Introducing Our Chinese Past member – Malcolm Oakes

Malcolm Oakes

My name is Malcolm Oakes and I am a member of Our Chinese Past.

I’m the historian in the family, but my wife Beverley is the connection to Chinese history. Bev is Australian born Chinese.

Bev’s Great Grandfather, Chin Ah Song, conducted storekeeping businesses at Rocky River (Uralla) 1862-1874 and Tingha 1874-1911. Bev’s Grandmother was born in Tingha. Chin Ah Song and his Chinese wife had 4 children born in Tingha during the period 1888-1893.

Some years ago I said to Bev that we should find out about our children’s Chinese heritage and record it for them. Her reply was: “My grandmother was born in Tingha, my mother was born in Cooktown and my father was born in Paddington. After that you’re on your own.” Reconstructing Chin Ah Song’s life history from scratch has required researching records in the National and State Archives and newspaper reports.

Chin Ah Song arrived in Australia in 1860 aged 17 and initially went goldmining at Lambing Flat. Presumably, as was the custom, he would have walked from Sydney to Lambing Flat. But within two years he was into storekeeping. Was he lucky on the goldfields? Was there a sponsor who financed him into storekeeping? Where did he learn business principles?

He pulled up stumps in 1911 and returned to China permanently with his family, but two of them returned to Australia, including Bev’s grandmother. I think it is important to undertake projects like the Our Chinese Past Chinese temples project because Chinese Australian history in rural and regional Australia has often been lost as the Chinese moved from place to place following mineral discoveries (gold and tin in the New England context), often returned to China in retirement, or simply died out (as a result of the White Australia policy restricting immigration), or inter-married and their progeny suppressed their Chinese background.

But they left behind temple artefacts, some of which have worked their way into local museums. Many temple artefacts were imported from China at considerable expense. A common Chinese practice was for the names of donors to temples to be recorded either on donor boards or on the artefacts themselves. Some artefacts are dated (in Chinese and using the Chinese calendar). Our Chinese Past hopes to photograph as many artefacts as resources allow, and progressively identify their temple source (if possible), record any Chinese names and then attempt to match as many of these names as we can with the names used by the Chinese donors in their day to day dealings. We are hoping that publication of this information might bring forward other information which local families have about their Chinese forebears and that the information will assist the local museums which hold Chinese artefacts to better understand the artefacts in their collections.

Posted by Malcolm Oakes