On 6 November 1925, the Land newspaper featured the following on its ‘Answers to Questions’ page.
The Land was indeed correct in its answer. In 1925, Chinese aliens (non-British subjects) could not be naturalised in Australia, no matter how long they had lived here.
Five years earlier the Nationality Act 1920 had replaced the Naturalization Act 1903, removing the racial barrier to the naturalisation of Asians. However, after 1920 the Australian government continued with its policy of preventing Asians from being naturalised. This did not change until 1956 when concessions were brought in for long-term residents.
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.
As I approach the end of my month in Canada I’m feeling like I know less than when I left home, in spite of a good many hours spent in the archives and in conversation with knowledgable people.
It’s a feeling that’s been growing over the past few days, and in the end I think my problem is that while I’ve done all that reading and talking I’ve formed new questions and uncovered complexities that I haven’t yet untangled in my mind.
At the centre of this niggling uncertainty is something that the Canadians themselves don’t seem to get quite right – the story of Chinese Canadian citizenship.
Prior to 1947, anyone born in the United Kingdom or another Commonwealth country, which included Canada, was designated as British subjects. A person received the rights and privileges as a British citizen even if he or she had migrated to Canada.
However, not only were Chinese immigrants not considered British citizens, even Canadian-born Chinese were categorized as aliens. Such Chinese could become British subjects only through naturalization. Only on rare occasions could naturalization laws be appealed by a judge if he or she decided that the petitioner would make a good citizen. Although some well-established, successful Chinese businessmen did become naturalized British subjects, the majority of Chinese could not.
Things changed when peoples of Chinese and Indian descent won the franchise in British Columbia and the Japanese Canadian community established the pan-Canadian National Association of Japanese Canadian Citizens Associations. The Canadian Citizenship Act, which came into force on January 1, 1947 was the first naturalization statute to introduce Canadian citizenship as an entity independent from British subject status. As the Canadian citizenship act also came into effect in 1947, anti-Asian measures such as the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1885 Chinese Head Tax, and the Continuous Journey Act were overturned.
While this question of ‘Chinese Canadian citizenship’ is a bit tangential to my exact project at hand – a study of the naturalisation of Chinese in BC to about 1915 – it relates to broader questions about the place of nationality and citizenship in the history of Chinese restriction or exclusion in the British settler colonies. And it relates to my interest in how Australia’s discriminatory laws of the White Australia period impinged on the rights of Chinese Australians, especially Australian-born British subjects of Chinese descent.
Something that I’ve heard a number of time while I’ve been in Canada is that the Chinese did not get Canadian citizenship until 1947, the implication being that this was another example of the discrimination they faced, including the head tax, immigration restriction (exclusion) and disenfranchisement. 1947 was the year that the Canadian Citizenship Act came into force. It was then that the legal status of Canadian citizen was created – before then the Canadian-born were British subjects, as in Australia.
The introduction of the Canadian Citizenship Act at the beginning of 1947 was followed by the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act (the Exclusion Act) later that year. The linking of these two events has been described like this by Lily Cho of York University:
With the beginning of Canadian citizenship, there was a national conversation about race and citizenship. In the first months of 1947, there were extensive debates in the House of Commons about the racial and ethnic identity of Canadian citizens. These conversations led directly to the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in May, 1947, and an end to the era of exclusion.
(Note to self: look at more of Lily Cho’s work, including ‘Redress revisited: citizenship and the Chinese Canadian head tax’, in Reconciling Canada: Historical Injustices and the Contemporary Culture of Redress, edited by Jennifer Henderson & Pauline Wakeham, University of Toronto Press, 2013, pp. 87–99.)
I know that British subject status was a different thing from Canadian citizenship, but what’s puzzling me is the almost complete absence of discussion of how before 1947 Chinese born in Canada were British subjects under common law, just like their white counterparts (for definitions see, for example, the Immigration Act 1910 and Naturalization Act 1914). And that Chinese migrants to British Columbia could be and were naturalised as British subjects from as early as the 1860s – my initial research suggests that up to 1000 Chinese were naturalised in British Columbia before 1915, and around 400 more were naturalised in Canada as a whole between 1915 and 1951.
I’m not far enough into my research to know whether Canadian-born Chinese or naturalised Chinese in BC argued their equal status as British subjects, as some in Australia did, to push back against racially discriminatory treatment. Perhaps they didn’t, and perhaps that’s why it’s not discussed much today. But if not, why not? And if British nationality was of no perceivable benefit in the face of discrimination, why did those hundreds of men choose to become naturalised?
Expressions of interest are sought for a 3.5-year PhD scholarship connected to my ARC-funded project ‘Chinese seeking citizenship in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, 1860 to 1920’ (DE160100027).
My project concerns the interconnected histories of Chinese naturalisation in colonial New South Wales, New Zealand and British Columbia. In the project I will consider how and why Chinese became British subjects, and how naturalisation affected their experience of colonial life.
Research environment and topics
The PhD project will be supervised by me, ARC DECRA Research Fellow Dr Kate Bagnall, and ARC Future Fellow Associate Professor Julia Martinez within the History program at the University of Wollongong. History at UOW has a vibrant research community with a strong focus on settler colonial history and Australia’s connections with Asia. Wollongong’s location offers access to significant archival collections and research libraries in both Sydney and Canberra.
The proposed PhD project should focus on Chinese migration and settlement in New South Wales before 1945, or offer comparative perspectives by investigating Chinese communities in one or more British settler colonies of the Pacific Rim in a similar period.
Projects should also address at least one of the following themes: writing overseas Chinese lives; colonial Chinese voices; Chinese responses to White Australia; race, gender and nationality.
I encourage you to contact me (email@example.com) to discuss your ideas before preparing a proposal.
Eligibility and application details
The scholarship is for three and a half (3.5) years full-time with a stipend of $AUD26,288 per annum (tax free and indexed annually).
PhD scholarship applicants should have:
first-class honours, or masters degree with a thesis component, in History or a related field such as Australian Studies or Asian Studies
archival research experience
ability to work independently and manage a complex project
high-level written and verbal English proficiency
written Chinese-language proficiency and familiarity with Cantonese would be an advantage.
Applicants should submit:
a cover letter detailing relevant experience, your CV and academic transcripts to the Faculty Research Unit via firstname.lastname@example.org
a full Higher Degree Research (HDR) admission application, including a UOW scholarship application via https://www.uow.edu.au/apply/index.html. Include your academic transcript, copy of your passport or birth certificate and an outline of your proposed research project. In the Scholarship Details Section select ‘Other UOW Funded Scholarship’ and include the names of the DECRA Research Fellow (Dr Kate Bagnall) and the grant ID number (DE160100027).
The deadline for applications is Thursday, 30 June 2016