Here are my ‘top 3’ suggestions on where to start your Chinese Australian history.
(Note: these suggestions are most relevant for New South Wales, and for tracing Chinese ancestors who arrived in Australia from south China before World War II.)
Top 3 sources
Look here first!
Birth, death and marriage records – You can search for and purchase copies of BDM certificates through the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, or get transcriptions through an agent. If you can, get copies of more than just your direct ancestral line (e.g. birth certificates for your grandmother’s siblings as well as your grandmother), since certificates often contain different bits of information. Also see if you can find church or parish registers and family notices in the newspaper.
Trove digitised newspapers – Try searching Trove using variations of your ancestors’ names, limit your searches by state or to a particular newspaper, or search more generally using a term like ‘Chinese’ and the place they lived.
National Archives of Australia (NAA) – Search in RecordSearch using variations of your family members’ names. The NAA collection is vast, but here’s an example of what you might find.
Top 3 research tips
Researching your Chinese Australian family is largely like researching any other Australian family. Some of the records you consult might be different (e.g. immigration, naturalisation or alien registration files), but the principles are the same. Contact your local library, historical society or genealogical society for help.
Chinese names were written down in many different ways in Australian records. Few records give people’s real Chinese names. Keep a list of each different spelling of your ancestor’s name you find, to use in keyword or name searches.
To trace your Chinese family back to China, you need to know their real Chinese name (preferably in characters) and their home province and district (‘Canton, China’ isn’t enough). During your research be on the look out for anything written in Chinese characters and make a copy.
Top 3 books
Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales, 1850-1950, New England Regional Art Museum in association with Powerhouse Publishing, Armidale, NSW, 2004
John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007
Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, revised edition, Halstead in association with the City of Sydney, Ultimo, NSW, 2008
Top 3 websites
Chinese Genealogy – a really helpful forum that’s especially useful for tracing your ancestral village
In 2011 I wrote a blog post about a photograph of an unknown Chinese Australian family held in the State Library of Victoria collection. With very few details to go on, in my post I wondered whether I would ever find out the family’s identity. In this guest post, New England local historian Gill Oxley shares with us not only the family’s identity, but more about the interesting lives of Emma Tear Tack, nee Lee Young, and her reverend husband Joseph.
On 22 February 1899, an untitled article appeared on page 2 of the Ballarat Star. It conveyed news of the death of the retired ‘Government interpreter’ for the Ararat and Stawell districts of Victoria, Mr Lee Young. The article also served as an informal obituary, giving details of the life of Mr Lee Young, including his earliest days in Australia (following his immigration from Canton in about 1852) and his life on the goldfields of Victoria in the late 1800s. Towards the end of the article, mention was made of Mr Lee Young’s surviving four daughters and two sons. Two of his daughters were named as Mrs the Rev. James Ah Chue and Mrs the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack.
Mrs the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack was Emma, born at Ararat in Victoria in 1865 (Vic BDM reg. no. 19815), the second youngest child of Lee Young and his wife Elizabeth Wright.
The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages gives Emma’s father’s name as Lee Young and her mother’s maiden name as Elizabeth Lyth. The maiden surname ‘Lyth’ is likely to have been either a mistranscription or else a mispronunciation, as Emma’s mother’s maiden name is given as Elizabeth Wright in official records of the births of most of Emma’s siblings. The record for Emma’s youngest sister, Jessie Lee Young, gives a different name again, with their mother’s maiden name given as Elizabeth Light – quite clearly a misinterpretation of ‘Wright’.
Elizabeth married (‘John’) Lee Young in Victoria in 1856 (Vic BDM reg. no. 3704) and the couple had two sons and four daughters:
William Lee Young, born Ballarat 1859 (Vic BDM reg. no. 7102)
Matilda Lee Young, born Ballarat 1860 (Vic BDM reg. no. 2269)
Henry Lee Young, born Ballarat 1862 (Vic BDM reg. no. 12268)
Alice Lee Young, born Ararat 1864 (Vic BDM reg. no. 6746)
Emma Lee Young, born Ararat 1865 (Vic BDM reg. no. 19815)
Jessie Lee Young, born Ararat 1869 (Vic BDM reg. no. 20004).
At 20 years of age, in 1885, Emma Lee Young married Chinese-born Joseph Tear Tack (Vic BDM reg. no. 4357).
Joseph Tear Tack’s Victorian naturalisation record of July 1883 gives his native place simply as Canton, his age at the time as 35 years and his occupation as minister.
From this we can assume that Joseph Tear Tack was born in Canton in or about 1848. He would therefore have been about 17 years older than Emma at the time of their 1885 marriage. Perhaps it was this age difference that caused the ‘little commotion in Chinese circles’ over their impending marriage, as reported in the Ballarat Star, and other Victorian papers, in May 1885.
After their marriage Emma and Joseph left Victoria and set up home in the tin mining district of Inverell in northern New South Wales. Their first child, Elizabeth Edith Tear Tack, was born there in 1886 (NSW BDM reg. no. 24730). From the beginning of the 1870s, the Inverell district had a very large Chinese population, with Chinese workers being drawn to the area for the rich deposits of alluvial tin that were plentiful there, and for the business opportunities that also presented themselves with the need for fresh vegetables and other supplies in the booming mining district.
Joseph Tear Tack had been sent to Inverell (or more precisely to nearby Tingha) in mid-1884 by the Wesleyan Methodist Church to minister to the resident Chinese population in the area. He was one of the ‘success stories’ of the church’s Chinese mission in Victoria (‘Wesleyan Church, West Maitland‘, Maitland Mercury, 5 June 1884, p. 2).
According to the March–April 1891 edition of the NSW Government Gazette (p. 1892), Rev. Tear Tack was registered at the NSW Registrar General’s Office in Sydney for ‘the celebration of marriages at Tingha’ on 6 March 1891. Joseph Tear Tack and his family of four persons – one male (his eldest son) and three females (Emma and two daughters) – appear as living at Tingha in the 1891 Census (1891 New South Wales Census, Australia). Helen Brown, in her book Tin at Tingha (1982, p. 35), makes mention of the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack being appointed to serve as an ‘assistant Methodist preacher’ at Tingha between 1885 and 1893, and he is also mentioned by Ian Welch in his work on the Methodist Chinese Mission in Australia.
All available evidence points to this lovely family photograph being the Tear Tack family, taken in the Inverell district some time between the years of 1893 and 1896. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location, the photograph is likely to have been taken either at Inverell, Tingha or perhaps at nearby Bundarra. The Tear Tacks’ youngest daughter, Alice Lucy, who does not appear in the photograph, was born at Bundarra in 1896 (NSW BDM reg. no. 2164). Therefore, we can probably assume that the date of the photograph is either 1894 or, at the very latest, early 1895.
To the best of this writer’s current knowledge, the people appearing in the photograph are (left to right):
Joseph Henry Tear Tack, born Inverell 1888 (NSW BDM reg. no. 26002)
the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack
Josiah William Tear Tack, born Inverell 1892 (NSW BDM reg. no. 17560)
Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young
Laura Matilda Tear Tack, born Inverell 1890 (NSW BDM reg. no. 16916)
Elizabeth Edith Tear Tack, born Inverell 1886 (NSW BDM reg. no. 24730).
The identity of the younger man standing back right is not known at this stage.
After working for some years in the Inverell/Tingha/Bundarra area, where their five children were born, the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack was sent by the church to Darwin in 1896. While living there he, Emma and their children survived a terrible cyclone that destroyed their house (‘Visit of a Chinese missionary to Lithgow‘, Lithgow Mercury, 5 June 1900, p. 2). Joseph was then sent to Cairns just at the turn of the twentieth century. There he was to establish a new mission and undertake Christian missionary work among the Chinese population in far north Queensland. Emma and children did not initially accompany him to Cairns, but shipping news indicated that ‘Mrs Tear Tack and five children’ sailed to Queensland from Sydney aboard the Aramac in November of 1900.
Tragedy struck the Tear Tack family not long after their arrival in Queensland, with Joseph Tear Tack dying of heart failure at Cairns in August 1901 (Qld BDM reg. no. C697). Joseph would have been approximately 53 years of age at the time of his death. Emma Tear Tack was only about 36 when she was widowed with five children. On 11 January 1902, a letter from Emma appeared in The Methodist under the title ‘Acknowledgement’. In it, Emma Tear Tack paid a moving tribute to her husband, Joseph, and thanked their many friends for their support in what she described as her ‘sore and heavy bereavement’.
Emma did not remarry and so remained a widow for the rest of her life. After her husband’s death, she returned to the support of her family of origin in Ballarat, Victoria, some time in 1903. She appears to have raised her five children there, before moving to Burwood, in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, at around 65 years of age (Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, Sands Street Index, 1861-1930).
Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young died on 28 October 1948 at 83 years of age at her home in Concord (NSW BDM reg. no. 27301). She is buried in the Field of Mars Cemetery at East Ryde in Sydney. A death notice published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 October 1948 noted that she was the loving mother of Elizabeth, Henry, Laura, Josiah, Lucy, and adopted daughters Marjorie and Molly.
I am very grateful to Kate Bagnall for originally posting the photograph of the Tear Tack family on her blog, to my cousin Etty Doyle Lang for pointing me in the direction of Kate’s post, and to the keen eye of Paul Macgregor who was the first to spot and recognise the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack in the photograph. I am also very much indebted to Paul for his encouragement, mentoring, collaboration and fine detective skills, and to our friend and colleague, Juanita Kwok, whom we also consulted in solving some of the mysteries initially presented by this photograph.
Recently I’ve been looking at a series of NSW naturalisation certificates held in the National Archives of Australia here in Canberra (NAA: A806). The naturalisation certificates in A806 are ones that were ‘cancelled’ by Customs officers after apparently being used by Chinese to attempt fraudulent entry to New South Wales.
In the 1880s and 1890s Chinese who were naturalised British subjects in NSW were exempt from paying the poll tax on entering the colony (£10 after 1881, and £100 after 1888). After the turn of the 20th century, naturalised Chinese used their certificates to prove their Australian domicile and avoid having to sit the Dictation Test on return from overseas. As a consequence, a trade in naturalisation certificates grew up within the Chinese community, as certificates were sold or passed on to others to use after a man had died or gone home to China for good.
Some of the naturalisation certificates in A806 have layers of hand-written notes on them, most of which are undated, which suggest the same certificates were used several times as re-entry documents – perhaps initially by the legitimate holder of the certificate and subsequently by someone else. A number have ‘£10’ written on the front, suggesting that the Chinese passenger was rejected and made to pay the poll tax to enter the colony. Some have Chinese notations (mostly on the back), giving personal details such as name, age, place of origin and length of time in New South Wales.
A806 comprises three boxes and several hundred certificates, which I’ve photographed and am now working my way through in more detail. Eventually I will marry these certificates with other naturalisation records held in State Records NSW and also in immigration case files in the National Archives.
In some of the immigration cases involving naturalisation certificates I’ve looked at, including those in A806, it’s not altogether clear whether fraud was really being attempted or whether Customs officers were just being super cautious in the execution of their duties.
With one certificate in A806, though, the fraud was obvious – and it wasn’t the Customs officers who were duped.
In June 1915, a Chinese man arriving in Sydney on the Eastern from Hong Kong presented an 1896 naturalisation certificate belonging to ‘James Andersen of Kiama, a native of Finland’. The unfortunate fellow, who presumably didn’t read much English, was returned to Hong Kong on the same vessel.
The list feature in Trove allows registered users to create their own collections of items. They’re a handy thing if you’re researching a particular topic and want to organise the material that you’ve found in Trove, or even if you just want to go back to random stuff that you like. You can keep your Trove lists private, or make them public and share what you’ve found with others.
Tim, who until recently was part of the Trove management team, thought that it would be good to take that sharing to another level — so he’s created a framework that lets you use your Trove lists to create an online exhibition. You can read more about Tim’s thoughts on this process on his blog.
I was keen to give it a try, and decided to make a pictorial exhibition about the Chinese in New South Wales to 1940. I started by making nine lists in Trove, which would serve as topics in my exhibition. Gradually I added a selection of pictures, objects and illustrated newspapers articles to each of my lists. I gave each of my lists a short description and arranged the items in chronological order. Because I’ve included newspaper articles, it would be best if I took the time to correct the OCR text for each one, but I’m impatient and wanted to get onto building the exhibition itself.
Tim’s DIY Trove Exhibition is pretty straightforward to use, particularly if you have some experience (even very basic experience) with web publishing or coding. He’s written clear, step-by-step instructions. The process first involves getting yourself a GitHub account and a Trove API key, and then customising his code to make your exhibition. Customising the code might look scary, but if you follow the instructions carefully you should be okay! There are further ways that you can customise the exhibition — for example, I changed the fonts — but you don’t need to do anything more if you don’t want to.
Once you’ve made the exhibition, you can easily add or take away items, or change your list descriptions, or change the order items appear in a list. Simply make the change to your list in Trove and it will appear in your exhibition after refreshing your browser.
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).
All in all we know very little about Australia’s very earliest Chinese residents.
Best known is Mak Sai Ying, or John Shying, who arrived in Sydney as a free settler in 1818, working first as a carpenter with John Blaxland before establishing himself in business at Parramatta, marrying twice to white women and fathering four sons. Family history research papers about Shying and his descendents are held in Sydney’s Mitchell Library.
Histories by Eric Rolls, Shirley Fitzgerald, Janis Wilton and Ian Jack have sketched the arrival of a small number of other Chinese men who arrived in Sydney in the three decades after Shying—sailors, other carpenters and labourers brought out on contract to work primarily in agriculture.
In the 1820s there is record of John Dunmore Lang—Sydney’s first Presbyterian minister who himself only arrived in 1823—employing Chinese carpenters named Queng and Tchiou in 1827, and of two Chinese men (a cook and a carpenter) being among the multicultural labour force employed by the Macarthurs at Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta. The NSW Colonial Secretary’s correspondence shows that three Chinese carpenters—Ahehew, Ahoun and Awage—requested to remain permanently in the colony before 1825. Another man, Achin, was admitted to the general hospital in 1824. And the 1828 census recorded Ahchun, Ahfoo and Ahlong in the employ of a T.G. Pitman in Sydney.
In 1830, there was the remarkable arrival of Ah Nee and three countrymen who landed in Sydney after seven months at sea in a small sailing vessel. As noted by Ian Jack, they were employed as stockmen by Andrew Brown on his substantial grazing properties on the Castlereagh River. (Perhaps even more remarkable is that Ah Nee spent the next 75 years living in central-western New South Wales, where he worked as an agricultural labourer, before he died aged 117 in 1915.)
The colonial shipping news also records the comings and goings of Chinese men—such as the arrival of an unnamed Chinese carpenter on the Nimrod in December 1827; the departure of Yan, Hang and Nee for Mauritius on the Bee in June 1832; and the arrival of four unnamed Chinese labourers on the Regia from Singapore in September 1838.
In my PhD study of Chinese-European marriages in colonial New South Wales, John Shying’s two marriages were the only Chinese marriages I found before the early 1850s. But I now have evidence of at least two or three more (thanks to Trove). One of these was between a Chinese man named James Tame, a Catholic catechist converted by the Portuguese (presumably in or near Macau), and Englishwoman Mary Rapsey, who seems to have been an assigned convict at the time of their marriage in 1839. A family of ‘four Chinese children’ and their parents were reported as living at Goulburn in March 1842 (I’m pretty certain these would be mixed-race children, as I haven’t identified a Chinese mother in the colony before the 1860s). The other early mixed marriage I have come across involved a previously unknown contemporary of John Shying named Man Sue Bach.
The oldest Chinese colonist?
When he died in 1862, Man Sue Bach was 72 years old and had been living in New South Wales for 42 years, suggesting he had arrived in the colony in around 1820. On reporting his death, the Empire newspaper stated that Man Sue Bach was the ‘oldest Chinese colonist’, as he was considered the oldest member of the Chinese race in the colony and had been the longest resident.
(What about John Shying, you might ask. Why wasn’t he the oldest? Hadn’t he arrived earlier, wasn’t he about the same age? Shying was born in 1796, but there is no record of his death in New South Wales. He may have returned to China after the death of his second wife in the 1840s, or there is also the possibility that he married for a third time and died under the name John Sheen in 1880. Does the Empire’s claim to Man Sue Bach’s status as ‘oldest Chinese colonist’ in 1862 debunk the John Shying/Sheen story? Maybe, maybe not. But as John Shying’s son was an undertaker at Man Sue Bach’s burial, it seems likely that if John Shying/Sheen was living in or around Sydney the claim about Man Sue Bach probably wouldn’t have been made.)
Being something of a curiosity, both the Empire and Sydney Morning Herald reported on Man Sue Bach’s passing in some detail, and their reports were reprinted in papers such as the Maitland Mercury and Launceston’s Cornwall Chronicle. My account of Man Sue Bach’s life and death is based on these press accounts and on the details provided on his death certificates. I haven’t been able to locate other records, but that’s not to say he won’t pop up somewhere else—versions of his name I’ve found are Man Sue Bach, Mum Shou Pac, John Ah Shue Bach, John A. Sue Bach, John Ah Sue and John a Shue. There may well be formal records of his baptism, his marriage and the birth of his children, but I haven’t yet managed to track them down.
A brief sketch of life …
Man Sue Bach was born around 1790 and he was said to have been a ‘native of Hongkong’. Although he could have been born in Hong Kong itself, it is equally possible that his native place was inland from Hong Kong in Guangdong province, as his birth and later departure for overseas ports took place well before the ceding of Hong Kong to the British in 1842 after the first Opium War.
He arrived in Sydney around 1820 from Saint Helena, the tiny British outpost in the mid-Atlantic most famous as Napoleon Bonaparte’s place of exile. Controlled by the British East India Company, Saint Helena was an important stop on the sea route between Britain and India, where ships restocked with supplies, and the majority of its population were African slaves. After Britain abolished the Atlantic slave trade, however, the East India Company looked to China to provide a source of labour. From 1810 Chinese workers began arriving on the island, with the population peaking at over 600 men in 1817. Most worked as agricultural labourers and were indentured for contracts of three to five years.
After he arrived in New South Wales, Man Sue Bach travelled inland and eventually settled in the New England region, where he was said to have married and had a family of at least two sons. He also converted to Catholicism. In more recent years he had moved to Sydney where he kept a lodging house on Lower George Street, which was then the city’s fledgling Chinatown. He also made the arrangements for provisioning of ships leaving for China. Between these two enterprises he supported himself, even at his advanced age. The press accounts contain no more detail about his earlier life in the colony.
… and death
Man Sue Bach died on 4 June 1862, at about half past nine in the evening. He had been lying on his bed in his home at 169 Lower George Street when, at about 8.30 pm, he started and cried out in Chinese that he was dying. Dr Wright of Hunter Street was called for, but Man Sue Bach died soon after his arrival. When the news of his death spread, the Chinese storekeepers in Lower George Street and other parts of the city closed their shops in mourning.
In the press reports there is no mention of Man Sue Bach’s wife being present, so it seems probable that she had predeceased him and perhaps even that he had little contact with his adult sons. No details about a marriage or children were given when his death was registered, suggesting that the details were not known to those around him, although the press reported that his sons were still in New England and he had a brother at Lambing Flat.
The Sydney Morning Herald said that Man Sue Bach had been a ‘valued counsellor and friend’ to his countrymen in Sydney and, according to the Empire, they called him by the name ‘Governor’. Having lived in the colony for more than forty years, Man Sue Bach spoke English perfectly and understood how colonial life worked, meaning that many Chinese had sought his advice on ‘their personal welfare or business undertakings’. He also helped them financially, being ‘very ready … to assist them with loans of small sums of money when in distress’. He was honoured and respected by his fellow Chinese colonists, too, because of his old age, and the Empire declared that he would be ‘much missed’.
A notice of Man Sue Bach’s death was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 June (and reprinted on 21 June), and the City Coroner held an inquest at the Prince of Wales Hotel in George Street North the following day. Although he had enjoyed good health during his long life, during the previous few months Man Sue Bach had been ailing, complaining of a pain in the back. Based on the diagnosis of Dr Wright, who attended Man Sue Bach in his last minutes, the coroner found that death was due to an apoplectic fit.
Man Sue Bach was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery. The funeral cortege that left from his Lower George Street home at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of Friday, 6 June, comprised ‘a long string of carriages’, numbering forty-one in total and including four mourning coaches. The funeral was attended by many Chinese, but also by white ‘diggers and others’, who, the Empire noted, ‘seemed to participate in their regret’. The death was registered twice, first by the coroner on 30 June 1862 and then, on 30 August 1862, by the undertaker, Eliza Hanslow. Witnesses to his burial were Thomas Hanslow and John Shying (son of our original John Shying), who was a foreman with the Hanslow family’s firm of undertakers. Several years later John Shying junior set up business as an undertaker with his brother George in George Street South.
Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1997.
Winsome Doyle, ‘Research papers relating to John Shying, a Chinese settler in New South Wales (believed to have arrived in New South Wales in 1818), and his descendants, 198-?-ca. 1992’, MLMSS 5857, State Library of New South Wales.
Today’s Canberra Times features an article by David Marr about Australian novelist Patrick White’s forgotten first book, Happy Valley, ‘the thylacine of Australian literature’. It was written while White was working as a jackaroo at Bolaro (or Bolero) in southern NSW. He took horses to be shod in nearby Adaminaby and there encountered the Anglo-Chinese Yens, who formed the basis for the novel’s Quong family. A review in the Adelaide Mail wrote:
Mr. White has set his novel in an Australian town — but what a town! In the winter it is snowed in; in the summer it is burning hot. Its inhabitants are the mixed lot you find in any town — but what a lot! The sanest and most decent people there seem to be the family of half Chinese, two of whom conduct the general store … (The Mail, 22 February 1941)
The Yens (or Yans) were not the only Anglo-Chinese family who had made Adaminaby their home. For a long time Adaminaby was also home to the Booshang (later Booshand) family, among others, but they had moved on by the time White arrived in the town:
Twin sisters Anastasia and Jane Thomas married John Booshang and Charles Chun Yin, later known as Yen, within a few years of each other at Cooma in the early 1880s. Anastasia and Jane, born in 1864, were the daughters of Cooma residents Thomas Thomas and Johanna Shanahan who had married in the town in 1858. Anastasia and John, who married in 1881, had three children and Jane and Charles had two, before both families moved to Adaminaby in around 1888. Here they settled themselves, opening a store and Jane and Anastasia having four and five more children respectively.
Both families became established members of the Adaminaby community. John Booshang lived there until his death in 1923, at which point Anastasia moved to Sydney to be with her children, dying there in 1934. The Yen family maintained their businesses in the town and were compulsorily moved in the early 1950s when the old Adaminaby township was flooded as part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. (Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, p.131)
Happy Valley was published in 1939 and won the Australian Society of Literature’s gold medal in 1941. Despite this acclaim, White never allowed the novel to be reprinted in English. According to David Marr, this was because:
White could never shake the fear that … [the Yens] … could sue for what he did to them in the pages of Happy Valley. He could not be reassured about this. White went to his grave fearing the revenge of the Yens.
A century after White’s birth and more than seventy years after Happy Valley first appeared, the novel is now being republished, with its release due in August this year. Apparently printed copies of the original version are rare and valuable, but if you can’t wait until August to read Happy Valley, a digitised version is available in the Haithi Trust Digital Library.
The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age both published the same article by Marr about Happy Valley. The Herald received a response from a Yen descendent named Laurann Yen, which it published on 30 May 2012. She wrote:
In Happy Valley White does indeed steal my grandparents and report them spitefully: they are without humour, without grace, without respite from the bleak town and their bleak relationship; two dry peas in a miserable pod. But there is wonderful White as well – a sense of place, where every tree, every verandah, every small comforting pretension gets into your bones. I know, more from White than from memory, every person.
The letters page of the Herald on 2 June 2012 also includes a postscript which talks a bit about Marr’s unsuccessful attempts to track down members of the Yen family:
After all these years comes this generous response: acknowledging that White looked on their grandparents with a cold and unforgiving eye but nevertheless wrote a fine book,’ he says. ‘Such forgiveness is rare.’
I’m still digesting all that I heard at the 5th WCILCOS conference and cogitating about the exciting possibilities for international collaborative work that have emerged from it. I’m hoping to pull together some more thoughts about my discussions with folk from Canada and the US about mixed-race overseas Chinese families and children.
A little article of mine* appears in issue 9 of Inside History magazine (March–April 2012). The article discusses the experiences of Chinese Australians during World War I through the experiences of the Sam family from West Wyalong, New South Wales.
I first came across the Sam family in the file of youngest son, Percy, who travelled with his father to China in 1915. It was noted in their applications for exemption from the Dictation Test that a number of Percy’s brothers were serving in the First AIF – they were, in fact, at Gallipoli. It seemed such an irony that at the same time as his brothers were fighting for their country overseas, Percy was made to comply with the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act, something that suggested he was less than a true Australian.
The way that Chinese Australians were treated during World War I was full of contradictions. Some young men were able to enlist, others weren’t. I don’t mention it in the article, but Chinese nationals were required to register as aliens during wartime (and afterwards) – so there were also cases of Chinese fathers having to report to the police to register as aliens while their Australian-born sons were away fighting for country and empire.
Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to an online copy of the article, so if you’re interested you might just have to go and buy a copy of the magazine.