Tag: family history

Communication and collaboration in the digital age

This is the paper that I presented at the Related Histories: Studying the Family conference, held at the National Library of Australia on 29 November 2017.

If you’re interested in knowing more, Caitlin Adams from Macquarie University has written a review of the Related Histories conference.

Abstract

Since the 1990s, the field of Chinese Australian history has been characterised by the active participation of family and community researchers alongside academic historians, museum curators and heritage professionals. Over the same period, digital technologies have changed the ways that we communicate and how we do historical research. In this paper I consider questions of communication and collaboration between academic and family historians in the digital age, based on my work in Chinese Australian history. Working with family historians and descendants over the past two decades has shaped my practice as an academic historian, in particular in thinking about who I write for and why. In the paper I will discuss some of the ways I have made my work accessible and actively engaged with family historians, particularly in the digital realm, and contemplate the benefits and challenges of doing so as an academic historian today.

Introduction

My contribution to this panel on ‘family history and the digital revolution’ is going to be something of a personal reflection based on my participation in the field of Chinese Australian history over the past two decades – a period that both starts and ends with me in the academy. Then, twenty years or so ago, I was a PhD student at the University of Sydney. Now, I’m an ARC DECRA Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong.

In between, there was a good decade or so in which I held no academic position or affiliation. I worked at the National Archives for about seven years, then in editing and publishing in the public service here in Canberra, and then as a freelance editor and historian-for-hire, completing projects for AIATSIS and DFAT among others. All the while I maintained my scholarly research practice as best I could around this paid work and family life. I wrote papers, presented at academic conferences, and published in peer-reviewed journals and edited collections. In 2016 I was awarded a DECRA fellowship, and so I now find myself back in academia.

In the two decades in which I have been a historian, digital technologies have radically changed the ways that we do history – as academic, community or family historians. These technologies affect every aspect of historical practice – most obviously in the ways that we find and access archival and library collections online, but also in how we can interact with, analyse and understand those collections; and in how we can present and communicate our work.

Digital history – ‘gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web’ as Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig described it – democratises history by inviting and encouraging the participation of non-academic audiences. It makes historical knowledge more accessible to the public and multiplies the number of people who participate in making history. It also facilitates investigation, curiosity, participation and connection building around historical knowledge and historical collections.

One thing that has struck me after moving back into academia last year has been the reaction of my university colleagues to my use of the web and my outwards focus as a historian – the fact that I blog and I tweet, that I make time to give talks and workshops to family historians and other non-academic audiences, and that I would rather my work be accessible than locked behind the paywall of a ‘prestigious’ international journal.

In my paper today I would therefore like to reflect on how I think working with family historians and descendants over the past two decades has shaped my practice as an academic historian, and consider how digital technologies have created opportunities for communication and collaboration. I’ll discuss three examples: first, publishing my work online; second, running a heritage study tour to China; and third, developing an online archival transcription project.

Researching Chinese Australian family life

Working in field of Chinese Australian history, people often ask whether I have Chinese heritage – not an unreasonable question considering that much of my work has focused on mixed-race Chinese-European families. The short answer to that question is ‘no’, but there is one family connection that I do quite like to highlight.

My paternal great grandparents, Harry Bagnall and Florence Bellamy (both migrants to New South Wales – he from Dudley in England and she from Dunedin in New Zealand), were pioneers in the sport of cycling in Sydney in the 1890s. In 1892, Florence was one of four women elected as honorary members of the Sydney Bicycle Club, ‘in consideration of their being the first ladies in Australia to take up the pastime of cycling’ (Evening News, 21 May 1892, p. 5). Florence met Harry through their mutual interest in cycling. He was an active member of League of Wheelman and competed professionally in the mid-1890s.

Another migrant to New South Wales, one who had arrived a good three decades before my great grandparents, was also involved in the League of Wheelman, and that was Sydney merchant Quong Tart. Cycle club meetings were held in his tea rooms in King Street and Quong Tart was for some years a starter at League of Wheelman races. Margaret Tart’s biography of her late husband, published in 1911, includes a photograph of Quong Tart and my great grandfather officiating at a race meeting together. That is my historical family connection to Chinese Australian history!

My interest in Chinese Australian history therefore did not come from my own family history, but it did emerge out of personal experience.

Twenty years ago, in 1997, after finishing Honours in History at Sydney University, I went to teach English in China for a year, in the small coastal city of Zhuhai, just across the border from Macau and an hour by ferry from Hong Kong. Zhuhai is in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, and it was from the Pearl River Delta, through Hong Kong, that most Chinese immigrants came to Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Having fallen in love with the language, culture and history of south China, when I returned to Australia to begin my PhD, I sought a topic that might combine this new love with my existing love of Australian women’s history. And so, under the supervision of Penny Russell, I began researching the history of Chinese families in colonial New South Wales.

What I found when I began that research was that the existing scholarship on the Chinese in Australia, including works written by academic historians, discounted the existence of Chinese families in colonial Australia – in part because of the small numbers of Chinese women who migrated at that time, and in part because of the assumption that white Australian women and Chinese men didn’t form families together. Failing to critically examine their sources, scholars repeated and compounded colonial thinking about the sexual, social and family lives of the Chinese in Australia.

They perpetuated myths and stereotypes about the scarcity of ‘real’ families, about the ‘immorality’ and ‘vice’ that resulted from this, and about the tragedy and moral failings of white women who formed intimate relationships with Chinese men. It wasn’t just white Australian historians who did this either. C.F. Yong, author of one of the earliest major histories on the Chinese in Australia, accepted the idea of widespread Chinese immorality in the colonies caused by a lack of family life, and gave credence to the idea that the Chinese were frequent ‘seducers’ of white girls. (I’ve explored this more in my 2011 article on ‘Rewriting the history of Chinese families in 19th-century Australia‘.)

After mining the footnotes of these earlier historians for sources – this was well before the days of Trove, remember! – it was pretty clear why they had this impression of Chinese Australian family life. The government reports and inquiries, parliamentary debates, and articles from the metropolitan daily press they cited spoke about ‘the Chinese’ as an anonymous group, rarely mentioning individual Chinese, other than those of wealth and community standing like Quong Tart or Louis Ah Mouy.

These sources did, however, mention here and there a Chinese man with a European wife, or a European woman living with a Chinese man, or the presence of Chinese-European children. So I went looking for material about these families elsewhere – in published local and community histories, in the collections of local history and family history societies, in birth and marriage records, and in immigration records. I also sought to make contact with descendants.

For me as a young historian, contact with descendants and family historians was important for a number of reasons.

The first, simply, was to try and locate names and biographical information about the Chinese-European families who were the focus of my study. I wanted to know who these people were, where they lived, how they met, and what their lives were like – research that is remarkably hard to do without a name.

The second, where I already knew names and had some information from the archives, was to form a more rounded picture of their lives, to understand more about them than the official record might tell.

Over time, a third reason emerged, and that was to be able to share what I knew and what I had uncovered in the archives, both about their families in particular and more generally about Chinese Australian family life. While many of the family historians I met had done the most extensive, fastidious research – as they do – Chinese ancestors were often a puzzle. Many had not known of their Chinese ancestry before digging into the family history, and I began to be able to provide a broader understanding of the context of their ancestors’ lives in both Australia and south China.

The questions that family historians asked me also pushed me to find answers. I’ll give you one example.

About 18 months into my PhD I made contact with a lady named Marlene from Lane Cove whose great-grandmother, Harriet Bourke, had married Thomas Ah Cue in Forbes in 1881. One of their daughters, Susan, born in Forbes in 1882, married a Chinese man named John Lee in 1899. Among the family documents Marlene had located was the 1915 naturalisation certificate of Susan Lee, and she asked me why Susan, who was born in New South Wales and was therefore a British subject by birth, had taken out naturalisation. At the time, I didn’t really know the answer, but it prompted me to find out. And I’m pleased to say that I now have a PhD student, Emma Bellino, who is writing her thesis on the topic of marital denaturalisation, focusing on Australian women who married non-European aliens in the early 20th century.

At the same time as making contact with these family historians, I found a community of researchers working in the field of Chinese Australian history whose backgrounds stretched across academic history, archaeology, heritage, the GLAM sector, and community and family history.

This community of researchers provided me with models of how good, scholarly history could take different forms and be presented for different audiences – I’m thinking here of the Golden Threads project run by Janis Wilton at UNE and the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation project run by John Fitzgerald, then at La Trobe. Among their outputs, these two projects produced websites with publicly accessible databases and other online resources. Although time has not served these project websites well – the Golden Threads website no longer exists except in Pandora and the Internet Archive, and the CHAF website exists in a semi-functional ‘archived’ form hosted by the La Trobe University Library – they were both exemplary Australian digital history projects of their time.

In this Chinese Australian history community I also found my good friend and collaborator, Sophie Couchman. One of our first joint enterprises, along with a couple of other history postgrads, was the creation of the online Journal of Chinese Australia. The journal only lasted two issues, in 2005 and 2006, but I think our aim for the journal still epitomises the approach that Sophie and I take in our work. We hoped the journal would provide ‘access to research and resources on the history and culture of Chinese people in Australia’ and be ‘a place for family and community researchers, historians and students to share their ideas and questions’.

For the rest of my time I’d briefly like to share with you three more recent examples of how I have engaged with family historians in both the digital and non-digital worlds.

Being present on the web

Making my work available online has had a profound effect on my interactions with family historians and the research community more broadly.

I decided when I finished my PhD in 2006 to make my thesis accessible online through the University of Sydney’s online respository, and a couple of years later, in August 2008, I started a blog, giving myself a visible presence online. More recently again, in March 2009, I began using Twitter, which I use ‘professionally’ rather than ‘personally’, although there’s quite a deal of overlap between the two. Where possible, too, I now either publish my ‘academic’ work in open access publications or negotiate to be able to put a copy of my final article or chapter online through my website. I want my work to be read by the people I write it for – and many of them don’t have access to scholarly journal databases or university libraries or have the money to buy $150 books published by international presses.

One of the most common ways that people have found my work is when they Google their family name as part of their family history research. My thesis includes stories about many families, and has two appendixes – one of Chinese-European marriages in colonial New South Wales, and one of Chinese-European families who travelled to and from China before 1930. It therefore includes lots of names, although as I am continually discovering, there are still many, many families I have never heard of!

As I mentioned before, many of the descendants who contact me were previously unaware of their Chinese heritage, and are at a loss about how to start researching. I’ve had some really lovely emails from people telling me what a help my thesis and blog have been in providing them with a place to start to understand the Chinese part of their family. For example, I received an email from a lady named Heather in 2013, who wrote:

I am so grateful that this part of our history has been researched and brought to light … I am so touched to finally feel that I might be about to discover something from a heritage that has been hidden and denied. It was all generations ago and my family has almost no stories or clues, and yet … to read about the experiences of similar families is exciting and promises a connection that has felt lost until now … Knowing [your thesis] exists is somehow something I find comforting, and I wanted to reach out and say thank you.

That is the sort of thing that really makes my heart glow as a historian!

Some of these contacts have helped me solve puzzles too. The story of Pauline Ah Hee is one example.

One of the groups of Chinese-European children I wrote about in my thesis were children who were in state care or adopted. Among them was a beautiful child named Pauline Ah Hee, born Dubbo in 1893, who was adopted by James and Fanny Choy Hing in Sydney. Based on a Customs file held in the National Archives in Sydney I wrote about Pauline in my thesis, pondering about her role in her adopted family. James and Fanny had children of their own, and I wondered why and in what circumstances they had taken Pauline into their family. In 2011, I got to know Howard, whose wife is the granddaughter of James Choy Hing and the niece of Pauline Ah Hee. Howard had heard me speaking on our local ABC radio here in Canberra and looked up my thesis online. My mention of Pauline and the Choy Hing family spurred him on to research that part of the family history, and in time he shared with me what he had uncovered about Pauline’s life. Howard told me that after her adoption Pauline was raised as a true daughter of the family, living as part of the wealthy Choy household in Hong Kong after the family’s return there.

Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour

When I went to live in China in 1997 it was by lucky coincidence that the city I lived in, Zhuhai, was in the heart of the ancestral homelands of Australia’s early Chinese migrants. At that time, Zhuhai was still very much a Cantonese city – some of the city’s residents are from families that had lived in the area for generations, while many others had migrated from districts around Pearl River Delta after Zhuhai became a Special Economic Zone in the early 1980s.

Thanks to the friendships I made that year, I was welcomed into family homes and taken on visits to ancestral villages in the countryside, I celebrated traditional festivals like Chinese New Year and Qingming and took part in significant family events like weddings, new baby celebrations (满月 múhn yuht) and a funeral. The history, culture and language of the Pearl River Delta districts are very special and I feel really privileged to have been able to experience life there in the way that I have.

So, as I came and went from China in the years that followed – on holiday, to study, to do research – and as I spent time here with Chinese Australian family historians, I realised that many Australian descendants wanted to go and visit their Chinese ancestral homes, but didn’t know how to go about it, particularly because they spoke no Chinese. For many, too, there was insufficient information to trace their Chinese ancestor back to a particular place, other than the ubiquitous Canton.

So this year, after many years of quietly plotting in my own mind and a couple of years of serious organising, Sophie Couchman and I led our first Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour to Hong Kong and Guangdong. The tour ran for ten days, beginning and ending in Hong Kong. In China proper, we visited museums, heritage sites and ‘Australian’ villages in six Pearl River Delta counties. Our sixteen guests came from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and New Zealand, and most were descended from early Cantonese migrants to Australia. During the tour we visited a number of their ancestral villages, something that was very special for us all. We also ate a tremendous amount of excellent food, including the best egg tarts I think any of us have ever had.

Since the tour Sophie and I have been heartened by the participants’ responses to the experience. One participant, Jenny, has, for example, just given a conference paper – her first – about her Chinese ancestor, Ah Chin, at the Dragon Tails conference in Bendigo this past weekend. In her conference abstract Jenny wrote:

Until this year, I tended to think of him as ‘the Chinese guy’. When I travelled to China with the other Chinese descendants … my attitude changed. Suddenly, he was a real person, my ancestor, my great-great grandfather, and loving husband to Sarah and father to six children.

Another participant from our 2017 tour is even coming back to join us for our next tour in January 2018. We’re also really pleased that two of the participants in our upcoming tour in January are PhD students whose doctoral research draws on their own Chinese Australian family history, in Darwin and country Victoria. For me, it’s really exciting to see the possibilities that these personal experiences in the ancestral homelands in Guangdong might bring to a new generation of Australian histories.

Real Face of White Australia

One of the most significant sources for writing Chinese Australian history are the many thousands of Customs and Immigration files about Chinese Australians held by the National Archives of Australia. These records were created in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act and include, among other things, about 40,000 identification documents called Certificates of Domicile and Certificates Exempting from the Dictation Test, which date from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s.

Since the early 2000s, the National Archives has undertaken substantial arrangement and description and digitisation work on various of these record series, meaning that they are a lot easier to find and access than when I first looked at them as a PhD student twenty years ago. Individual records across multiple record series can, for example, now be easily located using a name-based keyword search in the National Archives’ collection database, RecordSearch, and digitised copied viewed online.

This year I have been working with University of Canberra historian Tim Sherratt and his digital cultural heritage students on an online project, called the Real Face of White Australia, that aims to transcribe data from these identification documents. Like the Hometown Heritage Tour, this project has had a long germination – from my various low-tech efforts at extracting personal data from the certificates to Tim’s very high-tech use of facial detection technology in his creation of the Real Face of White Australia experimental browser in 2012.

The transcription website that Tim has built uses the power of crowdsourcing to extract structured data – like names and biographical information – from the documents, data that can then be used for future research. As the project progresses Tim will release the data online so that anyone can use it, not just us. I’d encourage you to have a go at transcribing – it’s pretty fun!

There is a lot more that I could say about the project, but I will focus on two things with a family history perspective.

To launch the project, we held a transcribe-a-thon weekend at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, where we and Tim’s students and members of the public sat and transcribed all weekend. Being an online project, though, it wasn’t just those of us physically in the building who took part in the weekend’s activities. One of our China tour participants set up his own mini transcribe-a-thon at home in Melbourne, where he and his family sat around the dining table working away at transcibing the records on the Saturday night. He is now also working with Sophie Couchman on developing a similar transcription project for a significant set of Chinese immigration registers held in the Melbourne office of the National Archives.

My final example is something that I, as a mum, think is probably the best thing to have come out of the whole project. Tim and my seven-year-old daughter, Emily, really got into transcribing the records during the transcribe-a-thon, and in the records she came across the photograph of a little Chinese Australian girl named Dolly Denson from 1909. Emily was so taken by Dolly’s picture that she wanted to find out more about her, so together we did some more research and, over the last school holidays, she wrote a blog post about her discoveries (using her nom de plume, Parker). Since the post went live on my blog, three of little Dolly Denson’s relatives – two of her nieces and a grand niece – have written lovely comments in response. How good is that?

Conclusion

Engaging with family historians and descendants over the past two decades had given me a very concrete sense of why I do what I do as a historian. Yes, I’m a historian because I love being a historian – like many of us, I may well be my happiest when I’m buried in the archives – but I’ve also kept being a historian through those lean years when it wasn’t what I was paid to do because I feel like my research makes a difference to people.

In the world of academic history I hope my work shifts our understanding of the place of Chinese Australians and Australia–China relations in the broader narrative of Australian history. In the world of family history, I hope that my work contributes to people’s understanding of their own family histories and how their ancestors lives fit into the bigger story of both Australian and Chinese history. These family stories are not always easy ones to uncover or understand, and they can be very emotional to research – but they are important and they deserve to be told.

Although this session was about ‘family history and the digital revolution’, you can see from my examples that my engagement with family historians is not all about being digital – the tangible and the face to face are still important. In my experience though, there are many positive things about working online, not least of which is the fact that it scales up the possibilities for participation, communication and collaboration between academic historians and family historians.

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.

1868

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article200524565

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article198055610

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article198055417

1870

George Ah Lin was a Chinese missionary at Beechworth.

1870 ‘No title’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 20 October, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196416938

1872

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196858051

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

1872 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE’, Argus, 17 August, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article5837141

1872 ‘GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13265627

1874

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223694238

William Johnson, ‘Harts Stairs, Essex Street’, 1900, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-134631948. Queen Street ran off Essex Street.

1875

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13364937

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article235148038

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

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

1876

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

Sands Sydney Suburban Directory 1876, p. 280 (Ancestry.com, 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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13382767

1876 ‘PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March, p. 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13366581

1877

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article169513252

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

1878

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30673461

1878 ‘Government Gazette Notices’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 31 May, p. 2171, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223115799

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13417608

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13421199

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13421429

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13426132

1879

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article107152133

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article70935150

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

1882

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)

1883

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

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

1885

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13606606

1886

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.

1888

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)

1889

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

1889 ‘No. 32. LIST OF LETTERS RETURNED FROM THE BRANCH AND SUBURBAN OFFICES, AND NOW LYING AT THE GENERAL POST OFFICE, UNCLAIMED’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 2 January, p. 25, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224311037

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13728837

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

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, https://himmarklai.org/roots-program-lecture-notes/

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, http://wiki.prov.vic.gov.au/index.php/Chinese_Language_Records_at_PROV

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: http://www.vpl.ca/ccg/Chinese_Names.html
  • Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2006 – Section 4: Belonging (starts on
    196): http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/1412/4/04sections3%264.pdf
  • Kate Bagnall, ‘The trouble with spelling Chinese names’, Tiger’s Mouth [blog], 12 February 2013: http://chineseaustralia.org/the-trouble-with-spelling-chinese-names/
  • 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 (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:

Australian sources to consult

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

Gravestones

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.

See:

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, http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/scripts/AutoSearch.asp?O=I&Number=1506455

William Chie, fruitgrower, of Carlingford

This guest post by Carlene Bagnall tells the story of William Chie, an Anglo-Chinese fruitgrower and poultry farmer from the Carlingford–Epping area in Sydney. Carlene came upon William Chie’s story while researching the history of the Epping Seventh-day Adventist Church.

William Chie lived at Carlingford, a suburb to the northwest of Sydney, in an area of gently undulating hills covered in fruit trees, the scattered orchards serviced by dirt roads. Here for many years he kept a poultry farm and had a productive orchard in which he grew fine apricots. The majority of his neighbours also had orchards and kept poultry. Not far from his home on Pennant Parade, on the corner of the main road linking Carlingford and Epping, was a small wooden church belonging to a small company of Seventh-day Adventists. Beyond the orchards were tall forests where timber was logged and in wet weather the muddy roads were churned up by the hooves of the horses pulling the logs to the saw mills. (See a picture of Carlingford Road, Epping around the time William Chie lived there.)

William Chie was the son of John Chi, a dairy farmer at Avondale, near Wollongong, and his wife Margaret. John Chi was from Amoy and arrived in Australia in 1852 — one of four Amoy Chinese men brought out to work on rural properties at Dapto owned by Henry Osborne, a prominent local landholder and member of the Legislative Assembly for East Camden. John Chi married Margaret Miller at Wollongong in 1859 and they had seven sons – John, William, Francis, George, Charles, Jem (James) and David – and one daughter, Eliza. Of these children, John died as a child in 1866. Margaret Chi died in 1896 and her husband John in 1908.

In 1883, William himself married Mary Jane, the daughter of a Wollongong farmer William Miller and his wife Mary née Noble. Some time in the 1880s they moved to the Carlingford area. William Chie is listed in the NSW Census as living in 1891 at Ray Road and in 1901 at Pennant Parade, with his household comprising one male and one female – he was not identified in the Census as being half-Chinese. William and Mary Jane were married for 42 years and had two sons, both of whom predeceased their parents. Mary Jane Chie died on 11 January 1927 at the home of her niece, Ivy Molloy, at 138 Campbell Street, Sydney, aged 65 years.

Some time soon after the turn of the century, William Chie became a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at Epping and remained a faithful believer until his death. The first church building was completed in January 1902 and a week-long Adventist mission held at Carlingford in June that year. Over the years, William would have seen the destruction by fire of the little Adventist church on the evening on 23 June 1914, when it was set alight by a rejected suitor of the bride on the eve of her wedding to another man. He would have participated in plans to build a new church closer to the railway station at Epping, on a block of land donated by Annie Mobbs and her son, Lewis, from a subdivision of their orchard earlier that year. He would even possibly have been among the men of the church who helped to build the new building, which was begun and almost completed on Australia Day, 1915.

Later, William Chie bought a block of land on Carlingford Road, part of the Nevertire Estate, which was also subdivided from the orchard of Annie and Lewis Mobbs in 1914. William built a house which he named ‘Avondale’, near to Annie Mobbs’ home ‘Nevertire’, between Ryde Road and Midson Road. A description of ‘Avondale’ from a sale notice in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1927 stated:

4 minutes from ‘Bus, 2 Minutes from Public School.

“AVONDALE,” CARLINGFORD ROAD, between MIDSON ROAD and RYDE STREET.

DOUBLE-FRONTED WEATHERBOARD COTTAGE, on brick foundation, having iron roof and containing four rooms, kitchen, bathroom. Detached is laundry, car entrance at side, verandahs front, side, and rear. Fowl houses and run. TORRENS TITLE. Land, 120 feet by a depth of 145 feet 4 inches.

The Epping Seventh-day Adventist Church had good reason to remember William Chie with affection. The church building carried a debt which, according to an account from the 1960s:

was finally cleared in 1922 [sic] by a sum of £100 left in bequest to the church by a Mr Chee, a Chinese fruit agent in Sydney.

William Chie’s will, which was written on 26 October 1924 and stated he was a fruit agent, left a life interest in his estate, valued at £1276/12/5, to his wife Mary Jane and named as his executors George Chie of Woodside Avenue, Strathfield, and Edward Keeler of Pennant Parade, Carlingford.

Mary Jane could use any of the furniture ‘for her own comfort’ and was ‘at liberty to occupy the cottage rent free and undisturbed should she elect to do so’. After her death and the bequest of £100 ‘free of legacy duty’ to the church, his estate was to be divided into one-eighth shares to his brother Frank Chie, his sister Eliza Chie, his nephew Frank Chie, his niece Stella Chie, his niece Maletta Chie, and the last one-eighth share was to Helen Elizabeth Hawkins of Pennant Parade, Carlingford. Witnesses to the will were Alice and Ernest Hawkins of Pennant Parade.

This obituary appeared in the Australasian Record, a weekly publication of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, written by E.G. Whittaker:

William Chie, aged sixty-three, died at his residence, Carlingford Road, Epping, on Sunday, September 13, 1925. Brother Chie was one of the pioneer members of the Epping church, having been associated with the message for about twenty years. His health had been somewhat indifferent for some time. He leaves a wife to mourn her loss. We laid him to rest in the Carlingford Cemetery. In the service conducted at his house, his favourite hymn was sung; ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh! What a foretaste of glory divine.’

Sources

  • Australasian Record, vol. 29, no. 41, 12 October 1925, http://www.adventistarchives.org/docs/AAR/AAR19251012-V29-41__B.pdf
  • Carlene Bagnall, ‘Epping Church 1902 to 1940’, Epping Seventh-day Adventist Church website, http://www.eppingsda.org.au/sites/default/files/u2/Epping%20Church%201902%20to%201940.pdf
  • Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2006, p. 145
  • Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate, October 1898
  • Last will and testament of William Chie, late of Epping, fruit agent – NSW probate no. 134087, 16 November 1925
  • NSW birth certificates – 14049/1860, 14994/1862, 15032/1863, 16587/1864, 17089/1865, 17904/1867, 19804/1869, 19504/1871
  • NSW death certificate – 1927/52
  • NSW Census Collectors Books for 1891 and 1901
  • Sands Directory, 1924, p. 284
  • Souvenir programme: Official opening of the Epping Seventh Day Adventist Church, 17–18 June 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 1902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 1927
  • Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 12 November 1898

(Fewer than) six degrees of separation: James Minahan and William Ah Ket

I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sydney, and come from very good, solid Adventist stock. My paternal grandmother’s family were among the earliest Adventists in Australia, and my father’s uncle, Arthur Shannon, was behind the company that eventually sold its best-selling product Weet-Bix to Sanitarium. Both my maternal grandparents worked, as doctor and nurse, at the Adventist hospital in Wahroonga, and a wing of that same hospital was named after my Shannon relatives. I went to the Adventist school next to the hospital and, as a child, it seemed that everyone we knew was related or connected – somehow – to everyone else. Much like a country town, I guess. Or like the early Chinese Australian community.

Recently I’ve been looking again at James Minahan, the Anglo-Chinese man whose case went to the High Court in 1908, and thinking about connections between the players in his story. James Minahan left Australia as a young boy, and returned twenty-five years later. Although he could remember little of his Australian childhood – he no longer spoke English, nor could he remember his Australian mother – he was returning to a community that both expected his return and looked after him when he found himself in legal difficulties.

Legal representation was found for him after he was arrested in Sydney and, at the High Court hearings, he was represented by Frank Gavan Duffy KC and William Ah Ket. Frank Gavan Duffy was the outstanding KC who, five years later, would join the ranks of the High Court, later becoming Chief Justice. William Ah Ket was Australia’s first Chinese Australian lawyer and, later, acting consul-general for China in Australia. I haven’t yet established who exactly it was that organised James Minahan’s legal representation; the Chinese consulate began its operations the following year.

I hadn’t imagined that there was any real connection between James Minahan and William Ah Ket. Although born in the same year to families that lived no more that 50 kilometres from each other in rural Victoria, James and William’s childhoods had taken them in very different directions. James grew up in his father’s ancestral village in Xinhui, attending the local village school and failing three times to pass the gruelling imperial examinations; William was educated at Wangaratta High School and at home by a Chinese tutor, and studied law at the University of Melbourne.

But, curiously, the lives of James Minahan and William Ah Ket were connected through a web of kinship and intermarriage:

  • James Minahan was related to Chin Kee (they both were Chens of Shiquli village in Xinhui)
  • Chin Kee married Ethel Hun Gip
  • Ethel Hun Gip’s cousin was William Hoyling (their mothers were sisters, Isabella and Emma)
  • William Hoyling married Ruby Yon
  • Ruby Yon was the niece of barrister William Ah Ket (her mother was William’s sister Margaret)

Did you get that? Here’s a diagram:

Diagram showing the relationship between James Minahan and William Ah Ket

I’m not sure that it means anything particularly significant, except that it demonstrates the family ties that existed among early Chinese Australian families, and it’s kinda cool.

LJ Hooker’s Chinese roots

His name is known across the country, but until recently the true story of LJ Hooker’s early life was unknown, even to his own family. Now, after five years of research, writing and production, Natalia Hooker has published a lavish biography as a tribute to her famous grandfather. The book, LJ Hooker the Man: The Untold Story of an Australian Icon, is particularly interesting for what it reveals about LJ Hooker’s Chinese roots.

Black and white portrait of LJ Hooker

Until an article in the Sydney Morning Herald published in 1985, nine years after Sir Les’ death, nothing was publicly known, or rather said, about LJ Hooker’s Chinese ancestry. The article revealed that LJ was ‘of Chinese origin’ and had changed his name by deed poll from Tingyou to Hooker in 1925 (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1985).

In the preface to her biography, Natalia Hooker explains that there were many theories about the origins of the name Hooker:

The most popular story is that LJ’s Chinese father was a railway engineer named Tingyou who had invented the ‘hooker’ coupling system for rail carriages. Another suggestion was the LJ was an admirer of the American Civil War general, Joseph Hooker, whose statue had been built in his honour in Boston in 1903, the year of LJ’s birth. None of these accounts were particularly convincing. (LJ Hooker the Man, p. 5)

Fay Pemberton, the daughter of LJ’s cousin Sylvia, told Natalia a different and much more plausible story, however. Fay said that Hooker was, in fact, LJ’s father’s name.

LJ’s mother Ellen Tingyou, known as Nellie, was 18 and unmarried when she gave birth to her son on 18 August 1903. As was customary at the time for unmarried mothers, Nellie’s baby’s birth was registered with no record of his father.

Little Leslie grew up surrounded by family though – he and Nellie lived together with his grandfather, Chinese-born James Tingyou; aunts Mary Quan and Rosanna Davis; uncles Chun Quan, John Davis and James Tingyou junior; and his cousins William and Percy Quan and Biddy and Sylvia Davis. It was a household in which Chinese must have been spoken, at least by LJ’s grandfather, James Tingyou, and uncle-by-marriage, Chun Quan.

When LJ’s mother Nellie died from tuberculosis in 1911, at the age of 25, it was this extended family that raised him – in particular, his cousin Sylvia who was only six years his senior.

A mystery half solved

For Natalia Hooker, LJ’s parents were something of an enigma. Other than Fay Pemberton’s comment about the Hooker name, Natalia had no clue as to LJ’s father’s identity; she also knew little about the short life of LJ’s mother, Nellie. After some unsuccessful attempts to track down records of the births of Nellie and her siblings, Natalia approached me to see what I could uncover, particularly about the family’s Chinese connection.

As with much family history research, particularly those with Chinese heritage, the trick was in thinking creatively about names. Natalia knew details of the marriage of LJ’s maternal grandparents, James Tingyou and Rosanna Dillon, but there was no trace of their four children under either of their surnames. It turned out that the births of Mary Alice, Rosanna junior, James junior and Ellen (Nellie) were registered under the surname Harlet, and also that in some of the records their Chinese father was listed as being English. When James and Rosanna were married by Rev. James Fullerton in Sydney in 1874, Rosanna’s age was put up to 22 so that she did not need the consent of her parents to marry. It seems, sadly, that she may have been estranged from her Irish-born parents and siblings and felt the need to lie about her name and her husband’s birthplace.

Discovering the Harlet name led, inevitably, to some more small discoveries. But the real clincher came when I found a death registration for LJ’s mother, Nellie Tingyou, under the name Ellen Hookin. With Fay Pemberton’s comment at the back of my mind, the immediate similarity between Hookin and Hooker was striking! The story got even more intriguing when I saw that the informant of her death was a man who described himself as her husband, Harry Hookin.

From Hook Yin to Hookin to Hooker?

Harry Hookin had arrived in Sydney as Hook Yin, a thirteen-year-old boy whose cabinetmaker father was a long-term Sydney resident and naturalised British subject. Already proficient in English, Hookin attended and did very well at school and, in time, took over management of his father’s business, Sing War & Son in Albion Place. At the time of Nellie’s death he gave his place of residence as Beecroft, where the extended Tingyou family were also living – it is possible that Hookin was one among the tangle of aunts, uncles and cousins with whom the young LJ Hooker shared his home.

Harry Hookin, 1911. NAA: ST84/1, 1911/68/61-70.

After Nellie’s death is would seem that Harry Hookin disappeared from LJ’s life though. Three years later he married ‘again’ (he claimed to have married Nellie Tingyou in 1910, for which I have failed to locate a marriage registration) and there remained no memory of him among the Tingyou descendants.

The obvious question remains, however – was Harry Hookin LJ’s father? As Natalia Hooker concludes, ‘it is impossible to know for sure whether or not Hookin was Les’s biological father’ and a number of facts, such as his age – only 17 when LJ was born in 1903 – perhaps suggest otherwise. But, to quote Natalia again:

the fact that Les, as an adult, chose to change his name to Hooker, suggests that, at a minimum, Harry Hookin was a father figure to Les. (LJ Hooker the Man, p. 42)

Some more records about Harry Hookin have recently come to light, but whether they are able to prove anything is another question! It may well be that this remains one of those mysteries that is impossible to solve.

About the book

LJ Hooker the Man: The Untold Story of an Australian Icon by Natalia Hooker (self-published, 2010) is available to order online: www.ljhookertheman.com. It costs $54.95, free delivery. It is available in bookstores throughout Australia as of February 2011. You can also see a preview of the book.

A transnational Chinese-Australian family and the ‘New China’ – Melbourne Chinese Studies Group

Date: Friday, 6 August 2010
Time: 6pm
Admission: $2
Venue: Jenny Florence Room, 3rd Floor, Ross House, 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets)

Topic: A transnational Chinese-Australian family and the ‘New China’

Speaker: Pauline Rule

Chung Mow Fung arrived in Melbourne in 1857 as a single man and left nearly forty years later in 1895 to settle in Hong Kong together with his Chinese wife and a large family of eight surviving colonial-born children. Twenty-five years of constructing a family in country Victoria had seen Chung Mow Fung and his wife Huish Huish negotiate between Australian and Chinese culture and between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ values especially in the area of gender roles. Settlement in the complicated liminal space of Anglo-Chinese Hong Kong allowed the family to identify to varying degrees with the different parts of their cultural formation. Their Australian background was acknowledged and their life-style was largely westernized but some members of the family became involved in the Republican era in the struggle to change aspects of Chinese culture, especially the role of women. This paper will examine how the Australian childhood of the family members played some part in how they, especially the women, lived out their adult lives while also retaining a strong commitment to their Chinese heritage.

Pauline Rule undertook postgraduate research on the Bengali intelligentsia and then the social history of Calcutta during the period of the British Raj. She worked in both the curriculum and assessment areas of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority and its prior manifestations. She has also researched and written extensively about the experiences of Irish women in nineteenth century Victoria. As part of this research she has examined marriages between Irish women and Chinese men in colonial Victoria and the outcomes for some of these families. This has lead to an interest in those Chinese women who came to Victoria in the colonial period.

Talk followed by an informal, inexpensive meal in a nearby Chinatown restaurant.

From Shekki to Sydney: An Autobiography by Stanley Hunt

A new book that might be of interest (via chinatown.com.au):

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries large numbers of Chinese travelled to the USA, Australia and other parts of the world to prospect for gold, or to work as labourers, gardeners and traders, but there are few eyewitness accounts of the lives of these people who predominantly came from South China. Stanley Hunt’s From Shekki to Sydney fills part of that gap in Chinese and Australian social history by documenting his childhood in Shekki, his experiences after relocating to Australia, and the lives of his parents and grandparents. His story will resonate with those of many silent others all over the world.

From Shekki to Sydney by Stanley Hunt

Stanley Hunt was born Chan Pui-Tak in Shekki, Zhongshan county, Guangdong province, China. The Japanese had invaded North China, and were beginning to bomb Shekki and the nearby coastal areas of South China when he, his mother and two younger siblings, left home to join his father in Australia. Reunited in Sydney on 5 April 1939, the small family travelled north to the county town of Warialda where his father ran a general store. Australian troops were fighting in Europe and Asia, the country was still suffering lingering effects of the Great Depression, and his father was on the verge of bankruptcy. On the timely advice of a travelling salesman, his father was able to save himself from financial ruin by negotiating new terms for repaying his accounts.

Through times of rations and quotas, the family value-added to their limited supplies, worked very hard and paid off their debts before relocating to Sydney in early 1945. Stanley and his father acquired businesses and prospered. Stanley is recognised for his significant contributions to social and community work in Australia, and China.

The father worked in Australia and had only returned to Shekki a couple of times during the author’s childhood: father and son were virtual strangers when they were reunited in Australia in 1939. As a twelve-year-old boy he began to work as a man alongside his father, and the development of their relationship contains many poignant moments that underscore the impact of ‘old country’ traditions on a younger generation of Chinese maturing into adults in Australia. The author is a highly observant ‘outsider’ as he grows from boy to man and is transformed into an ‘insider’.

If you are interested in the above abstract, please order your new book: From Shekki to Sydney: An Autobiography by Stanley Hunt, 200 pp. including 42 black & white photographs. Softcover: AUS $37.50.

In Sydney, copies are now available at GLEEBOOKS at 49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037, phone (02) 9660 2333, www.gleebooks.com.au.

Alternatively, the book can be ordered through local bookshops.

ISBN: 978 1 876957 15 5
Sydney: Wild Peony, September 2009
International distribution: University of Hawaii Press. www.uhpress.hawaii.edu

Who are the genealogists of Australia?

Via aus-archivists (16 July 2009):

Family history, since the advent of the Cook Bicentennial in Australia, has changed from the interest of a select few to become one of the most popular pastimes of Australians. Yet in spite of the dramatic increase in membership of and numbers family history societies, the changes in library and archive practices and collections to meet the demands of those wanting to research their family history, and the vast numbers of subscribers to commercial family history websites, little is known about the interests, research practices and make up of Australian genealogists.

A survey of Australian genealogists has been launched to examine these questions as part of a master’s research program at the University of New England. Entitled ‘Who Are the Genealogists of Australia’, the survey asks genealogists about their motivations for beginning their research and why they continue to conduct their research. It also asks about their research interests and how and where they conduct their research and why they make those choices. The survey will also investigate their plans for the product of their research. Finally, genealogists are asked about their demographic characteristics.

The survey can be found at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~ausgensurvey/.

It is open for participation from August 1st 2009 until 30th November 2009.

All queries about the survey can be directed to Leon Alekna at the University of New England: lalekna@une.edu.au.