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.

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)

Representing lives from the archive of White Australia

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

Panel description

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

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

Identifying whom?: reading identification photography by Sophie Couchman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That famous fighting family’

A little article of mine* appears in issue 9 of Inside History magazine (March–April 2012). The article discusses the experiences of Chinese Australians during World War I through the experiences of the Sam family from West Wyalong, New South Wales.

I first came across the Sam family in the file of youngest son, Percy, who travelled with his father to China in 1915. It was noted in their applications for exemption from the Dictation Test that a number of Percy’s brothers were serving in the First AIF – they were, in fact, at Gallipoli. It seemed such an irony that at the same time as his brothers were fighting for their country overseas, Percy was made to comply with the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act, something that suggested he was less than a true Australian.

The way that Chinese Australians were treated during World War I was full of contradictions. Some young men were able to enlist, others weren’t. I don’t mention it in the article, but Chinese nationals were required to register as aliens during wartime (and afterwards) – so there were also cases of Chinese fathers having to report to the police to register as aliens while their Australian-born sons were away fighting for country and empire.

Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to an online copy of the article, so if you’re interested you might just have to go and buy a copy of the magazine.

* Kate Bagnall, ‘That famous fighting family’, Inside History, issue 9, March–April 2012, pp. 37–40.

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.

Birth certificate registers

In October 1913 Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Atlee Hunt, sent a circular to the state Customs departments asking if they kept records of Chinese Australians who used their birth certificates as identity papers when travelling overseas.

Queensland already kept such a register, and Hunt felt that:

Such a register is very desirable to enable a check to be kept on persons claiming admission to Australia on birth certificates, as it is an easy matter for a number of copies of the same certificate to be obtained, and the experience of the past shows that in some instances several Chinese have attempted, sometimes successfully, to land on copies of the same certificate. (NAA: A1, 1913/20069)

An example of the early difficulties that both Chinese Australians and government officials had with using birth certificates as identification can be found in the case of Fred Hong See (see NAA: BP342/1, 13021/357/1903). Fred was born in Sydney in 1885 to Chinese parents who, when he was very young, took their son back to China. Fred’s father later died and, in 1903, Fred returned to live with other relatives in Sydney. When he arrived, Customs officer J.T.T. Donohoe doubted his identity and would not allow him to land. Donohoe’s suspicions were based on the fact that Fred could not speak any English and his feeling that Fred looked older than the age stated on the birth certificate he presented.

Fred was quickly sent on his way back to China, and it was only through the threat of legal action by his well-respected relatives in Sydney and their payment of a deposit of £100 that Fred was permitted to stop at Brisbane for re-examination. With evidence provided by Fred’s relatives, the Brisbane Collector of Customs, W.H. Irving, was satisfied that he was, in fact, telling the truth. After Atlee Hunt’s approval, Fred was allowed to stay.

This is the copy of Fred Hong See’s birth certificate that he presented to officials on his return to Australia in 1903. It can be found with other correspondence about the case in NAA: BP342/1, 13021/357/1903.

In the decade after the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, the processes for its administration continued to be refined and tightened, primarily to prevent the fraudulent entry of Chinese into Australia. Hunt’s request for the keeping of birth certificate registers came about from a concern that ‘as other channels of fraudulent entry are being blocked, the Chinese will make a determined effort to utilize birth certificates to that end.’

His Customs circular of 1913 set out the details that Customs officers should record to enable correct identification on a person’s return to Australia:

  • name
  • number of birth certificate
  • date of issue
  • date of birth
  • where born
  • date of departure from Australia
  • remarks concerning departure
  • date of return
  • by whom examined, landed or rejected
  • general remarks

The Collectors of Customs responded thus:

  • Victoria reported that had been keeping a register from the beginning of the year (1913), but without the level of detail requested.
  • New South Wales had not been keeping records, but was now ordering a book for the purpose.
  • Western Australia had no special register, but would immediately open one.
  • South Australia said they had not had any need for a register, as there had been no cases of Chinese being admitted on birth certificates there.
  • Tasmania would begin keeping a record, but had only had four cases to date.
  • And the Northern Territory had been keeping record of Chinese arriving on birth certificates since 1911.

It became the practice for birth certificates to be endorsed by Customs officials on a person’s departure. This usually included taking a handprint and attaching a photograph, as well as recording the details in a register. Some people also went through the formality of applying for a CEDT.

The two remaining registers

To my knowledge, only two of the birth certificate registers still exist, those for Queensland and New South Wales. The Queensland register is held in the Brisbane office of the National Archives, and a digital copy is available through RecordSearch:

The first volume, of 16 double pages, has suffered flood damage and can be difficult to read in parts. The second volume, which has 23 double pages, is much more legible. A sample page from the second volume is shown below – this is a left-hand page, with the remainder of the details about each person completed on the corresponding right-hand page.

The single register for New South Wales, held in the National Archives’ Sydney office, is more substantial than those for Queensland, demonstrating the greater amount of travel that occurred from Sydney. The register contains around 150 double pages and includes an alphabetical index at the front. The entries date from 1904 to 1962; those before 1913 were presumably copied from records elsewhere. It is also fragile and difficult to read in places, but it has recently also been digitised and made available through RecordSearch:

The page reproduced below is a left-hand page, with further details about the travels of each person available on the corresponding right-hand page.

Making use of the registers

These registers are valuable sources of information about Chinese Australian families in Queensland and New South Wales, and can provide missing pieces of information for people who did not apply for CEDTs when they travelled overseas (which many Australian-born Chinese did not).

Having them digitised is great, especially for those of us who can’t easily get to the Brisbane or Sydney reading rooms – but what would be even more useful is if the information contained in the registers was in a form that could be searched and sorted. I’m working on a bigger project relating to Chinese families in New South Wales, based around a database of information sourced from marriage and birth records up to 1918. I’m part-way into transcribing relevant details from the published BDM indexes with 1000 entries (out of an estimated 3000–4000) in the database so far!

The information found in the birth certificate registers obviously relates very strongly to this, so I have another crazy plan to also transcribe the information held in the Sydney register. It’s not going to be a quick job – and it’s one that could easily be shared since the New South Wales register is online. So, if you happen to have some spare time and don’t mind deciphering old handwriting, I’d love to hear from you!