Chin Sheng Geong and George Ah Len

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1868 ‘THE CHINESE AND ABORIGINAL MISSIONS’, Mount Alexander Mail, 14 November, p. 2,

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

1868 ‘THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN VICTORIA’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 3 December, p. 2,

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

1868 ‘THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AND THE CHINESE’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 17 November, p. 2,


George Ah Lin was a Chinese missionary at Beechworth.

1870 ‘No title’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 20 October, p. 2,


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

1872 ‘NEW ZEALAND’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 1 August, p. 2,

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

1872 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE’, Argus, 17 August, p. 4,



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

1874 ‘No. 5. LIST OF UNCLAIMED LETTERS FOR THE MONTH OF FEBRUARY, 1874’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 30 March, p. 969,

William Johnson, ‘Harts Stairs, Essex Street’, 1900, Queen Street ran off Essex Street.


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

1875 ‘PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October, p. 5,

George Ah Len worked as missionary in Sydney.

1875 ‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE GRAFTON ARGUS’, Grafton Argus and Clarence River General Advertiser, 11 January, p. 2,

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

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


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

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

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

1876 ‘PRESBYTERIAN ASSEMBLY OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November, p. 3,

1876 ‘PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March, p. 7,


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

1877 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE’, Telegraph (Brisbane), 18 April, p. 2,

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


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

George Ah Len’s naturalisation certificate, 1878

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

1878 ‘EXECUTION OF ING CHEE’, Queanbeyan Age, 1 June, p. 1,

1878 ‘Government Gazette Notices’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 31 May, p. 2171,

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

1878 ‘Advertising’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August, p. 6,

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

1878 ‘NEW GUINEA’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 August, p. 5,

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

1878 ‘NEWS OF THE DAY’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October, p. 5,

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

1878 ‘DEPUTATION OF CHINESE MERCHANTS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December, p. 7,


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

1879 ‘Advertising’, Evening News, 2 January, p. 1,

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

1879 ‘Chinese Influence on Chinese’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 8 February, p. 13,

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


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

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


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

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


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

1885 ‘THE PRESENTATIONS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December, p. 7,


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


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


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


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

1889 ‘Family Notices’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April, p. 1,

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

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.

‘Can a Chinaman get naturalised?’

On 6 November 1925, the Land newspaper featured the following on its ‘Answers to Questions’ page.

The Land was indeed correct in its answer. In 1925, Chinese aliens (non-British subjects) could not be naturalised in Australia, no matter how long they had lived here.

Five years earlier the Nationality Act 1920 had replaced the Naturalization Act 1903, removing the racial barrier to the naturalisation of Asians. However, after 1920 the Australian government continued with its policy of preventing Asians from being naturalised. This did not change until 1956 when concessions were brought in for long-term residents.

Finding your Chinese roots

For Australians whose Chinese ancestors arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tracing the family history back to China can be a real puzzle.

Whether you’re simply curious about your Chinese origins or are wanting to visit your ancestral village in China, there are two things you need to know – your Chinese ancestor’s name in Chinese characters and their village and county of origin.

Here you will find some suggestions for using Australian records to find these critical pieces of information.

You can also download a printable pdf of this post.

Chinese origins

Most Chinese who arrived in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from the rural Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, south of the provincial capital of Guangzhou, north of Macau and inland from Hong Kong. A smaller number of Chinese migrants came from other parts of Guangdong province and from Fujian province (through the port of Xiamen, known historically as Amoy), as well as from other places such as Shanghai.

This post concentrates on Cantonese migrants who came from the Pearl River Delta.

Cantonese migrants came from a number of different areas in the Pearl River Delta, including:

  • Sam Yup (Sanyi, meaning the ‘three districts’): Namhoi (Nanhai), Poonyu (Panyu) and Shuntak (Shunde)
  • Heungshan (Xiangshan), later known as Chungshan (Zhongshan)
  • Tongkun (Dongguan)
  • Changshing, Tsengshing (Zengcheng)
  • Koyiu (Gaoyao) and Koming (Gaoming)
  • Sze Yup (Siyi, meaning the ‘four districts’): Sunwui (Xinhui), Sunning (Xinning) or Toishan (Taishan), Hoiping (Kaiping) and Yanping (Enping).

The Cantonese migrants spoke a range of dialects including: standard Cantonese, Cantonese variations such as Shekki dialect, Longdu (Zhongshan Min) dialect, Sze Yup dialects such as Taishanese, and Hakka. The earlier Amoy Chinese spoke Hokkien.

Source: Him Mark Lai Digital Archive,

The big stumbling block

To successfully track your family back to China you ideally need your ancestor’s name and their village and district of origin in Chinese characters. If your family migrated to Australia more recently and this information is known within the family, you have a tremendous advantage. If you don’t have this information, you will need to try and work it out from records available in Australia. This can be very tricky.

Until the twentieth century there was no standard way of romanising the various Chinese languages and dialects. Because of this, and because Chinese in Australia spoke different sorts of Cantonese, there is a lot of variation in how personal and place names are recorded in Australian English-language sources. Only rarely are Chinese characters to be found. The discrepancies in how Chinese names were written down in colonial Australia are not necessarily an indication of racist or uncaring attitudes toward the Chinese, but more a reflection of the fact that nobody, including the Chinese themselves, knew how to spell the names ‘properly’ in English.

Personal names

Chinese personal names usually comprise three characters, with one being the family name and two being the given name – for example, 鐔梅玲 Tam Moyling. A few Chinese family names comprise two characters (e.g. O’Young, Seeto), and sometimes a given name comprises only one character.

Although the characters remain the same, the pronunciation of a name changes depending of the dialect spoken. For example, the two-character surname 司徒 is pronounced Situ in Mandarin, Seeto in Cantonese and Soohoo in Sze Yup. The common family name 陳 is pronounced Chen in Mandarin, Chan/Chun in Cantonese, Chin in Hakka, and Tan in Hokkien.

Chinese personal names were recorded in many different ways in Australian records and, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at least, rarely was a name written down ‘correctly’. A person’s name might have been recorded with multiple spelling variations – for example, one early Sydney resident was recorded as Man Sue Bach, Mum Shou Pac, John Ah Shue Bach, John A. Sue Bach, John Ah Sue and John a Shue.

Because of the different word order (surname first in Chinese but last in English), many Chinese given names came to be used as surnames in English – for example, Wong Chun Bun might became known as Jimmy Chun Bun and his children registered under the surname Bun.

Many, many Chinese personal names also include ‘Ah’ or ‘A’. This represents the character 阿, which is a prefix added to a given name as a familiar or informal form of address, much like adding ‘ie’ or ‘y’ to the end of a name in English (Ann to Annie, Tom to Tommy).

Petition of Chinese residents of Melbourne, 1857. Source: PROV VPRS 1189/P0, unit 482,

While sometimes confusing, romanised versions of personal and place names can tell us helpful things. For example, personal names written with a ‘sl’ or ‘shl’ or ‘thl’ sound at the beginning (like Dang Bown Sluey or Slit Schin) suggest that these people were likely to be from Taishan, as this sound is particular to Sze Yup sub-dialects rather than standard Cantonese.

Or, a woman’s name that includes a ‘See’ or ‘Shee’ (氏) usually gives her father’s family name and indicates that the woman was married – a bit like the term née. Ham See, for example, would be a married woman who was born into the Ham (鐔) family – Ham would be her father’s, not her husband’s, surname.

Emma Woo Louie has written on Chinese American names, much of which applies in the Australian context. Her book is Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition (McFarland & Company, 2008). A preview of the book is available from Google Books. She has also published articles on the subject in the Chinese Historical Society of America’s journal Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

For more on overseas Chinese names see:

  • ‘Chinese names’ on the Chinese-Canadian Genealogy website:
  • Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2006 – Section 4: Belonging (starts on
  • Kate Bagnall, ‘The trouble with spelling Chinese names’, Tiger’s Mouth [blog], 12 February 2013:
  • Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales 1850–1950, New England Regional Art Museum, 2004
  • Jon Kehrer, ‘Who was “John Chinaman”’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 24, no. 4, December 2001, pp. 201–205
  • Jon Kehrer, ‘Honourable ancestors: My search for the Chinese connection’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 27, no. 4 December 2004, pp. 328–333
  • Gary Presland, ‘Some difficulties in researching Chinese ancestry’, in From Gold to Federation: Papers from the Fourth Victoria Family State Conference, ed. Noelle Oke, Penfolk Publishing, Melbourne, 2001.

Place names

The native place of many Chinese is recorded in Australian sources as Canton – which variably refers to the province of Guangdong or the capital city of Guangzhou. However, most migrants came from the rural counties outside the capital, rather than the city itself. Unfortunately if ‘Canton’ is all the information you can find about your ancestor’s origins you will probably not be able to progress your research much further.

More occasionally county, city, town or even village names are recorded: Sunning, Sun Wui, Heung Shan, Amoy, Shekki, Kongmoon, Lee Yuan, Chuk Sau Yuen or Bak Shek, for example. Sometimes it’s easy to identify these places, sometimes it’s not. The smaller the place, the harder it can be to identify, but the more useful it will be if you eventually work out where it is.

The trick is to be able to translate from the old romanised version of a place name to how it is known today. The Cantonese city known in Mandarin today as Jiangmen (江門), for instance, might have been written Quong Moon, Kong Mun, or Kongmoon.

There are several words that often appear as the last syllable in village names that it can be useful to recognise:

  • choon or toon – 村 cun, meaning ‘village’
    g. 南潮村 Nam Chew Toon
  • lee or lay – 里 li, meaning ‘village’
    g. 南勝里 Nam Sing Lay
  • yuen – 園 yuan, meaning ‘garden’
    g. 竹秀園 Chuk Sau Yuen.

You can use clues you find in other records, such as distance from a larger town or physical characteristics of the place, to help narrow down your search for your particular village. If you know your ancestor’s surname you can also cross-check village names with the surname. The following database of village names is useful for this purpose:

The ‘Location, location, location’ section of the Chinese Genealogy forum ( is an excellent place to read up how others have gone about identifying and locating their ancestral villages.

If your ancestor came from Taishan, Xinhui or Zhongshan counties, you might find relevant information in the material produced by a project undertaken by the Asian Library at the University of British Columbia that identified the village and town of origin of Chinese migrants to Canada. Many migrants to Australia came from the same places as those who went to Canada. See:

Australian sources to consult

The following records are places where you are more likely to find personal names and village origins in Chinese characters.


A headstone in Chinese often provides the person’s name and place of birth in China. See:

Chinese graves in the old Chiltern cemetery, Victoria

Birth, death and marriage records

You should obtain Australian marriage and death certificates for the original Chinese ancestor, as well as birth certificates for their children and death certificates if the children died young. Sometimes a Chinese groom or father will have signed his name in Chinese characters and the birthplace will be more specific than just ‘Canton’ or ‘China’.

Immigration, travel and alien registration records

Immigration and travel records, as well as alien registration records, might contain details of people’s place of origin and their name in Chinese. Twentieth-century travel documents issued to Chinese Australians under the Immigration Restriction Act and related records are held by the National Archives of Australia. ‘Aliens’ (people who were not British subjects) were required to register with the government from World War I. These records are also held by the National Archives and can contain Chinese signatures, information about place of birth and so on.


Naturalisation records

Some Chinese migrants became naturalised British subjects in the colonial period, and their application forms and certificates can include details such as place of origin and their original signature in Chinese. Naturalisation applications, rejected applications and cancelled and confiscated naturalisation certificates are found in state archives and in the National Archives of Australia.

Chinese newspapers

From the 1890s, Australia’s Chinese communities had their own Chinese-language newspapers, including the Chinese Australian Herald and the Tung Wah Times. The Tung Wah Times has been indexed in English, which allows you to search without knowing Chinese. The index can be helpful in identifying articles that might include an ancestor’s name in Chinese.

The major early Australian Chinese-language newspapers are also available through the National Library of Australia’s discovery service, Trove. If you have located names in Chinese characters you can search the newspapers even if you only have basic Chinese language skills. See:

Chinese student records

In the early twentieth century, young Chinese were allowed to come to Australia to study. Most who came were the children or relatives of people already living here. These students were issued with special Chinese student passports that included their name and place of origin in Chinese characters as well as in English. Many of these passports are held in immigration files in the National Archives of Australia. On how you might be able to use these passports to identify your ancestor’s village of origin, see:

Application for a Chinese student passport for Wong Ching Hung, 1923. NAA: A1, 1927/2279,

Beyond the paywall

This morning I have put a pdf copy of my latest publication up on my website, and it should also soon be available through the University of Wollongong’s Research Online digital repository. These facts don’t seem very remarkable, except that this week I’ve had to assert my rights to be able to do so.

The original contributor agreement I signed for this publication fitted with my desire for my research to be available to as many people as possible – not held prisoner behind a paywall or buried in an unafforable hardcopy volume. Turns out, the book is an unafforable hardcopy volume, published by Routledge – but at least I would be able to make my chapter available. Or so I thought.

The original publisher of the book, Ashgate, was taken over by Taylor & Francis at some point in the book’s gestation, hence why it has come out through Routledge (part of the Taylor & Francis group). In the original contributor agreement with Ashgate, I retained the following rights as author:

  • to photocopy the work for my own use
  • to excerpt the work and/or develop the content in a new publication, providing due acknowledgement was made of the original publication
  • to include the work in a collection of my own previously published work, providing due acknowledgement was made of the original publication
  • to upload the published version of the chapter to my institutional repository and/or my personal website, with full publication details of the book – and Ashgate would send a pdf of the published version on request.

This week I contacted Taylor & Francis to request the pdf copy of my published chapter. I was told by Taylor & Francis that I needed to sign another form, a Professional Academic Licence Agreement, before they would provide me with the pdf. This form stated that the pdf (the ‘original files’) would be provided for academic use at my institution, but that I could not:

  • use the original files for any personal, non-commercial purpose
  • use the original files for any commercial purpose
  • make the original files available to anyone [!?!]

It also stated that Taylor & Francis would take legal action should ‘illegitimate copies of the work be distributed’ by me or any third party. Nice.

This was clearly not what I had agreed to when I signed the original Ashgate agreement, so I questioned it. After a couple of emails back and forth with Taylor & Francis, I was sent the pdf in an email that stated:

‘I gather that the department that deals with this sort of thing generally expects a new licence to be signed, but they have agreed to work with your Ashgate agreement, so have supplied the attached file.’

So they should.

P.S. I’d like to add that I’m really pleased that the book’s editors included my work in the volume, and I thank them for their effort in putting the collection together. I’m still waiting on my author’s copy to arrive, but am looking forward to reading it cover to cover.




2016 in review

In January 2016 I took up a 0.8 FTE appointment as ARC DECRA Research Fellow in the School of Humanities & Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Law, Humanities & the Arts at the University of Wollongong. Here’s a look at some of what I’ve been doing this year.


  • DIY Trove list exhibition – I developed a small and experimental online exhibition about the Chinese community in New South Wales before 1940, using a new platform developed by Tim Sherratt.
  • Public talk at the National Library of Australia – On 24 January I delivered a public lecture to around 80 people at the National Library on Australia’s Chinese communities in the Qing era, and did a Q&A for the library’s blog.


  • Symposium on the Commonwealth Department of Immigration: Then and Now – By invitation I presented a paper, titled ‘A culture of suspicion: Chinese at the border of White Australia’, at this one-day symposium, convened by Gwenda Tavan, at La Trobe University on 19 February. The keynote speaker was Robert Manne, and other participants included Kim Rubenstein, James Jupp, Tim Sherratt and Mary Tomsic.
  • Travel planning – I spent quite a lot of time this month in planning and organising travel, both for my research trip to Canada in July and August 2016, and for the Hometown Heritage Tour, which is planned for March 2017.


  • Opening of ‘Modernity’s End: Half the Sky’– I was the guest speaker at the opening of this exhibition by accomplished Chinese Australian artist John Young Zerunge, held at the Incinerator Art Space, Willoughby, on 2 March 2016. I also prepared an essay, ‘Women, history and the shifting patterns of Chinese Australian life’, for the exhibition catalogue.
  • Induction – I attended a one-day academic induction session run by the Professional and Organisational Development Services at University of Wollongong on 1 March 2017.
  • Writing – I wrote and submitted a draft of my chapter ‘ “To his home at Jembaicumbene”: Women’s cross-cultural encounters on a colonial goldfield’ for a collection titled Migrant Cross-Cultural Encounters in Asia and the Pacific, edited by Jacqueline Leckie, Angela McCarthy and Angela Wanhalla (Ashgate Publishing, forthcoming 2017).
  • Advice to Australian Dictionary of Biography – Through Carolyn Rasmussen (University of Melbourne & member of the National Editorial Board of the ADB), I provided suggestions of Chinese Australians who might be included in future volumes of the ABD.


  • Writing – I revised and resubmitted my chapter for the Migrant Cross-Cultural Encounters book following comments from the book editors, ordered images from the State Library of NSW and chased up pesky copyright permissions.
  • Chinese Anzacs consultancy – I undertook a small consultancy with the Chinese Museum in Melbourne to identify any as-yet-unknown Chinese Anzacs from New South Wales. I found four more men to all to their list.
  • Early Career Research Presentations with the Vice Chancellor – On 18 April I spoke at the UoW Faculty of Law, Humanities & the Arts ‘Early Career Research Presentations with the Vice Chancellor’, outlining my career path to date, my research interests and my new DECRA project. My talk was titled: ‘History, archives and Chinese Australian lives’.
  • School of Humanities & Social Inquiry Research Week presentation – On 20 April I spoke at the UoW School of Humanities & Social Inquiry ‘History Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers Presentation’ on ‘The naturalisation of Chinese migrants to Australia, Canada and New Zealand from the 1860s to 1920’.
  • Early Chinese Australian newspapers – A post I wrote for the Trove blog in 2015 was republished in Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, vol. 7, 2014–2015.
  • Seminar at Society of Australian Genealogists – I gave a 2-hour research seminar at the Society of Australian Genealogists in Sydney on 30 April 2016. The presentation, titled ‘Researching Chinese Australian family history’, covered: the history of Chinese Australian families, Chinese Australian names and hometowns, and sources to use in researching Chinese Australian family history. The seminar was attended by about 40 people, some who had travelled from as far as Port Macquarie and the Hunter Valley to attend.


  • PhD scholarship – I prepared and advertised for a PhD in Overseas Chinese History attached to my DECRA, and responded to inquiries from potential applicants. The funding for the 3.5-year scholarship is provided by the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts at UOW.
  • Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour – Together with Active Travel (Canberra), I finalised the tour itinerary, prepared the advertising brochure and released the tour for bookings. It was booked out within 24 hours, with further names on a waiting list.
  • Writing – I spent a lot of May working on my chapter on Ham Hop and the ‘Poon Gooey case’, which is my contribution to the book on Chinese Australian women that Julia Martinez and I are co-editing.
  • Training and seminars – I attended a number of courses and seminars this month: UOW Induction (UOW); Introduction to Project Management (UOW); launch and discussion of Ann McGrath’s Illicit Love: Interracial Sex and Marriage in the United States and Australia (ANU); Biography Workshop: Paul Pickering on ‘Understanding prosopography’ (ANU).
  • Networking – At the invitation of Li Tana (ANU) I met with two Chinese historians, FEI Sheng and YUAN Ding from Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, who were on a research visit to Australia looking for sources on early Chinese migrants to Australia.


  • Colonial and Settler Studies Network activities – I attended a public lecture by Professor Ann Curthoys titled ‘Looking for gender? Writing Aboriginal-settler relations into Australian political history’ on 16 June, which resonated with me as a feminist historian now working on a project that is essentially about men. The lecture was followed by the launch of Claire Lowrie’s new book, Masters and Servants, Cultures of Empire in the Tropics (Manchester University Press, 2016).
  • Work-in-progress reading group – The chapter I am writing on Ham Hop was workshopped by our UOW History work-in-progress reading group, with lots of helpful comments on how to strengthen the argument and refine the focus of the chapter.
  • Writing – I prepared my talk and slides for the ISSCO 2016 conference.


I spent July in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where I:

  • participated in an invitation-only workshop on the ‘Cantonese Pacific in the Making of the Modern World’ at the University of British Columbia
  • gave a paper at the ISSCO 2016 conference in Richmond
  • researched at the BC Archives and City of Victoria Archives in Victoria, and at the UBC Library (Chung Collection) and City of Vancouver Archives in Vancouver.

For more detail see the blog post I wrote about my Canada research trip, July 2016.

Other activities included:

  • Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour – I met with Dr Selia Tan to discuss plans for the Jiangmen, Kaiping and Taishan components of the Hometown Heritage Tour.
  • Who Do You Think You Are? – I provided information about Chinese on the Australian goldfields (in particular on Chinese and the law) to Rosalind Hill, a researcher with Wall to Wall who are producing the next UK series of Who Do You Think You Are?
  • Talk cited and blog posts republished – The Parramatta Heritage Centre published a blog post and a guide to Researching Chinese family history in Australia which incorporated material I presented at the Society of Australian Genealogists earlier in the year; Jan O’Connell republished (with permission) my blog post on Chinese Christmas boxes on her Australian food history blog; my Trove blog post on early Chinese Australian newspapers was republished (with permission) in the 2014–15 issue of Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies.


  • UOW Research Online – I uploaded digital copies of my publications to UOW’s Research Online.
  • ABC International interview – On 11 August I did an interview with ABC International journalist Jason Fang about Charles Lee, Australia’s first Chinese Australian diplomat, to coincide with the opening of the Chungking Legation exhibition on at the Chinese Museum.
  • Seminar on content-based image retrieval – On 19 August I attended a seminar by Associate Professor Lei Wang from UOW on ‘Content-based image retrieval’, discussing a prototype archival photograph retrieval system he has developed using digitised photographs in the National Archives of Australia collection.
  • Whisper Workshop 2016 – On 29 August I participated in the Whisper Workshop 2016, organised by Jonathan O’Donnell (@researchwhisperer) and Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer), and held at the ANU. This invitation-only workshop brought together 25 key people interested in linking universities and creative and cultural industries.
  • Writing – I reviewed page proofs and answered indexing queries for my book chapter ‘To his home at Jembaicumbene’ for the Migrant Cross-Cultural Encounters book.
  • Naturalisation database – I started the process to employ Dr Karen Schamberger as my research assistant to help with data entry for my naturalisation database and other research tasks.


  • Teaching – I gave a talk about an interesting historical source to Jane Carey’s HIST274 Hands On History class on 7 September. I also did supervision with my MPhil student.
  • History Week talk – On 7 September I gave a public talk at Corrimal Library as part of NSW History Week. The talk, titled ‘From Canton to the colonies: Chinese women in 19th century New South Wales’, was attended by about 65 people and very well received with a great Q&A session and discussion afterwards.
  • Research – I visited the National Archives in Canberra and started photographing all the certificates in NAA: A806 (‘cancelled’ NSW certificates of naturalisation).
  • ACHRC Humanities in the Regions – By invitation I spoke at the Australian Consortium of Humanities Research Centres (ACHRC) ‘Humanities in the Regions: Building Capacity Through Connectivity and Knowledge’, held at UOW on 28–29 September. I spoke about my career path from PhD to DECRA and about writing the ROPE (Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence) section of my DECRA application.
  • Chinese women book proposal – Julia Martinez and I prepared and sent off a proposal for Hong Kong University Press for our co-edited book on Chinese women, which is now tentatively titled Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility Between Australia and China. The proposal was well received and we are working to submit the manuscript by Christmas.
  • Networking – On 21 September I met with Kim Rubenstein (Professor of Law at ANU) and her recently graduated PhD student Peter Prince to discuss our common interest in the history of Australian citizenship law and Chinese migration.
  • Seminar – On 21 September I attended the Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation’s Annual Lecture in Bigotry and Tolerance 2016 at the ANU. The topic was ‘How do we define racism in modern Australia?’ and speakers included Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane and academics from the ANU.


  • Teaching – On 6 October I gave a lecture to Claire Lowrie’s HIST355 Making History class on ‘historical research in the digital age’. I did supervision with my MPhil student and completed his annual progress review (APR). I met with a potential MPhil student to discuss the possibility of her studying with us at UOW from 2017.
  • Research – I visited the National Archives in Canberra and finished photographing all the certificates in NAA: A806 (‘cancelled’ NSW certificates of naturalisation).
  • Naturalisation database – I have set up a naturalisation database in Airtable, and in October my RA, Dr Karen Schamberger, began work on data entry from the records I copied in the BC Archives in July. Initially she is checking the data I have entered, attaching digital copies of documents to the entries, and noting any Chinese names she comes across.
  • My blog – I worked with a New England local historian, Gill Oxley, to prepare a guest blog post on Emma Tear Tack and her husband Rev. Joseph Tear Tack.
  • Chinese women book – I did further admin work to progress the manuscript, emailing authors with further comments and information re preparation of their chapters.
  • ANU Biography Workshop talk – On 27 October I attended a talk by Dr Su Tiping of Xi’an University, who has been a fellow at the National Centre for Biography at the ANU in 2016. Dr Su’s talk was about Chinese Australians in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. I am following up with Professor Melanie Nolan about further suggestions for Chinese Australians, particularly women, who could be nominated for inclusion in the ADB.
  • Probation review – I completed the paperwork for my Fixed-Term Academic Probation, a requirement of my appointment at UOW, which included compiling information about the work I had done this year towards Research (Level 2) and Governance & Service (Level 1).
  • Image permissions for Charlie Allen chapter – I organised image permissions for photographs that will accomany my forthcoming (2017) chapter on the life of Charlie Allen, microhistory and Chinese Australian biography.


  • Chinese Fortunes exhibition – I provided historical advice and wrote exhibition text on Chinese Australian families for the Chinese Fortunes exhibition being prepared by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka. The bilingual exhibition will be on display at MADE from February to June 2017, and later in the year at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne.
  • Chinese Australian women in the ABD – At the invitation of the head of the National Centre for Biography (ANU), Professor Melanie Nolan, I compiled a list of Chinese Australian women who could be included in future volumes of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. At present, the ADB has entries on only 30 Australians with Chinese heritage, and none of these are women.
  • Colonial Formations conference – I attended and presented at the Colonial Formations conference at UOW from 23–25 November. My paper discussed my research into Chinese naturalisation and was in a sesssion I organised on ‘coloured’ British subjects in Australia and the empire. My fellow presenters were Professor Margaret Allen (Adelaide University) and Associate Professor Julia Martinez (UOW). I scheduled live tweets of my paper, which I compiled into a blog post.
  • Chinese women book – I completed a final draft of my chapter on Ham Hop and the Poon Gooey case, and gave Julia Martinez feedback on her chapter.
  • Probation review – I fullfilled the requirements of my Fixed-Term Academic Probation, meaning that UOW will employ me for the remainder of my contract!


  • Writing – I’ve been working on an article about the entry of Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia, provisionally titled: ‘Paragraph (m): Chinese wives, immigration law and White Australia’. I’m planning to submit it to the Open Libraries of the Humanities journal.
  • Research – I spent a day at the National Archives of Australia in Chester Hill, Sydney, to follow up on research for my Chinese wives article.
  • Publication – Migrant Cross-Cultural Encounters in Asia and the Pacific, edited by Jacqueline Leckie, Angela McCarthy, Angela Wanhalla, was published by Routledge. It includes my chapter: ‘”To his home at Jembaicumbene”: Women’s Cross-Cultural Encounters on a Colonial Goldfield’.
  • PhD scholarship – I recruited a great student to take up the UOW-funded PhD scholarship attached to my DECRA. She will commence in Autumn 2017, researching ‘marriage, women’s nationality and Australia’s Asian communities in the early 20th century’.

Top 3 tips for Chinese Australian family history research

Here are my ‘top 3’ suggestions on where to start your Chinese Australian history.

(Note: these suggestions are most relevant for New South Wales, and for tracing Chinese ancestors who arrived in Australia from south China before World War II.)

Wedding of Elsie May Chinn and Kum Mow, Sydney, 1917 (Sun, 18 February 1917, p. 16,

Top 3 sources

Look here first!

  • Birth, death and marriage records – You can search for and purchase copies of BDM certificates through the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, or get transcriptions through an agent. If you can, get copies of more than just your direct ancestral line (e.g. birth certificates for your grandmother’s siblings as well as your grandmother), since certificates often contain different bits of information. Also see if you can find church or parish registers and family notices in the newspaper.
  • Trove digitised newspapers – Try searching Trove using variations of your ancestors’ names, limit your searches by state or to a particular newspaper, or search more generally using a term like ‘Chinese’ and the place they lived.
  • National Archives of Australia (NAA) – Search in RecordSearch using variations of your family members’ names. The NAA collection is vast, but here’s an example of what you might find.

Top 3 research tips

  • Researching your Chinese Australian family is largely like researching any other Australian family. Some of the records you consult might be different (e.g. immigration, naturalisation or alien registration files), but the principles are the same. Contact your local library, historical society or genealogical society for help.
  • Chinese names were written down in many different ways in Australian records. Few records give people’s real Chinese names. Keep a list of each different spelling of your ancestor’s name you find, to use in keyword or name searches.
  • To trace your Chinese family back to China, you need to know their real Chinese name (preferably in characters) and their home province and district (‘Canton, China’ isn’t enough). During your research be on the look out for anything written in Chinese characters and make a copy.

Top 3 books

  • Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales, 1850-1950, New England Regional Art Museum in association with Powerhouse Publishing, Armidale, NSW, 2004
  • John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007
  • Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, revised edition, Halstead in association with the City of Sydney, Ultimo, NSW, 2008

Top 3 websites

  • Chinese Genealogy – a really helpful forum that’s especially useful for tracing your ancestral village
  • Chinese-Canadian Genealogy – the specifics are Canadian, but this site provides many ideas that can be applied to Australian research

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