Tag: family history

So you think your ancestor might come from Shunde?

Over the past few years, I’ve been contacted by a number of family historians who believe that their Chinese ancestor came from Shunde, Guangdong. While this is entirely possible, this post issues a word of warning to those who might be relying on a family tree from Ancestry.com as the source of this information.

The Chinese Exchange (Num Pon Soon Society Building), Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1863, State Library of Victoria, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/74198

The district of Shunde (順德), or Shuntak in Cantonese, is located directly south of the provincial capital of Guangzhou (廣州, Canton, C: Kwangchow) and today is part of the city of Foshan (佛山, C: Fatshan). Together with Nanhai (南海, C: Namhoi) and Panyu (番禺, C: Punyu), Shunde was one of the Three Counties or Sam Yup (三邑, M: Sanyi), from where many early Cantonese emigrants left for destinations in South-East Asia and around the Pacific, including the Australian colonies.

Shunde was known for its silk production and for its wealth, and Sam Yup people were dominant among the merchants of 19th-century overseas Chinese communities. Those of you familiar with Melbourne’s Chinatown might know of the historic Num Pon Soon Society Building in Little Bourke Street – the ‘Soon’ in ‘Num Pon Soon’ refers to the ‘Shun’ (順) in Shunde. The Num Pon Soon Society (南番順公司 or 會館) was the native place association for people from the Sam Yup.

Given the numbers of Sam Yup men in the Australian colonies, we would expect there to be some descendants in Australia today. But here’s where I think some family historians might be coming unstuck re Shunde in their search for their ancestors’ Chinese origins.

We know that many historical records give the place of origin of Chinese immigrants as ‘Canton’ – a somewhat vague term that could mean either the city of Guangzhou or the province of Guangdong (廣東, C: Kwangtung).

However, Ancestry.com.au, in their standardised list of place names, suggests ‘Canton’ as a city that is part of ‘Shunde’, as shown in the image below: ‘Canton, Shunde, Guangdong, China’. This follows a similar hierarchical format as other places, where it lists City, County, State, Country, or suchlike.

This isn’t such an issue when searching for digitised records, but when you create a family tree and enter ‘Canton, China’ as a place (of birth, for example,) Ancestry prompts you to use their standardised place name, as in the image below.

If you choose this standardised version of the place name, and then view the person’s LifeStory, the place is then given as ‘Guangzhou, Guangdong, China’, as in the second image below.

So, through this process, the vague historical place name ‘Canton, China’ (probably meaning the province) becomes translated to the much more precise place names of Guangzhou (city) and Shunde (county). It is then very easy for an unsuspecting family historian to come across this information and assume that these details are correct, and that the person came from Shunde and/or Guangzhou, when they might have actually come from a very different part of the province of Guangdong.

The moral of my story is the usual one – always check the original source of the information! And unless there is concrete evidence to support it (like a headstone with Chinese characters), I would always be a bit suspicious of an Acnestry family tree or recent family history that says a Chinese ancestor was born in Guangzhou or Shunde.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Cantonese origins of Australia’s early Chinese communities, have a look at my short article ‘Cantonese connections: The origins of Australia’s early Chinese migrants’ (Traces, issue 6, 
pp. 43–45), which gives a brief overview and includes a glossary of place names. You might also like to read my 2017 blog post on ‘Finding your Chinese roots‘, which includes a map of the Pearl River Delta.

Uncovering the stories of Chinese Australian families

Video, transcript and slides of a talk on ‘Uncovering the stories of Chinese Australian families’, presented at Libraries Tasmania in Hobart on 8 August 2023

When I began researching the history of Chinese Australian families more than two decades ago, the sources I first came across, including accounts by politicians and journalists, focused on an absence of ‘real’ family life among the colonial Chinese population.

Despite this, other sources provided tantalising hints at the presence of a small number of Chinese women as well as a significant number of families made up of a Chinese father and white mother.

In this talk, I share how I, alongside a growing number of family historians, have gone about uncovering the stories of Chinese Australian families and consider how their transnational lives are an important part of the history of connection between China and Australia.

You can watch the video, or read the text of my presentation below.


Video

Video also available on the Libraries Tasmania YouTube channel, and audio only is available on the Libraries Tasmania SoundCloud.


Transcript and slides

Over the past couple of decades, a number of Australian and New Zealand writers have produced works of historical fiction featuring romances between white women and Chinese men.

One of the best known is the ongoing and somewhat illicit liaison between Kerry Greenwood’s lady detective, Phryne Fisher, and Lin Chung, the Cambridge-educated son of an elite Victorian Chinese family of silk merchants, whose progenitor had first arrived in Australia with the gold rushes.

Lin Chung first appears in the seventh book in the Phryne Fisher series, Ruddy Gore, published in 1995, and while he is an intermittent character across the two dozen novels, he – along with a string of other lovers – is central to the portrayal of Phryne’s liberal attitude towards life and obvious pleasure in flaunting the social mores of respectable 1920s Melbourne.

A few other examples are worth mentioning, too.

There’s Neridah Newton’s The Lambing Flat, published in 2003, which won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Author in 2002. It follows the intertwined lives of Ella, born and bred on a Queensland cattle station, and Lok, who arrives in Australia as a boy and experiences the violence of the Lambing Flat anti-Chinese riots of 1861, before heading north to Queensland. He finds work on Ella’s father’s property, and the love story progresses from there.

There’s also As the Earth Turns Silver, by New Zealand author Alison Wong, which won the Janet Frame Fiction Award in 2009. Set against the backdrop of racist white working-class Wellington in the early twentieth century, the book tells the ultimately tragic story of a secret love affair between widow and mother of two, Katherine McKechnie, and Wong Chung-yung, a greengrocer.

Then there’s Deborah O’Brien’s Mr Chen’s Emporium, and its sequel The Jade Widow, which are aimed more at the ‘book club’ market. Mr Chen’s Emporium plots a fairly predictable romantic path to the marriage of Amy Duncan and Charles Chen in a small New South Wales goldfields town in the 1870s – and their relationships, once again, ends tragically. While not great literature, Mr Chen’s Emporium is nonetheless pretty spot-on with its history.

As a historian I’ve spent much of my career looking into the lives of white women and Chinese men who formed intimate relationships in the past, women and men like the protagonists in these novels.

This research has been part of my broader interest in the histories of women, children and families of Australasia’s early Chinese communities – and a caveat here, the ‘Chinese Australian families’ I’ll be talking about today are predominantly those made up of a white mother and Chinese father.

So, it interests me very much to see stories of Chinese-European couples being told again through fiction in the twenty-first century, in television as well as the novels I’ve mentioned – some of you might have watched, for example, the 2021 SBS mini-series New Gold Mountain, which touches on the tangled lives of Chinese men and white women on the Victorian goldfields.

I say ‘again’ because more than a century ago, in the 1880s and 1890s, intimate relationships between white women and Chinese men were not an uncommon subject in popular Australian fiction.

Typified by Edward Dyson’s ‘Mr and Mrs Sin Fat’, published in the Bulletin in 1888, or William Lane’s novella ‘White or Yellow? The Race War of 1908AD’, published as a serial in the Boomerang in 1887, late nineteenth-century stories tell a very different tale of interracial relationships, of their dangers on a personal and societal level. Such stories both drew on and fed accounts that appeared in popular newspapers such as the notoriously salacious Truth.

I want to suggest, however, that the telling of these two very different narratives of love and sex across racial boundaries have something very much in common. And that is that their meaning, their power as stories, comes from their acknowledgement of not just the possibility, but the reality, of intimate relationships between white women and Chinese men in Australia and New Zealand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The scare power of stories like those published in the Bulletin and the Boomerang came from an understanding that all around the Australasian colonies white women and Chinese men were getting together. Yes, in opium dens and brothels, but also through contacts at church, at the store, across the threshold of the home, in the neighbourhood. These stories presented a threatening future of racial mixing in Australia that was made more real by the presence of mixed-race couples and their mixed-race children in colonial communities – they were simply there.

Estimates carefully calculated by historians like myself put the number of legal marriages between Chinese men and white women in the Australasian colonies in the nineteenth century in the thousands – but of course there were many other relationships not formalised through marriage and many children born out of wedlock.

While official statistics are unreliable in giving the true number of children born to white mothers and Chinese fathers, they do give some indication of their significance in the Chinese Australian population overall.

Here, for example, is a breakdown of the birthplaces of Chinese people in New South Wales in 1901, where you can see (in blue) that a total of 1,223 were Australian born (in New South Wales and other Australian states), and of them 1,028 – about 9% of the total Chinese population – were so-called ‘half-castes’, which in this case meant people of mixed white and Chinese heritage.

What about Tasmania, I hear you say!

Looking at 1901 again, the Chinese population of Tasmania was 609, of whom 103 – or about 17% – were of mixed Chinese-European parentage.

Over the course of the twentieth century, though, the obvious presence of Chinese-European couples and their families faded for various reasons – within families themselves, in popular memory, and in historical accounts. The perception that lingered was that interracial relationships between white women and Chinese men were bound up with prostitution, alcoholism, opium addiction and so on, and that only ‘a few illiterate Irish girls’ were desperate enough to marry themselves to Chinese men.

What was forgotten were the thousands of Chinese-European couples who, mostly unremarkably, met, formed relationships of different kinds (for shorter or longer periods of time), had children, and raised them together or apart.

Families like that of Hannah Maria Mason, who was born in Launceston in 1844, and her Amoy-born husband, William Edward Oram Chi.

Hannah and William married in the Wesleyan Parsonage at Newtown, Sydney, in 1865, four years after William was baptised as a Christian. After the stillbirth of their first child in 1866, Hannah and William went on to have another son and five daughters. William was naturalised as a British subject in 1868 and the family became part of the community of Scone, in central New South Wales, where they made their home.

It has only really been in this new century, over the past 25 years or so, that early Chinese-European families like the Chis have been remembered and recognised on a broader scale. The historical novels I mentioned are one manifestation of this.

Alongside the work of academic historians like myself, it has largely been the growing interest in family history that has shifted our understanding, as family researchers have pieced together often-hidden parts of their own histories.

These same family historians, and local and community historians, are increasingly visible online, creating their own blogs and websites, making family trees in Ancestry.com, and participating in family history forums and Facebook groups. They are publishing memoirs and family histories, they are presenting at history conferences, and they are collaborating with researchers in universities and GLAM organisations, particularly museums.

If you’re an avid viewer, you might also have noticed stories of Chinese-European families pop up in the television series Who Do You Think You Are?

In 2018, there was the story of actor John Jarratt’s 2 x great grandparents, Martha Hamilton and Ah Yot, who lived at a little place called Jembaicumbene on the Braidwood goldfields in New South Wales, and more recently, in 2021, there was the story of musician Jeff Fatt’s 2 x great grandparents, Elizabeth Wright and Lee Young, who lived at Ararat and Ballarat on the Victorian goldfields.

When I first began researching Chinese-European couples back in the late 1990s, the most common question I was asked about my work was ‘why?’ In particular, ‘why did these white women choose Chinese partners? – the implication being a slightly different question, I think, and that was ‘Wasn’t there anyone better (i.e. white) for them to marry?’

The decisions made by mixed-race couples in their choice of partner can seem extraordinary for their time, but they may in fact have been very simple ones to make, based around love, sexual attraction, the desire for companionship, or due to circumstance, convenience, or economics.

Despite some failings in historical accuracy, one of the things I like most about seeing Chinese-European relationships portrayed in contemporary fiction is the way that fiction can present historical possibilities that, it seems, are still often hard for many of us to imagine.

Once you start looking for it, though, evidence of Chinese-European couples and families is abundant and, with the digitisation of more and more historical materials, that evidence is increasingly easy to find and access. The historical newspapers available through Trove, from the National Library, are a particularly rich source for Chinese Australian family history, and one that I didn’t have when I started my research way back when!

Here, for instance, is a graph of references to the term ‘half-caste Chinese’ in the digitised newspapers in Trove for the period from 1860 to 1920, created using a nifty app called QueryPic, created by digital historian Tim Sherratt. The articles that come up through this search range from invectives in major city newspapers about opium and smallpox and ‘the Chinese Question’, to reports in small country newspapers on all manner of moments in the everyday lives of Chinese Australian families and individuals.

As a historian, I’m lucky that race was mentioned in such articles, as it marks these articles as immediately of interest to me. But, of course, personal names can also be traced through time in the newspapers, in a way that was near impossible before.

Trove, and its New Zealand counterpart Papers Past, give us the ability to easily uncover small stories of ordinary lives and this helps break through a barrier in thinking about the prevalence and place of Chinese-European couples and families in colonial Australasia.

Our understanding of the history of Chinese Australian families has come a long way in the past twenty-five years.

When I started my research in 1998, the available historical literature said little that was of help to me about Chinese Australian family life, particularly in understanding these families within the context of Chinese migration.

Most histories overlooked the presence of migrant Chinese women and their daughters in colonial and post-Federation Australasia, and those few that discussed Chinese-European families in any detail framed their lives as stories of ‘pioneers’ or of ‘assimilation – unusual exceptions to the dominant story of the sojourning gold-seeker living a lonely life, working to make his fortune and return home to China.

Many Chinese Australian family histories are easily slotted into these sorts of narratives, and it can make sense to tell them in this way – particularly for descendants, community activists, and historians of many kinds struggling to assert Chinese people into a national story that still remains one predominantly about white people. They are keen to stress how people of Chinese heritage, whether migrant or Australian born, have contributed to the building of this nation particularly through agriculture, mining, and business.

However, when I started looking closely into the lives of Chinese-European couples and their children, the pioneer or assimilationist frameworks did not fit so well with evidence I found about the mixing of language and cultural traditions within the home, and about the ongoing connections mixed families fostered and maintained with local Chinese communities and with China itself.

For example, the Australian-born mixed-race daughters of Chinese settlers commonly married migrant Chinese men, sometimes men as old as their own fathers, creating networks of kinship ties and often drawing young Australian-born women towards their Chinese, rather than European, heritage.

This picture, for example, shows Emma Lee Young with her husband, the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack, and four of their children – Elizabeth, Joseph, Laura and Josiah, who born between 1886 and 1892. As featured in Who Do You Think You Are?, Emma was Purple Wiggle Jeff Fatt’s great-grandmother.

She was born in Ararat, Victoria, in 1865, and at the age of 20 married China-born Joseph Tear Tack, who was about 17 years her senior. With Joseph’s church work, the family moved from Ararat in Victoria to the Inverell district in New South Wales, and then to Darwin and eventually to Cairns.

Numbers of Chinese-European children were taken or sent to China to help them to ‘become Chinese’ by receiving a Chinese education and/or being raised within their extended Chinese families.

White wives, too, went to China, where some encountered for the first time the unhappy reality that they were not their husband’s only wife – for according to Chinese custom, men were able to take multiple wives and concubines. Other white wives said goodbye to children and husbands who left for China and never returned.

These practices didn’t fit neatly with the idea that Chinese men who formed relationships with white women, who fathered mixed-race children, were simply assimilating, turning their backs on their own ancestry and heritage and abandoning an identity as Chinese for themselves and their children – even when it might have seemed on the surface that that’s what they were doing.

Quong Tart, the well-known Sydney tea merchant, shown here with his wife Margaret and their three oldest children in Hong Kong in 1894, is an interesting example of this.

We know Quong Tart best as the dapper businessman and philanthropist, anti-opium campaigner and friend to Sydney’s elite (and coincidentally, my great-grandfather, Harry Bagnall), the beloved husband of Lancashire-born Margaret (née Scarlett) and father to a brood of handsome children who were educated at some of Sydney’s finest private schools.

Yet Quong Tart’s business interests were reliant on ongoing contacts with Hong Kong and China, and it seems he remained close to his family, returning to China three times, including in 1894 to introduce his young family to his elderly mother. Research by Chinese historian, Mei Weiqiang, and information gathered within the family, also suggests that Quong Tart was married by proxy, in absentia, to a Chinese woman and that one, perhaps, two sons were adopted to carry on his name in his hometown in Toishan.

How to reconcile all this in a man known as the ultimate ‘assimilated’ Chinese?

An article by US historian Adam McKeown, published in 1999 (nearly 25 years ago now!), on ‘Transnational Chinese Families and Chinese Exclusion‘, suggested to me that there was an alternative way of viewing these relationships, an alternative explanation for why Chinese men ‘outmarried’ (that is, partnered with non-Chinese women), and a real way of understanding these families within the context of Chinese migration.

McKeown was among a number of scholars who have outlined the family strategies used by Cantonese in the sending districts of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province in southern China, from where most nineteenth-century Chinese migration took place.

Central to the Cantonese family was the patriline, the ongoing line of descent from father to son, father to son.

Cantonese families in the sending districts of the Pearl River Delta undertook economic strategies to ensure their survival and prosperity – such as establishing sons in different occupations or sending them to different overseas locations, such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada. They also developed strategies to ensure the continuation of the family line when more usual patterns of family formation were not possible due to the often long absences of men overseas.

Most common was the ‘split’ family, where a man lived overseas for shorter or longer periods, while his wife remained at home in his ancestral village, often living with her in-laws or other members of her husband’s family. When a man had left unmarried and was not easily able to return, he could be married by proxy in absentia to a woman who then took up residence in her parents-in-law’s home. Sons could be adopted to ensure the patriline continued, even if husband and wife never met due to his continued residence overseas.

Non-Chinese women were drawn into this when they formed relationships with Chinese men – and it was not uncommon for Chinese men to already have a wife, and sometimes children, at home in China when they formed relationships overseas.

Chinese families could be opposed to men taking foreign wives, out of fear that his interests and energies would be redirected away from the ancestral home and his filial obligations there. (In the early decades of the twentieth century, there were also warnings by Chinese community leaders overseas against relationships with non-Chinese women, fearing that patriotic sentiments towards a new China might dissipate).

But children born to non-Chinese women in places like Australia and New Zealand, Hawaii, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and Peru still counted as ‘Chinese’ and as part of their Chinese families. Their paternity (biological or adoptive), not their maternity, mattered. The evidence for this is in the number of children of mixed race who went to China, for a period of education or more permanently, a practice that was happening in the Australian colonies from early as the late 1850s.

The National Archives of Australia holds thousands of documents that trace the journeys of young Australians of Chinese and part-Chinese heritage to China and back over the early decades of the twentieth century – after the introduction of the federal Immigration Restriction Act in 1901. Included among those who went to China were a small number of children of mixed Chinese-Aboriginal heritage, as well as a few white stepchildren of Chinese men.

You might, for instance, have heard of Tasmanian Senator Thomas Bakhap – the son of Margaret Hogan and stepson of Gee Bak Hap of Lottah in north-eastern Tasmania. There is debate about whether Thomas Bakhap had Chinese heritage or not, but he became fluent in Cantonese and, according to Adrienne Petty, ‘had spent several years in China, some as a young child and later in his early teens’ (‘Deconstructing the Chinese Sojourner: Case Studies of Early Chinese Migrants to Tasmania’, PhD thesis, UTAS, 2009, p. 124).

Before I conclude, I’d like to share one more family story, that of the Gan family, pictured here in Melbourne in 1917. There is Edward Chung Ah Gan, usually known as ‘Teddy Ah Gan’, who was naturalised as a British subject in Tasmania in 1891, his Victorian-born wife, Annie (née Harris), and their four children – Dorothy, George, Ruby Elizabeth and Frederick.

The family left Australia for Hong Kong in 1917, where Teddy found work at the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Company, and Annie was busy with her growing family – she gave birth to three more children in Hong Kong. In 1925 and again in 1933, the family attempted to return to Australia, but this request was denied due to Teddy’s extended absence from the Commonwealth, and there is nothing on file to indicate that they ever did come home.

Placing the history of Chinese-European families within a transnational framework, like that suggested by McKeown’s ‘transnational overseas Chinese family’, allows us to see the parts of the story that took place beyond Australian shores.

Chinese migration to Australia wasn’t a simple one-way trip – economic, cultural and legal factors meant that Australian Chinese were highly mobile, travelling back and forth between Australia and China, and between colonies and states, too. The formation of families followed a similar path, and limiting our definition of ‘family life’ to the ‘geographically localized nuclear family’ (to use McKeown’s phrase, p. 100) ignores a range of experiences and choices made in the process of migration, sojourning and settlement.

So, to conclude let’s go back to those historical novels, where we can also see aspects of the transnational overseas Chinese family:

  • Lady detective Phryne Fisher sees her lover Lin Chung married to a young Chinese woman, Camellia, in an arrangement that benefits both Chinese families, if not themselves.
  • In As the Earth Turns Silver, Katherine McKechnie’s Chinese lover has a wife and child in China, while his brother works for years to be able to bring his wife to live in New Zealand too.
  • In The Lambing Flat, Ella has to confront Lok’s yearning for his homeland and his ultimate decision to return home. He asks her to go too, and some of my favourite passages in the book describe Ella’s feelings as she contemplates whether she could leave her home and go with him. In the end, though, she doesn’t.

What these imagined life stories suggest, and other real life histories demonstrate, is that there is not just one neat framework into which we can place the history of Chinese-European families in Australasia, and beyond that the history of Chinese Australian families. This history is messy and complex and sometimes hard to untangle – but for me, this messiness and complexity is also what makes it so fascinating.

Family history research worksheets

Family history charts and worksheets can help you plan and organise your research process, and record and visualise the information you uncover about your ancestors. They can be used instead of, or alongside, genealogy software or websites to document your research. Charts and worksheets are particularly useful to use as a ‘working copy’, where you add information as you go along.

I developed the charts and worksheets below to use in my family history teaching. You can download them in both Word or PDF format. They are provided with a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence, so you can share and adapt them as you like.

To record information about your ancestors

To plan and keep track of your research

Cangdong Cultural Heritage Month, January 2022

Click on the image to view a larger version of this poster

Sophie Couchman and I will be speaking as part of the Cangdong Cultural Heritage Month Academic Lecture Series on 23 January 2022. The theme of the workshop is ‘Heritage Conservation and Roots Searching in Home Villages of Overseas Chinese’.

Sophie and I will be in conversation with Canadian historian Henry Yu about our Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour and its social impacts.

Also speaking on Sunday are Selia Tan Jinhua from Wuyi University, and Henry Yu and Denise Fong from the University of British Columbia.

The workshop runs for two days – details of the Sunday sessions are below and full details including the Monday program are available in the workshop schedule (pdf, 253kb).

Sunday, 23 January 2022, 12:00pm to 2.30pm AEDT

Zoom: https://ubc.zoom.us/j/68563524555?pwd=Yk5mVHZUaURUKzVVZUpOZ0RiZ2M2UT09

Meeting ID: 685 6352 4555

Passcode: 2021

TIME (AEDT) PRESENTER TOPIC
12:00 – 12:30 p.m. Prof. Jinhua Selia Tan, Wuyi University, China Heritage Conservation and the Cangdong Project
12:30 – 1:15 p.m. Prof. Henry Yu, and Denise Fong, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia, Canada A conversation on the construction of the Chinese Canadian Museum in Vancouver Chinatown, from the perspective of heritage preservation and community development
1:15 – 1:20 p.m. Break
1:20 – 2:00 p.m. Dr. Kate Bagnall, University of Tasmania, Australia and Dr. Sophie Couchman, Curator and Historian A conversation on the Australian roots-searching program and its social impact, from the perspective of its organizers
2:00 – 2:30 p.m. Presenters Discussion, Q and A

Video highlights

Thanks to Cangdong Heritage Education Center for putting together this video of the session!

 

‘A legacy of White Australia’ – Records about the Poon Gooey family in the NAA

Ten years ago, in June 2009, a paper of mine about White Australia records and the Poon Gooey family was published on the National Archives website. I had presented the paper at the Fourth International Conference of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China, on 10 May 2009. I was then working in the web team at the National Archives and so we put my paper up online, with links to images of documents and to the original archival records, which were all digitised in RecordSearch.

Using the story of Poon Gooey and his family as a case study, the paper discussed the National Archives’ early 20th-century records on Chinese Australians, particularly those created in the administration of the White Australia Policy. The records document many aspects of the lives of Chinese Australians, including immigration and travel, business enterprises, political activities and community life. Publications and finding aids, descriptive work and digitisation projects over the years have made the records easier to access and hopefully encourage their use.

The records are a legacy of the discrimination and marginalisation of the White Australia years, but they can be used by researchers today to recover the lives of Chinese Australians in the past, and also to provide a more nuanced understanding of the contradictions and complications of Australia’s response to its Chinese population.

With the NAA website currently being redeveloped (and the online fate of my paper uncertain), I thought I’d revisit the original version of my paper, which can be found in the Wayback Machine at: https://web.archive.org/web/20090627064642/http://naa.gov.au/collection/issues/bagnall-2009/index.aspx

You can also download a full version of the paper, including images (pdf, 15.1mb): A Legacy of White Australia by Kate Bagnall, 2009

Minnie Alloo of Dunedin and the Women’s Suffrage Petition

A post to mark International Women’s Day, 8 March 2018.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. In September 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing country to grant the vote to adult women when it passed its Electoral Act 1893. Australia became the second in 1902, granting the vote to white women through the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902.

South Australian Register, 20 September 1893, p. 5

In their campaign for voting rights, the women of New Zealand petitioned the New Zealand parliament in 1891, 1892 and 1893. The 13 petitions presented to parliament in 1893 were signed by nearly 32,000 women, almost a quarter of the country’s white adult female population.

The largest petition, presented to parliament in July 1893, contained the signatures of about 24,000 women. Among them were Minnie Alloo of MacLaggan Street, Dunedin, and M. Alloo, also of Dunedin, likely to be Minnie’s mother, Margaret.

M. Alloo’s signature on page 32 of the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition
Minnie Alloo’s signature on page 141 of the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition

The previous year three Alloo women of Dunedin, along with more than 17,000 others, had signed the 1892 suffrage petition: Mrs Alloo, A. Alloo (Agnes) and Lena Alloo (Helena).

When Minnie signed the 1893 petition she was only nineteen years old, two years short of ‘the age of twenty-one years and upwards’ as stated on the petition’s first page. Three years later, aged twenty-two and now resident in Hanover Street, Dunedin, Minnie appeared on the 1896 electoral roll, as did her unmarried sisters Helena (age 29) and Agnes (age 31).

***

Minnie Rose Alloo was born at Queenstown, New Zealand, in 1874.* She was the youngest daughter of Margaret Alloo née Peacock (b. 1840, Scotland) and John Alloo (陳三樂) (b. 1828, Canton, China), a Chinese interpreter.

Margaret and John had married in 1856 in Ballarat, Victoria. Their nine children were Thomas (1857), Elizabeth (1859), William (1861), Amelia (1863), Annie Agnes (1865) and Helena (1867), who were all born in Victoria, then Alfred (1871), Minnie Rose (1874) and Arthur (1876), all born at Queenstown.

Queenstown, Wakatipu, New Zealand, taken by William Hart, 1880 (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

The Alloo family moved from the Victorian goldfields to Otago in 1868. In Victoria, they had lived at Ballarat and Melbourne, where John Alloo had worked as an interpreter, police detective, storekeeper and restaurateur, running the famed ‘John Alloo’s Chinese Resturant’ in Ballarat in the 1850s. The restaurant was immortalised in sketches by S.T. Gill in 1855, and today visitors to Soveriegn Hill can visit its replica in the town’s main street. John Alloo was naturalised in Victoria in 1856.

In New Zealand, John Alloo worked as a constable-interpreter with the police force, first at Lawrence, then at Naseby, Clyde and Queenstown. In Naseby the Alloos owned the Ballarat Hotel, which they sold in 1870. John was discharged from the police force in October 1877 due to ill health, and the family moved to Dunedin.

‘Mount Ida Chronicle’, 5 November 1869, p. 2

In 1871 Margaret and John Alloo were said to ‘live together very happily — have a fine family of boys and girls, who are well educated, and speak and write English well.’

***

Unlike the activities of the men of the Alloo family (which I won’t go into further here), Minnie Alloo, her mother and sisters are harder to track in the historical record. Their names do appear in the Otago newspapers here and there, though. Margaret Alloo is mentioned at the Ballarat Hotel in 1870. The girls appear in school prize lists, particularly Elizabeth who became a student teacher in Queenstown in the late 1870s, teaching at the same school her younger siblings attended. Amelia made the news in 1881 when she was working as a dressmaker in Dunedin, and when she was sued for divorce in 1891. Mrs Alloo and the Misses Alloo also appear as passengers in shipping notices, such as in 1907 when a Miss Alloo, together with Minnie, her husband and daughter, travelled to Wellington.

Minnie Alloo married John Quane (b. 1879, Isle of Man) in Christchurch in 1904 (NZ BDM 1904/5207). They had 2 children: Irma (1905) and Maurice (1909) (NZ BDM 1905/20121, 1909/13828). The family migrated to the United States in 1914, and Minnie became a US citizen in 1940 when John was naturalized. Minnie Quane died in San Francisco, California in December 1948 at the age of seventy-four.*

Minnie and her family are listed on this passenger manifest for the Tahiti, from Wellington to San Francisco, July 1914. (Ancestry.com. California, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1959. Original data: Selected Passenger and Crew Lists and Manifests. National Archives, Washington, D.C.)

Postscript

The Alloo family were not the only ones to leave the Victorian goldfields for Otago. Well-known Chinese New Zealanders Choie Sew Hoy and Chew Chong – who are both included in the Dictionary of NZ Biography – did likewise.

Another family that moved across the Tasman in the 1860s was that of my paternal great-grandmother, Florence Bellamy. Her parents, Mary Garrett Bellamy née Millar and John Thomas Bellamy – together with their three surviving children Mary Sarah Crawford (1857), William (1860) and Frances (1861) – left Victoria for Otago in about 1862 or 1863. Three more daughters, Hannah (1864), Eliza Crawford (1866) and Florence (1868), my great-grandmother, were born in Dunedin. Florence was largely raised by her sister Frances after their mother’s death in 1872. Florence Bellamy attended the Middle District School in Dunedin at the same time as the Alloo children.

*Minnie Alloo’s New Zealand birth was registered in 1874. Her California death certificates gives her date of birth as 16 November 1873 and John Quane’s US naturalization application gives it as 17 November 1874. I haven’t purchased a copy of her birth certificate to confirm the correct year of birth.

Further reading

Jenny Alloo, ‘Dispersing obscurity: The Alloo Family from Australia to New Zealand from 1868‘, Chinese in Australiasia and the Pacific: Old and New Migrations and Cultural Change conference, University of Otago, 1998

James Ng, ‘Chew Chong’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2c17/chew-chong

James Ng, ‘Sew Hoy, Charles’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2s14/sew-hoy-charles

James Ng, ‘The Otago Chinese goldminers: Factors that helped them survive’, in Rushing for Gold: Life and Commerce on the Goldfields of New Zealand and Australia, edited by Lloyd Carpenter and Lyndon Fraser, Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2016

Keir Reeves, ‘Tracking the dragon down under: Chinese cultural connections in gold rush Australia and Aotearoa, New Zealand’, Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, vol. 3, no. 1 (2005), pp. 49–66, https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/arts/Departments/asian-studies/gjaps/docs-vol3/Reeves.pdf

Ken Oldis, The Chinawoman, Arcadia, Melbourne, 2008.

‘New Zealand women and the vote’, New Zealand History website, NZ Ministry for Culture and Heritage, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage

 

Communication and collaboration in the digital age

This is the paper that I presented at the Related Histories: Studying the Family conference, held at the National Library of Australia on 29 November 2017.

If you’re interested in knowing more, Caitlin Adams from Macquarie University has written a review of the Related Histories conference.

Abstract

Since the 1990s, the field of Chinese Australian history has been characterised by the active participation of family and community researchers alongside academic historians, museum curators and heritage professionals. Over the same period, digital technologies have changed the ways that we communicate and how we do historical research. In this paper I consider questions of communication and collaboration between academic and family historians in the digital age, based on my work in Chinese Australian history. Working with family historians and descendants over the past two decades has shaped my practice as an academic historian, in particular in thinking about who I write for and why. In the paper I will discuss some of the ways I have made my work accessible and actively engaged with family historians, particularly in the digital realm, and contemplate the benefits and challenges of doing so as an academic historian today.

Introduction

My contribution to this panel on ‘family history and the digital revolution’ is going to be something of a personal reflection based on my participation in the field of Chinese Australian history over the past two decades – a period that both starts and ends with me in the academy. Then, twenty years or so ago, I was a PhD student at the University of Sydney. Now, I’m an ARC DECRA Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong.

In between, there was a good decade or so in which I held no academic position or affiliation. I worked at the National Archives for about seven years, then in editing and publishing in the public service here in Canberra, and then as a freelance editor and historian-for-hire, completing projects for AIATSIS and DFAT among others. All the while I maintained my scholarly research practice as best I could around this paid work and family life. I wrote papers, presented at academic conferences, and published in peer-reviewed journals and edited collections. In 2016 I was awarded a DECRA fellowship, and so I now find myself back in academia.

In the two decades in which I have been a historian, digital technologies have radically changed the ways that we do history – as academic, community or family historians. These technologies affect every aspect of historical practice – most obviously in the ways that we find and access archival and library collections online, but also in how we can interact with, analyse and understand those collections; and in how we can present and communicate our work.

Digital history – ‘gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web’ as Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig described it – democratises history by inviting and encouraging the participation of non-academic audiences. It makes historical knowledge more accessible to the public and multiplies the number of people who participate in making history. It also facilitates investigation, curiosity, participation and connection building around historical knowledge and historical collections.

One thing that has struck me after moving back into academia last year has been the reaction of my university colleagues to my use of the web and my outwards focus as a historian – the fact that I blog and I tweet, that I make time to give talks and workshops to family historians and other non-academic audiences, and that I would rather my work be accessible than locked behind the paywall of a ‘prestigious’ international journal.

In my paper today I would therefore like to reflect on how I think working with family historians and descendants over the past two decades has shaped my practice as an academic historian, and consider how digital technologies have created opportunities for communication and collaboration. I’ll discuss three examples: first, publishing my work online; second, running a heritage study tour to China; and third, developing an online archival transcription project.

Researching Chinese Australian family life

Working in field of Chinese Australian history, people often ask whether I have Chinese heritage – not an unreasonable question considering that much of my work has focused on mixed-race Chinese-European families. The short answer to that question is ‘no’, but there is one family connection that I do quite like to highlight.

My paternal great grandparents, Harry Bagnall and Florence Bellamy (both migrants to New South Wales – he from Dudley in England and she from Dunedin in New Zealand), were pioneers in the sport of cycling in Sydney in the 1890s. In 1892, Florence was one of four women elected as honorary members of the Sydney Bicycle Club, ‘in consideration of their being the first ladies in Australia to take up the pastime of cycling’ (Evening News, 21 May 1892, p. 5). Florence met Harry through their mutual interest in cycling. He was an active member of League of Wheelman and competed professionally in the mid-1890s.

Another migrant to New South Wales, one who had arrived a good three decades before my great grandparents, was also involved in the League of Wheelman, and that was Sydney merchant Quong Tart. Cycle club meetings were held in his tea rooms in King Street and Quong Tart was for some years a starter at League of Wheelman races. Margaret Tart’s biography of her late husband, published in 1911, includes a photograph of Quong Tart and my great grandfather officiating at a race meeting together. That is my historical family connection to Chinese Australian history!

My interest in Chinese Australian history therefore did not come from my own family history, but it did emerge out of personal experience.

Twenty years ago, in 1997, after finishing Honours in History at Sydney University, I went to teach English in China for a year, in the small coastal city of Zhuhai, just across the border from Macau and an hour by ferry from Hong Kong. Zhuhai is in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, and it was from the Pearl River Delta, through Hong Kong, that most Chinese immigrants came to Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Having fallen in love with the language, culture and history of south China, when I returned to Australia to begin my PhD, I sought a topic that might combine this new love with my existing love of Australian women’s history. And so, under the supervision of Penny Russell, I began researching the history of Chinese families in colonial New South Wales.

What I found when I began that research was that the existing scholarship on the Chinese in Australia, including works written by academic historians, discounted the existence of Chinese families in colonial Australia – in part because of the small numbers of Chinese women who migrated at that time, and in part because of the assumption that white Australian women and Chinese men didn’t form families together. Failing to critically examine their sources, scholars repeated and compounded colonial thinking about the sexual, social and family lives of the Chinese in Australia.

They perpetuated myths and stereotypes about the scarcity of ‘real’ families, about the ‘immorality’ and ‘vice’ that resulted from this, and about the tragedy and moral failings of white women who formed intimate relationships with Chinese men. It wasn’t just white Australian historians who did this either. C.F. Yong, author of one of the earliest major histories on the Chinese in Australia, accepted the idea of widespread Chinese immorality in the colonies caused by a lack of family life, and gave credence to the idea that the Chinese were frequent ‘seducers’ of white girls. (I’ve explored this more in my 2011 article on ‘Rewriting the history of Chinese families in 19th-century Australia‘.)

After mining the footnotes of these earlier historians for sources – this was well before the days of Trove, remember! – it was pretty clear why they had this impression of Chinese Australian family life. The government reports and inquiries, parliamentary debates, and articles from the metropolitan daily press they cited spoke about ‘the Chinese’ as an anonymous group, rarely mentioning individual Chinese, other than those of wealth and community standing like Quong Tart or Louis Ah Mouy.

These sources did, however, mention here and there a Chinese man with a European wife, or a European woman living with a Chinese man, or the presence of Chinese-European children. So I went looking for material about these families elsewhere – in published local and community histories, in the collections of local history and family history societies, in birth and marriage records, and in immigration records. I also sought to make contact with descendants.

For me as a young historian, contact with descendants and family historians was important for a number of reasons.

The first, simply, was to try and locate names and biographical information about the Chinese-European families who were the focus of my study. I wanted to know who these people were, where they lived, how they met, and what their lives were like – research that is remarkably hard to do without a name.

The second, where I already knew names and had some information from the archives, was to form a more rounded picture of their lives, to understand more about them than the official record might tell.

Over time, a third reason emerged, and that was to be able to share what I knew and what I had uncovered in the archives, both about their families in particular and more generally about Chinese Australian family life. While many of the family historians I met had done the most extensive, fastidious research – as they do – Chinese ancestors were often a puzzle. Many had not known of their Chinese ancestry before digging into the family history, and I began to be able to provide a broader understanding of the context of their ancestors’ lives in both Australia and south China.

The questions that family historians asked me also pushed me to find answers. I’ll give you one example.

About 18 months into my PhD I made contact with a lady named Marlene from Lane Cove whose great-grandmother, Harriet Bourke, had married Thomas Ah Cue in Forbes in 1881. One of their daughters, Susan, born in Forbes in 1882, married a Chinese man named John Lee in 1899. Among the family documents Marlene had located was the 1915 naturalisation certificate of Susan Lee, and she asked me why Susan, who was born in New South Wales and was therefore a British subject by birth, had taken out naturalisation. At the time, I didn’t really know the answer, but it prompted me to find out. And I’m pleased to say that I now have a PhD student, Emma Bellino, who is writing her thesis on the topic of marital denaturalisation, focusing on Australian women who married non-European aliens in the early 20th century.

At the same time as making contact with these family historians, I found a community of researchers working in the field of Chinese Australian history whose backgrounds stretched across academic history, archaeology, heritage, the GLAM sector, and community and family history.

This community of researchers provided me with models of how good, scholarly history could take different forms and be presented for different audiences – I’m thinking here of the Golden Threads project run by Janis Wilton at UNE and the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation project run by John Fitzgerald, then at La Trobe. Among their outputs, these two projects produced websites with publicly accessible databases and other online resources. Although time has not served these project websites well – the Golden Threads website no longer exists except in Pandora and the Internet Archive, and the CHAF website exists in a semi-functional ‘archived’ form hosted by the La Trobe University Library – they were both exemplary Australian digital history projects of their time.

In this Chinese Australian history community I also found my good friend and collaborator, Sophie Couchman. One of our first joint enterprises, along with a couple of other history postgrads, was the creation of the online Journal of Chinese Australia. The journal only lasted two issues, in 2005 and 2006, but I think our aim for the journal still epitomises the approach that Sophie and I take in our work. We hoped the journal would provide ‘access to research and resources on the history and culture of Chinese people in Australia’ and be ‘a place for family and community researchers, historians and students to share their ideas and questions’.

For the rest of my time I’d briefly like to share with you three more recent examples of how I have engaged with family historians in both the digital and non-digital worlds.

Being present on the web

Making my work available online has had a profound effect on my interactions with family historians and the research community more broadly.

I decided when I finished my PhD in 2006 to make my thesis accessible online through the University of Sydney’s online respository, and a couple of years later, in August 2008, I started a blog, giving myself a visible presence online. More recently again, in March 2009, I began using Twitter, which I use ‘professionally’ rather than ‘personally’, although there’s quite a deal of overlap between the two. Where possible, too, I now either publish my ‘academic’ work in open access publications or negotiate to be able to put a copy of my final article or chapter online through my website. I want my work to be read by the people I write it for – and many of them don’t have access to scholarly journal databases or university libraries or have the money to buy $150 books published by international presses.

One of the most common ways that people have found my work is when they Google their family name as part of their family history research. My thesis includes stories about many families, and has two appendixes – one of Chinese-European marriages in colonial New South Wales, and one of Chinese-European families who travelled to and from China before 1930. It therefore includes lots of names, although as I am continually discovering, there are still many, many families I have never heard of!

As I mentioned before, many of the descendants who contact me were previously unaware of their Chinese heritage, and are at a loss about how to start researching. I’ve had some really lovely emails from people telling me what a help my thesis and blog have been in providing them with a place to start to understand the Chinese part of their family. For example, I received an email from a lady named Heather in 2013, who wrote:

I am so grateful that this part of our history has been researched and brought to light … I am so touched to finally feel that I might be about to discover something from a heritage that has been hidden and denied. It was all generations ago and my family has almost no stories or clues, and yet … to read about the experiences of similar families is exciting and promises a connection that has felt lost until now … Knowing [your thesis] exists is somehow something I find comforting, and I wanted to reach out and say thank you.

That is the sort of thing that really makes my heart glow as a historian!

Some of these contacts have helped me solve puzzles too. The story of Pauline Ah Hee is one example.

One of the groups of Chinese-European children I wrote about in my thesis were children who were in state care or adopted. Among them was a beautiful child named Pauline Ah Hee, born Dubbo in 1893, who was adopted by James and Fanny Choy Hing in Sydney. Based on a Customs file held in the National Archives in Sydney I wrote about Pauline in my thesis, pondering about her role in her adopted family. James and Fanny had children of their own, and I wondered why and in what circumstances they had taken Pauline into their family. In 2011, I got to know Howard, whose wife is the granddaughter of James Choy Hing and the niece of Pauline Ah Hee. Howard had heard me speaking on our local ABC radio here in Canberra and looked up my thesis online. My mention of Pauline and the Choy Hing family spurred him on to research that part of the family history, and in time he shared with me what he had uncovered about Pauline’s life. Howard told me that after her adoption Pauline was raised as a true daughter of the family, living as part of the wealthy Choy household in Hong Kong after the family’s return there.

Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour

When I went to live in China in 1997 it was by lucky coincidence that the city I lived in, Zhuhai, was in the heart of the ancestral homelands of Australia’s early Chinese migrants. At that time, Zhuhai was still very much a Cantonese city – some of the city’s residents are from families that had lived in the area for generations, while many others had migrated from districts around Pearl River Delta after Zhuhai became a Special Economic Zone in the early 1980s.

Thanks to the friendships I made that year, I was welcomed into family homes and taken on visits to ancestral villages in the countryside, I celebrated traditional festivals like Chinese New Year and Qingming and took part in significant family events like weddings, new baby celebrations (满月 múhn yuht) and a funeral. The history, culture and language of the Pearl River Delta districts are very special and I feel really privileged to have been able to experience life there in the way that I have.

So, as I came and went from China in the years that followed – on holiday, to study, to do research – and as I spent time here with Chinese Australian family historians, I realised that many Australian descendants wanted to go and visit their Chinese ancestral homes, but didn’t know how to go about it, particularly because they spoke no Chinese. For many, too, there was insufficient information to trace their Chinese ancestor back to a particular place, other than the ubiquitous Canton.

So this year, after many years of quietly plotting in my own mind and a couple of years of serious organising, Sophie Couchman and I led our first Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour to Hong Kong and Guangdong. The tour ran for ten days, beginning and ending in Hong Kong. In China proper, we visited museums, heritage sites and ‘Australian’ villages in six Pearl River Delta counties. Our sixteen guests came from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and New Zealand, and most were descended from early Cantonese migrants to Australia. During the tour we visited a number of their ancestral villages, something that was very special for us all. We also ate a tremendous amount of excellent food, including the best egg tarts I think any of us have ever had.

Since the tour Sophie and I have been heartened by the participants’ responses to the experience. One participant, Jenny, has, for example, just given a conference paper – her first – about her Chinese ancestor, Ah Chin, at the Dragon Tails conference in Bendigo this past weekend. In her conference abstract Jenny wrote:

Until this year, I tended to think of him as ‘the Chinese guy’. When I travelled to China with the other Chinese descendants … my attitude changed. Suddenly, he was a real person, my ancestor, my great-great grandfather, and loving husband to Sarah and father to six children.

Another participant from our 2017 tour is even coming back to join us for our next tour in January 2018. We’re also really pleased that two of the participants in our upcoming tour in January are PhD students whose doctoral research draws on their own Chinese Australian family history, in Darwin and country Victoria. For me, it’s really exciting to see the possibilities that these personal experiences in the ancestral homelands in Guangdong might bring to a new generation of Australian histories.

Real Face of White Australia

One of the most significant sources for writing Chinese Australian history are the many thousands of Customs and Immigration files about Chinese Australians held by the National Archives of Australia. These records were created in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act and include, among other things, about 40,000 identification documents called Certificates of Domicile and Certificates Exempting from the Dictation Test, which date from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s.

Since the early 2000s, the National Archives has undertaken substantial arrangement and description and digitisation work on various of these record series, meaning that they are a lot easier to find and access than when I first looked at them as a PhD student twenty years ago. Individual records across multiple record series can, for example, now be easily located using a name-based keyword search in the National Archives’ collection database, RecordSearch, and digitised copied viewed online.

This year I have been working with University of Canberra historian Tim Sherratt and his digital cultural heritage students on an online project, called the Real Face of White Australia, that aims to transcribe data from these identification documents. Like the Hometown Heritage Tour, this project has had a long germination – from my various low-tech efforts at extracting personal data from the certificates to Tim’s very high-tech use of facial detection technology in his creation of the Real Face of White Australia experimental browser in 2012.

The transcription website that Tim has built uses the power of crowdsourcing to extract structured data – like names and biographical information – from the documents, data that can then be used for future research. As the project progresses Tim will release the data online so that anyone can use it, not just us. I’d encourage you to have a go at transcribing – it’s pretty fun!

There is a lot more that I could say about the project, but I will focus on two things with a family history perspective.

To launch the project, we held a transcribe-a-thon weekend at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, where we and Tim’s students and members of the public sat and transcribed all weekend. Being an online project, though, it wasn’t just those of us physically in the building who took part in the weekend’s activities. One of our China tour participants set up his own mini transcribe-a-thon at home in Melbourne, where he and his family sat around the dining table working away at transcibing the records on the Saturday night. He is now also working with Sophie Couchman on developing a similar transcription project for a significant set of Chinese immigration registers held in the Melbourne office of the National Archives.

My final example is something that I, as a mum, think is probably the best thing to have come out of the whole project. Tim and my seven-year-old daughter, Emily, really got into transcribing the records during the transcribe-a-thon, and in the records she came across the photograph of a little Chinese Australian girl named Dolly Denson from 1909. Emily was so taken by Dolly’s picture that she wanted to find out more about her, so together we did some more research and, over the last school holidays, she wrote a blog post about her discoveries (using her nom de plume, Parker). Since the post went live on my blog, three of little Dolly Denson’s relatives – two of her nieces and a grand niece – have written lovely comments in response. How good is that?

Conclusion

Engaging with family historians and descendants over the past two decades had given me a very concrete sense of why I do what I do as a historian. Yes, I’m a historian because I love being a historian – like many of us, I may well be my happiest when I’m buried in the archives – but I’ve also kept being a historian through those lean years when it wasn’t what I was paid to do because I feel like my research makes a difference to people.

In the world of academic history I hope my work shifts our understanding of the place of Chinese Australians and Australia–China relations in the broader narrative of Australian history. In the world of family history, I hope that my work contributes to people’s understanding of their own family histories and how their ancestors lives fit into the bigger story of both Australian and Chinese history. These family stories are not always easy ones to uncover or understand, and they can be very emotional to research – but they are important and they deserve to be told.

Although this session was about ‘family history and the digital revolution’, you can see from my examples that my engagement with family historians is not all about being digital – the tangible and the face to face are still important. In my experience though, there are many positive things about working online, not least of which is the fact that it scales up the possibilities for participation, communication and collaboration between academic historians and family historians.

Chin Sheng Geong and George Ah Len

Next month I will be giving a paper on Chinese women in colonial New South Wales at the International Conference on Chinese Women in World History at Academia Sinica in Taipei. My paper will focus on the early period of Cantonese migration to Australia, from the 1850s to 1880, and present short biographical sketches of four Chinese women who arrived in New South Wales in the 1860s – Ah Happ, Ah Fie, Kim Linn and Sam Kue. Before 1881 there were no legislative limits on the entry of Chinese women to New South Wales.

I was particularly interested in these four women because of their early arrival in the colony, and their rarity among the colonial Chinese population, but there are others I’ve come across whose lives I’d also like to know more about. One of those is Chin Sheng Geong, the wife of the fabulously named missionary and interpreter George Graham Mackie Ah Len.

Chin Sheng Geong (born c. 1856) married George Ah Len (born c. 1837) in Canton in about 1876, while he was on a visit home from Australia. They seem to have arrived back in Australia together in 1877 (along with a female Chinese servant who accompanied Chin Sheng Geong). They lived in the Rocks, which was then Sydney’s Chinatown, in Queen Street, a laneway that ran off Essex Street between George and Harrington streets. There Chin Sheng Geong gave birth to and raised her family of six: Jane (b. 1877), Mary (b. 1879), Ada (b. 1882), James (b. 1886), and twins Peter and Thomas (b. 1888). The children were all baptised. George Ah Len died in 1889, after which time Chin Sheng Geong returned to China with her children.

Birth certificate of James Ah Len, born in Queen Street, Sydney, 1886 (NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71)

George Ah Len coincidentally also features in my naturalisation research. He was naturalised as a British subject in 1878 (No. 78/206), and in 1882 was registered as a ‘person known to Government whose endorsement is considered sufficient’ on applications for naturalisation. From 1882 to 1888 he endorsed the naturalisation applications of more than 60 Chinese in New South Wales.

Typically, there is much more to be found about husband than wife, but within his story we can find traces of her. The following brief chronology about George Ah Len and Chin Sheng Geong in Australia is compiled from historical newspapers, government gazettes, naturalisation records, Sands Directories, BDM records and immigration files.

1868

Early in the year Ah Lin was baptised at Maryborough, Victoria, and later, as George Ah Lin, he began his training as an evangelist under Rev. William Mathew in Melbourne.

1868 ‘THE CHINESE AND ABORIGINAL MISSIONS’, Mount Alexander Mail, 14 November, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article200524565

George Ah Lin, a Chinese convert, sang a hymn and addressed the annual meeting of the Presbyterian Church in Victoria at the Scots Church, Melbourne.

1868 ‘THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN VICTORIA’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 3 December, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article198055610

George Ah Lin was to be sent to Beechworth as Chinese missionary.

1868 ‘THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AND THE CHINESE’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 17 November, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article198055417

1870

George Ah Lin was a Chinese missionary at Beechworth.

1870 ‘No title’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 20 October, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196416938

1872

Chinese catechist George Ah Len left his work at Ballarat to take charge of the Presbyterian Chinese Mission in Sydney.

1872 ‘NEW ZEALAND’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 1 August, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196858051

In August, George Ah Len travelled from Melbourne to Sydney on the Dandenong.

1872 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE’, Argus, 17 August, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article5837141

1872 ‘GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13265627

1874

In March, there was an unclaimed letter at the General Post Office, Sydney, for George Ah Len, Queen Street.

1874 ‘No. 5. LIST OF UNCLAIMED LETTERS FOR THE MONTH OF FEBRUARY, 1874’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 30 March, p. 969, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223694238

William Johnson, ‘Harts Stairs, Essex Street’, 1900, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-134631948. Queen Street ran off Essex Street.

1875

George Ah Len suffered a severe illness over the summer, which interrupted his missionary work.

1875 ‘PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13364937

George Ah Len worked as missionary in Sydney.

1875 ‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE GRAFTON ARGUS’, Grafton Argus and Clarence River General Advertiser, 11 January, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article235148038

George Ah Len lived at 4 Queen’s Street, off Essex Street.

Sands Sydney Suburban Directory 1875, p. 264 (Ancestry.com, Sands Directories: Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, 1858–1933, 2010)

1876

Ah Len, ‘Presbyterian missionary’, lived at 3 Hanson Square, off Queen Street.

Sands Sydney Suburban Directory 1876, p. 280 (Ancestry.com, Sands Directories: Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, 1858–1933, 2010.)

In March, George Ah Len returned to China ‘for a season’ in the interests of his health.

1876 ‘PRESBYTERIAN ASSEMBLY OF NEW SOUTH WALES’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13382767

1876 ‘PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March, p. 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13366581

1877

In April, ‘Mrs George Ah Len and servant’, and ‘G. Ah Len’, travelled as passengers on the Balclutha from Brisbane to Sydney.

1877 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE’, Telegraph (Brisbane), 18 April, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article169513252

Birth of their first daughter, Jane Ah Len, to George and Sheng G, Sydney (NSW BDM 3300/1877 and 1034/1877 V18771034 46)

1878

In April, George Ah Len, age 40, missionary and government interpreter, of 11 Queen Street, was naturalised as a British subject.

George Ah Len’s naturalisation certificate, 1878

In May, George Ah Len attended Ing Chee, a convicted murderer, prior to his execution in Goulburn.

1878 ‘EXECUTION OF ING CHEE’, Queanbeyan Age, 1 June, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30673461

1878 ‘Government Gazette Notices’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 31 May, p. 2171, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223115799

In August, George Ah Len, together with several others including Chen Ateak and On Chong, wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald on the ‘Chinese Question’.

1878 ‘Advertising’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August, p. 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13417608

In August, George Ah Len’s divine service at the Ragged School was disturbed by larrikins, one of a number of anti-Chinese agitations across Sydney.

1878 ‘NEW GUINEA’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 August, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13421199

In October, three Chinese women (one perhaps being Chin Sheng Geong?) were in the congregation at the baptism of six Chinese men by the Rev. Dr Steel, assisted by George Ah Len, at St Stephen’s Church.

1878 ‘NEWS OF THE DAY’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13421429

In December, George Ah Len was part of a deputation of Chinese merchants to the Colonial Secretary regarding aggressions against the Chinese in Sydney.

1878 ‘DEPUTATION OF CHINESE MERCHANTS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December, p. 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13426132

1879

In January, the See Yup Society, per George Ah Len, donated to the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary.

1879 ‘Advertising’, Evening News, 2 January, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article107152133

In February, George Ah Len was part of a deputation of Chinese merchants to the Colonial Secretary about vice and immorality among the lower classes of Chinese in the colony.

1879 ‘Chinese Influence on Chinese’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 8 February, p. 13, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article70935150

Birth of Mary Ah Len, to George and Sheen Geong, Sydney (NSW BDM 1907/1879 and 1089/1879 V18791089 46)

1882

On 7 March 1882, birth of Ada Ah Len, to George and Ching Sheeng Chung, Queen Street, Sydney (NSW BDM 1882/1167; NAA: SP42/1, C1902/2210). Birth attended by Mrs Strange (nurse) and Mrs Morrison.

Birth certificate of Ada Ah Len, born in Queen Street, Sydney, 1882 (NAA: SP42/1, C1902/2210)

1883

George ‘Ah Lenn’, ‘Chinese interpreter’, lived at Queen Street.

Sands Sydney Suburban Directory 1876, p. 268 (Ancestry.com, Sands Directories: Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, 1858–1933, 2010.)

1885

In December, George Ah Len was presented to His Excellency Baron Carrington, Governor of New South Wales, at a levée held at Government House.

1885 ‘THE PRESENTATIONS’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December, p. 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13606606

1886

On 16 June 1886, birth of James Ah Len, to George and Sheng C, 11 Queen Street, Sydney (NSW BDM 2324/1886 and 1314/1886 V18861314 46; NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71). Birth was attended by Mrs Strange (nurse) and Mrs Morrison.

1888

Birth of twins, Peter and Thomas Ah Len, to George and Shenn, Sydney (NSW BDM 1748/1888 and 1356/1888 V18881356 46 and V18881356 47; 1749/1888 and 1357/1888 V18881357 46)

1889

In January, there was an unclaimed letter at the General Post Office, Sydney, for Mr Ah Len, Queen Street.

1889 ‘No. 32. LIST OF LETTERS RETURNED FROM THE BRANCH AND SUBURBAN OFFICES, AND NOW LYING AT THE GENERAL POST OFFICE, UNCLAIMED’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 2 January, p. 25, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224311037

On 23 April, George Ah Len died at 4 Queen Street, Sydney, aged 52 (NSW BDM 717/1889)

1889 ‘Family Notices’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13728837

Chin Sheng Geong left New South Wales, taking her six children home to China (NAA: SP42/1, C1902/2210; NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71)

Finding your Chinese roots

For Australians whose Chinese ancestors arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tracing the family history back to China can be a real puzzle.

Whether you’re simply curious about your Chinese origins or are wanting to visit your ancestral village in China, there are two things you need to know – your Chinese ancestor’s name in Chinese characters and their village and county of origin.

Here you will find some suggestions for using Australian records to find these critical pieces of information.

You can also download a printable pdf of this post.

Chinese origins

Most Chinese who arrived in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from the rural Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, south of the provincial capital of Guangzhou, north of Macau and inland from Hong Kong. A smaller number of Chinese migrants came from other parts of Guangdong province and from Fujian province (through the port of Xiamen, known historically as Amoy), as well as from other places such as Shanghai.

This post concentrates on Cantonese migrants who came from the Pearl River Delta.

Cantonese migrants came from a number of different areas in the Pearl River Delta, including:

  • Sam Yup (Sanyi, meaning the ‘three districts’): Namhoi (Nanhai), Poonyu (Panyu) and Shuntak (Shunde)
  • Heungshan (Xiangshan), later known as Chungshan (Zhongshan)
  • Tongkun (Dongguan)
  • Changshing, Tsengshing (Zengcheng)
  • Koyiu (Gaoyao) and Koming (Gaoming)
  • Sze Yup (Siyi, meaning the ‘four districts’): Sunwui (Xinhui), Sunning (Xinning) or Toishan (Taishan), Hoiping (Kaiping) and Yanping (Enping).

The Cantonese migrants spoke a range of dialects including: standard Cantonese, Cantonese variations such as Shekki dialect, Longdu (Zhongshan Min) dialect, Sze Yup dialects such as Taishanese, and Hakka. The earlier Amoy Chinese spoke Hokkien.

Source: Him Mark Lai Digital Archive, https://himmarklai.org/roots-program-lecture-notes/

The big stumbling block

To successfully track your family back to China you ideally need your ancestor’s name and their village and district of origin in Chinese characters. If your family migrated to Australia more recently and this information is known within the family, you have a tremendous advantage. If you don’t have this information, you will need to try and work it out from records available in Australia. This can be very tricky.

Until the twentieth century there was no standard way of romanising the various Chinese languages and dialects. Because of this, and because Chinese in Australia spoke different sorts of Cantonese, there is a lot of variation in how personal and place names are recorded in Australian English-language sources. Only rarely are Chinese characters to be found. The discrepancies in how Chinese names were written down in colonial Australia are not necessarily an indication of racist or uncaring attitudes toward the Chinese, but more a reflection of the fact that nobody, including the Chinese themselves, knew how to spell the names ‘properly’ in English.

Personal names

Chinese personal names usually comprise three characters, with one being the family name and two being the given name – for example, 譚梅玲 Tam Moyling. A few Chinese family names comprise two characters (e.g. O’Young, Seeto), and sometimes a given name comprises only one character.

Although the characters remain the same, the pronunciation of a name changes depending of the dialect spoken. For example, the two-character surname 司徒 is pronounced Situ in Mandarin, Seeto in Cantonese and Soohoo in Sze Yup. The common family name 陳 is pronounced Chen in Mandarin, Chan/Chun in Cantonese, Chin in Hakka, and Tan in Hokkien.

Chinese personal names were recorded in many different ways in Australian records and, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at least, rarely was a name written down ‘correctly’. A person’s name might have been recorded with multiple spelling variations – for example, one early Sydney resident was recorded as Man Sue Bach, Mum Shou Pac, John Ah Shue Bach, John A. Sue Bach, John Ah Sue and John a Shue.

Because of the different word order (surname first in Chinese but last in English), many Chinese given names came to be used as surnames in English – for example, Wong Chun Bun might became known as Jimmy Chun Bun and his children registered under the surname Bun.

Many, many Chinese personal names also include ‘Ah’ or ‘A’. This represents the character 阿, which is a prefix added to a given name as a familiar or informal form of address, much like adding ‘ie’ or ‘y’ to the end of a name in English (Ann to Annie, Tom to Tommy).

Petition of Chinese residents of Melbourne, 1857. Source: PROV VPRS 1189/P0, unit 482, http://wiki.prov.vic.gov.au/index.php/Chinese_Language_Records_at_PROV

While sometimes confusing, romanised versions of personal and place names can tell us helpful things. For example, personal names written with a ‘sl’ or ‘shl’ or ‘thl’ sound at the beginning (like Dang Bown Sluey or Slit Schin) suggest that these people were likely to be from Taishan, as this sound is particular to Sze Yup sub-dialects rather than standard Cantonese.

Or, a woman’s name that includes a ‘See’ or ‘Shee’ (氏) usually gives her father’s family name and indicates that the woman was married – a bit like the term née. Ham See, for example, would be a married woman who was born into the Ham (譚) family – Ham would be her father’s, not her husband’s, surname.

Emma Woo Louie has written on Chinese American names, much of which applies in the Australian context. Her book is Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition (McFarland & Company, 2008). A preview of the book is available from Google Books. She has also published articles on the subject in the Chinese Historical Society of America’s journal Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

For more on overseas Chinese names see:

  • ‘Chinese names’ on the Chinese-Canadian Genealogy website: http://www.vpl.ca/ccg/Chinese_Names.html
  • Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2006 – Section 4: Belonging (starts on
    196): http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/1412/4/04sections3%264.pdf
  • Kate Bagnall, ‘The trouble with spelling Chinese names’, Tiger’s Mouth [blog], 12 February 2013: https://chineseaustralia.org/the-trouble-with-spelling-chinese-names/
  • Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales 1850–1950, New England Regional Art Museum, 2004
  • Jon Kehrer, ‘Who was “John Chinaman”’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 24, no. 4, December 2001, pp. 201–205
  • Jon Kehrer, ‘Honourable ancestors: My search for the Chinese connection’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 27, no. 4 December 2004, pp. 328–333
  • Gary Presland, ‘Some difficulties in researching Chinese ancestry’, in From Gold to Federation: Papers from the Fourth Victoria Family State Conference, ed. Noelle Oke, Penfolk Publishing, Melbourne, 2001.

Place names

The native place of many Chinese is recorded in Australian sources as Canton – which variably refers to the province of Guangdong or the capital city of Guangzhou. However, most migrants came from the rural counties outside the capital, rather than the city itself. Unfortunately if ‘Canton’ is all the information you can find about your ancestor’s origins you will probably not be able to progress your research much further.

More occasionally county, city, town or even village names are recorded: Sunning, Sun Wui, Heung Shan, Amoy, Shekki, Kongmoon, Lee Yuan, Chuk Sau Yuen or Bak Shek, for example. Sometimes it’s easy to identify these places, sometimes it’s not. The smaller the place, the harder it can be to identify, but the more useful it will be if you eventually work out where it is.

The trick is to be able to translate from the old romanised version of a place name to how it is known today. The Cantonese city known in Mandarin today as Jiangmen (江門), for instance, might have been written Quong Moon, Kong Mun, or Kongmoon.

There are several words that often appear as the last syllable in village names that it can be useful to recognise:

  • choon or toon – 村 cun, meaning ‘village’
    g. 南潮村 Nam Chew Toon
  • lee or lay – 里 li, meaning ‘village’
    g. 南勝里 Nam Sing Lay
  • yuen – 園 yuan, meaning ‘garden’
    g. 竹秀園 Chuk Sau Yuen.

You can use clues you find in other records, such as distance from a larger town or physical characteristics of the place, to help narrow down your search for your particular village. If you know your ancestor’s surname you can also cross-check village names with the surname. The following database of village names is useful for this purpose:

The ‘Location, location, location’ section of the Chinese Genealogy forum (http://siyigenealogy.proboards.com/) is an excellent place to read up how others have gone about identifying and locating their ancestral villages.

If your ancestor came from Taishan, Xinhui or Zhongshan counties, you might find relevant information in the material produced by a project undertaken by the Asian Library at the University of British Columbia that identified the village and town of origin of Chinese migrants to Canada. Many migrants to Australia came from the same places as those who went to Canada. See:

Australian sources to consult

The following records are places where you are more likely to find personal names and village origins in Chinese characters.

Gravestones

A headstone in Chinese often provides the person’s name and place of birth in China. See:

Chinese graves in the old Chiltern cemetery, Victoria

Birth, death and marriage records

You should obtain Australian marriage and death certificates for the original Chinese ancestor, as well as birth certificates for their children and death certificates if the children died young. Sometimes a Chinese groom or father will have signed his name in Chinese characters and the birthplace will be more specific than just ‘Canton’ or ‘China’.

Immigration, travel and alien registration records

Immigration and travel records, as well as alien registration records, might contain details of people’s place of origin and their name in Chinese. Twentieth-century travel documents issued to Chinese Australians under the Immigration Restriction Act and related records are held by the National Archives of Australia. ‘Aliens’ (people who were not British subjects) were required to register with the government from World War I. These records are also held by the National Archives and can contain Chinese signatures, information about place of birth and so on.

See:

Naturalisation records

Some Chinese migrants became naturalised British subjects in the colonial period, and their application forms and certificates can include details such as place of origin and their original signature in Chinese. Naturalisation applications, rejected applications and cancelled and confiscated naturalisation certificates are found in state archives and in the National Archives of Australia.

Chinese newspapers

From the 1890s, Australia’s Chinese communities had their own Chinese-language newspapers, including the Chinese Australian Herald and the Tung Wah Times. The Tung Wah Times has been indexed in English, which allows you to search without knowing Chinese. The index can be helpful in identifying articles that might include an ancestor’s name in Chinese.

The major early Australian Chinese-language newspapers are also available through the National Library of Australia’s discovery service, Trove. If you have located names in Chinese characters you can search the newspapers even if you only have basic Chinese language skills. See:

Chinese student records

In the early twentieth century, young Chinese were allowed to come to Australia to study. Most who came were the children or relatives of people already living here. These students were issued with special Chinese student passports that included their name and place of origin in Chinese characters as well as in English. Many of these passports are held in immigration files in the National Archives of Australia. On how you might be able to use these passports to identify your ancestor’s village of origin, see:

Application for a Chinese student passport for Wong Ching Hung, 1923. NAA: A1, 1927/2279, http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/scripts/AutoSearch.asp?O=I&Number=1506455

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