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Research Guides

Chinese Immigrants and Chinese–Australians in NSW


National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia ensures that full and accurate records documenting Commonwealth government activities are created and kept. From this massive body of information the Archives selects, cares for and makes available to all, those records of continuing value. This collection constitutes the archives of the Commonwealth government – a vast and rich resource for the study of Australian history, society and people.

The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history. Its main focus is on material documenting Commonwealth government activities since Federation in 1901. However, the Archives has significant holdings of nineteenth-century records about functions transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth government at the time of Federation and subsequently.

Access to the National Archives' collection is provided free of charge in public reading rooms located in each capital city. Researchers are assisted by specialist Reference staff and are provided with reference tools to help them identify and use the records in the collection. These reference tools include the RecordSearch and PhotoSearch databases, guides, publications and Fact Sheets. Researchers unable to visit a reading room may seek information and help by telephone, mail, facsimile or email.

The National Archives' website ( provides more information about the Archives, its collection and the services it offers. A visit to the site will help you determine whether the Archives holds records relevant to your research. Fact Sheets on various topics are also available on the Archives' website.

About this guide

The aim of this guide is to make records relating to Chinese immigration and settlement and Chinese–Australians in New South Wales more accessible to family and academic historians and other researchers interested in Chinese–Australian history. This guide brings together descriptions of numerous series of records held in the Sydney office of the National Archives.

Certain terms relating to immigration and citizenship used in this guide and in the records have specific meanings that are explained at Appendix 1. These terms are italicised when they appear in the text for the first time.

Because the National Archives is the custodian of records created by Commonwealth government agencies, most records listed in this guide were created after Federation in 1901. There is, however, a small but significant body of nineteenth-century records created by the Collector of Customs, Sydney, which passed to the Commonwealth government at the time of Federation, along with responsibility for administration of the Customs functions.

The records listed in this guide include those which deal solely or mainly with Chinese people in New South Wales, and records which contain a significant proportion of information about Chinese immigrants, often along with immigrants of other nationalities.

In most cases, records created in New South Wales relating to Chinese and other immigrants, usually non-naturalised, relate to the day-to-day administration of entry and arrival in Australia, documentation for travel outside and return to Australia and war-time security measures such as the registration of aliens. Policy development, and often decisions on individual cases, generally took place in the central office of the agency responsible. Records held in the Sydney office of the National Archives should therefore be used in conjunction with records of the relevant central administration, usually held in the National Archives in Canberra. Reference staff can assist in identifying relevant records listed on RecordSearch and PhotoSearch.

Most Commonwealth government agencies have offices in each State and Territory, so records about Chinese immigrants may be found in other offices of the National Archives. For example, if a person moved from New South Wales to another State and continued to have contact with a Commonwealth government agency, both State offices may have created records about him or her.

The structure of the guide

This guide is divided into an Introduction and five chapters. The Introduction gives background information about government legislation and its relevance to the subject of Chinese immigrants and settlers in Australia.

Chapter 1 outlines the administrative history of the major agencies responsible for the administration of laws and regulations that affected Chinese immigrants and settlers and Chinese–Australians, and it looks at the interrelationship between the administrative process and the records.

Chapter 2 describes the pre-Federation records held by the National Archives, created mainly by the Collector of Customs, Sydney while it was still an arm of the New South Wales' colonial government. The responsibilities of the Collector included the collection of Customs and Excise duties, the regulation of imports and the control of vessels entering and leaving ports in New South Wales. A small group of cancelled New South Wales' naturalisation certificates are also described.

Chapter 3 deals with the major record series created as a result of the administration of immigration by several agencies. The records document arrivals in Australia, applications for residence documents or for extensions, re-entry permits, naturalisation, deportation and deserters from ships' crews. There are also applications from people outside Australia for re-entry permits, extensions to entry or re-entry permits or for passports (if they were born in Australia).

Chapter 4 covers documents and associated forms required for entry or re-entry to Australia, in series that are usually arranged numerically, chronologically or by ship name. These documents include Certificates of Domicile, Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test and a variety of other temporary entry and re-entry documents. People who did not leave or re-enter the country will not normally be documented in these records; however, if they applied for family members to join them or to bring out a business assistant, substitute or worker to Australia, information about them may be found as a sponsor of the immigrant.

Chapter 5 deals with records relating to wartime (World War I and World War II) security matters, the registration of aliens as a national security measure and files maintained by the security services on a wide range of people, including some Chinese nationals. Records covering the evacuation and eventual return of Chinese residents of New Guinea during World War II are also included.

A sample of how records appear in this guide.

2Recorded by: 1939–47 Collector of Customs, Sydney (CA 785) 1945–46 Department of Immigration, NSW (CA 957)
3Quantity: 39.96 metres (Sydney)
4This series contains applications for alien registration form, which are arranged alphabetically by nationality, then alphabetically by surname. Sometimes the forms give a date of departure from Australia and other personal details.
5Gah Ah (Chinese, arrived Sydney per Nellore, 1941), 1941–43SP11/2, Chinese/Ah G
6This item contains a photograph of Mr Gah.

Key to record sample

1. This information gives the series title and the date range of the records that make up the series. The series number is shown on the right-hand side.

2. This shows the person or government agency that created the series. It also shows the date range during which each series was created or recorded. This date range does not necessarily correspond to the contents date range of the records, which appears in the series title. The CP (Commonwealth person) and CA (Commonwealth agency) number are unique identifiers allocated by the Archives to each person or agency. These numbers can be used to retrieve more information about the person or agency, and the records they created, from the Archives' online database, RecordSearch.

3. This shows the total volume of records in the series. The State or Territory office of the National Archives at which they are held is shown in brackets. If copies of records are held in other locations, this is indicated here.

4. This is a brief description of the series.

5. This shows the title given to the item by the person or agency that created it. The dates of the earliest and latest document on the file are shown. The item's identifying number appears on the right-hand side of the description. This number must be quoted when requesting a copy of the record or access to it.

6. This describes the main contents of an item. Note that it does not describe every document on the file.

Record descriptions

Each entry in the guide describes a group of records maintained together as a series. A series consists of items, which are often individual files (sometimes volumes, sets of cards, photographs, etc), received into custody by the National Archives from a creating agency or person. Series usually consist of many items, but occasionally they may consist of just a few items or even a single item.

The description for each series gives its content and function. The entry concludes with a list of items selected from the series. In many instances, particular series have been found to contain relevant material on multiple aspects of Chinese Immigrants in New South and have been referred to several times. The full description of each series is given only on its first appearance. As a general rule, this guide identifies rather than analyses the records. Researchers should make their own assessment of the value of information in an item.

Access to the records

Many series described in this guide are listed in RecordSearch (the National Archives' database), which is available in the reading rooms of all offices of the Archives, at the Australian War Memorial and on the Archives' website. Indexes and inventories, available in reading rooms, may also be useful. Reference staff can assist researchers to use these lists.

Access to archival records is governed by the Archives Act 1983, which gives a right of access to most Commonwealth government records that are over 30 years old. Records over 30 years old are said to be in the open period. In rare instances, the Government may release records less than 30 years old and does so under the accelerated release provisions of the Archives Act.

Some records are exempt from these access provisions (eg court records, some parliamentary records and some records of governors-general). Researchers are able to access all other open period records, including those held by agencies, unless they contain information that falls into certain categories, called 'exemption categories', which are defined in section 33 of the Act. There are 15 exemption categories and information that falls within them is said to be 'exempt information'. Before the Archives releases records for public access, it examines them to ensure that they do not contain exempt information (Why we refuse access – Fact Sheet 46).

Most records (97.5%) are wholly released for public access while 2% are released with some exempt information deleted. Only 0.5% of records are wholly withheld because they consist entirely of exempt information. Most exempt information is withheld to protect personal privacy, but defence, security and intelligence sensitivities are the next most common reasons for exemption.

Officers of the Archives are delegated under the Act to examine records and make decisions about whether they can be released. This is done in consultation with departments and agencies. Examination of records may often take a day or less, but if they require referral to agencies or overseas it may take weeks or months. The Archives informs its clients of delays in this process.

If a researcher applies to see a record that is exempt from public access, the Archives will provide a written statement of reasons identifying the exempt information, the exemption category that applies and why it applies. Details of all records containing exempt information are available on RecordSearch. The access status will show Open, Open with Exception, Withheld Pending Agency Advice or Closed, while the reason for restriction will show the category or categories under which the information is exempted.

A researcher may appeal against an exemption and the Archives will review its decision, but if it is confirmed, the researcher may then appeal to the independent Administrative Appeals Tribunal (see Fact Sheet 12). There is no charge for obtaining access or for applying to the Archives to review its decision, but an application fee applies for appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Regardless of the type of research they undertake at the National Archives, researchers will only be able to examine open period records (ie 20 years of age or older) that are no longer considered to contain sensitive information or those released under the accelerated release provisions of the Archives Act.

Control records

Control records are created and maintained by a recordkeeping agency to help identify and retrieve records in a specific series. Agency control records include such registry tools as file registers, movement registers, subject indexes and name indexes. In this guide, control records are listed as the 'control series' of a series.

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records is important both when requesting records and when referring to them in written or published works. Using proper citations will not only help Archives staff to locate records more readily, but will also help other researchers to find them.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives of Australia is expressed as follows: the name 'National Archives of Australia' followed by a colon, the series number followed by a comma, and then the item number. For example:

National Archives of Australia: A1027, volume 1

The name 'National Archives of Australia' may be abbreviated to 'the Archives' provided the full name has been used in the first citation.

Locating additional information

More information can be located by conducting searches on RecordSearch. Appendix 2 contains a bibliography of additional sources of information.


  • AEAT: Authority to Enter Australia Temporarily
  • ASIO: Australian Security Intelligence Organization
  • CEDT: Certificate of Exemption from the Dictation Test
  • CIS: Commonwealth Investigation Service
  • NAA: National Archives of Australia
  • NSW: New South Wales