Category: People

‘Converted’ at Nundle, 1885

From the Australian Town and Country Journal of Saturday, 6 June 1885:

Nundle. May 29. CONVERTED.—The Rev. G Snailes, of Primitive Methodist connection, visited this part of his station lately. During his stay amongst us he officiated at a very interested ceremony; Ah Foo, a resident Chinaman, renouncing the heathen worship by accepting the Christian faith, and was duly baptised by the rev. gentleman. George Ah Foo was then duly married unto Eliza Thuill, and an infant child was baptised. Mr. Smailes won golden opinions from his numerous hearers during his stay, many expressing a great desire for a longer sojourn with us.

William Chie, fruitgrower, of Carlingford

This guest post by Carlene Bagnall tells the story of William Chie, an Anglo-Chinese fruitgrower and poultry farmer from the Carlingford–Epping area in Sydney. Carlene came upon William Chie’s story while researching the history of the Epping Seventh-day Adventist Church.

William Chie lived at Carlingford, a suburb to the northwest of Sydney, in an area of gently undulating hills covered in fruit trees, the scattered orchards serviced by dirt roads. Here for many years he kept a poultry farm and had a productive orchard in which he grew fine apricots. The majority of his neighbours also had orchards and kept poultry. Not far from his home on Pennant Parade, on the corner of the main road linking Carlingford and Epping, was a small wooden church belonging to a small company of Seventh-day Adventists. Beyond the orchards were tall forests where timber was logged and in wet weather the muddy roads were churned up by the hooves of the horses pulling the logs to the saw mills. (See a picture of Carlingford Road, Epping around the time William Chie lived there.)

William Chie was the son of John Chi, a dairy farmer at Avondale, near Wollongong, and his wife Margaret. John Chi was from Amoy and arrived in Australia in 1852 — one of four Amoy Chinese men brought out to work on rural properties at Dapto owned by Henry Osborne, a prominent local landholder and member of the Legislative Assembly for East Camden. John Chi married Margaret Miller at Wollongong in 1859 and they had seven sons – John, William, Francis, George, Charles, Jem (James) and David – and one daughter, Eliza. Of these children, John died as a child in 1866. Margaret Chi died in 1896 and her husband John in 1908.

In 1883, William himself married Mary Jane, the daughter of a Wollongong farmer William Miller and his wife Mary née Noble. Some time in the 1880s they moved to the Carlingford area. William Chie is listed in the NSW Census as living in 1891 at Ray Road and in 1901 at Pennant Parade, with his household comprising one male and one female – he was not identified in the Census as being half-Chinese. William and Mary Jane were married for 42 years and had two sons, both of whom predeceased their parents. Mary Jane Chie died on 11 January 1927 at the home of her niece, Ivy Molloy, at 138 Campbell Street, Sydney, aged 65 years.

Some time soon after the turn of the century, William Chie became a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at Epping and remained a faithful believer until his death. The first church building was completed in January 1902 and a week-long Adventist mission held at Carlingford in June that year. Over the years, William would have seen the destruction by fire of the little Adventist church on the evening on 23 June 1914, when it was set alight by a rejected suitor of the bride on the eve of her wedding to another man. He would have participated in plans to build a new church closer to the railway station at Epping, on a block of land donated by Annie Mobbs and her son, Lewis, from a subdivision of their orchard earlier that year. He would even possibly have been among the men of the church who helped to build the new building, which was begun and almost completed on Australia Day, 1915.

Later, William Chie bought a block of land on Carlingford Road, part of the Nevertire Estate, which was also subdivided from the orchard of Annie and Lewis Mobbs in 1914. William built a house which he named ‘Avondale’, near to Annie Mobbs’ home ‘Nevertire’, between Ryde Road and Midson Road. A description of ‘Avondale’ from a sale notice in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1927 stated:

4 minutes from ‘Bus, 2 Minutes from Public School.

“AVONDALE,” CARLINGFORD ROAD, between MIDSON ROAD and RYDE STREET.

DOUBLE-FRONTED WEATHERBOARD COTTAGE, on brick foundation, having iron roof and containing four rooms, kitchen, bathroom. Detached is laundry, car entrance at side, verandahs front, side, and rear. Fowl houses and run. TORRENS TITLE. Land, 120 feet by a depth of 145 feet 4 inches.

The Epping Seventh-day Adventist Church had good reason to remember William Chie with affection. The church building carried a debt which, according to an account from the 1960s:

was finally cleared in 1922 [sic] by a sum of £100 left in bequest to the church by a Mr Chee, a Chinese fruit agent in Sydney.

William Chie’s will, which was written on 26 October 1924 and stated he was a fruit agent, left a life interest in his estate, valued at £1276/12/5, to his wife Mary Jane and named as his executors George Chie of Woodside Avenue, Strathfield, and Edward Keeler of Pennant Parade, Carlingford.

Mary Jane could use any of the furniture ‘for her own comfort’ and was ‘at liberty to occupy the cottage rent free and undisturbed should she elect to do so’. After her death and the bequest of £100 ‘free of legacy duty’ to the church, his estate was to be divided into one-eighth shares to his brother Frank Chie, his sister Eliza Chie, his nephew Frank Chie, his niece Stella Chie, his niece Maletta Chie, and the last one-eighth share was to Helen Elizabeth Hawkins of Pennant Parade, Carlingford. Witnesses to the will were Alice and Ernest Hawkins of Pennant Parade.

This obituary appeared in the Australasian Record, a weekly publication of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, written by E.G. Whittaker:

William Chie, aged sixty-three, died at his residence, Carlingford Road, Epping, on Sunday, September 13, 1925. Brother Chie was one of the pioneer members of the Epping church, having been associated with the message for about twenty years. His health had been somewhat indifferent for some time. He leaves a wife to mourn her loss. We laid him to rest in the Carlingford Cemetery. In the service conducted at his house, his favourite hymn was sung; ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh! What a foretaste of glory divine.’

Sources

  • Australasian Record, vol. 29, no. 41, 12 October 1925, http://www.adventistarchives.org/docs/AAR/AAR19251012-V29-41__B.pdf
  • Carlene Bagnall, ‘Epping Church 1902 to 1940’, Epping Seventh-day Adventist Church website, http://www.eppingsda.org.au/sites/default/files/u2/Epping%20Church%201902%20to%201940.pdf
  • Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2006, p. 145
  • Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate, October 1898
  • Last will and testament of William Chie, late of Epping, fruit agent – NSW probate no. 134087, 16 November 1925
  • NSW birth certificates – 14049/1860, 14994/1862, 15032/1863, 16587/1864, 17089/1865, 17904/1867, 19804/1869, 19504/1871
  • NSW death certificate – 1927/52
  • NSW Census Collectors Books for 1891 and 1901
  • Sands Directory, 1924, p. 284
  • Souvenir programme: Official opening of the Epping Seventh Day Adventist Church, 17–18 June 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 1902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 1927
  • Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 12 November 1898

‘Birth of a Chinese in the colony’, 1865

In July 1865, the Maitland Mercury carried an article announcing the birth of the second Chinese baby in the colony of New South Wales – a little boy named Henry Sydney Ah Foo – or, as recorded in the NSW BDMs index – Ah Cong, son of Sam Ah Foo and Ah Fie (15489/1865):

Some days ago Mrs. Ah Foo, wife of Mr. Ah Foo, storekeeper, of Nundle, to the delight of her husband and every other celestial on the Peel river, presented the former with an unmistakable pledge of love in the shape of a fine healthy son, no half and half affair, but a thorough Mongolian. We are given to understand that this is the second birth in this colony where both parents were Chinese, and is, consequently, well worth mentioning. The Chinese in the neighbourhood have taken the matter up, and elated with joy, have made a present to the parents of £150. On Sunday last, the Rev Mr. Whitfield of Tamworth performed the interesting ceremony of christening the child, which was witnessed by a large number of Chinamen. The youngster’s name is Henry Sydney. Mrs. Ah Foo is said to be an interesting woman.

The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, 18 July 1865

I’ve recently started working on a project that has its roots back more than ten years. As part of my PhD research, I started compiling a database of marriages between Chinese men and non-Chinese women in 19th-century New South Wales. A version of it ended up as an appendix to my thesis, but since a lot of time went into the original data-gathering (thanks Mum!) I thought that perhaps this data should now take on a new and exciting life.

I’m therefore extending my original database to include any ‘Chinese’ marriage or birth registered in New South Wales up to 1918 – that is, where either husband or wife, father or mother, were Chinese or part-Chinese. I’m initially working from the published NSW BDM indexes (hence the 1918 cut-off), but I’ll then add information from my piles and piles of other research notes and also hopefully crowdsource further data to fill out the scant details provided by the index. So far I’ve worked through maybe a tenth of the material I have, and I’ve already got over 1000 entries in the database.

You can read more about the database project, Threads of Kinship – and there’s a prize for guessing the origins of the project name and why I chose it.

[Family group] [picture]

One of the first things I learnt in my training in arrangement and description was the meaning of those neat square brackets—they tell you that the archivist has, heaven forbid, used or added something other than the record’s original title. This is often done to assist with searching for the item in a collection database, particularly if the original title is a bit obscure, or non-existant. So it was that I came upon an item in the State Library of Victoria’s catalogue titled:

[Family group] [picture]

As the catalogue description notes, this photograph shows a:

Family grouped in front of picket fence, woman seated with two little girls, and possibly a little boy in short petticoats, beside her, two men standing on either side of her chair, a little boy standing beside man on left. Weatherboard house in background, tiled roof, and pergola, vines growing along roof line of porch.

What isn’t noted (except in the subject keywords) is that this family looks to be Chinese. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the woman was of mixed heritage.

The photograph comes from the John Etkins collection, a private collection of around 2000 portrait photographs donated to the library in 2004. Inscribed in pencil on the back of the photograph is ‘[…] Wang in (?) Govt. Office / Inverell’. It is dated somewhere between 1880 and 1910.

Not much of a clue as to the family’s identity, but perhaps one day I’ll stumble upon something that tells me who they are.

  • Description: 1 photographic print on cabinet card : albumen silver ; 10.7 x 16.6 cm.; 1 photographic print : albumen silver ; 9.7 x 13.9 cm.
  • Identifier(s): State Library of Victoria, Accession no(s) H2005.34/103.
  • Persistent link: http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/45774

(Fewer than) six degrees of separation: James Minahan and William Ah Ket

I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sydney, and come from very good, solid Adventist stock. My paternal grandmother’s family were among the earliest Adventists in Australia, and my father’s uncle, Arthur Shannon, was behind the company that eventually sold its best-selling product Weet-Bix to Sanitarium. Both my maternal grandparents worked, as doctor and nurse, at the Adventist hospital in Wahroonga, and a wing of that same hospital was named after my Shannon relatives. I went to the Adventist school next to the hospital and, as a child, it seemed that everyone we knew was related or connected – somehow – to everyone else. Much like a country town, I guess. Or like the early Chinese Australian community.

Recently I’ve been looking again at James Minahan, the Anglo-Chinese man whose case went to the High Court in 1908, and thinking about connections between the players in his story. James Minahan left Australia as a young boy, and returned twenty-five years later. Although he could remember little of his Australian childhood – he no longer spoke English, nor could he remember his Australian mother – he was returning to a community that both expected his return and looked after him when he found himself in legal difficulties.

Legal representation was found for him after he was arrested in Sydney and, at the High Court hearings, he was represented by Frank Gavan Duffy KC and William Ah Ket. Frank Gavan Duffy was the outstanding KC who, five years later, would join the ranks of the High Court, later becoming Chief Justice. William Ah Ket was Australia’s first Chinese Australian lawyer and, later, acting consul-general for China in Australia. I haven’t yet established who exactly it was that organised James Minahan’s legal representation; the Chinese consulate began its operations the following year.

I hadn’t imagined that there was any real connection between James Minahan and William Ah Ket. Although born in the same year to families that lived no more that 50 kilometres from each other in rural Victoria, James and William’s childhoods had taken them in very different directions. James grew up in his father’s ancestral village in Xinhui, attending the local village school and failing three times to pass the gruelling imperial examinations; William was educated at Wangaratta High School and at home by a Chinese tutor, and studied law at the University of Melbourne.

But, curiously, the lives of James Minahan and William Ah Ket were connected through a web of kinship and intermarriage:

  • James Minahan was related to Chin Kee (they both were Chens of Shiquli village in Xinhui)
  • Chin Kee married Ethel Hun Gip
  • Ethel Hun Gip’s cousin was William Hoyling (their mothers were sisters, Isabella and Emma)
  • William Hoyling married Ruby Yon
  • Ruby Yon was the niece of barrister William Ah Ket (her mother was William’s sister Margaret)

Did you get that? Here’s a diagram:

Diagram showing the relationship between James Minahan and William Ah Ket

I’m not sure that it means anything particularly significant, except that it demonstrates the family ties that existed among early Chinese Australian families, and it’s kinda cool.

From Canton with Courage: exhibition on the Chinese at Parramatta

The Parramatta Heritage Centre has a new exhibition, From Canton with Courage: Australian Chinese in Parramatta and Beyond, which is on now until 11 March 2012. The exhibition is a partnership between the centre and Jack Brook, who recently produced a book on the same subject. I haven’t yet managed to get my hands on the book (although I note it’s in the National Library – maybe time for another visit!). I know of a couple of families with Parramatta connections, so I’ll be interested to see if they get a mention.

What: From Canton with Courage: Australian Chinese in Parramatta and beyond
Where: Parramatta Heritage Centre, 346A Church Street, Parramatta
When: 23 July 2011 to 11 March 2012

Taishan twins

This afternoon I stumbled upon something completely intriguing.

Regular readers will know that one of my research obsessions concerns the mixed race children of Chinese men who went to live in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the people I’ve been researching have white Australian (or New Zealand) mothers and Chinese fathers, but there were certainly children with other backgrounds who similarly went to live in their fathers’ homeland – including Aboriginal-Chinese, Mexican-Chinese and Hawaiian-Chinese.

I know from a range of sources that these children were in China and I have photographs of many of the Australians among them. But images of them actually IN China are a rarity. My afternoon’s find of two photographs is something pretty cool then.

The images are part of the photographic archives of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers (Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, Inc.) made available online through the University of Southern California Digital Library. The Maryknoll Catholic mission in China began in 1918, and was based in Jiangmen (one of the overseas Chinese qiaoxiang districts). Because of copyright restrictions I don’t think I can actually show you the two photographs of interest, but I can tell you about them.

The two photographs were taken at Father McDermott’s mission in Taishan in 1934 and 1935. They show a pair of twin boys, aged around five or six years old. The captions say that the boys are of African-Chinese heritage.

Have a look:

The captions say little else about the boys, no names and nothing about how they came to be at the mission. Were they orphans? Were they the children of a Chinese convert? Did they attend school there? Who was their mother? Where had they been born? How long had they been in China? What became of them?

This last question, at least, can be answered for one of the boys. A poignant note on the back of the later photograph, written in Father McDermott’s hand, notes that the lad ‘went to Heaven on Pentecost Eve’.

LJ Hooker’s Chinese roots

His name is known across the country, but until recently the true story of LJ Hooker’s early life was unknown, even to his own family. Now, after five years of research, writing and production, Natalia Hooker has published a lavish biography as a tribute to her famous grandfather. The book, LJ Hooker the Man: The Untold Story of an Australian Icon, is particularly interesting for what it reveals about LJ Hooker’s Chinese roots.

Black and white portrait of LJ Hooker

Until an article in the Sydney Morning Herald published in 1985, nine years after Sir Les’ death, nothing was publicly known, or rather said, about LJ Hooker’s Chinese ancestry. The article revealed that LJ was ‘of Chinese origin’ and had changed his name by deed poll from Tingyou to Hooker in 1925 (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1985).

In the preface to her biography, Natalia Hooker explains that there were many theories about the origins of the name Hooker:

The most popular story is that LJ’s Chinese father was a railway engineer named Tingyou who had invented the ‘hooker’ coupling system for rail carriages. Another suggestion was the LJ was an admirer of the American Civil War general, Joseph Hooker, whose statue had been built in his honour in Boston in 1903, the year of LJ’s birth. None of these accounts were particularly convincing. (LJ Hooker the Man, p. 5)

Fay Pemberton, the daughter of LJ’s cousin Sylvia, told Natalia a different and much more plausible story, however. Fay said that Hooker was, in fact, LJ’s father’s name.

LJ’s mother Ellen Tingyou, known as Nellie, was 18 and unmarried when she gave birth to her son on 18 August 1903. As was customary at the time for unmarried mothers, Nellie’s baby’s birth was registered with no record of his father.

Little Leslie grew up surrounded by family though – he and Nellie lived together with his grandfather, Chinese-born James Tingyou; aunts Mary Quan and Rosanna Davis; uncles Chun Quan, John Davis and James Tingyou junior; and his cousins William and Percy Quan and Biddy and Sylvia Davis. It was a household in which Chinese must have been spoken, at least by LJ’s grandfather, James Tingyou, and uncle-by-marriage, Chun Quan.

When LJ’s mother Nellie died from tuberculosis in 1911, at the age of 25, it was this extended family that raised him – in particular, his cousin Sylvia who was only six years his senior.

A mystery half solved

For Natalia Hooker, LJ’s parents were something of an enigma. Other than Fay Pemberton’s comment about the Hooker name, Natalia had no clue as to LJ’s father’s identity; she also knew little about the short life of LJ’s mother, Nellie. After some unsuccessful attempts to track down records of the births of Nellie and her siblings, Natalia approached me to see what I could uncover, particularly about the family’s Chinese connection.

As with much family history research, particularly those with Chinese heritage, the trick was in thinking creatively about names. Natalia knew details of the marriage of LJ’s maternal grandparents, James Tingyou and Rosanna Dillon, but there was no trace of their four children under either of their surnames. It turned out that the births of Mary Alice, Rosanna junior, James junior and Ellen (Nellie) were registered under the surname Harlet, and also that in some of the records their Chinese father was listed as being English. When James and Rosanna were married by Rev. James Fullerton in Sydney in 1874, Rosanna’s age was put up to 22 so that she did not need the consent of her parents to marry. It seems, sadly, that she may have been estranged from her Irish-born parents and siblings and felt the need to lie about her name and her husband’s birthplace.

Discovering the Harlet name led, inevitably, to some more small discoveries. But the real clincher came when I found a death registration for LJ’s mother, Nellie Tingyou, under the name Ellen Hookin. With Fay Pemberton’s comment at the back of my mind, the immediate similarity between Hookin and Hooker was striking! The story got even more intriguing when I saw that the informant of her death was a man who described himself as her husband, Harry Hookin.

From Hook Yin to Hookin to Hooker?

Harry Hookin had arrived in Sydney as Hook Yin, a thirteen-year-old boy whose cabinetmaker father was a long-term Sydney resident and naturalised British subject. Already proficient in English, Hookin attended and did very well at school and, in time, took over management of his father’s business, Sing War & Son in Albion Place. At the time of Nellie’s death he gave his place of residence as Beecroft, where the extended Tingyou family were also living – it is possible that Hookin was one among the tangle of aunts, uncles and cousins with whom the young LJ Hooker shared his home.

Harry Hookin, 1911. NAA: ST84/1, 1911/68/61-70.

After Nellie’s death is would seem that Harry Hookin disappeared from LJ’s life though. Three years later he married ‘again’ (he claimed to have married Nellie Tingyou in 1910, for which I have failed to locate a marriage registration) and there remained no memory of him among the Tingyou descendants.

The obvious question remains, however – was Harry Hookin LJ’s father? As Natalia Hooker concludes, ‘it is impossible to know for sure whether or not Hookin was Les’s biological father’ and a number of facts, such as his age – only 17 when LJ was born in 1903 – perhaps suggest otherwise. But, to quote Natalia again:

the fact that Les, as an adult, chose to change his name to Hooker, suggests that, at a minimum, Harry Hookin was a father figure to Les. (LJ Hooker the Man, p. 42)

Some more records about Harry Hookin have recently come to light, but whether they are able to prove anything is another question! It may well be that this remains one of those mysteries that is impossible to solve.

About the book

LJ Hooker the Man: The Untold Story of an Australian Icon by Natalia Hooker (self-published, 2010) is available to order online: www.ljhookertheman.com. It costs $54.95, free delivery. It is available in bookstores throughout Australia as of February 2011. You can also see a preview of the book.

Going against the grain

I’ve just begun writing a book chapter about the travels of white wives of Chinese men from Australia/NZ to China in the period 1880 to 1930. It’s a topic that I’ve been gathering material on for years and years, but now it’s down to actually writing something concrete and (hopefully) intelligent, it’s proving difficult to work out how exactly I’m going to frame their stories.

What’s troubling me most right now is the overwhelmingly depressing tales that emerge from the sources, like this one that I found this morning, titled ‘Harbor Bridge Suicide’  from the Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 17 January 1933:

Sydney, Tuesday.

At the inquest yesterday into the death of Mary Anne Mee Hing (62), who jumped off the Harbor bridge on January 5, it was stated that she was an Australian woman who had married a Chinese store-keeper with whom she went to China.

Her husband’s people disowned her, and she returned to Australia, where her parents refused to have anything to do with her. She returned to China and found her husband married to a young Chinese girl.

The woman thereupon came back to Australia, where she took to drink and subsequently ended her life.

The coroner returned a verdict of suicide.

I will see if I can get the full records of the inquest, in the hope that there are more subtle shades to the story, but The full records of the coroner’s inquest into Mary Anne’s death no longer exist, and from the other little bits and pieces I’ve found about her, it seems quite possible that Mary Anne’s life was as full of disappointment and heartbreak as this short report suggests. So many reports tell of marriages that have broken down, of women returning to Australia in financial and emotional distress, of illness, death or separation from children. The nature of these sources is something that I’ve tackled before, in my work on Agnes Breuer’s visit to China with her husband in 1933, but as I look over the bits and pieces I’ve assembled I now wonder if I’m wrong in wanting to assert that the difficult and unhappy times related in the sources are not a fair representation of how white wives experienced China.

At the heart of my response to the sources is my own response to life in China, most particularly as part of a Chinese family there. I went to China more or less on a whim, and it overwhelmed my life, both personally (I fell in love and married there – a relationship that, like many of my subjects’, has not endured) and intellectually (it sparked my passion for Chinese Australian history). There were and are aspects of life in China that I love, and aspects that I find so very difficult to deal with. It is a place where I have been both my happiest and my most unhappy.

If you caught me in the right mood I could paint a picture of my time as Chinese wife and daughter-in-law that was as sensational or pathetic as any that appear in my 19th and early 20th century sources. From seemingly small things, like not being allowed to wash my hair on feast days or to use a needle and thread while pregnant, to bigger things, like the idea of letting my parents-in-law raise my baby or meeting women in the village who had effectively been bought by their husbands. There were many things that contradicted my own (university-educated, Western, liberal, feminist) sense of how the world should work and ultimately how I wanted my own life to be.

At the same time though, spending time in China both as an independent entity and as part of a family has brought me a richness of experience and knowledge, a strength of character and sense of self, and many memories and stories that I would never had if I had stayed safely home in Australia. So if you asked me on another day, I might rave about how wonderful China is and how much I miss being there.

Couldn’t this also be the case for my white wives of a century ago? I know of wives who made short uneventful trips (happy holidays, even?) to China with their husbands and children. And I have scant detail about perhaps half a dozen white wives who stayed living in their husbands’ south China villages for long periods, like one who was described by New Zealand Presbyterian missionary Alexander Don as being ‘far more important in [the] Chinese village than she would have been in her own country’ (Otago Witness, 11 April 1906).

I don’t want the focus of this chapter to be on the biases and prejudices of the missionaries, newspaper reporters and government officials who recorded the experiences of my white wives, rather I want to think about the lives of the women themselves. But with a growing amount of evidence to suggest that my sources are going to remain weighted to the negative, I’m going to have to think about how or if it might be possible for them to reveal a more balanced account. If ever were a time for reading ‘against the grain’, I think this might be it.

Birth certificate registers

In October 1913 Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Atlee Hunt, sent a circular to the state Customs departments asking if they kept records of Chinese Australians who used their birth certificates as identity papers when travelling overseas.

Queensland already kept such a register, and Hunt felt that:

Such a register is very desirable to enable a check to be kept on persons claiming admission to Australia on birth certificates, as it is an easy matter for a number of copies of the same certificate to be obtained, and the experience of the past shows that in some instances several Chinese have attempted, sometimes successfully, to land on copies of the same certificate. (NAA: A1, 1913/20069)

An example of the early difficulties that both Chinese Australians and government officials had with using birth certificates as identification can be found in the case of Fred Hong See (see NAA: BP342/1, 13021/357/1903). Fred was born in Sydney in 1885 to Chinese parents who, when he was very young, took their son back to China. Fred’s father later died and, in 1903, Fred returned to live with other relatives in Sydney. When he arrived, Customs officer J.T.T. Donohoe doubted his identity and would not allow him to land. Donohoe’s suspicions were based on the fact that Fred could not speak any English and his feeling that Fred looked older than the age stated on the birth certificate he presented.

Fred was quickly sent on his way back to China, and it was only through the threat of legal action by his well-respected relatives in Sydney and their payment of a deposit of £100 that Fred was permitted to stop at Brisbane for re-examination. With evidence provided by Fred’s relatives, the Brisbane Collector of Customs, W.H. Irving, was satisfied that he was, in fact, telling the truth. After Atlee Hunt’s approval, Fred was allowed to stay.

This is the copy of Fred Hong See’s birth certificate that he presented to officials on his return to Australia in 1903. It can be found with other correspondence about the case in NAA: BP342/1, 13021/357/1903.

In the decade after the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, the processes for its administration continued to be refined and tightened, primarily to prevent the fraudulent entry of Chinese into Australia. Hunt’s request for the keeping of birth certificate registers came about from a concern that ‘as other channels of fraudulent entry are being blocked, the Chinese will make a determined effort to utilize birth certificates to that end.’

His Customs circular of 1913 set out the details that Customs officers should record to enable correct identification on a person’s return to Australia:

  • name
  • number of birth certificate
  • date of issue
  • date of birth
  • where born
  • date of departure from Australia
  • remarks concerning departure
  • date of return
  • by whom examined, landed or rejected
  • general remarks

The Collectors of Customs responded thus:

  • Victoria reported that had been keeping a register from the beginning of the year (1913), but without the level of detail requested.
  • New South Wales had not been keeping records, but was now ordering a book for the purpose.
  • Western Australia had no special register, but would immediately open one.
  • South Australia said they had not had any need for a register, as there had been no cases of Chinese being admitted on birth certificates there.
  • Tasmania would begin keeping a record, but had only had four cases to date.
  • And the Northern Territory had been keeping record of Chinese arriving on birth certificates since 1911.

It became the practice for birth certificates to be endorsed by Customs officials on a person’s departure. This usually included taking a handprint and attaching a photograph, as well as recording the details in a register. Some people also went through the formality of applying for a CEDT.

The two remaining registers

To my knowledge, only two of the birth certificate registers still exist, those for Queensland and New South Wales. The Queensland register is held in the Brisbane office of the National Archives, and a digital copy is available through RecordSearch:

The first volume, of 16 double pages, has suffered flood damage and can be difficult to read in parts. The second volume, which has 23 double pages, is much more legible. A sample page from the second volume is shown below – this is a left-hand page, with the remainder of the details about each person completed on the corresponding right-hand page.

The single register for New South Wales, held in the National Archives’ Sydney office, is more substantial than those for Queensland, demonstrating the greater amount of travel that occurred from Sydney. The register contains around 150 double pages and includes an alphabetical index at the front. The entries date from 1904 to 1962; those before 1913 were presumably copied from records elsewhere. It is also fragile and difficult to read in places, but it has recently also been digitised and made available through RecordSearch:

The page reproduced below is a left-hand page, with further details about the travels of each person available on the corresponding right-hand page.

Making use of the registers

These registers are valuable sources of information about Chinese Australian families in Queensland and New South Wales, and can provide missing pieces of information for people who did not apply for CEDTs when they travelled overseas (which many Australian-born Chinese did not).

Having them digitised is great, especially for those of us who can’t easily get to the Brisbane or Sydney reading rooms – but what would be even more useful is if the information contained in the registers was in a form that could be searched and sorted. I’m working on a bigger project relating to Chinese families in New South Wales, based around a database of information sourced from marriage and birth records up to 1918. I’m part-way into transcribing relevant details from the published BDM indexes with 1000 entries (out of an estimated 3000–4000) in the database so far!

The information found in the birth certificate registers obviously relates very strongly to this, so I have another crazy plan to also transcribe the information held in the Sydney register. It’s not going to be a quick job – and it’s one that could easily be shared since the New South Wales register is online. So, if you happen to have some spare time and don’t mind deciphering old handwriting, I’d love to hear from you!