Tag: China

Hometown Heritage Tour survey results

Earlier in the year I conducted a survey of people who had registered their interest in my Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour. I received 40 responses, which is great! Feedback I’ve received so far about the tour is very positive, and I look forward to putting together a tour that hopefully fulfils what most people would like to get out of it.

One of the survey respondents asked why I was interested in running the tour. Over the past 20-odd years I’ve had contact with many Australians who know little or nothing about their Chinese heritage, often because the social stigma of racial mixing in the era of White Australia resulted in deliberate ‘forgetting’ and hiding of non-European heritage. Others know more, but have never been to China before. The time I’ve been lucky enough to spend in Guangdong has helped me to better understand the historical lives of those who migrated to Australia, the culture and landscape they came from, and the social worlds they inhabited. I’m hoping that the tour will provide others with the same sort of experience and understanding. I also love to travel, and especially love travelling in the weird and wonderful world of south China!

I’m very aware that the itinerary I’m planning, which includes Zhongshan and the Sze Yup counties of Xinhui, Kaiping and Taishan, leaves out some major hometown districts such as Dongguan and Zengcheng in Guangdong and Xiamen (Amoy) in Fujian province. The tour destinations reflect the areas in which I’ve spent most time and where I have contacts. The first tour in March 2016 will be a bit of an experiment, and if things go well I hope to offer more tours in the future (if the demand exists!).

Here’s a summary of the results of the survey. I’ll be working with this in mind as I put together a firm itinerary and program of activities in the next few months.

You can still subscribe for updates about the tour.

What is the main reason for your interest in the tour?
Seventy-five per cent of respondents were descended from a Chinese migrant to Australia or New Zealand, with a further 15 per cent related to someone descended from a Chinese migrant to Australia or New Zealand.

Have you been to mainland China before?
Respondents were divided into three main groups: 45 per cent had lived or travelled in mainland China, 30 per cent had never been to mainland China or Hong Kong, and 25 per cent had been to Hong Kong but not to the mainland.

The tour is currently planned for March 2016, with a possible second tour in November 2016. Which date would suit you best?
Either or both dates suited all respondents. One respondent requested that the tour take place during school holidays, but due to the differences in Australian school holiday dates between the states this may not be possible.

The tour is planned to last 10 days, starting and finishing in Hong Kong. Transfers (ferry, private minibus), accommodation and most meals would be included, as well as entry to sites, talks and workshops. How much would you expect to pay?
Almost 40 per cent respondents felt that between $2000 and $2500 would be the expected cost for the tour, including land transfers, accommodation, most meals, site entry, talks and workshops. Almost equal numbers said they would be prepared to pay up to $3000 or over $3000.

How do you feel about the quality and price of the tour?
Nearly 80 per cent of respondents stated that they would prefer ‘comfortable accommodation, meals and transport at a reasonable cost’, with almost 20 per cent stating that they would prefer basic standards to keep costs as low as possible.

How do you feel about meals and eating on the tour?
Most respondents said that they would like to try local foods and specialities, including eating at street stalls or markets. A smaller number said that they would like to eat local foods, but only in restaurants that met Australian standards. One indicated that they had dietary restrictions.

Would you join the tour by yourself or as part of a group?
Most respondents indicated that they would travel as part of a couple, with friends or family (over 60 per cent). Almost 40 per cent said that they would be travelling alone. I will give the option of sharing accommodation with someone of the same gender, or of paying a single supplement.

What is your level of interest in possible tour destinations and activities?
The most popular activity suggestions were:

  • visiting ancestral villages of early Chinese who migrated to Australia (100 per cent of respondents said ‘definite yes’ or ‘sounds good’)
  • visiting World Heritage-listed diaolou in Kaiping (85 per cent of respondents said ‘definite yes’ or ‘sounds good’)
  • visiting other heritage sites with connections to overseas migration (95 per cent of respondents said ‘definite yes’ or ‘sounds good’)
  • visiting overseas Chinese history museums (over 90 per cent of respondents said ‘definite yes’ or ‘sounds good’)
  • hearing expert talks on overseas Chinese history and heritage (over 95 per cent of respondents said ‘definite yes’ or ‘sounds good’)
  • eating local foods, such as dim sum and cakes (over 95 per cent of respondents said ‘definite yes’ or ‘sounds good’)
  • doing independent activities, such as free time to explore a town or city by yourself (over 80 per cent of respondents said ‘definitely yes’ or ‘ sounds good’)
  • taking evening shopping walks (80 per cent said ‘definitely yes’ or ‘sounds good’).

Other activities were a bit less popular (with between 70 and 80 per cent of respondents who said ‘definitely yes’ or ‘sounds good’): visiting general history museums, introduction to Cantonese language, village cooking classes and village cultural performances.

The least popular activity suggestion was cycling through the countryside between heritage sites (60 per cent of respondents said ‘take it or leave it’ or ‘not interested at all’).

Is there a particular ancestral village or county in Guangdong you would like to visit?
Thirty per cent of respondents said they had a particular village or town they wanted to visit, while nearly 40 per cent said they knew of the county they wanted to visit but not a particular village. The places respondents listed included: Shekki (Zhongshan), Zhuhai, Hoiping (Kaiping), Sunwui (Xinhui), Taishan, Jiangmen, and Amoy. Over 30 per cent didn’t have a particular place they wanted to visit.

Paper Trails: Travels with Anglo-Chinese Australians, 1900–1939

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been awarded the National Archives of Australia’s Ian Maclean Award for 2012. My project is called Paper Trails: Travels with Anglo-Chinese Australians, 1900–1939.

I’m looking to start the project towards the end of the year and will be blogging here about my progress. I’m really looking forward to spending some solid time in the archives again. And to having the time to read and think and explore in a way that’s hard to do when research is squashed in around my day job and family commitments.

Here’s some detail about the project.


The Paper Trails project will demonstrate the possibilities for using new technologies to access and understand archival records and show how archives can reveal the history of marginalised communities from Australia’s past.

Following a prosopographical (collective biography) approach, the project will involve the creation of an online database about 150 Anglo-Chinese Australians, featuring biographical information and details of overseas travel sourced from National Archives records and with links to those records. This database will form the centre of a website which will also include introductory essays, maps and visualisations, case studies, a gallery of archival material and a guide to understanding the records.

This project will investigate the overseas travels of Australians of Anglo-Chinese descent, from the turn of the twentieth century to the outbreak of World War II. It will explore their experience of overseas travel and their negotiation of bureaucratic processes under the Immigration Restriction Act, as well as highlighting the rich and detailed records about ‘non-white’ Australians held in the National Archives collection.

In the early twentieth century, Anglo-Chinese Australians travelled overseas, primarily to Hong Kong and China, on holidays, for education, business and to visit family. Like other ‘non-white’ Australians, they were subject to the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (later the Immigration Act), under which they did not have an automatic right of return to Australia, even though they were Australian-born British subjects who, ethnically, were half-European.

Australia’s early immigration regulations were designed to keep out unwanted ‘non-white’ arrivals, most famously through use of the Dictation Test, and the legislation was not clear on how officials should deal with those who were both Australian-born and of mixed race. Consequently, over the following decades officials developed a set of administrative practices in which their ideas of community belonging and cultural knowledge, as well as race, determined the outcomes of cases involving Anglo-Chinese Australians. The development of these administrative practices was an iterative process, where officials responded to the actions of Chinese and Anglo-Chinese Australians who, in turn, responded to and negotiated changing legislation and government policies.


The project has four primary aims:

  1. to explore the use of new technologies in providing access to archival collections and in creating a platform for innovative research into archival records
  2. to highlight the complex and detailed recordkeeping practices that evolved in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act and demonstrate how these records can be used to uncover biographical and family information about a marginalised group from Australia’s past
  3. to investigate and document the bureaucratic processes used by the Department of External Affairs and the state-based Collectors of Customs in administering the Immigration Restriction Act as it applied to Anglo-Chinese Australians
  4. to tell the stories of Anglo-Chinese Australians who travelled overseas in the early twentieth century, highlighting their ongoing connections to China and the transnational, cross-cultural characteristics of their lives.

IMAGE CREDITS: Anglo-Chinese Pauline Ah Hee and the Choy Hing family before their return to Hong Kong, c. 1905 (NAA: SP244/2, N1950/2/4918)

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.

Discussion on Stan Hunt’s book ‘From Shekki to Sydney’

I’ve already mentioned Stan Hunt’s book From Shekki to Sydney: An Autobiography. Here’s an opportunity to meet the author, editor and publisher.

What: Discussion on Stan Hunt’s book From Shekki to Sydney: An Autobiography
When: Thursday 11 March, 12:15pm
Where: Customs House Library, Circular Quay (Level 2 Meeting Room), Sydney

Blurb: Join Stan Hunt, Diana Giese as editor and Dr Mabel Lee as publisher, to discuss Stan’s new book, From Shekki to Sydney: An Autobiography. It’s an enthralling account of his family story, including his close relationship with his father, and the arrival of his grandfather in Australia in the late 1880s. The book offers a window into vanished worlds such as the villages of interwar southern China and country New South Wales emerging from the Depression. Stan describes setting up a series of successful family businesses in Sydney, as well as contributing to the community through service to Rotary, the Freemasons, the Chung Shan Society and the Australian Chinese Community Association.

Stan will discuss the book with Diana Giese at a free event at Customs House Library, Circular Quay (Level 2 Meeting Room), from 12.15–1.00pm on Thursday 11 March 2010.

Diana Giese has worked with Chinese Australian communities countrywide to produce the Post-War Chinese Australians project for the National Library of Australia, and have written books in the field including Astronauts, Lost Souls and Dragons (University of Queensland Press) and Beyond Chinatown (National Library of Australia). Diana Giese has collaborated on life story books with people of Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian, German, Austrian and Indian background, as well as Stan.

Dr Mabel Lee set up and runs the independent publisher Wild Peony, showcasing new writing and arts, focusing on Chinese-related themes. She has facilitated the careers of many of the most celebrated Chinese writers, artists and performers, including 2000 Nobel Prize-winner Gao Xingjian, whose work she translates. Her academic research is on modern Chinese intellectual history and literature.

Back to school

With school going back this week, here’s an article from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1911 about the Anglo-Chinese and Chinese pupils at the Waterloo public school in Sydney.

It mentions a recently arrived Chinese boy, son of a local butcher – one of hundreds of Chinese-born children of men living in Australia who came to Australia in the early decades of the 20th century to attend school. Most of the children who came were boys. Some, like the boy mentioned in the article, had no English at all. Others had already attended English school in China (this was a later requirement of their being allowed into Australia to study).

The National Archives of Australia holds files on the Chinese students in series A1. You can search for them in RecordSearch using a name, or keywords like ‘Chinese student’, ‘student passport’. A number of them are already digitised, so you can see what sorts of things are in them.

The files generally contain a Chinese student passport, which has a photograph and details in both Chinese and English – including name, date and place of birth, school attended, person responsible for the student. There are also usually school reports and other correspondence about the student’s time in Australia.

Willie Wahlook Lee's Chinese student passport, 1923

The image above is from the Chinese student passport of Willie Wahlook Lee, who attended the Crown Street Public School in Sydney between 1923 and 1926. It is found in NAA: A1, 1923/28341 and the whole file is digitised.

Sometimes the student was allowed to remain in Australia beyond the term of their studies, in which case the file will include more information. It may also then not appear in a search in A1 under ‘student passport’ – in such cases a search by name is more likely to get results. The National Archives might also hold other records, such as those created by the Collectors of Customs in the states, about the students.

The files can be a useful way of finding information about the Chinese name and origin (in characters) of people or families already living in Australia.

Chinese children – At public schools –Waterloo teachers’ troubles

During his visit to the Waterloo Public School on Friday Mr. Beeby (Minister for Education) was struck with the number of enrolled children who had English mothers and Chinese fathers. Surrounding the school are numerous Chinese dwellings. Some of the inhabitants have brought out their wives from China, but others are living with Englishwomen, and the offspring of the latter, the schoolmaster states, prove to be some of the brightest and most intelligent children in the school. In their home life and surroundings these children have a splendid opportunity of learning the Chinese as well as the English language, but in nearly every case they turn from the Chinese, and openly express a desire to become apt pupils in English.

The teachers in the same school have amongst their pupils one or two full-blooded Chinese children, and the headmaster has a problem to solve in trying to impart knowledge to these.

A Chinese boy of 14 years was presented to Mr. Beeby on Friday as an example of what the teaching staff had to content with. He is a fine sturdy boy, with intelligent features, and arrived from China two months ago. He is the son of a local Chinese butcher, and, like his mother and father, is unable to speak a word of English. But he proudly takes his place daily in the school among the infants of six and seven years, and the headmistress of the department is trying hard to impart to him the rudiments of English. The teacher told the Minister on Friday that the boy could not speak a word of English, ‘and of course, I can’t speak Chinese,’ she added. The Minister was interested, but puzzled. However, the headmistress of the infants is going to solve the problem herself. She writes words of two or three letters on the board, and the pupil copies them into his exercise book, and does it too in a very neat way: but he cannot read what he has written. The teachers hope that by mixing in with the other children the newcomer from China will gradually pick up the English language.

Sydney Morning Herald, 5 June 1911

Who is an Australian? (c.1908)

For the past couple of years I have been researching, on and off, the story behind the 1908 High Court case Potter v. Minahan – a case which revolved around the question of exactly who could be an Australian. A short article about the case and my research has just been published in in the National Archives of Australia’s Memento magazine, issue 38, 2010, pp. 16–18. You can download the whole issue as a pdf (4mb), or just read my article below.

It seems somehow fitting (although coincidental) that I’m posting this on Australia Day. Not only does Potter v. Minahan centre on the idea of who belongs as Australian, it was on 26 January 1908 that James Minahan arrived in Melbourne (via Sydney) from Hong Kong on the S.S. Wollowra. Instead of being allowed to land, and to meet the friends of his father’s who had come to collect him from the ship, Minahan was held on board until an interpreter could be arranged so that Customs officers could interview him. Customs decided that Minahan could not land in Melbourne, and he was sent back to Sydney so that he could be deported back to China.

But that didn’t end up happening either…

Aussie lad or Chinese scholar?

A researcher’s journey through the archives can lead to unexpected discoveries and unknown places. But what happens when a tantalising archival trail arrives at a dead end? Dr Kate Bagnall shares an unsolved archival mystery she uncovered while researching Australia’s historical connections to China.

In the winter of 1882, the parents of five-year-old Jimmie Minahan packed up their home in the small mining settlement of Indigo in northern Victoria and made their way south to Melbourne. Jimmie had been born at the lying-in hospital in Melbourne to 17-year-old Winifred Minahan in October 1876. Winifred was also Melbourne-born, the eldest daughter of immigrant Irish parents. Jimmie’s birth registration made no record of his father’s name, for his parents weren’t married, but he did not grow up fatherless. Soon after Jimmie’s birth, his father, Chinese storekeeper Cheong Ming, took Winifred and the baby back to their home in Indigo. Until the age of five this was the only home Jimmie knew.

The family’s return to Melbourne in 1882 was the first part of a journey that would see members of the small family separated forever. Cheong Ming had become ill and wished to return to China to recuperate, taking young Jimmie with him to receive a Chinese education. Winifred was not to accompany them, and spent her final weeks with Jimmie in Melbourne as Cheong Ming made preparations for the longer journey ahead. Having lost a baby daughter to severe bronchitis only months earlier, Winifred would likely have been saddened by the departure of her little boy – perhaps comforted by the thought that he would return to Australia once his father had recovered.

The father and son’s destination was Cheong Ming’s home village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. From Melbourne, the pair travelled to Hong Kong, then by boat to the district capital of Jiangmen, and from there to the village itself. The village name as recorded in Australian court records was Shek Quey Lee. It was the first time that Cheong Ming had returned home since he left for Australia in the early 1860s, but he quickly settled back to village life, taking on the role of local schoolmaster. The process of adjustment was more difficult for young Jimmie, who later described his tears as his father shaved his head according to Chinese fashion and as he encountered the ‘foreign devil boy’ taunts of his schoolmates.

From gum trees to Confucian classics

As time passed, Cheong Ming’s health did not improve and he and Jimmie remained living in Shek Quey Lee. They lost touch with Winifred, and Jimmie’s memories of his mother gradually faded. The little Australian lad, raised in the bush with red dirt and gum trees, became a Chinese boy, schooled in Confucian classics and fluent only in his father’s native tongue.

The Australian part of the story of Cheong Ming and Jimmie could well have ended there, as it did for many Chinese who chose to return to China after trying their luck in the Australian colonies during the second half of the nineteenth century. But when Cheong Ming left Australia, he had maintained a share in the business he owned at Indigo and his partner Chin Shing regularly remitted a share of the profits to China. Cheong Ming had also instilled in his son the belief that one day he should return to Australia, indeed that it was his birthright, to take up his father’s business and to become a teacher of Chinese children in the colonies. After Cheong Ming’s death in about 1896, young Jimmie, now aged 20 and known by the Chinese name of Ying Coon, decided to honour his father’s wishes. He continued to study, and attempted the gruelling imperial examinations in the provincial capital of Guangzhou three times – all unsuccessfully. After his third failure, he made the decision to return to his country of birth. He later said that he ‘always wanted to return to Australia.’

The National Archives holds two files which document the story of James Minahan’s return to Australia in January 1908 and the events which followed. In the time between his departure as a five-year-old boy and his return as a man of 31, the Australian colonies had federated and the attitude towards non-white immigrants, particularly Chinese, had hardened. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and its infamous dictation test set the tone with which Chinese arrivals to Australia were met – even those of long-term Australian residence, of Australian birth or those with part-white heritage. When he landed in Australia, James Minahan’s identity was questioned by Customs officials and he was made to sit the dictation test, which he failed, resulting in his arrest and prosecution as a prohibited immigrant.

Landmark court case

After a decision in his favour was granted in the Victorian lower courts, the Commonwealth appealed to the High Court. There, in a landmark decision, the High Court again ruled in Minahan’s favour. The case Potter v. Minahan continues to be cited in court judgements 100 years later.

The two files in the National Archives – one created by the Department of External Affairs (which administered the Immigration Restriction Act) and one created by the High Court – provide a fascinating background to the complex legal discussions found in the judgements of the five justices of the High Court. The case before the High Court centred around the idea of who exactly was an immigrant, and who could be considered a member of the Australian community. What did the framers of the Australian Constitution envisage when they gave the new Commonwealth powers over immigration? Did immigration simply mean the process of entering the country, or were there subtleties to its meaning and if so, what were they? Could a man, both a British subject by birth and the son of a British subject, be considered an immigrant (and, therefore a prohibited immigrant) when returning to Australia, the land of his birth?

To explore these issues within Minahan’s case, the courts heard evidence from James Minahan himself, as well as from a range of witnesses, many of whom were Chinese and who had known Cheong Ming, Winifred and their son in Victoria or had contact with father and son in China. Their testimony painted a picture of their lives, first in Indigo and then in Shek Quey Lee, detailing the ongoing connections maintained by many Chinese living in Australia, both with kin in Australia and at home in China. There was Deung Garng, a French polisher and kinsman working in Melbourne, whom father and son first met on their return to the village; and Ah Chew, a cabinetmaker from Carlton, who had been at the village school with Minahan and had attended Cheong Ming’s funeral. Dern Hoy, another Melbourne French polisher, had met father and son before they left for China in 1882 and had also seen Minahan in the village two years earlier and spoken with him at length about what life was like in Australia.

Then there were those whose testimony told of the family’s early life in Victoria, when Minahan was still a small boy. Cheong Ming’s business partner at Indigo, Chin Shing, told what he knew of the ‘English woman’ who lived with Cheong Ming and had his child. Chan Num, a Melbourne tobacco dealer, who employed Winifred Minahan’s younger sister as a nursemaid, said Winifred and her son had once stayed with him at Beechworth, Victoria. Ching Kay, formerly of Hang Yick & Co. in Melbourne, had done business with Cheong Ming and recalled the small boy who called Cheong Ming ‘papa’ and ‘Minnie’ Minahan ‘ma’.

James Minahan vanishes

Among all the detail in the court records and the departmental file on Minahan’s case, however, there is no clue to suggest what James Minahan did after the High Court ruled in his favour. After working all those years to gain an education, so that he could teach Chinese children in Australia, is that what he ended up doing? Or did he return to Indigo to work in the business he had inherited? Or did he decide, given the unhappy reception he had received in Australia, that he would return once again to build a life in China?

With the archives proving silent on Minahan’s fate, perhaps his hometowns of Indigo and Shek Quey Lee might provide some clues. A visit to Chiltern in northern Victoria revealed that the old mining settlements at Indigo no longer existed, but led eventually to contact with a descendent of Cheong Ming’s business partner, Chin Shing. She revealed that Chin Shing had continued to run the business at Indigo with his Anglo-Chinese wife into the early decades of the twentieth century. From what she knew, it seems that Minahan had not returned to make a life for himself there.

What then of the village Shek Quey Lee, described as being 20 li (Chinese miles) from the district capital of Jiangmen? Had Minahan returned to that home? A preliminary research trip to the area in the northern spring of 2009 provided some tantalising clues – a village now written as Shiquli, whose name in the local dialect is consistent with the earlier anglicised name Shek Quey Lee, and the revelation that the same village has had a long history of migration to Australia. What remains now is to continue following the leads in the archival trail, using details from Australian records about the village and its men, together with Chinese village records and the memories of local people, to establish the fate of James Minahan, the young man who had said he ‘always wanted to return to Australia’.

US Army topographic maps of Guangdong

The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas, has a great collection of online maps of China, both current and historical.

One of the real treasures is the China – Topographic Maps [Scale 1:250,000] (China Series) U.S. Army Map Service, Series L500, dating from 1954. Using a map of the whole of China as a guide, you can click to bring up very detailed maps of particular regions. Place names are given in modified Wade-Giles with some Chinese characters (and it’s kinda fun spotting familiar places – a detail map of Macau, for instance, points past the Portas do Cerco to ‘Chi-Ta 5 km’, which would be Jida, now a bustling and ever-growing part of Zhuhai city).

The Chung Shan map (NF-49/8 on the big plan, and warning, it’s a big file: 6.4mb), shows the western part of the Pearl River Delta, from Kaiping in the west to the border with Hong Kong in the east, from Panyu in the north to Macau in the south. You can see the level of detail provided on the map below.

The maps that are likely to be useful for those interested in Chinese Australian history are the following:


    (6.2 MB) [Guangzhou]


    (3.1 MB) [detail map of Guangzhou city]


    (6.4 MB) [western Pearl River Delta]


    (3.9 MB) [detail map of Macau city]

NF 49-12 CH’IH-CH’I

    (4.8 MB) [most southerly bits of Guangdong and lots of sea]


    (6.7 MB) [east of GZ and north of HK]


    (5.1 MB) [Hong Kong region]


    (3.5 MB) [detail map of Hong Kong city]

The other very cool thing about these maps is that they correspond to the map references in the Chinese Villages Database. So, for instance, the villages database gives the map reference ‘GQ 4394’ for Shek Kay Chun in Chung Shan (Shiqi in Zhongshan). This means you have to look for the area marked as GQ, find line no. 4 and go in 3/10 of the way to line no. 5, then find line 9 and go 4/10 of the way to line no. 0. A somewhat daggy illustration of how to do this is below (click on the image to get the full-size version). There you can see, circled in blue is Shekki.

Transnational ties

An article of mine has just come out in a new volume called Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World, edited by Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott and published by ANU E Press. The book is the result of a great conference, Transnational lives/Biography across borders, that was held at the Humanities Research Centre at the ANU in July 2006.

My article, ‘A journey of love: Agnes Breuer’s sojourn in 1930s China’ explores a ‘scandal’ involving a young white Queensland woman, Agnes Breuer, who went to China with her Chinese husband in the early 1930s. (Their picture, together with their baby son, is featured on the front cover of the book.)

The couple had married contrary to the wishes of both their families, and Agnes found a very cold reception from her father-in-law on her arrival in China. Wishing to return to Australia, but with an infant son to look after, Agnes’ plight was exaggerated to the Salvation Army in Hong Kong – and she was ‘rescued’ under dramatic circumstances.

I first came across the story in John Sleeman’s White China, but he doesn’t mention Agnes Breuer’s name, or that of her husband, except as ‘Low Mun’. It took a bit of lateral thinking and a ship’s passenger list to find the family’s real name – Lum Mow. Sleeman had referred to a statement given by Agnes to Australian Customs officers when she returned to Australia, so I figured that there had to be some material in the National Archives about it all. More lateral thinking uncovered a file about her husband, known to most in Australia as William Lum Mow – but the file was listed under his Chinese name, Lum Wie. It was one of those lovely fat departmental files that contains correspondence and news clippings and all sorts of treasures.

More pieces of the puzzle fell into place when I managed to track down both Agnes Breuer’s granddaughter and William Lum Mow’s neice, who had themselves only recently made contact. Much thanks therefore has to go to Liz McNamee and Jenny Showyin for their generosity in sharing what they knew about the story of Agnes and William. Of particular value to me were the photographs, letters and other documents of Agnes Breuer’s that her granddaughter still had. The photographs are particularly wonderful, with a handful of pictures taken in China in 1932 during Agnes’ trip and many more of Agnes and William and their friends in and around Townsville in 1931. A detail from one of my favourites of Agnes and William is below.

Sidney Gamble China photographs online

The Sidney D Gamble photograph collection, held by Duke University, is available online. Here’s a description from the site:

From 1908 to 1932, Sidney Gamble (1890-1968) visited China four times, traveling throughout the country to collect data for social-economic surveys and to photograph urban and rural life, public events, architecture, religious statuary, and the countryside. A sociologist, renowned China scholar, and avid amateur photographer, Gamble used some of the pictures to illustrate his monographs. The Sidney D. Gamble Photographs digital collection marks the first comprehensive public presentation of this large body of work that includes photographs of Korea, Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco, and Russia.

There are images from Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong and Fujian. Also a nifty interactive map.

As I was looking through the Guangdong photos, my eye was particularly taken by this image of a rickshaw driver in a fantastic raincoat. It was taken between 1917 and 1919 in Canton.

It reminded me that on one trip to China, I spent some time exploring the ‘antique’ furniture markets in Tanzhou, Zhongshan, just outside of Zhuhai. (The no. 31 bus from Zhuhai went there.) The markets are a mixture of small shops/factories that produce ‘antique’ Chinese furniture and other shops that have genuinely old stuff. These raincoats were hanging outside up outside one little place – one is adult-sized and the other child-sized.