Category: Photographs

‘That famous fighting family’

A little article of mine* appears in issue 9 of Inside History magazine (March–April 2012). The article discusses the experiences of Chinese Australians during World War I through the experiences of the Sam family from West Wyalong, New South Wales.

I first came across the Sam family in the file of youngest son, Percy, who travelled with his father to China in 1915. It was noted in their applications for exemption from the Dictation Test that a number of Percy’s brothers were serving in the First AIF – they were, in fact, at Gallipoli. It seemed such an irony that at the same time as his brothers were fighting for their country overseas, Percy was made to comply with the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act, something that suggested he was less than a true Australian.

The way that Chinese Australians were treated during World War I was full of contradictions. Some young men were able to enlist, others weren’t. I don’t mention it in the article, but Chinese nationals were required to register as aliens during wartime (and afterwards) – so there were also cases of Chinese fathers having to report to the police to register as aliens while their Australian-born sons were away fighting for country and empire.

Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to an online copy of the article, so if you’re interested you might just have to go and buy a copy of the magazine. 

Access a copy of the article from the link below:

* Kate Bagnall, ‘That famous fighting family‘, Inside History, issue 9, March–April 2012, pp. 37–40.

Ah Yin family of Adelong, c.1897

Every time I poke around in series NAA: SP42/1, I find something new and interesting that I hadn’t noticed before.

Today’s find is a photograph of the family of Ah Yin (or Ah Yen), who was a storekeeper at Adelong in southern New South Wales, and his wife, Ah Hoo (or Ah How). The family, with six children, left for China in 1897.

The file NAA: SP42/1, C1916/7308 PART 1 relates to a request for one of the Ah Yin daughters, Sarah (b. 1890), to be permitted to return to Australia in 1910.

More on Sarah Ah Yen’s return to Australia from the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1915.

Seeing the women and children

I’ve been thinking further about the possibilities of Tim’s wall of faces as a finding aid, as something to help both locate archival documents and to understand their context.

The series we used in our test (ST84/1) was one in which we knew there was a very high percentage of photographs. Each item contains ten certificates, most of which have both a front and profile portrait attached. There is a small amount of other paperwork included in some files, but not a whole lot. We therefore knew what sorts of things we were going to get back.

But what about if we apply the same facial detection technology to a series in which we aren’t so sure of the photographic content? Unfortunately, Tim’s current laptop isn’t up to the task of doing all the grunt work (donations, anyone?), but here’s what I reckon might happen when we are able to move on to other series.

With series like SP42/1 and B13, which hold applications for CEDTs and similar records, I know that there are photographs in many, even most, of the personal case files. (B13 is complicated because it also contains other Customs files that don’t relate to individuals and don’t relate to the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act.) Because files might hold applications for a family, or a parent and child/ren, or an uncle and nephew, or siblings, you don’t always know from the item title exactly who the file relates to. Also, those who were Australian born did not necessarily apply for CEDTs since they could travel using their birth certificates as proof of their right to return, meaning that they don’t appear in CEDT series like ST84/1.

It was usual practice, though, to supply photographs of each person who was travelling (whether on a CEDT or not), and so by extracting those photographs, you would be able to have a better impression about who files related to. Of course, for files that are digitised (or even not) you could go through each one individually (which I’ve done, believe me…), but think how much more fun it would be to scroll through a wall of beautiful faces!

With B13 it would also be useful because there is no separate series of CEDTs; they are mixed in with the application/case files. Facial detection could be a way of extracting the forms themselves from the larger files.

My main research interest is in families, and women, and children – and we know that women are often hidden in archives because of bureaucratic systems which gave priority to the men in their lives. Although there are many White Australia records which relate to individual women and children, they can be lost in files organised and catalogued under the names of husbands and fathers. But scroll through a wall of mostly male faces, and the women and children just leap out at you!

I’m feeling a bit impatient, really, about running SP42/1 and B13 through Tim’s facial detection script. There are so many, so very interesting possibilities.

The real face of White Australia

In October 1911, the Sydney Morning Herald published a short article under the headline, ‘An indignity: photographs and finger-prints’. The article discussed the situation of Charles Yee Wing, a wealthy and respected Sydney businessman, who had asked to be exempted from having to supply his handprint and photograph as part of the process of being issued a CEDT.

Yee Wing had travelled before and was well-known to Customs officials. In this case, the Customs Department was willing to dispense with the necessity of taking his fingerprints, but Yee Wing was still required to provide his photograph. As the Herald wrote:

Mr Wing is a merchant of some standing, held in high esteem by Europeans and Chinese alike, and it was supposed that in his case the notification would be a purely formal business, and that he would not, since everybody who has business relations with the Chinese community knows him, have to go through the process by which the officials identify on their return Chinese domicilied in Australia who have been for trips to their native land.

Yee Wing’s primary objection was that the officials insisted upon photographing him, in various positions, ‘just like a criminal’.

(This photograph of Charles Yee Wing was taken three years earlier in 1908, when he travelled to Fiji where he had business interests. It was the ‘profile’ photograph attached to his CEDT (Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test). NAA: ST84/1, 1908/301-310.)

Today our images are used to identify us in all sorts of situations—passports, drivers licences, student cards, work ID cards, building swipe cards and even online with sites like Twitter or Facebook. We have varying amounts of control over what images of ourselves are used in these contexts—I know that I have a couple of passports with photographs that I would rather had never seen light of day, and I hope that they aren’t the only images of me that survive for future generations! But we generally accept that these representations of ourselves are necessary. And we certainly don’t think when we head to the post office for a new passport photo that we are being treated ‘like a criminal’. So why did Charles Yee Wing feel that way?

A hundred years ago, few people had formal papers which stated their identity, and the use of photographs on such identity documents was still in its infancy. It wasn’t until World War I, for example, that countries like the United States and Britain developed passports specifically designed with a space for a photograph. But over the second half of the nineteenth-century, authorities had begun to use photographs for administrative purposes, particularly as technologies such as the carte de visite made photographs cheaper and more portable.

In Australia, authorities began using photographs in an ad hoc way to assist in the identification of Chinese entering Australia in the 1890s, perhaps even the 1880s, but by far the most common official use of the photograph at this time was in the photographing of criminals. In New South Wales, for instance, the keeping of gaol photograph description books commenced around 1870. Such mug shots were used by police in identifying and keeping track of criminals and, in fact, the close tie between this form of portrait photography and its criminal subjects led some to criticise its use—because it tainted the practice, and art, of photography more generally.

In 2005, the Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV), together with the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, launched what became a popular travelling exhibition, Forgotten Faces: Chinese and the Law. The exhibition presented large reproductions of gaol photographs of Chinese men imprisoned in Victoria between the 1870s and 1900, accompanied by brief biographical sketches drawn mostly from court and prison records. Dr Sophie Couchman, who knows more about photographs of and by Chinese Australians than any other person alive, was critical of the exhibition for ‘deliberately pulling photographs of Chinese prisoners from the wider prison archive’, thereby presenting the Chinese in colonial Victoria as both criminals and powerless victims of government bureaucracy (Couchman 2009, p. 122). Sophie futher noted that in doing this, the exhibition obscured the fact that Chinese were being treated in the same way as other residents of Victoria. In 2011, the PROV has put a selection of the images from the exhibition in its wiki, encouraging user contributions and plotting the subjects’ place of residence on a Google map.

A wall of faces

As part of our Invisible Australians project, Tim Sherratt has recently been experimenting with facial detection technology to automatically extract and crop photographs from CEDTs. You can read Tim’s discussion of what he’s done over at his blog. After extracting 7,000 photographs from Sydney series ST84/1, about a seventh of which is digitised in RecordSearch, Tim built an interface to display them as an interactive wall of faces. As Tim was putting it all together, I thought of Sophie’s critique of the use of photographs of Chinese people in the Forgotten Faces exhibition and of the way the images had been assembled together in rows as a kind of rogues gallery. I also thought of Charles Yee Wing’s comments a hundred years ago about the indignity of having to provide his photograph for a CEDT.

Could the same kind of criticisms be levelled at our wall of faces as at Forgotten Faces? Are we representing our subjects as more than passive victims of a racist bureaucracy? Are we using their images respectfully and decently? Are their images able to be understood by our contemporary audience? And how should we acknowledge the resistance and opposition of people like Charles Yee Wing?

I have been working with the CEDTs and other associated records (the ‘White Australia records’, for want of a better term) for about 12 years. The photographs are a significant part of what keeps me coming back to them—the photographs and the details about real people that are also found in the records. One of the challenges with writing about the early Chinese community in Australia has been to break through particular stereotypes, and one of the most powerful ways of doing this is through close-grained and detailed studies of individual lives. Yet uncovering those lives can be a difficult and time-consuming enterprise, for they were mostly ‘small lives’ which left only a faint trace scattered across the archive. The White Australia records provide an illumination of those lives, and are now widely used by families to uncover important and unknown information about their forebears.

When I began my research, the CEDTs and case files were not described individually in any catalogue or database, and they were certainly not online; the only ‘finding aids’ were the original handwritten indexes. I used to trek out to the archives, order up box after box after box, and look through the files one by one. In some instances I was the first person to have looked at the records for perhaps decades—the descendants of the men and women whose lives are recorded there knew nothing of the treasures the records held. But putting stuff online and allowing it to be discovered can have really meaningful results.

Since I put my PhD online, for instance, I’ve been contacted by a number of people who cite my research as the catalyst for their own journey of discovery into the families’ Chinese pasts—leading them to the White Australia records, which the National Archives has also done a lot of work on to make them more accessible. As Tim and I would both argue, online technologies and new digital methods really do provide significant and meaningful possibilities in providing access to, and ways of understanding, the lives documented in the White Australia records.

So what of our wall of faces? As Tim has noted, it’s not just an exhibition, it’s a finding aid. To me, this is the key. The wall of faces is another way of seeing into the records and into the lives of the individual men and women, the Australians, who were subject to the indignities of the White Australia Policy. Each image links to a copy of the document it was taken from, which then links to the digitised file in RecordSearch, which then links to other items in the same record series, which then links to other record series created by the same government agency—rich archival context.

But through the Invisible Australians project we also want to provide different links and detail other contexts. For instance, the first experimental version of our wall of faces is based on a small set of records, from Sydney and from the first decade of the 20th century. From this sample, we can see that most of those travelling from Sydney were Chinese men, but there were also non-Chinese and women and family groups. Records from other ports and other decades would produce a different pattern of faces—such as a greater proportion of younger or older people, more women and children, or a different ethnic make-up.

This first effort is certainly not perfect, and we’re already learning from it. We made the decision to leave the images at different sizes, and to widen out the crop so that you can see more than just the person’s face. We hope that this allows for some of the individuality in the images to come through—it’s not so neat perhaps, but maybe it’s also not so prescriptive. As Sophie Couchman has noted, the photographic portraits provided to the authorities by Chinese Australians were far from standardised, and many were studio portraits in which the subjects had a great deal of say in how they were represented. As Sophie has put it, they are ‘not so mug mugshots’. And we want our wall of faces to reflect that.

And now back to Charles Yee Wing

Among the images on our wall are the two portraits of Charles Yee Wing taken before his 1908 trip to Fiji. Those from his 1911 trip, when he made his objections known to both the authorities and the press, aren’t yet digitised. I have done a bit of research into Yee Wing’s family, finding a trove of files about his and his children’s travels over several decades. I don’t think, though, that I had come across this particular CEDT—a typo in the item title means that it doesn’t come up under a keyword search for ‘Yee Wing’. But I did find it browsing through the images in our wall.

Bibliography

[Family group] [picture]

One of the first things I learnt in my training in arrangement and description was the meaning of those neat square brackets—they tell you that the archivist has, heaven forbid, used or added something other than the record’s original title. This is often done to assist with searching for the item in a collection database, particularly if the original title is a bit obscure, or non-existant. So it was that I came upon an item in the State Library of Victoria’s catalogue titled:

[Family group] [picture]

As the catalogue description notes, this photograph shows a:

Family grouped in front of picket fence, woman seated with two little girls, and possibly a little boy in short petticoats, beside her, two men standing on either side of her chair, a little boy standing beside man on left. Weatherboard house in background, tiled roof, and pergola, vines growing along roof line of porch.

What isn’t noted (except in the subject keywords) is that this family looks to be Chinese. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the woman was of mixed heritage.

The photograph comes from the John Etkins collection, a private collection of around 2000 portrait photographs donated to the library in 2004. Inscribed in pencil on the back of the photograph is ‘[…] Wang in (?) Govt. Office / Inverell’. It is dated somewhere between 1880 and 1910.

Not much of a clue as to the family’s identity, but perhaps one day I’ll stumble upon something that tells me who they are.

  • Description: 1 photographic print on cabinet card : albumen silver ; 10.7 x 16.6 cm.; 1 photographic print : albumen silver ; 9.7 x 13.9 cm.
  • Identifier(s): State Library of Victoria, Accession no(s) H2005.34/103.
  • Persistent link: http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/45774

Taishan twins

This afternoon I stumbled upon something completely intriguing.

Regular readers will know that one of my research obsessions concerns the mixed race children of Chinese men who went to live in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the people I’ve been researching have white Australian (or New Zealand) mothers and Chinese fathers, but there were certainly children with other backgrounds who similarly went to live in their fathers’ homeland – including Aboriginal-Chinese, Mexican-Chinese and Hawaiian-Chinese.

I know from a range of sources that these children were in China and I have photographs of many of the Australians among them. But images of them actually IN China are a rarity. My afternoon’s find of two photographs is something pretty cool then.

The images are part of the photographic archives of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers (Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, Inc.) made available online through the University of Southern California Digital Library. The Maryknoll Catholic mission in China began in 1918, and was based in Jiangmen (one of the overseas Chinese qiaoxiang districts). Because of copyright restrictions I don’t think I can actually show you the two photographs of interest, but I can tell you about them.

The two photographs were taken at Father McDermott’s mission in Taishan in 1934 and 1935. They show a pair of twin boys, aged around five or six years old. The captions say that the boys are of African-Chinese heritage.

Have a look:

The captions say little else about the boys, no names and nothing about how they came to be at the mission. Were they orphans? Were they the children of a Chinese convert? Did they attend school there? Who was their mother? Where had they been born? How long had they been in China? What became of them?

This last question, at least, can be answered for one of the boys. A poignant note on the back of the later photograph, written in Father McDermott’s hand, notes that the lad ‘went to Heaven on Pentecost Eve’.

Photos from NZ certificates of registration

Archives New Zealand has just put online a small collection of photographs of early Chinese settlers, men who lived in Otago in the late 19th/early 20th century. The online exhibition is called Chinese Portraits.

The photographs were attached to the men’s certificates of registration, the New Zealand equivalent of Australia’s CEDTs (and their colonial predecessors). The original records are held by Archives New Zealand’s Dunedin office.

You can also read about the project in the Otago Daily Times.

Transnational ties

An article of mine has just come out in a new volume called Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World, edited by Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott and published by ANU E Press. The book is the result of a great conference, Transnational lives/Biography across borders, that was held at the Humanities Research Centre at the ANU in July 2006.

My article, ‘A journey of love: Agnes Breuer’s sojourn in 1930s China’ explores a ‘scandal’ involving a young white Queensland woman, Agnes Breuer, who went to China with her Chinese husband in the early 1930s. (Their picture, together with their baby son, is featured on the front cover of the book.)

The couple had married contrary to the wishes of both their families, and Agnes found a very cold reception from her father-in-law on her arrival in China. Wishing to return to Australia, but with an infant son to look after, Agnes’ plight was exaggerated to the Salvation Army in Hong Kong – and she was ‘rescued’ under dramatic circumstances.

I first came across the story in John Sleeman’s White China, but he doesn’t mention Agnes Breuer’s name, or that of her husband, except as ‘Low Mun’. It took a bit of lateral thinking and a ship’s passenger list to find the family’s real name – Lum Mow. Sleeman had referred to a statement given by Agnes to Australian Customs officers when she returned to Australia, so I figured that there had to be some material in the National Archives about it all. More lateral thinking uncovered a file about her husband, known to most in Australia as William Lum Mow – but the file was listed under his Chinese name, Lum Wie. It was one of those lovely fat departmental files that contains correspondence and news clippings and all sorts of treasures.

More pieces of the puzzle fell into place when I managed to track down both Agnes Breuer’s granddaughter and William Lum Mow’s neice, who had themselves only recently made contact. Much thanks therefore has to go to Liz McNamee and Jenny Showyin for their generosity in sharing what they knew about the story of Agnes and William. Of particular value to me were the photographs, letters and other documents of Agnes Breuer’s that her granddaughter still had. The photographs are particularly wonderful, with a handful of pictures taken in China in 1932 during Agnes’ trip and many more of Agnes and William and their friends in and around Townsville in 1931. A detail from one of my favourites of Agnes and William is below.

Minority miners from the State Library NSW

The State Library of New South Wales’ Eureka! The rush for gold web feature includes some interesting material about the Chinese in the section titled Minority miners.

There are links to digitised photographs, paintings and sketches, and images of a most intriguing gold medal from the State Library’s collection. The medal was presented to a goldfields warden in Braidwood in 1881 as a ‘mark of esteem’ by Chinese miners.

The text that goes with these images gives a brief and fairly typical account of the Chinese on the southern Australian goldfields – telling a story of anti-Chinese sentiments, violence, poll taxes, Lambing Flat, anti-Chinese legislation, as well as introducing the exception to all the stereotypes, Quong Tart (there are links to Tart family papers also held by the Library.)

It’s nice to see some of the State Library’s Chinese stuff being highlighted, but it’s a pity that people can’t seem to get past the idea that there isn’t anything more to the story of the goldfields Chinese than rivalry, misunderstanding, prejudice and discrimination. The gold medal, just by itself, suggests that the story is much more complex than that.