Category: Chinese naturalisation

Chin Sheng Geong and George Ah Len

Next month I will be giving a paper on Chinese women in colonial New South Wales at the International Conference on Chinese Women in World History at Academia Sinica in Taipei. My paper will focus on the early period of Cantonese migration to Australia, from the 1850s to 1880, and present short biographical sketches of four Chinese women who arrived in New South Wales in the 1860s – Ah Happ, Ah Fie, Kim Linn and Sam Kue. Before 1881 there were no legislative limits on the entry of Chinese women to New South Wales.

I was particularly interested in these four women because of their early arrival in the colony, and their rarity among the colonial Chinese population, but there are others I’ve come across whose lives I’d also like to know more about. One of those is Chin Sheng Geong, the wife of the fabulously named missionary and interpreter George Graham Mackie Ah Len.

Chin Sheng Geong (born c. 1856) married George Ah Len (born c. 1837) in Canton in about 1876, while he was on a visit home from Australia. They seem to have arrived back in Australia together in 1877 (along with a female Chinese servant who accompanied Chin Sheng Geong). They lived in the Rocks, which was then Sydney’s Chinatown, in Queen Street, a laneway that ran off Essex Street between George and Harrington streets. There Chin Sheng Geong gave birth to and raised her family of six: Jane (b. 1877), Mary (b. 1879), Ada (b. 1882), James (b. 1886), and twins Peter and Thomas (b. 1888). The children were all baptised. George Ah Len died in 1889, after which time Chin Sheng Geong returned to China with her children.

Birth certificate of James Ah Len, born in Queen Street, Sydney, 1886 (NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71)

George Ah Len coincidentally also features in my naturalisation research. He was naturalised as a British subject in 1878 (No. 78/206), and in 1882 was registered as a ‘person known to Government whose endorsement is considered sufficient’ on applications for naturalisation. From 1882 to 1888 he endorsed the naturalisation applications of more than 60 Chinese in New South Wales.

Typically, there is much more to be found about husband than wife, but within his story we can find traces of her. The following brief chronology about George Ah Len and Chin Sheng Geong in Australia is compiled from historical newspapers, government gazettes, naturalisation records, Sands Directories, BDM records and immigration files.

1868

Early in the year Ah Lin was baptised at Maryborough, Victoria, and later, as George Ah Lin, he began his training as an evangelist under Rev. William Mathew in Melbourne.

1868 ‘THE CHINESE AND ABORIGINAL MISSIONS’, Mount Alexander Mail, 14 November, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article200524565

George Ah Lin, a Chinese convert, sang a hymn and addressed the annual meeting of the Presbyterian Church in Victoria at the Scots Church, Melbourne.

1868 ‘THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN VICTORIA’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 3 December, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article198055610

George Ah Lin was to be sent to Beechworth as Chinese missionary.

1868 ‘THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AND THE CHINESE’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 17 November, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article198055417

1870

George Ah Lin was a Chinese missionary at Beechworth.

1870 ‘No title’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 20 October, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196416938

1872

Chinese catechist George Ah Len left his work at Ballarat to take charge of the Presbyterian Chinese Mission in Sydney.

1872 ‘NEW ZEALAND’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 1 August, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196858051

In August, George Ah Len travelled from Melbourne to Sydney on the Dandenong.

1872 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE’, Argus, 17 August, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article5837141

1872 ‘GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13265627

1874

In March, there was an unclaimed letter at the General Post Office, Sydney, for George Ah Len, Queen Street.

1874 ‘No. 5. LIST OF UNCLAIMED LETTERS FOR THE MONTH OF FEBRUARY, 1874’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 30 March, p. 969, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223694238

William Johnson, ‘Harts Stairs, Essex Street’, 1900, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-134631948. Queen Street ran off Essex Street.

1875

George Ah Len suffered a severe illness over the summer, which interrupted his missionary work.

1875 ‘PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13364937

George Ah Len worked as missionary in Sydney.

1875 ‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE GRAFTON ARGUS’, Grafton Argus and Clarence River General Advertiser, 11 January, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article235148038

George Ah Len lived at 4 Queen’s Street, off Essex Street.

Sands Sydney Suburban Directory 1875, p. 264 (Ancestry.com, Sands Directories: Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, 1858–1933, 2010)

1876

Ah Len, ‘Presbyterian missionary’, lived at 3 Hanson Square, off Queen Street.

Sands Sydney Suburban Directory 1876, p. 280 (Ancestry.com, Sands Directories: Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, 1858–1933, 2010.)

In March, George Ah Len returned to China ‘for a season’ in the interests of his health.

1876 ‘PRESBYTERIAN ASSEMBLY OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13382767

1876 ‘PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March, p. 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13366581

1877

In April, ‘Mrs George Ah Len and servant’, and ‘G. Ah Len’, travelled as passengers on the Balclutha from Brisbane to Sydney.

1877 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE’, Telegraph (Brisbane), 18 April, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article169513252

Birth of their first daughter, Jane Ah Len, to George and Sheng G, Sydney (NSW BDM 3300/1877 and 1034/1877 V18771034 46)

1878

In April, George Ah Len, age 40, missionary and government interpreter, of 11 Queen Street, was naturalised as a British subject.

George Ah Len’s naturalisation certificate, 1878

In May, George Ah Len attended Ing Chee, a convicted murderer, prior to his execution in Goulburn.

1878 ‘EXECUTION OF ING CHEE’, Queanbeyan Age, 1 June, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30673461

1878 ‘Government Gazette Notices’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 31 May, p. 2171, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223115799

In August, George Ah Len, together with several others including Chen Ateak and On Chong, wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald on the ‘Chinese Question’.

1878 ‘Advertising’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August, p. 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13417608

In August, George Ah Len’s divine service at the Ragged School was disturbed by larrikins, one of a number of anti-Chinese agitations across Sydney.

1878 ‘NEW GUINEA’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 August, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13421199

In October, three Chinese women (one perhaps being Chin Sheng Geong?) were in the congregation at the baptism of six Chinese men by the Rev. Dr Steel, assisted by George Ah Len, at St Stephen’s Church.

1878 ‘NEWS OF THE DAY’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13421429

In December, George Ah Len was part of a deputation of Chinese merchants to the Colonial Secretary regarding aggressions against the Chinese in Sydney.

1878 ‘DEPUTATION OF CHINESE MERCHANTS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December, p. 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13426132

1879

In January, the See Yup Society, per George Ah Len, donated to the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary.

1879 ‘Advertising’, Evening News, 2 January, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article107152133

In February, George Ah Len was part of a deputation of Chinese merchants to the Colonial Secretary about vice and immorality among the lower classes of Chinese in the colony.

1879 ‘Chinese Influence on Chinese’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 8 February, p. 13, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article70935150

Birth of Mary Ah Len, to George and Sheen Geong, Sydney (NSW BDM 1907/1879 and 1089/1879 V18791089 46)

1882

On 7 March 1882, birth of Ada Ah Len, to George and Ching Sheeng Chung, Queen Street, Sydney (NSW BDM 1882/1167; NAA: SP42/1, C1902/2210). Birth attended by Mrs Strange (nurse) and Mrs Morrison.

Birth certificate of Ada Ah Len, born in Queen Street, Sydney, 1882 (NAA: SP42/1, C1902/2210)

1883

George ‘Ah Lenn’, ‘Chinese interpreter’, lived at Queen Street.

Sands Sydney Suburban Directory 1876, p. 268 (Ancestry.com, Sands Directories: Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, 1858–1933, 2010.)

1885

In December, George Ah Len was presented to His Excellency Baron Carrington, Governor of New South Wales, at a levée held at Government House.

1885 ‘THE PRESENTATIONS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December, p. 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13606606

1886

On 16 June 1886, birth of James Ah Len, to George and Sheng C, 11 Queen Street, Sydney (NSW BDM 2324/1886 and 1314/1886 V18861314 46; NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71). Birth was attended by Mrs Strange (nurse) and Mrs Morrison.

1888

Birth of twins, Peter and Thomas Ah Len, to George and Shenn, Sydney (NSW BDM 1748/1888 and 1356/1888 V18881356 46 and V18881356 47; 1749/1888 and 1357/1888 V18881357 46)

1889

In January, there was an unclaimed letter at the General Post Office, Sydney, for Mr Ah Len, Queen Street.

1889 ‘No. 32. LIST OF LETTERS RETURNED FROM THE BRANCH AND SUBURBAN OFFICES, AND NOW LYING AT THE GENERAL POST OFFICE, UNCLAIMED’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 2 January, p. 25, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224311037

On 23 April, George Ah Len died at 4 Queen Street, Sydney, aged 52 (NSW BDM 717/1889)

1889 ‘Family Notices’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13728837

Chin Sheng Geong left New South Wales, taking her six children home to China (NAA: SP42/1, C1902/2210; NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71)

‘Can a Chinaman get naturalised?’

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.

Duped!

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

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

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

NAA: A806 (Chow Hock 1884/30)

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

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

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

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

NAA: A806 (James Andersen 1896/155)

Confusions of citizenship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PhD scholarship in overseas Chinese history

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

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

Research environment and topics

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

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

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

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

Eligibility and application details

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

PhD scholarship applicants should have:

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

Applicants should submit:

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

The deadline for applications is Thursday, 30 June 2016

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