On June 11, The Centre for Critical Human Rights Research (CCHRR) and the Centre for Colonial and Settler Studies (CASS) hosted a launch for three new UOW books. Professor Vera Mackie was chaired the event which included new books by Adrian Robert Bazbauers and Susan Engel; Charles T. Hunt and Phil Orchard; and Kate Bagnall and Julia T. Martínez.
Claire, Susan, Julia, Vera and Phil at the Unibar launch
Claire Lowrie launched the book of Kate and Julia who are long time CASS members. The text of her speech is provided below for those of you interested in finding out more about this important book.
Claire Lowrie on Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez (eds) Locating Chinese Women
“I want to begin by acknowledging that the University of Wollongong spreads across many interrelated Aboriginal Countries that are bound by this sacred landscape. I acknowledge the Custodianship of the Aboriginal peoples of this place and space that has kept alive the relationships between all living things. I also acknowledge the real and devastating impact of colonisation on Aboriginal Countries and peoples and further commit myself to truth-telling, healing and education.
Thank you to Susan, Phil, and Julia for making this event happen. As an academic it is easy to get stuck on the unrelenting conveyor belt of productivity – always moving on to the next thing – usually an article or chapter that is already overdue. I think it is important to acknowledge and reflect on the completion of project – to bask in the glory of the moment for a little while and to do that with a community of kindred scholars, friends and family members. So that is my goal for the next 10 minutes in discussing Kate Bagnall and Julia Martinez’ Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia published by Hong Kong University Press.
My thanks to Julia for inviting me to launch Locating Chinese Women which is an absolute honour – especially because I received a free copy of this beautiful book. The rest of you should definitely go and buy a copy of your own. https://hkupress.hku.hk/pro/1811.php
This is an exciting collection – the first book length history of Chinese women in Australia. By bringing to light diverse experiences of Chinese women, this book will have a significant impact on the Australian historiographical landscape. While there has been work on Chinese men in Australia, who arrived in significant numbers particularly during the gold rush era of 1850s, histories of Chinese women are much less developed. This has been justified by historians as a consequence of the small numbers of women who came into the country. But as Kate and Julia put it in the introduction, ‘that women were a numerical minority does not make their lives less worthy of scholarly attention’ (2). Indeed, the stories of Chinese women covered in this book does very important work. The micro biographies of women that the contributors detail overturn stubborn stereotypes of Chinese women as silent, submissive and passive – stereotypes based on historically contingent conceptions of race and gender. Instead of silent figures in the background we see women as actors and agents of historical change, albeit within deeply asymmetrical relations of power.
The contributors highlight diverse experiences, including Chinese women that engaged in politics and journalism covered in Paul McGregor’s chapter on Alice Lim Kee. As well as business women in the northern frontier town of Darwin, forging and taking advantage of the trading links between northern Australia and China, as Natalie Fong demonstrates in her chapter. The book includes stories of gifted scholars such as Gwen Fong who graduated from the University of Melbourne with a degree in medicine in the 1940s and was an active member of the University branch of the communist party (despite her elite family background). She was one of a tiny minority of Chinese women – and women in general- that gained entry into Australian universities between the 1920s and the 1950s.
The presence of Chinese women in the public spheres of business, community activism and politics is a theme of this book. Chapters trace, for example, the lives of women like Ham Hop who – with her husband Poon Gooey – launched a challenge to the White Australia Policy, arguing for her right to stay in Australia. Her campaign, which took place between 1910 and 1913, ultimately failed and she was forced to return to China. As Kate puts it in that chapter, she ‘hoped to be made an exemption to this discriminatory policy, she was instead made an example’ (132). Stories of women and children used as ‘an example’ to send a message about Commonwealth government immigration policy seem to me to have particular resonance today. And there are other tragic stories in this book that remain highly relevant today. For example, the account of Perth women Ruby Yen – a victim of domestic violence. We know her name and a good deal about her home and family life, her physical and material experiences, because she died and thus left an archival trail in the form of a coronial inquest that historian Antonia Finnane analyses.
While acknowledging how the racist context of the White Australia Policy and systems of oppression based on patriarchy shaped Chinese women’s lives in Australia, the overall narrative of this volume is not a story of what was done to these women but how they lived. The contributors work with the limited historical sources available to ‘locate’ Chinese women – to reconstruct their lives and experiences as far as possible. This is kind of history that I love! The kind that does the hard work of seeking out people whose voices and perspectives are not easy found in the archives – whose lives were not necessarily considered worth recording and who appear only in moments when they make into contact with government authorities or did something remarkable.
The tradition of writing history from below requires that the contributors sometimes use less orthodox historical sources and approach traditional source material in a creative manner. Mei-fen Kuo, for example, taps into changing ideas about gender by analysing accounts of Chinese womanhood penned by Chinese men in Australia’s early Chinese language newspapers. Alana Kamp draws on oral histories to plot Chinese women’s experiences of migration and mobility in their own words. For me, the standout source material used in this book is the extensive collection of photographs. The photos come from public archives and private family collections. The cover image is particularly beautiful and carefully choregraphed. Note how perfect the women look after a long sea journey from Hong Kong to Sydney arriving in 1938 – the Kwok women in matching cheongsam. They epitomize a modern and progressive of conception of Chinese womanhood cultivated among the economic elite of Chinese Australian society – another theme that comes through in a number of the chapters.
Photographs not only illustrate the pages if this volume but inform the analysis within it. They are used to bring these women to life and highlight their agency. To give one example, the chapter by Sophie Couchman which centres on wedding photos. Couchman explores the depiction of Chinese women in white western wedding gowns from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s. Rather than a chapter about Chinese women simply taking on western traditions, Couchman plots the role Chinese Australians played in facilitating the global adoption of the white wedding by different cultural groups.
In addition to contributing to Australian history the book also shapes the international field of research of Chinese diaspora – Chinese overseas. It situates the stories of Chinese Australian women within a larger narrative of Chinese emigration from Southern China to other white settler countries like the US, Canada and New Zealand– the story of what Henry Yu has termed the Cantonese Pacific. It also highlights the particularities of the Australian experience, including the surprising degree of mobility of Chinese women even at the height of the restrictive immigration policies that characterized White Australia. For example, the experience of Daisy Kwok, whose life between Sydney and Shanghai is explored in the last chapter by Sophie Loy-Wilson.
To conclude with more of a local reflection … this book reflects the research strength on Chinese Australian history at UOW. A specialization which has in large part been fostered by Julia’s work in that area and her success in bringing researchers of Chinese Australian history to UOW. This includes her co-editor Kate Bagnall, who came to UOW as a DECRA, and three PhD students in recent years working in related topics, including her current student Renzhe Zhang, co-supervised with Jason Lim.
The book is an outcome of two UOW events that brought leading international scholars of Chinese diaspora here. The first was the 2013 Dragon Tails conference convened by Julia, Jason, and Paul Macgregor. The second was a 2014 workshop on Chinese Women in the Southern Disaspora co-convened by Julia and Kate. I had just started my job at UOW in mid-2014 and attended that workshop. It was really exciting to be at a University that was leading the field in terms of historicizing connections between China and Australia. It was clear to me what a rich collection of papers Julia and Kate had assembled and it is fantastic to see it come to fruition.
The chapters in this book are authored by nine contributors ranging from early career researchers to professors, all of whom bring a deep knowledge of the topic drawing on Chinese and English language sources. They include University based historians and geographers, public history practitioners and those working in the museum sector. This combination of voices and expertise results in distinctive and compelling chapters which use sources in different sorts of ways. Congratulations on this wonderful book.”