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.
In June 1857, four Chinese men from Melbourne – named Sun Tring, Yun Peng, Sun Woee and Hoy Peng – applied for naturalisation. Their memorials for naturalisation give basic details about them:
Sun Tring of Melbourne, 29 years, merchant, arrived on the Annie Bailie in 1852, desires to purchase and hold land
Yun Peng, of Melbourne, 30 years, merchant, arrived on the Challenge in 1854, desires to purchase and hold land
Sun Woee, of Melbourne, 35 years, merchant, arrived on the Cornwall in January 1857, desires to purchase and hold land
Hoy Peng, of Melbourne, 30 years, merchant, arrvied on the Liverpool in 1854, desires to purchase and hold land.
The memorials for naturalisation were each signed by the same six witnesses who knew them and attested to their good character and reputation.
The men were granted their naturalisation certificates on 2 July 1857. They were four of the eight Chinese men granted naturalisation in Victoria in 1857 – the others were Louis Ah Mouy, John Affoo, William Tsze Hing and Abu Mason.
Looking at the signatures on the memorials for naturalisation, I realised something odd about these four men. Their names are the same as those of the Sze Yup (四邑) or Four Counties districts:
Confirmation that the men were granted naturalisation is found in Ancestry.com’s Victoria, Australia, Index to Naturalisation Certificates, 1851-1928 (original data: Chief Secretary’s Department. Index to Naturalization Certificates (1851–1922), VPRS 4396. Public Record Office Victoria).
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.
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.
George Ah Len coincidentally also features in my naturalisation research. He was naturalised as a British subject in 1878 (No. 78/206), and in 1882 was registered as a ‘person known to Government whose endorsement is considered sufficient’ on applications for naturalisation. From 1882 to 1888 he endorsed the naturalisation applications of more than 60 Chinese in New South Wales.
Typically, there is much more to be found about husband than wife, but within his story we can find traces of her. The following brief chronology about George Ah Len and Chin Sheng Geong in Australia is compiled from historical newspapers, government gazettes, naturalisation records, Sands Directories, BDM records and immigration files.
Early in the year Ah Lin was baptised at Maryborough, Victoria, and later, as George Ah Lin, he began his training as an evangelist under Rev. William Mathew in Melbourne.
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.
On 16 June 1886, birth of James Ah Len, to George and Sheng C, 11 Queen Street, Sydney (NSW BDM 2324/1886 and 1314/1886 V18861314 46; NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71). Birth was attended by Mrs Strange (nurse) and Mrs Morrison.
Birth of twins, Peter and Thomas Ah Len, to George and Shenn, Sydney (NSW BDM 1748/1888 and 1356/1888 V18881356 46 and V18881356 47; 1749/1888 and 1357/1888 V18881357 46)
In January, there was an unclaimed letter at the General Post Office, Sydney, for Mr Ah Len, Queen Street.
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)
During World War I, young Percy Sam of West Wyalong applied for both a CEDT and an Emigration Certificate before travelling with his father to China – at the same time as his older brothers were away fighting in the AIF. It’s a story that illustrates the contradictory ways that Australians of part-Chinese descent were treated by government authorities in the early twentieth century. For more on that see my earlier blog post and my Inside History article. Alastair Kennedy’s Chinese Anzacs book also discusses the Sam brothers.
Five documents about the Sam family are featured the National Archives exhibition:
a police report about father William Flood Sam that accompanied his CEDT application (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058)
photographs of father William and son Percy Sam that accompanied their CEDT applications (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058; SP42/1, C1915/4032 )
a letter from mother Jane Sam giving permission for son Percy to travel overseas with his father (NAA: C1915/4032)
The display is behind glass in a drawer, so it’s a bit hard to photograph. The main text reads:
At the outbreak of World War I the Sam brothers, like many young Australian men, were eager to represent their country. Two of the brothers – James and Norman – enlisted in November 1914 and went on to serve at Gallipoli in 1915. Over the remainder of that year, three more brothers – Henry, George and Tom – also enlisted.
Also in 1915 their father William and younger brother Percy wanted to travel to China, William’s birth country. While some family members were considered ‘sufficiently European’ to serve overseas in the Australian Imperial Force, William and Percy had to apply for a Certificate of Exemption from the dictation test before they could travel due to their part-Chinese heritage.
Alas, there are a couple of problems with this short account.
First, only four Sam brothers enlisted (a fifth, Tom, was said to have gone off to war, but there is no record of him actually having served – a check of B2455 would have shown that); two Sam grandsons, with the surname Loolong, did also enlist though.
Second, a Certificate of Exemption (from the dictation test) was different from a Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test, which is what William and Percy applied for and were granted.
Third, William Sam did not have ‘part-Chinese’ heritage as the caption implies – he was ‘full’ Chinese.
Here are my ‘top 3’ suggestions on where to start your Chinese Australian history.
(Note: these suggestions are most relevant for New South Wales, and for tracing Chinese ancestors who arrived in Australia from south China before World War II.)
Top 3 sources
Look here first!
Birth, death and marriage records – You can search for and purchase copies of BDM certificates through the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, or get transcriptions through an agent. If you can, get copies of more than just your direct ancestral line (e.g. birth certificates for your grandmother’s siblings as well as your grandmother), since certificates often contain different bits of information. Also see if you can find church or parish registers and family notices in the newspaper.
Trove digitised newspapers – Try searching Trove using variations of your ancestors’ names, limit your searches by state or to a particular newspaper, or search more generally using a term like ‘Chinese’ and the place they lived.
National Archives of Australia (NAA) – Search in RecordSearch using variations of your family members’ names. The NAA collection is vast, but here’s an example of what you might find.
Top 3 research tips
Researching your Chinese Australian family is largely like researching any other Australian family. Some of the records you consult might be different (e.g. immigration, naturalisation or alien registration files), but the principles are the same. Contact your local library, historical society or genealogical society for help.
Chinese names were written down in many different ways in Australian records. Few records give people’s real Chinese names. Keep a list of each different spelling of your ancestor’s name you find, to use in keyword or name searches.
To trace your Chinese family back to China, you need to know their real Chinese name (preferably in characters) and their home province and district (‘Canton, China’ isn’t enough). During your research be on the look out for anything written in Chinese characters and make a copy.
Top 3 books
Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales, 1850-1950, New England Regional Art Museum in association with Powerhouse Publishing, Armidale, NSW, 2004
John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007
Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, revised edition, Halstead in association with the City of Sydney, Ultimo, NSW, 2008
Top 3 websites
Chinese Genealogy – a really helpful forum that’s especially useful for tracing your ancestral village
This post is a written version of a presentation I gave to the second-year Hands On History (HIST274) class at the University of Wollongong on 7 September 2016. I was asked to speak about an interesting primary source and how I’ve used it in my research.
As a historian at the University of Wollongong I work in the field of Chinese-Australian history, researching the history of Chinese migration and settlement in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Much of my work concerns histories of women, children and the family, and I use methods such as biography and microhistory to write about the lives of people who have often left only a small trace in the archives. My PhD thesis looked at intimate relationships between white women and Chinese men in colonial New South Wales.
I mostly work with archival sources, with documents and photographs, but one particularly interesting source I’ve come across is a piece of Cine Sound newsreel footage from 1933 that is now held as part of the Universal Newsreel Library in the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The newsreel features a man named Ernest Sung Yee, who at the time was working at the municipal produce markets in Sydney.
Ernest, and the newsreel about him, relate to a particular research interest of mine that developed out of my PhD research – mixed-race Chinese-Australian families who went back to China.
Quite early on in my PhD research (in about July 1998) I went out to the National Archives of Australia in Chester Hill in Sydney. This was before the National Archives had digitised material online; in fact, it was even quite soon after they had put their collection database online for the first time. Armed with the Archives’ very first published research guide, I got started looking at records, box after box. Although it took me some time to understand the records I was working with, what I found profoundly changed the nature of the research I was doing and of much of my work since.
Chinese Australians were a very mobile group of people, travelling overseas for holidays, to visit family and for education and business. Under the Immigration Restriction Act – the legislative backbone of the White Australia policy – they could apply for travel documents that would allow them to return to Australia without having to sit the Dictation Test. The Dictation Test could be applied to anyone arriving into Australia (even those who had previously lived in Australia) and it could be given in any prescribed language – meaning that if the officials at the border didn’t want to let you in, they could administer the test in language you were sure to fail.
The records in the National Archives that I found so interesting and valuable were the thousands and thousands of identity certificates and immigration case files created by the Customs Department and Department of External Affairs documenting the overseas travels of Chinese Australians in the early decades of the 20th century.
Somewhat to my surprise, these records included documents about many Australians of mixed Chinese and European parentage. This showed me two important things. First, that these mixed-race Chinese Australians were considered ‘Chinese’ rather than ‘white’ by the bureaucrats administering the White Australia policy. And second, that mixed Chinese-European families maintained ongoing connections with China.
Having lived in southern China myself, I became very interested in the experiences of white Australian wives of Chinese men and their mixed-race Anglo-Chinese children who ventured to China.
The immigration and travel records in the National Archives provide some details, such as who and how many and when and how, and in some cases, why. But, for the most part, they couldn’t tell me much about what happened between when someone left Australia and when they arrived back. I needed to find other sources for that.
I’ve found a few first-hand accounts by Anglo-Chinese Australians and New Zealanders that tell of their experiences as children and teenagers in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More common though are sources about, but not by, them – government files, missionary reports, and quite a number of newspaper articles.
Generally these accounts highlight the difficulties Anglo-Chinese Australian families had in adjusting to life in China, particularly those who did not stay in Hong Kong but ventured on to rural towns and villages in Guangdong province. At this time, the majority of Chinese in Australia came from a small group of rural counties in the Pearl River Delta region inland from Hong Kong. Many accounts tell of wives and children who returned to Australia because of apparent mistreatment by Chinese relatives, and newspaper reports about them are often highly emotive and sensationalist.
I’ve written three articles so far (centred on the Tart, Allen/Gum and Breuer/Lum Mow families) in which I’ve tried to read such sources against the grain, really thinking about the context in which they were written and the motivations of those who wrote them, to tell something of the varied experiences of Anglo-Chinese families in China. But one source I haven’t really used yet in my work is the newsreel from 1933.
The newsreel shows two men who both, in fact, came from mixed Chinese-European families – Ernest Sung Yee, born in Quirindi in northern New South Wales in 1901, and Charles Liu, born in Sydney in 1895. Both spent time in China as children, but it is Ernest who is the feature of the newsreel. Charles is there as translator only.
The newsreel title reads ‘Universal Newspaper Newsreel – Sydney, Australia – Native Anzac Raised with Chinese Soul in Curious Racial Mix-Up’.
Voiceover: Almost merchants. Here is a Chinese who … an amazing contrast. Working among the labourers … is Chinese. His parents died soon after taking him to China as a baby. Native villagers reared him and Ernest Soong Lee, as he was called, returned to Australia … Australian. Born of white parents in New South Wales … an English-speaking Chinese had to interpret him.
Ernest Sung Yee speaks in Cantonese.
Charles Liu: He like China the best. He like going back to see the wife and children, and his family.
The newsreel was brought to my attention by historian Geoff Robinson through the H-ANZAU listserv back in 2008. When I first saw it, I knew nothing about Ernest Sung Yee, but I was pretty sure that the story told about him wasn’t quite right. I knew of white step-sons of Chinese men who had been taken back to China to be educated in Chinese, and I thought maybe this was the case with Ernest too.
So I went back to those immigration records in the National Archives to see what I could find out, and from there have been able to piece together a bit of a picture of Ernest’s life, also drawing on birth, death and marriage records, and newspapers.
Ernest Sung Yee was the eldest son of Elizabeth Maher and Sung Yee, born at Quirindi in 1901. Elizabeth and Sung Yee had married in Quirindi in 1897. Ernest and his younger brother, Horace (b. 1905), were taken to China by Sung Yee in 1909. Their departure, when Ernest was 8 and Horace 4, came after the death of two baby brothers – Cecil (b. & d. 1907) and Dudley (b. & d.1908). After three years in China, Sung Yee returned to Australia, but the boys remained in China until 1921. On returning to Australia they went to live in Townsville, where their father was living and working. Ernest moved from Townsville to Sydney sometime in the late 1920s. He continued to make trips back to China over the 1920s and 1930s, having married and had a family in China. Under the White Australia Policy it would have been very unlikely that his wife and children would have been allowed to join him in Australia.
I have used Ernest’s story – the one revealed through official immigration files – as an example of the complexities of racial identity in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act, of how cultural markers such as language and education, and somewhat woolly notions of ‘Britishness’, influenced the treatment of Chinese Australians under the White Australia policy. Ernest was not your typical Chinese Australian – on immigration documents he and his brother Horace were both variously described as ‘half-caste Chinese’ or ‘Chinese’, but it was Ernest who had ‘light’ or ‘fair’ hair and blue eyes. From these descriptions and from his physical appearance in photographs it seems likely that neither of Ernest’s biological parents had Chinese ancestry, but he was still treated as ‘Chinese’ by Customs officials.
Curious as Ernest’s case is, thinking back to my question about mixed-race Chinese-Australian families in China, and thinking about the negative portrayal of their experiences in many of the sources I’ve found, I wonder if the newsreel can in fact tell me something quite important. Could it perhaps point to the more hidden part of the story – one where Australian children like Ernest Sung Yee came to fit in, and belong, to the Chinese families and south China village communities in which they lived?
’Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood’, in Paul Arthur (ed.), Australian Identity and Culture: Transnational Perspectives in Life Writing, Anthem Press – Australian Humanities Research Series, forthcoming 2017.
Five years ago I began an as-yet-uncompleted series of blogposts about the various iterations of the Certificate of Domicile and the Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test.
In the first post I wrote about the first Certificate of Domicile held in record series NAA: ST84/1, ‘Certificates of Domicile and Certificates of Exemption from Dictation Test, chronological series’. The certificate, no. 1903/1, was issued to a man named Ah Shooey on the last day of 1902.
The reason I didn’t write about the very first Certificate of Domicile issued in New South Wales was because it is held in a different series, NAA: SP11/6. I’ve written a bit about SP11/6 before — it’s an odd collections of Customs files that includes a bound volume with the earliest Certificates of Domicile, and the volume isn’t digitised.
On a more recent visit to the archives in Sydney, I therefore photographed the first certificate, which was issued a month after the Immigration Restriction Act came into force in January 1901. It can be found in NAA: SP11/6, Box 3.
The first NSW Certificate of Domicile was issued to 38-year-old Yau Foon (or Yaw Foon or Yow Foon?) on 3 February 1902 by NSW Collector of Customs Nicholas Lockyer. On the certificate ‘No. 1’ is handwritten in clear red letters at the top.
Yau Foon is described as being 5 foot 5 1/2 inches tall (without boots), of medium build, with dark hair and brown eyes. He had a small scar on the back of his right wrist. There is no space on the certificate for details such as nationality or birthplace.
Two photographs are attached to the front of the certificate, one showing Yau Foon front on, one side on. The photographs clearly show Yau Foon’s queue, wound and pinned to the top of his head. Note that on this earliest version of the Certificate of Domicile there appears to be specific spaces for two photographs.
The certificate is marked in red as being cancelled, which would have happened when Yau Foon returned from his trip to China. Customs officer Bragg has written that Yau Foon arrived on the S.S. Chingtu on 5 May 1904.
The administration of the Immigration Restriction Act in early 20th-century Australia was complex, contradictory, opaque, ambiguous and capricious. After reading through hundreds of individual case files of Chinese Australians created as part of this administrative system, I still find myself puzzled and surprised and confused when trying to comprehend what really went on. Why was a particular decision made? Why was one case treated so differently from another? Why was the law applied harshly at times, leniently at others? It is not an easy history to understand well, nor are its complexities easy to communicate simply. But this doesn’t excuse getting the history wrong, as is the case in the Museum of Sydney’s Celestial City exhibition.
The second-to-last part of the exhibition is titled ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ and explores anti-Chinese immigration restriction and the White Australia Policy. The introductory panel unfortunately repeats the mistake that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the ‘first law passed by the newly federated Commonwealth’. In fact it was the 17th piece of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament in 1901, the last one that year, after things like the Customs Act, Excise Act, Post and Telegraph Act and, significantly, the Pacific Island Labourers Act. An easy mistake to make perhaps since it crops up everywhere, but when visiting the exhibition it didn’t bode well for what was to come (especially as it was repeated in a following panel on ‘The White Australia Policy’). The introductory panel goes on to say that, under the Immigration Restriction Act, Chinese living in Australia were ‘denied the freedom to come and go between Australia and China’:
… after 1901 Chinese were effectively exiled in Sydney, their futures uncertain. Those who had made their lives here were unwilling to risk returning to, or visiting, China for fear they would not be allowed to return. So they stayed in Australia, raised families and became the ancestors of generations of Chinese Australians.
Yet what follows in the exhibition are case studies and documents that demonstrate the mobility of Chinese residents and Australians of Chinese and part-Chinese descent. Historian Michael Williams estimates that 6000 or so individuals identified as ‘Chinese’ made over 26,000 journeys through the port of Sydney between 1902 and 1959 (Williams 2004: 37). If you have trouble imagining quite how many people that is, have a look at Tim Sherratt’s The Real Face of White Australia, an experiment in making the people in the archives of White Australia visible (using records from NAA: ST84/1 in Sydney). To me, this is not a population who were afraid — it is a population who were getting on with their lives, dealing with the bureaucracy as necessary, and testing and challenging the system on many, many occasions.
On the wall of ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ is an enlargement of the back of a 1903 Certificate of Domicile for cabinetmaker Tin Lee (NAA: ST84/1, 1903/261-270). The certificate has front and side portraits of Tin Lee, a handprint, official stamps and certification by Customs officer JTT Donohoe. The front of Tin Lee’s 1903 certificate and a piece of correspondence are also included in a display titled ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’. From the certificate it is clear that Tin Lee went to China on the Empire in December 1903. Certificates were valid for three years. The piece of correspondence, written by the Collector of Customs, Nicholas Lockyer, gives permission for the extension of Tin Lee’s certificate for one more year, to the end of 1907 (meaning that if he returned before that date he would not be made to sit the dictation test). On the front of Tin Lee’s certificate Donohoe has noted in red that the certificate was cancelled as Tin Lee had landed in Sydney on the Chingtu on 1 June 1907.
Considering that this information is all clearly stated on the documents included in the exhibition, it’s curious that the text reads thus:
Tin Lee was a cabinet-maker who had lived in Botany since 1888. After being here for 18 years he applied for an extension of his Certificate of Domicile, a proof of residency that allowed him to re-enter Australia if he left. His certificate was extended by one year, to 31 December 1907. This meant that if he departed Australia after that time, perhaps to visit family in China, he would not be allowed to return.
The curator seems to have completely missed the fact that Tin Lee was already overseas when the extension was applied for. The National Archives also holds a correspondence file relating to Tin Lee which dates from 1903 to 1941 (NAA: SP11/27, C1941/1178 — not digitised, and I haven’t looked through it) and a further six CEDTs documenting his travels back and forth over at least four decades. So, it wasn’t the case that once his certificate expired in 1907 that Tin Lee would be unable to travel overseas and return again — he was able to apply for a new certificate, and then another one and another one.
Also on display in ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’ are documents relating to Maggie Yee Lee, the Sydney-born daughter of cabinetmaker Yee Lee. Here the interpretive text is fine, although it states that Maggie and her siblings ‘needed a Certificate of Domicile … to re-enter Australia after their sojourn in China’. Strictly this isn’t correct, as many young Chinese Australians like Maggie travelled using their birth certificates as proof of domicile, but having a certificate certainly made sure that a return home to Sydney went as smoothly as possible. The text accompanying the other set of documents on display, relating to hawker and herbalist Charlie Hing, is similarly fine.
The final display in the ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ part of Celestial City is where the interpretation of the archival documents relating to immigration restriction really falls apart. The display is titled ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ and the main text states that the case in question involved the ‘repatriation’ of the eldest son of Braidwood resident Chee Dock Nomchong. The use of the term ‘repatriation’, which to me means ‘returning to the country you came from’ or ‘returning to your own country’, is wrong. George Nomchong, the eldest child of Chee Dock and Mary Nomchong, was born in China in 1887. He was left in the care of his grandmother in China when Mary went with Chee Dock to live in Australia. How could it be that China-born George Nomchong was being repatriated in 1908 when he was actually going to Australia for the first time?
Chee Dock Nomchong was a long-term resident of Braidwood and he was naturalised in NSW. So the term ‘repatriation’ seems to have been used in the exhibition to make the point that as the son of a naturalised British subject domiciled in Australia, George Nomchong might also have had the right to live in Australia — ‘As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901‘, it says. Except things were not this simple. The concept of nationality in Australia in the early 20th century was fuzzy and complicated by its intersection with ideas of race, but it was based on birthplace not parents’ nationality (meaning, for example, that children born in Australia to ‘alien’ Chinese parents were British subjects by birth) (Dutton 2000). George’s personal and familial circumstances might have meant there was a moral imperative to allow him to come to live in Australia, but there was not a clear legal one. The previous year the case Ah Yin v. Christie had been heard in the High Court, where it was decided that Ah Yin, the China-born-and-raised son of a Chinese man living in Victoria, did not have the right to live to Australia simply because his father was living here. Ah Yin was still in his mid-teens, a minor, yet George Nomchong was already twenty-one when his father applied for him to come to Australia. George was not a minor child dependent on his father and mother, but a grown man.
The George Nomchong case study in the exhibition includes seven archival documents, four pieces of correspondence and three CEDTs, each with accompanying interpretive text. The correspondence is taken from a 145-page Department of External Affairs file (NAA: A1, 1926/9963), while there is further material on the case in a Sydney Customs file (NAA: SP42/1, C1910/4678) not used in the exhibition. The CEDTs are from series NAA: ST84/1. The National Archives holds other later files about George Nomchong and his own wife and children, but these aren’t digitised (and I haven’t looked at them before) and they don’t appear to have been drawn on for the exhibition. The events covered in the 145-page External Affairs file are complex, but I believe that an important part of the story has been overlooked, either because it did not fit with the exhibition’s presentation of the story of George Nomchong’s ‘repatriation’ to Australia or because the curator simply failed to understand what happened.
Here’s Celestial City‘s presentation of the George Nomchong case.
Repatriating George Nomchong
In 1908 the Immigration Restriction Act was tested in an unusual case concerning the eldest son of Chee Dock Nomchong. The boy was born in China in 1887, three years after his father had been naturalised as a British subject, and was left in China with his grandmother while his parents returned to Braidwood. Twenty-one years later, Chee Dock began the protracted process of repatriating his son, known as George, to Australia. As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. However, as these immigration records show, he was subjected to the same scrutiny and surveillance that shadowed any Chinese immigrant after 1901.
Letter to A Hunt from Chee Dock Nom Chong, 21 March 1908 Letter to Chee Dock Nom Chong from A Hunt, 28 March 1908
‘By giving me some idea of the test I can acquaint him of it …’ writes Chee Dock Nomchong to Secretary of External Affairs Mr Atlee Hunt. However, since the dictation test could be given in any European language, not necessarily, as Mr Hunt admits, ‘one with which the intending immigrant was acquainted’, Chee Dock’s attempt to prepare his son for the test was futile. Customs officers selected the language most likely to eliminate ‘unwanted and undesirable’ immigrants. Between 1902 and 1909 the dictation test was given to 1359 people. Fifty-two were successful. After 1909 no one passed.
Refusal of Domicile for Chee Dock Nom Chong, 6 May 1910 Letter from James Gregg to Chee Dock Nom Chong, 18 May 1910
In 1910, on his way to Fiji, George Nomchong briefly visited his family in Braidwood. His father’s request that he be allowed to stay was denied, and George was subsequently deported as a restricted immigrant. His father pursued the case with a large petition, signed by the residents of Braidwood, asking that special consideration be given. The petitioners’ representative, Mr James Gregg, pointed out that this case different from ‘what the real framing of the Act was intended for’ because the immigrant in question was of a respectable family and the son of ‘one of the most liberal and best citizens we have in Australia’.
Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 20 May 1926 Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 4 May 1935 Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 12 May 1947
After years of waiting, and in view of the exceptional circumstances of the case, in 1913 George Nomchong was issued with a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test that was valid for four years. He worked at the Nomchong market gardens near Goulburn and for the next 40 years lived an uncertain life as a temporary resident, successively renewing his certificate until the dictation test was abolished in 1958.
(Off topic a bit, but why are Chee Dock Nomchong and George Nomchong referred to by their first names, while Atlee Hunt is ‘Mr Atlee Hunt’ or ‘Mr Hunt’?)
As I said before, George Nomchong — a man born in China to a Chinese mother (who at the time of his birth had never been to Australia) and a naturalised Chinese father resident in Australia — did not necessarily have a greater legal right to enter Australia under the Immigration Restriction Act than any other Chinese man of Chinese birth, and officials initially treated his case accordingly. Over the time between when Chee Dock Nomchong first applied for permission in 1908 and when permission was finally granted in 1913, however, the administration was learning that the Chinese community in Australia was not going to passively sit by and have their rights as Australians be dismantled. While the power ultimately remained with the government, family members and community leaders — mostly well-to-do, English-speaking, long-term residents of the merchant class like Chee Dock Nomchong — pushed and pushed and pushed in individual cases to attain fairer outcomes. Officials learned that the Chinese community would and could take cases as far as the High Court and be successful, as it had been with the Potter v. Minahan case in 1908, or it would cause the government serious embarrassment through widespread bad publicity over decisions that were seen as heartless and anti-Christian, such as the Poon Gooey deportation case between 1910 to 1913. Better to compromise in cases such as George Nomchong’s, where there were ‘exceptional’ or ‘special’ circumstances, than face the costs of defeat in the courts or the press.
From 1914 to 1920, George Nomchong was issued with a series of Certificates of Exemption — not Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test or CEDTs, as stated in the exhibition. Certificates of Exemption were like visitors visas, allowing someone to enter Australia and take up temporary residence for a set period. CEDTs on the other hand were issued to people already living or ‘domiciled’ in Australia granting them permission to return without having to sit the dictation test. Two different sorts of exemption for two different categories of people. George’s Certificate of Exemption was granted on his arrival in Sydney in April 1914, for a period of four years, and was extended in 1918 for a further two years. George then made a visit to China from May to December 1919, after being granted permission to return after his trip and remain for the unexpired portion of his exemption period. After a further application by Chee Dock Nomchong, in March 1920 George’s exemption was extended again for four years. This practice of issuing an ongoing series of Certificates of Exemption was not at all unusual — it seems to have been a common way that government officials worked around their own restrictions against permanent admission of new Chinese, a way to make allowances in ‘exceptional’ cases without setting an official precedent of permanent entry.
What is missed entirely in the Celestial City telling of George’s story is that in 1920 officials decided that his case should be ‘closed’ — that is, that he could remain permanently in Australia without having to keep reapplying for his Certificate of Exemption to be extended. A memo from Atlee Hunt in March 1920 informed the Collector of Customs in Sydney that ‘no further action need be taken to remind this Chinese of the expiration of his exemption as the case may be considered closed’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 21). Atlee Hunt had pondered how to resolve George Nomchong’s case, admitting that the government ‘had given him a CEDT last year and thereby acknowledged his right to remain’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 25). It is not clear from the file when, how or if the Nomchongs were informed of this decision, but after 1920 there were no further applications to extend George’s Certificate of Exemption. There were, however, applications for CEDTs, the first one issued in 1926 before George made a two-year trip to China. Apart from difficulties raised when three prohibited immigrants were found working on George’s Boorowa market garden in 1922, by the mid-1920s George’s right to live in Australia was settled. The CEDTs on display in Celestial City are not evidence of the precariousness of George’s presence in Australia, but rather proof that his Australian domicile was no longer questioned.
Although ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ seems to have been written based on the archives alone, I wondered whether family perspectives had entered into how these archives were read and how George’s life was remembered. There can be no denying that the system was unfair and that officials could wield their power in ways that created insecurity for migrant Chinese living in early 20th-century Australia. This insecurity, along with the basic inequality of the system and the intervention and interference of authorities in the lives of Chinese Australians (such as during the 1922 incident with the illegal workers on George Nomchong’s garden), is often rightly remembered by descendants who have heard first hand what life was like under White Australia. There is no mention, however, of Nomchong family members having been interviewed and their memories being incorporated into the George Nomchong narrative in the exhibition, so I can only assume that the curator has worked from the archives alone.
One later file about George Nomchong, dating from 1939 to 1942, might have helped the exhibition clarify his legal status and identify whether or not George had been granted the right to remain permanently. It appears that George Nomchong inquired about naturalisation in 1939, perhaps in response to the Aliens Registration Act 1939 (see handwritten note at the bottom of page 5 in NAA: 1926/9963). It is unlikely that he would have been granted naturalisation, but I can find no obvious alien registration documents for him in Sydney either (NAA: SP1732/4). The file that might answer such questions (NAA: A659, 1942/1/6634) remains, however, unexamined in the archives.
You might ask if it really matters that details in the Celestial City exhibition aren’t spot on. How much detail do people take in during an exhibition visit anyway? Isn’t it more important for them to get a strong general impression — in this case of the extent and nature of anti-Chinese ideas in 19th and early 20th century Australia — than fretting over minutiae? To me, getting facts wrong in an exhibition like Celestial City, which has obviously had a lot of money put into it and a lot of publicity created around it, seems like a wasted opportunity. I can almost forgive the exhibition for reducing the vibrant, diverse and fascinating tale that is ‘Sydney’s Chinese Story’, full of characters and life and surprising twists, to something more akin to ‘What Racist White People in Sydney Thought About the Chinese’.* But the history of the Chinese in Australia, particularly the history of discrimination during the White Australia period, is too important for us to settle for the sort of sloppy reading of the archives and failure of historical understanding shown in Celestial City. Instead we need to be measured, considered, rigorous and meticulous in the research we do and the historical stories we tell. To do otherwise is to leave ourselves open to accusations of dishonesty, inaccuracy, exaggeration and sensationalism.
* There is certainly a place for examining white Australian attitudes towards the Chinese in the 19th and early 20th century, but as Alan Mayne has stated, ‘By emphasising unrelenting European intolerance and aggression towards Chinese settlers, historians have tended to overlook Chinese agency and the permeability of racial boundaries’. A better approach is to work towards a more nuanced understanding of European discrimination towards the Chinese and, in doing so, ‘deny Chinese passivity and marginalisation, and point instead to Chinese strategy and many-faceted engagement with colonial society’ (Mayne 2004: 2).
Alan Mayne. 2004. ‘”What you want John?” Chinese-European interactions on the Lower Turon goldfields’. Journal of Australian Colonial History 6: 1–13.
Michael Williams. 2004. ‘Would this not help your Federation?’ In After the Rush: Regulation, Participation, and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860–1940, edited by Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald and Paul Macgregor: 35–50. Kingsbury, Vic.: Otherland Literary Journal.