The Shun Wahs: a Chinese-Australian family

Annette Shun Wah

Annette Shun Wah, television and radio producer, presenter, author and actor, has a passion for family history. She traced her family's history in the National Archives – a history that goes back to 19th-century Darwin and travels between China and Australia.

Annette's family journey started with a family photograph, which her father had told her was of 'grandma'. Annette's grandmother had lived with her family on various occasions during her childhood and died when Annette was six years old. Her childhood memories of a frail, elderly grandmother were hard to reconcile with the 'grandma' in the photograph.

From Longreach to China and back

Annette started her research by collating stories told to her by her father and aunt and, with the help of their family historians, Stan and Dot Hoy, established a broad outline of her grandmother's life.

Her name was Sam Moy (meaning 'third daughter') and she was born in Darwin in 1892. In 1910, she married a merchant named Chou Yor Kee and moved with him to Longreach in Queensland. There they set up a shop and named it 'Shun Wah', a name which denoted civil and harmonious dealings. The locals assumed it was the family's surname – and the name stuck.

Sam Moy had seven children, the second youngest of whom was Annette's father, Ron. In 1927, eight months after the youngest was born, Chou Yor Kee died from typhoid. Sam Moy was left to raise the children and run the family business.

She decided to take the family back to Hong Kong, as her husband had wished. The eldest of her children only stayed a few years before returning to Australia. Sam Moy and the younger children stayed until after World War II – the eldest son, Walter, had served in the Australian Army during the war.

Sam Moy returned to Australia in 1950.

The next step in Annette's journey was to begin some formal research, which led her to the National Archives. In Brisbane, she found files for her father and siblings and, after some digging, found a file on her grandmother in the Archives' Sydney office.

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    CEDT for Ron Shun Wah, 1932
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    Handprint of Ron Shun Wah, 1931
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    Sam Moy's document of identity, 1950
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    Sam Moy's alien registration, 1916
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    Attestation paper of W. Shun Wah, 1942

The records

The files found by Annette are typical of the kinds of records about Chinese Australians kept by the Australian Government at the time.

Australian immigration laws in the early 20th century aimed to exclude non-Europeans such as Chinese. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, together with other pieces of legislation and government policies, formed the basis of the White Australia Policy. The policy affected Australians of non-European background in many ways.

A central part of immigration regulation in the first half of the 20th century was the Dictation Test. Any person arriving in Australia could be required to write out a dictated passage in any prescribed language. Those who failed the test became 'prohibited immigrants' and were either not permitted to land or were deported.

Exemptions from the Dictation Test were available to those who met certain residency requirements, were Australian-born or were entering temporarily, usually for work, education or family reasons.

To avoid having to sit the test on their return from Hong Kong, members of the Shun Wah family applied for CEDTs (Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test). To do so they completed forms, and provided personal references, copies of birth certificates and front and side portrait photographs. They also had their handprints taken and certified for identification purposes – a measure often objected to by Chinese Australians at the time.

Later records on various family members – for example, of their return to Australia from Hong Kong – reflect the changes that occurred to government policies over the passing decades of the 20th century. Significant but gradual changes to long-standing immigration policies began after World War II. A new Act, the Migration Act 1958, came into force in 1959 and abolished the Dictation Test.

As well as these migration and travel-related records, the National Archives hold two other types of documents on the Shun Wah family, both of which relate to times of war.

During World War I, the Australian Government required that aliens (people who were not British subjects) be registered under the War Precautions Act 1914–18. Alien registration ended in 1922, but was revived again during World War II. Although she was Australian-born, Sam Moy had lost her status as a British subject when she married Chinese-born Chou Yor Kee. They both registered as aliens at Longreach in 1916.

The eldest of Sam Moy's children, Walter, had returned to Australia only a few years after the family had gone to Hong Kong. Living back in Queensland when World War II broke out, Walter enlisted in the Australian Army. He was classed as medically unfit to serve overseas, so worked as an Army cook in Queensland.

Click on the images on this page to see some examples of the documents about the Shun Wah family held by the National Archives. The files from which they come, and others, are digitised and available through our RecordSearch database – see the table below. You can also explore further with the links at the bottom of the page.

Selected records on Sam Moy and the Shun Wah family

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019