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.

Ah Yin family of Adelong, c.1897

Every time I poke around in series NAA: SP42/1, I find something new and interesting that I hadn’t noticed before.

Today’s find is a photograph of the family of Ah Yin (or Ah Yen), who was a storekeeper at Adelong in southern New South Wales, and his wife, Ah Hoo (or Ah How). The family, with six children, left for China in 1897.

The file NAA: SP42/1, C1916/7308 PART 1 relates to a request for one of the Ah Yin daughters, Sarah (b. 1890), to be permitted to return to Australia in 1910.

More on Sarah Ah Yen’s return to Australia from the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1915.

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.