Category: People

An old goldminer and her Chinese companion, 1901

Here’s a story about a remarkable old white woman and her friendship with a Chinese man. In June 1901, a reporter from Melbourne’s Argus newspaper accompanied Castlemaine’s most senior policeman, Sergeant CW Armstrong, and the reverend from the local Christ Church, Mr G Pennicot, on a tour of Castlemaine to investigate the situation of old-age pensioners in the town. Among their travels they met the unnamed woman and her companion. This is the account about them published in the Argus on 3 June 1901:

In a hut of rock and clay was found a woman, aged 63, who received 7/ per week. A strong, wiry, loquacious, rather pleasant old lady, she has had a chequered experience. For years and years she has lived with Chinamen, and, in the early days she is said to have donned male attire, and worked in the mines with her Chinese friends. She has been living in this hut for 20 years, surrounded by other Chinese huts. The hut has an earthen floor, and the place generally is comfortable enough for the old lady. She said she could manage fairly well, but, for the past five years, she has been supporting a sick Chinaman, whom she said, ‘I used to work on the reefs with.’ On being asked to show us where the Chinaman was, she led the way to the back, where another smaller hut was built, close to the back door. Inside this hut was a queer sight. It measured about 8ft. long by 6ft wide, and barely 6ft. high, with a deep hole in the floor, covered with planks, and a hole in the wall for ventilation. In a bunk lay the sick Chinaman. He has been lying there for fully 18 months, and was suffering from bedsores. His bed clothes were dirty and of miscellaneous description. He looked very ill, and on a box at his bedside was a pannikin of cold tea. In this 8ft. long room, on the opposite side of the bunk, were fowl roosts, where over a dozen fowls roosted every night, and the old lady, who could see nothing out of the way in this, laughingly said that, when the Chinaman is eating his rice or other food, the fowls generally hop on to the bed and box, and eat out of the same dish. The old lady seemed very anxious about the sick man, and said she had spent 9/ out of her last pension for medicine for him. The man will never get better where he is, and the authorities should see to his removal. (Argus, 3 June 1901, page 5)

I love this story for what it tells us about colonial life and about the kinds of personal relationships that occurred between Chinese men and white women. There’s the woman who dressed as a man and worked on the diggings. And how she had lived happily in a ‘Chinese community’ for decades. And the enduring friendship, which had perhaps once been something more, she shared with a Chinese man.

Migrants ‘on the wing’ at Visible Immigrants Seven

Yesterday I spoke at Visible Immigrants Seven, a small conference organised by Flinders University and the Migration Museum in Adelaide. The conference aimed to explore the idea of migrant mobility before and after the major act of migration. Most of the papers focused on nineteenth-century migrants from Ireland, Scotland and England, including convicts. My paper looked at the return migration of Chinese men and their Australian families.

Assumed identities and false papers

A known but little-discussed part of the history of Chinese Australians is the entry of people on false papers or using assumed identities. Both those within the community and those of us researching the history know examples of families where this happened, but it’s only in rare cases that it is discusssed openly.

It came up during one of the sessions at the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide earlier this year and these discussions started me thinking—particularly after having just been to North America where the history of ‘paper sons’ is a well-acknowledged part of the story. In contrast to Australia, the USA and Canada addressed the issue in the 1960s by offering amnesty periods that allowed paper sons and daughters to legitimate their entry without fear of deportation or criminal charges.

So then, what is the legal situation today of Chinese people who entered Australia on false papers in the first half of the 20th century? If their stories were told, would the authorities take action against them?

In July 2012, I wrote to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, to find out.

Here is part of the response I received from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship:

Australia’s citizenship and migration legislation has been amended numerous times since federation, as immigration policies, immigrant source countries, settlement philosophies and notions of national identity have changed. These amendments have been enacted to remove past anomalies and discrimination.

It is difficult to comment about the legal position of people entering Australia using assumed identities before 1950 and their descendents as each person’s situation/circumstance can differ. Despite this, it is likely that these people are either Australian citizens or permanent residents under ‘absorbed persons’ provisions in the Migration Act 1958. As it has been more than 60 years since these events and given the likelihood that these people are Australian citizens or permanent residents, it would not appear to be in the public interest to actively pursue these people regarding their immigration status.

Should any members of the community require specific immigration advice, I encourage them to seek the services of a registered migration agent … If they consider that they may be an Australian citizen and wish to seek confirmation, they may apply for evidence of citizenship.

Here are copies of my letter and the department’s response:

Letter to Chris Bowen about paper sons, 12 July 2012 (pdf, 88kb)

Letter from Miranda Lauman, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 4 October 2012 (pdf, 656kb)

Representing lives from the archive of White Australia

Sophie Couchman, Tim Sherratt and I are presenting a session on ‘Representing lives from the archive of White Australia’ at Framing Lives: 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association on 19 July 2012.

Panel description

This panel offers three approaches to representing the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who were affected by the racially-based immigration policies of late 19th and early 20th-century Australia. To administer the Immigration Restriction Act and its colonial predecessors, government officials implemented an increasingly complex and structured system of tracking and documenting the movements of non-white people as they travelled in and out of the country. This surveillance left an extraordinary body of records containing information about people who, according to the national myth of a ‘White Australia’, were not Australian at all.

The first paper will examine a unique set of almost 300 identification photographs of Chinese Australians taken in Victoria in the late 1890s, considering what these photographs reveal of the lives of their subjects. The second paper will demonstrate how, through a close reading of the records, fragments of biographical information can be built into a portrait of the life of a Chinese woman living in Australia on exemption from 1910 to 1913. The final paper will consider the possibilities of digital history for reconstructing marginalised lives and reflect on the challenges of representing biographical data from the White Australia records in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

Identifying whom?: reading identification photography by Sophie Couchman

In 1900 William Nean posed proudly on his bicycle in full racing attire for the popular photographic company Yeoman & Co. in Bourke Street, Melbourne. He used this photograph as an identification portrait and it is now preserved in the National Archives of Australia amongst 268 other photographic portraits of Chinese resident in Victoria that were created under the administration of the 1890 Chinese Act between 1899 and 1901. The Act aimed to limit and control Chinese immigration in the colony of Victoria and, from the late 1890s, identification portraits of long-term Chinese residents were used as part of documentation to allow them to re-enter Victoria free from the restrictions of the Act.

William Nean’s portrait immediately raises the questions of who he was and why such an unusual photograph was used as an identification portrait. The rest of the paperwork associated with this series of photographs no longer survives—all that remains are annotated identification portraits. This paper will place these photographs in the history of identification photography and, through close readings of them, tease out what can be learnt about the lives of the men, women and children represented in them.

Shifting the lens: uncovering the story of Mrs Poon Gooey by Kate Bagnall

This paper revisits the Poon Gooey deportation case, marking two significant anniversaries. In 1913, it will be a hundred years since Ham Hop, the wife of fruit merchant Poon Gooey, was deported from Australia with their two young daughters. After Ham Hop’s arrival in Australia on a temporary permit in 1910, Poon Gooey—a fluent English-speaker, Christian and member of the Chinese Empire Reform League—mounted a determined campaign to gain permission for her to remain more permanently. The campaign, while ultimately unsuccessful, found widespread support and was an ongoing embarrassment to the federal Labor government.

Fifty years later, historian AT Yarwood wrote on the Poon Gooey case as an example of early problems in the administration of the White Australia Policy. Yarwood based his study on the very substantial Department of External Affairs file, which documents the Poon Gooey story from 1910 to 1913. Greater access to records in the intervening decades, however, means that is now possible to uncover more of the context of Poon Gooey’s actions at this time and, more generally, of the two decades he spent in Australia—evidence that calls into question some of Yarwood’s conclusions about Poon Gooey’s actions and his motivations.

This paper shifts the lens even further, however, to focus on the life of Ham Hop, rather than on that of her husband. Although significant moments in her life—her marriage, periods of physical separation from her husband, travel to Australia, pregnancies, births of her children, medical problems, and finally the deportation of herself and her children—are recorded in the official case files, Ham Hop herself remains silent. Through a close reading of these records and the extensive press coverage of the case, this paper seeks to reveal what can be known of her story and to suggest possibilities for uncovering the lives of women and children who were marginalised and excluded by the White Australia Policy in the early years of the 20th century.

The responsibilities of data: reconstructing lives from the records of the White Australia Policy by Tim Sherratt

The sheer volume of records created by the White Australia Policy is overwhelming. Amidst this vast and disturbing legacy are thousands upon thousands of certificates documenting the movements of non-white residents. These biographical fragments, often including photographs and handprints, are visually and emotionally compelling. We cannot avoid the gaze of those whose lives were monitored, we cannot deny the people behind the policy.

But these records are also a source of data. Increasing numbers of these records have been digitised. As we develop the tools and techniques of digital history, we open up the possibility of extracting this data from the digitised records, of aggregating the biographical fragments, of tracing lives and mapping families. We can tame the overwhelming abundance of records and create a rich, new resource for exploration and analysis.

But how do we avoid imprisoning these newly-liberated lives in yet another system? How do we ensure that the challenging gaze of individuals is not lost in the transformation to data? This paper will look at some of the possibilities for extracting information from these records and reflect on the challenges of representing that data in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

Chinese Australian family history talks, Sydney, August 2012

The Chinese Heritage Association of Australia is presenting an interesting series of talks at the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Darling Harbour, Sydney, in August 2012. The talks will be held each Sunday afternoon in August from 2–3pm. Talks are free, but there is an admission fee to enter the garden.

You can make reservations through the Darling Harbour website.

5 August: Marilyn Dooley on ‘My family’s Chinese and Irish connections’
Marilyn will talk about her research into her fascinating family history, starting from the 1860s in Central Queensland.

12 August: Cheryl Cumines on ‘The Life of a Chinese Australian family living in The Rocks’
The Cumines family history in Australia dates back 135 years. For many years they played a significant role in the life of The Rocks.

19 August: Brad Powe on ‘From gold-seeker Gwok Ah Poo to market gardener George Harper’
Brad’s Chinese ancestors arrived in NSW 150 years ago. The family has retained a comprehensive collection of photographs and documents.

26 August: Sally Pang Rippingale on ‘My father’s passion – penjing’
Sally Pang’s family operated one of the early Chinatown Chinese restaurants, the Modern China Café. Sally inherited her father’s penjing (miniature trees and landscapes) collection.

Happy Valley: Patrick White’s impressions of an Anglo-Chinese family

Today’s Canberra Times features an article by David Marr about Australian novelist Patrick White’s forgotten first book, Happy Valley, ‘the thylacine of Australian literature’. It was written while White was working as a jackaroo at Bolaro (or Bolero) in southern NSW. He took horses to be shod in nearby Adaminaby and there encountered the Anglo-Chinese Yens, who formed the basis for the novel’s Quong family. A review in the Adelaide Mail wrote:

Mr. White has set his novel in an Australian town — but what a town! In the winter it is snowed in; in the summer it is burning hot. Its inhabitants are the mixed lot you find in any town — but what a lot! The sanest and most decent people there seem to be the family of half Chinese, two of whom conduct the general store … (The Mail, 22 February 1941)

The Yens (or Yans) were not the only Anglo-Chinese family who had made Adaminaby their home. For a long time Adaminaby was also home to the Booshang (later Booshand) family, among others, but they had moved on by the time White arrived in the town:

Twin sisters Anastasia and Jane Thomas married John Booshang and Charles Chun Yin, later known as Yen, within a few years of each other at Cooma in the early 1880s. Anastasia and Jane, born in 1864, were the daughters of Cooma residents Thomas Thomas and Johanna Shanahan who had married in the town in 1858. Anastasia and John, who married in 1881, had three children and Jane and Charles had two, before both families moved to Adaminaby in around 1888. Here they settled themselves, opening a store and Jane and Anastasia having four and five more children respectively.

Both families became established members of the Adaminaby community. John Booshang lived there until his death in 1923, at which point Anastasia moved to Sydney to be with her children, dying there in 1934. The Yen family maintained their businesses in the town and were compulsorily moved in the early 1950s when the old Adaminaby township was flooded as part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. (Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, p.131)

Happy Valley was published in 1939 and won the Australian Society of Literature’s gold medal in 1941. Despite this acclaim, White never allowed the novel to be reprinted in English. According to David Marr, this was because:

White could never shake the fear that … [the Yens] … could sue for what he did to them in the pages of Happy Valley. He could not be reassured about this. White went to his grave fearing the revenge of the Yens.

A century after White’s birth and more than seventy years after Happy Valley first appeared, the novel is now being republished, with its release due in August this year. Apparently printed copies of the original version are rare and valuable, but if you can’t wait until August to read Happy Valley, a digitised version is available in the Haithi Trust Digital Library.

Postscript

The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age both published the same article by Marr about Happy Valley. The Herald received a response from a Yen descendent named Laurann Yen, which it published on 30 May 2012. She wrote:

In Happy Valley White does indeed steal my grandparents and report them spitefully: they are without humour, without grace, without respite from the bleak town and their bleak relationship; two dry peas in a miserable pod. But there is wonderful White as well – a sense of place, where every tree, every verandah, every small comforting pretension gets into your bones. I know, more from White than from memory, every person.

The letters page of the Herald on 2 June 2012 also includes a postscript which talks a bit about Marr’s unsuccessful attempts to track down members of the Yen family:

After all these years comes this generous response: acknowledging that White looked on their grandparents with a cold and unforgiving eye but nevertheless wrote a fine book,’ he says. ‘Such forgiveness is rare.’

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

I’m still digesting all that I heard at the 5th WCILCOS conference and cogitating about the exciting possibilities for international collaborative work that have emerged from it. I’m hoping to pull together some more thoughts about my discussions with folk from Canada and the US about mixed-race overseas Chinese families and children.

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

‘That famous fighting family’

A little article of mine* appears in issue 9 of Inside History magazine (March–April 2012). The article discusses the experiences of Chinese Australians during World War I through the experiences of the Sam family from West Wyalong, New South Wales.

I first came across the Sam family in the file of youngest son, Percy, who travelled with his father to China in 1915. It was noted in their applications for exemption from the Dictation Test that a number of Percy’s brothers were serving in the First AIF – they were, in fact, at Gallipoli. It seemed such an irony that at the same time as his brothers were fighting for their country overseas, Percy was made to comply with the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act, something that suggested he was less than a true Australian.

The way that Chinese Australians were treated during World War I was full of contradictions. Some young men were able to enlist, others weren’t. I don’t mention it in the article, but Chinese nationals were required to register as aliens during wartime (and afterwards) – so there were also cases of Chinese fathers having to report to the police to register as aliens while their Australian-born sons were away fighting for country and empire.

Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to an online copy of the article, so if you’re interested you might just have to go and buy a copy of the magazine. 

Access a copy of the article from the link below:

* Kate Bagnall, ‘That famous fighting family‘, Inside History, issue 9, March–April 2012, pp. 37–40.

Ah Yin family of Adelong, c.1897

Every time I poke around in series NAA: SP42/1, I find something new and interesting that I hadn’t noticed before.

Today’s find is a photograph of the family of Ah Yin (or Ah Yen), who was a storekeeper at Adelong in southern New South Wales, and his wife, Ah Hoo (or Ah How). The family, with six children, left for China in 1897.

The file NAA: SP42/1, C1916/7308 PART 1 relates to a request for one of the Ah Yin daughters, Sarah (b. 1890), to be permitted to return to Australia in 1910.

More on Sarah Ah Yen’s return to Australia from the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1915.