Sophie Couchman and I will be speaking as part of the Cangdong Cultural Heritage Month Academic Lecture Series on 23 January 2022. The theme of the workshop is ‘Heritage Conservation and Roots Searching in Home Villages of Overseas Chinese’.
Sophie and I will be in conversation with Canadian historian Henry Yu about our Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour and its social impacts.
Also speaking on Sunday are Selia Tan Jinhua from Wuyi University, and Henry Yu and Denise Fong from the University of British Columbia.
The workshop runs for two days – details of the Sunday sessions are below and full details including the Monday program are available in the workshop schedule (pdf, 253kb).
I will be speaking (via Zoom) to the Chinese Australian Historical Society on 24 July 2021 about ‘Writing women into Chinese Australian history’, drawing on my new edited collection, Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia, co-edited with Julia Martínez.
Date: Saturday, 24 July 2021 Time: 2.30pm to 4.00pm Venue: Via Zoom (link will be provided by email after you RSVP) RSVP: email@example.com, 0417 655 233
Women have been largely invisible in the broad sweep of Chinese Australian history. From the earliest days of Chinese migration to Australia, it was predominantly men and boys who came south to the colonies as labourers, miners and merchants. By the turn of the twentieth century, there were still fewer than 500 migrant Chinese women in Australia among a population of nearly 30,000 Chinese men. These small numbers have made it easy for historians to overlook the presence of Chinese women and girls in Australia and this, combined with the challenges of locating sources that document women’s lives, has contributed to an apparently legitimised acceptance of male-centred history. In this talk I challenge the framing of Chinese Australian history as a history of men and consider how tracing the lives of Chinese women in Australia disrupts accepted narratives of Chinese migration and settlement. These themes are the focus of my new book, Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia, co-edited with Julia Martínez.
Kate Bagnall is Senior Lecturer in Humanities and coordinator of the Family History program at the University of Tasmania. She has a background in public history and archives, completing her PhD in History at the University of Sydney while working at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra. Kate is best known for her work in Chinese Australian history, particularly the history of women, children and families in Australia’s early Chinese communities. Before joining the University of Tasmania in 2019, Kate was an ARC DECRA Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong.
In letters that Charlie Allen wrote to his mother from China in 1911, he mentioned his ‘uncle’s wife’, who was, like him, trying to get home to Australia. Charlie had gone to live in Chuk Sau Yuen 竹秀園 near Shekki 石岐 in Heungshan 香山 in mid-1909, at the age of twelve, leaving behind his mother and siblings in Sydney. His father, Charley Gum, had taken him to China but had then returned to work in Sydney. His parents were no longer together and Charlie’s mum, Frances Allen, had not wanted her son to go to China.
I’ve written elsewhere about Charlie, his mum and the letters he wrote to her from China. They are a poignant account of Charlie’s loneliness and homesickness – he was a boy far from home and family, living in an unfamiliar place and learning a new language, with no easy way to leave. One hopeful thread in two of the letters, written in 1911, was the thought of returning to Sydney with his ‘uncles’ wife’ and her children.
He wrote about this idea in a letter dated 11 April 1911:
My uncle’s wife got a letter to-day from her sister say that if she wanted money to write & ask for it so she is going to send for 40 pound & she is going to pay my fare to sydney, & when we get to sydney she wants you to pay her back, & wants to know do you like this or not. so write back & tell me so I am now writing to custom house & sending photo & asking him for my paper to go back.
In a subsequent letter, written when Charlie had been in Chuk Sau Yuen for nearly two years (so perhaps around June 1911), he wrote:
My uncles’ wife said that she will pay my fare back to Sydney when I get there for you to give back my fare to her, or send Sam for me, & she told me to ask you would you like it or not you can please your self, mother I am very unhappy here.
And later in the same letter:
My uncle is going back to Sydney soon & as soon as he goes his wife is going to sneak away, she has 4 children & she would have a lot of trouble with them so I ask her to pay my fare back to & I would help her with her children & luggage & when we get back for you to pay her back my fare so I am writing this letter to ask you weather you like it or not, when she gets there she will stay at your place until she writs to her parents saying that she is home & tell them what to do.
I have long wondered who Charlie’s ‘uncle’s wife’ and her four children were, but without a name I thought it unlikely that I’d ever be able to establish their identity.
I’ve tried to solve a similar mystery in the case of another Sydney boy in China, Richard Lee, who, in newspaper reports, gave the name of a white Australian woman (‘Mrs Gee Chong’) that he knew and spent time with while living in his father’s village in Heungshan (the village was ‘Chuk-to-in’, which may or may not be the same village Charlie Allen lived in – another long-term, as-yet-unsolved puzzle!). In Richard Lee’s case, despite some substantial digging, I haven’t been able to identify who ‘Mrs Gee Chong’ was, even with a name, and so with Charlie’s ‘uncle’s wife’ I had given up any hope of identifying her.
A serendipitous breakthrough!
Recently, though, I’ve had a serendipitous breakthrough. Tim has been doing some updates to our Real Face of White Australia project, re-harvesting and processing the portrait photographs from NAA: ST84/1. As he does so, we’ve been looking through the images to see if we can spot any ‘new’ women and children – and one of those Tim spotted was this little poppet in her distinctive frilly bonnet:
The certificate to which the photographs are attached – a 1909 CEDT for Charlie Yin – reveals that she is Alice Yin, aged one year and six months, and that she was leaving Sydney with her father and siblings. Her elder brother, Norman (aged three years and four months), and sister, Alma (aged 5 years and four months), were issued with their own CEDTs. Norman and Alma were both recorded as being ‘half-caste Chinese’ born in Mungindi, New South Wales. The family left Sydney on the Empire in October 1909; Charlie Yin returned to Sydney on the Empire on 16 August 1911 while the children returned three years later, on 30 October 1914 on the Eastern.
Further investigation revealed that a ‘C’ file in series SP42/1 still exists for the family, and it was here that I struck gold.
The file revealed that Alma, Norman and Alice Yin were the children of Charlie and Annie Yin, and had been born at Bumbalar, Mungindi in 1904, 1906 and 1908. Their father Charlie, a gardener, was from Canton while their mother, Annie (née Campbell), was also born at Mungindi. Charlie and Annie had married at Bumbalar on 16 July 1903, when Annie was aged 18 and Charlie was 29.
Charlie had applied for CEDTS for himself and for the children to travel to China in 1909, and as noted, he had returned to Australia in 1911. In 1912, he wrote to the Collector of Customs, through Wing On & Co., requesting an extension of the children’s CEDTs ‘as they have not yet completed their schooling’. Charlie was then living at Eastern Road, Turramurra in Sydney. The extension was granted, providing the fee of £1 each was paid. Charlie then applied for another CEDT for himself in February 1914, and he departed Sydney for Hong Kong on the Taiyuan on 20 March 1914.
The next document in the file is a two-page letter addressed to the ‘Commissioner of Customs, Sydney’ from the Archdeacon of Hong Kong, dated 8 October 1914, requesting attention to the case of Mrs Yin née Campbell. The letter stated that after travelling together to China:
her husband himself returned to Sydney leaving his wife and family in the Heung Shan district, about one day’s journey from Hongkong. Subsequently he came back to China and died on June 2nd last. … Another son, Hubert (Huey) was born on 11th June 1911.
She holds no papers for this child of three years but as it is impossible for her as an Australian woman to live in China now that her husband is dead without suffering untold hardships, she is most anxious to return to her own people at Moree.
… this woman has been most harshly dealt with since her husband’s death as is unfortunately too often the custom in such cases. By careful manoeuvring she has managed to escape from her husband’s village with the children, and to return there would be fatal.
(On the experiences of Australian wives of Chinese in China, see my ‘Crossing oceans and cultures’ chapter in Australia’s Asia – details in References below.)
When the family arrived back in Sydney at the end of October 1914, Annie Yin and her three Australian-born children were allowed to land without question. Little Huey’s case, however, was referred to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs for decision, as he was born in China; ten days later, permission was granted for him to remain in the Commonwealth.
Do the facts match?
Alice Yin née Campbell had travelled with her three children and husband to her husband’s village in Heungshan in 1909 and gave birth to a fourth child there in June 1911, after which time her husband returned to Australia (in August that year). Charlie Allen wrote, in around June 1911, that his ‘uncle’s wife’ was keen to return to Australia with her four children and that her husband was soon to return to Australia. So, they were in China at the same time, there were the right number of children, but were they in the same village?
Charlie Allen’s father, Charley Gum was a Gock / Kwok / Goq 郭 from Chuk Sau Yuen, and it was here that Charlie spent his time in China. On Alice Yin’s 1908 birth certificate, her father’s name was given as Charlie Gock Yin, and he corresponded with the Collector of Customs through Wing On & Co., which was run by members of the Gock family. Some poking about in Ancestry.com revealed a family tree (never the best source, but still!) that named Charlie as ‘Charlie Kwok Yin’ and listed his birthplace as ‘Jook So Yuen’.
Based on that, it seems very likely to me that both men, Charley Gum and Charlie Yin, were Gocks from Chuk Sau Yuen, and that it was here they took their children in 1909. And therefore that Annie Yin and Alma, Norman, Alice and Herbert were Charlie Allen’s ‘uncle’s wife’ and four children!
NAA: ST84/1, 1909/33/51-60 , Edward OYoung, Kee Sum, Mar Chin, Ah Mee, Charlie Yet, Charlie Yin, Norman Yin, Alma Yin and Marm Fong [Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test – includes left hand impression and photographs] [box 31], 1909
NAA: SP42/1, C1914/6345 , Children of Charlie Yin [includes photographs of Charlie Yin and birth certificates of Norman Yin, Alma Yin and Alice Yin; Customs Sydney restricted migration file], 1909–1914
It goes without saying that 2020 has been a strange and difficult year.
I started the year by moving from Canberra to Hobart, after three months of remote working in my new job at UTAS (as Senior Lecturer in Humanities and Course Coordinator of the Diploma of Family History). I was incredibly sad to be moving so far from Canberra, to be leaving our home of 20 years, to be uprooting my family and separating our kids from each other – the three big ones chose to remain, while the little one had to come with us. But it was also a relief to be leaving the thick smokey air and orange skies and anxiety and asthma that the bushfires had brought over December and January. Then, just as we were starting to feel a little bit settled in Hobart, COVID hit Australia. I had seen COVID come into the lives of friends in Guangdong and Macau, feeling very lucky that it wasn’t us who were in lockdown – but then we were too.
Of all the places in the world to spend 2020, Hobart has been pretty great. But being in a new job, in a new city, on an island cut off from family and friends on the mainland, in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, has been hard, so hard. And now, our plans of returning home to visit in the new year look unlikely due to the recent COVID outbreak in Sydney.
So, it’s with all that in mind that I’m writing this ‘year in review’ post – to help me see through my continually teary eyes that I’ve accomplished something at work this year. See the list below, if you want the details.
My biggest accomplishment this year hasn’t really been at work though. It’s been to get myself, my teenager and my tween through the year in more or less one piece, and to see them finally looking towards 2021 (and more particularly, 2021 in Hobart) with a sense of hope and perhaps even happiness. I couldn’t have achieved that without support from Tim, Sophie, Nicki and Molly the Labrador on the home front, and from my stellar colleague and font-of-Tasmanian-knowledge, Imogen, at work.
Things I’ve accomplished at work this year
Here’s my list of work things I’m happy to have accomplished this year, in no particular order:
my probation at UTAS going through early, after 12 months (yay me!)
our major course changes for R2H Diploma of Family History for 2021 being approved by Senate – and being complimented on the excellence of my course change paperwork
preparing a proposal and gaining approval for my new unit, HAA108 Migrant Families, to be introduced into the Diploma of Family History in 2021
concurrently coordinating two units (HAA003 and HAA107) between July and September with a combined enrolment of over 900 students, with 6 tutors to manage – note to self: never do this again; you literally had 3 days where you didn’t work between June and October
revising HAA003 Introduction to Family History and developing 3 weeks’ content for our new unit, HTA206 Australian History in a Global Context, all done from home and taught online
finalising Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia, forthcoming with HKU Press in early 2021 – included working on the cover and marketing materials, commissioning and checking the index, and checking three rounds of proofs
submitting an application for the ARC Special Research Initiative for Australian Society, History and Culture with Julia Martínez and Sophie Couchman – we weren’t successful (only 7.1% of application were), but we were ranked between 10% to 25% of unsuccessful proposals within the scheme round (with three of the four selection criteria ranked at top 10%)
dealing with a plagiarism matter, where a PRC researcher had published an article, in Chinese in a PRC-based journal, that was largely based on my research
speaking via Zoom at the ‘Asia at the Crossroads: Ruptures and Hopes’ symposium, organised by the Melbourne-Monash Asia Studies Reading Group, on 31 July 2020
speaking with my UTAS colleague Imogen Wegman at Libraries Tasmania in Hobart for Family History Month on 13 August 2020
assisting/speaking to researchers/journalists: Kirsty Walsh (Who Do You Think You Are?), Ingrid Piper (commissioned by Australian Consulate, Hong Kong); Mell Chun (freelance journalist working on a project supported by a Judith Neilson and Walkley Fund grant)
being invited to participate in a three ARC applications (two I had to decline), including an ARC Linkage project with Tracy Ireland, Jane Lydon, Tim Sherratt and GML Heritage, which we submitted in December
being invited to contribute to two publications – an edited collection by Tony Ballantyne and a special journal issue on Chinese NZ/Australian history/heritage – in which I’ll write up more of my Chinese naturalisation research
progressing the Subjects and Aliens edited collection I’m working on with Peter Prince, with the aim of submitting it to a publisher in 2021
getting to work with some truly excellent colleagues at UTAS – with special mention to the professional staff who help me do my job better, in particular Carol, Melinda, Scott, and the wonderful young women in the Family History Contact Team this year, Maddy, Emma and Meredith
supervising my first Honours student, who achieved First Class Honours and also got herself a graduate job in the Department of Premier and Cabinet starting next year (yay Britt!)
beginning to think about and dig into Chinese Tasmanian history, particularly about Tasmanian Chinese family histories and how I might sneak Tasmania into my Chinese naturalisation book
Where my work has been cited, 2019–2020
For the record, here are some publications from 2019 and 2020 that have cited my work. I’ve included 2019 here because I didn’t manage to publish a ‘2019 in review’ post last year (too busy settling into new job, selling our house, packing, etc).
Barnwell, Ashley, ‘Keeping the Nation’s Secrets: “Colonial Storytelling” within Australian Families’, Journal of Family History, 46, no. 1 (January 2021), pp. 46–61, https://doi.org/10.1177/0363199020966920.
Berthon, Hilary, ‘A Treasure Trove of Community Language Newspapers’, in Catherine Dewhirst and Richard Scully (eds), The Transnational Voices of Australia’s Migrant and Minority Press, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-43639-1_11.
Charak, Sarah Edith, ‘Anglo-Jews and Eastern European Jews in a White Australia’, Honours Thesis, Department of History, University of Sydney, 2019, http://hdl.handle.net/2123/21137.
Cheng, Christopher, ‘Beacons of Modern Learning: Diaspora-Funded Schools in the China-Australia Corridor’, Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, 29, no. 2 (June 2020), pp. 139–62, https://doi.org/10.1177/0117196820930309.
Chua, J.Y., ‘ “An Open and Public Scandal” in the Transvaal: The 1906 Bucknill Inquiry in a Global Context’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 29, no. 2 (2020), pp. 135–161.
Fitzpatrick, Matthew P. and Peter Monteath, ‘Amidst Empires: Colonialism, China and the Chinese’, in Peter Monteath and Matthew P. Fitzpatrick (eds), Colonialism, China and the Chinese, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.
Gibson, Peter, and Simon Ville, ‘Australian Wool and Chinese Industrialization, 1901–1941’, Twentieth-Century China, 44, no. 3 (2019), pp. 265–287.
Kuo, Mei-fen, ‘The “Invisible Work” of Women: Gender and Philanthropic Sociability in the Evolution of Early Chinese Australian Voluntary Organisations’, in John Fitzgerald and Hon-ming Yip (eds), Chinese Diaspora Charity and the Cantonese Pacific, 1850–1949, Hong Kong University Press, 2020.
Kuo, Mei-fen and John Fitzgerald, ‘Colonial Pathways to International Education: Chinese Students in White Australia in the 1920s’, in Peter Monteath and Matthew P. Fitzpatrick (eds), Colonialism, China and the Chinese, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.
Kwok, Juanita, ‘Waltzing the Dragon with Benjamin Law’, History Australia, 17, no. 1 (2020), pp. 192–194.
Kwok, Juanita, ‘Chinese Mining on the Turon: From Beginning to End’, Journal of Australasian Mining History, 17 (Oct 2019), pp. 75–95.
Rhook, Nadia,‘ “The Chinese Doctor James Lamsey”: Performing Medical Sovereignty and Property in Settler Colonial Bendigo, Postcolonial Studies, 23, no. 1 (2020), pp. 58–78.
Robson, Charmaine, ‘Doctors’ Dilemma: Appraising the Rights of New South Wales Leprosy Sufferers, 1890–1950′, Health & History: Journal of the Australian & New Zealand Society for the History of Medicine, 22, no. 1 (2020), pp. 126–49.
Sawaki, Tomoko, ‘Interacting Voices Structure a Text: A Quantitative Investigation of Dialogic Elements Across Structural Units in the Introductory Chapters of History Theses’, Functions of Language, 27, no. 2 (2020), pp. 174–206, https://doi.org/10.1075/fol.17037.saw.
Sayers, Jentery, ‘Bringing Trouvé to Light: Speculative Computer Vision and Media History’, in Kevin Kee and Timothy Compeau (eds), Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, University of Michigan Press, 2019, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvnjbdr0.5.
See, Pamela M., ‘The Agency of Papercutting in the Post-Digital Era’, PhD Thesis, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, 2020.
Peter Cox’s local history of the former gold-mining town of Lefroy in north-eastern Tasmania, Lefroy: Tasmania’s Forgotten Gold Town (George Town and District Historical Society, 2016, p. 90), mentions a market gardener named Ah Hung, who with ‘his European wife Jemma’ had a large vegetable and fruit garden to the north of Lefroy, ‘on the old Douglas township site’.
Douglas was a town that never eventuated, about four kilometres east of Lefroy. By contrast, Lefroy was once a substantial town, reputed at one point to have been the fourth largest town in Tasmania. There was a notable Chinese community in Lefroy, including a temple. Today, there are only a few houses remaining.
Chinese miners occupy their own chapter of Cox’s study (Chapter 3, ‘Chinese and Slate’), but Jemma and Ah Hung receive only the one brief, unreferenced mention in Chapter 10 (‘The Peak of the Boom’). On a recent holiday in the East Tamar district, I set out to see what I could find out about them.
Jemima Cox and Ah Hung married in Launceston in 1875. She had come to Tasmania as a small child, after migrating with her family from Hertfordshire, England in 1856. Jemima and Ah Hung had three children, born in the early 1880s, Henry, James and Mary, and they lived on land owned by Jemima at Douglas, near Blanket Creek outside of Lefroy, where they ran a garden. Ah Hung died in 1904, after which time it seems that Jemima moved to Launceston with her eldest son, Henry. They lived in Forster Street, Inveresk, and Henry was a gardener like his father (and Jemima’s father, too). Jemima died in 1923, at age 74, in Broken Hill, New South Wales, where she was living with son Henry – she had been in Broken Hill for four months.
Below is a chronology of the information I uncovered through Trove Newspapers, the Tasmanian Names Index, the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Ancestry.com, General Register Office UK, Broken Hill Cemetery website, and maps from the National Library and Libraries Tasmania (thanks to Imogen Wegman for the latter reference). There are many leads that could be followed up about the life of Jemima and Ah Hung and their children, and I’ve noted some of these for future reference!
c. 1835–1846: Ah Hung was born.
1850: On 13 September 1850, Jemima Elizabeth Cox was born in at Nancy Bury, Tewin, Hertfordshire, England, the daughter of Daniel Cox and Mary Gregory. Her father was a woodman and her mother signed with an ‘X’.
Birth of Jemima Elizabeth Cox, Oct-Nov-Dec 1850, Hertfordshire, Vol. 6, Page 547, FreeBMD, England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915 [database online], Ancestry.com.
Birth registration of Jemima Elizabeth Cox, December Quarter 1850, Hertford Union, Vol. 6, Page 547, General Register Office, United Kingdom.
1851: The family of Daniel and Mary Cox was listed in the 1851 England Census as living at Nancy Bury, Tewin, in Hertfordshire, England. The household consisted of Daniel (farmer labourer, age 32, born Tewin), Mary (housewife, age 26, born Codicote), Daniel (age 4) and Jemima (age 7 months).
Census record for Daniel Cox and household, Tewin, Hertfordshire, England, Class HO107, Piece 1711, Folio 170, Page 26, 1851 England Census [database online], Ancestry.com.
1856: On 5 February, Daniel and Mary Cox and their children arrived in New South Wales as assisted immigrants on the James Fernie. The Cox children were 7-year-old Daniel, 5-year-old Jemima, 2-year-old Joseph and a male infant born on board.
Assisted immigrants records for Daniel Cox, Mary Cox and Daniel, Jemima and Joseph Cox, arrived on James Fernie, 1856, Assisted Immigrants Index 1839–1896, NSW State Archives and Records.
Passenger list for the James Fernie, arrived Sydney on 5 February 1856, New South Wales, Australia, Assisted Immigrant Passenger Lists, 1828-1896 [database online], Ancestry.com.
1869: Jemima Cox gave evidence in a case about trespass on the land that her father, Daniel Cox, rented in Glen Dhu Street, Launceston.
1875: Jemima Cox and Ah Hung were married at the Wesleyan Church in Patterson Street, Launceston, by the Rev. E.W. Nye. Jemima was incorrectly said to be a native of Tasmania, aged about 25 years old, and she was still living with her parents at Cataract Hill. Ah Hung was described as a ‘middle aged man’.
They were married on 13 May 1875. He was recorded as being aged 29 and she was 25. He was a bachelor and she was a spinster. He was a miner and she was a gardener’s daughter.
c. 1880: Henry Charles Hung, son of Jemima Cox and Ah Hung, was born in Tasmania.
c. 1882: James Hung, son of Jemima Cox and Ah Hung, was born in Tasmania.
c. 1884: Mary Hung, daughter of Jemima Cox and Ah Hung, was born in Tasmania.
1889: The premises of Ah Hung at Lefroy were robbed on Tuesday, 3 September 1889, and £75 in gold and silver was stolen. The theft was not discovered until 5 September. The main suspect was another Chinese man.
1910: Mrs J. Hung of Melbourne Street, South Launceston, won the ‘Robur’ Tea Ticket Collecting Competition for February 1910 and her name was listed in a Launceston newspaper (under ‘3/6 Rewards’ in the first column).
1913: Mrs Jemima Hung was listed in the Post Office Directory as living at Forster Street, Inveresk, on the righthand side from Invermay Road after Goderich Street.
Tasmania Post Office Directory for 1913–14, H. Wise and Co., Hobart, p. 154, Ancestry.com. Australia, City Directories, 1845-1948 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
1914: Mrs Jemima Hung (domestic duties) and Henry Charles Hung (gardener) were living in Forster Street, Inveresk.
1915: Mrs Jemima Hung was listed in the Post Office Directory as living at Forster Street, Inveresk, on the righthand side from Invermay Road after Goderich Street.
Tasmania Post Office Directory for 1915–16, H. Wise and Co., Hobart, p. 152, Ancestry.com. Australia, City Directories, 1845-1948 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
1922: Jemima Hung (domestic duties) and Henry Charles Hung (gardener) were living in Forster Street, Inveresk.
1947: ‘Half-caste Chinese’ James Hung, age 65, died. He was the brother of Henry Charles Hung of 53 Charles Street, Launceston. James Hung’s body was found at the bottom of a cliff in the Gorge on Saturday, 1 February 1947.
Uncommon Lives in the National Archives: Biography, history and the records of government
I presented this paper at the Australian Historical Association Conference at the Australian National University in July 2006 when I was working as Websites Content Developer at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra. It discusses a National Archives website called Uncommon Lives, a project I worked on as researcher, editor and project manager between 2003 and 2007. The latest iteration of the National Archives website, launched in October 2019, has seen the removal of Uncommon Lives from the web – and it probably goes without saying that I think this is a real loss. Uncommon Lives was one of a number of truly innovative web projects the then NAA Web Content Team created in the early 2000s and it is disappointing that the NAA no longer seems to understand the value of these websites as tools of both archival and historical understanding and exploration.
Note: Most of the web links below take you to archived versions of the webpage in the Internet Archive (except the link to The National Archives (UK) Moving Here website, which is archived by The National Archives itself!)
In 2003, the National Archives of Australia launched its Uncommon Lives website, a series of biographical and historical profiles of individual Australians. The first profile, on German inventor and World War II internee Wolf Klaphake, has since been joined by features on subjects including activist Jessie Street and Yolgnu elder Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda. Each profile is based on documents held by the National Archives—that is, records created by the Australian government—and online access to digital copies of these records is provided through the Archives’ RecordSearch database. This paper will discuss the development of Uncommon Lives and consider how the records of government can be used to tell the stories of famous and not so famous Australians. Uncommon Lives can be found at uncommonlives.naa.gov.au.
The National Archives of Australia’s Uncommon Lives website (uncommonlives.naa.gov.au) presents historical portraits of individuals whose lives have somehow intersected with the activities of the Commonwealth government of Australia—and therefore about whom the National Archives holds records. The website has grown gradually from an initial pilot in 2003 to three fully-developed and one preview feature about five subjects in 2006. Each of these lives has been researched and written by a different author, in conjunction with National Archives staff. The first feature, by Klaus Neumann, concerned interned German inventor, Wolf Klaphake; the second by Lenore Coltheart is about Jessie Street; the third by Peter Read tells the story of Yolgnu elder Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda; and the most recent feature, developed by John Dargavel, will look at the work of forester Charles Lane Poole and his designer wife Ruth.
Uncommon Lives aims to show how Commonwealth government records held in the National Archives collection can be used to tell stories of people’s lives. Family historians, who make up a significant percentage of the users of the National Archives, know that the Archives has records which relate to their ancestors—particularly those ancestors who served in the armed forces or were migrants. But biographers and local, community and professional historians seem less savvy to the fact that there may be records about their subjects in the Archives, usually preferring instead to head towards libraries with their familiar manuscript and newspaper collections. The Uncommon Lives features are designed, therefore, to highlight the ways in which Australians (and non-Australians) have interacted with the Australian government over the past hundred years and the ways that evidence of their lives remains in the records. The project suggests the diversity of people and the range of life stories that inhabit the records of government—from those whose interactions are well known, such as politicians and prominent public servants, to those ‘ordinary’ people who found themselves in particular circumstances which necessitated their dealing with government.
Life histories and the records of government
Documents about individuals and families are the most commonly sought records in the collection of the National Archives of Australia. The impetus behind this is, without a doubt, the current community interest in genealogy and family history—a 2002 study of Archives users found, for instance, that 88% of those making reference enquiries were doing so for the purpose of family history research.1
To cater to these particular interests, the National Archives has two special reference services which provide copies of Australian war service dossiers and post-war migration records, and efforts are made by the Archives to make ‘family history’ records known and accessible.2 In the 2004-05 financial year, nearly 40,000 requests were made for copies of war service records3 and use of the newer Making Australia Home service, launched in February 2005, is also growing.
Migration and war service records can be so widely accessed because of the work the Archives has put in to making these nationally-significant collections open and accessible to anyone and everyone, many of whom know and care little about what the Archives does or how it works. For the majority of people who access archival records through the special reference services, it is their first and probably last interaction with the Archives and with the records in its vast collection.
Their interest in the records comes from the personal and very real human connection these records make between individuals today and those of the past, be they parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.
People enjoy finding links between their ancestors and themselves, between the past and present, and most are content once they have copies of a few precious folios and perhaps a photograph or two. But beyond these most obvious and widely-accessed sources, there are many, many more shelf kilometres of records which could be used by biographers and professional historians, as well as family historians, to tell of the lives of individuals in deeper and more nuanced ways.
More often than not, the archives of the Commonwealth government are imagined to be a dry and boring collection focussed on the policies and decision-making of stuffy bureaucrats and politicians tucked away in Canberra, separate from the ‘real’ life of the people of Australia. ‘The government’ who created and kept the records is thought to be a monolithic entity, and therefore the records are seen to present the voice of ‘the government’ only. But within the records there are myriad different voices and opinions—certainly there are those of prime ministers and prominent politicians, but there are also those of the many ‘everyday’ men and women who worked for the government, those who sought the government’s assistance, those who protested against it, and those whose lives were controlled and directed by its policies and actions.
Research undertaken by Alessandro Antonello, who this last summer completed an internship with the Archives, has shown how the presence of these individuals in the Archives’ collection can be overlooked by those who perhaps should know better. Alessandro did some digging into the Archives’ records on Sir Douglas Mawson and looked to see if these records had been used in Philip Ayres’ extensively researched biography of the great explorer, Mawson: A Life.4 Alessandro found that not only did Ayres not use the Archives wide-ranging collection of documents written both by and about Mawson during his dealings with the Commonwealth; he also revealed that a letter from Mawson to Prime Minister John Curtin which Ayres claimed had been destroyed was, in fact, safely held with its original envelope in a file in the Archives’ Canberra repository.5 I suspect that there are other similar examples out there, too—where personal papers held in manuscript collections, newspapers, interviews and published works have been used in biographical works, while the records of government have not.
With its focus on life stories and biography, the Uncommon Lives website aims to demonstrate some of the possibilities to be found within the records of government when it comes to researching and writing about people. The Archives’ records are evidence of the Australian government’s actions on behalf of its people and of its interactions with them, and they are kept by the Archives as a fundamental part of our democracy. One of the mandates of the National Archives is to ‘develop, manage and promote a visible, known and accessible national collection that engages and informs the community’.6 A challenge for those of us who work in Archives education and outreach is how to make connections between the people, the Australian community, and the records. Through Uncommon Lives we hope to bring to light the ways in which everyday Australians, both in the past and present, are connected to the actions of their government and the records which document them.
Uncommon Lives is part narrative, part exhibition and part finding aid, a combination that hopefully works in different ways for different people and allows the exploration of records in both their historical and archival contexts. What I would like to do for the rest of my time, is to go through some of the different aspects of the website, both relating to its content and its functionality. I will then finish with some of the challenges we’ve faced in developing the website and in giving it a future.
But first, a brief tour. The features are generally made up of five sections—an overview of the subject’s life, two sections on particular events or issues prominent in the Archives’ records, a timeline and a listing of records used. The format varies a little between each of the features, as we adapt the general format to fit with the stories revealed in the records. The website also includes a search facility, and other general ‘housekeeping’ pages about credits, copyright and technical information.
The subjects of the website to date are a varied bunch:
Wolf Klaphake, a German inventor interned in Australia in World War II
Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, a Yolgnu elder from east Arnhem Land accused of murdering a white policeman, sentenced to death, then released on appeal to the High Court in the early 1930s
Jessie Street, an establishment rebel and social campaigner active throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, and
The connection between them, in all their diversity, is that they interacted with the Commonwealth government in such as way that there remains a significant body of records by or about them in the National Archives.
This is the first criteria we have used in assessing whose lives should be featured—are there enough records within our collection? As I’ve said, the collection is rich in stories about people, but obviously not everyone is included in the files. The people who feature most prominently are those employed by the government, those whose lives were directly impacted by its policies—in both positive and negative ways—and those viewed by the government as problematic.
The feature on interned German inventor Wolf Klaphake is based primarily on files related to his internment by the Commonwealth government during World War II.
The Jessie Street profile makes extensive use of the large ASIO files kept about her and other records of her dealings with the government as a lobbyist or member of official bodies.
The feature on Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda uses the substantial body of records, including many of newspaper clippings, kept by various government departments about his dramatic case, as well as files from the High Court (which are also held by the National Archives).
The life of Charles and Ruth Lane Poole is told through the many documents, letters and papers they wrote in their work for the government as Commonwealth forester and head of the Forestry School and interior designer of The Lodge and Yarralumla.
A second and very important consideration when choosing our subjects has been concerns over privacy and consent. Before the Archives uses records of a personal and individual nature in our publications and exhibitions, we aim to gain permission from the subject or if they are deceased, a family member.
We have been fortunate so far that family members have been involved in the development of each of the Uncommon Lives features. They have provided access to family documents and photographs and, in the case of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, we chose to take the profile further by including Dhakiyarr’s own story as told by his grandsons, based on what they had been told by their grandmother.7 Another success has been tracking down the family of Japanese businessman Jiro Muramats, subject of a forthcoming feature, whose only daughter married a Japanese diplomat and left Australia prior to World War II. Muramats’ descendants were pleased to hear about the work we are doing and interested to know more about the family’s now-distant connections to Australia.
Uncommon Lives reveals the presence of individual voices within the records of government, showing how people have interacted with the government in different ways. The website presents Wolf Klaphake’s numerous letters of protest against his internment during World War II in camps with Nazi sympathisers, particularly poignant as he and his wife had left Germany because of their dislike of the rising National Socialist movement, and it shows Jessie Street’s ongoing struggle for human rights with eight prime ministers and their governments, over more than three decades.
Uncommon Lives also suggests the role of the individual with government itself—how prime ministers and ministers, public servants and other government employees differed in their opinions and approaches to issues and situations. It demonstrates how ‘the government’ is not one great monolithic entity. The tensions between public servants in Canberra and Darwin, for instance, are brought to the fore in the story of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, and the way in which personality influences policy will be raised in the full feature on Charles Lane Poole.
The feature on Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda also shows how individuals have been the subject of great government interest and activity, without ever having a voice to articulate their own thoughts, interests and needs. The records held in the National Archives show Dhakiyarr as a part of a ‘problem’ to be dealt with by administrators, police and the courts, as they do with many other Aboriginal Australians. Dhakiyarr’s story is a particularly compelling one, however, in that in the hundreds and hundreds of pages about him and the events which led to his eventual disappearance, not one word is his. Not even in the various court hearings was Dhakiyarr able to speak—he did not understand English and no interpreter was provided to him who could speak his language. It was for this reason that we chose to include the direct voices of Dhakiyarr’s grandsons to tell his story on his behalf.
In the website, such absences and gaps in the archival record are not overlooked; rather they are brought to light and the reader is invited to question possible interpretations raised by the records themselves.
A primary aim of the Uncommon Lives website is to reveal the possibilities within the records, as well as their limitations. Each of the Uncommon Lives features reveals different types of records of government that can be used in writing about people, highlighting diverse parts of the National Archives collection and providing access to them. In doing so, we hope to raise questions about the records—both about what is in them and the way that they came into being.
The website aims to make readers more familiar with the types of records held in the National Archives collection, as well as providing insights into the way the government created and kept records, and the way that those recordkeeping systems are maintained and augmented by the National Archives. The Archives collection is a large and often unwieldy one, and it is arranged in a way that is unfamiliar to most researchers more familiar with topic or subject-based systems of arrangement as found in libraries. The disjuncture between the familiar idea of subjects and the unfamiliar idea of functions has been described as an ‘intractable problem’ for archives staff whose job it is to make the collection more accessible and to promote its use, even among tertiary students, academic and public historians.8 Archivists have solid and sound reasons for the way they arrange and manage the records in their care, adhering to the principles of provenance and original order—in the case of the National Archives through the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) system based on the relationship between agency, series and item—but the merits of their systems are not immediately evident to most researchers.
Links to digitised records
Archives face the continuing question of how to provide meaningful access to their collections and, as technology changes, the expectations of the public grows. Ten years ago the National Archives website was in its infancy, the organisation had limited public programs and exhibitions, and the main way into our collection was through accession lists, some basic research guides and the knowledge stored in reference officers’ heads.9 Archives reading rooms were for ‘serious’ researchers.
In 2006, the National Archives is a different place, with a prominent online presence of one general and four specialised collection-based websites and two online catalogues, RecordSearch and PhotoSearch. Uncommon Lives, and the National Archives’ other specialised websites Documenting a Democracy, Australia’s Prime Ministers and Vrroom, build on directions the Archives took in the late 1990s to make the collection more open and accessible through the web. In particular, by the digitisation initiatives which mean that an ever-growing number of records are available to read in full through the Archives online catalogue RecordSearch.
In Uncommon Lives, the text is broken up with numerous images. Most of these images are not merely illustrative however, they are documents that relate directly to the surrounding text. Sometimes they are referred to directly in the text, other times they are a source from which surrounding text has been based, sometimes they are a photograph of person referred to. By breaking up the text in this manner, we hope to encourage the reader to pause and possibly view the records. Or for those who are not determined enough to read all, they can gleefully click on the images and be taken to copies of the original documents.
The Archives’ digitisation program and, through it, the ability to access archival records in their entirety online makes the Uncommon Lives project (and other National Archives websites) different from many other digital history projects. Other websites provide online access to digitised documents, but these are generally removed from their original archival context. I mentioned earlier that the merits of archival arrangement was not immediately recognised by researchers, but for those well-versed and interested in archival practice, the value of the fact that these documents can be located in their original order in the file is clear.
A reader of Uncommon Lives can go from a document to the whole file, where they can see it located alongside those documents filed before and after it, and from there into the record series to other files created by the same department about different cases, and so on. In the Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda feature, a reader can click through to see how anthropologist Olive Pink’s September 1933 telegram protesting a government-led punitive expedition in Arnhem Land sits nestled in a large file of the Department of the Interior, alongside similar letters of protest from the Church Missionary Society, Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the Australian Society of Patriots and the Women’s Central Organising Committee of the Victorian Labor Party.
Uncommon Lives provides pathways to the huge number of records that are available to view online RecordSearch—there are now more than nine million pages accessible, an achievement that took around five years to reach—and it provides the potential to make any number of connections that those of us developing the site might never have imagined. No longer are footnotes something that only serious researchers or eager students will make the time to pursue. Each feature includes a full list of the records used and links to other organisations who hold records about the subject.
The development of Uncommon Lives has presented certain challenges, and I will finish by briefly mentioning a couple of these.
The first of these challenges comes from the delivery of the biographies as a website. The features are narrative-driven, but delivered in a medium noted for its non-linear nature. People generally read books from front to back, or at least they read each chapter from beginning to end. On the web, though, readers follow links here and there, go back and forwards as they please. They mostly don’t read online either, they scan. So with this in mind, the profiles are relatively short and the text is broken up with headings and illustrations. Within the narrative, we hope the website provides easy-to-follow paths, but also the ability to move around, browse or read in-depth as desires.
The Uncommon Lives features are probably too long to read in detail comfortably on screen, however, so we included a feature where you can also view all on one page, which allows the text to be printed conveniently in one go.
A further challenge—and this may sound a little contradictory considering what I’ve just been saying—has been the fact that we have limited the features primarily to records in the National Archives collection. In most cases, these records don’t cover every aspect of the subjects’ lives and our authors have struggled with wanting to include the fabulous things they have found in our sister institutions, such as the War Memorial, AIATSIS, the National Library and the ANU Archives, and elsewhere.
Where appropriate, we have included material from other collections as illustrations—for example, the Archives only has a couple of not-so-inspiring photos of Jessie Street, while the National Library has many good ones; and the only photographs in our collection of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda are from newspapers, while AIATSIS has the stunning originals taken by newspaper photographer Eric Wilson. We also refer to records in other collections as needed in ‘filling in the gaps’—the diary or journal of Jiro Muramats held in the Battye Library in Western Australia, for example, has provided clues to parts of his personal and business life left blank in government records, as have discussions with family members of other subjects.
It is primarily, though, records held in the National Archives which direct the way the Uncommon Lives are presented. Being based primarily on one set of records, these portraits seem to go against one of the primary rules of good biography and history—to make use of all available source material, and to evaluate and make judicious selections from those sources to support a particular argument or thesis. This imbalance is why we try to focus on the records as being part of what the website is about. As archivists and historians, we can’t retrospectively control the records that were created and kept, we have to work with what’s there, and many of you will probably have experienced the ways that official records kept by public servants can skew situations, give highly-biased versions of events and of people’s characters and actions. In using the records of government alone, the website cannot present full biographies of the subjects, but it opens up the possibilities of different stories that can be told by these records when used with more traditional biographical sources.
Conclusion—keeping it alive
With a small project team—that is, myself plus an occasional research assistant—to coordinate the research and writing by our authors and to oversee the production of the website in between work on the Archives’ other websites, Uncommon Lives has not grown as quickly as I might have wished. It has however, met with positive feedback, particularly regarding the Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda feature. Over the past year, Uncommon Lives has received between 6,500 and 9,500 unique visits per month and we hope that this will expand, as the website itself expands. As I mentioned, there are four more lives currently in development, as well as a folder full of suggestions for other suitable subjects. Some possibilities for its future development include a greater diversity in the format of the lives and of the subjects, to feature families or communities as well as individuals, or to have ‘mini-lives’ that were focused more at the family history genre which were based around more limited groups of records such as those typically held about post-war assisted migrants from Europe.
At the National Archives we often think of ourselves as holding the records of the nation and the memory of the nation, but as Dutch archivist Eric Ketelaar has suggested ‘the “national memory” is not located in the National Archives’, but rather is a tapestry woven from a host of different societal resources.10 People want to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of archivists, historians, biographers and curators to make sense of the past and records of the past—and Uncommon Lives hopefully fulfils that to some degree—but they also want to be able to participate in the creation of the national memory by telling their own stories and the histories of individuals and families that have particular meaning to them.11 One possibility is that Uncommon Lives could open up to enable the public to post their own historical or biographical profiles, complete with links to related records in the Archives, as other online history projects do.12 While this kind of interactive functionality is not planned for the immediate future, Uncommon Lives, together with other Archives initiatives, is hopefully already linking the national memory hidden in the records of government to the people and communities of today’s Australia.
Antonello, Alessandro, ‘On seeing lives through the lenses of officialdom: Biography in the National Archives of Australia’, unpublished Summer Scholar paper, National Archives of Australia, 2006.
Bellamy, Craig, ‘The web, hypertext and history: A critical introduction’, Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, paper from Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges (a joint symposium of the Australian Historical Association and the State Library of New South Wales), July 1999, URL: www.jcu.edu.au/aff/history/conferences/virtual/bellamy, accessed 28 April 2006.
Brown, Joshua, ‘History and the web, from the illustrated newspaper to cyberspace: Visual technologies and interaction in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries’, Rethinking History, vol. 8, no. 2, June 2004.
Cohen, Daniel J, ‘History and the second decade of the web’, Rethinking History, vol. 8, no. 2, June 2004, pp. 293-301.
Gillies, Malcolm, ‘Virtual histories: Facts, contexts and interpretations’, Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, paper from Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges (a joint symposium of the Australian Historical Association and the State Library of New South Wales), July 1999, URL: www.jcu.edu.au/aff/history/conferences/virtual/gillies, accessed 28 April 2006.
Ketelaar, Eric, ‘Sharing: Collected memories in communities of records’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 33, no. 1, May 2005, pp. 44-61.
Ketelaar, Eric, ‘Being digital in people’s archives’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 31, no. 2, November 2003, pp. 8-22.
Knowles, Harry, ‘Voyeurs or scholars? Biography’s role in labour history’, in Paul Ashton and Bridget Griffen-Foley (eds), From the Frontier: Essays in Honour of Duncan Waterson, joint issue of Journal of Australian Studies, no. 69 and Australian Cultural History, no. 20, 2001, pp. 63-75, 191-93.
Ling, Ted and Anne McLean, ‘Taking it to the people: Why the National Archives of Australia embraced digitisation on demand’, Australian Academic and Research Libraries, vol. 35, no. 1, March 2004, pp. 2-15.
Meredyth, Denise and David Prater (eds), Online Archives and Virtual Communities, special issue of Southern Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2005.
Nosworthy, Helen, ‘Reaching Out’, in Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott (eds), The Records Continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives First Fifty Years, Ancora Press in association with Australian Archives, Clayton Vic., 1994.
Wilson, Tikka, ‘Publishing online: The uncommon life of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda’, Archives and Communities: Conference Proceedings and Photos [proceedings of the 2005 conference of the Australian Society of Archivists, held in Wellington New Zealand, 6-8 October 2005 on CD-rom], Australian Society of Archivists, [no place or date of publication].
Wilson, Tikka and Lenore Coltheart, ‘ “Reaching out” revisited: A case study of the Australia’s Prime Ministers website’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 32, no. 1, May 2004, pp. 88-105.
Environmetrics, Report on Remote User Study, internal National Archives report, October 2002. [↩]
National Archives of Australia and National Archives of Australia Advisory Council, Annual Reports 2004-05, p. 28. [↩]
Philip Ayres, Mawson: A Life, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 1999. [↩]
Alessandro Antonello, ‘On seeing lives through the lenses of officialdom: Biography in the National Archives of Australia’, unpublished Summer Scholar paper, National Archives of Australia, . See Ayres, Mawson, p. 239 and letter from Douglas Mawson to John Curtin, 23 March 1942, in NAA: A461, F703/1/2. [↩]
See ‘Olman’s story’, Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda: Appeal for Justice, Uncommon Lives website, http://uncommonlives.naa.gov.au/contents.asp?cID=54&lID=2, accessed 22 June 2006. [Historian Peter Read has written more on this in ‘Murder, revenge and reconciliation on the North Eastern Frontier’, History Australia, vol. 4, no. 1, 2007, pp. 09.1-09.15.] [↩]
See Hilary Golder, ‘National Archives of Australia/Australian Historical Association: Reference Group Meeting—14 February 2002’, Australian Historical Association Bulletin, no. 95, Summer 2002/2003, p. 34. [↩]
On the development of the National Archives public programs and websites, see Helen Nosworthy, ‘Reaching out’, in Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott (eds), The Records Continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives First Fifty Years, Ancora Press in association with Australian Archives, Clayton Vic., 1994; Gabrielle Hyslop, ‘For many audiences: Developing public programs at the National Archives of Australia’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 30, no. 1, May 2002, pp. 48-59; Tikka Wilson and Lenore Coltheart, ‘Reaching out’ revisited: A case study of the Australia’s Prime Ministers website’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 32, no. 1, May 2004, pp. 88-105. [↩]
Erik Ketelaar, ‘Being digital in people’s archives’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 31, no. 2, November 2003, p. 15. [↩]
For a discussion of how to connect archives to the people, see Eric Ketelaar, ‘Sharing: Collected memories in communities of records’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 33, no. 1, May 2005, pp. 44-61. [↩]
See, for example, the ‘Stories’ section of Moving Here: 200 years of migration to England, at URL: www.movinghere.org.uk/stories, accessed 2 June 2006. [↩]
Ten years ago, in June 2009, a paper of mine about White Australia records and the Poon Gooey family was published on the National Archives website. I had presented the paper at the Fourth International Conference of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China, on 10 May 2009. I was then working in the web team at the National Archives and so we put my paper up online, with links to images of documents and to the original archival records, which were all digitised in RecordSearch.
Using the story of Poon Gooey and his family as a case study, the paper discussed the National Archives’ early 20th-century records on Chinese Australians, particularly those created in the administration of the White Australia Policy. The records document many aspects of the lives of Chinese Australians, including immigration and travel, business enterprises, political activities and community life. Publications and finding aids, descriptive work and digitisation projects over the years have made the records easier to access and hopefully encourage their use.
The records are a legacy of the discrimination and marginalisation of the White Australia years, but they can be used by researchers today to recover the lives of Chinese Australians in the past, and also to provide a more nuanced understanding of the contradictions and complications of Australia’s response to its Chinese population.
In January 2016 I took up an appointment as ARC DECRA Research Fellow in History in the School of Humanities & Social Inquiry, Faculty of Law, Humanities & the Arts at the University of Wollongong. DECRAs are a three-year fellowship, but being part-time (0.8 FTE), my fellowship stretched to 3.5 years.
My DECRA project is/was a transnational, comparative study titled ‘Chinese seeking citizenship in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, 1860 to 1920’. It’s an exploration of the history of Chinese naturalisation in the British settler colonies, which intertwines biographies and case studies with analysis of naturalisation law and policy. In essence I have been thinking about how, why and in what circumstances Chinese migrants became British subjects in New South Wales, New Zealand and British Columbia, and what it meant for them. I’ve presented on my DECRA research at various conferences and will be working on completing my databases and publishing in the future.
Being a DECRA fellow has also given me the opportunity to continue my earlier work on Chinese Australian women and families, and to embark upon the exciting adventure of running the Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour. Sophie Couchman and I have run the tour on three occasions, with about about fifty guests in total, each time collaborating with Selia Tan Jinhua from Wuyi University.
Now my DECRA has finished, I will continue on at UOW as an Honorary Fellow. I’m very lucky to have had the chance to work with such a fabulous cohort of historian colleagues at UOW – most particularly, Julia Martínez, without whom I would never have imagined that a DECRA could be within my reach.
Listed below is an assortment of things I’ve done during my fellowship and some photos that show the glamorous side of life as a jet-setting transnational historian.
2019 Tim Sherratt and Kate Bagnall, ‘The people inside’, in Kevin Kee and Timothy Compeau (eds), Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, DOI: 10.3998/mpub.9964786.
2018 ‘Potter v. Minahan: Chinese Australians, the law and belonging in White Australia’, History Australia, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 458–474, DOI: 10.1080/14490854.2018.1485503.
‘Chinese women in colonial New South Wales: From absence to presence’, Global History Review 全求史評論, vol. 16 (in Chinese).
Sophie Couchman and Kate Bagnall, ‘Memory and meaning in the search for Chinese Australian families’, in Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (eds), Remembering Migration: Oral Histories and Heritage in Australia, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
Special issue in memory of Barry McGowan, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, vol. 8.
Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez (eds), Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility Between China and Australia, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong
Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez, ‘Chinese Australian women, migration and mobility’, in Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez (eds), Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility Between China and Australia, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong
‘Example or exception? Ham Hop and the Poon Gooey case’, in Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez (eds), Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility Between China and Australia, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong
Kate Bagnall and Tim Sherratt, ‘Missing links: Data stories from the archive of British settler colonial citizenship’, Journal of World History (submitted to special issue by invitation from Antoinette Burton)
‘Chinese women in colonial New South Wales: From absence to presence’, Journal of Biography and History
Kate Bagnall and Peter Prince (eds), Subjects and Aliens:Histories of Nationality in Australia and New Zealand before 1948 (edited collection)
‘Chinese naturalisation in colonial New Zealand and Australia’ (book chapter)
‘Paragraph (m): Chinese wives, migration law and White Australia’ (journal article)
‘Women and the Chinese family in colonial Australia and New Zealand’ (journal article)
(in preparation) James Minahan’s Homecoming LODBook project (with Tim Sherratt) – a new form of digital publication combining historical narrative and structured data.
Keynotes and invited lectures
2019 ‘The Real Face of White Australia: Seeing the People Inside’, Digital Histories Research Seminar, Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney, 9 May.
2019 ‘Writing women into Chinese Australian history’, Department of History / Gender Studies Programme, University of Hong Kong, 21 March.
2018 ‘Gold Mountain guests: Cantonese settlers across the southern colonies’, public lecture, Global Dunedin Lecture Series, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand, 10 June.
2018 ‘“All the rights and capacities”? Chinese naturalisation and colonial mobility’, keynote lecture, Amidst Empires: Colonialism, China and the Chinese, 1839–1997, Flinders University, Adelaide, 29–30 January.
2019 ‘From Hong Kong to Sydney: The voyage of the Glamis Castle, 1881’, ‘All Roads Lead to Hong Kong’: Hong Kong History Project Conference, University of Hong Kong, 5–7 June.
*2018 ‘White women and the transnational Chinese family in colonial New South Wales’, 2018 International Symposium on Transnational Migration and Qiaoxiang Studies: International Migration Research from a Gendered Vantage Point, Wuyi University, Jiangmen, China, 8–9 December.
2018 ‘White women, Chinese men: Interracial intimacies in colonial New South Wales’, 2018 International Federation for Research on Women’s History Conference, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, 9–11 August.
2018 ‘Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation’, Australian Historical Association Conference, Australian National University, 2–6 July.
2017 ‘Chinese restriction, naturalisation and mobility in colonial and post-Federation Australia’, Subjects and Aliens: Histories of Nationality in Australia and New Zealand, University of Wollongong, 28 November.
2017 ‘Chinese women in colonial New South Wales: A case study approach’, International Conference on Chinese Women in World History, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan, 11–14 July.
2017 ‘Naturalisation and Chinese restriction in colonial Australasia’, Entangled Histories: Australian Historical Association Conference, University of Newcastle, 3–7 July.
*2017 ‘Naturalised Chinese in colonial Australia’, Beyond the New Gold Mountain: Chinese Community Council of Australia (Victoria) 2017 Conference, RMIT, Melbourne, 24 June.
2016 ‘Naturalised Chinese in British settler societies of the Pacific Rim, 1860 to 1920’, Colonial Formations: Connections and Collisions, University of Wollongong, 23–25 November.
2016 ‘Potter v. Minahan 1908: a legal challenge to White Australia’, 9th International Conference of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO), Richmond BC, Canada, 6–8 July.
*2016 ‘A culture of suspicion: Chinese at the border of White Australia’, The Commonwealth Department of Immigration—Then and Now, La Trobe University, 19 February.
Community talks and outreach
2019 ‘Tracing the origins of Chinese Australian ancestors’, webinar, Society for Australian Genealogists, 15 April.
2018 ‘Researching Chinese Australian families’, Sailing into History: NSW & ACT Association of Family History Societies Annual Conference, Bateman’s Bay, 15–16 September.
2017 ‘Researching early Chinese Australian families’, U3A Wollongong, 23 October.
2017 ‘Researching early Chinese Australian families – 8 sources to know’, Deniliquin Family History Expo, Deniliquin Genealogy Society, Deniliquin, 14 October.
2017 ‘Women and the records of White Australia’, Real Face of White Australia Transcribe-a-Thon, Museum of Australian Democracy, 9 September.
2017 ‘Researching early Chinese Australian families’, Family History Month workshop, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 August.
2016 ‘From Canton to the colonies: Chinese women in nineteenth-century New South Wales’, History Week talk sponsored by Wollongong City Libraries, Corrimal District Library, 7 September.
2016 ‘Researching Chinese Australian family history’, 2-hour seminar, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney, 30 April.
2016 ‘Women, history and the shifting patterns of Chinese Australian life’, opening of John Young Zerunge’s Modernity’s End: Half the Sky exhibition, Incinerator Art Space, Willoughby City Council, Willoughby, 2 March.
2017–2019 ‘Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour’
I organised and hosted, with Sophie Couchman, an annual history and heritage study tour to Hong Kong and Guangdong for 15–20 guests; participants included Chinese Australian family historians, writers, heritage practitioners and postgraduate students
Our third tour was held from 6 to 17 March 2019: 2019 brochure (pdf, 1.7mb)
Teaching and supervision
Higher Degree Research supervision
Emma Bellino, PhD, School of Humanities & Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong – ‘Marriage, women’s nationality, and Australia’s Asian communities in the early twentieth century’ (commenced 2017; UOW PhD scholarship tied to my DECRA fellowship)
University of Sydney Press; Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History; Australian Historical Studies; Journal of Australian Studies; History Australia; New Zealand Journal of History; Fabrications: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand; Australasian Journal of Irish Studies; Limina
ARC Discovery Project, 2018; Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund Standard Grant, 2018
Other professional and outreach activities
Conference and event organisation
2017 Convenor, Subjects and Aliens Symposium, University of Wollongong, 28 November.
2017 Co-organiser with Tim Sherratt, Real Face of White Australia Transcribe-a-Thon, Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra, 9–10 September.
Professional presentations and activities
2019 Presented on ‘Collaboration and communication: Engaging with public audiences’, Early Career Convivium, School of Humanities, University of Hong Kong, 20 March
2017 Co-organised (with Claire Lowrie) and presented at the ‘Invited Workshop on Digital Humanities and ARC Linkage Projects’, University of Wollongong
2017 Participated in the invitation-only ‘Under the Southern Cross’ Chinese Australian history book project workshop, University of Technology Sydney
2017 Social media and blog manager for the UOW Colonial and Settler Studies Network
2016 Presented on my DECRA project at the UOW Research Week ‘History Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers’ event, University of Wollongong
2016 Participated in an invitation-only workshop on the ‘Cantonese Pacific in the Making of the Modern World’, University of British Columbia
2016 Participated in the invitation-only ‘Whisper Workshop 2016’ (linking university researchers with creative and cultural industries), Australian National University
2016 Spoke about my career path from PhD to DECRA at the ACHRC Humanities in the Regions symposium ‘Humanities in the Regions: Building Capacity Through Connectivity and Knowledge’, University of Wollongong
2016 Spoke on my DECRA project at the UOW LHA Early Career Research Presentations with the Vice Chancellor, University of Wollongong
2017 Co-ordinator and contributor to ‘Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility Between Australia and China’, a historical photographic exhibition on display at the Feminist Research Network Symposium, University of Wollongong,
2017 Contributor to ‘Chinese Fortunes’, on display at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (January to July 2017); Immigration Museum Melbourne (August 2017 to March 2018)
Fundamentals of Higher Degree Research Supervision, University of Wollongong, October 2018
Project Management – Introduction, University of Wollongong, May 2016
2018 Historical advisor assisting John Jarratt, Who Do You Think You Are?, Series 9, Episode 4, broadcast on SBS TV, 8 May.
2017 Interview with Siobhan Heanue, ABC News Canberra, broadcast on ABC TV evening news and ABC News 24 late news, 3 September.
June 2019: Hong Kong, Guangdong (Zhuhai and Guangzhou), Macau – conference and fieldwork
Finally, some thanks.
To my research assistants: Karen Schamberger, Naomi Parry, Sophie Couchman and Tracy Olverson.
To my co-authors and collaborators: Sophie Couchman, Julia Martínez and Tim Sherratt.
To the staff at: the National Library of Australia and Trove, National Archives of Australia, State Archives NSW, State Library NSW, Archives NZ, Hocken Library, National Library of New Zealand, Digital NZ, NZ Presbyterian Archives, HK Public Record Office, Wuyi Qiaoxiang Culture Research Centre, British Columbia Archives, Vancouver City Archives, City of Victoria Archives, Library Archives Canada, UBC Library, China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, University of Wollongong Library.
To those who have offered me opportunities, shown me kindness, and helped, encouraged and supported me along the way over the past four years, especially when I’ve been far from home:
Tony Ballantyne, James Beattie, Emma Bellino, Dorry Chen Meixian, Chen Ruihuai, Georgine Clarsen, Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, Matt Fitzpatrick, Shawn Graham, Guo Feixiang, Min Guo, Ben He Zhibin, Carrie Huang Qiaoyi, Di Kelly, Nicki Kemp, Alastair Kerr and Lynn Smith, Tseen Khoo, Vivian Kong, Mei-fen Kuo, Elizabeth LaCouture, Catherine Ladds, Amy Li Dongmei, Sophie Liang Lu, Claire Lowrie, Sophie Loy-Wilson, Jane McCabe, Vera Mackie, Laura Madokoro, Megan Neilson, Amy Nichol, Jonathan O’Donnell, Lachy Paterson, Jayne Persian, Jason Petrulis, David Pomfret, Peter Prince, Kim Rubenstein, Frances Steel, Selia Tan Jinhua, Angela Wanhalla, Howard Wilson, Dawn Wong, Tori Wright, Simon Ville, Henry Yu, Angel Zhao Ruizhu.
I’m at the end of a two-week stay in Wellington, New Zealand, where I’ve been finishing off my the NZ part of my research on Chinese naturalisation. Last year when I was here I worked my way through the naturalisation files of about 450 Chinese men, and my aim on this visit was to look at the remaining 50 or so, as well as other policy files and correspondence around the subject of naturalisation and Chinese immigration. This is what I’ve mainly been looking at:
individual naturalisation files in 8333 (IA1): I now have a copy of most of the 499 successful naturalisation applications by Chinese up to 1908, some incomplete naturalisation applications, and files of some ‘Chinese’ naturalised after it was prohibited in 1908 (Chinese Canadian British subjects, and white widows of Chinese men) – happily about 90 of the files are now digitised in Archway (e.g. the 1905 file of Alexandra storekeeper Sue Hin: 8333, 1905/958)
copy letters of naturalisation in 8377 (IA53): I looked through 45 naturalisation registers to locate the copy naturalisation letters for each of 499 naturalised Chinese, and to confirm that I hadn’t missed any!
There are a few naturalisation files that I haven’t been able to see because they are either missing or restricted. The missing ones have been missing since at least the 1950s, and I checked the file registers and a couple were definitely destroyed. The restricted ones are two pre-1908 applications that have been top-numbered into later files, and files of the ‘exceptional’ post-1908 naturalised Chinese (Frank Kow Kee, Kathleen Pih and Anthony Joe). I’ve written again the the Department of Internal Affairs requesting permission to view the two pre-1908 applications, so fingers crossed.
I’ve also done some digging around in other records relating to naturalisation and nationality, the poll tax, immigration permits and petitions by Chinese residents.
What I’ll be doing next is transcribing biographical and administrative data from the files into my naturalisation database – data such as birthplace, length of residence in NZ before naturalisation, age at naturalisation, and length of time between application and grant of naturalisation. When that’s all done, I’ll be ready to do some proper analysis, and data visualisation!
While in Wellington, I’ve also enjoyed catching up with Lynette Shum from the National Library of NZ, Cameron Sang who runs the Wellington Chinese History Wiki, Bronwyn Labrum from Te Papa, and Grace Gassin who is also now at Te Papa.
I’ll be back in Wellington in November 2019 for the Dragon Tails conference, where I plan to present the research I’ve been doing in a paper on ‘Chinese British subjects in the colonial trans-Tasman world’.
I’ve seen some damaged naturalisation certificates in my research, but I think this one is the worst! Granted to 亞美 Ah Mee, a Collingwood goldminer, in 1890, then damaged in a hotel fire (@ArchivesNZ 8333, 1894/1119). #chinnzhistpic.twitter.com/3LL4GTMK2H
I have now looked at 494 out of the 501 successful naturalisation applications of Chinese in NZ to 1908 – 1 file is being digitised, 4 files are missing (since before 1949) and 2 files are restricted. Huzzah! pic.twitter.com/u0TpjJsNj6
Yikes, I’ve found three more! And have identified what I think are a couple of duplicates. Time for some data cleaning tonight, I think. (Oh, and two of my chaps say they were born in Melbourne, which is perplexing!)
Some of my NZ naturalised Chinese are a real puzzle, like Melbourne-born Ah Louie of Whanganui, naturalised in 1896. A note from 1958 on his file states he was ‘naturalised in error’, since he was a British subject by birth. (@ArchivesNZ 8333, 1896/438) #chinnzhistpic.twitter.com/IqjPmy5vVs
Today I’m enjoying chasing up some odd cases, of ‘Chinese’ who were naturalised in NZ after 1908, in the period when it was prohibited: Chinese Canadians, Chinese Samoans, white wives (of Australian and German birth) who were widows, and three 'exceptional cases’.
Curious find of the day: 1889 naturalisation of Tim How of Gore, born in Mauritius in 1855 to a Chinese father and English mother. He chose to be naturalised, even after he was advised he was a British subject by birth.
Huzzah! I have now checked all the copy letters of naturalisation, confirming details for 499 Chinese men naturalised in NZ before 1908. This is the last one – Singapore-born cook, Ah Chick, from Wellington, naturalised in July 1907. (@ArchivesNZ, series 8377) pic.twitter.com/0C5aAWD0cj
More research to be done here, but Ah Chick was later said to have been ‘naturalised in error’ as he was a British subject due to his Singapore birth. But it seems in 1907 he wanted proof of being British – so he could join the cook’s union.