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.

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.

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.

The real face of White Australia

In October 1911, the Sydney Morning Herald published a short article under the headline, ‘An indignity: photographs and finger-prints’. The article discussed the situation of Charles Yee Wing, a wealthy and respected Sydney businessman, who had asked to be exempted from having to supply his handprint and photograph as part of the process of being issued a CEDT.

Yee Wing had travelled before and was well-known to Customs officials. In this case, the Customs Department was willing to dispense with the necessity of taking his fingerprints, but Yee Wing was still required to provide his photograph. As the Herald wrote:

Mr Wing is a merchant of some standing, held in high esteem by Europeans and Chinese alike, and it was supposed that in his case the notification would be a purely formal business, and that he would not, since everybody who has business relations with the Chinese community knows him, have to go through the process by which the officials identify on their return Chinese domicilied in Australia who have been for trips to their native land.

Yee Wing’s primary objection was that the officials insisted upon photographing him, in various positions, ‘just like a criminal’.

(This photograph of Charles Yee Wing was taken three years earlier in 1908, when he travelled to Fiji where he had business interests. It was the ‘profile’ photograph attached to his CEDT (Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test). NAA: ST84/1, 1908/301-310.)

Today our images are used to identify us in all sorts of situations—passports, drivers licences, student cards, work ID cards, building swipe cards and even online with sites like Twitter or Facebook. We have varying amounts of control over what images of ourselves are used in these contexts—I know that I have a couple of passports with photographs that I would rather had never seen light of day, and I hope that they aren’t the only images of me that survive for future generations! But we generally accept that these representations of ourselves are necessary. And we certainly don’t think when we head to the post office for a new passport photo that we are being treated ‘like a criminal’. So why did Charles Yee Wing feel that way?

A hundred years ago, few people had formal papers which stated their identity, and the use of photographs on such identity documents was still in its infancy. It wasn’t until World War I, for example, that countries like the United States and Britain developed passports specifically designed with a space for a photograph. But over the second half of the nineteenth-century, authorities had begun to use photographs for administrative purposes, particularly as technologies such as the carte de visite made photographs cheaper and more portable.

In Australia, authorities began using photographs in an ad hoc way to assist in the identification of Chinese entering Australia in the 1890s, perhaps even the 1880s, but by far the most common official use of the photograph at this time was in the photographing of criminals. In New South Wales, for instance, the keeping of gaol photograph description books commenced around 1870. Such mug shots were used by police in identifying and keeping track of criminals and, in fact, the close tie between this form of portrait photography and its criminal subjects led some to criticise its use—because it tainted the practice, and art, of photography more generally.

In 2005, the Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV), together with the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, launched what became a popular travelling exhibition, Forgotten Faces: Chinese and the Law. The exhibition presented large reproductions of gaol photographs of Chinese men imprisoned in Victoria between the 1870s and 1900, accompanied by brief biographical sketches drawn mostly from court and prison records. Dr Sophie Couchman, who knows more about photographs of and by Chinese Australians than any other person alive, was critical of the exhibition for ‘deliberately pulling photographs of Chinese prisoners from the wider prison archive’, thereby presenting the Chinese in colonial Victoria as both criminals and powerless victims of government bureaucracy (Couchman 2009, p. 122). Sophie futher noted that in doing this, the exhibition obscured the fact that Chinese were being treated in the same way as other residents of Victoria. In 2011, the PROV has put a selection of the images from the exhibition in its wiki, encouraging user contributions and plotting the subjects’ place of residence on a Google map.

A wall of faces

As part of our Invisible Australians project, Tim Sherratt has recently been experimenting with facial detection technology to automatically extract and crop photographs from CEDTs. You can read Tim’s discussion of what he’s done over at his blog. After extracting 7,000 photographs from Sydney series ST84/1, about a seventh of which is digitised in RecordSearch, Tim built an interface to display them as an interactive wall of faces. As Tim was putting it all together, I thought of Sophie’s critique of the use of photographs of Chinese people in the Forgotten Faces exhibition and of the way the images had been assembled together in rows as a kind of rogues gallery. I also thought of Charles Yee Wing’s comments a hundred years ago about the indignity of having to provide his photograph for a CEDT.

Could the same kind of criticisms be levelled at our wall of faces as at Forgotten Faces? Are we representing our subjects as more than passive victims of a racist bureaucracy? Are we using their images respectfully and decently? Are their images able to be understood by our contemporary audience? And how should we acknowledge the resistance and opposition of people like Charles Yee Wing?

I have been working with the CEDTs and other associated records (the ‘White Australia records’, for want of a better term) for about 12 years. The photographs are a significant part of what keeps me coming back to them—the photographs and the details about real people that are also found in the records. One of the challenges with writing about the early Chinese community in Australia has been to break through particular stereotypes, and one of the most powerful ways of doing this is through close-grained and detailed studies of individual lives. Yet uncovering those lives can be a difficult and time-consuming enterprise, for they were mostly ‘small lives’ which left only a faint trace scattered across the archive. The White Australia records provide an illumination of those lives, and are now widely used by families to uncover important and unknown information about their forebears.

When I began my research, the CEDTs and case files were not described individually in any catalogue or database, and they were certainly not online; the only ‘finding aids’ were the original handwritten indexes. I used to trek out to the archives, order up box after box after box, and look through the files one by one. In some instances I was the first person to have looked at the records for perhaps decades—the descendants of the men and women whose lives are recorded there knew nothing of the treasures the records held. But putting stuff online and allowing it to be discovered can have really meaningful results.

Since I put my PhD online, for instance, I’ve been contacted by a number of people who cite my research as the catalyst for their own journey of discovery into the families’ Chinese pasts—leading them to the White Australia records, which the National Archives has also done a lot of work on to make them more accessible. As Tim and I would both argue, online technologies and new digital methods really do provide significant and meaningful possibilities in providing access to, and ways of understanding, the lives documented in the White Australia records.

So what of our wall of faces? As Tim has noted, it’s not just an exhibition, it’s a finding aid. To me, this is the key. The wall of faces is another way of seeing into the records and into the lives of the individual men and women, the Australians, who were subject to the indignities of the White Australia Policy. Each image links to a copy of the document it was taken from, which then links to the digitised file in RecordSearch, which then links to other items in the same record series, which then links to other record series created by the same government agency—rich archival context.

But through the Invisible Australians project we also want to provide different links and detail other contexts. For instance, the first experimental version of our wall of faces is based on a small set of records, from Sydney and from the first decade of the 20th century. From this sample, we can see that most of those travelling from Sydney were Chinese men, but there were also non-Chinese and women and family groups. Records from other ports and other decades would produce a different pattern of faces—such as a greater proportion of younger or older people, more women and children, or a different ethnic make-up.

This first effort is certainly not perfect, and we’re already learning from it. We made the decision to leave the images at different sizes, and to widen out the crop so that you can see more than just the person’s face. We hope that this allows for some of the individuality in the images to come through—it’s not so neat perhaps, but maybe it’s also not so prescriptive. As Sophie Couchman has noted, the photographic portraits provided to the authorities by Chinese Australians were far from standardised, and many were studio portraits in which the subjects had a great deal of say in how they were represented. As Sophie has put it, they are ‘not so mug mugshots’. And we want our wall of faces to reflect that.

And now back to Charles Yee Wing

Among the images on our wall are the two portraits of Charles Yee Wing taken before his 1908 trip to Fiji. Those from his 1911 trip, when he made his objections known to both the authorities and the press, aren’t yet digitised. I have done a bit of research into Yee Wing’s family, finding a trove of files about his and his children’s travels over several decades. I don’t think, though, that I had come across this particular CEDT—a typo in the item title means that it doesn’t come up under a keyword search for ‘Yee Wing’. But I did find it browsing through the images in our wall.

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