Finding Chinese family connections in the National Archives

Author: Kate Bagnall – Kate made extensive use of National Archives’ records in her doctoral research into Chinese-Australian families in New South Wales.


The gold rushes of the mid-nineteenth century originally brought Chinese people to Australia, but in the following decades they developed rich and diverse communities here. These were international communities, with family and business connections reaching back to China and across the Pacific. From the 1850s, though, official moves were made to restrict the number of Chinese coming to Australia, finally culminating in the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. In spite of this, and widespread racism by some European Australians, the Chinese had many friends and supporters, and successfully engaged with the wider Australian community.

Many records about Chinese people now held by the National Archives of Australia were created because of Australia’s racially discriminatory legislation. From their enactment in the early 1900s to the late 1950s, when the process of dismantling them began, the Immigration Restriction Act and other elements of the White Australia Policy limited the entry of Chinese people to Australia, placed restrictions on Australian-born Chinese and prevented Chinese people from becoming citizens of their adopted country. While the policy was a great trial for Chinese Australians at the time, for today’s family historians it has left a wealth of documents by which they can uncover details about the lives of family members.

Coming and going

There was a constant flow of Chinese people to and from Australia as they visited family, holidayed or managed business interests overseas. As part of their role in administering the Immigration Restriction Act (later Immigration Act), Australian Customs officials kept careful records about Chinese entering and leaving the country. Today these records provide information about Chinese migrants and temporary visitors, as well as those who were born or resided long-term here.

Naturalised Chinese, Australian-born Chinese and other Chinese residents ‘domiciled’ in Australia could apply for a Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test (CEDT), which allowed them to re-enter Australia after trips overseas. Sometimes other documents, such as letters of naturalisation or birth certificates of Australian-born Chinese that were certified with photographs and handprints, were also used to prove a right of domicile in Australia. Most CEDTs and other re-entry records include personal details and photographs. Later those who were eligible could apply for Australian passports.

After 1901, new settler arrivals were few and most Chinese arrivals to Australia, including wives, dependant children, students and employees, were admitted as temporary residents only. Students entered on Chinese student passports, many of which remain in the files, and the schools they attended had to report regularly on their attendance and progress. Wives and children of Chinese merchants were also admitted for fixed periods of time, with extensions regularly being granted. The file of the wife and son of Western Australian lay preacher and laundryman James Owen, for example, shows that their temporary permits were extended repeatedly between 1929 and 1952, including while the son, William, served with the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II. A temporary stay could also convert into a permanent one.

After the Immigration Act was replaced by the Migration Act 1958, Australia’s migration policy slowly became more accepting of non-European migrants. For the first time since Federation, new Chinese migrants could apply to live in Australia. Their migration applications, together with citizenship applications, temporary entry and visitor applications, can be found in Department of Immigration files held by the National Archives.

Records in the National Archives document not only Chinese who were allowed into Australia, but they also contain applications from Chinese who were not permitted to stay as new migrants, those who arrived illegally and were deported, and those who had resided in Australia but had returned to China and were subsequently not allowed to return. For example, the Gan family – Teddy Ah Gan, his Australian wife Annie and their children – left Melbourne for Hong Kong in 1917. They remained in Hong Kong until the early 1930s when they decided to return to Australia, only to have their application denied because Teddy had been out of Australia for too long. The files also record unsuccessful applications to bring family members, mostly wives and children, out from China, many because of the worsening situation there during the 1930s and 1940s. Some of these families were later able to come to Australia.

Australian or not?

Before Federation, Chinese migrants to the Australian colonies could become naturalised British subjects. Many applications for naturalisation related to a desire to own property and to establish a life in Australia. After Federation, the legal status of Chinese resident in Australia became complex, with significant differences between foreign and Australian-born Chinese. From 1903, naturalisation was denied to Chinese migrants, but Australian-born Chinese gained the rights of a British subject at birth. Chinese naturalised before Federation also retained these rights. It was not until 1948 that the legal status of an ‘Australian citizen’ came into being, and not until 1957 that long-resident Chinese were finally able to apply for citizenship.

The National Archives holds records of colonial naturalisations for Victoria and South Australia. However, post-Federation legal complexities and the uncertainty Chinese people felt about their status in Australia are documented in records from the early twentieth-century. Some Chinese who had been in Australia for many years believed that they could be naturalised and applied for citizenship, only to be refused. Other Australian-born Chinese requested documents to certify the rights they had as Australian-born British subjects. Many post-1957 naturalisation files contain paper trails stretching back decades before citizenship was finally granted.

The impact of war

Regulations issued during both World War I and World War II required aliens, or non-citizens, resident in Australia to register with the police. As Chinese had been excluded from naturalisation from the time of Federation, even those who had been living in Australia for decades had to register, as well as more recent arrivals. One such alien was Sam Goon, a Chinese doctor and miner from South Mt Cameron in Tasmania, who had been in Australia for 30 years when he registered in 1916. The wives of Chinese aliens also had to register, as their nationality followed that of their husbands. From the late 1930s, Australian-born women married to alien Chinese could reclaim the right of British nationality, something that numbers did at the outbreak of World War II to avoid having to register as aliens. The National Archives also holds their applications.

Australian-born Chinese were not required to register as aliens and many actually served in the Australian military forces. Recruitment during World War I and World War II was meant to exclude those not ‘substantially of European descent’, but this restriction was applied with various degrees of strictness. Some Chinese Australian men were not able to enlist, while others, such as Henry Sam and four of his brothers from West Wyalong in rural New South Wales, were able to do so and saw active service in Europe. Their service dossiers are among those of Australian servicemen and women from World War I and World War II and other conflicts held by the Archives.

World War II also saw two new groups of Chinese come to Australia – refugees from Nauru and Papua New Guinea and stranded Chinese seamen. They made up the first significant intake of Chinese since before Federation, but at the end of the war they were repatriated. The National Archives holds records about them and the efforts of many of them – particularly those who had married and had children here – to remain in Australia after 1945. The Chinese community raised money to help men like Sin Ah Jong who, after serving with the Chinese Labour Corps in central Australia and marrying an Australian woman, was ordered to be deported in 1949.

Family and community

As the Immigration Act took effect, the Chinese population in Australia fell from about 35,000 in 1901 to under 10,000 in 1947. This meant that Chinese communities around Australia, in both urban and rural areas, were small and well known to each other, and were linked by family and business ties.

The National Archives holds records created by government agencies such as the Department of External Affairs (now the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) that reveal a great deal about these communities. The records provide information about Chinese community, political organisations and businesses such as stores and newspapers, as well as the individuals who were involved with them. Many family-run Chinese businesses and stores, such as Hong Yuen & Co in Inverell in north-western New South Wales, provided a central point for bringing family members and new migrants to Australia. Business owners also provided a voice for the Chinese community in their dealings with government.

How to find records about family members

Records about Chinese families in Australia can be found by searching the National Archives’ records database, RecordSearch.

To find records on family members, your first step should be to enter a name as a keyword in the RecordSearch ‘Search’ screen. Because Chinese people could be known by a variety of different names in official records, you might need to try different combinations of their Chinese and English surnames and given names. You might also try the names of any businesses or organisations with which they were involved. Viewing these records is free, but charges apply for ordering copies.

The National Archives research guide, Chinese-Australian Journeys: Records on Travel, Migration and Settlement, 1860-1975 by Paul Jones, might also help locate relevant records. It provides a brief history and lists all key record series relating to Chinese migration and settlement in Australia. The guide can be purchased or downloaded for free.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019