Tag: Melbourne

The Four Counties apply for naturalisation, 1857

In June 1857, four Chinese men from Melbourne – named Sun Tring, Yun Peng, Sun Woee and Hoy Peng – applied for naturalisation. Their memorials for naturalisation give basic details about them:

  • Sun Tring of Melbourne, 29 years, merchant, arrived on the Annie Bailie in 1852, desires to purchase and hold land
  • Yun Peng, of Melbourne, 30 years, merchant, arrived on the Challenge in 1854, desires to purchase and hold land
  • Sun Woee, of Melbourne, 35 years, merchant, arrived on the Cornwall in January 1857, desires to purchase and hold land
  • Hoy Peng, of Melbourne, 30 years, merchant, arrvied on the Liverpool in 1854, desires to purchase and hold land.

The memorials for naturalisation were each signed by the same six witnesses who knew them and attested to their good character and reputation.

The men were granted their naturalisation certificates on 2 July 1857. They were four of the eight Chinese men granted naturalisation in Victoria in 1857 – the others were Louis Ah Mouy, John Affoo, William Tsze Hing and Abu Mason.

Looking at the signatures on the memorials for naturalisation, I realised something odd about these four men. Their names are the same as those of the Sze Yup (四邑) or Four Counties districts:

  • Sun Tring – Sunning 新寧
  • Yun Peng – Yanping 恩平
  • Sun Woee – Sunwui 新會(会)
  • Hoy Peng – Hoiping 開平

Very curious!


The applications for naturalisation are held in NAA: A712, 1857/A4334 (digitised).

Confirmation that the men were granted naturalisation is found in Ancestry.com’s Victoria, Australia, Index to Naturalisation Certificates, 1851-1928 (original data: Chief Secretary’s Department. Index to Naturalization Certificates (1851–1922), VPRS 4396. Public Record Office Victoria).

Tim Sherratt’s People of Australia Twitter bot randomly tweeted about Yun Peng, which brought the file to my attention.

Book launch for ‘Chinese Australians’, Melbourne, 24 April 2015

Cover of 'Chinese Australians'Everyone is warmly invited to the launch of Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, edited by Sophie Couchman and me.

Bringing together contributions from eleven key scholars in Chinese Australian history, the book explores how Chinese Australians have influenced the communities in which they lived on a civic or individual level. Focusing on the motivations and aspirations of their subjects, the authors draw on biography, world history, case law, newspapers and immigration case files to investigate the political worlds of Chinese Australians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The book will be launched by Ms Nancy Gordon, Australian Consul-General in Chengdu, China.

Coincidentally held the day before Anzac Day, the launch is also a great opportunity to see the Chinese Museum’s exhibition Chinese Anzacs: Chinese Australians and World War One.

When: Friday, 24 April 2015 at 11.00am
Where: Chinese Museum, 22 Cohen Place, Melbourne (behind Her Majesty’s Theatre)
RSVP: 22 April 2015 to curator@chinesemuseum.com.au or 03 9662 2888

Books will be available for purchase on the day at a discounted rate. For more information about the book, see www.brill.com/products/book/chinese-australians.

Sophie and I look forward to seeing you there.

New migration histories, University of Melbourne, 18 September 2013

I will be in Melbourne in September to speak as part of the University of Melbourne’s ‘Australia in the World’ history lecture and seminar series. I’m feeling very honoured to be included on a program with Joy Damousi and Sheila Fitzpatrick. If you’re in Melbourne on 18 September, I’d love to see you there!

Download the New Migration Histories flyer (pdf, 468kb)

New migration histories

In conventional histories of the nation, migrants have usually been represented as making a particular ‘contribution’ to the ‘national story’ in their capacity as members of an ethnic or national category. It is usually assumed that they come to stay eventually becoming members of the ‘migrant nation’. Recently, this narrative has been complicated by transnational frames of historical analysis that allow us to see the various ways in which migrants have lived ‘both here and there’ (in Adam McKeown’s words) both in terms of their subjective experience and in movement between old and new homelands. It has also been recognised that migrants’ lives can’t be reduced to an ‘ethnic’ experience, that ignores the formative economic, political, religious and familial dimensions of migration.

The transnational Chinese family in Australia

Kate Bagnall has published pioneering work on Chinese Australian family migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the migration of white Australian wives of Chinese men to China. She works in Canberra as a print and web editor as well as a historical researcher.

Australian Greek migration, war memory and its legacies

Joy Damousi is Professor of History at the University of Melbourne. Her current project is Greek War Stories, which examines memories of the Second World War and the Greek Civil War in post-war Greek migrant communities.

‘New Australians’ from the Soviet Union via DP camps

Sheila Fitzpatrick is an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney and Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago. Primarily a Soviet historian, her current ARC project is about displaced persons from the Soviet Union who ended up in Australia after the Second World War.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013
4.00pm – 6.00pm

Gryphon Gallery
1888 Building
The University of Melbourne

Admission is free.
Bookings are required.
Seating is limited.

To register visit:

For further information please contact Emma Shortis
eshortis@student.unimelb.edu.au or phone 9035 8358.

Telling the stories of Chinese–Australian families: Melbourne Chinese Studies Group, April 2010

Announcing the next Melbourne Chinese Studies Group seminar…

Topic: Three approaches to telling the stories of Chinese–Australian families – a panel of papers from Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria Inc (CAFHOV)
Speakers: Sophie Couchman, Robyn Ansell, Barbara Nichol
Date: Friday, 9 April 2010, 6pm
Admission: $2. All welcome
Venue: Jenny Florence Room, 3rd Floor, Ross House, 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets)

The Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria (CAFHOV) is a group of people who gather on the first Saturday of very month to discuss issues related to their research into Chinese–Australian family history. These were the papers presented by members of the group at the Dragon Tails conference held last year in Ballarat.

Sophie Couchman – ‘Remembering Chinatown’: The history behind a self-guided audio tour of Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street
Since the early work of labour historians in the 1970s our knowledge of the history of Chinese in Australia has expanded enormously. The challenge is to bring these understandings to the broader Australian public. This paper explores the difficulties and joys of practically applying current perspectives in Chinese–Australian history to a commercial product aimed at the general public.

Robyn Ansell – The wives of Hin Yung and Ah Whay
The Irish-Chinese connection is illustrated by this transition across one generation – from shame to sobriety, from goldfield survivor to pillar of the community. Creswick and Maryborough are the setting of the story.

Barbara Nichol – Chinese restaurant children: negotiating Australian lives
We love stories of those valiant pioneers who tamed the bush, but what about the people who pioneered the urban landscape? The early post-federation stories of Melbourne’s Chinese restaurant families will be the focus of this paper. ‘Restaurant children’ recognised the importance of fulfilling the obligations of their Chinese heritage, yet at the same time were negotiating their futures as Australians. They tend not to be described as ‘pioneers’, yet in many ways their struggles were just as valiant and the obstacles they negotiated were no less daunting.

Talk followed by an informal, inexpensive meal in a nearby Chinatown restaurant.

[Wish I could be there, but I’ll be a bit occupied elsewhere.]

Who is an Australian? (c.1908)

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

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

But that didn’t end up happening either…

Aussie lad or Chinese scholar?

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

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

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

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

From gum trees to Confucian classics

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

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

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

Landmark court case

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

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

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

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

James Minahan vanishes

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

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

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

Lowe Kong Meng: China’s first global citizen?

Paul Macgregor will be addressing the Melbourne Chinese Studies Group on the life of Lowe Kong Meng (1831–88):

Date: Friday 5 December 2008, 6pm
Admission: $2, all welcome
Venue: Jenny Florence Room, 3rd Floor, Ross House, 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (between Swanston and Elizabeth Sts)
Topic: Lowe Kong Meng 1831-1888: China’s first global citizen?
Speaker: Paul Macgregor

Born in Malaya, with a Cantonese father and possibly a Nonya mother; educated in English, French and Italian; trading in: tea and opium from China to Melbourne, beche de mer from Queensland to Hong Kong, sugar from Mauritius, rice from Calcutta to Victoria – Lowe Kong Meng was head of a firm that had branches in Melbourne, Townsville, Mauritius, Hong Kong and London. Awarded the honour of Chinese imperial rank of the blue button (the equivalent of a British knighthood), Lowe Kong Meng was the unofficial consul of the Chinese government in Victoria, but also claimed to be a British subject because of his birth in Penang, a British dependency. His colleagues included those in the highest political and business circles of Melbourne, as well as New York traders and members of the Shanghai American community. All this before 1870. Lowe Kong Meng has a modest place in Australian historiography, yet the scope of his achievements warrants much more. In this paper Paul Macgregor will argue that Lowe took opportunities open to him through the expansion of the British Empire in the Far East and Australasia to become a unique bridge between European & Asian cultures in the 19th century.

Paul Macgregor is an historian who is the convenor of the Melbourne Chinese Studies Group, and was the curator of Melbourne’s Museum of Chinese Australian History from 1990 to 2005. He is the editor of Histories of the Chinese in Australasia and the South Pacific (1995), and joint editor of both Chinese in Oceania (2002) and After the Rush: Regulation, Participation and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860-1940 (2004). He has organised three international conferences on the Chinese diaspora in Australasia, and has curated numerous exhibitions on the history and material heritage of Chinese Australians.

The talk will be followed by an informal, inexpensive meal in a nearby Chinatown restaurant.