Category: History

Women’s History Month 2021 on Twitter

Wong Sing Quan (Mrs Timothy Fay Loie) and other Chinese women in Auckland in 1911 (credit: May Sai Loie, reproduced in James Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past, volume 2, p. 261)

For Women’s History Month in March 2021, I compiled a Twitter thread, with a tweet or two each day listing a historical work by a woman or women about Chinese Australian women’s history.

The thread included details of about 35 different works, including books, journal articles, memoirs, blogs, radio documentaries and oral histories.

You can:

 

Charlie Allen’s mystery aunt

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.

Extract of a letter from Charlie Allen to his mother, Frances Allen, 11 April 1911, NAA: SP42/1, C1922/4449

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:

Alice Yin, 1909, NAA: ST84/1, 1909/33/51-60

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.

NSW birth certificate of Alice Yin, 1908, NAA: SP42/1, C1914/6345

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!

References

NAA: ST84/1, 1909/33/51-60 [7461089], 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 [7537383], 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

Kate Bagnall, ‘Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood‘, in Paul Longley Arthur (ed.), Migrant Nation: Australian Culture, Society and Identity, Anthem Press, London, 2017.

Kate Bagnall, ‘Crossing oceans and cultures’, in Agnieszka Sobocinska and David Walker (eds.), Australia’s Asia: Reviewing Australia’s Asian Pasts, University of Western Australia Press, 2012.

The Hung family of Lefroy, Tasmania

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.

The town of Lefroy, Tasmania (George Town and District Historical Society, GTH_HS0194, https://eheritage.libraries.tas.gov.au/resources/detail0f3f.html?ID=GTH_HS0194)

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!

Chronology

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.

‘Trespassing on Land’, The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 27 November 1869, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65988017.

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.

‘Another Chinese Benedict’, The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 14 May 1875, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66073314.

Reprinted as: ‘Fifty Years Ago’, The Mercury (Hobart), 16 May 1925, p. 12, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23817025.

Tasmanian Names Index, Ah-Hung and Jemima Cox (Marriage), 13 May 1875, Tasmanian Archives, RGD37/1/34 no 503, https://stors.tas.gov.au/RGD37-1-34$init=RGD37-1-34P266.

Tasmanian Names Index, Ah-Hung and Jemima Cox (Marriage), 13 May 1875, Tasmanian Archives, RGD37/1/34 no 503, https://stors.tas.gov.au/RGD37-1-34$init=RGD37-1-34P266.

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.

‘Tasmanian News’, The Tasmanian (Launceston), 7 September 1889, p. 25, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article200288906.

1892: Jemima Hung was recorded as the owner of 2 acres, 0 roods and 31 perches of land on the main road from Lefroy to Back Creek, close to Blanket Creek.

A 1973 Tasmanian Department of Mines map of Lefroy still noted that the land is owned by J. Hung.

‘Map – Douglas D32’ (AF819-1-82), Printed Town Charts (AF819), Land and Surveys Department, Tasmanian Archives, https://stors.tas.gov.au/AI/AF819-1-82.

‘Lefroy’, Tasmania mineral chart series, Tasmania Department of Mines, Hobart 1973, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-668738343.

Detail of 1892 map of Douglas, Tasmania, showing Jemima Hung’s land on what is now Douglas Road (Tasmanian Archives AF819-1-82)

1901: An article in April about ‘Crown Land Sales’, under the heading ‘Town Lands’, mentioned land in the town of Douglas ‘fronting on the road to Back Creek, opposite land purchased by H. Ah Hung’.

‘Crown Land Sales’, Daily Telegraph (Launceston), 15 April 1901, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article153962637.

1904: James Hung, ‘a Chinese gardener’, went missing from his home near Lefroy at the beginning of February and had still not been found several days later.

‘Launceston’, The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 4 February 1904, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65130652.

1904: James Hung returned home on Thursday, 4 February; he had been reported missing from Blanket Creek near Lefroy. He was said to be in a weak state.

‘Current Topics: Returned Home’, Examiner (Launceston), 6 February 1904, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article35790680.

This land on Douglas Road at Lefroy, near Blanket Creek, was owned and occupied by the Hung family in the late nineteenth century. On the land there are two old fruit trees, possibly apples. (Photograph by Kate Bagnall, October 2020)

1904: On 6 February 1904, Mr and Mrs Hung of Lefroy placed a notice in the Launceston newspaper to thank people for searching for their son, James, who was lost in the bush.

‘Family Notices’, Daily Telegraph (Launceston), 10 February 1904, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article153921840.

Google Earth satellite image showing the boundary of Jemima Hung’s property at Douglas, Tasmania (Created by Tim Sherratt, October 2020)

1904: Ah Hung, aged 69, died at his home at Lefroy on 23 October 1904 after a long and painful illness. He was the ‘dearly beloved husband’ of Jemima Ah Hung.

‘Family Notices’, Daily Telegraph (Launceston), 25 October 1904, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article153825631.

‘Family Notices’, Daily Telegraph (Launceston), 25 October 1904, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article153825631.

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).

‘Advertising’, Examiner (Launceston), 26 March 1910, p. 9, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50412200.

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.

Electoral Roll, Tasmania, 1914, Bass, Launceston North, p. 25, Ancestry.com. Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

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.

Electoral Roll, Tasmania, 1922, Bass, Launceston North, p. 31, Ancestry.com. Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

1923: Jemima Hung died at Broken Hill, New South Wales (father Daniel, mother Mary).

New South Wales Registry of Birth, Death and Marriage, death of Jemima Hung, 3771/1923.

Death registration of Jemima Hung, Broken Hill, New South Wales, 10 January 1923 (NSW Registry of Birth, Death and Marriage, death of Jemima Hung, 3771/1923)

1923: On 11 January 1923, Jemima Hung was buried at Broken Hill Cemetery in the Methodist section.

Broken Hill Cemetery Records Navigator, Burial Number 30291, Methodist Section (METH M4 Row 23A Plot 15), Buried 11 January 1923, http://www.bhcemetery.com.au/.

1923: Probate record for Jemima Hung, late of Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Tasmanian Names Index, Jemima Hung (Wills), 1923, Tasmanian Archives, AD963-1-4 (Will no. 3880), https://stors.tas.gov.au/AD963-1-4-3880$init=AD963-1-4-3880-1.

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.

‘Body Over Cliff’, Examiner (Launceston), 3 February 1947, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article60998659.

Things to follow up

  • Birth certificate of Jemima Elizabeth Hung ordered from the GRO.
  • Assisted immigrant record for Daniel and Mary Cox and family, 1856, ordered from NSW State Archives.
  • Passenger record for Cox family from Sydney to Tasmania, probably in mid-late 1850s.
  • Land purchase records for Jemima Hung’s land at Douglas near Lefroy, before 1892, and any other land purchase by the family.
  • Death registration for Ah Hung, 1904.
  • Marriage of Mary Frances Hung and James Quong in Tasmania in 1905 (1905/852) – is this Jemima’s daughter Mary, who was listed on her death certificate in 1923?
  • Birth of Edna Elizabeth Florence Quong, in Hobart on 13 October 1906 to James and Mary Frances Quong.
  • Reason for Henry Hung, and his elderly mother Jemima Hung, to have moved in c. 1922 from Launceston to Broken Hill.
  • Inquest record for the death of James Hung in Launceston in 1947.

 

Uncommon Lives

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!)

Abstract

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.

Introduction

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. ((Environmetrics, Report on Remote User Study, internal National Archives report, October 2002.))

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. ((For example, articles are written for family history and community newsletters, personal names are included in catalogue item descriptions, and individual case files are digitised for access through the Archives’ online catalogue RecordSearch. For information about accessing defence service records and the Making Australia Home service, see www.naa.gov.au/the_collection/family_history/armed_services.html and www.naa.gov.au/the_collection/family_history/immigrants.html, accessed 13 June 2006.))  In the 2004-05 financial year, nearly 40,000 requests were made for copies of war service records ((National Archives of Australia and National Archives of Australia Advisory Council, Annual Reports 2004-05, p. 28.)) 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. ((Philip Ayres, Mawson: A Life, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 1999.)) 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. ((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, [2006]. See Ayres, Mawson, p. 239 and letter from Douglas Mawson to John Curtin, 23 March 1942, in NAA: A461, F703/1/2.)) 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’. ((National Archives of Australia, Service Charter, available online at URL: www.naa.gov.au/about_us/service_charter/service_charter.html, accessed 1 June 2006.)) 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

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.

Whose lives?

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
  • a British-born forester, Charles Lane Poole and his artistic Irish wife, Ruth, who designed the interiors of important public buildings in Canberra in the late 1920s.

Features in the pipeline are about a similarly diverse group of Australians:

  • Jiro Muramats, a naturalised Japanese businessman and pearling master who was denied the right to vote in federal elections and died in internment during World War II
  • LF Giblin, an interwar economist with an adventurous streak, and
  • an early Muslim community in Australia.

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. ((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.] )) 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.

Individual voices

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.

Records

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. ((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.)) 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. ((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.)) 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.

Challenges

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. ((Erik Ketelaar, ‘Being digital in people’s archives’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 31, no. 2, November 2003, p. 15.)) 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. ((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.)) 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. ((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.)) 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.

Bibliography

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.

Davison, Graeme, ‘History and hypertext’, Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, URL: www.jcu.edu.au/aff/history/articles/davison, accessed 28 April 2006.

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.

Notes

Wellington research trip, May 2019

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’.

Here’s some Twitter highlights from my visit.

https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1127756714466406400
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1128057059000217600
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1128141330226372608
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1128142553361014784
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1128145911555579904
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1128878233854726144
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1130232329530535936
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1130279488481243137
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1130690389118136321
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1131334231806758912
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1131337517788086272
https://twitter.com/baibi/status/1131669110809489408

‘A Chinese New Year’s Day’, Sydney, 1899

On Saturday, 18 February 1899, Sydney’s Evening News published ‘A Chinese New Year’s Day’, an illustrated article that gave a (white male) journalist’s impressions of the new year celebrations held by Sydney’s Chinese community a week earlier. The new year ushered in that February was, like 2019, a Year of the Pig.

The article, transcribed below, is typical of how the mainstream Australian press wrote about Chinese in Australia at the turn of the 20th century, particularly the ‘Chinatown exposé’-type articles found in the popular press. Both the language used and perspective presented in the article firmly ‘other’ Chinese people and Chinese culture, but the article can also be read as a source of information about Chinese cultural practices in Australia on the eve of Federation. So then, how did Sydney’s Chinese community celebrate new year 120 years ago?

‘A Chinese New Year’s Day’, Evening News (Sydney), 18 February 1899.

BANG! Fizz!! Bang!!! A firework display, or what? The Post Office clock had just chimed 12 at midnight, when these sounds greeted my ears as I was making my way home on the night, or, I should say, early morning, of last Friday, February 10, 1899. Coming round the corner of a street I had to cross on my homeward journey, I was assaulted by a combination of shrieks of delight and explosions that woke the echoes of the street and scared the inevitable cat from off the roofs of the neighbouring houses and sheds. Half-blinded by the sparks that flew up, and smothered by the sulphurous smoke, I found myself in close proximity to about twenty or thirty dancing capering demons, as I took them to be, busily engaged in letting off various abominable samples of the common or garden firecracker of my early youth. As I stood wondering at these things being allowed in the quiet streets of Sydney at this late, or, rather, early house of the morning—Phizz! bang! pop! pop! pop! numerous; it seemed to me hundreds of pops. The clatter, banging, and smashing of tin pans, blowing of horns, scraping of some awful musical instruments—only seen or heard in Eastern countries—portended that a ceremony of great importance must now be going on. I stopped and gazed spellbound on the scene. Just then my eye rested on a tall, dark figure leaning up against a lamp-post. A policeman, thank goodness! I’ll now find out what’s the matter, thought I; and approaching him, I said, “Funny racket this, eh?” He looked at me with an eye of suspicion, as though he was contemplating a “run in,” which could be sworn to in the morning as being an assault on the police and damaging, etc., fine 10s, and costs, with 21s for uniform; but on the magic word “press” he explained to me that it was simply the opening of the Chinese new year. The new year was, I subsequently found, the year 5650, and is known as “Kee Hoy” [己亥], or the dynasty of “Ching” [清], whose family has reigned over China for the past 400 years. The name of the present Emperor is Quong Soy [光緒] (no relation to the inventor of the celebrated sauce of that name). “Why,” said I to the policeman, “they make a fuss of our way of celebrating ‘our New Year’ with noise, shouting, and performances on the trumpets, but what about this?” “Oh, they’re all right, and harmless enough; and to-morrow they’ll keep it up in great style, you take my word for it. If you’ve got nothing else to do you take a trip over to the Glebe to their josshouse about 8 in the morning, and you’ll see some fun; and then do a tour round the Chinese quarters. Talk about a time? Why our New Year’s Day is nothing to theirs.” “Thanks, I will,” and with a parting “good night” to the officer of the law, and a parting grand double-barrelled salute on the part of the happy Celestials, who just then let off about—well goodness only knows how many bungers, crackers, and other Celestial fireworks—I wended my was home, resolving in my mind, as I fell asleep, to spend a day among the Chinese residents of the city of Sydney on their great day of the year, namely, “New Year’s Day”, and as I fell asleep, I seemed to be wafted away on the wings of dim and dusky Chinese angels, amidst corruscations of golden light, sparks of fire, and amidst a general concatenation of hideous sounds and awfulness.

The Chinese residents of Sydney, or I may say of Australasia in general, celebrate their New Year by making a general holiday of at least three days, during which no work is done, and the time is given up to calling on each other, and wishing a happy New Year, or in their own vernacular, “Goon Hee Fad Choy [恭喜發財].” The Chinese New Year’s card is a quaint one, and consists of a slip of particularly brilliant red paper 9½in long by 4½in in width, on which are written the names of the sender, wishing the recipient a heartfelt greeting for a prosperous New Year. On entering the house of a friend they advance with the slip of paper folded in a certain way held in both hands, and after expressing themselves in the words quoted above the slip is deposited in a china plate placed for the purpose on a table in the centre of the room, around which are other tables covered with gorgeous tablecloths and numerous china dishes and bowls, containing dried melon-seeds, ginger, biscuits, dried fruit, and other simple dainties. They do not forget liquids either, as the very finest brands of champagne, brandies, whiskies, and gins, with first-class brands of cigars and cigarettes are to be seen; and the hospitable host presses one and all who visit him to partake of the good things provided, and as you leave hands you a cigar, with expressions of pleasure at your doing him the honor of calling. There he is arrayed in the very finest of his gorgeous Eastern silks, bespangles with gold, and lovely silk embroidery, his hair twisted up in snake-like folds almost hidden by a black silk cap, diamonds glisten on his tapering fingers, and his smiling face and twinkling black eyes meet yours with expressions of mirth and goodwill towards you and yours in the coming new year. The Chinese ladies of the family are never seen; but they children, if any, are resplendent in their finery, and pleased to meet and accept any presents which may be brought. The Chinese at this time of the year make a point of settling up all their outstanding accounts, and the day before their New Year’s Day, is generally spent in going round settling up their indebtedness, both among their own people and their European friends, as they do not deem it lucky to enter into a new year owning anyone money.

‘Interior of joss house’, Evening News (Sydney), 18 February 1899.

A Chinese josshouse is a place which well re-pays a visit. There will be found Chinese of all descriptions, from the rich merchant to the humble gardener, arrayed in their best clothes, with presents of fowls, sucking pigs, fruit, flowers, and other delicacies dear to their Eastern tastes. The priest, arrayed in garments vying with the peacock for splendor, with curious shaved head and solemn mien, bowing and gesticulating before the altar, one which sits perched up on crimson and golden starred cloth, strange carved wooden gods, hideous in their dark mahogany carvings, or grotesque China images, representing the golds of air, light, water, and the various gods of the household. Paper flowers in profusion, long gilt bamboo sticks, tipped with some strange preparation, are stuck into pots of earth, slowly burning, and filling the dimly lighted chamber with a fragrant incense that rises in soft mauve velvet colored clouds to the richly decorated roof. Here, after a service of curious ceremonies, and presenting of presents of money and other things, they disperse, chattering and wishing each other compliments, etc., to their homes, where friends both European and Chinese will call during the ensuing days.

‘Chinese merchant receiving visitors’, Evening News (Sydney), 18 February 1899.

Amongst the more ordinary Chinese, such as cabinetmakers, fruiterers, gardeners, and hawkers, the first day of their New Year is held as a holiday, and they are very pleased indeed to see any and all of their own countrymen, and also any white man whom they have met in the ordinary course of business during the past year. Their reception of you is just as cordial as in the richer quarters. Spread out in little China plates are the inevitable dried melon seeds, little bits of preserved ginger, small cakes, and tea, real Chinese tea, which is served up in delicate, fragile little china cups, no milk, but sugar if you wish; also they offer you a kind of spirit, white and very strong, made, I believe, from rice, or some other grain; it is by no means unpalatable, but is very potent, and anyone taking several of these nips would regret it next morning. You will notice in many cases that the Chinese wear a bangle of peculiar greyish, green-looking stone on their wrists. This may be of real jade, a valuable commodity, but in many instances it is only imitation, and procured for a shilling or two. These bracelets are supposed to bear a certain charm for the well-being of the wearer, and the idiotic superstition regarding the lovely, but very often despised opal, does not seem to have much weight with them, as you will find that gem very much in vogue as rings, breastpins, and studs, either plain or set round with diamonds. The Chinese are great admirers or good genuine jewellery, and on the occasion of the New Year, don as much as they may own. I saw one rich merchant with diamond of great value in his shirt front, and rings on every finger, set with the same magnificent stones. As he manipulated his cigarette, rolling it between his long slender fingers, a perfect blaze of light played round his hands. I heard from another Chinese that he had over £900 worth on him. Gold chains and very richly embroidered slippers complete their attire on these festive occasions. Although the greater part of the holiday is spent in calling from one house to the other, and partaking of various beverages, not by any means temperance, you will not find any unseemly conduct on the part of the Chinese, or at any hour of the day or night come across a drunken one. They must have different constitutions from Europeans, as I have met several who had been spending their day amongst the genial Cathaians, not wisely but undoubtedly too well. Taking altogether the curious ceremonies, festivities, and peculiarities of the Chinese, the chance of spending a few hours amongst them on this, the greatest day of their year, is one that you will remember, and talk about for many days to follow.

‘Chinese New Year’s Eve in a well-known street’, Evening News (Sydney), 18 February 1899. The ‘well-known street’ is probably Wexford Street, Surry Hills.

During the evening, bands of celebrated musicians, amongst the Chinese, are engaged to enliven the houses of the rich merchants, and anyone passing by during the evening will be struck with the peculiar twanging of their strange instruments, the tum-tum of drums, , the clashing of symbols, and the staccato voices of the Celestials rise out upon the still, moonlit night, filling one with thoughts of far-away Eastern cities, and dreams of strange customs in far Cathay. The Chinese newspapers, whose title is rather a long one, and would undoubtedly be a stumbling block in the mouths of the usual Sydney newsboy, the “Kwong Yik Wah Bo” [廣益華報], the only Chinese paper in the Southern Hemisphere, owned by Europeans, comes out in gorgeous colored cover, and contains pictures, almanac, and double-page supplement, containing numerous red spaces, on which are printed the names of the leading merchants and bankers, wishing their Chinese clients in the Chinese fashion the complements of a Chinese New Year.


You can view the 1899 ‘Chinese New Year Number of the Chinese Australian Herald’ (廣益華報), mentioned above, in Trove. It was published in Sydney on Friday, 10 February 1899. Some interesting pages to note are:

Wishing everyone a happy Year of the Pig 2019! 恭喜發財!

Were Chinese women naturalized in British Columbia?

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.

More information about Jsong Mong Ling and her husband Loo Gee Wing can be found on the Building Vancouver website.

Oath of Residence of Leong Leen Fung, 1889. British Columbia Archives, GR-1554, Box 21, File 1.

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.

Ten years of the Tiger’s Mouth

Ten years ago today, on 8 August 2008, I published my first post on the Tiger’s Mouth. An auspicious day for the opening of the Beijing Olympics, and an auspicious day to start a blog, I reasoned! Since 2011 the National Library of Australia has been archiving the Tiger’s Mouth in Pandora.

The blog’s name comes from the Bocca Tigris, or Bogue, or Humen (虎門), a narrow strait at the entry to the Pearl River in Guangdong, China. Shipping from Macau and Hong Kong passed through the Bocca Tigris on its way to Canton, and it was the site of major battles during both the First and Second Opium War. I’m also born in the year of the tiger, so it somehow ‘the Tiger’s Mouth’ seemed an appropriate name for a blog full of my thoughts and random bits of research on Chinese Australian history.

Back in 2008 when I started the blog I was working in the Web Content team at the National Archives in Canberra. Today I am in Vancouver on the first day of a three-week conference and research trip funded through my ARC DECRA fellowship. I don’t think the me of ten years ago could have imagined that I would be here doing this, but here I am – 176 blog posts later.

To mark the occasion, here’s a selection of some of my favourite posts:

Here are rundowns of the two China tours I’ve organised with Sophie Couchman:

And here’s my favourite post of all – a guest post by my then seven-year-old from October 2017 ‘How I found Dolly Denson’ by Parker Bagnall.

Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation

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.

Abstract

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.

Introduction

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.

Family mobility

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.

Conclusion

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.

‘The prevalence of this prefix’, 1898

I very much like this explanation by Alexander Don, Presbyterian missionary to New Zealand’s Cantonese population, of the eternally perplexing question of the prefix ‘Ah’ in Chinese names.

Don spoke Cantonese and could read and write Chinese, having first studied in Guangzhou in the late 1870s. This piece comes from his account of a trip visiting Chinese communities around the Pacific in 1897 (Alexander Don, Under Six Flags: Being Notes on Chinese in Samoa, Hawaii, United States, British Columbia, Japan, and China, J. Wilkie & Co., Dunedin, 1898, pp. 11-12.)

‘AH’

Everyone has noticed the prevalence of this prefix to the names of Chinese abroad, and many are the attempts to explain. Generally it is supposed to represent our ‘Mr,’ but on one occasion a Supreme Court Judge gravely informed the jury and counsel that he had discovered it to mean ‘Bachelor’! In China it is used only to familiar friends, to close relatives, to inferiors, servants, and such. In the Colonies one finds the head of a large importing firm, known as ‘Ah ——,’ with ‘& Co.’ often attached. The nearest parallel to this in English usage would be to style the firm, Robert Wilson & Co., as ‘Bobby & Co.’ For the prefix ‘Ah’ has much the same force as our familiar and diminutive affix ‘y’ or ‘ie.’ For the Britons, James Brown, John Smith, and Thomas Jones, to be known among the Chinese in China as Jimmy, Johnnie, and Tommy—this is one with the Chinese Lee Wun, Chan Wing, and Wong Ping, bearing among us the names Ah Wun, Ah Wing, and Ah Ping. Their full names may be—probably are—Lee Yeong-Wun, Chan Shing-Wing, and Won Ping-Kwong. They would never be called Ah Lee, Ah Chan, nor Ah Wong; for these are surnames. Equally Ah Yeung-Wun, Ah Shing-Wing, &c., are not used, just as we do not call a boy Tommy Willie for Thomas William, but either Tommy or Willie separately. Chinese, not knowing the meaning of ‘Mr,’ say, when asked the meaning of ‘Ah,’—‘All the same Mr.’ And thinking that we have only names—not surnames—prefix ‘Ah’ indiscriminately. So I am sometimes called ‘Ah Don,’ and Mr Ings ‘Ah Joe.’

Jung Hei 鍾熙, Siu Lo 蕭露 and Lau Naam 劉南 with Alexander Don at Tuapeka, Otago, c. 1898–1903. National Library of New Zealand – original held by the Hocken Library (MS-1007-009/009).