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.
For Australians whose Chinese ancestors arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tracing the family history back to China can be a real puzzle.
Whether you’re simply curious about your Chinese origins or are wanting to visit your ancestral village in China, there are two things you need to know – your Chinese ancestor’s name in Chinese characters and their village and county of origin.
Here you will find some suggestions for using Australian records to find these critical pieces of information.
Most Chinese who arrived in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from the rural Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, south of the provincial capital of Guangzhou, north of Macau and inland from Hong Kong. A smaller number of Chinese migrants came from other parts of Guangdong province and from Fujian province (through the port of Xiamen, known historically as Amoy), as well as from other places such as Shanghai.
This post concentrates on Cantonese migrants who came from the Pearl River Delta.
Cantonese migrants came from a number of different areas in the Pearl River Delta, including:
Sam Yup (Sanyi, meaning the ‘three districts’): Namhoi (Nanhai), Poonyu (Panyu) and Shuntak (Shunde)
Heungshan (Xiangshan), later known as Chungshan (Zhongshan)
Changshing, Tsengshing (Zengcheng)
Koyiu (Gaoyao) and Koming (Gaoming)
Sze Yup (Siyi, meaning the ‘four districts’): Sunwui (Xinhui), Sunning (Xinning) or Toishan (Taishan), Hoiping (Kaiping) and Yanping (Enping).
The Cantonese migrants spoke a range of dialects including: standard Cantonese, Cantonese variations such as Shekki dialect, Longdu (Zhongshan Min) dialect, Sze Yup dialects such as Taishanese, and Hakka. The earlier Amoy Chinese spoke Hokkien.
The big stumbling block
To successfully track your family back to China you ideally need your ancestor’s name and their village and district of origin in Chinese characters. If your family migrated to Australia more recently and this information is known within the family, you have a tremendous advantage. If you don’t have this information, you will need to try and work it out from records available in Australia. This can be very tricky.
Until the twentieth century there was no standard way of romanising the various Chinese languages and dialects. Because of this, and because Chinese in Australia spoke different sorts of Cantonese, there is a lot of variation in how personal and place names are recorded in Australian English-language sources. Only rarely are Chinese characters to be found. The discrepancies in how Chinese names were written down in colonial Australia are not necessarily an indication of racist or uncaring attitudes toward the Chinese, but more a reflection of the fact that nobody, including the Chinese themselves, knew how to spell the names ‘properly’ in English.
Chinese personal names usually comprise three characters, with one being the family name and two being the given name – for example, 鐔梅玲 Tam Moyling. A few Chinese family names comprise two characters (e.g. O’Young, Seeto), and sometimes a given name comprises only one character.
Although the characters remain the same, the pronunciation of a name changes depending of the dialect spoken. For example, the two-character surname 司徒 is pronounced Situ in Mandarin, Seeto in Cantonese and Soohoo in Sze Yup. The common family name 陳 is pronounced Chen in Mandarin, Chan/Chun in Cantonese, Chin in Hakka, and Tan in Hokkien.
Chinese personal names were recorded in many different ways in Australian records and, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at least, rarely was a name written down ‘correctly’. A person’s name might have been recorded with multiple spelling variations – for example, one early Sydney resident was recorded as Man Sue Bach, Mum Shou Pac, John Ah Shue Bach, John A. Sue Bach, John Ah Sue and John a Shue.
Because of the different word order (surname first in Chinese but last in English), many Chinese given names came to be used as surnames in English – for example, Wong Chun Bun might became known as Jimmy Chun Bun and his children registered under the surname Bun.
Many, many Chinese personal names also include ‘Ah’ or ‘A’. This represents the character 阿, which is a prefix added to a given name as a familiar or informal form of address, much like adding ‘ie’ or ‘y’ to the end of a name in English (Ann to Annie, Tom to Tommy).
While sometimes confusing, romanised versions of personal and place names can tell us helpful things. For example, personal names written with a ‘sl’ or ‘shl’ or ‘thl’ sound at the beginning (like Dang Bown Sluey or Slit Schin) suggest that these people were likely to be from Taishan, as this sound is particular to Sze Yup sub-dialects rather than standard Cantonese.
Or, a woman’s name that includes a ‘See’ or ‘Shee’ (氏) usually gives her father’s family name and indicates that the woman was married – a bit like the term née. Ham See, for example, would be a married woman who was born into the Ham (鐔) family – Ham would be her father’s, not her husband’s, surname.
Emma Woo Louie has written on Chinese American names, much of which applies in the Australian context. Her book is Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition (McFarland & Company, 2008). A preview of the book is available from Google Books. She has also published articles on the subject in the Chinese Historical Society of America’s journal Chinese America: History and Perspectives.
Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales 1850–1950, New England Regional Art Museum, 2004
Jon Kehrer, ‘Who was “John Chinaman”’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 24, no. 4, December 2001, pp. 201–205
Jon Kehrer, ‘Honourable ancestors: My search for the Chinese connection’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 27, no. 4 December 2004, pp. 328–333
Gary Presland, ‘Some difficulties in researching Chinese ancestry’, in From Gold to Federation: Papers from the Fourth Victoria Family State Conference, ed. Noelle Oke, Penfolk Publishing, Melbourne, 2001.
The native place of many Chinese is recorded in Australian sources as Canton – which variably refers to the province of Guangdong or the capital city of Guangzhou. However, most migrants came from the rural counties outside the capital, rather than the city itself. Unfortunately if ‘Canton’ is all the information you can find about your ancestor’s origins you will probably not be able to progress your research much further.
More occasionally county, city, town or even village names are recorded: Sunning, Sun Wui, Heung Shan, Amoy, Shekki, Kongmoon, Lee Yuan, Chuk Sau Yuen or Bak Shek, for example. Sometimes it’s easy to identify these places, sometimes it’s not. The smaller the place, the harder it can be to identify, but the more useful it will be if you eventually work out where it is.
The trick is to be able to translate from the old romanised version of a place name to how it is known today. The Cantonese city known in Mandarin today as Jiangmen (江門), for instance, might have been written Quong Moon, Kong Mun, or Kongmoon.
There are several words that often appear as the last syllable in village names that it can be useful to recognise:
choon or toon – 村 cun, meaning ‘village’
g. 南潮村 Nam Chew Toon
lee or lay – 里 li, meaning ‘village’
g. 南勝里 Nam Sing Lay
yuen – 園 yuan, meaning ‘garden’
g. 竹秀園 Chuk Sau Yuen.
You can use clues you find in other records, such as distance from a larger town or physical characteristics of the place, to help narrow down your search for your particular village. If you know your ancestor’s surname you can also cross-check village names with the surname. The following database of village names is useful for this purpose:
The ‘Location, location, location’ section of the Chinese Genealogy forum (http://siyigenealogy.proboards.com/) is an excellent place to read up how others have gone about identifying and locating their ancestral villages.
If your ancestor came from Taishan, Xinhui or Zhongshan counties, you might find relevant information in the material produced by a project undertaken by the Asian Library at the University of British Columbia that identified the village and town of origin of Chinese migrants to Canada. Many migrants to Australia came from the same places as those who went to Canada. See:
You should obtain Australian marriage and death certificates for the original Chinese ancestor, as well as birth certificates for their children and death certificates if the children died young. Sometimes a Chinese groom or father will have signed his name in Chinese characters and the birthplace will be more specific than just ‘Canton’ or ‘China’.
Immigration, travel and alien registration records
Immigration and travel records, as well as alien registration records, might contain details of people’s place of origin and their name in Chinese. Twentieth-century travel documents issued to Chinese Australians under the Immigration Restriction Act and related records are held by the National Archives of Australia. ‘Aliens’ (people who were not British subjects) were required to register with the government from World War I. These records are also held by the National Archives and can contain Chinese signatures, information about place of birth and so on.
Some Chinese migrants became naturalised British subjects in the colonial period, and their application forms and certificates can include details such as place of origin and their original signature in Chinese. Naturalisation applications, rejected applications and cancelled and confiscated naturalisation certificates are found in state archives and in the National Archives of Australia.
From the 1890s, Australia’s Chinese communities had their own Chinese-language newspapers, including the Chinese Australian Herald and the Tung Wah Times. The Tung Wah Times has been indexed in English, which allows you to search without knowing Chinese. The index can be helpful in identifying articles that might include an ancestor’s name in Chinese.
The major early Australian Chinese-language newspapers are also available through the National Library of Australia’s discovery service, Trove. If you have located names in Chinese characters you can search the newspapers even if you only have basic Chinese language skills. See:
In the early twentieth century, young Chinese were allowed to come to Australia to study. Most who came were the children or relatives of people already living here. These students were issued with special Chinese student passports that included their name and place of origin in Chinese characters as well as in English. Many of these passports are held in immigration files in the National Archives of Australia. On how you might be able to use these passports to identify your ancestor’s village of origin, see:
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.)
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
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.
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.