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).

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.

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.

Outline

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.

Aims

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)