I have produced a short guide to researching Chinese Australians in Immigration (Restriction) Act records in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney.
The guide aims to be a practical introduction to the records, their context and content. It covers the administrative background and processes, how-to steps for researching, a description of the main record series with examples, and copies of various certificates and forms.
Although the examples given in the guide relate to Chinese Australians, information about other ‘non-white’ Australians, such as those of Syrian, Afghan, Indian and Japanese backgrounds, can also be found in the records discussed.
Over the first few years of the 20th century, Form 21 (Certificate of Domicile, then Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test) went through various iterations as the procedures for administering the Immigration Restriction Act were bedded down. After 1906, the CEDT form remained basically the same until the Dictation Test was abolished in the late 1940s.
The certificates below are the first example of each iteration of the certificate found in the records of the NSW Collector of Customs in the National Archives in Sydney. Certificates of Domicile and CEDTs issued in Sydney are held in series ST84/1, except for those issued in 1902 which are held in SP11/6.
1902 – First Certificate of Domicile
The first Certificate of Domicile issued in New South Wales is found in a volume of certificates from 1902 in NAA: SP11/6, CERTIFICATE DOMICILE MISCELLANEOUS PASSENGERS 1909-1926. More about SP11/6 in an earlier post.
I suspect I will never be finished in my quest to understand the workings of the White Australia policy in the early decades of the twentieth century. My most recent work (which I hope will be published in the next year) has focused on the entry and residence of Chinese wives between 1902 and 1920, including the well-known ‘Poon Gooey case’.
While much of what I know about how the Immigration (Restriction) Act was administered comes from individual case files (known as correspondence files), there has been a gap between these files and the legislation itself. Two items in the National Archives (AP214/9 and D3193) help fill this gap. The Collector of Customs in Adelaide – who like Customs officers in the other states administered the Act in accordance with regulations, rules and instructions from the Department of External Affairs – kept a valuable, and seemingly unique, record of this correspondence from External Affairs. I have not come across other similar items for other states (always happy to be corrected though!)
I’ve had D3193 digitised by the National Archives and, while the cost of digitisation of A214/9 was prohibitive because of conservation concerns, I have photographed it and put the images up in Dropbox (link below). There is another series, AP378/37 – ‘Confidential instructions (old system), 1900–45’, listed in RecordSearch as being held in Sydney, but I haven’t looked at this to see if it contains similar material.
AP214/9 is a register containing copies of the Immigration Restriction Act and related correspondence, dating from 1901 to 1913. It was created by the Collector of Customs in Adelaide, South Australia.
The contents of the register includes:
copies of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and subsequent amendments, as well as related regulations and statutory rules
notes for the guidance of officers administering the IRA
copies of forms used in administering the IRA
instructions from Department of External Affairs to the local Collector of Customs at Port Adelaide.
Much of the content concerns ‘coloured’ arrivals, including ships’ crews, and arriving passengers with physical diseases or disabilities.
It is a large bound volume, with folios marked with page numbers up to 292. The documents (either printed or typsescript carbon copies) are pasted into the register, rather than being written out by hand. Folios 232 to 267 are blank. There is a separate alphabetical index (which doesn’t seem very complete). The last dated document is from 31 December 1913.
AP214/9, VOLUME 1 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Adelaide and is not digitised in RecordSearch (as of 20 June 2017). My images of AP214/9 are available in Dropbox.
D3193 is a volume containing confidential instructions relating to the Immigration Act (as the Immigration Restriction Act was known after 1912), dating from 1914 to 1919.
The small printed volume has been annotated with handwritten notes and insertions of further documents by the Collector of Customs, Adelaide. The original volume is titled Immigration Act Instructions together with Immigration Act 1901–1912 and Immigration Regulations 1913 and was produced by the Department of External Affairs in 1914.
The contents of D3193 are similar to those in AP214/9.
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:
Visiting a new archive, particularly overseas, can be a bit daunting. But I’m pleased to report that my time at the British Columbia Archives over the past two weeks was just lovely. Research discoveries aside, here’s 5 things I liked about the BC Archives.
1. Location and transportation. The BC Archives is centrally located in downtown Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia. It’s housed in the same building as the Royal BC Museum, just across from the BC Parliament and the Inner Harbour. This means it’s easy to get to on foot or by public transport, and it’s easy to find once you’re there. It also has lots of nearby eating places and somewhere nice to stretch your legs at lunch.
2. The staff. The archives staff are some of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met – from Lance on the front desk, to Steve and Raj the security guys, to the archivists themselves (of particular help to me were Claire, Katy and Ann). One little thing I really appreciated was being told the names of the staff I was dealing with; Steve on security would tell me the names of those working on the information and retrievals desks each day when I signed in. The staff also took the time to remember my name, too, which was nice when I was so far from home.
3. Opening hours and locker system. The archives are open 6 days a week, which means you can really make the most of a visit from out of town. They have what they call full service and partial service hours. During full service hours the archivists are on duty and you can request original material. In the partial service hours (4–8pm on weekdays and 1–5pm on Saturdays), you can freely access the mircrofilm collection (a lot of the material I needed was on microfilm) or you can have original material put in a locker for you to access once the archivists have gone home.
4. Copying records. There are no problems with taking digital photographs of original materials, and the archives provides a nice collection of book rests, foam and weights so that you don’t have to try to awkwardly hold bound volumes flat while you take photos. Super handy with some of the big registers I was looking at. For microfilm you can save images onto a USB stick.
5. Raccoon! On the first day of my visit a raccoon was fishing in the pond in native plant garden outside the archives. No moose or bears, but definitely my best archival wildlife experience so far.
I spent today at the National Archives in Sydney, looking at records for my Paper Trails project. My helpful reference officer, Judith, had warned me that there were 77 boxes in SP115/1, the series I need to look through. On my arrival though she told me she’s miscounted and there were, in fact, about 140. I managed to get through about 28 today. I’ll be there for the rest of the week but I’m not sure I’ll get through the remaining 112 boxes in the next two and a half days!
Series SP115/1 contains documents relating to non-white people – mostly Chinese, but also Syrian, Indian, Japanese and others – arriving into Sydney between 1911 and the 1940s. The series is arranged by ship, with each item relating to a particular voyage. Although I’ve looked at particular items in this series before, this time I’m starting at Box 1 and looking through every file, all 1780 or so of them. You may well ask why.
Although most of the documents in the series are CEDTs, which can also be found in other series (mostly ST84/1), the papers relating to Australian-born Chinese are often unique and unable to be found elsewhere. Details about these individuals might be recorded in the Register of Birth Certificates (SP726/2), but the documents in SP115/1 can include original birth certificates and other statements about identity and family background. One nice find today is the 1902 Hong Kong birth certificate of Harold Hoong, son of Julum Hoong and Rosalie Kinnane, who were living in Yaumatei at that time (NAA: SP115/1, 04/02/1915 – PART 1). Early Hong Kong birth and marriage records were destroyed during World War II, so it’s nice to see one safe and sound. Other records relate to Harold’s Australian-born siblings William, Albert and Frederick.
As well as locating documents about Anglo-Chinese travellers I know about from earlier research, looking through the whole series is yielding people I haven’t encountered in other records. Today I’ve found about half a dozen new subjects – some from families I’d already identified, but others are completely new to me. Exciting.
I’m also making a record of all the Australian-born full Chinese (for my Threads of Kinship project) and any Chinese-born women (for a paper I’m working on about Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia).
In July 1865, the Maitland Mercury carried an article announcing the birth of the second Chinese baby in the colony of New South Wales – a little boy named Henry Sydney Ah Foo – or, as recorded in the NSW BDMs index – Ah Cong, son of Sam Ah Foo and Ah Fie (15489/1865):
Some days ago Mrs. Ah Foo, wife of Mr. Ah Foo, storekeeper, of Nundle, to the delight of her husband and every other celestial on the Peel river, presented the former with an unmistakable pledge of love in the shape of a fine healthy son, no half and half affair, but a thorough Mongolian. We are given to understand that this is the second birth in this colony where both parents were Chinese, and is, consequently, well worth mentioning. The Chinese in the neighbourhood have taken the matter up, and elated with joy, have made a present to the parents of £150. On Sunday last, the Rev Mr. Whitfield of Tamworth performed the interesting ceremony of christening the child, which was witnessed by a large number of Chinamen. The youngster’s name is Henry Sydney. Mrs. Ah Foo is said to be an interesting woman.
I’ve recently started working on a project that has its roots back more than ten years. As part of my PhD research, I started compiling a database of marriages between Chinese men and non-Chinese women in 19th-century New South Wales. A version of it ended up as an appendix to my thesis, but since a lot of time went into the original data-gathering (thanks Mum!) I thought that perhaps this data should now take on a new and exciting life.
I’m therefore extending my original database to include any ‘Chinese’ marriage or birth registered in New South Wales up to 1918 – that is, where either husband or wife, father or mother, were Chinese or part-Chinese. I’m initially working from the published NSW BDM indexes (hence the 1918 cut-off), but I’ll then add information from my piles and piles of other research notes and also hopefully crowdsource further data to fill out the scant details provided by the index. So far I’ve worked through maybe a tenth of the material I have, and I’ve already got over 1000 entries in the database.
I’ve been thinking further about the possibilities of Tim’s wall of faces as a finding aid, as something to help both locate archival documents and to understand their context.
The series we used in our test (ST84/1) was one in which we knew there was a very high percentage of photographs. Each item contains ten certificates, most of which have both a front and profile portrait attached. There is a small amount of other paperwork included in some files, but not a whole lot. We therefore knew what sorts of things we were going to get back.
But what about if we apply the same facial detection technology to a series in which we aren’t so sure of the photographic content? Unfortunately, Tim’s current laptop isn’t up to the task of doing all the grunt work (donations, anyone?), but here’s what I reckon might happen when we are able to move on to other series.
With series like SP42/1 and B13, which hold applications for CEDTs and similar records, I know that there are photographs in many, even most, of the personal case files. (B13 is complicated because it also contains other Customs files that don’t relate to individuals and don’t relate to the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act.) Because files might hold applications for a family, or a parent and child/ren, or an uncle and nephew, or siblings, you don’t always know from the item title exactly who the file relates to. Also, those who were Australian born did not necessarily apply for CEDTs since they could travel using their birth certificates as proof of their right to return, meaning that they don’t appear in CEDT series like ST84/1.
It was usual practice, though, to supply photographs of each person who was travelling (whether on a CEDT or not), and so by extracting those photographs, you would be able to have a better impression about who files related to. Of course, for files that are digitised (or even not) you could go through each one individually (which I’ve done, believe me…), but think how much more fun it would be to scroll through a wall of beautiful faces!
With B13 it would also be useful because there is no separate series of CEDTs; they are mixed in with the application/case files. Facial detection could be a way of extracting the forms themselves from the larger files.
My main research interest is in families, and women, and children – and we know that women are often hidden in archives because of bureaucratic systems which gave priority to the men in their lives. Although there are many White Australia records which relate to individual women and children, they can be lost in files organised and catalogued under the names of husbands and fathers. But scroll through a wall of mostly male faces, and the women and children just leap out at you!
I’m feeling a bit impatient, really, about running SP42/1 and B13 through Tim’s facial detection script. There are so many, so very interesting possibilities.
This is the first in a series of five posts that looks at the different iterations of Form 21 over the first decade of the 20th century. Form 21 is better known as a Certificate of Domicile or Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test (CEDT), but there is something reassuringly bureaucratic in it having a number. There is something practical in it too, because there were a bevy of other forms as well (32, 22, 19, 9 etc), including the confusion-causing Certificate of Exemption (Form 2, which was a temporary entry permit rather than a re-entry permit).
I have located what I’m fairly confident are the first examples of each variation of Form 21 between 1902, when the Immigration Restriction Act came into effect, and 1908. After then things settled down a bit and the form remained more or less the same over the following decades. My examples are taken from New South Wales.
The first Certificate of Domicile issued in New South Wales would have been numbered 02/1 – ’02’ being the year 1902 and ‘1’ being the certificate number. There is a volume of certificates from 1902 in NAA: SP11/6, Box 3 (more about this in an earlier post), and my guess is that the first Certificate of Domicile is probably to be found there. Unfortunately it’s not digitised and I’m not in Sydney, so we’ll have to leave confirmation of that ’til a later time.
The first Certificate of Domicile that I can include here is, therefore, from a year later. It was the first Certificate of Domicile issued in New South Wales in 1903 (no. 03/1) and is the first certificate to be found in series NAA: ST84/1, ‘Certificates of Domicile and Certificates of Exemption from Dictation Test, chronological series’. (Here’s a link to the record item it is held in: NAA: ST84/1, 1903/1-10 – the whole item is digitised.)
The certificate was issued in the name of Ah Shooey, a 47-year-old Chinese man from Canton, who was departing Sydney for China on the Kasuga Maru on 1 January 1903. The certificate notes that Ah Shooey has one son, who is accompanying him. This is presumably 22-year-old labourer Louey Back Keong, whose certificate is no. 03/2.
Two copies of the form were completed; the one pictured above includes the word ‘Duplicate’ handwritten in red on the front. This copy was kept on file in Sydney, while the other copy (also found in NAA: ST84/1, 1903/1-10) would have been given to Ah Shooey to use during his travels, before being collected and filed on his return. Details of Ah Shooey’s arrival were also marked on the used certificate (‘Landed Empire 27/05/05’).
Ah Shooey’s form records the following information:
COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and Regulations.
CERTIFICATE OF DOMICILE
I, Nicholas Lockyer Collector of Customs at the port of Sydney New South Wales in the said Commonwealth, hereby certify that Ah Shooey, hereinafter described, has satisfied me that he is domiciled in the Commonwealth, and is leaving the Commonwealth temporarily.
[Signature of Nicholas Lockyer] Collector of Customs Date 31st December 1902
Nationality Chinese BirthplaceCanton Age 47 years Complexion — Height 5ft 5 1/2 inch in Boots Hair Turning grey Build Stout Eyes Brown Particular marks Nail on little finger left hand missing. Top of third finger on right hand off from first joint.
(For impression of hand, see back of this document.)
Family One son Where resident Accompanying Date of arrival in Australia Year 1877 Place of residence in Australia Deniliquin Occupation Storekeeper Property Value £400 Deniliquin
Date of departure 1st January 1903 Destination China Ship Kasuga Maru
References in Australia (names and addresses) Police Magistrate Deniliquin. A Fordham Deniliquin. C Hitchin Jerilderie.
Form No. 21.
On the reverse, the form includes the words ‘Impression of Left Hand’ and Ah Shooey’s handprint.
On 15 May, State Records NSW is holding an event in association with the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia where you can obtain information to help you put together the pieces of your family’s history in Australia. Speakers include Christine Yeats from State Records and CHAA members.