Revisiting the Poon Gooeys

In a few weeks I’m heading off to China for the first time two and a half years. I’m going to be doing some ‘fieldwork’, visiting the ancestral homes of some of the people I’m writing about at the moment, as well as giving a paper at the Fourth International Conference of Institutes & Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies (What a mouthful! Here’s a link to the conference website.) The conference is being held at Jinan University and looks to be bringing together a somewhat curious mix of people.

I’m going to be talking about the National Archives’ records on Chinese Australia (see abstract below), and I’ve decided to use the ‘Poon Gooey incident’ of 1911-13 as a case study and an excuse to show off some lovely records. I’ve been doing a little bit of digging, and have a great naturalisation certificate for Poon Gooey’s uncle amongst other things.

I’ve also found a name that I’m happy to call Mrs Poon Gooey (it doesn’t seem quite right that she’s at the heart of the story and doesn’t even get to be called anything but Mrs Poon Gooey!) – she was Ham See or Ham Hop. And I’ve been able to confirm that Poon Gooey was Sze Yap, from Kaiping in fact. I had guessed from Ham See’s name that they were Sze Yap people, but it’s nice to have it confirmed.

My digging has taken me in directions it shouldn’t and I’ve had to be very strict not to get distracted. I could have wasted a lot of time investigating the family of Poon Gooey’s brother, Poon See. He married Ada Wing Yen (nee Siakew), a widow with five children, in 1915. They had several kids of their own, too, and lived at Horsham, Victoria.

I will put up a version of my paper after the conference, but in the meantime, here’s the abstract.

A legacy of ‘White Australia’: Records about Chinese Australians in the National Archives of Australia

The administration of Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act 1901, together with other parts of the ‘White Australia Policy’, left a rich and diverse body of records, now held by the National Archives of Australia. The records document many aspects of the lives of Chinese Australians, such as immigration, travel, business enterprises, political activities and community life. The records give a vivid picture of the experiences of both immigrant and Australian-born Chinese, of individuals, families and communities in Australia and of their ongoing ties to China.

Using specific case studies, this paper will discuss the National Archives of Australia’s holdings on Chinese Australians, particularly those created in the administration of the White Australia Policy. Over the past decade, the National Archives has made its Chinese records increasingly accessible through the publication of two research guides and by ongoing descriptive and digitisation projects. Many thousands of individual records are now available to view through the Archives’ collection database, RecordSearch, providing unprecedented online access.

Greater access to the records hopefully also means greater use. The paper will further explore how the records, a legacy of the discrimination and marginalisation of the ‘White Australia’ years, can be reclaimed by researchers today, to both recover the lives of Chinese Australians in the past, and to provide a more nuanced understanding of the contradictions and complications of Australia’s response to its Chinese population.

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