Tag: women

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.

Women’s History Month 2021 on Twitter

Wong Sing Quan (Mrs Timothy Fay Loie) and other Chinese women in Auckland in 1911 (credit: May Sai Loie, reproduced in James Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past, volume 2, p. 261)

For Women’s History Month in March 2021, I compiled a Twitter thread, with a tweet or two each day listing a historical work by a woman or women about Chinese Australian women’s history.

The thread included details of about 35 different works, including books, journal articles, memoirs, blogs, radio documentaries and oral histories.

You can:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were Chinese women naturalized in British Columbia?

One of the projects I have been working on over the past couple of years is a database of Chinese who were naturalized in British Columbia up to 1914.* Working from records held by the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, I have identified 1934 Chinese who were granted naturalization in BC between 1863 and 1914. Of these, three were women: Jsong Mong Lin, Leong Lee Fung, and Wong Bick Yung (also known as Esther Yung).

Jsong Mong Lin was the wife of merchant Loo Gee Wing. She was naturalized on 15 June 1899 at Victoria. She had lived at least ten years in British Columbia, and she signed her name in English. It was noted on her Oath of Residence that the oath was read over and explained to her in Chinese before signing. Her husband Loo Gee Wing was naturalized in 1895.

More information about Jsong Mong Ling and her husband Loo Gee Wing can be found on the Building Vancouver website.

Oath of Residence of Leong Leen Fung, 1889. British Columbia Archives, GR-1554, Box 21, File 1.

Leong Leen Fung 梁連鳳, of Victoria, was the wife of Fung Choy. She was naturalized on 3 November 1899. She had lived in British Columbia for at least five years. Leong Leen Fung signed her name in Chinese, and it was noted on her Oath of Residence that the oath was read over and explained to her in Chinese before signing. Fung Choy was naturalized in June 1899.

Wong Bick Yung, also known as Esther Yung, of Victoria, was naturalized in Victoria on 21 July 1911.

(I have not yet located a full naturalization record – Certificate of Naturalization, Oath of Residence and Certificate Under Section 10 – for Wong Bick Yung, but her name appears on a list of individuals naturalized by the County Court of Victoria on 21 July 1911.)

I am not certain why the two wives were naturalized, as under s 26 of the Naturalization Act Canada 1881 (44 Vic c 13): ‘A married woman shall, within Canada, be deemed to be a subject of the State of which her husband is for the time being a subject’. It does not appear that either Jsong Mong Ling or Leong Leen Fung were widowed. I have not yet identified whether Wong Bick Yung was unmarried, married or widowed.

References: British Columbia Archives, GR-1554: Box 19, File 10; Box 21, File 1; Box 41, File 5.

* Big thanks to Karen Schamberger and Sophie Couchman who have undertaken much of the thankless task of data entry for the BC naturalization database. Sophie and I are still working on completing the data entry, and then tidying up the data, but once that is complete I will make the database publicly available.

Minnie Alloo of Dunedin and the Women’s Suffrage Petition

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

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

South Australian Register, 20 September 1893, p. 5

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Conversion and perversion’, 1839

Mary Rapley from Shipley, Sussex, arrived in Sydney at the end of August 1838. A ‘nursery girl’ by calling, she had been convicted of shoplifting at the Sussex Quarter Sessions on 7 January and sentenced to seven years. Mary was one of 172 female convicts to arrive on the John Renwick, having left the Downs, off the Kent coast, in late May.

‘Shipping intelligence’, The Colonist, 29 August 1838, p. 2

Mary was single, Protestant and aged twenty-four. She could read but not write. Mary’s convict indent described her as being 4 foot 10 1/2 inches tall, with brown hair and hazel eyes. Her complexion was ‘fair, ruddy and freckled’, and she was missing one of her front upper teeth.

Mary became an assigned servant to James Henry, in Cumberland Street in the Rocks, but within a year of her arrival in New South Wales she had married. Her new husband, James Tim (or Jim), aged 27 in 1839, was Chinese – one of a very small number of Chinese men in the colony at the time.

In late July 1839, Mary and James’s marriage banns were published at the Scots Church, Sydney, where they were wed by the Rev. William McIntyre on Friday, 9 August. Neither Mary and nor James could sign their name, and so made their mark in the marriage register with an X. Mary’s employer, James Henry, had consented to her marriage, but the couple had not applied for permission from the Governor, which was usually required if either the bride or groom were still serving their sentence.

Marriage banns of Mary Rapley and James Tim, Scots Church, Sydney, July 1839

It seems that married life did not suit Mary, as at the end of September she found herself before police captain Joseph Innes facing an accusation of having run away from her husband. James claimed that Mary had left him after twenty-five days to live with another man. The case was reported in the colonial press under the headline ‘Conversion and Perversion‘:

Yesterday a Chinese gentleman named James Tame, appeared before Captain Innes at the Police-office, to complain of his wife, an English woman, whose maiden name had been Mary Rapsey, for running from his protection to that of another person. Upon stepping into the witness box, Mr Tame stated himself to be a Chinese catechist in his own coountry, that he was of the Roman Catholic persuasion, and was converted by the Portuguese. He said that he read the bible and believed that he read, but would rather be sworn on a saucer which was the way he had been accustomed to. He had been married by agreement with the prisoner, who had been an assigned servant to a person named James Henry, in Cumberland-street. They were married by the Rev. Mr McIntyre, and had been united but twenty-five days when the lady left her lord for the protection of another. Captain Innes said, that this case required investigation as he could not understand how permission had been obtained for the marriage, and he conveived that there had been some irregularity in the matter. The prisoner was remanded until enquiry should be made.

So many interesting things to think about in their story! When and why had James come to New South Wales? Was he from Macau? If he was a Catholic catechist in his own country, what did he do in Sydney? How had he and Mary met? In what circumstances had they married? Who was Mary’s paramour and was she compelled to return to her husband?

I have had trouble finding any further reference to Mary or her Chinese husband after this hearing before Captain Innes in September 1839. All the references to the surname ‘Rapley’ (or similar) I located in the convict indexes at State Records NSW are to Mary’s uncle, Daniel Rapley, who was sent to New South Wales in 1818. I also didn’t find any references to the surname Jim or Tim or Tame (or similar). And I can find no further Trove or BDM references either.

Any clues or further information would be very welcome!

Sources

‘Conversion and perversion’, The Australian, 24 September 1839, p. 2, <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36861109>.

‘News of the day’, Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser, 27 September 1839, p. 2 (morning edition), <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32165693>.

NSW BDM 526/1839 V1839526 73A, marriage of James Jim and Mary Rapley, Scots Church, Sydney.

‘Shipping intelligence’, The Colonist, 29 August 1838, p. 2, <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article31721608>.

SRNSW, Reel 735, 4/2436.95.

SRNSW, Reel 908, Shelf X641, NRS 12189, Annotated Printed Indents (John Renwick, arr. 31 August 1838).

SRNSW, Reel 5027, NRS 12937, Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1787–1856, vol. 73.

Symposium on Chinese women in the southern diaspora

Following on from the 2013 Dragon Tails conference, Julia Martínez and I are organising a Symposium on Chinese Women in Southern Diaspora History. The symposium will be held at the University of Wollongong.

Date: Friday, 5 December 2014
Time: 9.00am to 3.30pm
Venue: Building 24, Rooms 201 and 202, University of Wollongong

Speakers include:

  • Pauline Rule — Being a Chinese wife and mother in colonial Victoria, 1856–1900
  • Sandi Robb — Daughters of the Flowery Land: Chinese women in Queensland 1860–1920
  • Kate Bagnall — Family politics: Chinese wives in Australia, 1902 to 1920
  • Sophie Couchman — Chinese-Australian brides, photography and the white wedding
  • Julia Martínez — University education of Chinese women in the 20th century
  • Sophie Loy-Wilson — Daisy Guo’s Shanghai: Narrating the lives of Chinese Australian women in Shanghai before and after 1949
  • Paul Macgregor — Mrs Fabian Chow of Shanghai — journalist, radio star and goodwill ambassador: an Australian Chinese colleague of the Soong sisters

Professor Jan Ryan from Edith Cowan University will also be providing her reflections on Chinese women’s history.

The symposium is open to the public and there is no registration fee. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to Julia Martínez (juliam@uow.edu.au) by 31 October 2014 for catering purposes.

Download a pdf of the symposium programme.

Where are the women?

Yesterday on Twitter Jenny Symington asked the question, ‘Where are the women?’ in relation to The real face of White Australia:


This post is a quick attempt to answer that question.

Record series

The first thing to consider is where these photographs are taken from. They are from certificates exempting from the dictation test, which were issued to non-white residents of Australia who wanted to return to Australia after travelling overseas. The particular records we have used with Faces so far are from New South Wales.

Demographics

The non-white, non-Aboriginal population of early 20th century Australia was predominantly male. Most of the Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Malays (among others) who came to Australia in the 19th century did so to work and to earn money. Asian women as economic migrants were not unheard of (there were Chinese women who came to the colonies as domestic workers, for example), but generally a combination of economic, social, familial and legal factors meant that a much smaller number of ‘coloured’ women arrived on Australian shores. The Syrian community is a bit of an exception to this, as numbers of men and women were much more balanced.

Figures for ‘birthplace’ from the 1911 Commonwealth census (the first national census conducted in Australia) gives a picture of this:

  • Born in China: male 20,453 female 322
  • Born in India: male 5049 female 1595
  • Born in Japan: male 3260 female 214
  • Born in Syria: male 895 female 632
  • Born Java: male 535 female 43

In New South Wales (where the people shown in Faces mostly lived) Chinese, Indians and Syrians were the main non-white population groups.

The snapshot below has images of three women: Mary Saleba and Raja Basha, both Syrian, and Mary Hoe, who was Australian-born Chinese.

The nature of travel

Few of the men shown in Faces were travelling for leisure, as such. They were mostly either returning home to visit relatives (including wives and children), or for business reasons, or a combination of both. This, combined with the cost and logistics of travel, may have meant that women and families living in Australia did not accompany their men when they travelled.

The law and administrative processes

Travelling alongside some of the men whose images appear in Faces, though, were women and children who were not documented in the same way as their husbands and fathers. White wives of Chinese men, for example, who also travelled to Hong Kong and China, were not subjected to the indignities of photographing and handprinting, even though strictly they had become ‘Chinese’ on marriage and had officially lost their status as British subjects (their racial identity trumped their legal one). Often the only record of their travel is a name on a passenger list. Mixed-race Australians also travelled without being issued a certificate exempting from the dictation test—many Anglo-Chinese Australian women married migrant Chinese men, and accompanied their husbands to China, but they too may have avoided being photographed and handprinted, instead using their Australian birth certificates as proof of identity on their return to Australia.

Seeing the women and children

I’ve been thinking further about the possibilities of Tim’s wall of faces as a finding aid, as something to help both locate archival documents and to understand their context.

The series we used in our test (ST84/1) was one in which we knew there was a very high percentage of photographs. Each item contains ten certificates, most of which have both a front and profile portrait attached. There is a small amount of other paperwork included in some files, but not a whole lot. We therefore knew what sorts of things we were going to get back.

But what about if we apply the same facial detection technology to a series in which we aren’t so sure of the photographic content? Unfortunately, Tim’s current laptop isn’t up to the task of doing all the grunt work (donations, anyone?), but here’s what I reckon might happen when we are able to move on to other series.

With series like SP42/1 and B13, which hold applications for CEDTs and similar records, I know that there are photographs in many, even most, of the personal case files. (B13 is complicated because it also contains other Customs files that don’t relate to individuals and don’t relate to the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act.) Because files might hold applications for a family, or a parent and child/ren, or an uncle and nephew, or siblings, you don’t always know from the item title exactly who the file relates to. Also, those who were Australian born did not necessarily apply for CEDTs since they could travel using their birth certificates as proof of their right to return, meaning that they don’t appear in CEDT series like ST84/1.

It was usual practice, though, to supply photographs of each person who was travelling (whether on a CEDT or not), and so by extracting those photographs, you would be able to have a better impression about who files related to. Of course, for files that are digitised (or even not) you could go through each one individually (which I’ve done, believe me…), but think how much more fun it would be to scroll through a wall of beautiful faces!

With B13 it would also be useful because there is no separate series of CEDTs; they are mixed in with the application/case files. Facial detection could be a way of extracting the forms themselves from the larger files.

My main research interest is in families, and women, and children – and we know that women are often hidden in archives because of bureaucratic systems which gave priority to the men in their lives. Although there are many White Australia records which relate to individual women and children, they can be lost in files organised and catalogued under the names of husbands and fathers. But scroll through a wall of mostly male faces, and the women and children just leap out at you!

I’m feeling a bit impatient, really, about running SP42/1 and B13 through Tim’s facial detection script. There are so many, so very interesting possibilities.