Tag: National Archives of Australia

Top 3 tips for Chinese Australian family history research

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

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

Wedding of Elsie May Chinn and Kum Mow, Sydney, 1917 (Sun, 18 February 1917, p. 16, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article221962375)

Top 3 sources

Look here first!

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

Top 3 research tips

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

Top 3 books

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

Top 3 websites

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

The curious case of Ernest Sung Yee

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.

Files of Chinese Australian travellers in NAA: SP115/1
Identity documents of Chinese Australians returning home through Sydney (NAA: SP115/1)

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.

Ernest Sung Yee and Charles Liu, early 1930s
Ernest Sung Yee, pictured in 1931, and Charles Liu, pictured in 1934 (NAA: J2483, 496/86 and SP42/1, C1934/4604)

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.

Portrait photograph from Horace Sung Yee’s CEDT, 1929 (NAA: J2483, 465/77)

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?

Further reading

Anglo-Chinese and the politics of overseas travel from New South Wales, 1898 to 1925’, in Sophie Couchman and Kate Bagnall (eds), Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, Brill, Leiden, 2015.

‘Crossing oceans and cultures’, in Agnieszka Sobocinska and David Walker (eds.), Australia’s Asia: Reviewing Australia’s Asian Pasts, University of Western Australia Press, 2012.

A journey of love: Agnes Breuer’s sojourn in 1930s China’, in Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woolacott (eds), Transnational Ties, ANU E Press, Canberra, 2008.

’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.

Sources

  • Birth registration for Elizabeth Maher, 1872, Braidwood, NSW BDM 1872/7706
  • Birth registration for Violet M. Maher, 1897, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1897/6427
  • Birth registration for Ernest Sung Yee, 6 September 1901, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1901/35157
  • Birth registration for Horace Sue See Sung Yee, 24 February 1905, Quirindi, NSW BDM
  • BIrth registration for Cecil Sung Yee, 1907, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1907/7051
  • Birth registration for Dudley H. Sung Yee, 1908, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1908/28869
  • Death registration for Violet M. Maher, 1898, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1898/3024
  • Death registration for Cecil Lung Lee, 1907, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1907/2560
  • Death registration for Dudley Lung Yee, Quirindi, 1908/11105
  • Marriage registration for Lung Yee and Elizabeth Maher, 22 April 1897, Quirindi, NSW BDM 1897/4000

Note: I have not listed all the National Archives files relating to Ernest’s father Sung Yee or his brother Horace Sung Yee. These can be found through a keyword search for ‘Sung Yee’ in RecordSearch.

 

 

The first NSW Certificate of Domicile, 1902

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.

SP11/6, Box 3 - Yau Foon's Certificate of Domicile

Celestial City: misunderstanding the administration of immigration restriction

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.

Colour photograph showing a museum exhibition of historical documents and photographs
Tin Lee’s Certificate of Domicile on the wall of ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ in the Celestial City exhibition, Museum of Sydney

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?

Photograph of a display of historical documents in a museum exhibition
‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ display in the Celestial City exhibition, Museum of Sydney (photo by Michael Williams)

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).

References

David Dutton. 2000. ‘The Meaning of Citizenship: Citizenship in Australia‘. In Citizenship in Australia: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records. Canberra: National Archives of Australia.

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.

Quong not Zuong, Quay not Zuay

A little note about searching for Chinese names in the National Archives’ RecordSearch database, specifically in early 20th records of the NSW Collector of Customs. There is a consistent transcription error in item descriptions where capital Q has been transcribed as capital Z. This means that names like Quoy, Quan, Quay, Quock have been entered as Zuoy, Zuan, Zuay, Zuock. The examples I’ve come across are in ST84/1, where Customs Inspector J.T.T. Donohoe’s rather lovely handwriting seems to be the problem. Something to remember if you can’t find records under the correct spelling.

Quong Quay's Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test, 1907
NAA: ST84/1, 1907/471-480

My hunt through SP115/1: day 1

I spent today at the National Archives in Sydney, looking at records for my Paper Trails project. My helpful reference officer, Judith, had warned me that there were 77 boxes in SP115/1, the series I need to look through. On my arrival though she told me she’s miscounted and there were, in fact, about 140. I managed to get through about 28 today. I’ll be there for the rest of the week but I’m not sure I’ll get through the remaining 112 boxes in the next two and a half days!

Series SP115/1 contains documents relating to non-white people – mostly Chinese, but also Syrian, Indian, Japanese and others – arriving into Sydney between 1911 and the 1940s. The series is arranged by ship, with each item relating to a particular voyage. Although I’ve looked at particular items in this series before, this time I’m starting at Box 1 and looking through every file, all 1780 or so of them. You may well ask why.

Although most of the documents in the series are CEDTs, which can also be found in other series (mostly ST84/1), the papers relating to Australian-born Chinese are often unique and unable to be found elsewhere. Details about these individuals might be recorded in the Register of Birth Certificates (SP726/2), but the documents in SP115/1 can include original birth certificates and other statements about identity and family background. One nice find today is the 1902 Hong Kong birth certificate of Harold Hoong, son of Julum Hoong and Rosalie Kinnane, who were living in Yaumatei at that time (NAA: SP115/1, 04/02/1915 – PART 1). Early Hong Kong birth and marriage records were destroyed during World War II, so it’s nice to see one safe and sound. Other records relate to Harold’s Australian-born siblings William, Albert and Frederick.

As well as locating documents about Anglo-Chinese travellers I know about from earlier research, looking through the whole series is yielding people I haven’t encountered in other records. Today I’ve found about half a dozen new subjects – some from families I’d already identified, but others are completely new to me. Exciting.

I’m also making a record of all the Australian-born full Chinese (for my Threads of Kinship project) and any Chinese-born women (for a paper I’m working on about Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia).

Paper Trails: Travels with Anglo-Chinese Australians, 1900–1939

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been awarded the National Archives of Australia’s Ian Maclean Award for 2012. My project is called Paper Trails: Travels with Anglo-Chinese Australians, 1900–1939.

I’m looking to start the project towards the end of the year and will be blogging here about my progress. I’m really looking forward to spending some solid time in the archives again. And to having the time to read and think and explore in a way that’s hard to do when research is squashed in around my day job and family commitments.

Here’s some detail about the project.

Outline

The Paper Trails project will demonstrate the possibilities for using new technologies to access and understand archival records and show how archives can reveal the history of marginalised communities from Australia’s past.

Following a prosopographical (collective biography) approach, the project will involve the creation of an online database about 150 Anglo-Chinese Australians, featuring biographical information and details of overseas travel sourced from National Archives records and with links to those records. This database will form the centre of a website which will also include introductory essays, maps and visualisations, case studies, a gallery of archival material and a guide to understanding the records.

This project will investigate the overseas travels of Australians of Anglo-Chinese descent, from the turn of the twentieth century to the outbreak of World War II. It will explore their experience of overseas travel and their negotiation of bureaucratic processes under the Immigration Restriction Act, as well as highlighting the rich and detailed records about ‘non-white’ Australians held in the National Archives collection.

In the early twentieth century, Anglo-Chinese Australians travelled overseas, primarily to Hong Kong and China, on holidays, for education, business and to visit family. Like other ‘non-white’ Australians, they were subject to the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (later the Immigration Act), under which they did not have an automatic right of return to Australia, even though they were Australian-born British subjects who, ethnically, were half-European.

Australia’s early immigration regulations were designed to keep out unwanted ‘non-white’ arrivals, most famously through use of the Dictation Test, and the legislation was not clear on how officials should deal with those who were both Australian-born and of mixed race. Consequently, over the following decades officials developed a set of administrative practices in which their ideas of community belonging and cultural knowledge, as well as race, determined the outcomes of cases involving Anglo-Chinese Australians. The development of these administrative practices was an iterative process, where officials responded to the actions of Chinese and Anglo-Chinese Australians who, in turn, responded to and negotiated changing legislation and government policies.

Aims

The project has four primary aims:

  1. to explore the use of new technologies in providing access to archival collections and in creating a platform for innovative research into archival records
  2. to highlight the complex and detailed recordkeeping practices that evolved in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act and demonstrate how these records can be used to uncover biographical and family information about a marginalised group from Australia’s past
  3. to investigate and document the bureaucratic processes used by the Department of External Affairs and the state-based Collectors of Customs in administering the Immigration Restriction Act as it applied to Anglo-Chinese Australians
  4. to tell the stories of Anglo-Chinese Australians who travelled overseas in the early twentieth century, highlighting their ongoing connections to China and the transnational, cross-cultural characteristics of their lives.

IMAGE CREDITS: Anglo-Chinese Pauline Ah Hee and the Choy Hing family before their return to Hong Kong, c. 1905 (NAA: SP244/2, N1950/2/4918)

Representing lives from the archive of White Australia

Sophie Couchman, Tim Sherratt and I are presenting a session on ‘Representing lives from the archive of White Australia’ at Framing Lives: 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association on 19 July 2012.

Panel description

This panel offers three approaches to representing the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who were affected by the racially-based immigration policies of late 19th and early 20th-century Australia. To administer the Immigration Restriction Act and its colonial predecessors, government officials implemented an increasingly complex and structured system of tracking and documenting the movements of non-white people as they travelled in and out of the country. This surveillance left an extraordinary body of records containing information about people who, according to the national myth of a ‘White Australia’, were not Australian at all.

The first paper will examine a unique set of almost 300 identification photographs of Chinese Australians taken in Victoria in the late 1890s, considering what these photographs reveal of the lives of their subjects. The second paper will demonstrate how, through a close reading of the records, fragments of biographical information can be built into a portrait of the life of a Chinese woman living in Australia on exemption from 1910 to 1913. The final paper will consider the possibilities of digital history for reconstructing marginalised lives and reflect on the challenges of representing biographical data from the White Australia records in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

Identifying whom?: reading identification photography by Sophie Couchman

In 1900 William Nean posed proudly on his bicycle in full racing attire for the popular photographic company Yeoman & Co. in Bourke Street, Melbourne. He used this photograph as an identification portrait and it is now preserved in the National Archives of Australia amongst 268 other photographic portraits of Chinese resident in Victoria that were created under the administration of the 1890 Chinese Act between 1899 and 1901. The Act aimed to limit and control Chinese immigration in the colony of Victoria and, from the late 1890s, identification portraits of long-term Chinese residents were used as part of documentation to allow them to re-enter Victoria free from the restrictions of the Act.

William Nean’s portrait immediately raises the questions of who he was and why such an unusual photograph was used as an identification portrait. The rest of the paperwork associated with this series of photographs no longer survives—all that remains are annotated identification portraits. This paper will place these photographs in the history of identification photography and, through close readings of them, tease out what can be learnt about the lives of the men, women and children represented in them.

Shifting the lens: uncovering the story of Mrs Poon Gooey by Kate Bagnall

This paper revisits the Poon Gooey deportation case, marking two significant anniversaries. In 1913, it will be a hundred years since Ham Hop, the wife of fruit merchant Poon Gooey, was deported from Australia with their two young daughters. After Ham Hop’s arrival in Australia on a temporary permit in 1910, Poon Gooey—a fluent English-speaker, Christian and member of the Chinese Empire Reform League—mounted a determined campaign to gain permission for her to remain more permanently. The campaign, while ultimately unsuccessful, found widespread support and was an ongoing embarrassment to the federal Labor government.

Fifty years later, historian AT Yarwood wrote on the Poon Gooey case as an example of early problems in the administration of the White Australia Policy. Yarwood based his study on the very substantial Department of External Affairs file, which documents the Poon Gooey story from 1910 to 1913. Greater access to records in the intervening decades, however, means that is now possible to uncover more of the context of Poon Gooey’s actions at this time and, more generally, of the two decades he spent in Australia—evidence that calls into question some of Yarwood’s conclusions about Poon Gooey’s actions and his motivations.

This paper shifts the lens even further, however, to focus on the life of Ham Hop, rather than on that of her husband. Although significant moments in her life—her marriage, periods of physical separation from her husband, travel to Australia, pregnancies, births of her children, medical problems, and finally the deportation of herself and her children—are recorded in the official case files, Ham Hop herself remains silent. Through a close reading of these records and the extensive press coverage of the case, this paper seeks to reveal what can be known of her story and to suggest possibilities for uncovering the lives of women and children who were marginalised and excluded by the White Australia Policy in the early years of the 20th century.

The responsibilities of data: reconstructing lives from the records of the White Australia Policy by Tim Sherratt

The sheer volume of records created by the White Australia Policy is overwhelming. Amidst this vast and disturbing legacy are thousands upon thousands of certificates documenting the movements of non-white residents. These biographical fragments, often including photographs and handprints, are visually and emotionally compelling. We cannot avoid the gaze of those whose lives were monitored, we cannot deny the people behind the policy.

But these records are also a source of data. Increasing numbers of these records have been digitised. As we develop the tools and techniques of digital history, we open up the possibility of extracting this data from the digitised records, of aggregating the biographical fragments, of tracing lives and mapping families. We can tame the overwhelming abundance of records and create a rich, new resource for exploration and analysis.

But how do we avoid imprisoning these newly-liberated lives in yet another system? How do we ensure that the challenging gaze of individuals is not lost in the transformation to data? This paper will look at some of the possibilities for extracting information from these records and reflect on the challenges of representing that data in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

Something Australian at WCILCOS 2012 (Vancouver, Canada)

In a bit over a week, I’ll be heading (a long way) north to the 5th WCILCOS International Conference of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies in Vancouver, Canada. The conference theme is ‘Chinese through the Americas’, but there is a small Australasian representation among the papers. I’m particularly excited to be going to Vancouver because I’m hoping to hear lots about the work that Henry Yu and others have been doing with the Chinese Canadian Stories project at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Here’s the abstract of the paper I’ll be presenting. A version of the paper will be available on the UBC website after the conference.

Paper trails: Anglo-Chinese Australians and the White Australia Policy

This paper discusses the overseas travels of Australians of Anglo-Chinese descent in the early decades of the 20th century. It explores their experience of overseas travel and their negotiation of bureaucratic processes under the White Australia Policy.

In the early 20th century, Anglo-Chinese Australians travelled overseas, primarily to Hong Kong and China, on holidays, for education, business and to visit family. Like other ‘non-white’ Australians, they were subject to the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, under which they did not have an automatic right of return to Australia, even though they were Australian-born British subjects.

Australia’s early immigration regulations were designed to keep out unwanted ‘non-white’ arrivals, most famously through use of the Dictation Test, and the legislation was not clear on how officials should deal with those who were both Australian-born and of mixed race. Consequently, over the following decades officials developed a set of administrative practices in which their ideas of community belonging and cultural knowledge, as well as race, determined the outcomes of cases involving Anglo-Chinese Australians. The development of these administrative practices was an iterative process, where officials responded to the actions of Chinese and Anglo-Chinese Australians who, in turn, responded to and negotiated changing legislation and government policies.

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.