My hunt through SP115/1: day 1

I spent today at the National Archives in Sydney, looking at records for my Paper Trails project. My helpful reference officer, Judith, had warned me that there were 77 boxes in SP115/1, the series I need to look through. On my arrival though she told me she’s miscounted and there were, in fact, about 140. I managed to get through about 28 today. I’ll be there for the rest of the week but I’m not sure I’ll get through the remaining 112 boxes in the next two and a half days!

Series SP115/1 contains documents relating to non-white people – mostly Chinese, but also Syrian, Indian, Japanese and others – arriving into Sydney between 1911 and the 1940s. The series is arranged by ship, with each item relating to a particular voyage. Although I’ve looked at particular items in this series before, this time I’m starting at Box 1 and looking through every file, all 1780 or so of them. You may well ask why.

Although most of the documents in the series are CEDTs, which can also be found in other series (mostly ST84/1), the papers relating to Australian-born Chinese are often unique and unable to be found elsewhere. Details about these individuals might be recorded in the Register of Birth Certificates (SP726/2), but the documents in SP115/1 can include original birth certificates and other statements about identity and family background. One nice find today is the 1902 Hong Kong birth certificate of Harold Hoong, son of Julum Hoong and Rosalie Kinnane, who were living in Yaumatei at that time (NAA: SP115/1, 04/02/1915 – PART 1). Early Hong Kong birth and marriage records were destroyed during World War II, so it’s nice to see one safe and sound. Other records relate to Harold’s Australian-born siblings William, Albert and Frederick.

As well as locating documents about Anglo-Chinese travellers I know about from earlier research, looking through the whole series is yielding people I haven’t encountered in other records. Today I’ve found about half a dozen new subjects – some from families I’d already identified, but others are completely new to me. Exciting.

I’m also making a record of all the Australian-born full Chinese (for my Threads of Kinship project) and any Chinese-born women (for a paper I’m working on about Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia).

‘A map and some pins’: open data and unlimited horizons


This is the text of my keynote address to the Digisam conference on Open Heritage Data in the Nordic Region held in Malmö on 25 April 2013. You can also view the video and slides of my talk, or experience the full interactive experience by playing around with my text/presentation in all its LOD-powered glory. (Use a decent browser.)

The Australian poet and writer Edwin James Brady and his family lived for many years in the isolation of far eastern Victoria — in a little town called Mallacoota.

Edwin James Brady

Edwin James Brady (NLA: nla.pic-vn3704359)

Here, from time to time, Brady amused himself by taking a map of Australia down from the wall and sticking pins in it. The pins, Brady explained in 1938, included labels such as ‘Hydro-electric supply base’, ‘Irrigation area, and ‘Area for tropical settlement’. The map and its pins were one expression of Brady’s life-long obsession with Australia’s potential for development — for progress.

Maps and pins are probably more familiar now than they were in Brady’s time. We use them routinely for sharing our location, for plotting our travel, for finding the nearest restaurant. Maps and pins are one way that we document, understand and express our relationship to space.

Brady, however, was interested in using his pins to highlight possibilities. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries size mattered. With the nations of Europe jostling for land and colonial possessions, space become an index of power. When the Australian colonies came together in 1901 to form a nation, maps and spatial calculations abounded. Australia was big and so it’s future was filled with promise.

Australia was big with promise.

Australia was big with promise.

In his travels around Australia, EJ Brady started to catalogue ways in which its vast, ‘empty’ spaces might be turned to productive use. A hardy yeomanry armed with the latest science could transform these so-called ‘wastes’, and Brady was determined to bring these opportunities to the attention of the world.

This evangelical crusade reached its high point in 1918, with the publication of his huge compendium, Australia Unlimited — 1139 pages of ‘Romance History Facts & Figures’.

National Archives of Australia:  A659, 1943/1/3907, page 135

National Archives of Australia:
A659, 1943/1/3907, page 135

Space may no longer be invested with the same sense of swelling power, but our maps and pins still figure in calculations of progress. Now it is the data itself that awaits exploitation. Our carefully plotted movements, preferences and passions may well have value to governments, planners or advertisers. Data, according to some financial pundits, ‘is the new oil’.

Whereas Brady traveled the land documenting its untapped riches, we can take his work and life and mine it for data — looking for new patterns and possibilities for analysis.

Brady wasn’t the first to use the phrase ‘Australia Unlimited’, though he did much to make it familiar. By exploring the huge collection of digitised newspapers available through the National Library of Australia’s discovery service, Trove, we can track the phrase through time.


Brady was a skilled self-publicist and his research trips in 1912 were eagerly reported by the local press such as the Barrier Miner in Broken Hill and the Cairns Post.

In 1918 the book was published, receiving a generally positive reception — as an advertising leaflet showed, even King George V thought the book was ‘of special interest’. In 1926, a copy of the book was presented to a visiting delegation from Japan.

NAA: A659, 1943/1/3907, page 55

NAA: A659, 1943/1/3907, page 55

Over the years Brady sought to build on his modest successes, planning a variety of new editions and even a movie. But while his hopes were thwarted, the phrase itself lived on.

In 1938 and 1952, there are references to a radio program called ‘Australia Unlimited’, apparently featuring young musical artists. Also in 1952 came the news that the author of Australia Unlimited, EJ Brady, had died in Mallacoota at the age of 83.

Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 1952

Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 1952

Unfortunately copyright restrictions bring this analysis to a rather unnatural end in 1954. If we were able to follow it through until the present, we could see that from 1957 the phrase was used by a leading daily newspaper as the title of an annual advertising supplement detailing Australia’s possibilities for development. In 1958, it was adopted as a campaign slogan by Australia’s main Conservative party. In 1999 it was resurrected again by a major media company for a political and business symposium. Even now it provides the focus for a ‘branding’ initiative supported by the federal government.

Graphs like this are pretty easy to interpret, but of course we should always ask how they were made. In this case I simply harvested the number of matching search results from the Trove newspaper database for each year. The tool I built to do this has been through several different versions and is now a freely-accessible web application called QueryPic. Anyone can quickly and easily create this sort of analysis just by entering a few keywords.

QueryPic is one product of my experiments with the newspaper database over the last couple of years. I’ve also looked at changes to content of front pages, I’ve created a combination discovery interface and fridge poetry generator, and I’ve even built a simple game called Headline Roulette — which I’m told is strangely addictive.

All of these tools and experiments take advantage of Trove’s API. I think it’s important to note that the delivery of cultural heritage resources in a machine-readable form, whether through a custom API or as Linked Open Data, provides more than just improved access or possibilities for aggregation. It opens those resources to transformation. It empowers us to move beyond ‘discovery’ as a mode of interaction to analyse, extract, visualise and play.

Using freely available tools we can extract named entities from a text, we can look for topic clusters across a collection of documents, we can find places and pin them to a map. With a little bit of code I can take the newspaper reports of Brady’s travels in 1912 and map them. With a bit more time I could take another of Brady’s travel books, River Rovers, available in digitised form through the Internet Archive, and plot his journey along Australia’s longest river, the Murray.

Such transformations help us see resources in different ways — we can find new patterns, new problems, new questions. But transformation is a lossy business. I can put a pin in a map to show that Brady stopped off in Mildura on his voyage along the Murray. What is much harder to represent are the emotions that surrounded that visit. While he was there Brady received news of a friend’s death. ‘Bad news makes hateful the most pleasant place of abiding’, he wrote mournfully, ‘I strained to open the gate to go forth again into a wilderness of salt bush and sere sand’. Travel can be a form of escape.

Digital humanist and designer Johanna Drucker has written about the problems of representing the human experience of time and space using existing digital tools. ‘If I am anxious’, she notes, ‘spatial and temporal dimensions are distinctly different than when I am not’. We do not experience our journeys in a straightforward linear fashion — as the accumulation of metres and minutes. We invest each footstep with associations and meanings, with hopes for the future and memories of the past. Drucker calls on humanities scholars to articulate these complexities and work towards the development of new techniques for modelling and visualising our data.

‘If human beings matter, in their individual and collective existence, not as data points in the management of statistical information, but as persons living actual lives, then finding ways to represent them within the digital environment is important.’

In a similar way, Australia Unlimited is not just a catalogue of potentialities, or a passionate plea for national progress. It’s also the story of a struggling poet trying to find some way of supporting his family. Proceeds from the book enabled Brady to buy a plot of land in Mallacoota and build a modest home — I suspect that it wasn’t the same home that was painted by his wife in the 1950s.


But even this small success was undermined. Distribution of the book was beset with difficulties and disappointments and and despite all his plans financial security remained elusive.

Brady’s youngest daughter, Edna June, was born to his third wife Florence in 1946. What could he leave he leave her? A ‘modern edition’ of Australia Unlimited lay completed but unpublished. ‘If it fails to find a publisher’, he remarked wistfully, ‘the MSS will be a liberal education for her after she has outgrown her father’s nonsense rhymes’. It was, he pondered, ‘a sort of heritage’.

One of the things I love about being a historian is that the more we focus in on the past the more complicated it gets. People don’t always do what we expect them to, and that’s both infuriating and wonderful.

Likewise, while we often have to clean up or ‘normalise’ cultural heritage data in order to do things with it, we should value its intrinsic messiness as a reminder that it is shot through with history. Invested with the complexities of human experience it resists our attempts at reduction, and that too is both infuriating and wonderful.

The glories of messiness challenge the extractive metaphors that often characterise our use of digital data. We’re not merely digging or mining or drilling for oil, because each journey into the data offers new possibilities — our horizons are opened, because our categories refuse to be closed. These are journeys of enrichment, interpretation and creation, not extraction.

We’re putting stuff back, not taking it out.

Cultural institutions have an exciting opportunity to help us work with this messiness. The challenge is not just to pump out data, anyone can do that. The challenge is to enrich the contexts within which we meet this data — to help us embrace nuance and uncertainty; to prevent us from taking the categories we use for granted.

For all it’s exuberant optimism, a current of fear ran through Australia Unlimited. The publisher’s prospectus boldly announced that it was a ‘Book with a Mission’. ‘A mere handful of White People’, perched uncomfortably near Asia’s ‘teeming centres of population’, could not expect to maintain unchallenged ownership of the continent and its potential riches. Australia’s survival as a white nation depended upon ‘Effective Occupation’, secured by a dramatic increase in population and the development of its vast, empty lands — ‘The Hour of Action is Now!’.

National Archives of Australia:  A659, 1943/1/3907, page 208

National Archives of Australia:
A659, 1943/1/3907, page 208

In 1901, one of the first acts of the newly-established nation of Australia was to introduce legislation designed to keep the country ‘white’. Restrictions on immigration, administered through a complex bureaucratic system, formed the basis of what became known as the White Australia Policy.

While the legislation was designed to keep non-white people out, an increase of the white population was seen as essential to strengthen security and legitimise Australia’s claim to the continent. Australia Unlimited was an exercise in national advertising aimed at filling the unsettling emptiness with sturdy, white settlers.

But White Australia always a myth. As well as the indigenous population there were, in 1901, many thousands of people classified as non-white living in Australia. They came from China, India, Indonesia, Turkey and elsewhere. A growing number had been born in Australia. They were building lives, making families and contributing to the community.

Here are some of them…

The real face of White Australia

The real face of White Australia

I built this wall of faces using records held by the National Archives of Australia. If a non-white person resident in Australia wanted to travel overseas they needed to carry special documents. Without them they could be prevented from re-entering the country — from coming home. Many, many thousands of these documents are preserved within the National Archives.

Kate Bagnall, a historian of Chinese-Australia, and I are exploring ways of exposing these records through an online project called Invisible Australians.

To build the wall I downloaded about 12,000 images from the Archives’ website — representing just a fraction of one series relating to the administration of the White Australia Policy. Unfortunately there’s no machine-readable access to this data, so I had to resort to cruder means — reverse-engineering interfaces and screen-scraping.

Once I had the images I ran them through a facial detection script to find and crop out the portraits. What we ended up with was a different way of accessing those records — an interface that brings the people to the front; an interface which is compelling, discomfiting, and often moving.

The wall of faces also raises interesting questions about context. Some people might be concerned by the loss of context when images are presented in this way, although each portrait is linked back to the document it was derived from, and to the Archive’s own collection database. What is more important, I think, are the contexts that are gained.

If you’re viewing digitised files on the National Archives’ own website, you can only do so one page at a time. Each document is separate and isolated. What changes when you can see the whole of the file at once? I’ve built another tool that lets you do just that with any digitised file in the Archives’ collection. You see the whole as well as the parts. You have a sense of the physical and conceptual shape of the file.

National Archives of Australia:  ST84/1, 1908/471-480

National Archives of Australia:
ST84/1, 1908/471-480

In the case of the wall of faces, bringing the images together, from across files, helps us understand the scale of the White Australia Policy and how it impacted on the lives of individuals and communities. These were not isolated cases, these were thousands of ordinary people caught up in the workings of a vast bureaucratic system. The shift of context wrought by these digital manipulations allows us to see, and to feel, something quite different.

And we can go the other way. In another experiment I created a userscript to insert faces back into Archives’ website. A userscript is just a little bit of code that rewrites web pages as they load in your browser. In this case the script grabs images relating to the files that you’re looking at from Invisible Australians.

So instead of this typical view of search results.



You see something quite different.



Instead of just the record metadata for an individual item, you see that there are people inside.

We also have to remember that the original context of these records was the administration of a system of racial surveillance and exclusion. The Archives preserves not only the records, but the recordkeeping systems that were used to monitor people’s movements. The remnants of that power adhere to the descriptive framework. There is power in the definition of categories and the elaboration of significance.

Thinking about this I came across Wendy Duff and Verne Harris’s call to develop ‘liberatory standards’ for archival description. Standards, like categories, are useful. They enable us to share information and integrate systems. But standards also embody power. How can we take advantage of the cooperative utility of standards while remaining attuned to the workings of power?

A liberatory descriptive standard, Duff and Harris argue: ‘would posit the record as always in the process of being made, the record opening out of the future. Such a standard would not seek to affirm the keeping of something already made. It would seek to affirm a process of open-ended making and re-making’.

‘Holes would be created to allow the power to pour out.’

‘Making and re-making’ — sounds a lot like the open data credo of ‘re-use and re-mix’ doesn’t it? I think it’s important to carry these sorts of discussions about power over into the broader realm of open data. After all, open data must always, to some extent, be closed. Categories have been determined, data has been normalised, decisions made about what is significant and why. There is power embedded in every CSV file, arguments in every API.

This is inevitable. There is no neutral position. All we can do is encourage re-use of the data, recognising that every such use represents an opening out into new contexts and meanings. Beyond questions of access or format, data starts to become open through its use. In Duff and Harris’s words, we should see open data ‘as always in the process of being made’.

What this means for cultural institutions is that the sharing of open data is not just about letting people create new apps or interfaces. It’s about letting people create new meanings. We should be encouraging them to use our APIs and LOD to poke holes in our assumptions to let the power pour out.

There’s no magic formula for this beyond, perhaps, building confidence and creating opportunities. But I do think that Linked Open Data offers interesting possibilities as a framework for collaboration and contestation — for making and challenging meanings.

We tend to think about Linked Open Data as a way of publishing — of pushing our data out. But in fact the production and consumption of Linked Open Data are closely entwined. The links in our data come from re-using identifiers and vocabularies that others have developed. The linked data cloud grows through a process of give and take, by many small acts of creation and consumption.

There’s no reason why that process should be confined to cultural institutions, government departments, business, or research organisations. Linked Open Data enables any individual to talk about what’s important to them, while embedding their thoughts, collections, passions or obsessions within a global conversation. By sharing identifiers and vocabularies we create a platform for communication. Anyone can join in.

So, if we want people to engage with our data, perhaps we need to encourage them to create their own.

I’ve just been working on a project with the Mosman public library in Sydney aimed at gathering information about the experiences of local servicepeople during World War One. There are many such projects happening around the world at the moment, but I think ours is interesting in a couple of ways. The first is a strong emphasis on linking things up.

The are records relating to Australian service people available through the National Archives, the Australian War Memorial, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but there are currently no links between these databases. I’ve created a series of screen scrapers that allow structured data to be easily extracted from these sources. That means that people can, for the first time, search across all these databases in one hit. It’s a very simple tool that I started coding to ease the boredom of a long bus trip — but it has proved remarkably popular with family historians.

Once you’ve found entries in these databases, you can just cut and paste the URL into a form on the Mosman website and a script will retrieve the relevant data and attach it to the record of the the person you’re interested in. Linking to a service record in the National Archives, for example, will automatically create entries for the person’s birthplace and next-of-kin.

The process of linking builds structures, and these structures will themselves all be available as Linked Open Data. Even more exciting is that the links will not only be between the holdings of cultural institutions. The stories, memories, photographs and documents that people contribute will also be connected, providing personal annotations on the official record.

None of this is particularly hard, it’s just about getting the basics right. Remembering that structure matters and that links can have meaning. It’s also about recognising that ‘crowd sourcing’ or user-generated content can be made anywhere. Using Linked Open Data people can attach meanings to your stuff without visiting your website. Through the process of give and take, creation and consumption, we can build layers of description, elaboration, and significance across the web.

What excites me most about open cultural data is not the possibility of shiny new apps or collection visualisations, but the possibility of doing old things better. The possibility of reimagining the humble footnote, for example, as a re-usable container of structured contextual data — as a form of distributed collection description. The possibility of developing new forms of publication that immerse text and narrative within a rich contextual soup brewed from the holdings of cultural institutions.

I want every online book or article to be a portal. I want every blog or social media site to be a collection interface.

What might this look like? Perhaps something like this presentation.

My slides today are embedded within a HTML document that incorporates all sorts of extra goodies. The full text of my talk is here, and as you scroll through it you’ll see more information about the people, places and resources I mention pop up in the sidebar. Alternatively you can explore just the people or the resources, looking at the connections between them and the contexts in which they’re mentioned within my text.

This is part of an ongoing interest to explore different ways of presenting historical narrative, that build a relationship between the text and the structured data that underlies the story.

All of the structured data is available in machine-readable form as RDF — it is, in itself, a source of LOD. In fact the interface is built using an assortment of JavaScript libraries that read the RDF into a little temporary triplestore, and then query it to create the different views. So the whole thing is really powered by LOD.

It’s still very much an experiment, but I think it raises some interesting possibilities for thinking about how we might consume and create LOD simply by doing what we’ve always done — telling stories.

EJ Brady’s dreams were never realised. Australia’s vast spaces remained largely empty, and the poet continued to wrestle with personal and financial disappointment. ‘After nearly eight decades association with the man’, Brady wrote of himself in 1949, ‘I have come to look upon him as the most successful failure in literary history’. This energetic booster of Australia’s potentialities was well aware of his own life’s mocking irony. ‘He has not… made the wages of a wharf laborer out of book writing yet he persists in asserting Australia is the best country in the world!’.

But still Brady continued to add pins to his map.’For half a century I’ve been heaping up notes, reports, clippings, pamphlets, etc. on… all phases of the country’s life and development’. ‘What in hell I accumulate such stuff for I don’t know’, he complained in 1947. As the elderly man surveyed the ‘bomb blasted pile of rubbish’ strewn about his writing tent, he admitted that ‘this collecting is a sort of mania’.

Brady’s map and pins told a complex story of hope and disappointment, of confidence and fear. A story that combined national progress with an individual’s attempts merely to live.

There are stories in our data too — complex and contradictory stories full of emotion and drama, disappointment and achievement, violence and love. Let’s find ways to tell those stories.

Exposing the archives of White Australia

I recently gave a presentation in the Institute of Historical Research’s Digital History Seminar series. The time difference between London and Canberra was a bit of a challenge, so I pre-recorded the presentation and then sat in my own Twitter backchannel while it played. For the full podcast information go to HistorySPOT. You can also play with my slides or peruse the #dhist Twitter archive.

Exposing the Archives of White Australia from History SPOT on Vimeo.

Migrants ‘on the wing’ at Visible Immigrants Seven

Yesterday I spoke at Visible Immigrants Seven, a small conference organised by Flinders University and the Migration Museum in Adelaide. The conference aimed to explore the idea of migrant mobility before and after the major act of migration. Most of the papers focused on nineteenth-century migrants from Ireland, Scotland and England, including convicts. My paper looked at the return migration of Chinese men and their Australian families.

Assumed identities and false papers

A known but little-discussed part of the history of Chinese Australians is the entry of people on false papers or using assumed identities. Both those within the community and those of us researching the history know examples of families where this happened, but it’s only in rare cases that it is discusssed openly.

It came up during one of the sessions at the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide earlier this year and these discussions started me thinking—particularly after having just been to North America where the history of ‘paper sons’ is a well-acknowledged part of the story. In contrast to Australia, the USA and Canada addressed the issue in the 1960s by offering amnesty periods that allowed paper sons and daughters to legitimate their entry without fear of deportation or criminal charges.

So then, what is the legal situation today of Chinese people who entered Australia on false papers in the first half of the 20th century? If their stories were told, would the authorities take action against them?

In July 2012, I wrote to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, to find out.

Here is part of the response I received from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship:

Australia’s citizenship and migration legislation has been amended numerous times since federation, as immigration policies, immigrant source countries, settlement philosophies and notions of national identity have changed. These amendments have been enacted to remove past anomalies and discrimination.

It is difficult to comment about the legal position of people entering Australia using assumed identities before 1950 and their descendents as each person’s situation/circumstance can differ. Despite this, it is likely that these people are either Australian citizens or permanent residents under ‘absorbed persons’ provisions in the Migration Act 1958. As it has been more than 60 years since these events and given the likelihood that these people are Australian citizens or permanent residents, it would not appear to be in the public interest to actively pursue these people regarding their immigration status.

Should any members of the community require specific immigration advice, I encourage them to seek the services of a registered migration agent … If they consider that they may be an Australian citizen and wish to seek confirmation, they may apply for evidence of citizenship.

Here are copies of my letter and the department’s response:

Letter to Chris Bowen about paper sons, 12 July 2012 (pdf, 88kb)

Letter from Miranda Lauman, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 4 October 2012 (pdf, 656kb)

Too important not to try

On Friday 19 October I joined an enthusiastic group of digital humanities explorers at a Deakin University event entitled Dipping a Toe into the Digital Humanities and Creative Arts. @catspyjamasnz has assembled an excellent summary of the day in Storify.

In the morning I told the story of Invisible Australians. You can view the slides of Too or important not to try and listen to my dodgy audio recording via SoundCloud.

In the afternoon I gave a whirlwind workshop which included a headline roulette smackdown and an introduction to the wonders of Zotero.

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.


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.

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

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

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

Here’s some detail about the project.


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

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

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

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

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


The project has four primary aims:

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

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

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.