Chinese seeking citizenship in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, 1860 to 1920

From the mid-nineteenth century Chinese migrants to Australia sought to become citizens in their adopted homeland, as did Chinese residents of New Zealand and Canada. There are well-known examples — such as Sydney’s Quong Tart, Vancouver’s Yip Sang and Otago’s Charles Sew Hoy — but also many others whose lives remain in the shadows.

The history of Chinese naturalisation in British settler colonies of the Pacific Rim is also hidden, mostly because it has been seen through the lens of Chinese exclusion, a history of when it was prohibited by law rather than of when it was allowed.

In my new project, ‘Chinese seeking citizenship in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, 1860 to 1920’, I will be exploring the lives of naturalised Chinese, intertwining biographies and case studies with historical analysis of naturalisation law and policy, linking lives with legislation. In essence I want to find out how, why and in what circumstances Chinese migrants became British subjects, and what it meant for them.

The project will be comparative and transnational, focusing on New South Wales, New Zealand and British Columbia. Over the period of the study, from around 1860 to 1920, these colonial societies went through three important shifts: large-scale migration and settlement of Chinese populations, the development of colonial/dominion naturalisation law in accordance with growing independence from Britain, and the emergence of ideas of white nationhood. What were the implications of these parallel but distinct histories in the lives of Chinese residents?

I have been awarded an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to undertake the project through the University of Wollongong. The university is supporting my project by providing a PhD scholarship in history on a complementary topic.



Extract from a Department of External Affairs memo outlining colonial naturalisation regulations regarding Chinese, 1911 (National Archives of Australia: P437, 1911/1952)