On Monday 8th August, the Library hosted its 13th annual Family History Feast, this year’s theme focused on researching occupational records. Over the coming weeks we will blog about or include video links to many of these talks. We will begin with a presentation by the historian Dr. Barbara Nichol. 

Barbara’s research has focused on Melbourne’s urban history, in particular the history of the Chinese restaurant sector in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century – a period that coincides with Melbourne’s major developmental phase. Barbara’s presentation focused on how she has used archive and library records to reconstruct the history of Melbourne’s Chinese restaurants and restaurateurs.

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Commercial directories

The Sands and Kenny and Sands and McDougall’s directories of greater Melbourne (1857 to 1974) are a vital resource which helped Barbara to build a database of Chinese restaurants. They also helped to show the spread of Chinese restaurants from the CBD into suburban Melbourne and beyond. However, not all business were listed and directories usually only listed the name of the business not the owner of the property, so municipal rate books were useful for finding the owners and/or tenants of property.

Commonwealth government archives

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) holds many significant collections relating to Chinese restaurateurs and businessmen. They are important not only for researching individuals and businesses but for demonstrating how the nation once dealt with immigration from China and other non-European countries

These collections include extensive administrative records and  business and correspondence files relating to settlement negotiations and requests to introduce temporary workers from China. The NAA also hold the Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test (CEDTs) and Certificates of Domicile which were issued to those who were leaving Australian temporarily and who could return without needing to sit the dictation test (The Dictation Test applied to all non-European people entering Australia between 1901 and 1958).  These certificates are complex documents which provide vital information about each individual.

By the 1930s the Australian government was starting to recognise the Chinese restaurant sector as a source of political, economic and socio/cultural capital and made a number of significant policy changes. These changes had a profound effect on the development of Chinese restaurants, as restaurateurs recognised the potential for business expansion and planned for family business succession.

When researching the 1940s Barbara’s  found that the connection between the city’s Chinese restaurant sector and the complex socio-cultural landscape of wartime Melbourne was substantial. During the war all Chinese under exemption were given automatic extensions of up to five years and all foreign nationals were required to register with local authorities – these Alien Registration Files are held by the NAA. As foreign nationals were permitted to seek employment many found work in Chinese restaurants and many eventually went on to open their own restaurants.

Barbara highlighted several other major collections that were useful to her research including the State Library Victoria’s Pictures collection which contains many images of early Melbourne – including several of the businesses in Little Bourke Street. She went on to praise Trove for providing access to historic pictures, photos, diaries and newspapers – including two early Chinese language newspapers The Chinese Republic News, Sydney, 1914-1937 and The Chinese Times, Melbourne, 1902-1922). As the number of digitised titles increases, the sheer quantity of material will have a profound effect on future research.

Barbara ended her presentation by stressing how important oral histories are. In seeking the stories of early restaurateurs and their families and customers, Barbara was privileged to interview a small number of Chinese restaurateurs who came to Australia in the pre-World War II years. Sadly the opportunity to hear the stories of the majority of these early businessmen and their immediate family members has been lost to history.

Barbara has also kindly provided a list of recommended sources.
Please see: A selection of sources relating to early Chinese restaurant and other businesses, businessmen and employees in Melbourne

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