IN DEPTH

Our Chinese Past project delving into New England's Chinese history

Group's ambitious discovery of New England's Chinese history

Its a mammoth task not for the faint of heart, but one group has set out to uncover the Chinese roots of the New England.

'Our Chinese Past' members have a passion for Chinese history in Australia, some by digging into their own fascinating family trees.

Historians and genealogists Juanita Kwok, Paul Macgregor, Gilian Oxley, Malcolm Oakes and Kira Brown have recently received $5000 from the NSW Small Grants Program for Local History and Archives for their project.

It involves photographing and digitising, translating and researching the Chinese-language inscriptions on artifacts from the historical Chinese temples of Uralla, Tingha and Emmaville.

LEFT: Paul Macgregor and Juanita Kwok. Photo: Supplied.

LEFT: Paul Macgregor and Juanita Kwok. Photo: Supplied.

Thrilled at the announcement of funding Ms Kwok, group president, said they hoped it would inspire and give others the opportunity to come forward with their history.

"Even though we are trying to contain the boundaries of our research, we hope that is we put it out there it will encourage other people to come forward, to find out about where they descend from," Ms Kwok explained.

They have also engaged the expertise of historical linguist Ely Finch to help with translation and research.

On the path of history

Kira Brown started digging into her family history after she was bequeathed a box full of family memorabilia.

"My Great-Great grandfather Chen Quin Jack settled in Tingha and is well-known for building the main Chinese Temple on Bundara Road and the Wing Hing Long store. So, there was a strong geographic connection for me," she told The Leader.

Kira Brown's great-great-grandfather Chen Quin Jack, with wife Mary Ann Fuller and possibly their first born child William Henry Billo born 1887.

Kira Brown's great-great-grandfather Chen Quin Jack, with wife Mary Ann Fuller and possibly their first born child William Henry Billo born 1887.

From around the 1860s, her family lived in the towns of Uralla, Tingha, Inverell, Glen Innes, and Emmaville, with some marrying European or mixed-race women and starting families.

"Learning about one's own family history as well as wider Australian History is extremely important, especially for Chinese Australian history as it has been largely neglected until recently," she said.

"It is so interesting and exotic and deserves to be told."

Kira Brown

Kira Brown

One of her most interesting finds was the discovery of her Great-Great Grandfather's Chinese name written in traditional Chinese characters, one of the most important things in tracing a relative's journey back to China.

"The discovery was made by chance by the Wong sisters, Brenda, Cathy, and Gaynor, who could read and write in Chinese and who was able to decode one of the wooden Chinese chops or stamps," Ms Brown explained.

She joked she would love to see the group's future work turned into a Netflix miniseries once more of the jigsaw is put together.

Doing it for the kids

Another member of the not-for-profit group, Malcolm Oakes also gained a fascination with the New England's Chinese history after looking into his wife's family tree.

"Some years ago I said to my wife that we should find out about our children's Chinese heritage and record it for them," Mr Oakes said

"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. She knew very little else."

BEGINNING: The family tree of Beverly Oakes, wife of 'Our Chinese Past' member Malcolm Oakes, sparked a passion to understand more about the region's Chinese past. Photo: Supplied

BEGINNING: The family tree of Beverly Oakes, wife of 'Our Chinese Past' member Malcolm Oakes, sparked a passion to understand more about the region's Chinese past. Photo: Supplied

Just one of the discoveries: his wife's Great Grandfather, Chin Ah Song, conducted a storekeeping businesses at Rocky River (Uralla) from 1862 to 1874, and Tingha from 1874 to 1911.

Mr Oakes always had a keen fascination for history and studied it as part of his Arts degree at Sydney University.

Attending these conferences kindled an interest in Chinese Australian history in particular, which lead him to progressively meet other members of Our Chinese Past Inc.

He says it is important to undertake projects like this 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.

"It's rather like an Anglo-Australian having a convict forebear: suppressed for generations but now a matter of pride."

Only items remain

Dubbed the 'temple guru' of the group, Paul Macgregor's fascination with Chinese temples began after a visit to the Enei Mountain temple in 1986.

In Australia, 130 temples have been identified however just 10 remain standing.

RESEARCH: 'Choy Moon', which is on display at Wing Hing Long Museum in Tingha. Photo: Supplied

RESEARCH: 'Choy Moon', which is on display at Wing Hing Long Museum in Tingha. Photo: Supplied

While these temples no longer exist in the New England, there was three temples in Uralla, two from Emmaville, and three in Tingha.

Some of their items remain preserved at five of museums including the Wing Hing Long Museum in Tingha, McCrossin's Mill Museum in Uralla, Inverell Pioneer Village Museum, Green Valley Farm Museum and Emmaville Mining Museum.

"They were as important as churches for European settlers," he explained.

"Every Chinese community had a temple, and some towns had more than one community, therefore had more than one temple."

There is a large number of people who are Australian with Chinese history, and being able to provide this information through the temples helps to secure their place in Australian history.

Paul Macgregor

They were regularly visited for spiritual purposes, such as fortune telling or to seek advice from the Gods.

"In mining towns, temples were erected when there was a major success. Every time you get a major tin mining profit, then you find the temples get erected as a thanks to the Gods for helping."

Only artifacts remain from our temples now, and he says they are key to unlocking our history.

"There is a large number of people who are Australian with Chinese history, and being able to provide this information through the temples helps to secure their place in Australian history," he stated.