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Archives In Brief 33 - Chinese migration and settlement in New South Wales

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A brief overview of the major resources held by State Records that relate to Chinese settlement in New South Wales. Other records may be identified in Archives Investigator and the Departmental Special Bundle listings, which are available in the reading room.

Regulatory background to the records


Glass Negative Box #1102: No. 62 [unnamed Street] corner of Castlereagh St - Chinese Grocers Fong Lee Jang and Co.

Glass Negative Box #1102: No. 62 [unnamed street] corner of Castlereagh St - Chinese Grocers Fong Lee Jang and Co. (c. May 1916)

Chinese migration and settlement in NSW has a long history. During the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century there were State (and later Federal) laws that placed restrictions on Chinese entry into the country.

Early musters and census include Chinese and although Chinese migration was being considered as a solution to the labour shortage in the Colony as early as 1828, the numbers remained low until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The first group of Chinese labourers (100 adults and 20 boys) from Amoy embarked for New South Wales in 1848 [1]. From the beginning, Chinese indentured labourers aroused the animosity of other citizens. With the discovery of gold in 1851 Chinese immigration increased and by 1855 numbered 17,000 [2].

The growing number of Chinese in the Colony incited greater racial intolerance and in 1861 the New South Wales Government passed the Chinese Immigration Regulation and Restriction Act. This Act, which was a reaction to the immigration of Chinese gold seekers, was repealed in 1867 when the gold rushes appeared to have been exhausted. The Act however, initiated a legislative framework that regulated how long the Chinese could stay, whether or not they could bring their families, become naturalised, whether or not they could work and for whom, and their opportunities to employ others [3].

These restrictions continued until the late twentieth century. The policy behind this framework, while not always directly stated, became known as the 'White Australia Policy' [4]. Acts directly aimed at restricting the influx of Chinese were passed in 1881 and 1887.

In 1898 New South Wales enacted another restrictive law, which was aimed at excluding all non-Europeans, including those who were British subjects. This Act was the first to include a dictation test.

When the Federal Government assumed responsibility for immigration the dictation test was included in the Federal Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Effectively, the 'White Australia Policy' excluded immigrants from Asian countries for over 50 years.

By the late 1950s the official climate had begun to change. This was reflected in amendments to Federal immigration laws. A major step towards a new immigration policy was the decision in 1957 to allow non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia to become Australian citizens. Restrictions on non-European immigration began to be further reduced after the review of the 'non-European' policy in March 1966. Following this review, the Federal Government announced the easing of restrictions on non-European migrants.

In 1973 the Government took further steps to remove 'race' as a factor in Australia's immigration policies. Immigration was comprehensively reviewed in 1978 and new policies and programs were adopted. Today, almost one in four of Australia's population of around 20 million people was born overseas — with 7% being born in China.

[1] C.Y.Choi, Chinese Migration and Settlement in Australia (Sydney, 1975)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Julie Stacker and Peri Stewart, Chinese Immigrants and Chinese-Australians in NSW, Australian Archives, 1996.

[4] Ibid.

Searching for individuals in the records

Particular individuals may be difficult to trace because the records are generally arranged by the public office that created them rather than by the person's name. When searching for individuals, your first step should be to determine what dealings the person may have had with the government of the day. You then need to consider which public office would be likely to have retained this information.

A select list of record sources

Colonial immigration records

The Colonial Secretary was often engaged in correspondence relating to Chinese immigration policy and the main series of Correspondence and the list of Special Bundles should be consulted. For more information researchers should consult Archives Investigator and the guide to the Colonial Secretary's Correspondence, which is available in the reading room.

Examples from the Colonial Secretary, 1826-1982

NRS 906, Special Bundles 1826-1982
* Proposed prohibition of Chinese Immigration into Australia, 1880-81 [4/829.1]
Contains: correspondence; telegrams detailing Chinese passengers on board certain vessels; papers associated with an outbreak of smallpox and a return of Chinese passengers to China for the year 1880.
* Prohibition of Chinese Immigration into Australia, 1887-88 [4/884.1]
Contains: an extract from the Government Gazette in relation to quarantine and an anti-Chinese memorial dated 1880; return showing Certificates of Naturalization issued to Chinese people from 1881-88, as well as a return showing the number of Certificates issued under Section 9 of the Influx of Chinese Restriction Act.
There is also correspondence relating to vessels containing Chinese passengers, including the steamers Afghan and Tsinan, 9 May 1888.
* Papers re Chinese Immigration, 1888 [2/8095.3]

Passengers and crew records

The majority of Chinese arriving in the colony paid their own passage or it may have been paid on their behalf. Some may have worked as crew. Research into these records can often be difficult as there is no comprehensive index to the records of nineteenth century passenger and crew arrivals. Furthermore, some lists record only the numbers on board rather than listing the passengers and crew by name. Details on an individual's arrival may be found from other sources for example, naturalization records (see below).

Passenger records can be found in the series Passengers arriving (or Shipping lists, or Passenger lists), 1854-1922. These records are described in more detail in Archives in Brief 1. For more detail on crew records see Archives in Brief 21. See also the Shipping Guide, available in the reading room.
See the Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters website for unassisted passenger and crew arrivals, 1845-1922.

Naturalization records

Naturalisation legislation came into force in New South Wales in 1849 (Act 11 Vic. No. 39). Prior to then, the only way that a non-British resident could be naturalised was by a special act of Parliament. Following this legislation any person born outside the British Empire who had resided in New South Wales for a period of five years and who wished to vote or own land needed to become naturalized.

Naturalization records are an important source as they can provide both the date of arrival and the name of the ship. See Archives in Brief 3 and Short Guide 9 for a full list of records relating to denization and naturalization.

The National Archives of Australia holds post 1903 naturalization records and information on alien registration and internment in New South Wales. The National Archives may be contacted on telephone: 1300 886 881, or visit the National Archives website.

Gold field/mining records

References to Chinese miners can be located in the records of the Gold Commissioners and in the records of Mining Wardens' Courts in the Department of Mines.

Further references to Chinese on the minefields, including documents relating to the Lambing Flat 'riots' in 1860-61, may be found in the records of the Colonial Secretary and Department of Lands. See Archives Investigator under the relevant public office entries.

NRS 7933 Department of Lands and Public Works/Department of Lands I Letters received [5/3703 letter No. 66/2953]

NRS 7933 Department of Lands and Public Works/Department of Lands I - Letters received [5/3703 letter No. 66/2953]

An example is this petition from Chinese miners at the Rocky River Goldfield, 18 April 1866, for the return of Commissioner Dalton to the area as Gold Commissioner. It is clear from the Rocky River Goldfield petition that the Chinese miners felt protected by Dalton's presence in a colony rife with racial intolerance.
Transcript of the petition:

We the Chinese Storekeepers and Gold Diggers residing on the Rocky River Gold Fields. Humbly pray that Mr Commissioner Dalton may be returned as Gold Commissioner – All our countrymen consider Mr Dalton a good man who understands our position on the Gold Fields and has always decided fairly and justly in all matters of dispute and has always been very punctual in attending to business. All the Chinamen desire that he may be retained as he is a good and honest man and understands gold mining and all its branches. To the Honourable the Minister for Lands and Honourable the Executive Council.
Ah Sioung, Storekeeper Rocky River
Li Mah Storekeeper Rocky River
Ah Lung, Gold Miner Rocky River

And one hundred and twenty others.

Business records

Company registration records may include Chinese businesses. See Archives Investigator for records of the following agencies:

  • No. 25, Registrar General's Companies Branch
  • No. 40, Registrar General, Deeds Registration Branch
  • No. 26 Attorney General's Companies Office, and
  • No. 78, Corporate Affairs Commission

(Tip: select Advanced Search - Agency)
Bankruptcy records may also include Chinese businesses. For more information see Archives in Brief 58.

Police, court and prison records

NRS 10958, Police Gazettes, 1852-1929, Reels 3129-3143 (1862-99), Reels 3594-3606 (1900-30) contain entries and photographs of people. Consult Archives Investigator for details about the Gazettes.

Court records, court depositions and related documents provide details of Chinese convicted in New South Wales. The various court jurisdictions can be found in Archives Investigator.

Prison records include, from the period of the late 1870s, photographs of prisoners with details of conviction and personal history. The photographs are being progressively added to the online index.

Volume [6/5445] of the Hay Gaol description books contains a decorated index for "celestials alone" or Chinese. Details of prison records can be found under Corrective Services in Archives Investigator.

Hospital, health and death records

Records of psychiatric institutions dating from 1838 may include Chinese patients. Hospitals are listed under the Department of Health in Archives Investigator. See Archives in Brief 85.

NRS 4833, Exhumation files, 1928-29, include the names of Chinese people whose bodies where exhumed to be taken back to China.

More information is provided in Archives Investigator.

Coroners' records such registers of coronial enquiries can establish basic details (age and birthplace) of individuals into whose deaths an enquiry was held. Detailed reports have not survived for the years 1828 to 1911. See Archives in Brief 4.

Deceased Estate records relate to the payment of death duties, may also prove useful. See Archives in Brief 29.

Intestate Estate files should be consulted in instances where a person died without a will. See Archives in Brief 53 for full details.

Other records

Births, Deaths and Marriages, 1788-1945 - see NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages website

Census of New South Wales, 1891 and 1901 - see Short Guide 7 and Short Guide 12.

See also the index to the 1891 Census Collectors Books.

Land sales and transfers. Details of records relating to the purchase of land from the Crown can be found in Archives Investigator, Short Guide 8, and Archives in Brief 23.

Records relating to transfers of land between individuals are available from:

Department of Lands
1 Prince Albert Road, Queen's Square,
Sydney, NSW 2000

Records of Professions and occupations. Short Guide 10 lists a selection of the more significant State archives relating to particular professions and occupations.

Public service records. See Archives Investigator for records of the Public Service Board. (Tip: select Advanced Search - Agency No. 573). See also Archives in Brief 19, Archives in Brief 20 and Archives in Brief 54.

School records. Files, which cover the years 1876-1979, include administrative documents relating to government schools may be useful for areas where Chinese settled. See Archives in Brief 26 and the Index to Schools and related records.

In addition, there are some records, such as admission rolls, from individual schools. These records are also listed in the Index to Schools and related records.

Researchers should consult the Register of Access Directions to confirm the public availability of records. State Records' staff can advise you on the availability of records if they are not listed on the register.

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