Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Two Languages, Two Cultures, Two Homes

By Kate Bagnall, Department of History, University of Sydney

By 1901, there was a significant number of Chinese children living in Australia. Some of these children migrated with their families from the counties around Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong, but most were native-born Australians and many were of mixed parentage-Chinese and white or Aboriginal. Some of them lived in the growing Chinatowns of Sydney and Melbourne, some on their father's market gardens in the suburbs and others in the country.

Growing up in Australia, these children spoke English and attended school with white children. But many Chinese fathers wished that their children, be they sons or daughters, could be educated in the way that they had been educated-in the Chinese language-and so sent their children to China for schooling.

Kathleen Mary Cecilia Spence (later Mrs Moon Tong Young), 1912. National Archives of Australia, PS42/1, 1918/1150.

Children usually went to live with their father's extended family, in rural villages, market towns or cities like Hong Kong and Guangzhou which had schools run especially for the children of 'overseas Chinese'. At school the children learnt to read classical Chinese texts and write characters with a brush and ink. At home they learnt to speak their father's dialect and all about the religion and culture he had grown up with.

After the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, Chinese or part-Chinese children who wished to leave Australia and later return needed to prove that they had either been born in Australia or that they were living in Australia before 1901. Despite being born here, they were not automatically considered 'Australian'. This meant that before they boarded the ship to leave, many children had their Australian birth certificates certified with their photograph and handprint in order to help prove their identity on their return to Australia. Their files remain held in the collection of the National Archives of Australia.

One file is that of Sydney Ellis Johnson. He was born at Little Plains near Inverell, NSW in February 1888 to a Chinese father and a white mother named Mary Johnson. As an infant, Sydney was adopted by Chy Wong, who left him in the care of Fanny Cumines when he was about fifteen months old. Sydney was raised by Fanny until he was eight years old when Chy Wong took him to China. When he left Australia, a photograph of Sydney was left with officials to aid in his identification on his return to Australia. Sydney's sojourn in China was a lengthy one, during which time he learnt to speak Chinese and forgot his English-on his return in 1921 he spoke to customs officials through an interpreter.

Handprint of Kathleen Mary Cecilia Spence
Handprint of Kathleen Mary Cecilia Spence, wife of Moon Tong Young, taken on her arrival in Sydney, 1918. National Archives of Australia, SP42/1, C18/1150.

Chinese-born Chun Quan and his half-Chinese Australian wife Mary decided in 1913 decided that they wanted to send their son, Willie, to China for education. They planned to send him with his uncle, Chun Cow, who was a market gardener in the north shore Sydney suburb of Gordon. Willie was granted permission to return, his handprint was taken and his birth certificate certified before he left. He was thirteen when he departed in 1913, returning four years later at the age of seventeen.

Kathleen Mary Cecilia Spence was born in Elizabeth Street Sydney in March 1900. She was adopted by James Ah Lum, a cabinet-maker from Sydney, at the age of three months. In October 1911 Ah Lum requested that his daughter Kathleen be allowed to travel to China to be 'educated in the Chinese language'. The authorities, concerned about Kathleen's welfare, requested that she be accompanied to China by a responsible adult. When Kathleen left Sydney in the care of her 'foster aunt' in 1912, Ah Lum's plan was for her to remain in China for around two years. Kathleen was taken care of by her aunt during the voyage to Hong Kong and then went to live with her adopted grandmother in Canton. Kathleen stayed longer than the planned two years. In 1916 Ah Lum travelled to China to attend to some business and also to arrange Kathleen's marriage. She returned to Australia in early 1918 a married woman.

Sending Australian-born children to China for education was one way that the Chinese communities in Australia maintained links with China. The children grew up in two countries, two cultures, two languages and with two homes. They brought a richness to Australia through their international links and many worked hard throughout their lives to bring the people of their two homes closer together, through business, educational, political and cultural endeavours.


National Archives of Australia: Collector of Customs, Sydney; SP 42/1, Correspondence of the Collector of Customs Relating to Immigration Restriction and Passports, 1898-1948; C21/1102 (Sydney Ellis Johnson), C13/2208 C13/2768 (Willie Cecil Quan), C18/1150 (Kathleen Spence/Ah Lum).

The views and opinions expressed in these stories do not necessarily reflect those of La Trobe University or the editors of the website.
Last Updated: 27 February, 2009