Taking my own advice: finding home villages using Chinese student records

I recently took my own research advice on how to identify a home village in China. I’ve written before about the early 20th-century Chinese student records found in the Department of External Affairs record series A1, mentioning that:

The files can be a useful way of finding information about the Chinese name and origin (in characters) of people or families already living in Australia.

But before last week I’d never actually needed to use them in this way.

At the moment I’m doing some research into Poon Gooey and Ham Hop, the couple at the centre of the well-known deportation case from 1913. I had previously confirmed from shipping records that Poon Gooey was from Kaiping. He made one journey to Australia as ship’s crew (stevedore) and the passenger manifest lists ‘Hoi Ping’ as his place of origin. Two other Poons on the same voyage were also from Kaiping, as were others who lived in Australia (like Peter Poon Youie).

The research I’m doing has also shown that while there were Poons (and Pons and Pongs) in Melbourne (centred around the Leong Lee store in Little Bourke Street), they seem to have lived primarily in western Victoria, around Horsham, Hamilton, Donald, Warracknabeal, down to Warrnambool and up to Mildura, and also across in Adelaide. All of which suggests that there was some pretty significant chain migration by Poons from Kaiping to southern Australia, perhaps stretching from as early as the 1850s into the 1920s and 1930s.

Armed with all this, I hoped to be able to narrow down Poon Gooey’s home town origins somewhat. First, I checked the Roots Villages Database, to look for Poon villages in Kaiping – there are four, all in Yuet Shan / Yueshan:

  • Chung Wo Lay / Zhonghe Li
  • Kiu Tau Fong / Qiaotou Fang
  • Nam Kong Lay / Nanjiang Li
  • Siu Lung Lay / Zhaolong Li

(Apologies for not including Chinese characters for these names; there seems to be a bit of a technical issue with encoding.)

Which, if any, of these villages might my Australian Poons have come from?

This is where the Chinese student records come in handy! The applications and student passports included in the files give personal details of the applicants and their Australian sponsors in both English and Chinese characters. Working on the assumption that the Poons in Victoria were most likely from the same clan, I figured that the files may well reveal which village they came from.

I identified eight Chinese student files relating to Poons, Pons and Pongs and set off to the National Archives, baby in tow. Half of the files weren’t relevant, either because the family surname was not actually Poon or because they were from New South Wales not Victoria.

But the half that were relevant told me some interesting things. The boys came from: Shoylungle (Zhaolongli) and Kew How/Quiutay/Kew Too (the same village, Qiaotou, just spelled differently), with ‘Nanjiangli’ also written in Chinese on the Kew Too application. With the names from the Roots Villages Database, matching them up was easy!

The application for the boy from Zhaolongli, Poon Bak Cheung, was made through Leong Lee in Melbourne, and as I know that Poon Gooey was connected to Leong Lee too, it seems likely then that Poon Gooey was also a Zhaolongli native. The images above and below are from Poon Bak Cheung’s file (NAA: A1, 1931/7483).

So, I’d found the names of my Kaiping Poon villages – but where exactly were they? After a bit of searching using both Google Maps and ditu.google.cn (the Chinese Google Maps), there they were. Three little villages all in a row, to the northeast of Yueshan town, with the fourth village listed in the Roots Villages Database also just across the way:

Sometimes it seems incredible that it was only a matter of hours from when I looked up the Roots Village Database to when I was looking at satellite images of what I’m pretty sure was once Poon Gooey’s home. The slowest part of the equation was waiting for the Chinese student files to be retrieved from the repository (which, in fairness to the National Archives, happened as smoothly and promptly as you could expect.)

I know that as a result of the federal government’s deportation action against Ham Hop, the Poon Gooey family returned to China in 1913. While Poon Gooey himself then returned to Australia for a period, in the early to mid-1920s he was back in China and living in Shanghai, presumably with his wife and daughters. After that I don’t know where they went. From what I’ve seen in the archives, I don’t believe that they returned to Australia again.

I visisted Yueshan last year, on the hunt for another family’s home village. I now just have to stop myself from wanting to make another trip to try and find out the fate of the Poon Gooeys.

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