Category: Conferences

Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation

This is the paper I presented at the 2018 Australian Historical Association conference, ‘The Scale of History’, held at the Australian National University on 2–6 July 2018. I spoke alongside Sophie Couchman and Emma Bellino in a panel we put together on ‘National belonging and individual lives’:

  • Kate Bagnall: Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation
  • Sophie Couchman: New questions about the enlistment of Chinese Australians during World War I
  • Emma Bellino: ‘Australian girl became an alien’: Reporting married women’s nationality.

Sophie spoke about the disconnect between World War I enlistment regulations and practice in relation to Chinese Australians, while Emma spoke about press reports of marital denaturalisation in Australian newspapers from the 1920s to 1940s.

Abstract

In 1888 the Australian colonies came together to implement uniform laws to restrict Chinese immigration, leading eventually to the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act after Federation in 1901. Alongside immigration restriction, after 1888 four Australian colonies also prohibited Chinese naturalisation, by law in New South Wales and by policy in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. The federal Naturalisation Act of 1903 similarly prohibited Chinese naturalisation. Before these restrictions were introduced, however, thousands of Chinese men in Australia became British subjects through naturalisation, nearly 1000 in New South Wales alone. In this paper I consider the legacies of colonial naturalisation in the lives of Chinese migrants and their families in the 1890s and after Federation, particularly concerning mobility and residency rights. I argue that it is through the stories of individual lives, revealed in the press and in government case files, that we can best understand the ways that naturalised Chinese Australians and their children contested discrimination and asserted their rights as citizens.

Introduction

In early January 1889, the Ah Ket children of Wangaratta, Victoria, were stopped at the border of New South Wales. Fourteen-year-old Matilda, together with her three younger siblings aged thirteen, ten and eight, were travelling to the small town of Gerogery, north of Albury, to visit their married sister Rose. On arriving by train at Albury, however, the Ah Ket children were prevented from crossing the border by the Sub-Collector of Customs. The reason? Because they did not hold naturalisation papers. Confronted by the news that they would not be allowed to continue their journey, Matilda stood her ground, declaring that they had been born and educated at Wangaratta; that they were the children of a Chinese interpreter, Mah Ket; and that as ‘native-born children’ they were free to go anywhere in Australia. The Sub-Collector was unconvinced, and so sent them back home to Victoria by the same train. Their father, and the good people of Wangaratta, were appalled by the Customs officer’s actions. Mah Ket put the matter in the hands of a solicitor, and on 19 January 1889, the Wangaratta correspondent to the Melbourne Leader wrote an impasssioned piece on the family’s behalf:

The children whose liberty is so circumscribed are natives of Wangaratta, very intelligent and Christian; and speak better Queen’s English probably than some of the honorable gentlemen who made the law under which they are treated as aliens. It has been determined that for the peace and prosperity of the colony, Chinese immigration shall be restricted. But here were no aliens, but the most peaceful and defenceless of Australians – of like speech, education, religion and affections.

The Act under which the Sub-Collector of Customs stopped the children was the NSW Chinese Restriction and Regulation Act, passed six months earlier, in June 1888. This Act, and others introduced around the Australasian colonies, were the result of growing concerns over Chinese immigration.

One of the children stopped at the NSW border that summer’s day in 1889, thirteen-year-old William Ah Ket, grew up to be Australia’s first Chinese barrister. Educated at Melbourne University and admitted to the bar in 1903, Ah Ket had a distinguished legal career in which he actively campaigned for the rights of Chinese in Australia. He appeared before the High Court, represented Australian Chinese at the opening of the first Chinese parliament in Peking in 1911, and was Acting Consul for China in Australia in 1913–1914 and 1917. He was also a husband and father to two daughters and two sons.

This paper considers nationality, naturalisation and colonial mobility through the lens of Chinese Australian families like the Ah Kets. Mah Ket, the Ah Ket children’s father, was not naturalised, but this should not have mattered when the children tried to cross into New South Wales. Young Matilda was right – as native-born British subjects, the NSW Chinese Restriction Act should not have applied to them. Yet, the fact that they were turned back illustrates the ambiguity with which immigration restriction laws were applied to native-born and naturalised Chinese British subjects in Australia and New Zealand. The law stated what it stated, but it’s truth also lay in the way that it was interpreted and applied – whether that was at the border, in a bureaucrat’s office, in a magistrate’s court or in the High Court.

Prohibition of Chinese naturalisation formed part of the anti-Chinese policies introduced in four Australian colonies (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) from the 1880s, and then in the Commonwealth of Australia from 1904 and the Dominion of New Zealand from 1908. Before these prohibitions, however, thousands of Chinese men in Australia and New Zealand became British subjects through naturalisation, nearly 1000 in New South Wales alone. In this paper then I want to think about the legacies of this earlier history of colonial naturalisation in the lives of Chinese settlers and their families in the 1890s and after Federation, particularly concerning mobility and residency rights. I will argue that it is through the stories of individual lives, revealed in the press and in government case files, that we can best understand the ways that naturalised Chinese Australians and their children contested discrimination and asserted their rights as citizens.

Naturalisation and Chinese restriction

The first anti-Chinese legislation was introduced in Australia in 1855 in Victoria, followed by a similar Act in South Australia in 1857. New South Wales then followed suit in 1861. With tonnage restrictions and a poll tax on each Chinese arrival, this legislation was effective in reducing the Chinese population in the colonies, and so, having served its purpose, it was repealed: in South Australia in 1861 (after three years), in Victoria in 1865 (after 10 years) and in New South Wales in 1867 (after 5 years). Between then and 1881, there was no restrictive legislation against Chinese immigration – except in Queensland, which introduced a Chinese Immigration Restriction Act in 1877. In 1881, however, new and more consistent legislation was introduced across the colonies after the 1880–81 intercolonial conferences. This legislation was then tightened following the Intercolonial Conference on the Chinese Question in mid-1888. Laws varied slightly across the seven colonies, but they generally had tonnage restrictions and some a poll tax to limit the number of Chinese migrants. They also included various exemptions, for residents and British subjects.

In New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand, for instance, the 1881 Acts brought in a £10 poll tax on Chinese arriving by sea or by land and a limit of one Chinese to every 100 tons of shipping. The NSW and Victorian Acts exempted British subjects, while in New South Wales and New Zealand, other Chinese residents could also apply for exemption certificates. In 1888, the tonnage limits increased in each of these colonies, and the NSW poll tax leapt to £100, while it was abolished in Victoria. Each colony exempted Chinese naturalised in that colony, while the NSW Act also explicitly exempted British subjects by birth. Significantly, too, the NSW Act prohibited the naturalisation of Chinese. After Federation, the Australian colonial laws were repealed, although not immediately – in New South Wales, for example, the poll tax remained in place until 1903. The new federal Immigration Restriction Act, which came into force from the beginning of 1902, provided exemptions for those who had formerly been domiciled in the Commonwealth or in any colony which had become a state (s 3n). Australian birth and naturalisation certificates could be used as proof of this domicile, although exemption certificates were also issued.

As mentioned, prohibition of Chinese naturalisation also formed part of the anti-Chinese measures introduced in Australia and New Zealand. New South Wales was the only colony that prohibited Chinese naturalisation by law and it did so twice, in 1861 (repealed in 1867) and again in 1888. Three other colonies (Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) stopped naturalising Chinese after 1888, while Tasmania and Queensland continued until the federal Naturalization Act came into force in 1904. This new Act prohibited naturalisation of ‘aboriginal natives’ of Asia, Africa and the islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand. In New Zealand, Chinese were naturalised until 1907; and it was stopped after the NZ Cabinet decided in February 1908 to decline naturalisation applications of Chinese from them on.

Colonial Chinese naturalisation

The numbers of Chinese who became naturalised in each colony varied greatly, from about 20 in Western Australia up to nearly 3000 in Victoria. In New Zealand there were around 450. As part of my current project, I am compiling databases of Chinese who became naturalised in New South Wales, New Zealand and British Columbia in Canada. If we look at Chinese naturalisations in New South Wales each year from the late 1850s, when the first one took place, to 1888, when Chinese naturalisation was prohibited for the second time, we can see a gap during the 1860s when it was prohibited the first time, and a very obvious peak in the early 1880s. The highest point on that peak is in 1883, when there were 301 naturalisations of Chinese, making up almost a third of the total for the colony. If we think back to what else was happening in the early 1880s, it is clear that this increase was in response to the 1881 NSW Influx of Chinese Restriction Act – which provided exemptions from the £10 poll tax for Chinese naturalised in the colony.

Applicants for naturalisation in New South Wales were asked to state a reason why they sought naturalisation, and most Chinese stated that it was because they wanted to purchase land, or because they had settled in the colony, or something similar. But eight men stated that they sought naturalisation for the rights of ingress and egress. One of these men, Ah Hi, who was naturalised in 1886, stated, for example, that he was ‘desirous of seeing his parents and relatives & returning to this colony where he has an interest in a market garden’. Although there were only a handful of men who explicity stated they sought naturalisation so they could travel across colonial borders, the rapid increase in numbers of naturalisations after the 1881 Act came into force suggests that mobility was a prime motivation.

Other evidence in the archives also shows that Chinese actively used naturalisation to faciliate mobility, for themselves and for their families. There are, for example, Customs statistics that record the numbers of Chinese entering the colonies using naturalisation certificates, reports of individual cases in the newspapers, and Customs and External Affairs / Internal Affairs files that document the travels of Chinese Australians and Chinese New Zealanders. I want now to turn to some of the individual cases of naturalised Chinese and their families – to consider the ways they used their status as British subjects to negotiate anti-Chinese immigration laws, and also to consider the ambiguous nature of the interpretation and application of those laws.

At the borders

So, to return to the Ah Ket children briefly. Under the NSW 1888 Act, any Chinese who produced satisfactory evidence that they were a British subject by birth was to be allowed to enter the colony, yet the Sub-Collector turned the children away for not having naturalisation papers. Would the situation have been different if Matilda, William, Alberta and Ada had produced their Victorian birth certificates, as many Australian-born Chinese did when they returned by sea? Or what if their father was naturalised and they had produced his naturalisation certificate? Would that have been enough proof?

For Chinese Australians, crossing colonial and later national borders was first contingent on being satisfactorily identified, of convincing officials at the border that you were who you said you were. It was then further contingent on bureaucratic and legal interpretations of the law. Each time the law changed, or new regulations were issued, Customs officers at both sea and land borders had to work out how the new policies worked in practice. In her history of the Chinese in Sydney, Shirley Fitzgerald has noted, for example, that in the early 1880s, administering the 1881 Chinese Restriction Act took up much of the Collector of Customs’ time and energy, and he regularly complained to his superiors that he had inadequate staff to deal with incoming and outgoing Chinese (Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors, pp. 28–29).

Each time the law changed, Chinese Australians also had to work out what the new requirements meant, and how they could best negotiate them, whether by lawful or unlawful means. The dramatic increase in Chinese naturalisations after the 1881 Act is an example of this, and so too is the fact that by 1885, the Sydney Collector of Customs believed that there was a solid trade in naturalisation certificates, which were ‘sent to China and sold’. Chinese Australians made use of their rights where and how they could, and pushed back where and how they could, particularly where the law left room for negotiation.

Family mobility

Naturalisation allowed Chinese men themselves to come and go from Australia and New Zealand, but it also facilitated the entry of their wives and children. In 1898, Nicholas Lockyer, the NSW Collector of Customs, told Sydney’s Evening News that two ways that Chinese evaded the poll tax were by ‘the transfer of naturalisation papers’ and by ‘Chinese women passing themselves off as wives of men who have been formally naturalised in New South Wales’. Such suspicions resulted in careful investigations and meticulous recordkeeping, particularly after the turn of the century.

One example is the Ah Lum family of Sydney. Mrs Ah Lum (I’m afraid that I haven’t yet identified the names of some of these wives and children) came out to live with her husband in 1895. He was a storekeeper and had been naturalised in 1882, returning to China to visit a few years later. The Ah Lums’ daughter was born in 1887, after Ah Lum had returned to New South Wales, and she had stayed in China with her grandmother after her mother migrated. In 1899, Ah Lum asked for permission for his daughter to come to live with him and his wife, as his mother had died and the child had no one to care for her. After some investigations by the Customs department’s Chinese inspector, a permit was issued so Ah Lum’s daughter could enter without paying the poll tax.

The Ah Lums’ case was a relatively straightforward one, unlike that of George Lee’s family a few years later. Lee had been naturalised in 1884 and returned to China not long after to be married. In August 1902, he brought his wife and two sons, Quong Foo and Quong Jah, to Sydney. Mrs Lee was admitted without question because she was the wife of a naturalised British subject (and a wife’s nationality followed that of her husband), but officials demanded the £100 poll tax be paid for each son. Lee paid up, under protest, and the Presbyterian Church raised the matter with the Premier and Solicitor-General on his behalf. They were told that Lee was only a British subject while in New South Wales and that as soon as he left, he reverted to Chinese nationality, hence his children were not British subjects by birth or descent. When asked about the matter, Prime Minister Edmund Barton stated it was not of his concern – the payment of the poll tax was a matter for the state of New South Wales to decide, and the family had been allowed in properly under the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act.

Barton could be so dismissive of his responsibility because, at that moment in time, domiciled Chinese men were able to bring in their wives and minor children under section 3 paragraph m of the Immigration Restriction Act. This provision was suspended by proclamation after only 15 months, and repealed in 1905, but during the time it was in force 88 Chinese family members, mainly wives, were allowed to enter Australia permanently. One of these was the wife of Kok Say, managing partner of the Hong Yuen & Co. store in Inverell. In mid 1902, Kok Say wrote to the government requesting a permit for his wife’s entry and stating his credentials – he had been naturalised in 1884 after arriving in the colony of New South Wales nine years earlier. In his words, ‘I have made my home here & have no intention of returning at any time to China’. His request was granted without issue and Mrs Kok Say arrived at Sydney from Hong Kong in November 1902.

After the repeal of section 3 paragraph m in 1905, the entry of Chinese wives and children was solely at the discretion of the Minister for External Affairs, and over the following years we see naturalised Chinese continuing to try to find ways to bring their families to Australia, including through legal challenges in the courts. In New Zealand, naturalised Chinese similarly tested the limits of the law in their efforts to bring out wives and children without having to pay the poll tax, which continued to be applied until 1934, before finally being repealed in 1944.

Conclusion

Although the prohibition of Chinese naturalisation was part of the suite of anti-Chinese measures introduced in the Australasian colonies from the 1860s through into the 20th century, its history is more than one of simple exclusion. It is important to also consider the times when Chinese could be, and were, naturalised, and the ongoing legacies of this in their and their families lives. As British subjects, naturalised Chinese had legal and political rights that they continually asserted, testing and challenging the limits of policy and law. Sometimes they were successful in these challenges, sometimes they weren’t, but when we look closely at their individual cases we can see how their actions both shaped and were shaped by the law. We can also see inconsistencies and ambiguities in the law and in the ways it was administered and applied.

Communication and collaboration in the digital age

This is the paper that I presented at the Related Histories: Studying the Family conference, held at the National Library of Australia on 29 November 2017.

If you’re interested in knowing more, Caitlin Adams from Macquarie University has written a review of the Related Histories conference.

Abstract

Since the 1990s, the field of Chinese Australian history has been characterised by the active participation of family and community researchers alongside academic historians, museum curators and heritage professionals. Over the same period, digital technologies have changed the ways that we communicate and how we do historical research. In this paper I consider questions of communication and collaboration between academic and family historians in the digital age, based on my work in Chinese Australian history. Working with family historians and descendants over the past two decades has shaped my practice as an academic historian, in particular in thinking about who I write for and why. In the paper I will discuss some of the ways I have made my work accessible and actively engaged with family historians, particularly in the digital realm, and contemplate the benefits and challenges of doing so as an academic historian today.

Introduction

My contribution to this panel on ‘family history and the digital revolution’ is going to be something of a personal reflection based on my participation in the field of Chinese Australian history over the past two decades – a period that both starts and ends with me in the academy. Then, twenty years or so ago, I was a PhD student at the University of Sydney. Now, I’m an ARC DECRA Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong.

In between, there was a good decade or so in which I held no academic position or affiliation. I worked at the National Archives for about seven years, then in editing and publishing in the public service here in Canberra, and then as a freelance editor and historian-for-hire, completing projects for AIATSIS and DFAT among others. All the while I maintained my scholarly research practice as best I could around this paid work and family life. I wrote papers, presented at academic conferences, and published in peer-reviewed journals and edited collections. In 2016 I was awarded a DECRA fellowship, and so I now find myself back in academia.

In the two decades in which I have been a historian, digital technologies have radically changed the ways that we do history – as academic, community or family historians. These technologies affect every aspect of historical practice – most obviously in the ways that we find and access archival and library collections online, but also in how we can interact with, analyse and understand those collections; and in how we can present and communicate our work.

Digital history – ‘gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web’ as Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig described it – democratises history by inviting and encouraging the participation of non-academic audiences. It makes historical knowledge more accessible to the public and multiplies the number of people who participate in making history. It also facilitates investigation, curiosity, participation and connection building around historical knowledge and historical collections.

One thing that has struck me after moving back into academia last year has been the reaction of my university colleagues to my use of the web and my outwards focus as a historian – the fact that I blog and I tweet, that I make time to give talks and workshops to family historians and other non-academic audiences, and that I would rather my work be accessible than locked behind the paywall of a ‘prestigious’ international journal.

In my paper today I would therefore like to reflect on how I think working with family historians and descendants over the past two decades has shaped my practice as an academic historian, and consider how digital technologies have created opportunities for communication and collaboration. I’ll discuss three examples: first, publishing my work online; second, running a heritage study tour to China; and third, developing an online archival transcription project.

Researching Chinese Australian family life

Working in field of Chinese Australian history, people often ask whether I have Chinese heritage – not an unreasonable question considering that much of my work has focused on mixed-race Chinese-European families. The short answer to that question is ‘no’, but there is one family connection that I do quite like to highlight.

My paternal great grandparents, Harry Bagnall and Florence Bellamy (both migrants to New South Wales – he from Dudley in England and she from Dunedin in New Zealand), were pioneers in the sport of cycling in Sydney in the 1890s. In 1892, Florence was one of four women elected as honorary members of the Sydney Bicycle Club, ‘in consideration of their being the first ladies in Australia to take up the pastime of cycling’ (Evening News, 21 May 1892, p. 5). Florence met Harry through their mutual interest in cycling. He was an active member of League of Wheelman and competed professionally in the mid-1890s.

Another migrant to New South Wales, one who had arrived a good three decades before my great grandparents, was also involved in the League of Wheelman, and that was Sydney merchant Quong Tart. Cycle club meetings were held in his tea rooms in King Street and Quong Tart was for some years a starter at League of Wheelman races. Margaret Tart’s biography of her late husband, published in 1911, includes a photograph of Quong Tart and my great grandfather officiating at a race meeting together. That is my historical family connection to Chinese Australian history!

My interest in Chinese Australian history therefore did not come from my own family history, but it did emerge out of personal experience.

Twenty years ago, in 1997, after finishing Honours in History at Sydney University, I went to teach English in China for a year, in the small coastal city of Zhuhai, just across the border from Macau and an hour by ferry from Hong Kong. Zhuhai is in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, and it was from the Pearl River Delta, through Hong Kong, that most Chinese immigrants came to Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Having fallen in love with the language, culture and history of south China, when I returned to Australia to begin my PhD, I sought a topic that might combine this new love with my existing love of Australian women’s history. And so, under the supervision of Penny Russell, I began researching the history of Chinese families in colonial New South Wales.

What I found when I began that research was that the existing scholarship on the Chinese in Australia, including works written by academic historians, discounted the existence of Chinese families in colonial Australia – in part because of the small numbers of Chinese women who migrated at that time, and in part because of the assumption that white Australian women and Chinese men didn’t form families together. Failing to critically examine their sources, scholars repeated and compounded colonial thinking about the sexual, social and family lives of the Chinese in Australia.

They perpetuated myths and stereotypes about the scarcity of ‘real’ families, about the ‘immorality’ and ‘vice’ that resulted from this, and about the tragedy and moral failings of white women who formed intimate relationships with Chinese men. It wasn’t just white Australian historians who did this either. C.F. Yong, author of one of the earliest major histories on the Chinese in Australia, accepted the idea of widespread Chinese immorality in the colonies caused by a lack of family life, and gave credence to the idea that the Chinese were frequent ‘seducers’ of white girls. (I’ve explored this more in my 2011 article on ‘Rewriting the history of Chinese families in 19th-century Australia‘.)

After mining the footnotes of these earlier historians for sources – this was well before the days of Trove, remember! – it was pretty clear why they had this impression of Chinese Australian family life. The government reports and inquiries, parliamentary debates, and articles from the metropolitan daily press they cited spoke about ‘the Chinese’ as an anonymous group, rarely mentioning individual Chinese, other than those of wealth and community standing like Quong Tart or Louis Ah Mouy.

These sources did, however, mention here and there a Chinese man with a European wife, or a European woman living with a Chinese man, or the presence of Chinese-European children. So I went looking for material about these families elsewhere – in published local and community histories, in the collections of local history and family history societies, in birth and marriage records, and in immigration records. I also sought to make contact with descendants.

For me as a young historian, contact with descendants and family historians was important for a number of reasons.

The first, simply, was to try and locate names and biographical information about the Chinese-European families who were the focus of my study. I wanted to know who these people were, where they lived, how they met, and what their lives were like – research that is remarkably hard to do without a name.

The second, where I already knew names and had some information from the archives, was to form a more rounded picture of their lives, to understand more about them than the official record might tell.

Over time, a third reason emerged, and that was to be able to share what I knew and what I had uncovered in the archives, both about their families in particular and more generally about Chinese Australian family life. While many of the family historians I met had done the most extensive, fastidious research – as they do – Chinese ancestors were often a puzzle. Many had not known of their Chinese ancestry before digging into the family history, and I began to be able to provide a broader understanding of the context of their ancestors’ lives in both Australia and south China.

The questions that family historians asked me also pushed me to find answers. I’ll give you one example.

About 18 months into my PhD I made contact with a lady named Marlene from Lane Cove whose great-grandmother, Harriet Bourke, had married Thomas Ah Cue in Forbes in 1881. One of their daughters, Susan, born in Forbes in 1882, married a Chinese man named John Lee in 1899. Among the family documents Marlene had located was the 1915 naturalisation certificate of Susan Lee, and she asked me why Susan, who was born in New South Wales and was therefore a British subject by birth, had taken out naturalisation. At the time, I didn’t really know the answer, but it prompted me to find out. And I’m pleased to say that I now have a PhD student, Emma Bellino, who is writing her thesis on the topic of marital denaturalisation, focusing on Australian women who married non-European aliens in the early 20th century.

At the same time as making contact with these family historians, I found a community of researchers working in the field of Chinese Australian history whose backgrounds stretched across academic history, archaeology, heritage, the GLAM sector, and community and family history.

This community of researchers provided me with models of how good, scholarly history could take different forms and be presented for different audiences – I’m thinking here of the Golden Threads project run by Janis Wilton at UNE and the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation project run by John Fitzgerald, then at La Trobe. Among their outputs, these two projects produced websites with publicly accessible databases and other online resources. Although time has not served these project websites well – the Golden Threads website no longer exists except in Pandora and the Internet Archive, and the CHAF website exists in a semi-functional ‘archived’ form hosted by the La Trobe University Library – they were both exemplary Australian digital history projects of their time.

In this Chinese Australian history community I also found my good friend and collaborator, Sophie Couchman. One of our first joint enterprises, along with a couple of other history postgrads, was the creation of the online Journal of Chinese Australia. The journal only lasted two issues, in 2005 and 2006, but I think our aim for the journal still epitomises the approach that Sophie and I take in our work. We hoped the journal would provide ‘access to research and resources on the history and culture of Chinese people in Australia’ and be ‘a place for family and community researchers, historians and students to share their ideas and questions’.

For the rest of my time I’d briefly like to share with you three more recent examples of how I have engaged with family historians in both the digital and non-digital worlds.

Being present on the web

Making my work available online has had a profound effect on my interactions with family historians and the research community more broadly.

I decided when I finished my PhD in 2006 to make my thesis accessible online through the University of Sydney’s online respository, and a couple of years later, in August 2008, I started a blog, giving myself a visible presence online. More recently again, in March 2009, I began using Twitter, which I use ‘professionally’ rather than ‘personally’, although there’s quite a deal of overlap between the two. Where possible, too, I now either publish my ‘academic’ work in open access publications or negotiate to be able to put a copy of my final article or chapter online through my website. I want my work to be read by the people I write it for – and many of them don’t have access to scholarly journal databases or university libraries or have the money to buy $150 books published by international presses.

One of the most common ways that people have found my work is when they Google their family name as part of their family history research. My thesis includes stories about many families, and has two appendixes – one of Chinese-European marriages in colonial New South Wales, and one of Chinese-European families who travelled to and from China before 1930. It therefore includes lots of names, although as I am continually discovering, there are still many, many families I have never heard of!

As I mentioned before, many of the descendants who contact me were previously unaware of their Chinese heritage, and are at a loss about how to start researching. I’ve had some really lovely emails from people telling me what a help my thesis and blog have been in providing them with a place to start to understand the Chinese part of their family. For example, I received an email from a lady named Heather in 2013, who wrote:

I am so grateful that this part of our history has been researched and brought to light … I am so touched to finally feel that I might be about to discover something from a heritage that has been hidden and denied. It was all generations ago and my family has almost no stories or clues, and yet … to read about the experiences of similar families is exciting and promises a connection that has felt lost until now … Knowing [your thesis] exists is somehow something I find comforting, and I wanted to reach out and say thank you.

That is the sort of thing that really makes my heart glow as a historian!

Some of these contacts have helped me solve puzzles too. The story of Pauline Ah Hee is one example.

One of the groups of Chinese-European children I wrote about in my thesis were children who were in state care or adopted. Among them was a beautiful child named Pauline Ah Hee, born Dubbo in 1893, who was adopted by James and Fanny Choy Hing in Sydney. Based on a Customs file held in the National Archives in Sydney I wrote about Pauline in my thesis, pondering about her role in her adopted family. James and Fanny had children of their own, and I wondered why and in what circumstances they had taken Pauline into their family. In 2011, I got to know Howard, whose wife is the granddaughter of James Choy Hing and the niece of Pauline Ah Hee. Howard had heard me speaking on our local ABC radio here in Canberra and looked up my thesis online. My mention of Pauline and the Choy Hing family spurred him on to research that part of the family history, and in time he shared with me what he had uncovered about Pauline’s life. Howard told me that after her adoption Pauline was raised as a true daughter of the family, living as part of the wealthy Choy household in Hong Kong after the family’s return there.

Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour

When I went to live in China in 1997 it was by lucky coincidence that the city I lived in, Zhuhai, was in the heart of the ancestral homelands of Australia’s early Chinese migrants. At that time, Zhuhai was still very much a Cantonese city – some of the city’s residents are from families that had lived in the area for generations, while many others had migrated from districts around Pearl River Delta after Zhuhai became a Special Economic Zone in the early 1980s.

Thanks to the friendships I made that year, I was welcomed into family homes and taken on visits to ancestral villages in the countryside, I celebrated traditional festivals like Chinese New Year and Qingming and took part in significant family events like weddings, new baby celebrations (满月 múhn yuht) and a funeral. The history, culture and language of the Pearl River Delta districts are very special and I feel really privileged to have been able to experience life there in the way that I have.

So, as I came and went from China in the years that followed – on holiday, to study, to do research – and as I spent time here with Chinese Australian family historians, I realised that many Australian descendants wanted to go and visit their Chinese ancestral homes, but didn’t know how to go about it, particularly because they spoke no Chinese. For many, too, there was insufficient information to trace their Chinese ancestor back to a particular place, other than the ubiquitous Canton.

So this year, after many years of quietly plotting in my own mind and a couple of years of serious organising, Sophie Couchman and I led our first Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour to Hong Kong and Guangdong. The tour ran for ten days, beginning and ending in Hong Kong. In China proper, we visited museums, heritage sites and ‘Australian’ villages in six Pearl River Delta counties. Our sixteen guests came from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and New Zealand, and most were descended from early Cantonese migrants to Australia. During the tour we visited a number of their ancestral villages, something that was very special for us all. We also ate a tremendous amount of excellent food, including the best egg tarts I think any of us have ever had.

Since the tour Sophie and I have been heartened by the participants’ responses to the experience. One participant, Jenny, has, for example, just given a conference paper – her first – about her Chinese ancestor, Ah Chin, at the Dragon Tails conference in Bendigo this past weekend. In her conference abstract Jenny wrote:

Until this year, I tended to think of him as ‘the Chinese guy’. When I travelled to China with the other Chinese descendants … my attitude changed. Suddenly, he was a real person, my ancestor, my great-great grandfather, and loving husband to Sarah and father to six children.

Another participant from our 2017 tour is even coming back to join us for our next tour in January 2018. We’re also really pleased that two of the participants in our upcoming tour in January are PhD students whose doctoral research draws on their own Chinese Australian family history, in Darwin and country Victoria. For me, it’s really exciting to see the possibilities that these personal experiences in the ancestral homelands in Guangdong might bring to a new generation of Australian histories.

Real Face of White Australia

One of the most significant sources for writing Chinese Australian history are the many thousands of Customs and Immigration files about Chinese Australians held by the National Archives of Australia. These records were created in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act and include, among other things, about 40,000 identification documents called Certificates of Domicile and Certificates Exempting from the Dictation Test, which date from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s.

Since the early 2000s, the National Archives has undertaken substantial arrangement and description and digitisation work on various of these record series, meaning that they are a lot easier to find and access than when I first looked at them as a PhD student twenty years ago. Individual records across multiple record series can, for example, now be easily located using a name-based keyword search in the National Archives’ collection database, RecordSearch, and digitised copied viewed online.

This year I have been working with University of Canberra historian Tim Sherratt and his digital cultural heritage students on an online project, called the Real Face of White Australia, that aims to transcribe data from these identification documents. Like the Hometown Heritage Tour, this project has had a long germination – from my various low-tech efforts at extracting personal data from the certificates to Tim’s very high-tech use of facial detection technology in his creation of the Real Face of White Australia experimental browser in 2012.

The transcription website that Tim has built uses the power of crowdsourcing to extract structured data – like names and biographical information – from the documents, data that can then be used for future research. As the project progresses Tim will release the data online so that anyone can use it, not just us. I’d encourage you to have a go at transcribing – it’s pretty fun!

There is a lot more that I could say about the project, but I will focus on two things with a family history perspective.

To launch the project, we held a transcribe-a-thon weekend at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, where we and Tim’s students and members of the public sat and transcribed all weekend. Being an online project, though, it wasn’t just those of us physically in the building who took part in the weekend’s activities. One of our China tour participants set up his own mini transcribe-a-thon at home in Melbourne, where he and his family sat around the dining table working away at transcibing the records on the Saturday night. He is now also working with Sophie Couchman on developing a similar transcription project for a significant set of Chinese immigration registers held in the Melbourne office of the National Archives.

My final example is something that I, as a mum, think is probably the best thing to have come out of the whole project. Tim and my seven-year-old daughter, Emily, really got into transcribing the records during the transcribe-a-thon, and in the records she came across the photograph of a little Chinese Australian girl named Dolly Denson from 1909. Emily was so taken by Dolly’s picture that she wanted to find out more about her, so together we did some more research and, over the last school holidays, she wrote a blog post about her discoveries (using her nom de plume, Parker). Since the post went live on my blog, three of little Dolly Denson’s relatives – two of her nieces and a grand niece – have written lovely comments in response. How good is that?

Conclusion

Engaging with family historians and descendants over the past two decades had given me a very concrete sense of why I do what I do as a historian. Yes, I’m a historian because I love being a historian – like many of us, I may well be my happiest when I’m buried in the archives – but I’ve also kept being a historian through those lean years when it wasn’t what I was paid to do because I feel like my research makes a difference to people.

In the world of academic history I hope my work shifts our understanding of the place of Chinese Australians and Australia–China relations in the broader narrative of Australian history. In the world of family history, I hope that my work contributes to people’s understanding of their own family histories and how their ancestors lives fit into the bigger story of both Australian and Chinese history. These family stories are not always easy ones to uncover or understand, and they can be very emotional to research – but they are important and they deserve to be told.

Although this session was about ‘family history and the digital revolution’, you can see from my examples that my engagement with family historians is not all about being digital – the tangible and the face to face are still important. In my experience though, there are many positive things about working online, not least of which is the fact that it scales up the possibilities for participation, communication and collaboration between academic historians and family historians.

Symposium on Chinese women in the southern diaspora

Following on from the 2013 Dragon Tails conference, Julia Martínez and I are organising a Symposium on Chinese Women in Southern Diaspora History. The symposium will be held at the University of Wollongong.

Date: Friday, 5 December 2014
Time: 9.00am to 3.30pm
Venue: Building 24, Rooms 201 and 202, University of Wollongong

Speakers include:

  • Pauline Rule — Being a Chinese wife and mother in colonial Victoria, 1856–1900
  • Sandi Robb — Daughters of the Flowery Land: Chinese women in Queensland 1860–1920
  • Kate Bagnall — Family politics: Chinese wives in Australia, 1902 to 1920
  • Sophie Couchman — Chinese-Australian brides, photography and the white wedding
  • Julia Martínez — University education of Chinese women in the 20th century
  • Sophie Loy-Wilson — Daisy Guo’s Shanghai: Narrating the lives of Chinese Australian women in Shanghai before and after 1949
  • Paul Macgregor — Mrs Fabian Chow of Shanghai — journalist, radio star and goodwill ambassador: an Australian Chinese colleague of the Soong sisters

Professor Jan Ryan from Edith Cowan University will also be providing her reflections on Chinese women’s history.

The symposium is open to the public and there is no registration fee. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to Julia Martínez (juliam@uow.edu.au) by 31 October 2014 for catering purposes.

Download a pdf of the symposium programme.

The best laid plans — August 2014 edition

About six months ago I embarked on a new endeavour. I took a redundancy from the public service and began to spend my days at home — researching, writing, doing the washing, weeding the garden and wrangling kids. After twelve years in the public service — my entire grown-up working life — it has taken me a while to adjust. I was used to being a breadwinner, used to juggling the hectic demands of full-time work around my kids and my crazy need to keep up my historical pursuits in my ‘spare time’. So I’ve been feeling strangely guilty about the time I have, now that I don’t rush off to the office every day. I have done some occasional freelance work over the past couple of months and will need to get back to more paid work again in the new year — whether as a freelance editor/historian or back in an office job, I don’t know. For now though I have the rest of the year to get done the research and writing I’ve been bursting to do and couldn’t fit in before. No pressure, right?

So, overly ambitious as always, here’s what I plan to do between now and January:

  • manage the publication production of my first book, Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, co-edited with Sophie Couchman, which we are about to send to the publisher, Brill (ongoing)
  • finish writing a chapter, tentatively titled ‘Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood’, for Paul Arthur’s edited collection Australian Culture and Identity: Transnational Perspectives in Life Writing, to be published by Anthem Press (by end of September)
  • sole parent for a couple of weeks while Tim attends conferences in Japan and London (September/October)
  • prepare two written papers, on ‘Early Chinese families in Australia’ and ‘Finding your Chinese roots’, for Congress 2015 Canberra (written papers need to be in four months before the conference!) (by end of November)
  • prepare my paper, ‘Everyday intimacies: women’s cross-cultural interactions on a colonial goldfield’, for the Migrant Cross-Cultural Encounters conference at the University of Otago in late November — I’m also going to stay on for a couple of extra days to meet with the folk from the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture (by late November)
  • organise, with Julia Martinez, a workshop on Chinese women in Australian history at the University of Wollongong in early December, as well as preparing my own workshop paper on the arrival of Chinese wives to Australia under the Immigration Restriction Act, 1902 to 1920
  • organise my three-week research trip to Hong Kong and Guangdong for January 2015 — I’ll spend two weeks based at the Overseas Chinese Culture Research Centre at Wuyi University in Jiangmen doing fieldwork in Xinhui and Kaiping and then a week of archival research in Hong Kong (the trip is supported by a Humanities Travelling Fellowship from the Australian Academy of the Humanities)
  • redevelop my website and blog a bit more than I have been (I’ve got a few half-written posts I’d really like to finish!).

Looking at this long list of things I’ve committed myself to doing, I’m also very aware that sitting in my inbox are quite a few emails from people hoping for some help with their family history research. I love hearing from people whose family stories intersect with my research interests and I regret that I’m not able to respond to them all in a timely manner — catch me on a bad day and your email might sit there for weeks or months, catch me on a good day and you’ll get a reply straight away! I do try to catch up, but if you’re one of those people waiting for a response from me, I hope you understand that sometimes a pressing deadline, or a request from my four-year-old to take her to the park, has to come first.

‘Returning home alone’: my paper for the Lilith Conference

On 10 May, I will be speaking at the Lilith Conference: ‘Women without men: Spinsters, widows and deserted wives in the nineteenth century and beyond’, at the ANU. It sounds like such a great conference, and I’m excited to be a part of it. Here’s what I’m going to be talking about.

Title: Returning home alone: marital breakdown and the voluntary repatriation of Australian wives from south China

Abstract: Between the 1860s and 1930s dozens of white wives of Chinese men travelled with their husbands and children from Australia and New Zealand to southern China. This paper will examine the decision made by a number of these women to subsequently leave their husbands and marriages, and sometimes also their children, to return to Australia. One of the main reasons they did so was the discovery that their husband had a Chinese wife. British and Australian commentators made much of the ‘cruel treatment’ white wives received from their Chinese families, with newspapers publishing periodic warnings of the dangers of a return to China. This paper will refigure such narratives of cruelty and abandonment to consider the deliberate and courageous decisions white wives made—first in leaving their Australian homes for new lives in China and second in choosing to return home alone, as ‘abandoned’ wives and mothers. It will explore the circumstances in which white wives left China, the physical and emotional journeys they made, and the sometimes devastating consequences these had upon their lives.

Migrants ‘on the wing’ at Visible Immigrants Seven

Yesterday I spoke at Visible Immigrants Seven, a small conference organised by Flinders University and the Migration Museum in Adelaide. The conference aimed to explore the idea of migrant mobility before and after the major act of migration. Most of the papers focused on nineteenth-century migrants from Ireland, Scotland and England, including convicts. My paper looked at the return migration of Chinese men and their Australian families.

Representing lives from the archive of White Australia

Sophie Couchman, Tim Sherratt and I are presenting a session on ‘Representing lives from the archive of White Australia’ at Framing Lives: 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association on 19 July 2012.

Panel description

This panel offers three approaches to representing the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who were affected by the racially-based immigration policies of late 19th and early 20th-century Australia. To administer the Immigration Restriction Act and its colonial predecessors, government officials implemented an increasingly complex and structured system of tracking and documenting the movements of non-white people as they travelled in and out of the country. This surveillance left an extraordinary body of records containing information about people who, according to the national myth of a ‘White Australia’, were not Australian at all.

The first paper will examine a unique set of almost 300 identification photographs of Chinese Australians taken in Victoria in the late 1890s, considering what these photographs reveal of the lives of their subjects. The second paper will demonstrate how, through a close reading of the records, fragments of biographical information can be built into a portrait of the life of a Chinese woman living in Australia on exemption from 1910 to 1913. The final paper will consider the possibilities of digital history for reconstructing marginalised lives and reflect on the challenges of representing biographical data from the White Australia records in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

Identifying whom?: reading identification photography by Sophie Couchman

In 1900 William Nean posed proudly on his bicycle in full racing attire for the popular photographic company Yeoman & Co. in Bourke Street, Melbourne. He used this photograph as an identification portrait and it is now preserved in the National Archives of Australia amongst 268 other photographic portraits of Chinese resident in Victoria that were created under the administration of the 1890 Chinese Act between 1899 and 1901. The Act aimed to limit and control Chinese immigration in the colony of Victoria and, from the late 1890s, identification portraits of long-term Chinese residents were used as part of documentation to allow them to re-enter Victoria free from the restrictions of the Act.

William Nean’s portrait immediately raises the questions of who he was and why such an unusual photograph was used as an identification portrait. The rest of the paperwork associated with this series of photographs no longer survives—all that remains are annotated identification portraits. This paper will place these photographs in the history of identification photography and, through close readings of them, tease out what can be learnt about the lives of the men, women and children represented in them.

Shifting the lens: uncovering the story of Mrs Poon Gooey by Kate Bagnall

This paper revisits the Poon Gooey deportation case, marking two significant anniversaries. In 1913, it will be a hundred years since Ham Hop, the wife of fruit merchant Poon Gooey, was deported from Australia with their two young daughters. After Ham Hop’s arrival in Australia on a temporary permit in 1910, Poon Gooey—a fluent English-speaker, Christian and member of the Chinese Empire Reform League—mounted a determined campaign to gain permission for her to remain more permanently. The campaign, while ultimately unsuccessful, found widespread support and was an ongoing embarrassment to the federal Labor government.

Fifty years later, historian AT Yarwood wrote on the Poon Gooey case as an example of early problems in the administration of the White Australia Policy. Yarwood based his study on the very substantial Department of External Affairs file, which documents the Poon Gooey story from 1910 to 1913. Greater access to records in the intervening decades, however, means that is now possible to uncover more of the context of Poon Gooey’s actions at this time and, more generally, of the two decades he spent in Australia—evidence that calls into question some of Yarwood’s conclusions about Poon Gooey’s actions and his motivations.

This paper shifts the lens even further, however, to focus on the life of Ham Hop, rather than on that of her husband. Although significant moments in her life—her marriage, periods of physical separation from her husband, travel to Australia, pregnancies, births of her children, medical problems, and finally the deportation of herself and her children—are recorded in the official case files, Ham Hop herself remains silent. Through a close reading of these records and the extensive press coverage of the case, this paper seeks to reveal what can be known of her story and to suggest possibilities for uncovering the lives of women and children who were marginalised and excluded by the White Australia Policy in the early years of the 20th century.

The responsibilities of data: reconstructing lives from the records of the White Australia Policy by Tim Sherratt

The sheer volume of records created by the White Australia Policy is overwhelming. Amidst this vast and disturbing legacy are thousands upon thousands of certificates documenting the movements of non-white residents. These biographical fragments, often including photographs and handprints, are visually and emotionally compelling. We cannot avoid the gaze of those whose lives were monitored, we cannot deny the people behind the policy.

But these records are also a source of data. Increasing numbers of these records have been digitised. As we develop the tools and techniques of digital history, we open up the possibility of extracting this data from the digitised records, of aggregating the biographical fragments, of tracing lives and mapping families. We can tame the overwhelming abundance of records and create a rich, new resource for exploration and analysis.

But how do we avoid imprisoning these newly-liberated lives in yet another system? How do we ensure that the challenging gaze of individuals is not lost in the transformation to data? This paper will look at some of the possibilities for extracting information from these records and reflect on the challenges of representing that data in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

Transcultural Chinese at the Australian Historical Association conference 2012

There is a great line-up of Chinese Australian history papers on offer at the Australian Historical Association conference this year. The three sessions – all to be held on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 – have been organised by Paul Macgregor and bring together historians from Tasmania, Victoria, Canberra, New South Wales and Queensland. The conference’s opening plenary session will also be of interest.

I’m a late inclusion in the program after Derham Groves had to pull out, and I’ll be giving a version of the paper I presented at the WCILCOS conference in Vancouver in May.

Details of the ‘Transcultural Chinese’ sessions are below and other information can be found in the AHA program.

9.00am to 11.00am

Opening plenary panel: ‘Australian History in its Asian Contexts’
Speakers: Ms Sophie Loy-Wilson (University of Sydney), Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska (Monash University), Dr Julia Martinez (University of Wollongong).
Discussant: Professor David Walker (Deakin University)

11.30am to 1.00pm

Transcultural Chinese #1 – Modern Lives
Chair: Mobo Gao
1. Paul Macgregor – Islands of Chinese Modernity 1786-1949 – From Singapore and Shanghai to Sydney and San Francisco
2. Kate Bagnall – ‘I’m an Australian’: Anglo-Chinese and the Immigration Restriction Act in New South Wales, 1902–1920
3. Paul Jones – Gordon Lum Bo Wah, Australian-Chinese Tennis Ace

2.00pm to 3.30pm

Transcultural Chinese #2 – Material Connections
Chair: Julia Martinez
1. Virginia Esposito – The Archaeology of a Chinese camp in a European goldfield – Jembaicumbene, NSW
2. Melissa Dunk – Exploring Chinese interactions through material culture: Atherton Chinatown, Queensland 1880-1920
3. Joanna Boileau – The belongings of Georgie Ah Ling: pieces of the life of a Chinese market gardener

4.00pm to 5.00pm

Transcultural Chinese #3 – Sojourners to Settlers
Chair: Paul Macgregor
1. Mobo Gao – Sojourners, Where is Home?
2. Darryl Low Choy – Sojourners, Settlers, Selectors and Subjects: Interpreting a Queensland Chinese Australian family history through a palimpsest approach

‘Paper trails’: my presentation at the 5th WCILCOS conference

I’m still digesting all that I heard at the 5th WCILCOS conference and cogitating about the exciting possibilities for international collaborative work that have emerged from it. I’m hoping to pull together some more thoughts about my discussions with folk from Canada and the US about mixed-race overseas Chinese families and children.

In the mean time, though, here are the slides of my talk and the first (and much longer) version of the paper I wrote a couple of months ago: Paper trails: Anglo-Chinese Australians and the White Australia Policy (pdf, 1.9mb).