Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Chinese Australians: A Guide to Holdings in the NSW Office of National Archives of Australia

This Guide draws on records concerning Chinese Australians in New South Wales held in the New South Wales regional office of the National Archives of Australia (NAA). The NAA holds Commonwealth Government records from 1901 to date. However some records, particularly the Australian Custom Service records that dominate the NAA collection, overlap the Federation period. Researchers in other States will also find the guide of use as similar record series exist in other States.

This Guide complements a survey of Chinese-related records in the NAA compiled by Julie Stacker and Peri Stewart, Chinese Immigrants and Chinese-Australians in NSW (1996). It does this by including, where possible, details of individual files or items held in larger series related to Chinese Australians. These samples enable researchers to more fully evaluate the usefulness of a particular series. Series groupings often hold a wide variety of materials that can be difficult to describe. Selectively providing details of individual items held within a series helps the researcher understand more specifically what is in a particular series. Another benefit of detailing individual items in a series is that it also means these individual items are searchable within the database format and so are available for research.

Background to the guide
'Chinese Australians: A Guide to Holdings in the NSW Office of National Archives of Australia' was developed by Terri McCormack for the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation Project. The Guide originated in work done by her on the official two-volume history of the Australian Customs Service authored by Dr David Day and on Dr Shirley Fitzgerald's history of Sydney's Chinese Red Tape, Gold Scissors (1997).


Notes on using the guide
The database format of this Guide allows the user to quickly navigate its records either by searching all fields at once or through a more complex specific search.

Each of the records provides information about a particular record series. The National Archives of Australia (NAA) define a series as a group of records which have been kept together under a series number. Each series can contain many individual items that are identified by a subdivision of the series number. Record series are the main groups of records held by the NAA and these are subdivided into record items.

Most of the fields in this Guide are based on the format and data in the NAA database 'RecordSearch' and in their hardcopy Accession Registers. The compiler is indebted to NAA for this information. The compiler has included her own description and evaluation of these records. Where possible, the 'Sample Items' field contains items sighted by the compiler and indicates the type of information likely to be found in the relevant record series. The keyword field functions as a general subject index while more specific searches, for names for instance, can be made within each field.

The NAA have used several numerical systems of registering records over the years and these systems coexist. Most record series you are likely to encounter will comprise a single alphabetic prefix followed by a string
numbers (eg A806, C127) or a double alphabetic prefix followed by a string of numbers (eg SP364/1).

Some of the later records found in the Guide may fall within the thirty year restricted period and will therefore not be accessible without permission of the relevant Department or Agency. It should also be noted that not all the items listed, although more than thirty years old, have been cleared for public access. Their status can be checked on the 'RecordSearch' database of NAA at


Historical background to records
From Federation, the main Agency with which Chinese in Australia had dealings was the Customs Department, headed in each State by the Collector of Customs. The Customs Department administered the various provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 as well as many other Acts. This Act embodied the principles of the White Australia Policy and was used against unlimited Chinese entry into Australia. During wartime in particular, the activities of aliens, including Chinese, were closely examined. Chinese were obliged to notify customs of all changes of abode and places of employment. With the passing of the Migration Act of 1958, responsibility for the entry of non-Europeans passed to the newly formed Department of Immigration and the stringent monitoring of movement was gradually relaxed. This scrutinisation of their movements made life in Australia extremely difficult for Chinese people but has resulted in a rich source of documentation that this database attempts to make accessible.


Useful Links
National Archives of Australia's RecordSearch database

Julie Stacker and Peri Stewart, Chinese Immigrants and Chinese-Australians in NSW, National Archives of Australia, 1996