What are these Victorian CEDT registers and why do they matter?

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This is a transcript of the talk I gave at the launch of ‘Transcribing Chinese Travels into Victoria’s History’, held at the Chinese Museum in Melbourne on Saturday, 5 May 2019.

Today I want to tell you a bit about the Victorian Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test (CEDT) registers that we are working with today, what Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test or CEDTs are, and who applied for them. I also want to talk a little about how an index to these Victorian CEDT registers might open up further research.

Two pages from Victorian CEDT register 1 (1904-1914)
[NAA: B6003, 1]

Today we are transcribing data from three registers that list of people who applied for Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test from 1904-1959. These registers are held by the National Archives of Australia in series B6003. Information is listed according to the date the CEDT was granted and provides information such as:

  • the name of person
  • their nationality
  • the number of years they’d been living in the commonwealth
  • their occupation
  • place of residence
  • the date and ship that they left Victoria on and
  • the date and ship they returned on.

They were created as part of the administration of the White Australia policy. But let’s be clear. These are not people ‘banned’ from entering Australia. Actually, they are the opposite – Chinese Australians permitted to live in Australia and free to travel overseas.

In today’s language we would call these people Australians, or perhaps permanent residents, but because Australia had immigration and naturalization policies based on race, these Australians, because of their race, had to pay for an exemption and jump through bureaucratic hoops that white Australians didn’t have to.

These registers were compiled as part of administering the Immigration Restriction Act and the policies associated with it. You may be surprised to learn that there is nothing in the Act which mentions race. It was administrative policies tied to the Act which required officials to give coloured immigrants wanting to come to Australia an unpassable dictation test in any European language.

As part of these policies officials were instructed to block new ‘coloured’ immigrants but, at the same time, allow the free passage of other ‘coloured’ Australians who: had been born in Australia, naturalised or had been law abiding and domiciled in Australia (lived in Australia for five years or more).

The challenge for officials was how they were to tell the difference between coloured immigrants and coloured Australians who might racially ‘look’ the same, all at a time when (at least until after World War One) passports were not required for travel?

How were officials to stop new immigrants from pretending they were naturalised or domiciled Australians? Technically people born or naturalised in Australia were able to travel freely in and out of Australia, but depending on what they looked like these people were at risk of being mistaken for new immigrants.

Section of back of George Robert Cook’s 1903 birth certificate with photograph, hand and thumb print and annotations regarding travel
[Chinese Museum collection, 1993.20]

Australian-born Chinese often travelled with their birth certificates and naturalised Chinese could travel on their naturalisation certificate. Sometimes both these groups attached photographs to their birth and naturalisation certificates.

Cancelled 1883 naturalization certificate of Ah Ham, laborer from Beechworth with photograph attached and annotations regarding travel
[NAA: A712, 1883/Y8720]

From the mid-1880s, however, most colonies of Australia had banned Chinese from being naturalised. In 1903 this was extended to anyone who was ‘an aboriginal native of Asia, Africa, or the Islands of the Pacific, excepting New Zealand’.

Front and back of Lim Ling’s 1912 Certificate Exemption from Dictation Test (above)
Lim Ling’s CEDT application including application form, police report, references from Meadows & Co manufacturers and importers and Robert Tucker & Co importers (below)
[NAA: B13, 1912/1903]

This left a significant group of people, largely born in China, who were permanently living in Australia but were prevented from being naturalised who were still entitled to live in Australia and travel. For these domiciled Chinese, the official solution was a “Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test” or CEDT. The certificate included a physical description of the person, identification photographs and finger and/or handprints to help identify the person on their return to Australia.

Individuals applied for a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test before they travelled. Paperwork completed by applicants included providing two written references and two sets of head and shoulders portraits – full frontal and side on. A fee was paid. Exemptions were generally granted for a period of up to three years. This meant you had to return to Australia within three years. You could, however, also apply for an extension which was often granted.

Something that is important to note is that Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test are very different to the similarly named Certificate of Exemption documents. Certificate of Exemption documents were a temporary visa that allowed those not born, naturalised or domiciled in Australia to stay in Australia for a set period of time. Many China-born wives of Chinese Australian residents came to Australia on Certificate of Exemption documents. These exemptions were sometimes but not always extended, resulting in families split between lives in Australia and southern China.

Ng Cheung Ting’s Certificate of Exemption (butt only), 1943
[NAA: MP56/13]

So returning to my initial point. These registers list individuals who have applied for Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test – Chinese (and other coloured immigrants such as Indians and Syrians) who were unable to be naturalised but were law-abiding and had made Australia their home.

There are a couple of caveats I’d like to put on this statement.

The first is that women and children often sat outside this bureaucratic system or were treated differently. This means they may or may not be found in the registers.

The second is that even though Australian-born Chinese and naturalised Chinese should have been able to travel on their birth and naturalisations certificates, because of concerns about identity fraud these individuals were sometimes caught trying to prove their identity on returning to Australia. Some found it easier to travel on a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test. This means you will also find Australian-born individuals listed in the registers.

The Melbourne-born children of the Tong family provide a useful example of both these caveats. The Tong children travelled with their mother to China after their father’s death in 1912. Tragically their mother and two sisters subsequently died in China leaving the remaining children orphaned. Alice and Ethel returned to Melbourne in 1914 but were stopped by Customs and had to prove their identities. They did this with the help of a family portrait and interviews with Alice and Melbourne-based friends of the Tong family. Thankfully Alice and Ethel were then permitted to land.

Portrait of Mrs Tong with her Melbourne-born children Alice, Ethel, Elsie, Willie and Phyllis prior to travelling to China in 1912
[NAA: B13, 1920/1366]

A few years later, in 1918 Alice and Ethel joined the O’Hoy family on a trip to Hong Kong. Alice and her husband Fee O’Hoy both travelled on separate CEDT certificates despite both being born in Victoria. Ethel, however, only 12 years old at the time, simply left two studio portraits of herself with officials and presumably travelled on her birth certificate. They all successfully returned to Victoria without difficulty.

Portraits of Ethel Tong (with Alice), c.1918
[NAA: B13, 1918/14419]
Alice O’Hoy (nee Tong) 1918 CEDT certificate
[NAA: B13, 1918/19518]
Alice (Bou Youk) and Meelan O’Hoy entries in Victorian CEDT Register 2
[NAA: B6003, 2]

So let’s have a look at why these registers are significant.

Unlike states like New South Wales, Victoria doesn’t have a full series of CEDT certificates. The CEDT certificates that survive are tucked away in correspondence case files in the B13 series but not every file in the series contains a CEDT certificate and not every CEDT certificate survives. This series has also not been fully digitised. The Victorian CEDT registers give us a complete list of Victorians who travelled using a CEDT.

Sample of files found in B13 series. Some but not all relate to CEDT applications.
[Screen capture from NAA RecordSearch]

Information about nationality in the registers shows which groups were targeted and directly affected by the Immigration Restriction Act. We know from browsing the registers that most CEDT applicants were Chinese but there are also Indian and Syrian nationals as well as others. It is also worth remembering, however, that registers might list nationality as ‘Chinese’ when in fact these people were born in Australia and so technically were ‘Australian’ or strictly speaking ‘Australian-born British subjects’. This is revealing in and of itself. With further research into the birth places of those listed in the registers one of the things we could get a sense so is of how many Australian-born people applied for certificates who technically didn’t need them. At the end of the project we will be able to do a breakdown of the occupations of these different nationalities and where they lived in Victoria.

The information in these registers gives us a sense of how mobile the Chinese community in Victoria was. The registers document those who travelled and how often. If an individual is listed more than once then comparing information about residence will show whether they moved or changed occupation in the intervening period. Most CEDTs granted a 3-year exemption but we know some certificate holders applied for and were successful extending their certificates and these extensions are also documented. It is also possible to see whether the CEDT holder did in fact eventually return to Victoria and to then calculate how long they were away for. Not all CEDT holders did return. The registers also list how long the person had been residing in the Commonwealth and when compared with their age offers an indication of how settled they were in Australia and how old they were when they travelled offering an indication of what savings they were able to acquire while working in Australia.

I’ve also been surprised by the broad range of places where people were living. Some are in places you would expect like Bendigo, Ballarat, Little Bourke Street in Melbourne but there are many more. In compiling a list of unique place names for the first register I ended up with a list of 183 suburbs and towns! There are even a few New South Wales, Western Australian and South Australian residents. I can see this information being particularly valuable to local historical societies and museums who will be able to identify the names, ages and occupations of the Chinese, Indians and Syrians in their regions and will then be able to undertake more targeted research about these individuals using other historical sources.

List of locations identified in CEDT register 1

As you’ve probably already noticed on our unverified data profile pages the registers also provide a snapshot of the nature of these long-term resident Chinese, Indian and Syrian Victorians – their occupations, age and where in Victoria they were living.

These registers will obviously be very valuable for family historians. The travel documented in the registers can be double checked with shipping information held at the Public Records Office of Victoria. And similarly, shipping information can be tricky to search if your ancestor has a very common name. Once the index is complete you will be able to cross reference information from shipping lists, which generally only provides the name and age of travellers, with the CEDT registers that contain more personal information. In some cases the CEDT number in the registers matches also the numbering used in the B13 Series of case files but more research needs to be done to work out the relationship between some of the numbers used in the registers and surviving archive series.

And there will be other research that comes out of the indexes which might be quite unexpected. While I was browsing the registers I came across a reference to ‘Mrs Lipp Mun, 47, herbalist’.

Entry for Mrs Lipp Mun, 47 year old herbalist of Melbourne who had lived in the Commonwealth for 25 years. Note that she never collected her CEDT.
[NAA: B6003, 2]

The name reminded me of the name used on two beautiful photographs in an NAA series of photographs related to pre-Federation travel of Chinese Australians.

Portrait of Mrs and Miss Lih Moon (in Chinese-style dress), undated
[NAA: B6443, NN]
Portrait of Mrs and Miss Lih Moon (in Western-style dress), undated
[NAA: B6443, NN]

These photographs actually sit outside the formal series and were unusual because they showed a woman and a child – in Chinese-style and then Western-style dress. I had always wondered who this woman was and what her story was. Every few years I would do some searches for her name without success.

The names were not as close as I remembered, ‘Mrs Lih Moon’ and ‘Mrs Lipp Mun’, but my brain was onto something because looking at the handwriting in the register I could see how one could be mistaken for the other.

I then did what most of us do, which is to do some searching of Trove Newspapers, playing around with the two sets of spelling I now had. As I was doing this it suddenly hit me. This woman was a woman I already knew quite a bit about.

I knew her as ‘Mrs Lup Mun’ – a herbalist who lived in Celestial Avenue off Little Bourke Street and was fondly remembered for bringing up orphaned children. My research about her had begun with this beautiful embroidered hanging that was created after she died.

Silk embroidered memorial hangings dedicated to Mrs Lup Mun
[Chinese Museum collection, 1993.21]

I then came across her again in oral history interviews with former residents of Celestial Avenue. Ron Wong Loy remembered her as ‘a tiny woman, podgy, with a lovely smile’ who was ‘a sort of mother to many people and lots of folk came to her for advice’. Photographs of her were held in the private collection of Raymond Lew Boar who also grew up in Celestial Avenue.

Studio portrait of Mrs Lup Mun with children and friends from Little Bourke Street, 1930s
[Chinese Museum, Raymond Lew Boar collection, 2008.08.37]
Portrait of Mrs Lup Mun with children and friends possibly in Celestial Avenue off Little Bourke Street, c1930s.
[Chinese Museum, Raymond Lew Boar collection, 2008.08.15]

Comparing the four photographs and the embroidery I had there was little doubt that this was the same woman.

Cropped portraits of Mrs Lup Mun
[NAA: B6443, NN; Chinese Museum, 2008.08.37, 2008.08.15 and 1993.21]

I can’t say how exciting and satisfying it was to put all those pieces of information together after so many years!

One of the terrific things about developing digital resources is that you can never quite tell how people might end up using them and what they might learn from them. I’m really looking forward to seeing what other discoveries and stories will unfold as a result of the index that we are creating.

Further reading:

  • Couchman, Sophie, ‘Tong family networks revealed through the camera’s lens’ in Couchman, S. (ed), Secrets, Silences and Sources: Five Chinese-Australian family Histories, Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria, Melbourne, 2005.
  • Couchman, Sophie, ‘Oh I would like to see Maggie Moore again: Selected women of Melbourne’s Chinatown’ in Couchman, S., J.Fitzgerald, P.Macgregor (eds), After the Rush: Regulation, Participation and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860-1940, Special edition of Otherland, vol.9, Dec 2004.
  • Couchman, Sophie, ‘Not so mug mugshots: Behind the portraits of series B6443’, Crossings, vol.9, no.3, 2004.
  • Couchman, Sophie, ‘From Mrs Lup Mun, Chinese Herbalist to Yee Joon, Respectable Scholar: A social history of Melbourne’ Chinatown, 1900-1920’, The Overseas Chinese in Australasia: History, Settlement and Interactions, Proceedings from the Symposium held in Taipei, 6-7 January 2001, National Taiwan University and Australian National University, 2001.
  • Recorded oral history interview with Ron Wong Loy by Eve Young in 1988, Chinese Museum oral history collection.
  • Story of the Tong family features in the episode ‘Alien Nation’ of Claire Wright’s ABC Radio National podcast Shooting the Past, which first aired on 12 Feb 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/shootingthepast/shooting-the-past-alien-nation/10665816.


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