Category: People

Sam family featured at the National Archives

One of the Anglo-Chinese families from NSW that I have written about has been featured in the latest refresh of the Memory of a Nation exhibition at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.

During World War I, young Percy Sam of West Wyalong applied for both a CEDT and an Emigration Certificate before travelling with his father to China – at the same time as his older brothers were away fighting in the AIF. It’s a story that illustrates the contradictory ways that Australians of part-Chinese descent were treated by government authorities in the early twentieth century. For more on that see my earlier blog post and my Inside History article. Alastair Kennedy’s Chinese Anzacs book also discusses the Sam brothers.

Five documents about the Sam family are featured the National Archives exhibition:

  • a police report about father William Flood Sam that accompanied his CEDT application (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058)
  • photographs of father William and son Percy Sam that accompanied their CEDT applications (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058; SP42/1, C1915/4032 )
  • a letter from mother Jane Sam giving permission for son Percy to travel overseas with his father (NAA: C1915/4032)
  • an attestation paper for elistment in the AIF for son James Sam (NAA: B2455: Sam James Francis).

The display is behind glass in a drawer, so it’s a bit hard to photograph. The main text reads:

At the outbreak of World War I the Sam brothers, like many young Australian men, were eager to represent their country. Two of the brothers – James and Norman – enlisted in November 1914 and went on to serve at Gallipoli in 1915. Over the remainder of that year, three more brothers – Henry, George and Tom – also enlisted.

Also in 1915 their father William and younger brother Percy wanted to travel to China, William’s birth country. While some family members were considered ‘sufficiently European’ to serve overseas in the Australian Imperial Force, William and Percy had to apply for a Certificate of Exemption from the dictation test before they could travel due to their part-Chinese heritage.

Alas, there are a couple of problems with this short account.

First, only four Sam brothers enlisted (a fifth, Tom, was said to have gone off to war, but there is no record of him actually having served – a check of B2455 would have shown that); two Sam grandsons, with the surname Loolong, did also enlist though.

Second, a Certificate of Exemption (from the dictation test) was different from a Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test, which is what William and Percy applied for and were granted.

Third, William Sam did not have ‘part-Chinese’ heritage as the caption implies – he was ‘full’ Chinese.

Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young

In 2011 I wrote a blog post about a photograph of an unknown Chinese Australian family held in the State Library of Victoria collection. With very few details to go on, in my post I wondered whether I would ever find out the family’s identity. In this guest post, New England local historian Gill Oxley shares with us not only the family’s identity, but more about the interesting lives of Emma Tear Tack, nee Lee Young, and her reverend husband Joseph.

On 22 February 1899, an untitled article appeared on page 2 of the Ballarat Star. It conveyed news of the death of the retired ‘Government interpreter’ for the Ararat and Stawell districts of Victoria, Mr Lee Young. The article also served as an informal obituary, giving details of the life of Mr Lee Young, including his earliest days in Australia (following his immigration from Canton in about 1852) and his life on the goldfields of Victoria in the late 1800s. Towards the end of the article, mention was made of Mr Lee Young’s surviving four daughters and two sons. Two of his daughters were named as Mrs the Rev. James Ah Chue and Mrs the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack.

Mrs the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack was Emma, born at Ararat in Victoria in 1865 (Vic BDM reg. no. 19815), the second youngest child of Lee Young and his wife Elizabeth Wright.

Emma Tear Tack, c.1894 (State Library of Victoria H2005.34/103)

The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages gives Emma’s father’s name as Lee Young and her mother’s maiden name as Elizabeth Lyth. The maiden surname ‘Lyth’ is likely to have been either a mistranscription or else a mispronunciation, as Emma’s mother’s maiden name is given as Elizabeth Wright in official records of the births of most of Emma’s siblings. The record for Emma’s youngest sister, Jessie Lee Young, gives a different name again, with their mother’s maiden name given as Elizabeth Light – quite clearly a misinterpretation of ‘Wright’.

Elizabeth Wright was British born and had emigrated to Australia at about 20 years of age, arriving at Geelong on the ship British Empire on 8 March 1853 (PROV, VPRS 14: Register of Assisted British Immigrants 1839–1871).

Elizabeth married (‘John’) Lee Young in Victoria in 1856 (Vic BDM reg. no. 3704) and the couple had two sons and four daughters:

  • William Lee Young, born Ballarat 1859 (Vic BDM reg. no. 7102)
  • Matilda Lee Young, born Ballarat 1860 (Vic BDM reg. no. 2269)
  • Henry Lee Young, born Ballarat 1862 (Vic BDM reg. no. 12268)
  • Alice Lee Young, born Ararat 1864 (Vic BDM reg. no. 6746)
  • Emma Lee Young, born Ararat 1865 (Vic BDM reg. no. 19815)
  • Jessie Lee Young, born Ararat 1869 (Vic BDM reg. no. 20004).

At 20 years of age, in 1885, Emma Lee Young married Chinese-born Joseph Tear Tack (Vic BDM reg. no. 4357).

Joseph Tear Tack’s Victorian naturalisation record of July 1883 gives his native place simply as Canton, his age at the time as 35 years and his occupation as minister.

Memorial for letters of naturalisation for Joseph Tear Tack, 1883 (NAA: A712, 1883/Y7207)

From this we can assume that Joseph Tear Tack was born in Canton in or about 1848. He would therefore have been about 17 years older than Emma at the time of their 1885 marriage. Perhaps it was this age difference that caused the ‘little commotion in Chinese circles’ over their impending marriage, as reported in the Ballarat Star, and other Victorian papers, in May 1885.

‘General news’, Riverine Herald, 5 May 1885, p. 3

After their marriage Emma and Joseph left Victoria and set up home in the tin mining district of Inverell in northern New South Wales. Their first child, Elizabeth Edith Tear Tack, was born there in 1886 (NSW BDM reg. no. 24730). From the beginning of the 1870s, the Inverell district had a very large Chinese population, with Chinese workers being drawn to the area for the rich deposits of alluvial tin that were plentiful there, and for the business opportunities that also presented themselves with the need for fresh vegetables and other supplies in the booming mining district.

Joseph Tear Tack had been sent to Inverell (or more precisely to nearby Tingha) in mid-1884 by the Wesleyan Methodist Church to minister to the resident Chinese population in the area. He was one of the ‘success stories’ of the church’s Chinese mission in Victoria (‘Wesleyan Church, West Maitland‘, Maitland Mercury, 5 June 1884, p. 2).

According to the March–April 1891 edition of the NSW Government Gazette (p. 1892), Rev. Tear Tack was registered at the NSW Registrar General’s Office in Sydney for ‘the celebration of marriages at Tingha’ on 6 March 1891. Joseph Tear Tack and his family of four persons – one male (his eldest son) and three females (Emma and two daughters) – appear as living at Tingha in the 1891 Census (1891 New South Wales Census, Australia). Helen Brown, in her book Tin at Tingha (1982, p. 35), makes mention of the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack being appointed to serve as an ‘assistant Methodist preacher’ at Tingha between 1885 and 1893, and he is also mentioned by Ian Welch in his work on the Methodist Chinese Mission in Australia.

[Family group] [picture] (State Library of Victoria H2005.34/103)
All available evidence points to this lovely family photograph being the Tear Tack family, taken in the Inverell district some time between the years of 1893 and 1896. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location, the photograph is likely to have been taken either at Inverell, Tingha or perhaps at nearby Bundarra. The Tear Tacks’ youngest daughter, Alice Lucy, who does not appear in the photograph, was born at Bundarra in 1896 (NSW BDM reg. no. 2164). Therefore, we can probably assume that the date of the photograph is either 1894 or, at the very latest, early 1895.

To the best of this writer’s current knowledge, the people appearing in the photograph are (left to right):

  • Joseph Henry Tear Tack, born Inverell 1888 (NSW BDM reg. no. 26002)
  • the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack
  • Josiah William Tear Tack, born Inverell 1892 (NSW BDM reg. no. 17560)
  • Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young
  • Laura Matilda Tear Tack, born Inverell 1890 (NSW BDM reg. no. 16916)
  • Elizabeth Edith Tear Tack, born Inverell 1886 (NSW BDM reg. no. 24730).

The identity of the younger man standing back right is not known at this stage.

After working for some years in the Inverell/Tingha/Bundarra area, where their five children were born, the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack was sent by the church to Darwin in 1896. While living there he, Emma and their children survived a terrible cyclone that destroyed their house (‘Visit of a Chinese missionary to Lithgow‘, Lithgow Mercury, 5 June 1900, p. 2). Joseph was then sent to Cairns just at the turn of the twentieth century. There he was to establish a new mission and undertake Christian missionary work among the Chinese population in far north Queensland. Emma and children did not initially accompany him to Cairns, but shipping news indicated that ‘Mrs Tear Tack and five children’ sailed to Queensland from Sydney aboard the Aramac in November of 1900.

Tragedy struck the Tear Tack family not long after their arrival in Queensland, with Joseph Tear Tack dying of heart failure at Cairns in August 1901 (Qld BDM reg. no. C697). Joseph would have been approximately 53 years of age at the time of his death. Emma Tear Tack was only about 36 when she was widowed with five children. On 11 January 1902, a letter from Emma appeared in The Methodist under the title ‘Acknowledgement’. In it, Emma Tear Tack paid a moving tribute to her husband, Joseph, and thanked their many friends for their support in what she described as her ‘sore and heavy bereavement’.

Emma did not remarry and so remained a widow for the rest of her life. After her husband’s death, she returned to the support of her family of origin in Ballarat, Victoria, some time in 1903. She appears to have raised her five children there, before moving to Burwood, in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, at around 65 years of age (Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, Sands Street Index, 1861-1930).

Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young died on 28 October 1948 at 83 years of age at her home in Concord (NSW BDM reg. no. 27301). She is buried in the Field of Mars Cemetery at East Ryde in Sydney. A death notice published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 October 1948 noted that she was the loving mother of Elizabeth, Henry, Laura, Josiah, Lucy, and adopted daughters Marjorie and Molly.

Death notices for Emma Tack (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1948, p. 14)

I am very grateful to Kate Bagnall for originally posting the photograph of the Tear Tack family on her blog, to my cousin Etty Doyle Lang for pointing me in the direction of Kate’s post, and to the keen eye of Paul Macgregor who was the first to spot and recognise the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack in the photograph. I am also very much indebted to Paul for his encouragement, mentoring, collaboration and fine detective skills, and to our friend and colleague, Juanita Kwok, whom we also consulted in solving some of the mysteries initially presented by this photograph.

Gill Oxley
26 October 2016

In memoriam

On 18 June 1888, the following in memoriam notice appeared in the Newcastle Morning Herald:

LABBAYU.—In loving memory of my dear mother, Mary Ann Labbayu, who departed this life June 17, 1887, after a long and painful illness; aged 43 years.

It is just twelve months ago to-day
Since my dear mother passed away,
Since I stood by my mother’s side
And saw her breathe her last.

She faded like some southern flower
Parched by cruel rays;
And now beneath the dark, cold sod,
My dear mother lays.

Inserted by her loving daughter, Aggie Hop War, Newcastle.

According to her death certificate (NSW BDM 11450/1887), Mary Ann Labbayu, age 42, died at Watt Street, Newcastle, after suffering cancer of the uterus for three years. She was buried in the Catholic section of Sandgate Cemetery at Newcastle (Portion Catholic 1, Section D Com, Plot 389).

Mary Ann’s death left her two daughters, Sarah and Mary Agnes (Aggie), aged 21 and 19, parentless.

Four years earlier, on 6 September 1883, they had lost their father, Thomas Labbayu, in a riding accident near their home at Greta. Thomas’s accident and the subsequent inquest received a long write-up in the local Matiland newspaper. Thomas was buried at Branxton Cemetery, with a handsome headstone erected by his daughter Aggie and her husband. Mary Ann inherited her husband’s estate.

Thomas Labbayu’s death certificate (NSW BDM 8600/1883) gives some interesting particulars about his life. It says he was aged 46 at the time of his death (meaning he would have been born around 1837), he was originally from China, and had been in New South Wales for 20 years (so would have arrived around 1863). He had worked as a contractor.

But this information doesn’t quite tally with the details given at the time of his naturalisation a decade earlier, in January 1874, and it’s these earlier details that are probably more accurate.

Thomas’s naturalisation certificates states that he was from Armoa, China (presumably Amoy), that he arrived in New South Wales in 1853, and that he was aged 30 in 1874 (meaning he would have been born around 1844). In 1874 he working as a carpenter and fencer at Greta, near Branxton, and had purchased land (NSW Certificate of Naturalization No. 74/12, in the name Thomas Labbayn).

Mary Ann Coyle and Thomas Labbayu married in the manse at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, East Maitland, on 17 February 1868 (NSW BDM 2561/1868). At the time of their marriage they were living at Buttai and Thomas was working as a woodsplitter. Mary Ann had given birth to a daughter, Sarah, two years earlier (NSW BDM 10383/1866, registered under surname Coyle), and in the year of her marriage to Thomas, they had another daughter, Mary Agnes (Aggie) (NSW BDM 11567/1868). 

When their mother died in 1887, Sarah and Aggie Labbayu were both already married. They had married young: Aggie was sixteen when she married James Sydney Hop War, and Sarah was eighteen when she married James J.H. Ah Chee, both marriages taking place at Greta in 1883.

Sarah married again in 1886, presumably after the death of her first husband, to a man named William Coulton — it was ‘Sara J. Coulton, daughter of the deceased’ who was listed as informant on her mother’s death certificate.

With William Coulton, Sarah had two children, Herbert and Mary, born in 1887 and 1888 (NSW BDMs 30336/1887 and 31671/1888). I haven’t immediately located the birth of any children with her first husband, James Ah Chee, but an immigration file from 1909 mentions a ‘half-caste Chinese’ man named Ah Chee who was the nephew of Aggie Hop War (NAA: SP42/1, C1909/2915).

View down Watt Street, Newcastle (Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle)

More can be discovered about the Hop War family. James Hop War was a successful cabinetmaker in Newcastle, where he and Aggie established a home in Watt Street. They had four daughters: twins Eveline and Florence (b. 1884), Agnes Amy (b. 1887) and Gertrude (b. 1889). James Hop War was naturalised in 1882. His naturalisation certificate stated that he had arrived in New South Wales on the Isle of France in 1870 at the age of 17. In a letter to the newspaper in 1891, after certain accusations were made against him, James Hop War declared, ‘I have been a resident of Newcastle for 17 years, have a wife and four children dependent on me for support’. He appears to have been a prominent presence in the local Chinese community and acted as government interpreter.

Birth certificate of Gertrude Hop War, Newcastle, 1889 (NAA: SP42/1, C1909/2915)

James, Aggie and their children left New South Wales for Hong Kong in 1892. Some time after, James and Aggie’s marriage fell apart and James returned to Sydney in January 1904 while the rest of the family remained overseas (NAA: SP42/1, C1909/2915).

Versions of the family name that appear in the records are: Labbayu, Labbayue, Labbayn, Labayu, Labbayer, Lavyu.

Willie Sheen – born at sea, died by drowning

With the long summer holidays upon us again, we’re back at our local pool every day for a couple of weeks of swimming lessons for the kids. I’ve had one reluctant swimmer, who for a good long time refused to get her face or hair wet, and one little fish, whose propensity for holding her breath underwater has been quite unnerving at times. Growing up in Australia, we teach our kids to swim because it’s fun and a good form of exercise. We also teach them to swim to keep them safe.

According to Kim Torney’s Babes in the Bush (Curtin University Books 2005, p. 13), the most frequent cause of accidental death of children in colonial Australia was drowning. One boy to meet this awful fate was William Sheen.

In April 1862, the body of 10-year-old Willie Sheen was found floating in a deep part of the Macquarie River near Bathurst. Dr George Busby, the Bathurst coroner, held an inquest into his death, but there was no suspicion of foul play and the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘found drowned’.

The inquest, as reported in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, revealed some interesting details about this young boy’s short life.

'In the background is seen part of the town of Bathurst, with the towers of the Protestant and Catholic Churches appearing beyond the plain; nearer, and crossing the bed of the Macquarie River, parties of eager pilgrims may be observed with their dray loads of tools and provisions, entering the town after their long and tedious journey across the mountain ranges.' (State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/136967)
‘In the background is seen part of the town of Bathurst, with the towers of the Protestant and Catholic Churches appearing beyond the plain; nearer, and crossing the bed of the Macquarie River, parties of eager pilgrims may be observed with their dray loads of tools and provisions, entering the town after their long and tedious journey across the mountain ranges.’ (State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/136967)

According to evidence given at the inquest, Willie was the son of a Chinese man and a European woman ‘of the name of Shean’, and he was said to have been born at sea between California and New South Wales (Bathurst Free Press, 5 April 1862, p. 2).

If he was aged 10 in 1862, baby Willie and his parents would have arrived in Sydney in about 1852, some of the earliest ‘American’ arrivals to the NSW goldfields. The NSW gold rushes had began after Edward Hargraves and his assistants discovered the first payable gold near Bathurst in 1851, and Hargraves himself had recently returned from California.

Chinese miners in California (Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library,http://cdn.calisphere.org/data/13030/pj/hb6k4004pj/files/hb6k4004pj-FID3.jpg)
Chinese miners in California (Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, BANC PIC 1963.002:1399–B)

At the time of his death in 1862 Willie Sheen was living with a cousin of his father’s, a storekeeper, in Howick Street, Bathurst. Their store would have been one of the number of Chinese homes and businesses – stores, boarding houses, gambling shops – located there. By the mid 1870s the area was well-known as a ‘Chinese quarter’ or ‘Chinatown’ (Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser , 1 September 1877, p. 7Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 20 April 1886, p. 2).

Juanita Kwok, a PhD candidate at Charles Sturt University, is currently researching the Chinese history of Bathurst, from the 1850s to the 1950s.

Unfortunately Willie Sheen’s death certificate (NSW BDM 2463/1862) provides only a few more details. His father’s name was given as ‘A Chou’, a ‘Chinaman’, and his mother’s name was recorded as ‘Supposed Sheen’, the absence of detail suggesting that her son had probably not seen her for quite some time.

Ham Hop and the Poons of Yueshan — research trip update III

For the first ten years of her married life, Ham Hop lived the life of a gum saan po (金山婆 jinshanpo), a Gold Mountain wife. Soon after they had married in Hong Kong in 1900, Ham Hop’s husband returned to Australia where he was a produce merchant in Victoria. Exactly where and how Ham Hop spent the years between 1900 and 1910 is not clear, but in June 1910 her husband returned with permission to bring her to live with him in Australia for six months.

The Poon Gooey family, 1913
Ham Hop, her husband Poon Gooey and their two daughters just before the left Australia, 1913 (National Archives of Australia: A1, 1913/9139)

When they arrived in Melbourne in November 1910, Ham Hop was already about two months pregnant and so with the birth of her daughter falling at around the time she was meant to leave Australia, permission was granted for her to remain further, but just temporarily. Over the next two years, her exemption certificate was extended a total of five times (including because of a second pregnancy and the birth of another daughter), until she finally left Australia for good in May 1913.

Ham Hop’s case is one of the most-cited examples of the injustice and unfairness of the White Australia Policy in the early decades of the twentieth century — except mostly Ham Hop’s name doesn’t appear in such discussions. If she is referred to directly, it’s mostly as Mrs Poon Gooey or Poon Gooey’s wife, and her story is known as the Poon Gooey case. Yet this case is framed around some of the most personal and intimate of moments in a woman’s life — her betrothal and marriage, her reunion with her migrant husband, her pregnancies, the births of her daughters, her post-natal health, breastfeeding and the health of her newborn daughters. In the article I’m writing about the case I want to make her the centre of the story, not her husband, not the bureaucrats, not the law, not public opinion.

Records in Australia tell us only so much about the lives of Chinese who lived in Australia. In the case of Ham Hop, they tell us quite a lot about the three years that she was in Victoria, but what of the years before, when as a young woman she lived far apart from her husband, and of the years after. Snippets about Poon Gooey in Australian newspapers suggest that the family did go back to the village for a time at least, even though he seems to have been working in Shanghai in the mid-1920s. Ever-hopeful of research miracles, I decided to see what, if anything, I could find out in China. And so here I am.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been thinking about Ham Hop and Poon Gooey for quite some time now. Having first identified a name that I’m satisfied to call her, other than Mrs Poon Gooey, and establishing that her husband was from Kaiping, the next thing was to identify his home village.

Why his, I hear you ask, and not hers? Because it will be near impossible to identify where Ham Hop was from and even if I did, the likelihood of anyone there knowing anything about a woman who married out of their village more than a century ago is less than zero. In Australian records she is Ham Hop or Ham See or Hop Poon Gooey or Hope Poon Gooey. My best guess is that she was from Kaiping or maybe Taishan or Heshan, that her surname was Tan (譚) and her given name He (合), pronounced hup in Kaiping dialect.

There was more to go on to identify Poon Gooey’s origins — a passenger list that listed Poon Gooey’s origins as ‘Hoiping’, other Poons in Victoria from Kaiping, and student passports of Poon boys (held in the National Archives) that named the villages they came from — and using the various village databases I narrowed it down to a few particular villages. The villages are in Kaiping city, Yueshan town, Qiaotou village (開平市月山鎮橋頭村). I thought possibly, just possibly, someone in one of them might know something about what happened to Poon Gooey and his family after they returned to China one hundred and two years ago.

Jiayiyuan farm and guesthouse, Kaiping

In Kaiping I’m staying at an organic farm, Jiayiyuan (嘉頤圓), and Selia Tan and her husband joined me here for breakfast (congee, roasted sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, choy sum, a type of steamed cake called faat tay and fresh hot soy milk) before we set out for the villages. It was a good thing breakfast was so sustaining because it was afternoon tea time before we stopped for a break.

We hadn’t made any contact with the villages before turning up, so after turning off the main road we just drove until we spotted the gate of one of the villages I’d identified from the village databases, Zhongheli (中和里).

Old gate at the entrance to Zhongheli village, Kaiping
Painted decorations on the old village gate, Zhongheli village, Kaiping

Just turning up like this isn’t the most effective use of time if you have a really strict schedule and definitely want to contact relatives or see a particular family home while you’re in a village, but I think it’s more enjoyable to be able to wander at will, at least for a first visit. Getting the officials from the local Overseas Chinese Bureau involved takes away a lot of one’s freedom (my visit yesterday to Shiquli in Xinhui is a delightful but exhausting case in point — more on that in another blog post).

Abandoned houses in Zhongheli village, Kaiping
Altar in an abandoned house in Zhongheli village, Kaiping

Many of the houses in Zhongheli village looked like huaqiao houses, and most of them weren’t being lived in. We spoke to one lady who said that she’d married into the village more than 40 years ago and had never seen anyone return to visit these houses.

Handwritten copy of one branch of the Poon genealogy, Zhongheli village, Kaiping

Another man said that he’d be able to help us see a copy of the Poon genealogy and eventually we ended up in house of a very lovely older lady inspecting the copy of the genealogy her father-in-law had written out by hand many years ago. Unfortunately it was a copy of their direct branch only, and we didn’t find Poon Gooey’s name. From the dates of others listed in the genealogy, Poon Gooey is likely to have been of the 18th or 19th generation.

Winter rice fields with Zhaolongli village in the distance, Kaiping

It turns out that there are eleven little villages (里 li) in the larger village (村 cun) of Qiaotou, all home to people of the surname Poon/Pan (潘). As people returned from overseas, they would find a new bit of land and build a new huaqiao village. Then as those villages became abandoned again when people moved to Hong Kong or went back overseas, more new villages would be built by those people remaining in the area when they needed more housing.

Entrance gate to Zhaolongli village, Kaiping

So, armed with directions for another of the Australian Poon villages I’d identified, we set off again. From the records I’d seen in Australia, I reckoned that this village, Zhaolongli (肇龍里), was most likely to be where Poon Gooey was from (or perhaps where he built a house on returning from Australia in the 1910s). The layout and architecture in the village marks it very clearly as a huaqiao village and from the village entrance we could see a diaolou (碉樓) and the roofs of several yanglou (洋樓) poking out above the roofs of the other houses.

Village residents descended from Australian huaqiao, with Selia Tan, Zhaolongli village, Kaiping

We spoke to three gorgeous old men (with fantastic gold false teeth!) who told us that many, many people from Zhaolongli were Australian, but that their houses now mostly sat empty. In fact, they said, their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had all been in Australia, but they had no idea when they went or where they went to. They also told us that the village’s ancestral hall had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and all that remained was one of the front pillars.

Laneway between houses, Zhaolongli village, Kaiping

The village is set out very neatly, facing onto a pond, with front and back gates (門 men) on either side. The houses are lined up in a grid pattern, with a lane way between each two houses, for light and air and for circulation. Huaqiao villages like this, built in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, were usually built in a very orderly pattern, with a building code that regulated the size of the houses and their layout.

Abandoned yanglou in Zhaolongli village, Kaiping — note the tree growing out of the front wall
The largest of the yanglou in Zhaolongli village, Kaiping — it is two separate houses within the same building
Diaolou in Zhaolongli village, Kaiping

At the very back of Zhaolongli, backing onto the hill, are four yanglou. While most of the other houses are single storey, the yanglou are much taller — three or four storeys. The yanglou are all abandoned and already fallen into disrepair, but once they would have been truly beautiful. And sitting high on the hill, the view from the upper floors and roof would have been lovely. One of the houses is in particularly bad repair, as trees (figs, maybe) are growing in the walls and the roots are creating large cracks separating the front wall from the side walls. The Zhaolongli diaolou sits outside the back gate of the village. Its door was firmly shut so we didn’t go in.

The front row of houses in Nanjiangli village, Kaiping
River at the front of Nanjiangli village, Kaiping

The third village I had identified was Nanjiangli (南江里), which is situated right next to Zhaolongli, although the road into the village comes in from a different direction. Nanjiangli, as the name suggests, is on the banks of a small and rather pretty river. It is smaller than Zhaolongli, but laid out on a similar grid pattern (although there is a lane way between each house, not every two houses as in Zhaolongli). Many of the houses in Nanjiangli, those towards the back of the village, have two storeys. At the back of the village is one smallish yanglou (three storeys).

Stone marking the back of Nanjiangli village, Kaiping — such stones were used as shrines to ask for protection of the village’s women and children, something that was particularly necessary in huaqiao villages

Few of the houses in Nanjiangli are lived in — we counted about half a dozen — but there were some people around, including two elderly men cutting bamboo for firewood. They each had a radio, one playing Cantonese opera and the other playing a story. They didn’t know of any particular connection the village had to Australia, saying that people had gone to Hong Kong — but it’s likely that they were thinking of later generations, from the 1930s and after, and it’s possible that earlier generations had been in Australia (actually, I know they were from the student passport records).

Diaolou in Nanjiangli village, Kaiping
View over the village and river from the top of the diaolou, Nanjiangli village, Kaiping

Nanjiangli’s dialou is located outside the village gates, on a small hill. As we were clambering about through the bushes to take photographs, a man told us that it was open and that we should climb up to have a look. So we did. The stairs inside are concrete, narrow but sturdy. The diaolou, like many, is being used now for storing firewood and hay. We had hoped to be able to see over the roofs of Nanjiangli village from the top of the diaolou, but the view over the houses themselves was obscured by a beautiful grove of bamboo.

Rice fields, Zhaolongli village, Kaiping

No one in these Poon villages could tell me anything directly about Poon Gooey and his family, but the visit was definitely worthwhile. I’m confident now to say that Poon Gooey was from Qiaotou village, Yueshan town in Kaiping, and I think my initial feeling about Zhaolongli was probably right.

Putting the pieces together, I suspect that their life after leaving Australia went something like this. In 1913, they probably went back to Kaiping, perhaps built a house, then lost all the money they had brought back from Australia after a bandit attack (from their appearance, Selia Tan thought the two diaolou we saw would have been built in the 1920s, so they perhaps weren’t there when the bandits attacked Poon Gooey). Poon Gooey then returned to Australia to set the family’s finances back on track, coming and going between Victoria and China between 1914 and 1918, when he left Australia for the last time. In 1925, Poon Gooey was definitely in Shanghai, so it seems likely that the family were among the many Cantonese who moved to Shanghai around this time. From there, who knows.

Another satisfying thing about the visit is that I’ve worked out Poon Gooey’s name. In an early immigration document, his name is written as 潘如, while the Tung Wah Times wrote it as 潘巍. From the Cantonese and Mandarin the family name makes some sense being transliterated as Poon (pun in Cantonese, pan in Mandarin) and other common spelling variations I’ve seen in Australian records include Pon and Pong. In Kaiping dialect it is pronounced more like pwun, where the vowel sounds is like the ‘oo’ in book.

But the characters for Poon Gooey’s given name were either 如, which is pronounced yuh in Cantonese and ru in Mandarin, or 巍, pronounced ngaih in Cantonese and wei in Mandarin. Neither of these sounds much like Gooey. But, when pronounced in Kaiping dialect, the two characters sound more alike — 如 is pronounced nguey and 巍 pronounced ngai.

I think the proper characters for his name are therefore 潘如 (Pwun Nguey), since it sounds most similar to Poon Gooey and is the name written on a document Poon Gooey himself used when travelling to Australia in around 1900.

Christian church in Yueshan town, Kaiping — the church is still in use today

To finish off our visit to Yueshan, we went to the market town where there is a Christian church. Poon Gooey was a Christian, and fluent in English when he went to Australia in the 1890s. Other Poons in Australia were also Christian. I wonder whether the Poon Gooey family worshipped in this congregation sometimes?

First impressions of Celestial City

I’ve been keen to see the Musuem of Sydney’s new exhibition, Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story, since it opened last month. So, with two weeks of school holidays and three kids to amuse, it seemed that a trip to Sydney was in order. I hope to have a chance to write up some more detailed thoughts on the exhibition, particularly on its treatment of gender, but for now I’m going to give some quick impressions from our visit. Our party of seven included two adults (one historian, one non-historian) and five kids, ranging from age 4 to age 11.

One of the first things you see walking into the exhibition space are large reproductions of two of the best-known anti-Chinese cartoons, images that are (to my mind at least) racist and offensive. One, which depicts the Australian colonies as beautiful young women working together to dispose of ‘the Chinese pest’ in the form of the large, disembodied head of a Chinese man, particularly caught the little kids’ eyes. The other cartoon, the Bulletin’s notorious ‘Mongolian Octopus’, also caught their attention. On surrounding walls are other large reproductions of illustrations of 19th-century anti-Chinese activities. These images were a sudden and unfortunate introduction for the kids to an exhibition that claims to celebrate ‘the diversity of experiences and successes within the Chinese community’.

Racist cartoons at the start of the Celestial City exhibition

These images dominate the space so much that our only real conversation in the exhibition was about racist ideals of White Australia, not about the old and deep connections that tie Sydney to China and the Chinese to Sydney. Supervising the kids meant I didn’t get to read everything for myself, or even to take note of other objects or text that might have told this deeper story in the first part of the exhibition. But if I didn’t see it, the kids certainly didn’t either. (I do have photographs, though, which I’m going to refer to again – it’s just first impressions here.)

The only other item in the exhibition that really caught the little kids’ eyes was a labour contract written in Chinese. Three of the little kids are studying Chinese and have spent significant amounts of time in China. They keenly tried to spot words that they knew. From memory, there is only this one piece in the exhibition in Chinese (actually, now I think about it, there is also an article from a Chinese newspaper and a Chinese-English word book). It would have been great to see more Chinese language material included in the exhibition (and yes, it does exist), particularly as the museum seems keen to attract a Chinese-speaking audience (there is a Chinese-language version of the exhibition catalogue).

Kids examining a 19th-century Chinese labour contract, Celestial City exhibition

When interrogated the day after we saw the exhibition, my 8-year-old said that along with ‘those cartoons’, the thing she remembered from the exhibition was ‘the speaker with the Nomchong thing’, an oral history recording with Lionel Nomchong. She said she listened to a bit of it until her 4-year-old sister came and snatched it off her. Such are the perils of visiting museum exhibitions with (even littler) kids.

The 11-year-old gave the exhibition a much more considered look than the four younger ones. A little way into the exhibition, though, she told me she was confused, although she later said she had ‘mostly understood’ what it was about. Her favourite part was the bit on hawkers and market gardeners – she liked the objects that accompanied it. And she liked Margaret Tart’s Chinese jacket (but hadn’t understood who it belonged to or why she had it).

And as for the impressions of my non-historian friend and me? She thought Celestial City was ‘shallow’, with that shallowness mostly coming from the dominance of White Australian voices throughout the exhibition. White Australians saying how the Chinese were good, White Australians saying how the Chinese were bad. She also didn’t feel she had learned anything new, that the ‘Yellow Peril’ material didn’t really expand her understanding of what life was like for Chinese at the time. Largely that’s how I felt about the exhibition too.

Handprint and identity photographs on the wall of the Celestial City exhibition

I would have loved to see some of the more recent scholarship on Sydney’s Chinese communities being drawn into the exhibition (e.g. Mei-fen Kuo’s Making Chinese Australia), as well as newer theoretical approaches such as transnationalism. I also have some real concerns about the historical accuracy in parts, the language used (e.g. ‘influx’), and parts of the story that are omitted (which I’ll blog about separately when I’ve had time to think it through a bit more). I had wanted so much to love this exhibition – and there is some great material there, even an item or two that were new to me! – but overall I’m afraid we all came away disappointed. Sydney’s Chinese story is just as fabulous as the exhibition’s publicity hype says it is. Unfortunately this exhibition just doesn’t manage to convey it.

The transnational Chinese family in Australia

On 18 September 2013, I presented a paper on the transnational Chinese family in Australia as part of the Australia in the World seminar series organised by Marilyn Lake at the University of Melbourne.

You can read (a slightly revised version of) my paper (pdf, 1.3kb) or have a look at my slides.

My hunt through SP115/1: day 1

I spent today at the National Archives in Sydney, looking at records for my Paper Trails project. My helpful reference officer, Judith, had warned me that there were 77 boxes in SP115/1, the series I need to look through. On my arrival though she told me she’s miscounted and there were, in fact, about 140. I managed to get through about 28 today. I’ll be there for the rest of the week but I’m not sure I’ll get through the remaining 112 boxes in the next two and a half days!

Series SP115/1 contains documents relating to non-white people – mostly Chinese, but also Syrian, Indian, Japanese and others – arriving into Sydney between 1911 and the 1940s. The series is arranged by ship, with each item relating to a particular voyage. Although I’ve looked at particular items in this series before, this time I’m starting at Box 1 and looking through every file, all 1780 or so of them. You may well ask why.

Although most of the documents in the series are CEDTs, which can also be found in other series (mostly ST84/1), the papers relating to Australian-born Chinese are often unique and unable to be found elsewhere. Details about these individuals might be recorded in the Register of Birth Certificates (SP726/2), but the documents in SP115/1 can include original birth certificates and other statements about identity and family background. One nice find today is the 1902 Hong Kong birth certificate of Harold Hoong, son of Julum Hoong and Rosalie Kinnane, who were living in Yaumatei at that time (NAA: SP115/1, 04/02/1915 – PART 1). Early Hong Kong birth and marriage records were destroyed during World War II, so it’s nice to see one safe and sound. Other records relate to Harold’s Australian-born siblings William, Albert and Frederick.

As well as locating documents about Anglo-Chinese travellers I know about from earlier research, looking through the whole series is yielding people I haven’t encountered in other records. Today I’ve found about half a dozen new subjects – some from families I’d already identified, but others are completely new to me. Exciting.

I’m also making a record of all the Australian-born full Chinese (for my Threads of Kinship project) and any Chinese-born women (for a paper I’m working on about Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia).

A mother’s struggle

I have been wanting to write something for Women’s History Month. The Australian theme for 2013 is Finding Founding Mothers—looking at women involved in shaping the new nation in the fields of political, social, medical and educational reform. The women at the heart of my research don’t obviously fit with this theme—so instead of profiling an ‘important’ figure in the struggle for women’s rights from Federation, I’d like to tell the story of a woman whose life and death are an example of why those reforms, particularly those around health care and reproductive rights, have been so important.

Louisa Elizabeth Nichols was 32 years old when, on 24 July 1901, she took her husband’s revolver, walked outside her family’s home at Tarlo, near Goulburn, and shot herself in the head. Watching was her 11-year-old daughter, Lily, together with her other six children: Ruby (10), Ronald (9), Hilton (6), Elsie (4), Louisa (2) and baby Edith. That morning, Louisa had been up early feeding four-week-old Edith. When Lily got up, she helped her mother get her other siblings washed and dressed and ready for school. Louisa then asked Lily to take out a piece of paper to write something down, but Lily refused—her mother already had hold of the revolver and Lily knew what she was intending to do with it. Louisa kissed the children, then went out into the yard and killed herself. Young Lily called out to her father, who was sick in bed, and then ran to her neighbour for help. On hearing the shots, Charlie Ah Chong got out of bed, finding his wife dead and the children crying. When the neighbours arrived ten minutes later, there was nothing to be done.

Louisa and Charlie had been together for thirteen years, living first on Charlie’s garden in Goulburn itself and then, from about 1894, at Tarlo, just north of the town, where there were significant market gardens run by Chinese. Around the time of their move Louisa had ‘complained of her head’ and then two years before her death she had ‘taken bad again’—this timing perhaps coinciding with the birth of  daughter Louisa in 1899. Louisa used to talk strangely and seemed to believe that people hung about the place. Neighbour James Willis described her as eccentric, saying he believed that ‘she was wrong in her head’. He also often heard Louisa say that ‘she thought she would go mad on account of the way she was living’. Although the only person Charlie had spoken to about her condition was the local police, Louisa and Charlie seem to have been an amiable couple, never quarelling, even though they lived in hard conditions.

The coronial inquiry into Louisa’s death concluded that it was the result of a wound self-inflicted while temporarily insane. Reporting the case the Goulburn Herald noted that ‘There is nothing to show why the deed was committed’, but in retrospect it seems very likely that Louisa was suffering, and had previously suffered, from post-natal depression, or from some other form of mental illness. From the age of 21, Louisa’s life would have been almost completely consumed with child-bearing and mothering. Giving birth to seven children over 11 years, she would have been in a constant cycle of pregnancy and nursing, pregnancy and nursing, until she could cope no more.

There is one final, heart-breaking part of the story of Louisa’s death, which tells of how important Louisa was to her young family. For without her, they weren’t permitted to remain a family:

A pathetic scene, in connection with the recent suicide at Tarlo, was enacted in Sloane-street [Goulburn] this morning. Mrs Chong, the victim of this domestic tragedy, left behind her a family of seven young children, the eldest being a girl of 11 years, and the authorities deemed it wise on the ground of morality to place the children under State protection. They were brought into town to-day and despatched to Sydney by the 11.20 train. Quite a touching scene was witnessed on their removal from the police station to the railway station. The children, who are all very small, did not appear to realize why they were being taken away from their home, and their infantile struggles with two stalwart policemen attracted quite a number of people to the spot. The sight of the little ones holding on to their father’s coat and legs while the constables endeavoured with the greatest gentleness to disengage them was pathetic in the extreme. The distressed father showed a deep affection for his children, and was visibly affected. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 10 August 1901)

Sources

Suicide at Tarlo‘, Goulburn Herald, 24 July 1901, p. 3

Sad case of suicide at Tarlo‘, Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 25 July 1901, p. 2

A pathetic scene‘, Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 10 August 1901, p. 2

NSW birth registrations: 14112/1890, 14459/1891, 14848/1893, 22459/1895, 21813/1897, 21084/1899, 22239/1901 (Note: the children’s births were registered under the surnames Nichols, Nicholls and Nicholson)