Ten years ago, in June 2009, a paper of mine about White Australia records and the Poon Gooey family was published on the National Archives website. I had presented the paper at the Fourth International Conference of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China, on 10 May 2009. I was then working in the web team at the National Archives and so we put my paper up online, with links to images of documents and to the original archival records, which were all digitised in RecordSearch.
Using the story of Poon Gooey and his family as a case study, the paper discussed the National Archives’ early 20th-century records on Chinese Australians, particularly those created in the administration of the White Australia Policy. The records document many aspects of the lives of Chinese Australians, including immigration and travel, business enterprises, political activities and community life. Publications and finding aids, descriptive work and digitisation projects over the years have made the records easier to access and hopefully encourage their use.
The records are a legacy of the discrimination and marginalisation of the White Australia years, but they can be used by researchers today to recover the lives of Chinese Australians in the past, and also to provide a more nuanced understanding of the contradictions and complications of Australia’s response to its Chinese population.
I’m at the end of a two-week stay in Wellington, New Zealand, where I’ve been finishing off my the NZ part of my research on Chinese naturalisation. Last year when I was here I worked my way through the naturalisation files of about 450 Chinese men, and my aim on this visit was to look at the remaining 50 or so, as well as other policy files and correspondence around the subject of naturalisation and Chinese immigration. This is what I’ve mainly been looking at:
individual naturalisation files in 8333 (IA1): I now have a copy of most of the 499 successful naturalisation applications by Chinese up to 1908, some incomplete naturalisation applications, and files of some ‘Chinese’ naturalised after it was prohibited in 1908 (Chinese Canadian British subjects, and white widows of Chinese men) – happily about 90 of the files are now digitised in Archway (e.g. the 1905 file of Alexandra storekeeper Sue Hin: 8333, 1905/958)
copy letters of naturalisation in 8377 (IA53): I looked through 45 naturalisation registers to locate the copy naturalisation letters for each of 499 naturalised Chinese, and to confirm that I hadn’t missed any!
There are a few naturalisation files that I haven’t been able to see because they are either missing or restricted. The missing ones have been missing since at least the 1950s, and I checked the file registers and a couple were definitely destroyed. The restricted ones are two pre-1908 applications that have been top-numbered into later files, and files of the ‘exceptional’ post-1908 naturalised Chinese (Frank Kow Kee, Kathleen Pih and Anthony Joe). I’ve written again the the Department of Internal Affairs requesting permission to view the two pre-1908 applications, so fingers crossed.
I’ve also done some digging around in other records relating to naturalisation and nationality, the poll tax, immigration permits and petitions by Chinese residents.
What I’ll be doing next is transcribing biographical and administrative data from the files into my naturalisation database – data such as birthplace, length of residence in NZ before naturalisation, age at naturalisation, and length of time between application and grant of naturalisation. When that’s all done, I’ll be ready to do some proper analysis, and data visualisation!
While in Wellington, I’ve also enjoyed catching up with Lynette Shum from the National Library of NZ, Cameron Sang who runs the Wellington Chinese History Wiki, Bronwyn Labrum from Te Papa, and Grace Gassin who is also now at Te Papa.
I’ll be back in Wellington in November 2019 for the Dragon Tails conference, where I plan to present the research I’ve been doing in a paper on ‘Chinese British subjects in the colonial trans-Tasman world’.
I’ve seen some damaged naturalisation certificates in my research, but I think this one is the worst! Granted to 亞美 Ah Mee, a Collingwood goldminer, in 1890, then damaged in a hotel fire (@ArchivesNZ 8333, 1894/1119). #chinnzhistpic.twitter.com/3LL4GTMK2H
I have now looked at 494 out of the 501 successful naturalisation applications of Chinese in NZ to 1908 – 1 file is being digitised, 4 files are missing (since before 1949) and 2 files are restricted. Huzzah! pic.twitter.com/u0TpjJsNj6
Yikes, I’ve found three more! And have identified what I think are a couple of duplicates. Time for some data cleaning tonight, I think. (Oh, and two of my chaps say they were born in Melbourne, which is perplexing!)
Some of my NZ naturalised Chinese are a real puzzle, like Melbourne-born Ah Louie of Whanganui, naturalised in 1896. A note from 1958 on his file states he was ‘naturalised in error’, since he was a British subject by birth. (@ArchivesNZ 8333, 1896/438) #chinnzhistpic.twitter.com/IqjPmy5vVs
Today I’m enjoying chasing up some odd cases, of ‘Chinese’ who were naturalised in NZ after 1908, in the period when it was prohibited: Chinese Canadians, Chinese Samoans, white wives (of Australian and German birth) who were widows, and three 'exceptional cases’.
Curious find of the day: 1889 naturalisation of Tim How of Gore, born in Mauritius in 1855 to a Chinese father and English mother. He chose to be naturalised, even after he was advised he was a British subject by birth.
Huzzah! I have now checked all the copy letters of naturalisation, confirming details for 499 Chinese men naturalised in NZ before 1908. This is the last one – Singapore-born cook, Ah Chick, from Wellington, naturalised in July 1907. (@ArchivesNZ, series 8377) pic.twitter.com/0C5aAWD0cj
More research to be done here, but Ah Chick was later said to have been ‘naturalised in error’ as he was a British subject due to his Singapore birth. But it seems in 1907 he wanted proof of being British – so he could join the cook’s union.
I spent much of August 2018 in Canada, attending a conference and undertaking more of my DECRA research on Chinese naturalisation in British Columbia.
9–12 August, Vancouver: I presented a paper ‘White women, Chinese men: Interracial intimacies in colonial New South Wales’ at the International Federation for Research on Women’s History conference at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. My paper was part of a panel called ‘Struggles for marriage: Race and indentity’, alongside Karen Hughes from Swinburne University, Rui Kohiyama from Tokyo Women’s Christian University and Junko Akamatsu from Bunkyo Gakuin University in Japan; the panel was chaired by Kristin Celello from Queen’s College CUNY.
On the last day of the conference I went on a Chinatown walking tour run by Judy Lam Maxwell – it was, to be honest, somewhat of a disappointment. The conference program had stated that the tour would be about the women of Vancouver Chinatown, but there wasn’t any particular focus on women and some of the historical information Judy provided about Australia (in the context of White Canada/White Australia) was just plain wrong. I did, however, independently go and eat some delicious dauh fuh fa (豆腐花) at the Chinatown Pop-up Market, part of the Vancouver Chinatown Summer Events program.
13–14 August, Vancouver to Ottawa: Travel, email and life admin.
15–17 August, Ottawa: Research at Library and Archives Canada. I began looking at Canadian Government archival material relating to Chinese naturalisation (LAC only permits you to order 10 archival boxes per day, and they take 24–48 hours to be delivered to the reading room), as well as books, theses and historical writings on the Chinese in Canada, citizenship and so on. I also caught up with the lovely Laura Madokoro (McGill University) and Shawn Graham (Carleton University).
18–19 August, Ottawa and Gatineau: Weekend! I went to the Canadian Museum of History to see how Chinese Canadians figure in the museum’s telling of Canadian history. Having always approached the history of Canada from the Pacific, in the Canadian History Hall it took an unexpectedly long time (and a long walk) to finally get from east to west, to the part where British Columbia enters the national story. Exhibits that included information about Chinese Canadians were:
‘From Sea to Sea’ (1867–1885) – building the Canadian Pacific Railway
‘Transforming a Dominion’ (1885–1914) – early twentieth-century migration, Chinese head tax and the 1907 Vancouver riot
‘Diversity and Human Rights’ (1914–today) – Chinese Immigration Act 1923, the Head Tax Apology and Redress, and the introduction of Canadian citizenship in 1947.
The Canadian History Hall was big and impressive and busy, but the exhibition I enjoyed most was quietly tucked away on the lower ground floor in a gallery for exhibitions from the collections of Library and Archives Canada. The exhibition, ‘A Little History: The Hidden Stories of Children’, featured paintings, photographs, letters and documents by and about children, including the 1922 head tax certificate of ten-year-old Chong Do Dang from Chew Yung Lee in Hoiping.
20–24 August, Ottawa: More research at Library and Archives Canada.
25–26 August, Ottawa to Victoria BC: Travel and a day off.
27–28 August, Victoria:Research at the British Columbia Archives, following up on material that I didn’t get to see when I was in Victoria two years ago.
29–31 August, Victoria to Canberra: I watched Crazy Rich Asians, then flew out of Victoria International Airport, to Vancouver, to Melbourne, and then finally home to Canberra!
This guest post was written by Parker Bagnall, aged seven. Parker attended our Real Face of White Australia transcribe-a-thon weekend at Old Parliament House on 9–10 September 2017, and became interested in the photograph of a little girl, Dolly Denson, that she found when transcribing. You can see more photographs of the Denson family in NAA: ST84/1, 1909/23/71-80.
On this website you transcribe. I’ll explain what transcribing is. Transcribing is when you take words from old immigration documents and type them out. On the old documents there are pictures of the person who owns the certificate. When I was transcribing I came across a two year old girl called Dolly. She was very cute and had chubby cheeks. My mum helped me find more about Dolly from the archives.
Dolly was born in Sydney 1907. That was 110 years ago. Dolly died probably at least 20 or 30 years ago, but my mum said it would have been interesting to meet someone who you were studying. Dolly’s mum’s name was Jang See and her dad’s name was Mew Denson. She had six siblings – five sisters, one brother. Her oldest sister, Mary, was born in China in 1895. The rest of her siblings were born in Sydney. There names were William, Amy, Ivy, Ruby, Mabel. Ruby died when she was a baby.
In 1909 the family went on a trip to China. The ship they travelled on was called the Eastern. Before they left they got identification documents called CERTIFICATE EXEMPTING FROM DICTATION TEST. These are the documents I was transcribing.🇨🇳 Dolly was too little to have her own certificate, so she’s on the back of her mum’s certificate.
Transcribing is fun but tricky. It’s tricky because the old handwriting is a bit hard to read. The writing is very curly, some letters are weird. The more you do it the easier it gets. There’s also some funny things on the certificates. One funny thing is they measure height in boots.
This semester I am working with Tim Sherratt’s Exploring Digital Heritage class at the University of Canberra to undertake an important project on the White Australia Policy, using records from the National Archives of Australia and collaborating with the Museum of Australian Democracy.
The project involves transcribing digitised files from series ST84/1 – mostly Certificates of Domicile and Certificates Exempting from the Dictation Test dating from the early decades of the 20th century.
Under the White Australia Policy, anyone deemed not to be ‘white’ who travelled overseas had to carry these special documents. Without them travellers could be subjected to the Dictation Test and denied re-entry — even though they might have been born in Australia or had been naturalised.
The certificates contain information about ordinary people living their lives despite the restrictions imposed on them by a racist bureaucratic system. By transcribing these documents — extracting information about their names, their ages, their places of birth, their travels overseas — we hope to learn more about them and their experiences.
Only about 15 per cent of series ST84/1 has been digitised so far, but Tim estimates that there are about 6000 certificates already available online. There are two copies of most certificates, so that’s about 3000 unique certificates.
To extract the data Tim has built a website using Scribe, a community transcription platform developed by Zooniverse and the New York Public Library. His students are developing the documentation for the site and will support volunteer transcribers.
We will launch the transcription site on the weekend of the 9–10 September at the Real Face of White Australia Transcribe-a-thon hosted by the Museum of Australian Democracy. Across the weekend we’ll have transcription stations set up in Kings Hall. We’ll also have a series of speakers – Dr Sophie Couchman, Dr Peter Prince, Tim and myself – talking about the records and what they can tell us. Students will be managing communications and event planning related to the transcribe-a-thon.
It’ll be an exciting event — come along and help! Or if you’re not in Canberra, stay tuned for details of how you can be involved in transcribing the records online.
I have produced a short guide to researching Chinese Australians in Immigration (Restriction) Act records in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney.
The guide aims to be a practical introduction to the records, their context and content. It covers the administrative background and processes, how-to steps for researching, a description of the main record series with examples, and copies of various certificates and forms.
Although the examples given in the guide relate to Chinese Australians, information about other ‘non-white’ Australians, such as those of Syrian, Afghan, Indian and Japanese backgrounds, can also be found in the records discussed.
In June 1857, four Chinese men from Melbourne – named Sun Tring, Yun Peng, Sun Woee and Hoy Peng – applied for naturalisation. Their memorials for naturalisation give basic details about them:
Sun Tring of Melbourne, 29 years, merchant, arrived on the Annie Bailie in 1852, desires to purchase and hold land
Yun Peng, of Melbourne, 30 years, merchant, arrived on the Challenge in 1854, desires to purchase and hold land
Sun Woee, of Melbourne, 35 years, merchant, arrived on the Cornwall in January 1857, desires to purchase and hold land
Hoy Peng, of Melbourne, 30 years, merchant, arrvied on the Liverpool in 1854, desires to purchase and hold land.
The memorials for naturalisation were each signed by the same six witnesses who knew them and attested to their good character and reputation.
The men were granted their naturalisation certificates on 2 July 1857. They were four of the eight Chinese men granted naturalisation in Victoria in 1857 – the others were Louis Ah Mouy, John Affoo, William Tsze Hing and Abu Mason.
Looking at the signatures on the memorials for naturalisation, I realised something odd about these four men. Their names are the same as those of the Sze Yup (四邑) or Four Counties districts:
Confirmation that the men were granted naturalisation is found in Ancestry.com’s Victoria, Australia, Index to Naturalisation Certificates, 1851-1928 (original data: Chief Secretary’s Department. Index to Naturalization Certificates (1851–1922), VPRS 4396. Public Record Office Victoria).
Over the first few years of the 20th century, Form 21 (Certificate of Domicile, then Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test) went through various iterations as the procedures for administering the Immigration Restriction Act were bedded down. After 1906, the CEDT form remained basically the same until the Dictation Test was abolished in the late 1940s.
The certificates below are the first example of each iteration of the certificate found in the records of the NSW Collector of Customs in the National Archives in Sydney. Certificates of Domicile and CEDTs issued in Sydney are held in series ST84/1, except for those issued in 1902 which are held in SP11/6.
1902 – First Certificate of Domicile
The first Certificate of Domicile issued in New South Wales is found in a volume of certificates from 1902 in NAA: SP11/6, CERTIFICATE DOMICILE MISCELLANEOUS PASSENGERS 1909-1926. More about SP11/6 in an earlier post.
I suspect I will never be finished in my quest to understand the workings of the White Australia policy in the early decades of the twentieth century. My most recent work (which I hope will be published in the next year) has focused on the entry and residence of Chinese wives between 1902 and 1920, including the well-known ‘Poon Gooey case’.
While much of what I know about how the Immigration (Restriction) Act was administered comes from individual case files (known as correspondence files), there has been a gap between these files and the legislation itself. Two items in the National Archives (AP214/9 and D3193) help fill this gap. The Collector of Customs in Adelaide – who like Customs officers in the other states administered the Act in accordance with regulations, rules and instructions from the Department of External Affairs – kept a valuable, and seemingly unique, record of this correspondence from External Affairs. I have not come across other similar items for other states (always happy to be corrected though!)
I’ve had D3193 digitised by the National Archives and, while the cost of digitisation of A214/9 was prohibitive because of conservation concerns, I have photographed it and put the images up in Dropbox (link below). There is another series, AP378/37 – ‘Confidential instructions (old system), 1900–45’, listed in RecordSearch as being held in Sydney, but I haven’t looked at this to see if it contains similar material.
AP214/9 is a register containing copies of the Immigration Restriction Act and related correspondence, dating from 1901 to 1913. It was created by the Collector of Customs in Adelaide, South Australia.
The contents of the register includes:
copies of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and subsequent amendments, as well as related regulations and statutory rules
notes for the guidance of officers administering the IRA
copies of forms used in administering the IRA
instructions from Department of External Affairs to the local Collector of Customs at Port Adelaide.
Much of the content concerns ‘coloured’ arrivals, including ships’ crews, and arriving passengers with physical diseases or disabilities.
It is a large bound volume, with folios marked with page numbers up to 292. The documents (either printed or typsescript carbon copies) are pasted into the register, rather than being written out by hand. Folios 232 to 267 are blank. There is a separate alphabetical index (which doesn’t seem very complete). The last dated document is from 31 December 1913.
AP214/9, VOLUME 1 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Adelaide and is not digitised in RecordSearch (as of 20 June 2017). My images of AP214/9 are available in Dropbox.
D3193 is a volume containing confidential instructions relating to the Immigration Act (as the Immigration Restriction Act was known after 1912), dating from 1914 to 1919.
The small printed volume has been annotated with handwritten notes and insertions of further documents by the Collector of Customs, Adelaide. The original volume is titled Immigration Act Instructions together with Immigration Act 1901–1912 and Immigration Regulations 1913 and was produced by the Department of External Affairs in 1914.
The contents of D3193 are similar to those in AP214/9.
During World War I, young Percy Sam of West Wyalong applied for both a CEDT and an Emigration Certificate before travelling with his father to China – at the same time as his older brothers were away fighting in the AIF. It’s a story that illustrates the contradictory ways that Australians of part-Chinese descent were treated by government authorities in the early twentieth century. For more on that see my earlier blog post and my Inside History article. Alastair Kennedy’s Chinese Anzacs book also discusses the Sam brothers.
Five documents about the Sam family are featured the National Archives exhibition:
a police report about father William Flood Sam that accompanied his CEDT application (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058)
photographs of father William and son Percy Sam that accompanied their CEDT applications (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058; SP42/1, C1915/4032 )
a letter from mother Jane Sam giving permission for son Percy to travel overseas with his father (NAA: C1915/4032)
The display is behind glass in a drawer, so it’s a bit hard to photograph. The main text reads:
At the outbreak of World War I the Sam brothers, like many young Australian men, were eager to represent their country. Two of the brothers – James and Norman – enlisted in November 1914 and went on to serve at Gallipoli in 1915. Over the remainder of that year, three more brothers – Henry, George and Tom – also enlisted.
Also in 1915 their father William and younger brother Percy wanted to travel to China, William’s birth country. While some family members were considered ‘sufficiently European’ to serve overseas in the Australian Imperial Force, William and Percy had to apply for a Certificate of Exemption from the dictation test before they could travel due to their part-Chinese heritage.
Alas, there are a couple of problems with this short account.
First, only four Sam brothers enlisted (a fifth, Tom, was said to have gone off to war, but there is no record of him actually having served – a check of B2455 would have shown that); two Sam grandsons, with the surname Loolong, did also enlist though.
Second, a Certificate of Exemption (from the dictation test) was different from a Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test, which is what William and Percy applied for and were granted.
Third, William Sam did not have ‘part-Chinese’ heritage as the caption implies – he was ‘full’ Chinese.