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Chinese people and the Immigration Restriction Act

Williams, M. Chinese Settlement in New South Wales 1999

The Immigration Restriction Act extended itself further than the NSW Acts, to Hong Kong and beyond' by fining shipping companies £100 for every illegal immigrant carried to an Australia port. The result was that Chinese people in Hong Kong could not purchase a ticket to Australia without either a valid CEDT or a letter from the Collector of Customs stating that they would be admitted, 'on being satisfactorily identified'. People eligible as 'domiciles' would give their CEDTs to agents, often branches of the Sydney based stores, who would purchase steamer tickets for them. After 1912 the merchant class could use passports issued by the Chinese government. However, most Chinese people continued to be dependent upon the stores for all aspects of their dealings under the Immigration Restriction Act.

While the various restrictions on Chinese immigration attempted to control people's lives they also left open many opportunities for manipulation as well as circumvention, opportunities more easily taken up by merchants and those with money. For the bulk of market gardens this meant that their wives, present or future, would remain in the villages regardless of circumstances. In this way legal restrictions acted to reinforce existing patterns and to prevent, or at least slow, change.

Under pre-Federation NSW law, the children and wives of Chinese people naturalised as New South Welshmen were exempt from the £100 poll tax and could enter freely. This was reduced by the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act to only the wives of merchants and after 1903 even these people could obtain temporary entry only. Extensions could be sought and a temporary stay sometimes converted into a permanent one. The substitute and assistant provisions of the Act offered even further opportunities. Eligibility was defined by turnover and a judgement that the position required a Chinese person to do it. This also meant that those with businesses were in a better position to bring family members, or at least fellow villagers, than the average market gardener. It also meant that if a person lost their job they were liable to deportation, a continuation of the bonded employment previously ensured by the credit ticket system.

While some people may have been able to manipulate the Act's requirements, others were prepared to defy it entirely. After the 1888 imposition of a £100 Poll Tax on the entry of Chinese people into NSW, the land border with Queensland became of great significance. While the receipts of the poll tax shows a handful of people supposedly entered NSW after 1888, the records of the Immigration Restriction Act shows a very much larger number actually did so. An 'underground' seems to have been set up which saw the prospective New South Welshman arrive at Cooktown, northern Queensland and make his way overland or perhaps by coastal steamer, to Brisbane. From there he could cross the NSW border at Stanthorpe and make his way to Sydney.

After Federation, the purchase of false Naturalisation Certificates and CEDTs were some of many illegal methods used to enter Australia. Corrupt officials supplying false identification as a returned domicile was another method but more common was desertion by ships crews. However, the method that seems to have added to NSW's Chinese population more than any other after Federation was the smuggling of people on board ships. These were usually part of an organised effort that included crew members and the planning of people in both Hong Kong and NSW. The prospective emigrants were concealed in such places as coal bunkers and water tanks, and as these last were inside the 'Chinese passengers quarters', returning 'domiciles' presumably knew all about this alternative method of migration.

Those who were caught, either on ship or after a period in NSW, were given the 'Dictation Test' at the Customs House, Sydney. Such 'tests' are usually blank, apart from signatures at the bottom of the page. Stowaways, deserters and other 'prohibited immigrant' faced gaol terms before they were deported unless someone was willing to go surety until they embarked on a ship back to Hong Kong. This, various people were willing to do, putting up as surety £100 per person and in one case, a total of £1,000.

Throughout the life of the Immigration Restriction Act, court cases and other legal challenges were mounted. Such cases were supported by members of the Chinese community and were often successful in limiting the powers of administrators. So much so that these administrators sometimes became wary of taking a case to court lest it result in an adverse ruling that would further limit their discretion.

Perhaps the most extreme example of discrimination was the denial of citizenship rights to both naturalised and Australian-born people of Chinese origin. The Immigration Restriction Act did recognise the Australian, or rather 'British' citizenship of those naturalised in NSW, but not the rights of their children despite both British citizenship law and the Australian Constitution recognising the rights of naturalised British subjects and their children and of those born in Australia. All people in the category of Chinese and other Asian origins were denied such rights by a combination of bureaucratic discretion, political decision-making and court rulings. Eventually, some rights were recognised when Australian-bom people who returned to Australia in less than 10 years were recognised as having a right to do so, but not to citizenship.

Laws relating to citizenship and immigration were not the only ones that discriminated against Chinese people living within NSW. Factory Acts of 1898 and 1913 brought harsher regulations to bear on any workshops employing Chinese people while the Crown Lands Consolidation Act 1912 prevented Chinese people from acquiring such land. Denial of entry into the army was ensured by a clause stating that 'European' blood was necessary.

The heritage provided by discriminatory laws against the Chinese in NSW and Australia is immense. Images of the acquiescent but cunning 'Chinaman', the hardworking gardener and the thrifty merchant are common enough. The role played by restrictive Immigration Laws and an atmosphere of threat in creating and maintaining the basis of such images are rarely acknowledged. A more tangible heritage are the tens of thousands of photos of Chinese men and a few women who strove to maintain links with the families they could not bring to join them. Less easy to determine is the contribution of this heritage of 'law and order' to Federation, Australian-Imperial relations and the development of Australia's identity as a 'white' nation and to its more recent 'multicultural' transformation.

Reproduced with permission of the NSW Heritage Office

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