Tag: White Australia Policy

Immigration Restriction Act instructions, 1901 to 1919

I suspect I will never be finished in my quest to understand the workings of the White Australia policy in the early decades of the twentieth century. My most recent work (which I hope will be published in the next year) has focused on the entry and residence of Chinese wives between 1902 and 1920, including the well-known ‘Poon Gooey case’.

While much of what I know about how the Immigration (Restriction) Act was administered comes from individual case files (known as correspondence files), there has been a gap between these files and the legislation itself. Two items in the National Archives (AP214/9 and D3193) help fill this gap. The Collector of Customs in Adelaide – who like Customs officers in the other states administered the Act in accordance with regulations, rules and instructions from the Department of External Affairs – kept a valuable, and seemingly unique, record of this correspondence from External Affairs. I have not come across other similar items for other states (always happy to be corrected though!)

I’ve had D3193 digitised by the National Archives and, while the cost of digitisation of A214/9 was prohibitive because of conservation concerns, I have photographed it and put the images up in Dropbox (link below). There is another series, AP378/37 – ‘Confidential instructions (old system), 1900–45’, listed in RecordSearch as being held in Sydney, but I haven’t looked at this to see if it contains similar material.

AP214/9

AP214/9 is a register containing copies of the Immigration Restriction Act and related correspondence, dating from 1901 to 1913. It was created by the Collector of Customs in Adelaide, South Australia.

The contents of the register includes:

  • copies of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and subsequent amendments, as well as related regulations and statutory rules
  • notes for the guidance of officers administering the IRA
  • copies of forms used in administering the IRA
  • instructions from Department of External Affairs to the local Collector of Customs at Port Adelaide.

Much of the content concerns ‘coloured’ arrivals, including ships’ crews, and arriving passengers with physical diseases or disabilities.

It is a large bound volume, with folios marked with page numbers up to 292. The documents (either printed or typsescript carbon copies) are pasted into the register, rather than being written out by hand. Folios 232 to 267 are blank. There is a separate alphabetical index (which doesn’t seem very complete). The last dated document is from 31 December 1913.

AP214/9, VOLUME 1 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Adelaide and is not digitised in RecordSearch (as of 20 June 2017). My images of AP214/9 are available in Dropbox.

National Archives of Australia: AP214/9

D3193

D3193 is a volume containing confidential instructions relating to the Immigration Act (as the Immigration Restriction Act was known after 1912), dating from 1914 to 1919.

The small printed volume has been annotated with handwritten notes and insertions of further documents by the Collector of Customs, Adelaide. The original volume is titled Immigration Act Instructions together with Immigration Act 1901–1912 and Immigration Regulations 1913 and was produced by the Department of External Affairs in 1914.

The contents of D3193 are similar to those in AP214/9.

D3193 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney and is digitised in RecordSearch.

Sam family featured at the National Archives

One of the Anglo-Chinese families from NSW that I have written about has been featured in the latest refresh of the Memory of a Nation exhibition at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.

During World War I, young Percy Sam of West Wyalong applied for both a CEDT and an Emigration Certificate before travelling with his father to China – at the same time as his older brothers were away fighting in the AIF. It’s a story that illustrates the contradictory ways that Australians of part-Chinese descent were treated by government authorities in the early twentieth century. For more on that see my earlier blog post and my Inside History article. Alastair Kennedy’s Chinese Anzacs book also discusses the Sam brothers.

Five documents about the Sam family are featured the National Archives exhibition:

  • a police report about father William Flood Sam that accompanied his CEDT application (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058)
  • photographs of father William and son Percy Sam that accompanied their CEDT applications (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058; SP42/1, C1915/4032 )
  • a letter from mother Jane Sam giving permission for son Percy to travel overseas with his father (NAA: C1915/4032)
  • an attestation paper for elistment in the AIF for son James Sam (NAA: B2455: Sam James Francis).

The display is behind glass in a drawer, so it’s a bit hard to photograph. The main text reads:

At the outbreak of World War I the Sam brothers, like many young Australian men, were eager to represent their country. Two of the brothers – James and Norman – enlisted in November 1914 and went on to serve at Gallipoli in 1915. Over the remainder of that year, three more brothers – Henry, George and Tom – also enlisted.

Also in 1915 their father William and younger brother Percy wanted to travel to China, William’s birth country. While some family members were considered ‘sufficiently European’ to serve overseas in the Australian Imperial Force, William and Percy had to apply for a Certificate of Exemption from the dictation test before they could travel due to their part-Chinese heritage.

Alas, there are a couple of problems with this short account.

First, only four Sam brothers enlisted (a fifth, Tom, was said to have gone off to war, but there is no record of him actually having served – a check of B2455 would have shown that); two Sam grandsons, with the surname Loolong, did also enlist though.

Second, a Certificate of Exemption (from the dictation test) was different from a Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test, which is what William and Percy applied for and were granted.

Third, William Sam did not have ‘part-Chinese’ heritage as the caption implies – he was ‘full’ Chinese.

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.

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.

‘Paper trails’: my presentation at the 5th WCILCOS conference

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.

In the mean time, though, here are the slides of my talk and the first (and much longer) version of the paper I wrote a couple of months ago: Paper trails: Anglo-Chinese Australians and the White Australia Policy (pdf, 1.9mb).

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.

Collecting CEDT applications and certificates

The administration of the Immigration Restriction Act was overseen by the Department of External Affairs, but the day-to-day work was undertaken by the state-based Collector of Customs/Department of Customs & Excise.

The Collectors of Customs had been responsible for administering colonial immigration restriction laws, and each had their own systems in place when the new federal legislation was implemented from 1902. Atlee Hunt, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs for the first two decades of the 20th century, set about ensuring that officials in each state implemented federal policy consistently, issuing a book of published guidelines as well as dozens of circulars that kept Customs officials up-to-date on decisions made by the Department.

The chap pictured below is WH Barkley, who was the New South Wales Collector of Customs between 1914 and 1933. His signature can be seen on hundreds of CEDTs issued in Sydney during that period.

Anyway, the different recordkeeping systems used by the state Collectors of Customs means that each state/territory now has a different set of records of CEDT applications and certificates.

To me, the system in Sydney seems pretty nicely organised – basically there is one series with correspondence files containing the applications (Form 22), another series that holds copies of the CEDTs that were issued in Sydney (Form 21), another that has the duplicate CEDTs (and other papers including Form 32s) of people arriving back into Sydney. (Okay, it’s really more complicated than that, but let’s not confuse things too much.)

Things are also very tidily done in Darwin (although on a much smaller scale), with all the paper work filed in the one file – the application (Form 22), the CEDT (Form 21), the return authorisation form (Form 32) as well as any other correspondence.

This post is an attempt to document what CEDT applications and certificates exist for each state, what series they are in, and whether they’re available online through RecordSearch. My list also includes registers of applications, as well as records that were created under colonial legislation.

NOTE: Although I’ve done a lot of research using the Sydney records in the flesh, most of what I know about records in the other states is based on what can be found in RecordSearch and in the National Archives’ guide to Chinese records. There will, therefore, be gaps! Any contributions of local knowledge gratefully accepted (especially Tasmania and South Australia).

NOTE TOO: These are the ‘main’ series with CEDT applications and certificates. There are other odd series that also include CEDT stuff that I haven’t included.

New South Wales

Applications: SP11/26

Series number: SP11/26
Series name: Applications for Certificates of Domicile
Dates: 1902
Contents: Applications by for certificates of domicile. Included are references, statutory declarations, submissions, and the Minister’s decision.
Location: Sydney
Shelf metres: 0.18 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 27 (100 % of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 0
Item title: Includes person’s name, so can be searched by name.
Item titles example: William Ah Bow, application for a certificate of domicile [7 pages and 4 photographs]

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: SP11/26
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: SP11/26, A1

Applications: SP42/1

Series number: SP42/1
Series name: Correspondence of the Collector of Customs relating to Immigration Restriction and Passports
Dates: c.1898–1948
Contents: Correspondence files, varying in size from a few to dozens of pages, mostly concerning one person or family group. Because this series stretches over several decades, the contents varies a bit. Most later files include Form 22.
Location: Sydney
Shelf metres: 119.79 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 6531 (% of series unknown, but probably a significant proportion)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 722 (as of 29 July 2010)
Item title: Generally includes personal name of subject/s, so can be searched by name.
Item title example: Ah Sun [includes 2 photographs showing front and side views] [box 106]

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: SP42/1
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: SP42/1, C1917/4159

Certificates: SP115/10

Series number: SP115/10
Series name: Certificates Exempting from the provisions of ‘The Influx of Chinese Restriction Act 1881’
Dates: 1884–88
Contents: Includes about 450 exemption certificates issued under the NSW 1881 Act and 2 certificates and documents relating to the 1861 Act. The certificates include scant information about the applicants themselves, giving their name, date of issue of the certificate and period of exemption. There may be handwritten annotations on the front and back, some in Chinese, which provide more personal information such as occupation, age and height.
Location: Sydney
Shelf metres: 0.72 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 1 (Whole series item)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 0
Item title: 1 item only. Certificates are not listed as individual items.
Item title example: Certificates Exempting from the provisions of ‘The Influx of Chinese Restriction Act 1881’

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: SP115/10
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: SP115/10, WHOLE SERIES

Certificates: ST84/1

Series number: ST84/1
Series name: Certificates of Domicile and Certificates of Exemption from Dictation Test, chronological series
Dates: c.1903–53
Contents: Certificates of Domicile and CEDTs (Form 21). Each item includes a bundle with the certificates of about 10 people. There may be used duplicate copies of the certificates and other material including Form 32.
Location: Sydney
Shelf metres: 49.14 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 2754 (probably 100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 344 (as of 29 July 2010)
Item title: Includes the names of certificate holders, so can be searched by name.
Item title example: Jong Say, Wong Kwong, Lee You Wing, Foo Gun, Mar Kum, Gock Buck, Ah Get, Jeong Keong, Percy Zuinn and Ah Yum [Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test – includes left hand impression and photographs] [box 122]

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: ST84/1
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: ST84/1,1908/11/31-40

Used certificates: SP115/1

Series number: SP115/1
Series name: Folders containing Certificates of Exemption and related papers for passengers arriving in Australia by ship, chronological series
Dates: c.1911–43
Contents: CEDTs (Form 21) and other identity documents (such as birth certificates) of people arriving into Sydney, as well as completed Form 32s which document why they were exempted from the Immigration Restriction Act. Each item contains the documents of multiple people.
Location: Sydney
Shelf metres: 24.84 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 1433 (probably about 80% of series – items from 1911–14 are not listed in RecordSearch)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 6 (it seems that for most of these the whole item has not been copied) (as of 29 July 2010)
Item title: Gives the name of the ship and the date of its arrival. Does not include people’s names.
Item title example: EASTERN 20/12/1922 [part 3] [Certificates of Exemption for passengers; includes photographs] [2.5cm]

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: SP115/1
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: SP115/1, BOX 18

Used certificates: SP11/6

Series number: SP11/6
Series name: Certificates of Exemption from Dictation Test (Forms 32 and 21)
Dates: 1902–46
Contents: Documents held in this series are, for the most part, similar to those held in SP115/1. The files contain copies of Form 32 and CEDTs (Form 21) or other identity documents of Chinese arriving into Sydney from overseas.
Location: Sydney
Shelf metres: 1.62

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 100 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 0
Item title: Gives the name of the ship and the date of its arrival. Does not include people’s names.
Item title example: Certificate Exempting From Dictation Test Immigration Act 1901-1925: Chinese passengers per SS Tango Maru Sydney 11/10/26 [Box 2]

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: SP11/6
Link to example item in RecordSearch: SP11/6, NN

Register of applications: SP726/1

NOTE: This series does not contain application forms and certificates like the others listed. It is included here, however, as it provides a full record of the CEDTs issued in Sydney.

Series number: SP726/1
Series name: Register of Applications for Certificate of Exemption Dictation Tests
Dates: 1902–59
Contents: 6 volumes listing details of people who applied for CEDTs in Sydney. Registers list details such as name, certificate and file numbers and dates of travel. The registers have a name index at the front.
Location: Sydney
Shelf metres: 0.9 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 6 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 0
Item title: Description of register and date range
Item title example: Register of names relating to exemption from Dictation Tests (1902-1910)

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: SP726/1
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: SP726/1, BOOK 1

Victoria

Applications & certificates: B13

Series number: B13
Series name: General and classified correspondence, annual single number series
Dates: From 1902
Contents: Correspondence files of the Department of Customs & Excise/Department of Trade & Customs, concerning a range of Customs matters including immigration restriction. Because of culling, most files before the 1930s relate to immigration restriction. Files can include applications, supporting correspondence, photographs and certificates.
Location: Melbourne
Shelf metres: 104.08 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 20,120 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 131
Item title: Case files include person’s name, so can be searched by name.
Item title example: Ah Lipp – application for Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Test

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: B13
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: B13, 1908/4495

Register of applications: B6003

NOTE: This series does not contain application forms and certificates like the others listed. It is included here, however, as it provides a record of the CEDTs issued in Melbourne.

Series number: B6003
Series name: Registers of Certificates Exempting from the Dictation Test (Departures), Melbourne
Dates: 1904–59
Contents: Three volumes of registers recording details of people departing Melbourne on CEDTs, noting the following details: Vic. no., CEDT Book no., C&E file no., date of issue, name, age, nationality, occupation, address, period of residence in the Commonwealth, departure – date and vessel and port, return – date and vessel and port, examined by, remarks. The registers date 1904–14, 1915–33 and 1934–59.
Location: Melbourne
Shelf metres: 0.72 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 3 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 0
Item title: All 3 items have the same item title
Item title example: Register of Certificates Exempting from the Dictation Test (Departures), Melbourne

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: B6003
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: B6003, NN

Queensland

Certificates: J2481

Series number: J2481
Series name: Proclamations under The Chinese Immigration Restriction Act 1888 & related correspondence, annual single number series
Dates: 1897–1902
Contents: Proclamations issued during the years 1897–1902 exempting persons named from the provisions of the Chinese Immigration Restriction Act 1888 for a period of two years from the date of departure from Australia. They are in a standard form with photographs and personal details.
Location: Brisbane
Shelf metres: 1.8 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 858 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 858
Item title: Includes person’s name, so can be searched by name.
Item titles example: Foo Lang

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: J2481
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: J2481, 1899/298

Certificates: J2482

Series number: J2482
Series name: Certificates of Domicile issued under The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and Regulations, annual single number series
Dates: 1902–06
Contents: Certificates of Domicile (Form 21)
Location: Brisbane
Shelf metres: 1.8 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 799 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 798
Item title: Includes person’s name, place of residence and birthplace, so can be searched by name
Item titles example: Ah Tong of Redlynch near Cairns, Qld – birthplace: Canton, China – departed Cairns, Queensland on the Changsha 27 July 1904

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: J2482
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: J2482, 1903/99

Certificates: J2483

Series number: J2483
Series name: Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test [CEDT] issued under “The Immigration Restriction Acts 1901-1905” and Regulations (and amending legislation), two number series
Dates: 1908–56
Contents: CEDTs (Form 21) and Form 32s. Each item contains one certificate (and duplicate) and one Form 32.
Location: Brisbane
Shelf metres: 30.6 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 14,429 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 203
Item title: Includes person’s name, nationality and birthplace, so can be searched by name.
Item titles example: Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test (CEDT) – Name: Margaret Chun Tie [also known as Margaret Choy Larn] – Nationality: Chinese [Australian born] – Birthplace: Croydon

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: J2483
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: J2483, 18/9

Applications: J3115

Series number: J3115
Series name: Alien Immigration files relating to applications for Certificate of Domicile, Certificates of Exemption from the Chinese Immigration Restriction Act 1888 and Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test that includes photographs, birth certificates and other historical documents, imposed single number series
Dates: 1899–1928
Contents: Applications for Certificates of Domicile and some for CEDTs, also applications under earlier colonial legislation, so contents of the files is not consistent.
Location: Brisbane
Shelf metres: 2.17 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 161 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 62
Item title: Includes person’s name and where they live, so can be searched by name.
Item titles example: Certificate of Domicile for Young Chin, a storekeeper from Cairns – includes photographs

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: J3115
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: J3115, 25

Registers: BP343/15

Series number: BP343/15
Series name: Registers of aliens departing from the Port of Townsville who were granted a certificate exempting from dictation test [CEDT]
Dates: 1916–55
Contents: Details of aliens leaving the Commonwealth via the Port of Townsville for a temporary period who were been granted a CEDT. The vast majority of records contain a name, description, nationality, place of birthplace, right handprint, place and date fee paid, warrant number, date of departure and name of ship, date of return and name of ship, and number of CEDT. Most also
contain 2 photographs, showing full face and profile.
Location: Brisbane
Shelf metres: 5.22 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 2566 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 17
Item title: Includes person’s name, place of residence, nationality and birthplace, so can be searched by name.
Item titles example: Name: Willie Mar (of Richmond) – Nationality: Chinese – Birthplace: Canton – Certificate of Exemption from the Dictation Test (CEDT) number: 336A/87

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: BP343/15
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: BP343/15, 13/872

Western Australia

Applications: PP4/2

Series number: PP4/2
Series name: Applications for CEDTs with supporting documents, annual single number series
Dates: c.1915–41
Contents: Applications for CEDTs, accompanied by references, photographs of the applicant, and reports by the police and customs officials regarding the character etc of the applicant. Includes Form 22s.
Location: Perth
Shelf metres: 5.22 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 611 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 3
Item title: Includes the name of the person and their ethnicity (Japanese, Chinese etc), so can be searched by name.
Item title example: Quong Leong SET [Chinese] [Application for certificate of exemption from dictation test]

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: PP4/2
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: 1931/94

Applications: PP6/1

NOTE: This series has one of the best series descriptions that I have ever seen in RecordSearch.

Series number: PP6/1
Series name: Correspondence files [subject and client], annual single number series with ‘H’ infix
Dates: 1926–50
Contents: Immigration correspondence files, including those concerning applications for CEDTs. The series also documents other immigration functions such as temporary admissions and naturalisation. Only a small proportion of files in the series concern Chinese, Japanese etc.
Location: Perth
Shelf metres: 36.54 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 6005 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 58
Item title: Includes the name of the applicant and what the file was about, so can be searched by name.
Item title example: Yick YOU [Application for Certificate of Exemption of Dictation Test]

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: PP6/1
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: PP6/1, 1927/H/325

Certificates: K1145

Series number: K1145
Series name: Certificates of Exemption from Dictation Test, annual certificate number order
Dates: c.1901–45
Contents: Contains CEDTs (Form 21) arranged in certificate number order commencing at one (1) each year.
Location: Perth
Shelf metres: 6.84 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 4787 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 24
Item title: Includes person’s name and ethnicity, so can be searched by name.
Item title example: Ah Kett [Chinese]

Link to series description in RecordSearch:
NAA: K1145
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: K1145, 1918/137

Northern Territory

Applications and certificates: E752

Series number: E752
Series name: Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test
Dates: 1905–41 (most date from 1915 and after)
Contents: Applications for CEDTs (and one Certificate of Domicile), CEDTs and correspondence. The series includes Form 21s (CEDTs) and Form 32s, which were completed on return to Australia.
Location: Darwin
Shelf metres: 4.5 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 720 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 715
Item title: Includes the name of the applicant, so can be searched by name.
Item title example: [Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Test – Fong Yan]

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: E752
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: E752, 1917/11

South Australia

Register of applications: D2860

Series number: D2860
Series name: Immigration Restriction Act exemption certificate register
Dates: 1902–57
Contents: A register and alphabetical index of CEDTs and related matters. Includes a chronological record of departures from various Australian ports of holders of CEDTs showing date of issue, certificate number, person to whom issued (full name), date of departure, ship (and port if other than Adelaide), certifying officer, correspondence reference number, and number of previous certificate (if any). There are corresponding details for the certificate holder’s return to Australia as follows: date, ship, certifying officer, remarks. The volume is divided into other sections including birth certificates, applications for CEDTs refused, lapsed applications for CEDTs and CEDTs issued in other states to applicants departing from Port Adelaide.
Location: Sydney (a copy is held in Adelaide)
Shelf metres: 0.81 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 1 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 0
Item title: 1 item only
Item title example: Immigration Restriction Act exemption certificate register

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: D2860
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: D2860, WHOLE SERIES

Book butts: D5036

Series number: D5036
Series name: Certificates exempting from dictation test (CEDT) book butts (forms 21)
Dates: 1902–59
Contents: 2 volumes. Comprises book butts of CEDTs (Form 21). The butts include provision for certificate number, name (sometimes showing address, when and where born, occupation and other details), nationality, date of issue to Sub-Collector (of Customs), date of issue to holder and payment of fee. In some cases where certificates have not been issued, the record is cancelled and 2 copies of the certificate remain attached to the butt.
Location: Sydney
Shelf metres: 0.9 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 1 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 0
Item title: 1 item only
Item title example: Certificates exempting from dictation test (CEDT) book butts (form 21)

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: D5036
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: D5036, WHOLE SERIES

Applications: D596

Series number: D596
Series title: Correspondence files, annual single number series
Dates: c.1902–1930s
Contents: Correspondence files of the Collector of Customs, including a small number (less than 100) concerning applications for CEDTs.
Location:: Adelaide
Shelf metres: 53.91 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 11,390 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 63
Item title: Relevant file titles include the person’s name, so can be searched by name; they also generally include the words ‘exemption’ or ‘certificate’
Item title example: Abdul KHALICK – Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Test

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: D596
Link to example item in RecordSearch: D596, 1919/4386

Tasmania

NOTE: The 2 series listed here appear to hold the only remaining Customs records in Hobart relating to the issuing of CEDTs. The Department of External Affairs series A1 held in Canberra contains material relating to Tasmanian Chinese, and it is possible that Melbourne records do too.

Book butts: P526

NOTE: From the series description in RecordSearch, it would seem that this series contains book butts of CEDTs (Form 21) issued in Hobart. There appears to be no remaining copies of the certificates themselves. I’m happy to be corrected on this if someone knows better.

Series number: P526
Series name: Immigration permit butts (form 21) issued to foreign nationals at Launceston and Burnie outports
Dates: 1908–18
Contents: Volumes containing butts of immigration permits issued to foreign nationals wanting to enter Launceston and Burnie outports. The butts include information on the person name, nationality and date of issue. They were issued in Hobart.
Location: Hobart
Shelf metres: 0.06 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 2 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 0
Item title: The 2 items have the same title
Item title example: Australian Customs Service, Tasmania – butts of immigration permit certificates issued

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: P526
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: P526, CUST47

Applications: P437

Series number: P437
Series name: Correspondence Files, Annual Single Number Series
Dates: From 1909
Contents: Correspondence files of the Collector of Customs, including files on immigration matters such as applications for CEDTs. Most items in the series do not relate to CEDT applications, however.
Location: Hobart
Shelf metres: 94.68 m

Number of items listed in RecordSearch: 4959 (100% of series)
Number of items digitised in RecordSearch: 1
Item title: Relevant items have person’s name in the title, so can be searched by name. It appears item titles are taken directly from the files’ original titles as they are not consistent.
Item title example: Gi Hung – Statutory Declaration re Immigration Restriction Acts. – visit China 36 months.

Link to series description in RecordSearch: NAA: P437
Link to example item in RecordSearch: NAA: P437, 1911/291

Invisible Australians: A beginning

Over at discontents, Tim Sherratt has recently posted about a new project he and I are embarking on. Called ‘Invisible Australians: Living under the White Australia Policy’, the project aims to reveal something of the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who were affected by the racially-based immigration policy of early 20th-century Australia. (You might like to read Tim’s post.)

The Immigration Restriction Act, introduced in December 1901, was designed to limited the migration of ‘coloured’ people to Australia, but it (and other elements of the White Australia Policy) also had an affect on the lives of non-white, non-Indigenous Australians – people of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Lebanese, Syrian, Afghan descent who were either born here, or who had already built lives here after migrating.

To administer the Immigration Restriction Act, 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.

Tim and I hope that, starting with the documentary legacy of the Immigration Restriction Act, we can link together disparate fragments of information about non-white Australians to make their presence in early 20th-century Australia more visible. Many writings comment on how the White Australia Policy resulted in a reduction in Australia’s non-white population over the early decades of the century, particularly in the Chinese community – forgetting, it seems, that there were still thousands who just kept on living here, living their lives under the White Australia Policy.

Our first steps in the project are small ones. Tim is beginning work on a transcription tool that will enable the extraction of information from records already digitised by the National Archives of Australia. And I am going back and thinking about the records themselves, in part to provide Tim with details he needs to develop the transcription tool. I am also putting together a guide to researching individuals in the Immigration Restriction Act records from New South Wales (c.1902–1948) that are held in the National Archives’ Sydney office.

The lives revealed in the Immigration Restriction Act records are, for the most part, not big ones. They are those of market gardeners, labourers, hawkers, farmers, shopkeepers, cabinetmakers – as well as a wives and mothers and children. In many cases they are lives that are documented nowhere else. The documents I’ve included to illustrate this post are examples of two of the types of forms that we will be working with: Form 22, which was used to apply for an exemption from the dictation test, and Form 21, the Certificates of Domicile (CoD) and then Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test (CEDT) issued to those whose applications were successful. I’ll be posting more about these documents soon.

I have written elsewhere of the value of the records, and I marvel at the possibilities they offer for creating connections – between different groups of records, between the people documented in the records (parents, children, siblings, cousins, clansmen, neighbours) and between those ‘invisible Australians’ and their descendants today. Some days I’m a little overwhelmed by all the possibilities, but, for today at least, I’m happy that we’re making a start.

* In this post, and in our discussions of the project more generally, we use ‘non-white’ to refer to the people who crop up in the White Australia records because bureaucrats at the time considered them as something other than ‘white’. It’s not a perfect term, but it’s hard to come up with something that adequately covers all bases, particularly considering the instability of racial categorisation. Among those classified as ‘non-white’ were, for example, people of mixed race who had one white parent (usually their mother). Our use of ‘non-white’ does not include Indigenous Australians as they did not generally come under the restrictions of the White Australia Policy.

Who is an Australian? (c.1908)

For the past couple of years I have been researching, on and off, the story behind the 1908 High Court case Potter v. Minahan – a case which revolved around the question of exactly who could be an Australian. A short article about the case and my research has just been published in in the National Archives of Australia’s Memento magazine, issue 38, 2010, pp. 16–18. You can download the whole issue as a pdf (4mb), or just read my article below.

It seems somehow fitting (although coincidental) that I’m posting this on Australia Day. Not only does Potter v. Minahan centre on the idea of who belongs as Australian, it was on 26 January 1908 that James Minahan arrived in Melbourne (via Sydney) from Hong Kong on the S.S. Wollowra. Instead of being allowed to land, and to meet the friends of his father’s who had come to collect him from the ship, Minahan was held on board until an interpreter could be arranged so that Customs officers could interview him. Customs decided that Minahan could not land in Melbourne, and he was sent back to Sydney so that he could be deported back to China.

But that didn’t end up happening either…

Aussie lad or Chinese scholar?

A researcher’s journey through the archives can lead to unexpected discoveries and unknown places. But what happens when a tantalising archival trail arrives at a dead end? Dr Kate Bagnall shares an unsolved archival mystery she uncovered while researching Australia’s historical connections to China.

In the winter of 1882, the parents of five-year-old Jimmie Minahan packed up their home in the small mining settlement of Indigo in northern Victoria and made their way south to Melbourne. Jimmie had been born at the lying-in hospital in Melbourne to 17-year-old Winifred Minahan in October 1876. Winifred was also Melbourne-born, the eldest daughter of immigrant Irish parents. Jimmie’s birth registration made no record of his father’s name, for his parents weren’t married, but he did not grow up fatherless. Soon after Jimmie’s birth, his father, Chinese storekeeper Cheong Ming, took Winifred and the baby back to their home in Indigo. Until the age of five this was the only home Jimmie knew.

The family’s return to Melbourne in 1882 was the first part of a journey that would see members of the small family separated forever. Cheong Ming had become ill and wished to return to China to recuperate, taking young Jimmie with him to receive a Chinese education. Winifred was not to accompany them, and spent her final weeks with Jimmie in Melbourne as Cheong Ming made preparations for the longer journey ahead. Having lost a baby daughter to severe bronchitis only months earlier, Winifred would likely have been saddened by the departure of her little boy – perhaps comforted by the thought that he would return to Australia once his father had recovered.

The father and son’s destination was Cheong Ming’s home village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. From Melbourne, the pair travelled to Hong Kong, then by boat to the district capital of Jiangmen, and from there to the village itself. The village name as recorded in Australian court records was Shek Quey Lee. It was the first time that Cheong Ming had returned home since he left for Australia in the early 1860s, but he quickly settled back to village life, taking on the role of local schoolmaster. The process of adjustment was more difficult for young Jimmie, who later described his tears as his father shaved his head according to Chinese fashion and as he encountered the ‘foreign devil boy’ taunts of his schoolmates.

From gum trees to Confucian classics

As time passed, Cheong Ming’s health did not improve and he and Jimmie remained living in Shek Quey Lee. They lost touch with Winifred, and Jimmie’s memories of his mother gradually faded. The little Australian lad, raised in the bush with red dirt and gum trees, became a Chinese boy, schooled in Confucian classics and fluent only in his father’s native tongue.

The Australian part of the story of Cheong Ming and Jimmie could well have ended there, as it did for many Chinese who chose to return to China after trying their luck in the Australian colonies during the second half of the nineteenth century. But when Cheong Ming left Australia, he had maintained a share in the business he owned at Indigo and his partner Chin Shing regularly remitted a share of the profits to China. Cheong Ming had also instilled in his son the belief that one day he should return to Australia, indeed that it was his birthright, to take up his father’s business and to become a teacher of Chinese children in the colonies. After Cheong Ming’s death in about 1896, young Jimmie, now aged 20 and known by the Chinese name of Ying Coon, decided to honour his father’s wishes. He continued to study, and attempted the gruelling imperial examinations in the provincial capital of Guangzhou three times – all unsuccessfully. After his third failure, he made the decision to return to his country of birth. He later said that he ‘always wanted to return to Australia.’

The National Archives holds two files which document the story of James Minahan’s return to Australia in January 1908 and the events which followed. In the time between his departure as a five-year-old boy and his return as a man of 31, the Australian colonies had federated and the attitude towards non-white immigrants, particularly Chinese, had hardened. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and its infamous dictation test set the tone with which Chinese arrivals to Australia were met – even those of long-term Australian residence, of Australian birth or those with part-white heritage. When he landed in Australia, James Minahan’s identity was questioned by Customs officials and he was made to sit the dictation test, which he failed, resulting in his arrest and prosecution as a prohibited immigrant.

Landmark court case

After a decision in his favour was granted in the Victorian lower courts, the Commonwealth appealed to the High Court. There, in a landmark decision, the High Court again ruled in Minahan’s favour. The case Potter v. Minahan continues to be cited in court judgements 100 years later.

The two files in the National Archives – one created by the Department of External Affairs (which administered the Immigration Restriction Act) and one created by the High Court – provide a fascinating background to the complex legal discussions found in the judgements of the five justices of the High Court. The case before the High Court centred around the idea of who exactly was an immigrant, and who could be considered a member of the Australian community. What did the framers of the Australian Constitution envisage when they gave the new Commonwealth powers over immigration? Did immigration simply mean the process of entering the country, or were there subtleties to its meaning and if so, what were they? Could a man, both a British subject by birth and the son of a British subject, be considered an immigrant (and, therefore a prohibited immigrant) when returning to Australia, the land of his birth?

To explore these issues within Minahan’s case, the courts heard evidence from James Minahan himself, as well as from a range of witnesses, many of whom were Chinese and who had known Cheong Ming, Winifred and their son in Victoria or had contact with father and son in China. Their testimony painted a picture of their lives, first in Indigo and then in Shek Quey Lee, detailing the ongoing connections maintained by many Chinese living in Australia, both with kin in Australia and at home in China. There was Deung Garng, a French polisher and kinsman working in Melbourne, whom father and son first met on their return to the village; and Ah Chew, a cabinetmaker from Carlton, who had been at the village school with Minahan and had attended Cheong Ming’s funeral. Dern Hoy, another Melbourne French polisher, had met father and son before they left for China in 1882 and had also seen Minahan in the village two years earlier and spoken with him at length about what life was like in Australia.

Then there were those whose testimony told of the family’s early life in Victoria, when Minahan was still a small boy. Cheong Ming’s business partner at Indigo, Chin Shing, told what he knew of the ‘English woman’ who lived with Cheong Ming and had his child. Chan Num, a Melbourne tobacco dealer, who employed Winifred Minahan’s younger sister as a nursemaid, said Winifred and her son had once stayed with him at Beechworth, Victoria. Ching Kay, formerly of Hang Yick & Co. in Melbourne, had done business with Cheong Ming and recalled the small boy who called Cheong Ming ‘papa’ and ‘Minnie’ Minahan ‘ma’.

James Minahan vanishes

Among all the detail in the court records and the departmental file on Minahan’s case, however, there is no clue to suggest what James Minahan did after the High Court ruled in his favour. After working all those years to gain an education, so that he could teach Chinese children in Australia, is that what he ended up doing? Or did he return to Indigo to work in the business he had inherited? Or did he decide, given the unhappy reception he had received in Australia, that he would return once again to build a life in China?

With the archives proving silent on Minahan’s fate, perhaps his hometowns of Indigo and Shek Quey Lee might provide some clues. A visit to Chiltern in northern Victoria revealed that the old mining settlements at Indigo no longer existed, but led eventually to contact with a descendent of Cheong Ming’s business partner, Chin Shing. She revealed that Chin Shing had continued to run the business at Indigo with his Anglo-Chinese wife into the early decades of the twentieth century. From what she knew, it seems that Minahan had not returned to make a life for himself there.

What then of the village Shek Quey Lee, described as being 20 li (Chinese miles) from the district capital of Jiangmen? Had Minahan returned to that home? A preliminary research trip to the area in the northern spring of 2009 provided some tantalising clues – a village now written as Shiquli, whose name in the local dialect is consistent with the earlier anglicised name Shek Quey Lee, and the revelation that the same village has had a long history of migration to Australia. What remains now is to continue following the leads in the archival trail, using details from Australian records about the village and its men, together with Chinese village records and the memories of local people, to establish the fate of James Minahan, the young man who had said he ‘always wanted to return to Australia’.