Tag: White Australia Policy

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.

Maisie Fook: ‘A Chinese, born and living in White Australia’

In 1968 and 1969, Maisie Fook from Sydney had three ‘reader’s stories’ published in Australia’s best-read women’s magazine, the Australian Women’s Weekly. The first of these told the story of her recent adoption of two Korean orphans, the second recounted the story of her obstetrician brother Ted’s rise from ‘grocer boy to star doctor’, while the third was a reflection on what it was like to be ‘a Chinese, born and living in White Australia’.

Maisie Fook, 1968. Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 July 1968, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46443217

Maisie Fook was born in Tenterfield in northern New South Wales in 1924, the ninth of eleven children of Cecilia (Cissie) Wong See and Harry Gee Hon. As she noted in her story, Maisie had an ‘Australian’ childhood, growing up in a country town where there were no other Chinese children. ‘At school I lived Australian, spoke Australian, thought Australian, and after the initial contact was accepted as Australian by Australians,’ she wrote.

But life at home was different. Her Cantonese father, ‘a proud Chinese’, had migrated to New South Wales as a young man, ‘determined to improve his lot and that of his impoverished relatives’. Her mother, Cissie, born in Sydney in 1887, was the daughter of Cantonese migrants, Ah Sam (mother) and Wong See (father), and had married Harry Gee Hon in Shekki in 1905. Maisie recalled that as a child at home in Tenterfield her family enjoyed Chinese food eaten with chopsticks, her parents ‘spoke Chinese frequently to each other’, and her father instilled in her ‘his idea of the superiority of the Chinese race’.

Although Maisie’s story was framed as an exploration of her identity as Chinese and Australian, a third element – her Christian faith – was also central to the story. Maisie told of her involvement with a Chinese church, where the congregation was mainly ‘Chinese Chinese (born in China)’, and of the communication difficulties she had. ‘I could understand neither their Chinese nor their Chinese-accented English. They could understand my English, but my attempts at Chinese were hilarious.’

By contrast, she told of spending time with a group of ‘Christian Australians’, women she had never met before but in whose company she ‘felt suddenly “at home”‘. It was through such a lens of language and religion that Maisie also mentioned her mother and maternal grandmother, writing:

Eighty years ago my mother was born in Sydney. Her mother was so Chinese and so heathen that she conducted a joss house. My mother speaks Chinese and English fluently, and has a remarkable understanding of heathenism, but she has been a Christian for 50 years.

As mother to a young and growing family in rural Glen Innes, Cecilia Gee Hon had become interested in the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church through the kindness and friendship of an Adventist neighbour. By the time the family moved to Tenterfield in the early 1920s, Cecilia was a baptised member of the church.

In time, her husband, Harry, and her nine surviving children also became Adventists, and from the late 1930s they closed the family store, Sun Sun & Co., on the usually busy trading day of Saturday to observe the Adventist Sabbath.

Maisie continued her mother’s Christian outreach through her work with the Chinese Adventist Church in Strathfield in Sydney, where she and husband Denis Fook were foundation members, and through the charity Asian Aid, which she founded in the early 1960s. One of Maisie’s outreach activities at the Chinese Church was its weekly ‘Creative Activities’, held on Tuesday morning – my mother taught crochet there for many, many years and I can still taste the vegetarian fried wontons Mum would bring home with her!

In her Women’s Weekly story Maisie Fook concluded that ‘Surely, I am Chinese, but, just as surely, I am also Australian’.

In the lives of Maisie, her mother, Cecilia Gee Hon, and her grandmother, Ah Sam, we see three generations whose lives characterise the history of Chinese Australian women over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

From the mid-1800s, Cantonese women like Ah Sam travelled out from the Pearl River Delta counties in Guangdong through Hong Kong to Australia, usually following paths forged by fathers or husbands. Some of these women, and those born overseas like Cecilia Gee Hon and her daughters, also returned to Hong Kong, Shanghai and the Cantonese home villages. Other women were mobile beyond Australia and China, taking part in the multi-sited networks and circulations of Cantonese across and around the Pacific and of British subjects around the Empire.

For more of their stories, see Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez (eds), Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia, Hong Kong University Press, 2021, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1wd02mp.

Sources

John Y. Chan, Amazing Stories From My Two Worlds, Palmer Higgs Pty Ltd, 2011 [preview available in Google Books].

Jan Fook, ‘Maisie Fook (1924–2002)’, Adventism in China [website], https://www.adventisminchina.org/individuals/3-lay-persons/fookmasie. [View PDF of article]

Maisie Fook, ‘From a land of many orphans’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 July 1968, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46443217.

Maisie Fook, ‘From grocer boy to star doctor’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 27 November 1968, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48080574.

Maisie Fook, ‘What is is like to be… a Chinese, born and living in White Australia?’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 February 1969, p. 42, http://nla.gov.au/nla-news-article51384523.

John Hammond, ‘Asian Aid’, Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists [website], 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=4JBZ.

Richard A. Schaefer, ‘Hon, Edward Harry Gee (1917–2006)’, Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, 2020, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=D9I2.

Janis Wilton, ‘HON, Harry Gee’, Different Sights – Immigrants in New England [database], https://hfrc.une.edu.au/heritagefutures/neimmigrants/main.php?area=ppl&ID=P367&form=&RecNo=2&ImgNo=&IDFlg=1&fileLetter=P. [View PDF of database entry]

Jill Wong, ‘The Asian Aid miracle’, Thornleigh Church Online Magazine, 44, December 2011–January 2012, http://www.thornleighadventist.org.au/onlinemag/edition_44/asian_aid_miracle.htm. [View PDF of article]

New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, 2005/180624, birth registration of Cissie Wong See, Sydney, 26 March 1887.

There are also various records in the National Archives of Australia (Sydney) about the Wong See and Gee Hon families.

Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation

This is the paper I presented at the 2018 Australian Historical Association conference, ‘The Scale of History’, held at the Australian National University on 2–6 July 2018. I spoke alongside Sophie Couchman and Emma Bellino in a panel we put together on ‘National belonging and individual lives’:

  • Kate Bagnall: Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation
  • Sophie Couchman: New questions about the enlistment of Chinese Australians during World War I
  • Emma Bellino: ‘Australian girl became an alien’: Reporting married women’s nationality.

Sophie spoke about the disconnect between World War I enlistment regulations and practice in relation to Chinese Australians, while Emma spoke about press reports of marital denaturalisation in Australian newspapers from the 1920s to 1940s.

Abstract

In 1888 the Australian colonies came together to implement uniform laws to restrict Chinese immigration, leading eventually to the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act after Federation in 1901. Alongside immigration restriction, after 1888 four Australian colonies also prohibited Chinese naturalisation, by law in New South Wales and by policy in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. The federal Naturalisation Act of 1903 similarly prohibited Chinese naturalisation. Before these restrictions were introduced, however, thousands of Chinese men in Australia became British subjects through naturalisation, nearly 1000 in New South Wales alone. In this paper I consider the legacies of colonial naturalisation in the lives of Chinese migrants and their families in the 1890s and after Federation, particularly concerning mobility and residency rights. I argue that it is through the stories of individual lives, revealed in the press and in government case files, that we can best understand the ways that naturalised Chinese Australians and their children contested discrimination and asserted their rights as citizens.

Introduction

In early January 1889, the Ah Ket children of Wangaratta, Victoria, were stopped at the border of New South Wales. Fourteen-year-old Matilda, together with her three younger siblings aged thirteen, ten and eight, were travelling to the small town of Gerogery, north of Albury, to visit their married sister Rose. On arriving by train at Albury, however, the Ah Ket children were prevented from crossing the border by the Sub-Collector of Customs. The reason? Because they did not hold naturalisation papers. Confronted by the news that they would not be allowed to continue their journey, Matilda stood her ground, declaring that they had been born and educated at Wangaratta; that they were the children of a Chinese interpreter, Mah Ket; and that as ‘native-born children’ they were free to go anywhere in Australia. The Sub-Collector was unconvinced, and so sent them back home to Victoria by the same train. Their father, and the good people of Wangaratta, were appalled by the Customs officer’s actions. Mah Ket put the matter in the hands of a solicitor, and on 19 January 1889, the Wangaratta correspondent to the Melbourne Leader wrote an impasssioned piece on the family’s behalf:

The children whose liberty is so circumscribed are natives of Wangaratta, very intelligent and Christian; and speak better Queen’s English probably than some of the honorable gentlemen who made the law under which they are treated as aliens. It has been determined that for the peace and prosperity of the colony, Chinese immigration shall be restricted. But here were no aliens, but the most peaceful and defenceless of Australians – of like speech, education, religion and affections.

The Act under which the Sub-Collector of Customs stopped the children was the NSW Chinese Restriction and Regulation Act, passed six months earlier, in June 1888. This Act, and others introduced around the Australasian colonies, were the result of growing concerns over Chinese immigration.

One of the children stopped at the NSW border that summer’s day in 1889, thirteen-year-old William Ah Ket, grew up to be Australia’s first Chinese barrister. Educated at Melbourne University and admitted to the bar in 1903, Ah Ket had a distinguished legal career in which he actively campaigned for the rights of Chinese in Australia. He appeared before the High Court, represented Australian Chinese at the opening of the first Chinese parliament in Peking in 1911, and was Acting Consul for China in Australia in 1913–1914 and 1917. He was also a husband and father to two daughters and two sons.

This paper considers nationality, naturalisation and colonial mobility through the lens of Chinese Australian families like the Ah Kets. Mah Ket, the Ah Ket children’s father, was not naturalised, but this should not have mattered when the children tried to cross into New South Wales. Young Matilda was right – as native-born British subjects, the NSW Chinese Restriction Act should not have applied to them. Yet, the fact that they were turned back illustrates the ambiguity with which immigration restriction laws were applied to native-born and naturalised Chinese British subjects in Australia and New Zealand. The law stated what it stated, but it’s truth also lay in the way that it was interpreted and applied – whether that was at the border, in a bureaucrat’s office, in a magistrate’s court or in the High Court.

Prohibition of Chinese naturalisation formed part of the anti-Chinese policies introduced in four Australian colonies (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) from the 1880s, and then in the Commonwealth of Australia from 1904 and the Dominion of New Zealand from 1908. Before these prohibitions, however, thousands of Chinese men in Australia and New Zealand became British subjects through naturalisation, nearly 1000 in New South Wales alone. In this paper then I want to think about the legacies of this earlier history of colonial naturalisation in the lives of Chinese settlers and their families in the 1890s and after Federation, particularly concerning mobility and residency rights. I will argue that it is through the stories of individual lives, revealed in the press and in government case files, that we can best understand the ways that naturalised Chinese Australians and their children contested discrimination and asserted their rights as citizens.

Naturalisation and Chinese restriction

The first anti-Chinese legislation was introduced in Australia in 1855 in Victoria, followed by a similar Act in South Australia in 1857. New South Wales then followed suit in 1861. With tonnage restrictions and a poll tax on each Chinese arrival, this legislation was effective in reducing the Chinese population in the colonies, and so, having served its purpose, it was repealed: in South Australia in 1861 (after three years), in Victoria in 1865 (after 10 years) and in New South Wales in 1867 (after 5 years). Between then and 1881, there was no restrictive legislation against Chinese immigration – except in Queensland, which introduced a Chinese Immigration Restriction Act in 1877. In 1881, however, new and more consistent legislation was introduced across the colonies after the 1880–81 intercolonial conferences. This legislation was then tightened following the Intercolonial Conference on the Chinese Question in mid-1888. Laws varied slightly across the seven colonies, but they generally had tonnage restrictions and some a poll tax to limit the number of Chinese migrants. They also included various exemptions, for residents and British subjects.

In New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand, for instance, the 1881 Acts brought in a £10 poll tax on Chinese arriving by sea or by land and a limit of one Chinese to every 100 tons of shipping. The NSW and Victorian Acts exempted British subjects, while in New South Wales and New Zealand, other Chinese residents could also apply for exemption certificates. In 1888, the tonnage limits increased in each of these colonies, and the NSW poll tax leapt to £100, while it was abolished in Victoria. Each colony exempted Chinese naturalised in that colony, while the NSW Act also explicitly exempted British subjects by birth. Significantly, too, the NSW Act prohibited the naturalisation of Chinese. After Federation, the Australian colonial laws were repealed, although not immediately – in New South Wales, for example, the poll tax remained in place until 1903. The new federal Immigration Restriction Act, which came into force from the beginning of 1902, provided exemptions for those who had formerly been domiciled in the Commonwealth or in any colony which had become a state (s 3n). Australian birth and naturalisation certificates could be used as proof of this domicile, although exemption certificates were also issued.

As mentioned, prohibition of Chinese naturalisation also formed part of the anti-Chinese measures introduced in Australia and New Zealand. New South Wales was the only colony that prohibited Chinese naturalisation by law and it did so twice, in 1861 (repealed in 1867) and again in 1888. Three other colonies (Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) stopped naturalising Chinese after 1888, while Tasmania and Queensland continued until the federal Naturalization Act came into force in 1904. This new Act prohibited naturalisation of ‘aboriginal natives’ of Asia, Africa and the islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand. In New Zealand, Chinese were naturalised until 1907; and it was stopped after the NZ Cabinet decided in February 1908 to decline naturalisation applications of Chinese from them on.

Colonial Chinese naturalisation

The numbers of Chinese who became naturalised in each colony varied greatly, from about 20 in Western Australia up to nearly 3000 in Victoria. In New Zealand there were around 450. As part of my current project, I am compiling databases of Chinese who became naturalised in New South Wales, New Zealand and British Columbia in Canada. If we look at Chinese naturalisations in New South Wales each year from the late 1850s, when the first one took place, to 1888, when Chinese naturalisation was prohibited for the second time, we can see a gap during the 1860s when it was prohibited the first time, and a very obvious peak in the early 1880s. The highest point on that peak is in 1883, when there were 301 naturalisations of Chinese, making up almost a third of the total for the colony. If we think back to what else was happening in the early 1880s, it is clear that this increase was in response to the 1881 NSW Influx of Chinese Restriction Act – which provided exemptions from the £10 poll tax for Chinese naturalised in the colony.

Applicants for naturalisation in New South Wales were asked to state a reason why they sought naturalisation, and most Chinese stated that it was because they wanted to purchase land, or because they had settled in the colony, or something similar. But eight men stated that they sought naturalisation for the rights of ingress and egress. One of these men, Ah Hi, who was naturalised in 1886, stated, for example, that he was ‘desirous of seeing his parents and relatives & returning to this colony where he has an interest in a market garden’. Although there were only a handful of men who explicity stated they sought naturalisation so they could travel across colonial borders, the rapid increase in numbers of naturalisations after the 1881 Act came into force suggests that mobility was a prime motivation.

Other evidence in the archives also shows that Chinese actively used naturalisation to faciliate mobility, for themselves and for their families. There are, for example, Customs statistics that record the numbers of Chinese entering the colonies using naturalisation certificates, reports of individual cases in the newspapers, and Customs and External Affairs / Internal Affairs files that document the travels of Chinese Australians and Chinese New Zealanders. I want now to turn to some of the individual cases of naturalised Chinese and their families – to consider the ways they used their status as British subjects to negotiate anti-Chinese immigration laws, and also to consider the ambiguous nature of the interpretation and application of those laws.

At the borders

So, to return to the Ah Ket children briefly. Under the NSW 1888 Act, any Chinese who produced satisfactory evidence that they were a British subject by birth was to be allowed to enter the colony, yet the Sub-Collector turned the children away for not having naturalisation papers. Would the situation have been different if Matilda, William, Alberta and Ada had produced their Victorian birth certificates, as many Australian-born Chinese did when they returned by sea? Or what if their father was naturalised and they had produced his naturalisation certificate? Would that have been enough proof?

For Chinese Australians, crossing colonial and later national borders was first contingent on being satisfactorily identified, of convincing officials at the border that you were who you said you were. It was then further contingent on bureaucratic and legal interpretations of the law. Each time the law changed, or new regulations were issued, Customs officers at both sea and land borders had to work out how the new policies worked in practice. In her history of the Chinese in Sydney, Shirley Fitzgerald has noted, for example, that in the early 1880s, administering the 1881 Chinese Restriction Act took up much of the Collector of Customs’ time and energy, and he regularly complained to his superiors that he had inadequate staff to deal with incoming and outgoing Chinese (Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors, pp. 28–29).

Each time the law changed, Chinese Australians also had to work out what the new requirements meant, and how they could best negotiate them, whether by lawful or unlawful means. The dramatic increase in Chinese naturalisations after the 1881 Act is an example of this, and so too is the fact that by 1885, the Sydney Collector of Customs believed that there was a solid trade in naturalisation certificates, which were ‘sent to China and sold’. Chinese Australians made use of their rights where and how they could, and pushed back where and how they could, particularly where the law left room for negotiation.

Family mobility

Naturalisation allowed Chinese men themselves to come and go from Australia and New Zealand, but it also facilitated the entry of their wives and children. In 1898, Nicholas Lockyer, the NSW Collector of Customs, told Sydney’s Evening News that two ways that Chinese evaded the poll tax were by ‘the transfer of naturalisation papers’ and by ‘Chinese women passing themselves off as wives of men who have been formally naturalised in New South Wales’. Such suspicions resulted in careful investigations and meticulous recordkeeping, particularly after the turn of the century.

One example is the Ah Lum family of Sydney. Mrs Ah Lum (I’m afraid that I haven’t yet identified the names of some of these wives and children) came out to live with her husband in 1895. He was a storekeeper and had been naturalised in 1882, returning to China to visit a few years later. The Ah Lums’ daughter was born in 1887, after Ah Lum had returned to New South Wales, and she had stayed in China with her grandmother after her mother migrated. In 1899, Ah Lum asked for permission for his daughter to come to live with him and his wife, as his mother had died and the child had no one to care for her. After some investigations by the Customs department’s Chinese inspector, a permit was issued so Ah Lum’s daughter could enter without paying the poll tax.

The Ah Lums’ case was a relatively straightforward one, unlike that of George Lee’s family a few years later. Lee had been naturalised in 1884 and returned to China not long after to be married. In August 1902, he brought his wife and two sons, Quong Foo and Quong Jah, to Sydney. Mrs Lee was admitted without question because she was the wife of a naturalised British subject (and a wife’s nationality followed that of her husband), but officials demanded the £100 poll tax be paid for each son. Lee paid up, under protest, and the Presbyterian Church raised the matter with the Premier and Solicitor-General on his behalf. They were told that Lee was only a British subject while in New South Wales and that as soon as he left, he reverted to Chinese nationality, hence his children were not British subjects by birth or descent. When asked about the matter, Prime Minister Edmund Barton stated it was not of his concern – the payment of the poll tax was a matter for the state of New South Wales to decide, and the family had been allowed in properly under the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act.

Barton could be so dismissive of his responsibility because, at that moment in time, domiciled Chinese men were able to bring in their wives and minor children under section 3 paragraph m of the Immigration Restriction Act. This provision was suspended by proclamation after only 15 months, and repealed in 1905, but during the time it was in force 88 Chinese family members, mainly wives, were allowed to enter Australia permanently. One of these was the wife of Kok Say, managing partner of the Hong Yuen & Co. store in Inverell. In mid 1902, Kok Say wrote to the government requesting a permit for his wife’s entry and stating his credentials – he had been naturalised in 1884 after arriving in the colony of New South Wales nine years earlier. In his words, ‘I have made my home here & have no intention of returning at any time to China’. His request was granted without issue and Mrs Kok Say arrived at Sydney from Hong Kong in November 1902.

After the repeal of section 3 paragraph m in 1905, the entry of Chinese wives and children was solely at the discretion of the Minister for External Affairs, and over the following years we see naturalised Chinese continuing to try to find ways to bring their families to Australia, including through legal challenges in the courts. In New Zealand, naturalised Chinese similarly tested the limits of the law in their efforts to bring out wives and children without having to pay the poll tax, which continued to be applied until 1934, before finally being repealed in 1944.

Conclusion

Although the prohibition of Chinese naturalisation was part of the suite of anti-Chinese measures introduced in the Australasian colonies from the 1860s through into the 20th century, its history is more than one of simple exclusion. It is important to also consider the times when Chinese could be, and were, naturalised, and the ongoing legacies of this in their and their families lives. As British subjects, naturalised Chinese had legal and political rights that they continually asserted, testing and challenging the limits of policy and law. Sometimes they were successful in these challenges, sometimes they weren’t, but when we look closely at their individual cases we can see how their actions both shaped and were shaped by the law. We can also see inconsistencies and ambiguities in the law and in the ways it was administered and applied.

Revealing the Real Face of White Australia: new project and transcribe-a-thon

This semester I am working with Tim Sherratt’s Exploring Digital Heritage class at the University of Canberra to undertake an important project on the White Australia Policy, using records from the National Archives of Australia and collaborating with the Museum of Australian Democracy.

The project involves transcribing digitised files from series ST84/1 – mostly Certificates of Domicile and Certificates Exempting from the Dictation Test dating from the early decades of the 20th century.

Under the White Australia Policy, anyone deemed not to be ‘white’ who travelled overseas had to carry these special documents. Without them travellers could be subjected to the Dictation Test and denied re-entry — even though they might have been born in Australia or had been naturalised.

The certificates contain information about ordinary people living their lives despite the restrictions imposed on them by a racist bureaucratic system. By transcribing these documents — extracting information about their names, their ages, their places of birth, their travels overseas — we hope to learn more about them and their experiences.

Only about 15 per cent of series ST84/1 has been digitised so far, but Tim estimates that there are about 6000 certificates already available online. There are two copies of most certificates, so that’s about 3000 unique certificates.

To extract the data Tim has built a website using Scribe, a community transcription platform developed by Zooniverse and the New York Public Library. His students are developing the documentation for the site and will support volunteer transcribers.

We will launch the transcription site on the weekend of the 9–10 September at the Real Face of White Australia Transcribe-a-thon hosted by the Museum of Australian Democracy. Across the weekend we’ll have transcription stations set up in Kings Hall. We’ll also have a series of speakers – Dr Sophie Couchman, Dr Peter Prince, Tim and myself – talking about the records and what they can tell us. Students will be managing communications and event planning related to the transcribe-a-thon.

It’ll be an exciting event — come along and help! Or if you’re not in Canberra, stay tuned for details of how you can be involved in transcribing the records online.

http://transcribe.realfaceofwhiteaustralia.net

 

New guide to researching Immigration Restriction Act records

I have produced a short guide to researching Chinese Australians in Immigration (Restriction) Act records in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney.

The guide aims to be a practical introduction to the records, their context and content. It covers the administrative background and processes, how-to steps for researching, a description of the main record series with examples, and copies of various certificates and forms.

Although the examples given in the guide relate to Chinese Australians, information about other ‘non-white’ Australians, such as those of Syrian, Afghan, Indian and Japanese backgrounds, can also be found in the records discussed.

Download the PDF (6.8mb): Chinese Australians and the Immigration Restriction Act by Kate Bagnall

 

Immigration Restriction Act instructions, 1901 to 1919

I suspect I will never be finished in my quest to understand the workings of the White Australia policy in the early decades of the twentieth century. My most recent work (which I hope will be published in the next year) has focused on the entry and residence of Chinese wives between 1902 and 1920, including the well-known ‘Poon Gooey case’.

While much of what I know about how the Immigration (Restriction) Act was administered comes from individual case files (known as correspondence files), there has been a gap between these files and the legislation itself. Two items in the National Archives (AP214/9 and D3193) help fill this gap. The Collector of Customs in Adelaide – who like Customs officers in the other states administered the Act in accordance with regulations, rules and instructions from the Department of External Affairs – kept a valuable, and seemingly unique, record of this correspondence from External Affairs. I have not come across other similar items for other states (always happy to be corrected though!)

I’ve had D3193 digitised by the National Archives and, while the cost of digitisation of A214/9 was prohibitive because of conservation concerns, I have photographed it and put the images up in Dropbox (link below). There is another series, AP378/37 – ‘Confidential instructions (old system), 1900–45’, listed in RecordSearch as being held in Sydney, but I haven’t looked at this to see if it contains similar material.

AP214/9

AP214/9 is a register containing copies of the Immigration Restriction Act and related correspondence, dating from 1901 to 1913. It was created by the Collector of Customs in Adelaide, South Australia.

The contents of the register includes:

  • copies of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and subsequent amendments, as well as related regulations and statutory rules
  • notes for the guidance of officers administering the IRA
  • copies of forms used in administering the IRA
  • instructions from Department of External Affairs to the local Collector of Customs at Port Adelaide.

Much of the content concerns ‘coloured’ arrivals, including ships’ crews, and arriving passengers with physical diseases or disabilities.

It is a large bound volume, with folios marked with page numbers up to 292. The documents (either printed or typsescript carbon copies) are pasted into the register, rather than being written out by hand. Folios 232 to 267 are blank. There is a separate alphabetical index (which doesn’t seem very complete). The last dated document is from 31 December 1913.

AP214/9, VOLUME 1 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Adelaide and is not digitised in RecordSearch (as of 20 June 2017). My images of AP214/9 are available in Dropbox.

National Archives of Australia: AP214/9

D3193

D3193 is a volume containing confidential instructions relating to the Immigration Act (as the Immigration Restriction Act was known after 1912), dating from 1914 to 1919.

The small printed volume has been annotated with handwritten notes and insertions of further documents by the Collector of Customs, Adelaide. The original volume is titled Immigration Act Instructions together with Immigration Act 1901–1912 and Immigration Regulations 1913 and was produced by the Department of External Affairs in 1914.

The contents of D3193 are similar to those in AP214/9.

D3193 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney and is digitised in RecordSearch.

Sam family featured at the National Archives

One of the Anglo-Chinese families from NSW that I have written about has been featured in the latest refresh of the Memory of a Nation exhibition at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.

During World War I, young Percy Sam of West Wyalong applied for both a CEDT and an Emigration Certificate before travelling with his father to China – at the same time as his older brothers were away fighting in the AIF. It’s a story that illustrates the contradictory ways that Australians of part-Chinese descent were treated by government authorities in the early twentieth century. For more on that see my earlier blog post and my Inside History article. Alastair Kennedy’s Chinese Anzacs book also discusses the Sam brothers.

Five documents about the Sam family are featured the National Archives exhibition:

  • a police report about father William Flood Sam that accompanied his CEDT application (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058)
  • photographs of father William and son Percy Sam that accompanied their CEDT applications (NAA: SP42/1, C1915/4058; SP42/1, C1915/4032 )
  • a letter from mother Jane Sam giving permission for son Percy to travel overseas with his father (NAA: C1915/4032)
  • an attestation paper for elistment in the AIF for son James Sam (NAA: B2455: Sam James Francis).

The display is behind glass in a drawer, so it’s a bit hard to photograph. The main text reads:

At the outbreak of World War I the Sam brothers, like many young Australian men, were eager to represent their country. Two of the brothers – James and Norman – enlisted in November 1914 and went on to serve at Gallipoli in 1915. Over the remainder of that year, three more brothers – Henry, George and Tom – also enlisted.

Also in 1915 their father William and younger brother Percy wanted to travel to China, William’s birth country. While some family members were considered ‘sufficiently European’ to serve overseas in the Australian Imperial Force, William and Percy had to apply for a Certificate of Exemption from the dictation test before they could travel due to their part-Chinese heritage.

Alas, there are a couple of problems with this short account.

First, only four Sam brothers enlisted (a fifth, Tom, was said to have gone off to war, but there is no record of him actually having served – a check of B2455 would have shown that); two Sam grandsons, with the surname Loolong, did also enlist though.

Second, a Certificate of Exemption (from the dictation test) was different from a Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test, which is what William and Percy applied for and were granted.

Third, William Sam did not have ‘part-Chinese’ heritage as the caption implies – he was ‘full’ Chinese.

Celestial City: misunderstanding the administration of immigration restriction

The administration of the Immigration Restriction Act in early 20th-century Australia was complex, contradictory, opaque, ambiguous and capricious. After reading through hundreds of individual case files of Chinese Australians created as part of this administrative system, I still find myself puzzled and surprised and confused when trying to comprehend what really went on. Why was a particular decision made? Why was one case treated so differently from another? Why was the law applied harshly at times, leniently at others? It is not an easy history to understand well, nor are its complexities easy to communicate simply. But this doesn’t excuse getting the history wrong, as is the case in the Museum of Sydney’s Celestial City exhibition.

The second-to-last part of the exhibition is titled ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ and explores anti-Chinese immigration restriction and the White Australia Policy. The introductory panel unfortunately repeats the mistake that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the ‘first law passed by the newly federated Commonwealth’. In fact it was the 17th piece of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament in 1901, the last one that year, after things like the Customs Act, Excise Act, Post and Telegraph Act and, significantly, the Pacific Island Labourers Act. An easy mistake to make perhaps since it crops up everywhere, but when visiting the exhibition it didn’t bode well for what was to come (especially as it was repeated in a following panel on ‘The White Australia Policy’). The introductory panel goes on to say that, under the Immigration Restriction Act, Chinese living in Australia were ‘denied the freedom to come and go between Australia and China’:

… after 1901 Chinese were effectively exiled in Sydney, their futures uncertain. Those who had made their lives here were unwilling to risk returning to, or visiting, China for fear they would not be allowed to return. So they stayed in Australia, raised families and became the ancestors of generations of Chinese Australians.

Yet what follows in the exhibition are case studies and documents that demonstrate the mobility of Chinese residents and Australians of Chinese and part-Chinese descent. Historian Michael Williams estimates that 6000 or so individuals identified as ‘Chinese’ made over 26,000 journeys through the port of Sydney between 1902 and 1959 (Williams 2004: 37). If you have trouble imagining quite how many people that is, have a look at Tim Sherratt’s The Real Face of White Australia, an experiment in making the people in the archives of White Australia visible (using records from NAA: ST84/1 in Sydney). To me, this is not a population who were afraid — it is a population who were getting on with their lives, dealing with the bureaucracy as necessary, and testing and challenging the system on many, many occasions.

On the wall of ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ is an enlargement of the back of a 1903 Certificate of Domicile for cabinetmaker Tin Lee (NAA: ST84/1, 1903/261-270). The certificate has front and side portraits of Tin Lee, a handprint, official stamps and certification by Customs officer JTT Donohoe. The front of Tin Lee’s 1903 certificate and a piece of correspondence are also included in a display titled ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’. From the certificate it is clear that Tin Lee went to China on the Empire in December 1903. Certificates were valid for three years. The piece of correspondence, written by the Collector of Customs, Nicholas Lockyer, gives permission for the extension of Tin Lee’s certificate for one more year, to the end of 1907 (meaning that if he returned before that date he would not be made to sit the dictation test). On the front of Tin Lee’s certificate Donohoe has noted in red that the certificate was cancelled as Tin Lee had landed in Sydney on the Chingtu on 1 June 1907.

Colour photograph showing a museum exhibition of historical documents and photographs
Tin Lee’s Certificate of Domicile on the wall of ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ in the Celestial City exhibition, Museum of Sydney

Considering that this information is all clearly stated on the documents included in the exhibition, it’s curious that the text reads thus:

Tin Lee was a cabinet-maker who had lived in Botany since 1888. After being here for 18 years he applied for an extension of his Certificate of Domicile, a proof of residency that allowed him to re-enter Australia if he left. His certificate was extended by one year, to 31 December 1907. This meant that if he departed Australia after that time, perhaps to visit family in China, he would not be allowed to return.

The curator seems to have completely missed the fact that Tin Lee was already overseas when the extension was applied for. The National Archives also holds a correspondence file relating to Tin Lee which dates from 1903 to 1941 (NAA: SP11/27, C1941/1178 — not digitised, and I haven’t looked through it) and a further six CEDTs documenting his travels back and forth over at least four decades. So, it wasn’t the case that once his certificate expired in 1907 that Tin Lee would be unable to travel overseas and return again — he was able to apply for a new certificate, and then another one and another one.

Also on display in ‘Negotiating the Bureaucracy’ are documents relating to Maggie Yee Lee, the Sydney-born daughter of cabinetmaker Yee Lee. Here the interpretive text is fine, although it states that Maggie and her siblings ‘needed a Certificate of Domicile … to re-enter Australia after their sojourn in China’. Strictly this isn’t correct, as many young Chinese Australians like Maggie travelled using their birth certificates as proof of domicile, but having a certificate certainly made sure that a return home to Sydney went as smoothly as possible. The text accompanying the other set of documents on display, relating to hawker and herbalist Charlie Hing, is similarly fine.

The final display in the ‘Exiles and Ancestors’ part of Celestial City is where the interpretation of the archival documents relating to immigration restriction really falls apart. The display is titled ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ and the main text states that the case in question involved the ‘repatriation’ of the eldest son of Braidwood resident Chee Dock Nomchong. The use of the term ‘repatriation’, which to me means ‘returning to the country you came from’ or ‘returning to your own country’, is wrong. George Nomchong, the eldest child of Chee Dock and Mary Nomchong, was born in China in 1887. He was left in the care of his grandmother in China when Mary went with Chee Dock to live in Australia. How could it be that China-born George Nomchong was being repatriated in 1908 when he was actually going to Australia for the first time?

Photograph of a display of historical documents in a museum exhibition
‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ display in the Celestial City exhibition, Museum of Sydney (photo by Michael Williams)

Chee Dock Nomchong was a long-term resident of Braidwood and he was naturalised in NSW. So the term ‘repatriation’ seems to have been used in the exhibition to make the point that as the son of a naturalised British subject domiciled in Australia, George Nomchong might also have had the right to live in Australia — ‘As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901‘, it says. Except things were not this simple. The concept of nationality in Australia in the early 20th century was fuzzy and complicated by its intersection with ideas of race, but it was based on birthplace not parents’ nationality (meaning, for example, that children born in Australia to ‘alien’ Chinese parents were British subjects by birth) (Dutton 2000). George’s personal and familial circumstances might have meant there was a moral imperative to allow him to come to live in Australia, but there was not a clear legal one. The previous year the case Ah Yin v. Christie had been heard in the High Court, where it was decided that Ah Yin, the China-born-and-raised son of a Chinese man living in Victoria, did not have the right to live to Australia simply because his father was living here. Ah Yin was still in his mid-teens, a minor, yet George Nomchong was already twenty-one when his father applied for him to come to Australia. George was not a minor child dependent on his father and mother, but a grown man.

The George Nomchong case study in the exhibition includes seven archival documents, four pieces of correspondence and three CEDTs, each with accompanying interpretive text. The correspondence is taken from a 145-page Department of External Affairs file (NAA: A1, 1926/9963), while there is further material on the case in a Sydney Customs file (NAA: SP42/1, C1910/4678) not used in the exhibition. The CEDTs are from series NAA: ST84/1. The National Archives holds other later files about George Nomchong and his own wife and children, but these aren’t digitised (and I haven’t looked at them before) and they don’t appear to have been drawn on for the exhibition. The events covered in the 145-page External Affairs file are complex, but I believe that an important part of the story has been overlooked, either because it did not fit with the exhibition’s presentation of the story of George Nomchong’s ‘repatriation’ to Australia or because the curator simply failed to understand what happened.

Here’s Celestial City‘s presentation of the George Nomchong case.


 Repatriating George Nomchong

In 1908 the Immigration Restriction Act was tested in an unusual case concerning the eldest son of Chee Dock Nomchong. The boy was born in China in 1887, three years after his father had been naturalised as a British subject, and was left in China with his grandmother while his parents returned to Braidwood. Twenty-one years later, Chee Dock began the protracted process of repatriating his son, known as George, to Australia. As the child of a British subject, George should have been exempted from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. However, as these immigration records show, he was subjected to the same scrutiny and surveillance that shadowed any Chinese immigrant after 1901.

Letter to A Hunt from Chee Dock Nom Chong, 21 March 1908
Letter to Chee Dock Nom Chong from A Hunt, 28 March 1908

‘By giving me some idea of the test I can acquaint him of it …’ writes Chee Dock Nomchong to Secretary of External Affairs Mr Atlee Hunt. However, since the dictation test could be given in any European language, not necessarily, as Mr Hunt admits, ‘one with which the intending immigrant was acquainted’, Chee Dock’s attempt to prepare his son for the test was futile. Customs officers selected the language most likely to eliminate ‘unwanted and undesirable’ immigrants. Between 1902 and 1909 the dictation test was given to 1359 people. Fifty-two were successful. After 1909 no one passed.

Refusal of Domicile for Chee Dock Nom Chong, 6 May 1910
Letter from James Gregg to Chee Dock Nom Chong, 18 May 1910

In 1910, on his way to Fiji, George Nomchong briefly visited his family in Braidwood. His father’s request that he be allowed to stay was denied, and George was subsequently deported as a restricted immigrant. His father pursued the case with a large petition, signed by the residents of Braidwood, asking that special consideration be given. The petitioners’ representative, Mr James Gregg, pointed out that this case different from ‘what the real framing of the Act was intended for’ because the immigrant in question was of a respectable family and the son of ‘one of the most liberal and best citizens we have in Australia’.

Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 20 May 1926
Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 4 May 1935
Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test for George Nom Chong, 12 May 1947

After years of waiting, and in view of the exceptional circumstances of the case, in 1913 George Nomchong was issued with a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test that was valid for four years. He worked at the Nomchong market gardens near Goulburn and for the next 40 years lived an uncertain life as a temporary resident, successively renewing his certificate until the dictation test was abolished in 1958.


(Off topic a bit, but why are Chee Dock Nomchong and George Nomchong referred to by their first names, while Atlee Hunt is ‘Mr Atlee Hunt’ or ‘Mr Hunt’?)

As I said before, George Nomchong — a man born in China to a Chinese mother (who at the time of his birth had never been to Australia) and a naturalised Chinese father resident in Australia — did not necessarily have a greater legal right to enter Australia under the Immigration Restriction Act than any other Chinese man of Chinese birth, and officials initially treated his case accordingly. Over the time between when Chee Dock Nomchong first applied for permission in 1908 and when permission was finally granted in 1913, however, the administration was learning that the Chinese community in Australia was not going to passively sit by and have their rights as Australians be dismantled. While the power ultimately remained with the government, family members and community leaders — mostly well-to-do, English-speaking, long-term residents of the merchant class like Chee Dock Nomchong — pushed and pushed and pushed in individual cases to attain fairer outcomes. Officials learned that the Chinese community would and could take cases as far as the High Court and be successful, as it had been with the Potter v. Minahan case in 1908, or it would cause the government serious embarrassment through widespread bad publicity over decisions that were seen as heartless and anti-Christian, such as the Poon Gooey deportation case between 1910 to 1913. Better to compromise in cases such as George Nomchong’s, where there were ‘exceptional’ or ‘special’ circumstances, than face the costs of defeat in the courts or the press.

From 1914 to 1920, George Nomchong was issued with a series of Certificates of Exemption — not Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test or CEDTs, as stated in the exhibition. Certificates of Exemption were like visitors visas, allowing someone to enter Australia and take up temporary residence for a set period. CEDTs on the other hand were issued to people already living or ‘domiciled’ in Australia granting them permission to return without having to sit the dictation test. Two different sorts of exemption for two different categories of people. George’s Certificate of Exemption was granted on his arrival in Sydney in April 1914, for a period of four years, and was extended in 1918 for a further two years. George then made a visit to China from May to December 1919, after being granted permission to return after his trip and remain for the unexpired portion of his exemption period. After a further application by Chee Dock Nomchong, in March 1920 George’s exemption was extended again for four years. This practice of issuing an ongoing series of Certificates of Exemption was not at all unusual — it seems to have been a common way that government officials worked around their own restrictions against permanent admission of new Chinese, a way to make allowances in ‘exceptional’ cases without setting an official precedent of permanent entry.

What is missed entirely in the Celestial City telling of George’s story is that in 1920 officials decided that his case should be ‘closed’ — that is, that he could remain permanently in Australia without having to keep reapplying for his Certificate of Exemption to be extended. A memo from Atlee Hunt in March 1920 informed the Collector of Customs in Sydney that ‘no further action need be taken to remind this Chinese of the expiration of his exemption as the case may be considered closed’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 21). Atlee Hunt had pondered how to resolve George Nomchong’s case, admitting that the government ‘had given him a CEDT last year and thereby acknowledged his right to remain’ (NAA: A1, 1926/9963, p. 25). It is not clear from the file when, how or if the Nomchongs were informed of this decision, but after 1920 there were no further applications to extend George’s Certificate of Exemption. There were, however, applications for CEDTs, the first one issued in 1926 before George made a two-year trip to China. Apart from difficulties raised when three prohibited immigrants were found working on George’s Boorowa market garden in 1922, by the mid-1920s George’s right to live in Australia was settled. The CEDTs on display in Celestial City are not evidence of the precariousness of George’s presence in Australia, but rather proof that his Australian domicile was no longer questioned.

Although ‘Repatriating George Nomchong’ seems to have been written based on the archives alone, I wondered whether family perspectives had entered into how these archives were read and how George’s life was remembered. There can be no denying that the system was unfair and that officials could wield their power in ways that created insecurity for migrant Chinese living in early 20th-century Australia. This insecurity, along with the basic inequality of the system and the intervention and interference of authorities in the lives of Chinese Australians (such as during the 1922 incident with the illegal workers on George Nomchong’s garden), is often rightly remembered by descendants who have heard first hand what life was like under White Australia. There is no mention, however, of Nomchong family members having been interviewed and their memories being incorporated into the George Nomchong narrative in the exhibition, so I can only assume that the curator has worked from the archives alone.

One later file about George Nomchong, dating from 1939 to 1942, might have helped the exhibition clarify his legal status and identify whether or not George had been granted the right to remain permanently. It appears that George Nomchong inquired about naturalisation in 1939, perhaps in response to the Aliens Registration Act 1939 (see handwritten note at the bottom of page 5 in NAA: 1926/9963). It is unlikely that he would have been granted naturalisation, but I can find no obvious alien registration documents for him in Sydney either (NAA: SP1732/4). The file that might answer such questions (NAA: A659, 1942/1/6634) remains, however, unexamined in the archives.

You might ask if it really matters that details in the Celestial City exhibition aren’t spot on. How much detail do people take in during an exhibition visit anyway? Isn’t it more important for them to get a strong general impression — in this case of the extent and nature of anti-Chinese ideas in 19th and early 20th century Australia — than fretting over minutiae? To me, getting facts wrong in an exhibition like Celestial City, which has obviously had a lot of money put into it and a lot of publicity created around it, seems like a wasted opportunity. I can almost forgive the exhibition for reducing the vibrant, diverse and fascinating tale that is ‘Sydney’s Chinese Story’, full of characters and life and surprising twists, to something more akin to ‘What Racist White People in Sydney Thought About the Chinese’.* But the history of the Chinese in Australia, particularly the history of discrimination during the White Australia period, is too important for us to settle for the sort of sloppy reading of the archives and failure of historical understanding shown in Celestial City. Instead we need to be measured, considered, rigorous and meticulous in the research we do and the historical stories we tell. To do otherwise is to leave ourselves open to accusations of dishonesty, inaccuracy, exaggeration and sensationalism.

* There is certainly a place for examining white Australian attitudes towards the Chinese in the 19th and early 20th century, but as Alan Mayne has stated, ‘By emphasising unrelenting European intolerance and aggression towards Chinese settlers, historians have tended to overlook Chinese agency and the permeability of racial boundaries’. A better approach is to work towards a more nuanced understanding of European discrimination towards the Chinese and, in doing so, ‘deny Chinese passivity and marginalisation, and point instead to Chinese strategy and many-faceted engagement with colonial society’ (Mayne 2004: 2).

References

David Dutton. 2000. ‘The Meaning of Citizenship: Citizenship in Australia‘. In Citizenship in Australia: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records. Canberra: National Archives of Australia.

Alan Mayne. 2004. ‘”What you want John?” Chinese-European interactions on the Lower Turon goldfields’. Journal of Australian Colonial History 6: 1–13.

Michael Williams. 2004. ‘Would this not help your Federation?’ In After the Rush: Regulation, Participation, and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860–1940, edited by Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald and Paul Macgregor: 35–50. Kingsbury, Vic.: Otherland Literary Journal.

Representing lives from the archive of White Australia

Sophie Couchman, Tim Sherratt and I are presenting a session on ‘Representing lives from the archive of White Australia’ at Framing Lives: 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association on 19 July 2012.

Panel description

This panel offers three approaches to representing the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who were affected by the racially-based immigration policies of late 19th and early 20th-century Australia. To administer the Immigration Restriction Act and its colonial predecessors, government officials implemented an increasingly complex and structured system of tracking and documenting the movements of non-white people as they travelled in and out of the country. This surveillance left an extraordinary body of records containing information about people who, according to the national myth of a ‘White Australia’, were not Australian at all.

The first paper will examine a unique set of almost 300 identification photographs of Chinese Australians taken in Victoria in the late 1890s, considering what these photographs reveal of the lives of their subjects. The second paper will demonstrate how, through a close reading of the records, fragments of biographical information can be built into a portrait of the life of a Chinese woman living in Australia on exemption from 1910 to 1913. The final paper will consider the possibilities of digital history for reconstructing marginalised lives and reflect on the challenges of representing biographical data from the White Australia records in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

Identifying whom?: reading identification photography by Sophie Couchman

In 1900 William Nean posed proudly on his bicycle in full racing attire for the popular photographic company Yeoman & Co. in Bourke Street, Melbourne. He used this photograph as an identification portrait and it is now preserved in the National Archives of Australia amongst 268 other photographic portraits of Chinese resident in Victoria that were created under the administration of the 1890 Chinese Act between 1899 and 1901. The Act aimed to limit and control Chinese immigration in the colony of Victoria and, from the late 1890s, identification portraits of long-term Chinese residents were used as part of documentation to allow them to re-enter Victoria free from the restrictions of the Act.

William Nean’s portrait immediately raises the questions of who he was and why such an unusual photograph was used as an identification portrait. The rest of the paperwork associated with this series of photographs no longer survives—all that remains are annotated identification portraits. This paper will place these photographs in the history of identification photography and, through close readings of them, tease out what can be learnt about the lives of the men, women and children represented in them.

Shifting the lens: uncovering the story of Mrs Poon Gooey by Kate Bagnall

This paper revisits the Poon Gooey deportation case, marking two significant anniversaries. In 1913, it will be a hundred years since Ham Hop, the wife of fruit merchant Poon Gooey, was deported from Australia with their two young daughters. After Ham Hop’s arrival in Australia on a temporary permit in 1910, Poon Gooey—a fluent English-speaker, Christian and member of the Chinese Empire Reform League—mounted a determined campaign to gain permission for her to remain more permanently. The campaign, while ultimately unsuccessful, found widespread support and was an ongoing embarrassment to the federal Labor government.

Fifty years later, historian AT Yarwood wrote on the Poon Gooey case as an example of early problems in the administration of the White Australia Policy. Yarwood based his study on the very substantial Department of External Affairs file, which documents the Poon Gooey story from 1910 to 1913. Greater access to records in the intervening decades, however, means that is now possible to uncover more of the context of Poon Gooey’s actions at this time and, more generally, of the two decades he spent in Australia—evidence that calls into question some of Yarwood’s conclusions about Poon Gooey’s actions and his motivations.

This paper shifts the lens even further, however, to focus on the life of Ham Hop, rather than on that of her husband. Although significant moments in her life—her marriage, periods of physical separation from her husband, travel to Australia, pregnancies, births of her children, medical problems, and finally the deportation of herself and her children—are recorded in the official case files, Ham Hop herself remains silent. Through a close reading of these records and the extensive press coverage of the case, this paper seeks to reveal what can be known of her story and to suggest possibilities for uncovering the lives of women and children who were marginalised and excluded by the White Australia Policy in the early years of the 20th century.

The responsibilities of data: reconstructing lives from the records of the White Australia Policy by Tim Sherratt

The sheer volume of records created by the White Australia Policy is overwhelming. Amidst this vast and disturbing legacy are thousands upon thousands of certificates documenting the movements of non-white residents. These biographical fragments, often including photographs and handprints, are visually and emotionally compelling. We cannot avoid the gaze of those whose lives were monitored, we cannot deny the people behind the policy.

But these records are also a source of data. Increasing numbers of these records have been digitised. As we develop the tools and techniques of digital history, we open up the possibility of extracting this data from the digitised records, of aggregating the biographical fragments, of tracing lives and mapping families. We can tame the overwhelming abundance of records and create a rich, new resource for exploration and analysis.

But how do we avoid imprisoning these newly-liberated lives in yet another system? How do we ensure that the challenging gaze of individuals is not lost in the transformation to data? This paper will look at some of the possibilities for extracting information from these records and reflect on the challenges of representing that data in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

‘Paper trails’: my presentation at the 5th WCILCOS conference

I’m still digesting all that I heard at the 5th WCILCOS conference and cogitating about the exciting possibilities for international collaborative work that have emerged from it. I’m hoping to pull together some more thoughts about my discussions with folk from Canada and the US about mixed-race overseas Chinese families and children.

In the mean time, though, here are the slides of my talk and the first (and much longer) version of the paper I wrote a couple of months ago: Paper trails: Anglo-Chinese Australians and the White Australia Policy (pdf, 1.9mb).