Note: Terms used in the following population tables reflect the original historical sources and are considered offensive today.
Chinese population of Tasmania, 1881–1947
Source: Compiled from the Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, No. 18, 1925, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Melbourne, 1925, p. 955; Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933 and 1947.
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.
One of the projects I have been working on over the past couple of years is a database of Chinese who were naturalized in British Columbia up to 1914.* Working from records held by the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, I have identified 1934 Chinese who were granted naturalization in BC between 1863 and 1914. Of these, three were women: Jsong Mong Lin, Leong Lee Fung, and Wong Bick Yung (also known as Esther Yung).
Jsong Mong Lin was the wife of merchant Loo Gee Wing. She was naturalized on 15 June 1899 at Victoria. She had lived at least ten years in British Columbia, and she signed her name in English. It was noted on her Oath of Residence that the oath was read over and explained to her in Chinese before signing. Her husband Loo Gee Wing was naturalized in 1895.
Leong Leen Fung 梁連鳳, of Victoria, was the wife of Fung Choy. She was naturalized on 3 November 1899. She had lived in British Columbia for at least five years. Leong Leen Fung signed her name in Chinese, and it was noted on her Oath of Residence that the oath was read over and explained to her in Chinese before signing. Fung Choy was naturalized in June 1899.
Wong Bick Yung, also known as Esther Yung, of Victoria, was naturalized in Victoria on 21 July 1911.
(I have not yet located a full naturalization record – Certificate of Naturalization, Oath of Residence and Certificate Under Section 10 – for Wong Bick Yung, but her name appears on a list of individuals naturalized by the County Court of Victoria on 21 July 1911.)
I am not certain why the two wives were naturalized, as under s 26 of the Naturalization Act Canada 1881 (44 Vic c 13): ‘A married woman shall, within Canada, be deemed to be a subject of the State of which her husband is for the time being a subject’. It does not appear that either Jsong Mong Ling or Leong Leen Fung were widowed. I have not yet identified whether Wong Bick Yung was unmarried, married or widowed.
References: British Columbia Archives, GR-1554: Box 19, File 10; Box 21, File 1; Box 41, File 5.
* Big thanks to Karen Schamberger and Sophie Couchman who have undertaken much of the thankless task of data entry for the BC naturalization database. Sophie and I are still working on completing the data entry, and then tidying up the data, but once that is complete I will make the database publicly available.
This is the paper I presented at the 2018 Australian Historical Association conference, ‘The Scale of History’, held at the Australian National University on 2–6 July 2018. I spoke alongside Sophie Couchman and Emma Bellino in a panel we put together on ‘National belonging and individual lives’:
Kate Bagnall: Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation
Sophie Couchman: New questions about the enlistment of Chinese Australians during World War I
Emma Bellino: ‘Australian girl became an alien’: Reporting married women’s nationality.
Sophie spoke about the disconnect between World War I enlistment regulations and practice in relation to Chinese Australians, while Emma spoke about press reports of marital denaturalisation in Australian newspapers from the 1920s to 1940s.
In 1888 the Australian colonies came together to implement uniform laws to restrict Chinese immigration, leading eventually to the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act after Federation in 1901. Alongside immigration restriction, after 1888 four Australian colonies also prohibited Chinese naturalisation, by law in New South Wales and by policy in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. The federal Naturalisation Act of 1903 similarly prohibited Chinese naturalisation. Before these restrictions were introduced, however, thousands of Chinese men in Australia became British subjects through naturalisation, nearly 1000 in New South Wales alone. In this paper I consider the legacies of colonial naturalisation in the lives of Chinese migrants and their families in the 1890s and after Federation, particularly concerning mobility and residency rights. I argue that it is through the stories of individual lives, revealed in the press and in government case files, that we can best understand the ways that naturalised Chinese Australians and their children contested discrimination and asserted their rights as citizens.
In early January 1889, the Ah Ket children of Wangaratta, Victoria, were stopped at the border of New South Wales. Fourteen-year-old Matilda, together with her three younger siblings aged thirteen, ten and eight, were travelling to the small town of Gerogery, north of Albury, to visit their married sister Rose. On arriving by train at Albury, however, the Ah Ket children were prevented from crossing the border by the Sub-Collector of Customs. The reason? Because they did not hold naturalisation papers. Confronted by the news that they would not be allowed to continue their journey, Matilda stood her ground, declaring that they had been born and educated at Wangaratta; that they were the children of a Chinese interpreter, Mah Ket; and that as ‘native-born children’ they were free to go anywhere in Australia. The Sub-Collector was unconvinced, and so sent them back home to Victoria by the same train. Their father, and the good people of Wangaratta, were appalled by the Customs officer’s actions. Mah Ket put the matter in the hands of a solicitor, and on 19 January 1889, the Wangaratta correspondent to the Melbourne Leader wrote an impasssioned piece on the family’s behalf:
The children whose liberty is so circumscribed are natives of Wangaratta, very intelligent and Christian; and speak better Queen’s English probably than some of the honorable gentlemen who made the law under which they are treated as aliens. It has been determined that for the peace and prosperity of the colony, Chinese immigration shall be restricted. But here were no aliens, but the most peaceful and defenceless of Australians – of like speech, education, religion and affections.
The Act under which the Sub-Collector of Customs stopped the children was the NSW Chinese Restriction and Regulation Act, passed six months earlier, in June 1888. This Act, and others introduced around the Australasian colonies, were the result of growing concerns over Chinese immigration.
One of the children stopped at the NSW border that summer’s day in 1889, thirteen-year-old William Ah Ket, grew up to be Australia’s first Chinese barrister. Educated at Melbourne University and admitted to the bar in 1903, Ah Ket had a distinguished legal career in which he actively campaigned for the rights of Chinese in Australia. He appeared before the High Court, represented Australian Chinese at the opening of the first Chinese parliament in Peking in 1911, and was Acting Consul for China in Australia in 1913–1914 and 1917. He was also a husband and father to two daughters and two sons.
This paper considers nationality, naturalisation and colonial mobility through the lens of Chinese Australian families like the Ah Kets. Mah Ket, the Ah Ket children’s father, was not naturalised, but this should not have mattered when the children tried to cross into New South Wales. Young Matilda was right – as native-born British subjects, the NSW Chinese Restriction Act should not have applied to them. Yet, the fact that they were turned back illustrates the ambiguity with which immigration restriction laws were applied to native-born and naturalised Chinese British subjects in Australia and New Zealand. The law stated what it stated, but it’s truth also lay in the way that it was interpreted and applied – whether that was at the border, in a bureaucrat’s office, in a magistrate’s court or in the High Court.
Prohibition of Chinese naturalisation formed part of the anti-Chinese policies introduced in four Australian colonies (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) from the 1880s, and then in the Commonwealth of Australia from 1904 and the Dominion of New Zealand from 1908. Before these prohibitions, however, thousands of Chinese men in Australia and New Zealand became British subjects through naturalisation, nearly 1000 in New South Wales alone. In this paper then I want to think about the legacies of this earlier history of colonial naturalisation in the lives of Chinese settlers and their families in the 1890s and after Federation, particularly concerning mobility and residency rights. I will argue that it is through the stories of individual lives, revealed in the press and in government case files, that we can best understand the ways that naturalised Chinese Australians and their children contested discrimination and asserted their rights as citizens.
Naturalisation and Chinese restriction
The first anti-Chinese legislation was introduced in Australia in 1855 in Victoria, followed by a similar Act in South Australia in 1857. New South Wales then followed suit in 1861. With tonnage restrictions and a poll tax on each Chinese arrival, this legislation was effective in reducing the Chinese population in the colonies, and so, having served its purpose, it was repealed: in South Australia in 1861 (after three years), in Victoria in 1865 (after 10 years) and in New South Wales in 1867 (after 5 years). Between then and 1881, there was no restrictive legislation against Chinese immigration – except in Queensland, which introduced a Chinese Immigration Restriction Act in 1877. In 1881, however, new and more consistent legislation was introduced across the colonies after the 1880–81 intercolonial conferences. This legislation was then tightened following the Intercolonial Conference on the Chinese Question in mid-1888. Laws varied slightly across the seven colonies, but they generally had tonnage restrictions and some a poll tax to limit the number of Chinese migrants. They also included various exemptions, for residents and British subjects.
In New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand, for instance, the 1881 Acts brought in a £10 poll tax on Chinese arriving by sea or by land and a limit of one Chinese to every 100 tons of shipping. The NSW and Victorian Acts exempted British subjects, while in New South Wales and New Zealand, other Chinese residents could also apply for exemption certificates. In 1888, the tonnage limits increased in each of these colonies, and the NSW poll tax leapt to £100, while it was abolished in Victoria. Each colony exempted Chinese naturalised in that colony, while the NSW Act also explicitly exempted British subjects by birth. Significantly, too, the NSW Act prohibited the naturalisation of Chinese. After Federation, the Australian colonial laws were repealed, although not immediately – in New South Wales, for example, the poll tax remained in place until 1903. The new federal Immigration Restriction Act, which came into force from the beginning of 1902, provided exemptions for those who had formerly been domiciled in the Commonwealth or in any colony which had become a state (s 3n). Australian birth and naturalisation certificates could be used as proof of this domicile, although exemption certificates were also issued.
As mentioned, prohibition of Chinese naturalisation also formed part of the anti-Chinese measures introduced in Australia and New Zealand. New South Wales was the only colony that prohibited Chinese naturalisation by law and it did so twice, in 1861 (repealed in 1867) and again in 1888. Three other colonies (Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) stopped naturalising Chinese after 1888, while Tasmania and Queensland continued until the federal Naturalization Act came into force in 1904. This new Act prohibited naturalisation of ‘aboriginal natives’ of Asia, Africa and the islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand. In New Zealand, Chinese were naturalised until 1907; and it was stopped after the NZ Cabinet decided in February 1908 to decline naturalisation applications of Chinese from them on.
Colonial Chinese naturalisation
The numbers of Chinese who became naturalised in each colony varied greatly, from about 20 in Western Australia up to nearly 3000 in Victoria. In New Zealand there were around 450. As part of my current project, I am compiling databases of Chinese who became naturalised in New South Wales, New Zealand and British Columbia in Canada. If we look at Chinese naturalisations in New South Wales each year from the late 1850s, when the first one took place, to 1888, when Chinese naturalisation was prohibited for the second time, we can see a gap during the 1860s when it was prohibited the first time, and a very obvious peak in the early 1880s. The highest point on that peak is in 1883, when there were 301 naturalisations of Chinese, making up almost a third of the total for the colony. If we think back to what else was happening in the early 1880s, it is clear that this increase was in response to the 1881 NSW Influx of Chinese Restriction Act – which provided exemptions from the £10 poll tax for Chinese naturalised in the colony.
Applicants for naturalisation in New South Wales were asked to state a reason why they sought naturalisation, and most Chinese stated that it was because they wanted to purchase land, or because they had settled in the colony, or something similar. But eight men stated that they sought naturalisation for the rights of ingress and egress. One of these men, Ah Hi, who was naturalised in 1886, stated, for example, that he was ‘desirous of seeing his parents and relatives & returning to this colony where he has an interest in a market garden’. Although there were only a handful of men who explicity stated they sought naturalisation so they could travel across colonial borders, the rapid increase in numbers of naturalisations after the 1881 Act came into force suggests that mobility was a prime motivation.
Other evidence in the archives also shows that Chinese actively used naturalisation to faciliate mobility, for themselves and for their families. There are, for example, Customs statistics that record the numbers of Chinese entering the colonies using naturalisation certificates, reports of individual cases in the newspapers, and Customs and External Affairs / Internal Affairs files that document the travels of Chinese Australians and Chinese New Zealanders. I want now to turn to some of the individual cases of naturalised Chinese and their families – to consider the ways they used their status as British subjects to negotiate anti-Chinese immigration laws, and also to consider the ambiguous nature of the interpretation and application of those laws.
At the borders
So, to return to the Ah Ket children briefly. Under the NSW 1888 Act, any Chinese who produced satisfactory evidence that they were a British subject by birth was to be allowed to enter the colony, yet the Sub-Collector turned the children away for not having naturalisation papers. Would the situation have been different if Matilda, William, Alberta and Ada had produced their Victorian birth certificates, as many Australian-born Chinese did when they returned by sea? Or what if their father was naturalised and they had produced his naturalisation certificate? Would that have been enough proof?
For Chinese Australians, crossing colonial and later national borders was first contingent on being satisfactorily identified, of convincing officials at the border that you were who you said you were. It was then further contingent on bureaucratic and legal interpretations of the law. Each time the law changed, or new regulations were issued, Customs officers at both sea and land borders had to work out how the new policies worked in practice. In her history of the Chinese in Sydney, Shirley Fitzgerald has noted, for example, that in the early 1880s, administering the 1881 Chinese Restriction Act took up much of the Collector of Customs’ time and energy, and he regularly complained to his superiors that he had inadequate staff to deal with incoming and outgoing Chinese (Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors, pp. 28–29).
Each time the law changed, Chinese Australians also had to work out what the new requirements meant, and how they could best negotiate them, whether by lawful or unlawful means. The dramatic increase in Chinese naturalisations after the 1881 Act is an example of this, and so too is the fact that by 1885, the Sydney Collector of Customs believed that there was a solid trade in naturalisation certificates, which were ‘sent to China and sold’. Chinese Australians made use of their rights where and how they could, and pushed back where and how they could, particularly where the law left room for negotiation.
Naturalisation allowed Chinese men themselves to come and go from Australia and New Zealand, but it also facilitated the entry of their wives and children. In 1898, Nicholas Lockyer, the NSW Collector of Customs, told Sydney’s Evening News that two ways that Chinese evaded the poll tax were by ‘the transfer of naturalisation papers’ and by ‘Chinese women passing themselves off as wives of men who have been formally naturalised in New South Wales’. Such suspicions resulted in careful investigations and meticulous recordkeeping, particularly after the turn of the century.
One example is the Ah Lum family of Sydney. Mrs Ah Lum (I’m afraid that I haven’t yet identified the names of some of these wives and children) came out to live with her husband in 1895. He was a storekeeper and had been naturalised in 1882, returning to China to visit a few years later. The Ah Lums’ daughter was born in 1887, after Ah Lum had returned to New South Wales, and she had stayed in China with her grandmother after her mother migrated. In 1899, Ah Lum asked for permission for his daughter to come to live with him and his wife, as his mother had died and the child had no one to care for her. After some investigations by the Customs department’s Chinese inspector, a permit was issued so Ah Lum’s daughter could enter without paying the poll tax.
The Ah Lums’ case was a relatively straightforward one, unlike that of George Lee’s family a few years later. Lee had been naturalised in 1884 and returned to China not long after to be married. In August 1902, he brought his wife and two sons, Quong Foo and Quong Jah, to Sydney. Mrs Lee was admitted without question because she was the wife of a naturalised British subject (and a wife’s nationality followed that of her husband), but officials demanded the £100 poll tax be paid for each son. Lee paid up, under protest, and the Presbyterian Church raised the matter with the Premier and Solicitor-General on his behalf. They were told that Lee was only a British subject while in New South Wales and that as soon as he left, he reverted to Chinese nationality, hence his children were not British subjects by birth or descent. When asked about the matter, Prime Minister Edmund Barton stated it was not of his concern – the payment of the poll tax was a matter for the state of New South Wales to decide, and the family had been allowed in properly under the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act.
Barton could be so dismissive of his responsibility because, at that moment in time, domiciled Chinese men were able to bring in their wives and minor children under section 3 paragraph m of the Immigration Restriction Act. This provision was suspended by proclamation after only 15 months, and repealed in 1905, but during the time it was in force 88 Chinese family members, mainly wives, were allowed to enter Australia permanently. One of these was the wife of Kok Say, managing partner of the Hong Yuen & Co. store in Inverell. In mid 1902, Kok Say wrote to the government requesting a permit for his wife’s entry and stating his credentials – he had been naturalised in 1884 after arriving in the colony of New South Wales nine years earlier. In his words, ‘I have made my home here & have no intention of returning at any time to China’. His request was granted without issue and Mrs Kok Say arrived at Sydney from Hong Kong in November 1902.
After the repeal of section 3 paragraph m in 1905, the entry of Chinese wives and children was solely at the discretion of the Minister for External Affairs, and over the following years we see naturalised Chinese continuing to try to find ways to bring their families to Australia, including through legal challenges in the courts. In New Zealand, naturalised Chinese similarly tested the limits of the law in their efforts to bring out wives and children without having to pay the poll tax, which continued to be applied until 1934, before finally being repealed in 1944.
Although the prohibition of Chinese naturalisation was part of the suite of anti-Chinese measures introduced in the Australasian colonies from the 1860s through into the 20th century, its history is more than one of simple exclusion. It is important to also consider the times when Chinese could be, and were, naturalised, and the ongoing legacies of this in their and their families lives. As British subjects, naturalised Chinese had legal and political rights that they continually asserted, testing and challenging the limits of policy and law. Sometimes they were successful in these challenges, sometimes they weren’t, but when we look closely at their individual cases we can see how their actions both shaped and were shaped by the law. We can also see inconsistencies and ambiguities in the law and in the ways it was administered and applied.
In June 1857, four Chinese men from Melbourne – named Sun Tring, Yun Peng, Sun Woee and Hoy Peng – applied for naturalisation. Their memorials for naturalisation give basic details about them:
Sun Tring of Melbourne, 29 years, merchant, arrived on the Annie Bailie in 1852, desires to purchase and hold land
Yun Peng, of Melbourne, 30 years, merchant, arrived on the Challenge in 1854, desires to purchase and hold land
Sun Woee, of Melbourne, 35 years, merchant, arrived on the Cornwall in January 1857, desires to purchase and hold land
Hoy Peng, of Melbourne, 30 years, merchant, arrvied on the Liverpool in 1854, desires to purchase and hold land.
The memorials for naturalisation were each signed by the same six witnesses who knew them and attested to their good character and reputation.
The men were granted their naturalisation certificates on 2 July 1857. They were four of the eight Chinese men granted naturalisation in Victoria in 1857 – the others were Louis Ah Mouy, John Affoo, William Tsze Hing and Abu Mason.
Looking at the signatures on the memorials for naturalisation, I realised something odd about these four men. Their names are the same as those of the Sze Yup (四邑) or Four Counties districts:
Confirmation that the men were granted naturalisation is found in Ancestry.com’s Victoria, Australia, Index to Naturalisation Certificates, 1851-1928 (original data: Chief Secretary’s Department. Index to Naturalization Certificates (1851–1922), VPRS 4396. Public Record Office Victoria).
Next month I will be giving a paper on Chinese women in colonial New South Wales at the International Conference on Chinese Women in World History at Academia Sinica in Taipei. My paper will focus on the early period of Cantonese migration to Australia, from the 1850s to 1880, and present short biographical sketches of four Chinese women who arrived in New South Wales in the 1860s – Ah Happ, Ah Fie, Kim Linn and Sam Kue. Before 1881 there were no legislative limits on the entry of Chinese women to New South Wales.
I was particularly interested in these four women because of their early arrival in the colony, and their rarity among the colonial Chinese population, but there are others I’ve come across whose lives I’d also like to know more about. One of those is Chin Sheng Geong, the wife of the fabulously named missionary and interpreter George Graham Mackie Ah Len.
Chin Sheng Geong (born c. 1856) married George Ah Len (born c. 1837) in Canton in about 1876, while he was on a visit home from Australia. They seem to have arrived back in Australia together in 1877 (along with a female Chinese servant who accompanied Chin Sheng Geong). They lived in the Rocks, which was then Sydney’s Chinatown, in Queen Street, a laneway that ran off Essex Street between George and Harrington streets. There Chin Sheng Geong gave birth to and raised her family of six: Jane (b. 1877), Mary (b. 1879), Ada (b. 1882), James (b. 1886), and twins Peter and Thomas (b. 1888). The children were all baptised. George Ah Len died in 1889, after which time Chin Sheng Geong returned to China with her children.
George Ah Len coincidentally also features in my naturalisation research. He was naturalised as a British subject in 1878 (No. 78/206), and in 1882 was registered as a ‘person known to Government whose endorsement is considered sufficient’ on applications for naturalisation. From 1882 to 1888 he endorsed the naturalisation applications of more than 60 Chinese in New South Wales.
Typically, there is much more to be found about husband than wife, but within his story we can find traces of her. The following brief chronology about George Ah Len and Chin Sheng Geong in Australia is compiled from historical newspapers, government gazettes, naturalisation records, Sands Directories, BDM records and immigration files.
Early in the year Ah Lin was baptised at Maryborough, Victoria, and later, as George Ah Lin, he began his training as an evangelist under Rev. William Mathew in Melbourne.
In October, three Chinese women (one perhaps being Chin Sheng Geong?) were in the congregation at the baptism of six Chinese men by the Rev. Dr Steel, assisted by George Ah Len, at St Stephen’s Church.
On 16 June 1886, birth of James Ah Len, to George and Sheng C, 11 Queen Street, Sydney (NSW BDM 2324/1886 and 1314/1886 V18861314 46; NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71). Birth was attended by Mrs Strange (nurse) and Mrs Morrison.
Birth of twins, Peter and Thomas Ah Len, to George and Shenn, Sydney (NSW BDM 1748/1888 and 1356/1888 V18881356 46 and V18881356 47; 1749/1888 and 1357/1888 V18881357 46)
In January, there was an unclaimed letter at the General Post Office, Sydney, for Mr Ah Len, Queen Street.
1889 ‘No. 32. LIST OF LETTERS RETURNED FROM THE BRANCH AND SUBURBAN OFFICES, AND NOW LYING AT THE GENERAL POST OFFICE, UNCLAIMED’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 2 January, p. 25, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224311037
On 23 April, George Ah Len died at 4 Queen Street, Sydney, aged 52 (NSW BDM 717/1889)
On 6 November 1925, the Land newspaper featured the following on its ‘Answers to Questions’ page.
The Land was indeed correct in its answer. In 1925, Chinese aliens (non-British subjects) could not be naturalised in Australia, no matter how long they had lived here.
Five years earlier the Nationality Act 1920 had replaced the Naturalization Act 1903, removing the racial barrier to the naturalisation of Asians. However, after 1920 the Australian government continued with its policy of preventing Asians from being naturalised. This did not change until 1956 when concessions were brought in for long-term residents.