Mary Rapley from Shipley, Sussex, arrived in Sydney at the end of August 1838. A ‘nursery girl’ by calling, she had been convicted of shoplifting at the Sussex Quarter Sessions on 7 January and sentenced to seven years. Mary was one of 172 female convicts to arrive on the John Renwick, having left the Downs, off the Kent coast, in late May.
Mary was single, Protestant and aged twenty-four. She could read but not write. Mary’s convict indent described her as being 4 foot 10 1/2 inches tall, with brown hair and hazel eyes. Her complexion was ‘fair, ruddy and freckled’, and she was missing one of her front upper teeth.
Mary became an assigned servant to James Henry, in Cumberland Street in the Rocks, but within a year of her arrival in New South Wales she had married. Her new husband, James Tim (or Jim), aged 27 in 1839, was Chinese – one of a very small number of Chinese men in the colony at the time.
In late July 1839, Mary and James’s marriage banns were published at the Scots Church, Sydney, where they were wed by the Rev. William McIntyre on Friday, 9 August. Neither Mary and nor James could sign their name, and so made their mark in the marriage register with an X. Mary’s employer, James Henry, had consented to her marriage, but the couple had not applied for permission from the Governor, which was usually required if either the bride or groom were still serving their sentence.
It seems that married life did not suit Mary, as at the end of September she found herself before police captain Joseph Innes facing an accusation of having run away from her husband. James claimed that Mary had left him after twenty-five days to live with another man. The case was reported in the colonial press under the headline ‘Conversion and Perversion‘:
Yesterday a Chinese gentleman named James Tame, appeared before Captain Innes at the Police-office, to complain of his wife, an English woman, whose maiden name had been Mary Rapsey, for running from his protection to that of another person. Upon stepping into the witness box, Mr Tame stated himself to be a Chinese catechist in his own coountry, that he was of the Roman Catholic persuasion, and was converted by the Portuguese. He said that he read the bible and believed that he read, but would rather be sworn on a saucer which was the way he had been accustomed to. He had been married by agreement with the prisoner, who had been an assigned servant to a person named James Henry, in Cumberland-street. They were married by the Rev. Mr McIntyre, and had been united but twenty-five days when the lady left her lord for the protection of another. Captain Innes said, that this case required investigation as he could not understand how permission had been obtained for the marriage, and he conveived that there had been some irregularity in the matter. The prisoner was remanded until enquiry should be made.
So many interesting things to think about in their story! When and why had James come to New South Wales? Was he from Macau? If he was a Catholic catechist in his own country, what did he do in Sydney? How had he and Mary met? In what circumstances had they married? Who was Mary’s paramour and was she compelled to return to her husband?
I have had trouble finding any further reference to Mary or her Chinese husband after this hearing before Captain Innes in September 1839. All the references to the surname ‘Rapley’ (or similar) I located in the convict indexes at State Records NSW are to Mary’s uncle, Daniel Rapley, who was sent to New South Wales in 1818. I also didn’t find any references to the surname Jim or Tim or Tame (or similar). And I can find no further Trove or BDM references either.
Any clues or further information would be very welcome!
Next month I will be giving a paper on Chinese women in colonial New South Wales at the International Conference on Chinese Women in World History at Academia Sinica in Taipei. My paper will focus on the early period of Cantonese migration to Australia, from the 1850s to 1880, and present short biographical sketches of four Chinese women who arrived in New South Wales in the 1860s – Ah Happ, Ah Fie, Kim Linn and Sam Kue. Before 1881 there were no legislative limits on the entry of Chinese women to New South Wales.
I was particularly interested in these four women because of their early arrival in the colony, and their rarity among the colonial Chinese population, but there are others I’ve come across whose lives I’d also like to know more about. One of those is Chin Sheng Geong, the wife of the fabulously named missionary and interpreter George Graham Mackie Ah Len.
Chin Sheng Geong (born c. 1856) married George Ah Len (born c. 1837) in Canton in about 1876, while he was on a visit home from Australia. They seem to have arrived back in Australia together in 1877 (along with a female Chinese servant who accompanied Chin Sheng Geong). They lived in the Rocks, which was then Sydney’s Chinatown, in Queen Street, a laneway that ran off Essex Street between George and Harrington streets. There Chin Sheng Geong gave birth to and raised her family of six: Jane (b. 1877), Mary (b. 1879), Ada (b. 1882), James (b. 1886), and twins Peter and Thomas (b. 1888). The children were all baptised. George Ah Len died in 1889, after which time Chin Sheng Geong returned to China with her children.
George Ah Len coincidentally also features in my naturalisation research. He was naturalised as a British subject in 1878 (No. 78/206), and in 1882 was registered as a ‘person known to Government whose endorsement is considered sufficient’ on applications for naturalisation. From 1882 to 1888 he endorsed the naturalisation applications of more than 60 Chinese in New South Wales.
Typically, there is much more to be found about husband than wife, but within his story we can find traces of her. The following brief chronology about George Ah Len and Chin Sheng Geong in Australia is compiled from historical newspapers, government gazettes, naturalisation records, Sands Directories, BDM records and immigration files.
Early in the year Ah Lin was baptised at Maryborough, Victoria, and later, as George Ah Lin, he began his training as an evangelist under Rev. William Mathew in Melbourne.
In October, three Chinese women (one perhaps being Chin Sheng Geong?) were in the congregation at the baptism of six Chinese men by the Rev. Dr Steel, assisted by George Ah Len, at St Stephen’s Church.
On 16 June 1886, birth of James Ah Len, to George and Sheng C, 11 Queen Street, Sydney (NSW BDM 2324/1886 and 1314/1886 V18861314 46; NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71). Birth was attended by Mrs Strange (nurse) and Mrs Morrison.
Birth of twins, Peter and Thomas Ah Len, to George and Shenn, Sydney (NSW BDM 1748/1888 and 1356/1888 V18881356 46 and V18881356 47; 1749/1888 and 1357/1888 V18881357 46)
In January, there was an unclaimed letter at the General Post Office, Sydney, for Mr Ah Len, Queen Street.
1889 ‘No. 32. LIST OF LETTERS RETURNED FROM THE BRANCH AND SUBURBAN OFFICES, AND NOW LYING AT THE GENERAL POST OFFICE, UNCLAIMED’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 2 January, p. 25, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224311037
On 23 April, George Ah Len died at 4 Queen Street, Sydney, aged 52 (NSW BDM 717/1889)
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.
This post is a written version of a presentation I gave to the second-year Hands On History (HIST274) class at the University of Wollongong on 7 September 2016. I was asked to speak about an interesting primary source and how I’ve used it in my research.
As a historian at the University of Wollongong I work in the field of Chinese-Australian history, researching the history of Chinese migration and settlement in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Much of my work concerns histories of women, children and the family, and I use methods such as biography and microhistory to write about the lives of people who have often left only a small trace in the archives. My PhD thesis looked at intimate relationships between white women and Chinese men in colonial New South Wales.
I mostly work with archival sources, with documents and photographs, but one particularly interesting source I’ve come across is a piece of Cine Sound newsreel footage from 1933 that is now held as part of the Universal Newsreel Library in the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The newsreel features a man named Ernest Sung Yee, who at the time was working at the municipal produce markets in Sydney.
Ernest, and the newsreel about him, relate to a particular research interest of mine that developed out of my PhD research – mixed-race Chinese-Australian families who went back to China.
Quite early on in my PhD research (in about July 1998) I went out to the National Archives of Australia in Chester Hill in Sydney. This was before the National Archives had digitised material online; in fact, it was even quite soon after they had put their collection database online for the first time. Armed with the Archives’ very first published research guide, I got started looking at records, box after box. Although it took me some time to understand the records I was working with, what I found profoundly changed the nature of the research I was doing and of much of my work since.
Chinese Australians were a very mobile group of people, travelling overseas for holidays, to visit family and for education and business. Under the Immigration Restriction Act – the legislative backbone of the White Australia policy – they could apply for travel documents that would allow them to return to Australia without having to sit the Dictation Test. The Dictation Test could be applied to anyone arriving into Australia (even those who had previously lived in Australia) and it could be given in any prescribed language – meaning that if the officials at the border didn’t want to let you in, they could administer the test in language you were sure to fail.
The records in the National Archives that I found so interesting and valuable were the thousands and thousands of identity certificates and immigration case files created by the Customs Department and Department of External Affairs documenting the overseas travels of Chinese Australians in the early decades of the 20th century.
Somewhat to my surprise, these records included documents about many Australians of mixed Chinese and European parentage. This showed me two important things. First, that these mixed-race Chinese Australians were considered ‘Chinese’ rather than ‘white’ by the bureaucrats administering the White Australia policy. And second, that mixed Chinese-European families maintained ongoing connections with China.
Having lived in southern China myself, I became very interested in the experiences of white Australian wives of Chinese men and their mixed-race Anglo-Chinese children who ventured to China.
The immigration and travel records in the National Archives provide some details, such as who and how many and when and how, and in some cases, why. But, for the most part, they couldn’t tell me much about what happened between when someone left Australia and when they arrived back. I needed to find other sources for that.
I’ve found a few first-hand accounts by Anglo-Chinese Australians and New Zealanders that tell of their experiences as children and teenagers in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More common though are sources about, but not by, them – government files, missionary reports, and quite a number of newspaper articles.
Generally these accounts highlight the difficulties Anglo-Chinese Australian families had in adjusting to life in China, particularly those who did not stay in Hong Kong but ventured on to rural towns and villages in Guangdong province. At this time, the majority of Chinese in Australia came from a small group of rural counties in the Pearl River Delta region inland from Hong Kong. Many accounts tell of wives and children who returned to Australia because of apparent mistreatment by Chinese relatives, and newspaper reports about them are often highly emotive and sensationalist.
I’ve written three articles so far (centred on the Tart, Allen/Gum and Breuer/Lum Mow families) in which I’ve tried to read such sources against the grain, really thinking about the context in which they were written and the motivations of those who wrote them, to tell something of the varied experiences of Anglo-Chinese families in China. But one source I haven’t really used yet in my work is the newsreel from 1933.
The newsreel shows two men who both, in fact, came from mixed Chinese-European families – Ernest Sung Yee, born in Quirindi in northern New South Wales in 1901, and Charles Liu, born in Sydney in 1895. Both spent time in China as children, but it is Ernest who is the feature of the newsreel. Charles is there as translator only.
The newsreel title reads ‘Universal Newspaper Newsreel – Sydney, Australia – Native Anzac Raised with Chinese Soul in Curious Racial Mix-Up’.
Voiceover: Almost merchants. Here is a Chinese who … an amazing contrast. Working among the labourers … is Chinese. His parents died soon after taking him to China as a baby. Native villagers reared him and Ernest Soong Lee, as he was called, returned to Australia … Australian. Born of white parents in New South Wales … an English-speaking Chinese had to interpret him.
Ernest Sung Yee speaks in Cantonese.
Charles Liu: He like China the best. He like going back to see the wife and children, and his family.
The newsreel was brought to my attention by historian Geoff Robinson through the H-ANZAU listserv back in 2008. When I first saw it, I knew nothing about Ernest Sung Yee, but I was pretty sure that the story told about him wasn’t quite right. I knew of white step-sons of Chinese men who had been taken back to China to be educated in Chinese, and I thought maybe this was the case with Ernest too.
So I went back to those immigration records in the National Archives to see what I could find out, and from there have been able to piece together a bit of a picture of Ernest’s life, also drawing on birth, death and marriage records, and newspapers.
Ernest Sung Yee was the eldest son of Elizabeth Maher and Sung Yee, born at Quirindi in 1901. Elizabeth and Sung Yee had married in Quirindi in 1897. Ernest and his younger brother, Horace (b. 1905), were taken to China by Sung Yee in 1909. Their departure, when Ernest was 8 and Horace 4, came after the death of two baby brothers – Cecil (b. & d. 1907) and Dudley (b. & d.1908). After three years in China, Sung Yee returned to Australia, but the boys remained in China until 1921. On returning to Australia they went to live in Townsville, where their father was living and working. Ernest moved from Townsville to Sydney sometime in the late 1920s. He continued to make trips back to China over the 1920s and 1930s, having married and had a family in China. Under the White Australia Policy it would have been very unlikely that his wife and children would have been allowed to join him in Australia.
I have used Ernest’s story – the one revealed through official immigration files – as an example of the complexities of racial identity in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act, of how cultural markers such as language and education, and somewhat woolly notions of ‘Britishness’, influenced the treatment of Chinese Australians under the White Australia policy. Ernest was not your typical Chinese Australian – on immigration documents he and his brother Horace were both variously described as ‘half-caste Chinese’ or ‘Chinese’, but it was Ernest who had ‘light’ or ‘fair’ hair and blue eyes. From these descriptions and from his physical appearance in photographs it seems likely that neither of Ernest’s biological parents had Chinese ancestry, but he was still treated as ‘Chinese’ by Customs officials.
Curious as Ernest’s case is, thinking back to my question about mixed-race Chinese-Australian families in China, and thinking about the negative portrayal of their experiences in many of the sources I’ve found, I wonder if the newsreel can in fact tell me something quite important. Could it perhaps point to the more hidden part of the story – one where Australian children like Ernest Sung Yee came to fit in, and belong, to the Chinese families and south China village communities in which they lived?
’Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood’, in Paul Arthur (ed.), Australian Identity and Culture: Transnational Perspectives in Life Writing, Anthem Press – Australian Humanities Research Series, forthcoming 2017.
On 5 February 1910, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published this series of photographs of Sydney’s Chinese community to mark the upcoming Chinese New Year.
One hundred and six years later I’d like to say, ‘kung-hi far-tsoy’ everyone!
‘KUNG-HI FAR-TSOY SUN-NEEN.’
This picture depicts a well-known Chinese merchant in Sydney and his Chinese family, awaiting guests in the reception hall of his residence. The lady, it will be noticed, has the small feet, ‘golden lillies’ as they are known in China. A few years ago no mandarin would dream of marrying a lady who possessed feet more than three or four inches long.
Thursday next will be the first day of the Chinese new year, and that is the occasion for ceremonial visits among Chinese. On the entrance of the visitor there is a general exchange of the season’s greeting: ‘Kung-hi Far-Tsoy Sun-neen.’
MAKING NEW YEAR PURCHASES.
The Chinese shops in Sydney are mostly of the general store type. This represents the interior of one of the principal shops in Campbell-street. On the shelves over the proprietor’s head are silks, satins, and other dress goods. Further along are Chinese shoes–with paper soles. On the extreme right are bags containing Chinese rice, while in the inner chamber are all kinds of Chinese groceries, fire-crackers, and even–sausages. The proprietor also sells Chinese josses and fire-crackers with which to frighten away evil spirits–which are said to be very active at this period.
THE ANCESTRAL ALTAR IN A CHINESE HOUSE.
It will be noticed that over the altar is a picture of Confucius. On the altar itself are offerings to the gods, in the form of fruit, rice, eggs, etc. On New Year’s Day various genuflexions and kow-tows have to be performed before this altar.
POULTRY FOR THE NEW YEAR.
There was great business being done in the ‘cook-shops,’ which are stalls open to the street, on which larded ducks, roast chicken, stewed fowls stuffed with chestnuts are offered for sale. That even a Chinese can appreciate a free advertisement is shown by the expression on the cook’s face.
Five years ago I began an as-yet-uncompleted series of blogposts about the various iterations of the Certificate of Domicile and the Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test.
In the first post I wrote about the first Certificate of Domicile held in record series NAA: ST84/1, ‘Certificates of Domicile and Certificates of Exemption from Dictation Test, chronological series’. The certificate, no. 1903/1, was issued to a man named Ah Shooey on the last day of 1902.
The reason I didn’t write about the very first Certificate of Domicile issued in New South Wales was because it is held in a different series, NAA: SP11/6. I’ve written a bit about SP11/6 before — it’s an odd collections of Customs files that includes a bound volume with the earliest Certificates of Domicile, and the volume isn’t digitised.
On a more recent visit to the archives in Sydney, I therefore photographed the first certificate, which was issued a month after the Immigration Restriction Act came into force in January 1901. It can be found in NAA: SP11/6, Box 3.
The first NSW Certificate of Domicile was issued to 38-year-old Yau Foon (or Yaw Foon or Yow Foon?) on 3 February 1902 by NSW Collector of Customs Nicholas Lockyer. On the certificate ‘No. 1’ is handwritten in clear red letters at the top.
Yau Foon is described as being 5 foot 5 1/2 inches tall (without boots), of medium build, with dark hair and brown eyes. He had a small scar on the back of his right wrist. There is no space on the certificate for details such as nationality or birthplace.
Two photographs are attached to the front of the certificate, one showing Yau Foon front on, one side on. The photographs clearly show Yau Foon’s queue, wound and pinned to the top of his head. Note that on this earliest version of the Certificate of Domicile there appears to be specific spaces for two photographs.
The certificate is marked in red as being cancelled, which would have happened when Yau Foon returned from his trip to China. Customs officer Bragg has written that Yau Foon arrived on the S.S. Chingtu on 5 May 1904.
The administration of the Immigration Restriction Act in early 20th-century Australia was complex, contradictory, opaque, ambiguous and capricious. After reading through hundreds of individual case files of Chinese Australians created as part of this administrative system, I still find myself puzzled and surprised and confused when trying to comprehend what really went on. Why was a particular decision made? Why was one case treated so differently from another? Why was the law applied harshly at times, leniently at others? It is not an easy history to understand well, nor are its complexities easy to communicate simply. But this doesn’t excuse getting the history wrong, as is the case in the Museum of Sydney’s Celestial City exhibition.
The second-to-last part of the exhibition is titled ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ and explores anti-Chinese immigration restriction and the White Australia Policy. The introductory panel unfortunately repeats the mistake that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the ‘first law passed by the newly federated Commonwealth’. In fact it was the 17th piece of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament in 1901, the last one that year, after things like the Customs Act, Excise Act, Post and Telegraph Act and, significantly, the Pacific Island Labourers Act. An easy mistake to make perhaps since it crops up everywhere, but when visiting the exhibition it didn’t bode well for what was to come (especially as it was repeated in a following panel on ‘The White Australia Policy’). The introductory panel goes on to say that, under the Immigration Restriction Act, Chinese living in Australia were ‘denied the freedom to come and go between Australia and China’:
… after 1901 Chinese were effectively exiled in Sydney, their futures uncertain. Those who had made their lives here were unwilling to risk returning to, or visiting, China for fear they would not be allowed to return. So they stayed in Australia, raised families and became the ancestors of generations of Chinese Australians.
Yet what follows in the exhibition are case studies and documents that demonstrate the mobility of Chinese residents and Australians of Chinese and part-Chinese descent. Historian Michael Williams estimates that 6000 or so individuals identified as ‘Chinese’ made over 26,000 journeys through the port of Sydney between 1902 and 1959 (Williams 2004: 37). If you have trouble imagining quite how many people that is, have a look at Tim Sherratt’s The Real Face of White Australia, an experiment in making the people in the archives of White Australia visible (using records from NAA: ST84/1 in Sydney). To me, this is not a population who were afraid — it is a population who were getting on with their lives, dealing with the bureaucracy as necessary, and testing and challenging the system on many, many occasions.
On the wall of ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ is an enlargement of the back of a 1903 Certificate of Domicile for cabinetmaker Tin Lee (NAA: ST84/1, 1903/261-270). The certificate has front and side portraits of Tin Lee, a handprint, official stamps and certification by Customs officer JTT Donohoe. The front of Tin Lee’s 1903 certificate and a piece of correspondence are also included in a display titled ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’. From the certificate it is clear that Tin Lee went to China on the Empire in December 1903. Certificates were valid for three years. The piece of correspondence, written by the Collector of Customs, Nicholas Lockyer, gives permission for the extension of Tin Lee’s certificate for one more year, to the end of 1907 (meaning that if he returned before that date he would not be made to sit the dictation test). On the front of Tin Lee’s certificate Donohoe has noted in red that the certificate was cancelled as Tin Lee had landed in Sydney on the Chingtu on 1 June 1907.
Considering that this information is all clearly stated on the documents included in the exhibition, it’s curious that the text reads thus:
Tin Lee was a cabinet-maker who had lived in Botany since 1888. After being here for 18 years he applied for an extension of his Certificate of Domicile, a proof of residency that allowed him to re-enter Australia if he left. His certificate was extended by one year, to 31 December 1907. This meant that if he departed Australia after that time, perhaps to visit family in China, he would not be allowed to return.
The curator seems to have completely missed the fact that Tin Lee was already overseas when the extension was applied for. The National Archives also holds a correspondence file relating to Tin Lee which dates from 1903 to 1941 (NAA: SP11/27, C1941/1178 — not digitised, and I haven’t looked through it) and a further six CEDTs documenting his travels back and forth over at least four decades. So, it wasn’t the case that once his certificate expired in 1907 that Tin Lee would be unable to travel overseas and return again — he was able to apply for a new certificate, and then another one and another one.
Also on display in ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’ are documents relating to Maggie Yee Lee, the Sydney-born daughter of cabinetmaker Yee Lee. Here the interpretive text is fine, although it states that Maggie and her siblings ‘needed a Certificate of Domicile … to re-enter Australia after their sojourn in China’. Strictly this isn’t correct, as many young Chinese Australians like Maggie travelled using their birth certificates as proof of domicile, but having a certificate certainly made sure that a return home to Sydney went as smoothly as possible. The text accompanying the other set of documents on display, relating to hawker and herbalist Charlie Hing, is similarly fine.
The final display in the ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ part of Celestial City is where the interpretation of the archival documents relating to immigration restriction really falls apart. The display is titled ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ and the main text states that the case in question involved the ‘repatriation’ of the eldest son of Braidwood resident Chee Dock Nomchong. The use of the term ‘repatriation’, which to me means ‘returning to the country you came from’ or ‘returning to your own country’, is wrong. George Nomchong, the eldest child of Chee Dock and Mary Nomchong, was born in China in 1887. He was left in the care of his grandmother in China when Mary went with Chee Dock to live in Australia. How could it be that China-born George Nomchong was being repatriated in 1908 when he was actually going to Australia for the first time?
Chee Dock Nomchong was a long-term resident of Braidwood and he was naturalised in NSW. So the term ‘repatriation’ seems to have been used in the exhibition to make the point that as the son of a naturalised British subject domiciled in Australia, George Nomchong might also have had the right to live in Australia — ‘As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901‘, it says. Except things were not this simple. The concept of nationality in Australia in the early 20th century was fuzzy and complicated by its intersection with ideas of race, but it was based on birthplace not parents’ nationality (meaning, for example, that children born in Australia to ‘alien’ Chinese parents were British subjects by birth) (Dutton 2000). George’s personal and familial circumstances might have meant there was a moral imperative to allow him to come to live in Australia, but there was not a clear legal one. The previous year the case Ah Yin v. Christie had been heard in the High Court, where it was decided that Ah Yin, the China-born-and-raised son of a Chinese man living in Victoria, did not have the right to live to Australia simply because his father was living here. Ah Yin was still in his mid-teens, a minor, yet George Nomchong was already twenty-one when his father applied for him to come to Australia. George was not a minor child dependent on his father and mother, but a grown man.
The George Nomchong case study in the exhibition includes seven archival documents, four pieces of correspondence and three CEDTs, each with accompanying interpretive text. The correspondence is taken from a 145-page Department of External Affairs file (NAA: A1, 1926/9963), while there is further material on the case in a Sydney Customs file (NAA: SP42/1, C1910/4678) not used in the exhibition. The CEDTs are from series NAA: ST84/1. The National Archives holds other later files about George Nomchong and his own wife and children, but these aren’t digitised (and I haven’t looked at them before) and they don’t appear to have been drawn on for the exhibition. The events covered in the 145-page External Affairs file are complex, but I believe that an important part of the story has been overlooked, either because it did not fit with the exhibition’s presentation of the story of George Nomchong’s ‘repatriation’ to Australia or because the curator simply failed to understand what happened.
Here’s Celestial City‘s presentation of the George Nomchong case.
Repatriating George Nomchong
In 1908 the Immigration Restriction Act was tested in an unusual case concerning the eldest son of Chee Dock Nomchong. The boy was born in China in 1887, three years after his father had been naturalised as a British subject, and was left in China with his grandmother while his parents returned to Braidwood. Twenty-one years later, Chee Dock began the protracted process of repatriating his son, known as George, to Australia. As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. However, as these immigration records show, he was subjected to the same scrutiny and surveillance that shadowed any Chinese immigrant after 1901.
Letter to A Hunt from Chee Dock Nom Chong, 21 March 1908 Letter to Chee Dock Nom Chong from A Hunt, 28 March 1908
‘By giving me some idea of the test I can acquaint him of it …’ writes Chee Dock Nomchong to Secretary of External Affairs Mr Atlee Hunt. However, since the dictation test could be given in any European language, not necessarily, as Mr Hunt admits, ‘one with which the intending immigrant was acquainted’, Chee Dock’s attempt to prepare his son for the test was futile. Customs officers selected the language most likely to eliminate ‘unwanted and undesirable’ immigrants. Between 1902 and 1909 the dictation test was given to 1359 people. Fifty-two were successful. After 1909 no one passed.
Refusal of Domicile for Chee Dock Nom Chong, 6 May 1910 Letter from James Gregg to Chee Dock Nom Chong, 18 May 1910
In 1910, on his way to Fiji, George Nomchong briefly visited his family in Braidwood. His father’s request that he be allowed to stay was denied, and George was subsequently deported as a restricted immigrant. His father pursued the case with a large petition, signed by the residents of Braidwood, asking that special consideration be given. The petitioners’ representative, Mr James Gregg, pointed out that this case different from ‘what the real framing of the Act was intended for’ because the immigrant in question was of a respectable family and the son of ‘one of the most liberal and best citizens we have in Australia’.
Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 20 May 1926 Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 4 May 1935 Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 12 May 1947
After years of waiting, and in view of the exceptional circumstances of the case, in 1913 George Nomchong was issued with a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test that was valid for four years. He worked at the Nomchong market gardens near Goulburn and for the next 40 years lived an uncertain life as a temporary resident, successively renewing his certificate until the dictation test was abolished in 1958.
(Off topic a bit, but why are Chee Dock Nomchong and George Nomchong referred to by their first names, while Atlee Hunt is ‘Mr Atlee Hunt’ or ‘Mr Hunt’?)
As I said before, George Nomchong — a man born in China to a Chinese mother (who at the time of his birth had never been to Australia) and a naturalised Chinese father resident in Australia — did not necessarily have a greater legal right to enter Australia under the Immigration Restriction Act than any other Chinese man of Chinese birth, and officials initially treated his case accordingly. Over the time between when Chee Dock Nomchong first applied for permission in 1908 and when permission was finally granted in 1913, however, the administration was learning that the Chinese community in Australia was not going to passively sit by and have their rights as Australians be dismantled. While the power ultimately remained with the government, family members and community leaders — mostly well-to-do, English-speaking, long-term residents of the merchant class like Chee Dock Nomchong — pushed and pushed and pushed in individual cases to attain fairer outcomes. Officials learned that the Chinese community would and could take cases as far as the High Court and be successful, as it had been with the Potter v. Minahan case in 1908, or it would cause the government serious embarrassment through widespread bad publicity over decisions that were seen as heartless and anti-Christian, such as the Poon Gooey deportation case between 1910 to 1913. Better to compromise in cases such as George Nomchong’s, where there were ‘exceptional’ or ‘special’ circumstances, than face the costs of defeat in the courts or the press.
From 1914 to 1920, George Nomchong was issued with a series of Certificates of Exemption — not Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test or CEDTs, as stated in the exhibition. Certificates of Exemption were like visitors visas, allowing someone to enter Australia and take up temporary residence for a set period. CEDTs on the other hand were issued to people already living or ‘domiciled’ in Australia granting them permission to return without having to sit the dictation test. Two different sorts of exemption for two different categories of people. George’s Certificate of Exemption was granted on his arrival in Sydney in April 1914, for a period of four years, and was extended in 1918 for a further two years. George then made a visit to China from May to December 1919, after being granted permission to return after his trip and remain for the unexpired portion of his exemption period. After a further application by Chee Dock Nomchong, in March 1920 George’s exemption was extended again for four years. This practice of issuing an ongoing series of Certificates of Exemption was not at all unusual — it seems to have been a common way that government officials worked around their own restrictions against permanent admission of new Chinese, a way to make allowances in ‘exceptional’ cases without setting an official precedent of permanent entry.
What is missed entirely in the Celestial City telling of George’s story is that in 1920 officials decided that his case should be ‘closed’ — that is, that he could remain permanently in Australia without having to keep reapplying for his Certificate of Exemption to be extended. A memo from Atlee Hunt in March 1920 informed the Collector of Customs in Sydney that ‘no further action need be taken to remind this Chinese of the expiration of his exemption as the case may be considered closed’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 21). Atlee Hunt had pondered how to resolve George Nomchong’s case, admitting that the government ‘had given him a CEDT last year and thereby acknowledged his right to remain’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 25). It is not clear from the file when, how or if the Nomchongs were informed of this decision, but after 1920 there were no further applications to extend George’s Certificate of Exemption. There were, however, applications for CEDTs, the first one issued in 1926 before George made a two-year trip to China. Apart from difficulties raised when three prohibited immigrants were found working on George’s Boorowa market garden in 1922, by the mid-1920s George’s right to live in Australia was settled. The CEDTs on display in Celestial City are not evidence of the precariousness of George’s presence in Australia, but rather proof that his Australian domicile was no longer questioned.
Although ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ seems to have been written based on the archives alone, I wondered whether family perspectives had entered into how these archives were read and how George’s life was remembered. There can be no denying that the system was unfair and that officials could wield their power in ways that created insecurity for migrant Chinese living in early 20th-century Australia. This insecurity, along with the basic inequality of the system and the intervention and interference of authorities in the lives of Chinese Australians (such as during the 1922 incident with the illegal workers on George Nomchong’s garden), is often rightly remembered by descendants who have heard first hand what life was like under White Australia. There is no mention, however, of Nomchong family members having been interviewed and their memories being incorporated into the George Nomchong narrative in the exhibition, so I can only assume that the curator has worked from the archives alone.
One later file about George Nomchong, dating from 1939 to 1942, might have helped the exhibition clarify his legal status and identify whether or not George had been granted the right to remain permanently. It appears that George Nomchong inquired about naturalisation in 1939, perhaps in response to the Aliens Registration Act 1939 (see handwritten note at the bottom of page 5 in NAA: 1926/9963). It is unlikely that he would have been granted naturalisation, but I can find no obvious alien registration documents for him in Sydney either (NAA: SP1732/4). The file that might answer such questions (NAA: A659, 1942/1/6634) remains, however, unexamined in the archives.
You might ask if it really matters that details in the Celestial City exhibition aren’t spot on. How much detail do people take in during an exhibition visit anyway? Isn’t it more important for them to get a strong general impression — in this case of the extent and nature of anti-Chinese ideas in 19th and early 20th century Australia — than fretting over minutiae? To me, getting facts wrong in an exhibition like Celestial City, which has obviously had a lot of money put into it and a lot of publicity created around it, seems like a wasted opportunity. I can almost forgive the exhibition for reducing the vibrant, diverse and fascinating tale that is ‘Sydney’s Chinese Story’, full of characters and life and surprising twists, to something more akin to ‘What Racist White People in Sydney Thought About the Chinese’.* But the history of the Chinese in Australia, particularly the history of discrimination during the White Australia period, is too important for us to settle for the sort of sloppy reading of the archives and failure of historical understanding shown in Celestial City. Instead we need to be measured, considered, rigorous and meticulous in the research we do and the historical stories we tell. To do otherwise is to leave ourselves open to accusations of dishonesty, inaccuracy, exaggeration and sensationalism.
* There is certainly a place for examining white Australian attitudes towards the Chinese in the 19th and early 20th century, but as Alan Mayne has stated, ‘By emphasising unrelenting European intolerance and aggression towards Chinese settlers, historians have tended to overlook Chinese agency and the permeability of racial boundaries’. A better approach is to work towards a more nuanced understanding of European discrimination towards the Chinese and, in doing so, ‘deny Chinese passivity and marginalisation, and point instead to Chinese strategy and many-faceted engagement with colonial society’ (Mayne 2004: 2).
Alan Mayne. 2004. ‘”What you want John?” Chinese-European interactions on the Lower Turon goldfields’. Journal of Australian Colonial History 6: 1–13.
Michael Williams. 2004. ‘Would this not help your Federation?’ In After the Rush: Regulation, Participation, and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860–1940, edited by Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald and Paul Macgregor: 35–50. Kingsbury, Vic.: Otherland Literary Journal.
I’ve been keen to see the Musuem of Sydney’s new exhibition, Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story, since it opened last month. So, with two weeks of school holidays and three kids to amuse, it seemed that a trip to Sydney was in order. I hope to have a chance to write up some more detailed thoughts on the exhibition, particularly on its treatment of gender, but for now I’m going to give some quick impressions from our visit. Our party of seven included two adults (one historian, one non-historian) and five kids, ranging from age 4 to age 11.
One of the first things you see walking into the exhibition space are large reproductions of two of the best-known anti-Chinese cartoons, images that are (to my mind at least) racist and offensive. One, which depicts the Australian colonies as beautiful young women working together to dispose of ‘the Chinese pest’ in the form of the large, disembodied head of a Chinese man, particularly caught the little kids’ eyes. The other cartoon, the Bulletin’s notorious ‘Mongolian Octopus’, also caught their attention. On surrounding walls are other large reproductions of illustrations of 19th-century anti-Chinese activities. These images were a sudden and unfortunate introduction for the kids to an exhibition that claims to celebrate ‘the diversity of experiences and successes within the Chinese community’.
These images dominate the space so much that our only real conversation in the exhibition was about racist ideals of White Australia, not about the old and deep connections that tie Sydney to China and the Chinese to Sydney. Supervising the kids meant I didn’t get to read everything for myself, or even to take note of other objects or text that might have told this deeper story in the first part of the exhibition. But if I didn’t see it, the kids certainly didn’t either. (I do have photographs, though, which I’m going to refer to again – it’s just first impressions here.)
The only other item in the exhibition that really caught the little kids’ eyes was a labour contract written in Chinese. Three of the little kids are studying Chinese and have spent significant amounts of time in China. They keenly tried to spot words that they knew. From memory, there is only this one piece in the exhibition in Chinese (actually, now I think about it, there is also an article from a Chinese newspaper and a Chinese-English word book). It would have been great to see more Chinese language material included in the exhibition (and yes, it does exist), particularly as the museum seems keen to attract a Chinese-speaking audience (there is a Chinese-language version of the exhibition catalogue).
When interrogated the day after we saw the exhibition, my 8-year-old said that along with ‘those cartoons’, the thing she remembered from the exhibition was ‘the speaker with the Nomchong thing’, an oral history recording with Lionel Nomchong. She said she listened to a bit of it until her 4-year-old sister came and snatched it off her. Such are the perils of visiting museum exhibitions with (even littler) kids.
The 11-year-old gave the exhibition a much more considered look than the four younger ones. A little way into the exhibition, though, she told me she was confused, although she later said she had ‘mostly understood’ what it was about. Her favourite part was the bit on hawkers and market gardeners – she liked the objects that accompanied it. And she liked Margaret Tart’s Chinese jacket (but hadn’t understood who it belonged to or why she had it).
And as for the impressions of my non-historian friend and me? She thought Celestial City was ‘shallow’, with that shallowness mostly coming from the dominance of White Australian voices throughout the exhibition. White Australians saying how the Chinese were good, White Australians saying how the Chinese were bad. She also didn’t feel she had learned anything new, that the ‘Yellow Peril’ material didn’t really expand her understanding of what life was like for Chinese at the time. Largely that’s how I felt about the exhibition too.
I would have loved to see some of the more recent scholarship on Sydney’s Chinese communities being drawn into the exhibition (e.g. Mei-fen Kuo’s Making Chinese Australia), as well as newer theoretical approaches such as transnationalism. I also have some real concerns about the historical accuracy in parts, the language used (e.g. ‘influx’), and parts of the story that are omitted (which I’ll blog about separately when I’ve had time to think it through a bit more). I had wanted so much to love this exhibition – and there is some great material there, even an item or two that were new to me! – but overall I’m afraid we all came away disappointed. Sydney’s Chinese story is just as fabulous as the exhibition’s publicity hype says it is. Unfortunately this exhibition just doesn’t manage to convey it.
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.
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).