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.
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.
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.
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.
The list feature in Trove allows registered users to create their own collections of items. They’re a handy thing if you’re researching a particular topic and want to organise the material that you’ve found in Trove, or even if you just want to go back to random stuff that you like. You can keep your Trove lists private, or make them public and share what you’ve found with others.
Tim, who until recently was part of the Trove management team, thought that it would be good to take that sharing to another level — so he’s created a framework that lets you use your Trove lists to create an online exhibition. You can read more about Tim’s thoughts on this process on his blog.
I was keen to give it a try, and decided to make a pictorial exhibition about the Chinese in New South Wales to 1940. I started by making nine lists in Trove, which would serve as topics in my exhibition. Gradually I added a selection of pictures, objects and illustrated newspapers articles to each of my lists. I gave each of my lists a short description and arranged the items in chronological order. Because I’ve included newspaper articles, it would be best if I took the time to correct the OCR text for each one, but I’m impatient and wanted to get onto building the exhibition itself.
Tim’s DIY Trove Exhibition is pretty straightforward to use, particularly if you have some experience (even very basic experience) with web publishing or coding. He’s written clear, step-by-step instructions. The process first involves getting yourself a GitHub account and a Trove API key, and then customising his code to make your exhibition. Customising the code might look scary, but if you follow the instructions carefully you should be okay! There are further ways that you can customise the exhibition — for example, I changed the fonts — but you don’t need to do anything more if you don’t want to.
Once you’ve made the exhibition, you can easily add or take away items, or change your list descriptions, or change the order items appear in a list. Simply make the change to your list in Trove and it will appear in your exhibition after refreshing your browser.
Five years ago I began an as-yet-uncompleted series of blogposts about the various iterations of the Certificate of Domicile and the Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test.
In the first post I wrote about the first Certificate of Domicile held in record series NAA: ST84/1, ‘Certificates of Domicile and Certificates of Exemption from Dictation Test, chronological series’. The certificate, no. 1903/1, was issued to a man named Ah Shooey on the last day of 1902.
The reason I didn’t write about the very first Certificate of Domicile issued in New South Wales was because it is held in a different series, NAA: SP11/6. I’ve written a bit about SP11/6 before — it’s an odd collections of Customs files that includes a bound volume with the earliest Certificates of Domicile, and the volume isn’t digitised.
On a more recent visit to the archives in Sydney, I therefore photographed the first certificate, which was issued a month after the Immigration Restriction Act came into force in January 1901. It can be found in NAA: SP11/6, Box 3.
The first NSW Certificate of Domicile was issued to 38-year-old Yau Foon (or Yaw Foon or Yow Foon?) on 3 February 1902 by NSW Collector of Customs Nicholas Lockyer. On the certificate ‘No. 1’ is handwritten in clear red letters at the top.
Yau Foon is described as being 5 foot 5 1/2 inches tall (without boots), of medium build, with dark hair and brown eyes. He had a small scar on the back of his right wrist. There is no space on the certificate for details such as nationality or birthplace.
Two photographs are attached to the front of the certificate, one showing Yau Foon front on, one side on. The photographs clearly show Yau Foon’s queue, wound and pinned to the top of his head. Note that on this earliest version of the Certificate of Domicile there appears to be specific spaces for two photographs.
The certificate is marked in red as being cancelled, which would have happened when Yau Foon returned from his trip to China. Customs officer Bragg has written that Yau Foon arrived on the S.S. Chingtu on 5 May 1904.
The administration of the Immigration Restriction Act in early 20th-century Australia was complex, contradictory, opaque, ambiguous and capricious. After reading through hundreds of individual case files of Chinese Australians created as part of this administrative system, I still find myself puzzled and surprised and confused when trying to comprehend what really went on. Why was a particular decision made? Why was one case treated so differently from another? Why was the law applied harshly at times, leniently at others? It is not an easy history to understand well, nor are its complexities easy to communicate simply. But this doesn’t excuse getting the history wrong, as is the case in the Museum of Sydney’s Celestial City exhibition.
The second-to-last part of the exhibition is titled ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ and explores anti-Chinese immigration restriction and the White Australia Policy. The introductory panel unfortunately repeats the mistake that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the ‘first law passed by the newly federated Commonwealth’. In fact it was the 17th piece of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament in 1901, the last one that year, after things like the Customs Act, Excise Act, Post and Telegraph Act and, significantly, the Pacific Island Labourers Act. An easy mistake to make perhaps since it crops up everywhere, but when visiting the exhibition it didn’t bode well for what was to come (especially as it was repeated in a following panel on ‘The White Australia Policy’). The introductory panel goes on to say that, under the Immigration Restriction Act, Chinese living in Australia were ‘denied the freedom to come and go between Australia and China’:
… after 1901 Chinese were effectively exiled in Sydney, their futures uncertain. Those who had made their lives here were unwilling to risk returning to, or visiting, China for fear they would not be allowed to return. So they stayed in Australia, raised families and became the ancestors of generations of Chinese Australians.
Yet what follows in the exhibition are case studies and documents that demonstrate the mobility of Chinese residents and Australians of Chinese and part-Chinese descent. Historian Michael Williams estimates that 6000 or so individuals identified as ‘Chinese’ made over 26,000 journeys through the port of Sydney between 1902 and 1959 (Williams 2004: 37). If you have trouble imagining quite how many people that is, have a look at Tim Sherratt’s The Real Face of White Australia, an experiment in making the people in the archives of White Australia visible (using records from NAA: ST84/1 in Sydney). To me, this is not a population who were afraid — it is a population who were getting on with their lives, dealing with the bureaucracy as necessary, and testing and challenging the system on many, many occasions.
On the wall of ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ is an enlargement of the back of a 1903 Certificate of Domicile for cabinetmaker Tin Lee (NAA: ST84/1, 1903/261-270). The certificate has front and side portraits of Tin Lee, a handprint, official stamps and certification by Customs officer JTT Donohoe. The front of Tin Lee’s 1903 certificate and a piece of correspondence are also included in a display titled ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’. From the certificate it is clear that Tin Lee went to China on the Empire in December 1903. Certificates were valid for three years. The piece of correspondence, written by the Collector of Customs, Nicholas Lockyer, gives permission for the extension of Tin Lee’s certificate for one more year, to the end of 1907 (meaning that if he returned before that date he would not be made to sit the dictation test). On the front of Tin Lee’s certificate Donohoe has noted in red that the certificate was cancelled as Tin Lee had landed in Sydney on the Chingtu on 1 June 1907.
Considering that this information is all clearly stated on the documents included in the exhibition, it’s curious that the text reads thus:
Tin Lee was a cabinet-maker who had lived in Botany since 1888. After being here for 18 years he applied for an extension of his Certificate of Domicile, a proof of residency that allowed him to re-enter Australia if he left. His certificate was extended by one year, to 31 December 1907. This meant that if he departed Australia after that time, perhaps to visit family in China, he would not be allowed to return.
The curator seems to have completely missed the fact that Tin Lee was already overseas when the extension was applied for. The National Archives also holds a correspondence file relating to Tin Lee which dates from 1903 to 1941 (NAA: SP11/27, C1941/1178 — not digitised, and I haven’t looked through it) and a further six CEDTs documenting his travels back and forth over at least four decades. So, it wasn’t the case that once his certificate expired in 1907 that Tin Lee would be unable to travel overseas and return again — he was able to apply for a new certificate, and then another one and another one.
Also on display in ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’ are documents relating to Maggie Yee Lee, the Sydney-born daughter of cabinetmaker Yee Lee. Here the interpretive text is fine, although it states that Maggie and her siblings ‘needed a Certificate of Domicile … to re-enter Australia after their sojourn in China’. Strictly this isn’t correct, as many young Chinese Australians like Maggie travelled using their birth certificates as proof of domicile, but having a certificate certainly made sure that a return home to Sydney went as smoothly as possible. The text accompanying the other set of documents on display, relating to hawker and herbalist Charlie Hing, is similarly fine.
The final display in the ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ part of Celestial City is where the interpretation of the archival documents relating to immigration restriction really falls apart. The display is titled ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ and the main text states that the case in question involved the ‘repatriation’ of the eldest son of Braidwood resident Chee Dock Nomchong. The use of the term ‘repatriation’, which to me means ‘returning to the country you came from’ or ‘returning to your own country’, is wrong. George Nomchong, the eldest child of Chee Dock and Mary Nomchong, was born in China in 1887. He was left in the care of his grandmother in China when Mary went with Chee Dock to live in Australia. How could it be that China-born George Nomchong was being repatriated in 1908 when he was actually going to Australia for the first time?
Chee Dock Nomchong was a long-term resident of Braidwood and he was naturalised in NSW. So the term ‘repatriation’ seems to have been used in the exhibition to make the point that as the son of a naturalised British subject domiciled in Australia, George Nomchong might also have had the right to live in Australia — ‘As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901‘, it says. Except things were not this simple. The concept of nationality in Australia in the early 20th century was fuzzy and complicated by its intersection with ideas of race, but it was based on birthplace not parents’ nationality (meaning, for example, that children born in Australia to ‘alien’ Chinese parents were British subjects by birth) (Dutton 2000). George’s personal and familial circumstances might have meant there was a moral imperative to allow him to come to live in Australia, but there was not a clear legal one. The previous year the case Ah Yin v. Christie had been heard in the High Court, where it was decided that Ah Yin, the China-born-and-raised son of a Chinese man living in Victoria, did not have the right to live to Australia simply because his father was living here. Ah Yin was still in his mid-teens, a minor, yet George Nomchong was already twenty-one when his father applied for him to come to Australia. George was not a minor child dependent on his father and mother, but a grown man.
The George Nomchong case study in the exhibition includes seven archival documents, four pieces of correspondence and three CEDTs, each with accompanying interpretive text. The correspondence is taken from a 145-page Department of External Affairs file (NAA: A1, 1926/9963), while there is further material on the case in a Sydney Customs file (NAA: SP42/1, C1910/4678) not used in the exhibition. The CEDTs are from series NAA: ST84/1. The National Archives holds other later files about George Nomchong and his own wife and children, but these aren’t digitised (and I haven’t looked at them before) and they don’t appear to have been drawn on for the exhibition. The events covered in the 145-page External Affairs file are complex, but I believe that an important part of the story has been overlooked, either because it did not fit with the exhibition’s presentation of the story of George Nomchong’s ‘repatriation’ to Australia or because the curator simply failed to understand what happened.
Here’s Celestial City‘s presentation of the George Nomchong case.
Repatriating George Nomchong
In 1908 the Immigration Restriction Act was tested in an unusual case concerning the eldest son of Chee Dock Nomchong. The boy was born in China in 1887, three years after his father had been naturalised as a British subject, and was left in China with his grandmother while his parents returned to Braidwood. Twenty-one years later, Chee Dock began the protracted process of repatriating his son, known as George, to Australia. As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. However, as these immigration records show, he was subjected to the same scrutiny and surveillance that shadowed any Chinese immigrant after 1901.
Letter to A Hunt from Chee Dock Nom Chong, 21 March 1908 Letter to Chee Dock Nom Chong from A Hunt, 28 March 1908
‘By giving me some idea of the test I can acquaint him of it …’ writes Chee Dock Nomchong to Secretary of External Affairs Mr Atlee Hunt. However, since the dictation test could be given in any European language, not necessarily, as Mr Hunt admits, ‘one with which the intending immigrant was acquainted’, Chee Dock’s attempt to prepare his son for the test was futile. Customs officers selected the language most likely to eliminate ‘unwanted and undesirable’ immigrants. Between 1902 and 1909 the dictation test was given to 1359 people. Fifty-two were successful. After 1909 no one passed.
Refusal of Domicile for Chee Dock Nom Chong, 6 May 1910 Letter from James Gregg to Chee Dock Nom Chong, 18 May 1910
In 1910, on his way to Fiji, George Nomchong briefly visited his family in Braidwood. His father’s request that he be allowed to stay was denied, and George was subsequently deported as a restricted immigrant. His father pursued the case with a large petition, signed by the residents of Braidwood, asking that special consideration be given. The petitioners’ representative, Mr James Gregg, pointed out that this case different from ‘what the real framing of the Act was intended for’ because the immigrant in question was of a respectable family and the son of ‘one of the most liberal and best citizens we have in Australia’.
Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 20 May 1926 Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 4 May 1935 Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 12 May 1947
After years of waiting, and in view of the exceptional circumstances of the case, in 1913 George Nomchong was issued with a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test that was valid for four years. He worked at the Nomchong market gardens near Goulburn and for the next 40 years lived an uncertain life as a temporary resident, successively renewing his certificate until the dictation test was abolished in 1958.
(Off topic a bit, but why are Chee Dock Nomchong and George Nomchong referred to by their first names, while Atlee Hunt is ‘Mr Atlee Hunt’ or ‘Mr Hunt’?)
As I said before, George Nomchong — a man born in China to a Chinese mother (who at the time of his birth had never been to Australia) and a naturalised Chinese father resident in Australia — did not necessarily have a greater legal right to enter Australia under the Immigration Restriction Act than any other Chinese man of Chinese birth, and officials initially treated his case accordingly. Over the time between when Chee Dock Nomchong first applied for permission in 1908 and when permission was finally granted in 1913, however, the administration was learning that the Chinese community in Australia was not going to passively sit by and have their rights as Australians be dismantled. While the power ultimately remained with the government, family members and community leaders — mostly well-to-do, English-speaking, long-term residents of the merchant class like Chee Dock Nomchong — pushed and pushed and pushed in individual cases to attain fairer outcomes. Officials learned that the Chinese community would and could take cases as far as the High Court and be successful, as it had been with the Potter v. Minahan case in 1908, or it would cause the government serious embarrassment through widespread bad publicity over decisions that were seen as heartless and anti-Christian, such as the Poon Gooey deportation case between 1910 to 1913. Better to compromise in cases such as George Nomchong’s, where there were ‘exceptional’ or ‘special’ circumstances, than face the costs of defeat in the courts or the press.
From 1914 to 1920, George Nomchong was issued with a series of Certificates of Exemption — not Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test or CEDTs, as stated in the exhibition. Certificates of Exemption were like visitors visas, allowing someone to enter Australia and take up temporary residence for a set period. CEDTs on the other hand were issued to people already living or ‘domiciled’ in Australia granting them permission to return without having to sit the dictation test. Two different sorts of exemption for two different categories of people. George’s Certificate of Exemption was granted on his arrival in Sydney in April 1914, for a period of four years, and was extended in 1918 for a further two years. George then made a visit to China from May to December 1919, after being granted permission to return after his trip and remain for the unexpired portion of his exemption period. After a further application by Chee Dock Nomchong, in March 1920 George’s exemption was extended again for four years. This practice of issuing an ongoing series of Certificates of Exemption was not at all unusual — it seems to have been a common way that government officials worked around their own restrictions against permanent admission of new Chinese, a way to make allowances in ‘exceptional’ cases without setting an official precedent of permanent entry.
What is missed entirely in the Celestial City telling of George’s story is that in 1920 officials decided that his case should be ‘closed’ — that is, that he could remain permanently in Australia without having to keep reapplying for his Certificate of Exemption to be extended. A memo from Atlee Hunt in March 1920 informed the Collector of Customs in Sydney that ‘no further action need be taken to remind this Chinese of the expiration of his exemption as the case may be considered closed’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 21). Atlee Hunt had pondered how to resolve George Nomchong’s case, admitting that the government ‘had given him a CEDT last year and thereby acknowledged his right to remain’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 25). It is not clear from the file when, how or if the Nomchongs were informed of this decision, but after 1920 there were no further applications to extend George’s Certificate of Exemption. There were, however, applications for CEDTs, the first one issued in 1926 before George made a two-year trip to China. Apart from difficulties raised when three prohibited immigrants were found working on George’s Boorowa market garden in 1922, by the mid-1920s George’s right to live in Australia was settled. The CEDTs on display in Celestial City are not evidence of the precariousness of George’s presence in Australia, but rather proof that his Australian domicile was no longer questioned.
Although ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ seems to have been written based on the archives alone, I wondered whether family perspectives had entered into how these archives were read and how George’s life was remembered. There can be no denying that the system was unfair and that officials could wield their power in ways that created insecurity for migrant Chinese living in early 20th-century Australia. This insecurity, along with the basic inequality of the system and the intervention and interference of authorities in the lives of Chinese Australians (such as during the 1922 incident with the illegal workers on George Nomchong’s garden), is often rightly remembered by descendants who have heard first hand what life was like under White Australia. There is no mention, however, of Nomchong family members having been interviewed and their memories being incorporated into the George Nomchong narrative in the exhibition, so I can only assume that the curator has worked from the archives alone.
One later file about George Nomchong, dating from 1939 to 1942, might have helped the exhibition clarify his legal status and identify whether or not George had been granted the right to remain permanently. It appears that George Nomchong inquired about naturalisation in 1939, perhaps in response to the Aliens Registration Act 1939 (see handwritten note at the bottom of page 5 in NAA: 1926/9963). It is unlikely that he would have been granted naturalisation, but I can find no obvious alien registration documents for him in Sydney either (NAA: SP1732/4). The file that might answer such questions (NAA: A659, 1942/1/6634) remains, however, unexamined in the archives.
You might ask if it really matters that details in the Celestial City exhibition aren’t spot on. How much detail do people take in during an exhibition visit anyway? Isn’t it more important for them to get a strong general impression — in this case of the extent and nature of anti-Chinese ideas in 19th and early 20th century Australia — than fretting over minutiae? To me, getting facts wrong in an exhibition like Celestial City, which has obviously had a lot of money put into it and a lot of publicity created around it, seems like a wasted opportunity. I can almost forgive the exhibition for reducing the vibrant, diverse and fascinating tale that is ‘Sydney’s Chinese Story’, full of characters and life and surprising twists, to something more akin to ‘What Racist White People in Sydney Thought About the Chinese’.* But the history of the Chinese in Australia, particularly the history of discrimination during the White Australia period, is too important for us to settle for the sort of sloppy reading of the archives and failure of historical understanding shown in Celestial City. Instead we need to be measured, considered, rigorous and meticulous in the research we do and the historical stories we tell. To do otherwise is to leave ourselves open to accusations of dishonesty, inaccuracy, exaggeration and sensationalism.
* There is certainly a place for examining white Australian attitudes towards the Chinese in the 19th and early 20th century, but as Alan Mayne has stated, ‘By emphasising unrelenting European intolerance and aggression towards Chinese settlers, historians have tended to overlook Chinese agency and the permeability of racial boundaries’. A better approach is to work towards a more nuanced understanding of European discrimination towards the Chinese and, in doing so, ‘deny Chinese passivity and marginalisation, and point instead to Chinese strategy and many-faceted engagement with colonial society’ (Mayne 2004: 2).
Alan Mayne. 2004. ‘”What you want John?” Chinese-European interactions on the Lower Turon goldfields’. Journal of Australian Colonial History 6: 1–13.
Michael Williams. 2004. ‘Would this not help your Federation?’ In After the Rush: Regulation, Participation, and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860–1940, edited by Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald and Paul Macgregor: 35–50. Kingsbury, Vic.: Otherland Literary Journal.
A little note about searching for Chinese names in the National Archives’ RecordSearch database, specifically in early 20th records of the NSW Collector of Customs. There is a consistent transcription error in item descriptions where capital Q has been transcribed as capital Z. This means that names like Quoy, Quan, Quay, Quock have been entered as Zuoy, Zuan, Zuay, Zuock. The examples I’ve come across are in ST84/1, where Customs Inspector J.T.T. Donohoe’s rather lovely handwriting seems to be the problem. Something to remember if you can’t find records under the correct spelling.
I spent today at the National Archives in Sydney, looking at records for my Paper Trails project. My helpful reference officer, Judith, had warned me that there were 77 boxes in SP115/1, the series I need to look through. On my arrival though she told me she’s miscounted and there were, in fact, about 140. I managed to get through about 28 today. I’ll be there for the rest of the week but I’m not sure I’ll get through the remaining 112 boxes in the next two and a half days!
Series SP115/1 contains documents relating to non-white people – mostly Chinese, but also Syrian, Indian, Japanese and others – arriving into Sydney between 1911 and the 1940s. The series is arranged by ship, with each item relating to a particular voyage. Although I’ve looked at particular items in this series before, this time I’m starting at Box 1 and looking through every file, all 1780 or so of them. You may well ask why.
Although most of the documents in the series are CEDTs, which can also be found in other series (mostly ST84/1), the papers relating to Australian-born Chinese are often unique and unable to be found elsewhere. Details about these individuals might be recorded in the Register of Birth Certificates (SP726/2), but the documents in SP115/1 can include original birth certificates and other statements about identity and family background. One nice find today is the 1902 Hong Kong birth certificate of Harold Hoong, son of Julum Hoong and Rosalie Kinnane, who were living in Yaumatei at that time (NAA: SP115/1, 04/02/1915 – PART 1). Early Hong Kong birth and marriage records were destroyed during World War II, so it’s nice to see one safe and sound. Other records relate to Harold’s Australian-born siblings William, Albert and Frederick.
As well as locating documents about Anglo-Chinese travellers I know about from earlier research, looking through the whole series is yielding people I haven’t encountered in other records. Today I’ve found about half a dozen new subjects – some from families I’d already identified, but others are completely new to me. Exciting.
I’m also making a record of all the Australian-born full Chinese (for my Threads of Kinship project) and any Chinese-born women (for a paper I’m working on about Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia).