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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 (http://siyigenealogy.proboards.com/) 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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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’.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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’.
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.)
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently I’ve been looking at a series of NSW naturalisation certificates held in the National Archives of Australia here in Canberra (NAA: A806). The naturalisation certificates in A806 are ones that were ‘cancelled’ by Customs officers after apparently being used by Chinese to attempt fraudulent entry to New South Wales.
In the 1880s and 1890s Chinese who were naturalised British subjects in NSW were exempt from paying the poll tax on entering the colony (£10 after 1881, and £100 after 1888). After the turn of the 20th century, naturalised Chinese used their certificates to prove their Australian domicile and avoid having to sit the Dictation Test on return from overseas. As a consequence, a trade in naturalisation certificates grew up within the Chinese community, as certificates were sold or passed on to others to use after a man had died or gone home to China for good.
Some of the naturalisation certificates in A806 have layers of hand-written notes on them, most of which are undated, which suggest the same certificates were used several times as re-entry documents – perhaps initially by the legitimate holder of the certificate and subsequently by someone else. A number have ‘£10’ written on the front, suggesting that the Chinese passenger was rejected and made to pay the poll tax to enter the colony. Some have Chinese notations (mostly on the back), giving personal details such as name, age, place of origin and length of time in New South Wales.
A806 comprises three boxes and several hundred certificates, which I’ve photographed and am now working my way through in more detail. Eventually I will marry these certificates with other naturalisation records held in State Records NSW and also in immigration case files in the National Archives.
In some of the immigration cases involving naturalisation certificates I’ve looked at, including those in A806, it’s not altogether clear whether fraud was really being attempted or whether Customs officers were just being super cautious in the execution of their duties.
With one certificate in A806, though, the fraud was obvious – and it wasn’t the Customs officers who were duped.
In June 1915, a Chinese man arriving in Sydney on the Eastern from Hong Kong presented an 1896 naturalisation certificate belonging to ‘James Andersen of Kiama, a native of Finland’. The unfortunate fellow, who presumably didn’t read much English, was returned to Hong Kong on the same vessel.
This post is a written version of a presentation I gave to the second-year Hands On History (HIST274) class at the University of Wollongong on 7 September 2016. I was asked to speak about an interesting primary source and how I’ve used it in my research.
As a historian at the University of Wollongong I work in the field of Chinese-Australian history, researching the history of Chinese migration and settlement in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Much of my work concerns histories of women, children and the family, and I use methods such as biography and microhistory to write about the lives of people who have often left only a small trace in the archives. My PhD thesis looked at intimate relationships between white women and Chinese men in colonial New South Wales.
I mostly work with archival sources, with documents and photographs, but one particularly interesting source I’ve come across is a piece of Cine Sound newsreel footage from 1933 that is now held as part of the Universal Newsreel Library in the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The newsreel features a man named Ernest Sung Yee, who at the time was working at the municipal produce markets in Sydney.
Ernest, and the newsreel about him, relate to a particular research interest of mine that developed out of my PhD research – mixed-race Chinese-Australian families who went back to China.
Quite early on in my PhD research (in about July 1998) I went out to the National Archives of Australia in Chester Hill in Sydney. This was before the National Archives had digitised material online; in fact, it was even quite soon after they had put their collection database online for the first time. Armed with the Archives’ very first published research guide, I got started looking at records, box after box. Although it took me some time to understand the records I was working with, what I found profoundly changed the nature of the research I was doing and of much of my work since.
Chinese Australians were a very mobile group of people, travelling overseas for holidays, to visit family and for education and business. Under the Immigration Restriction Act – the legislative backbone of the White Australia policy – they could apply for travel documents that would allow them to return to Australia without having to sit the Dictation Test. The Dictation Test could be applied to anyone arriving into Australia (even those who had previously lived in Australia) and it could be given in any prescribed language – meaning that if the officials at the border didn’t want to let you in, they could administer the test in language you were sure to fail.
The records in the National Archives that I found so interesting and valuable were the thousands and thousands of identity certificates and immigration case files created by the Customs Department and Department of External Affairs documenting the overseas travels of Chinese Australians in the early decades of the 20th century.
Somewhat to my surprise, these records included documents about many Australians of mixed Chinese and European parentage. This showed me two important things. First, that these mixed-race Chinese Australians were considered ‘Chinese’ rather than ‘white’ by the bureaucrats administering the White Australia policy. And second, that mixed Chinese-European families maintained ongoing connections with China.
Having lived in southern China myself, I became very interested in the experiences of white Australian wives of Chinese men and their mixed-race Anglo-Chinese children who ventured to China.
The immigration and travel records in the National Archives provide some details, such as who and how many and when and how, and in some cases, why. But, for the most part, they couldn’t tell me much about what happened between when someone left Australia and when they arrived back. I needed to find other sources for that.
I’ve found a few first-hand accounts by Anglo-Chinese Australians and New Zealanders that tell of their experiences as children and teenagers in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More common though are sources about, but not by, them – government files, missionary reports, and quite a number of newspaper articles.
Generally these accounts highlight the difficulties Anglo-Chinese Australian families had in adjusting to life in China, particularly those who did not stay in Hong Kong but ventured on to rural towns and villages in Guangdong province. At this time, the majority of Chinese in Australia came from a small group of rural counties in the Pearl River Delta region inland from Hong Kong. Many accounts tell of wives and children who returned to Australia because of apparent mistreatment by Chinese relatives, and newspaper reports about them are often highly emotive and sensationalist.
I’ve written three articles so far (centred on the Tart, Allen/Gum and Breuer/Lum Mow families) in which I’ve tried to read such sources against the grain, really thinking about the context in which they were written and the motivations of those who wrote them, to tell something of the varied experiences of Anglo-Chinese families in China. But one source I haven’t really used yet in my work is the newsreel from 1933.
The newsreel shows two men who both, in fact, came from mixed Chinese-European families – Ernest Sung Yee, born in Quirindi in northern New South Wales in 1901, and Charles Liu, born in Sydney in 1895. Both spent time in China as children, but it is Ernest who is the feature of the newsreel. Charles is there as translator only.
The newsreel title reads ‘Universal Newspaper Newsreel – Sydney, Australia – Native Anzac Raised with Chinese Soul in Curious Racial Mix-Up’.
Voiceover: Almost merchants. Here is a Chinese who … an amazing contrast. Working among the labourers … is Chinese. His parents died soon after taking him to China as a baby. Native villagers reared him and Ernest Soong Lee, as he was called, returned to Australia … Australian. Born of white parents in New South Wales … an English-speaking Chinese had to interpret him.
Ernest Sung Yee speaks in Cantonese.
Charles Liu: He like China the best. He like going back to see the wife and children, and his family.
The newsreel was brought to my attention by historian Geoff Robinson through the H-ANZAU listserv back in 2008. When I first saw it, I knew nothing about Ernest Sung Yee, but I was pretty sure that the story told about him wasn’t quite right. I knew of white step-sons of Chinese men who had been taken back to China to be educated in Chinese, and I thought maybe this was the case with Ernest too.
So I went back to those immigration records in the National Archives to see what I could find out, and from there have been able to piece together a bit of a picture of Ernest’s life, also drawing on birth, death and marriage records, and newspapers.
Ernest Sung Yee was the eldest son of Elizabeth Maher and Sung Yee, born at Quirindi in 1901. Elizabeth and Sung Yee had married in Quirindi in 1897. Ernest and his younger brother, Horace (b. 1905), were taken to China by Sung Yee in 1909. Their departure, when Ernest was 8 and Horace 4, came after the death of two baby brothers – Cecil (b. & d. 1907) and Dudley (b. & d.1908). After three years in China, Sung Yee returned to Australia, but the boys remained in China until 1921. On returning to Australia they went to live in Townsville, where their father was living and working. Ernest moved from Townsville to Sydney sometime in the late 1920s. He continued to make trips back to China over the 1920s and 1930s, having married and had a family in China. Under the White Australia Policy it would have been very unlikely that his wife and children would have been allowed to join him in Australia.
I have used Ernest’s story – the one revealed through official immigration files – as an example of the complexities of racial identity in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act, of how cultural markers such as language and education, and somewhat woolly notions of ‘Britishness’, influenced the treatment of Chinese Australians under the White Australia policy. Ernest was not your typical Chinese Australian – on immigration documents he and his brother Horace were both variously described as ‘half-caste Chinese’ or ‘Chinese’, but it was Ernest who had ‘light’ or ‘fair’ hair and blue eyes. From these descriptions and from his physical appearance in photographs it seems likely that neither of Ernest’s biological parents had Chinese ancestry, but he was still treated as ‘Chinese’ by Customs officials.
Curious as Ernest’s case is, thinking back to my question about mixed-race Chinese-Australian families in China, and thinking about the negative portrayal of their experiences in many of the sources I’ve found, I wonder if the newsreel can in fact tell me something quite important. Could it perhaps point to the more hidden part of the story – one where Australian children like Ernest Sung Yee came to fit in, and belong, to the Chinese families and south China village communities in which they lived?
’Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood’, in Paul Arthur (ed.), Australian Identity and Culture: Transnational Perspectives in Life Writing, Anthem Press – Australian Humanities Research Series, forthcoming 2017.
As I approach the end of my month in Canada I’m feeling like I know less than when I left home, in spite of a good many hours spent in the archives and in conversation with knowledgable people.
It’s a feeling that’s been growing over the past few days, and in the end I think my problem is that while I’ve done all that reading and talking I’ve formed new questions and uncovered complexities that I haven’t yet untangled in my mind.
At the centre of this niggling uncertainty is something that the Canadians themselves don’t seem to get quite right – the story of Chinese Canadian citizenship.
Prior to 1947, anyone born in the United Kingdom or another Commonwealth country, which included Canada, was designated as British subjects. A person received the rights and privileges as a British citizen even if he or she had migrated to Canada.
However, not only were Chinese immigrants not considered British citizens, even Canadian-born Chinese were categorized as aliens. Such Chinese could become British subjects only through naturalization. Only on rare occasions could naturalization laws be appealed by a judge if he or she decided that the petitioner would make a good citizen. Although some well-established, successful Chinese businessmen did become naturalized British subjects, the majority of Chinese could not.
Things changed when peoples of Chinese and Indian descent won the franchise in British Columbia and the Japanese Canadian community established the pan-Canadian National Association of Japanese Canadian Citizens Associations. The Canadian Citizenship Act, which came into force on January 1, 1947 was the first naturalization statute to introduce Canadian citizenship as an entity independent from British subject status. As the Canadian citizenship act also came into effect in 1947, anti-Asian measures such as the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1885 Chinese Head Tax, and the Continuous Journey Act were overturned.
While this question of ‘Chinese Canadian citizenship’ is a bit tangential to my exact project at hand – a study of the naturalisation of Chinese in BC to about 1915 – it relates to broader questions about the place of nationality and citizenship in the history of Chinese restriction or exclusion in the British settler colonies. And it relates to my interest in how Australia’s discriminatory laws of the White Australia period impinged on the rights of Chinese Australians, especially Australian-born British subjects of Chinese descent.
Something that I’ve heard a number of time while I’ve been in Canada is that the Chinese did not get Canadian citizenship until 1947, the implication being that this was another example of the discrimination they faced, including the head tax, immigration restriction (exclusion) and disenfranchisement. 1947 was the year that the Canadian Citizenship Act came into force. It was then that the legal status of Canadian citizen was created – before then the Canadian-born were British subjects, as in Australia.
The introduction of the Canadian Citizenship Act at the beginning of 1947 was followed by the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act (the Exclusion Act) later that year. The linking of these two events has been described like this by Lily Cho of York University:
With the beginning of Canadian citizenship, there was a national conversation about race and citizenship. In the first months of 1947, there were extensive debates in the House of Commons about the racial and ethnic identity of Canadian citizens. These conversations led directly to the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in May, 1947, and an end to the era of exclusion.
(Note to self: look at more of Lily Cho’s work, including ‘Redress revisited: citizenship and the Chinese Canadian head tax’, in Reconciling Canada: Historical Injustices and the Contemporary Culture of Redress, edited by Jennifer Henderson & Pauline Wakeham, University of Toronto Press, 2013, pp. 87–99.)
I know that British subject status was a different thing from Canadian citizenship, but what’s puzzling me is the almost complete absence of discussion of how before 1947 Chinese born in Canada were British subjects under common law, just like their white counterparts (for definitions see, for example, the Immigration Act 1910 and Naturalization Act 1914). And that Chinese migrants to British Columbia could be and were naturalised as British subjects from as early as the 1860s – my initial research suggests that up to 1000 Chinese were naturalised in British Columbia before 1915, and around 400 more were naturalised in Canada as a whole between 1915 and 1951.
I’m not far enough into my research to know whether Canadian-born Chinese or naturalised Chinese in BC argued their equal status as British subjects, as some in Australia did, to push back against racially discriminatory treatment. Perhaps they didn’t, and perhaps that’s why it’s not discussed much today. But if not, why not? And if British nationality was of no perceivable benefit in the face of discrimination, why did those hundreds of men choose to become naturalised?