that he had arrived in New South Wales on the Isle of France in 1870 at the age of 17. In a letter to the newspaper in 1891, after certain accusations were made against him, James Hop War declared, ‘I have been a resident of Newcastle for 17 years, have a wife and four children dependent on me for support’. He appears to have been a prominent presence in the local Chinese community and acted as government interpreter.

Birth certificate of Gertrude Hop War, Newcastle, 1889 (NAA: SP42/1, C1909/2915)

James, Aggie and their children left New South Wales for Hong Kong in 1892. Some time after, James and Aggie’s marriage fell apart and James returned to Sydney in January 1904 while the rest of the family remained overseas (NAA: SP42/1, C1909/2915).

Versions of the family name that appear in the records are: Labbayu, Labbayue, Labbayn, Labayu, Labbayer, Lavyu.

PhD scholarship in overseas Chinese history

Expressions of interest are sought for a 3.5-year PhD scholarship connected to my ARC-funded project ‘Chinese seeking citizenship in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, 1860 to 1920’ (DE160100027).

My project concerns the interconnected histories of Chinese naturalisation in colonial New South Wales, New Zealand and British Columbia. In the project I will consider how and why Chinese became British subjects, and how naturalisation affected their experience of colonial life.

Research environment and topics

The PhD project will be supervised by me, ARC DECRA Research Fellow Dr Kate Bagnall, and ARC Future Fellow Associate Professor Julia Martinez within the History program at the University of Wollongong. History at UOW has a vibrant research community with a strong focus on settler colonial history and Australia’s connections with Asia. Wollongong’s location offers access to significant archival collections and research libraries in both Sydney and Canberra.

The proposed PhD project should focus on Chinese migration and settlement in New South Wales before 1945, or offer comparative perspectives by investigating Chinese communities in one or more British settler colonies of the Pacific Rim in a similar period.

Projects should also address at least one of the following themes: writing overseas Chinese lives; colonial Chinese voices; Chinese responses to White Australia; race, gender and nationality.

I encourage you to contact me (kbagnall@uow.edu.au) to discuss your ideas before preparing a proposal.

Eligibility and application details

The scholarship is for three and a half (3.5) years full-time with a stipend of $AUD26,288 per annum (tax free and indexed annually).

PhD scholarship applicants should have:

  • first-class honours, or masters degree with a thesis component, in History or a related field such as Australian Studies or Asian Studies
  • archival research experience
  • ability to work independently and manage a complex project
  • high-level written and verbal English proficiency
  • written Chinese-language proficiency and familiarity with Cantonese would be an advantage.

Applicants should submit:

  • a cover letter detailing relevant experience, your CV and academic transcripts to the Faculty Research Unit via lha-research@uow.edu.au
  • a full Higher Degree Research (HDR) admission application, including a UOW scholarship application via https://www.uow.edu.au/apply/index.html. Include your academic transcript, copy of your passport or birth certificate and an outline of your proposed research project. In the Scholarship Details Section select ‘Other UOW Funded Scholarship’ and include the names of the DECRA Research Fellow (Dr Kate Bagnall) and the grant ID number (DE160100027).

The deadline for applications is Thursday, 30 June 2016

View a pdf version of the ad for the PhD scholarship in overseas Chinese history