Inside Story

Heritage hunting

A great number of migrants left China’s Zhongshan county for Australia — but the traffic wasn’t always one way

Antonia Finnane 9 February 2024 1698 words

Employees of Sydney’s Wing Sang and Co., produce merchants, in 1930. Mar Leong Wah (front row, second from left), also known as Harry Mar, left Sha Chong for Australia in 1921 and became a leader of the Australian Kuomintang in the 1930s. City of Sydney Archives

In 2015, aged eighty-seven, Jimmy Mar set off from his home in Sydney on a journey back to the village of his birth, Sha Chong, in southeastern China. He had last seen it in 1931, the year his widowed mother decided the place was not for her and decamped with her children to Hong Kong.

Accompanying Jimmy on the journey were sundry family members, including three sons and two nephews. They were in search of the family home that Jimmy’s father, Mar See Poy, had left in 1914 and to which he returned after being deported from Australia in 1926. The moment when Jimmy approached the front door, recalls his nephew Phillip, “was remembered [by all] as an emotional ‘high point.’”

Jimmy’s is one of several stories about Chinese immigrants and their hometowns told in a new collection of essays, The China–Australia Migration Corridor. The corridor in question is a virtual one, constituted by the movement of people to and from Sydney and what is now the municipality of Zhongshan, in Guangdong province, where Sha Chong village is located. The stories have a number of common elements: more than one generation, an extended lapse in time between migration and return, a “house-hunting” quest — which is central to the book’s heritage theme — and the “affect,” or emotional content, of the journeys. Jimmy’s has all these characteristics.

The book is an outcome of the Heritage Corridor project, launched in 2017 by Ien Ang and Denis Byrne at the University of Western Sydney. Ang brings to this project a long history of engagement with migration, race and identity. Byrne is an archaeologist working in the field of critical heritage studies. Together with anthropologist Phillip Mar (Jimmy’s nephew), historian Michael Williams, research fellow Alexandra Wong and PhD student Christopher Cheng (now graduated), they have been collecting stories of return as part of an investigation of Australian-Chinese built heritage. The nine chapters in the book, to which the entire research team has contributed, are concerned with memories and material remains almost in equal measure.

The book’s publication follows closely on that of Byrne’s 2022 monograph, The Heritage Corridor: A Transnational Approach to the Heritage of Chinese Migration. Both books are concerned with the migration corridor “as a transnational field of material heritage.” With the concept of the corridor, Byrne takes aim at both the idea of a national heritage bounded by the nation-state and the related top-down definition of heritage. Focusing on the flow of people and money between Sydney and Zhongshan, the project’s researchers have kept an eye on grassroots heritage-making at both ends of the corridor.

Zhongshan, which covers an area considerably larger than Sydney, is part plains, part hills. It used to be called Xiangshan, meaning “fragrant hills”: hence the title of Michael Williams’s informative opening chapter, “Villages of the Fragrant Hills.” Its present name, as a footnote by Williams tells us, is a legacy of its most famous emigrant, “Father of the Republic” Sun Yatsen (1866–1925), also known as Sun Zhongshan. Sun was founder of the Kuomintang, or KMT — the Chinese Nationalist Party, to give it its English name — which was China’s governing party in the years 1928–49. The place that bears his name is the only one of 2000 or so Chinese counties to have been named, like Sydney, after a historical figure.

Zhongshan was a major source of migrants to Pacific Rim countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, accounting for perhaps a plurality of Chinese residents in New South Wales and Queensland before and during the White Australia era. In their chapter “Zhongshan in Sydney’s Chinatown,” Ang and Wong note the dominance of Zhongshan natives in the Sydney branch of the KMT, founded in 1921. KMT party members met (and still meet) in built-for-purpose headquarters at 75–77 Ultimo St, Sydney, constructed in 1921 by Robert Wall and Sons. Locally, the party probably served in lieu of a native-place association for Zhongshan people; internationally, it was also headquarters of the Australasian KMT, the party’s regional branch.

The Sydney building has a counterpart in the party’s Victorian state headquarters in Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, which features a facade designed by Walter Burley Griffin. Support for the KMT was strong in both cities but rested on different native-place foundations. In Melbourne, Zhongshan immigrants were well outnumbered by natives of See Yup, a cluster of four districts geographically contiguous with Zhongshan but distinguished by language sub-group and local-place networks.

With strength in numbers, high profiles in Sydney Chinatown’s commerce and politics, and considerable prominence in the business history of China itself, the Zhongshan migrants and their descendants were a natural focus for the Heritage Corridor project. The decision was facilitated by the fact that Michael Williams’s 2018 book, Returning Home with Glory: Chinese Villagers Around the Pacific, 1849–1949, also focused on Zhongshan, provided ready-made foundations for this differently themed project.

Like Williams’s pioneering book, the project foregrounds the home district of the migrants — the place to which they sent money and letters and to which, before the second world war, they not infrequently returned. They typically came from the poorer villages of the hills, which in the first half of the twentieth century sent abroad up to one in every three of their able-bodied males. With their skewed sex ratios and untended fields, these “sojourner villages” (qiaoxiang) became the beneficiaries of overseas remittances and the source of further migration.

A high degree of mobility is a well-known feature of Chinese migration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emigrant men periodically returned home for family reasons; a son born in China might then, in his turn, come to Australia as a student or to help in the family business. This was partly an effect of White Australia–era immigration restrictions, which produced a strange pattern of migration in which a family might be in Australia for three generations before anyone was actually born there. The Ma (Mar) family, represented by several people interviewed for this book, is an example.

If these accounts of comings and goings are the warp of the book, then “heritage-making” is its weft.

Byrne distinguishes rather sharply between “heritage from above” and “heritage from below”: the former is evident in the national and state registries of heritage sites; the latter is exemplified in the “quest for the ancestral house” in the course of which “old houses are brought forward into the landscape of the present.” But something exists between “heritage from above” and “heritage from below.” The examples of Sydney’s Kwong War Chong building, discussed by Ang and Wong, and the Ma and Kwok family mansions of Zhongshan discussed by Byrne himself, show that local government in both countries has a significant role in preserving historical buildings, even if — in the case of Sydney at least — the intervention followed community lobbying.

Nonetheless, the book’s accounts of heritage-making as a grassroots social process are persuasive. Returning to the ancestral village and finding the ancestral home, Byrne argues, means inscribing the past in the present. This reading is given force by the fact that the process, in very many cases, involves communicating meanings from one generation to the next. When Mabel Lee went to Zhongshan in the late 1970s it was because her father wanted to go: “He would say, ‘If you don’t take me, I’ll be dead.’” Gordon Mar and his brothers took his mother back in 1997, at her insistence, after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer: “She felt it was her duty to bring her sons back to the village to be acknowledged.”

The other aspect of heritage-making concerns the material sites of meaning: the village, the house, sometimes even objects within the house. The buildings described and discussed range from commercial buildings in Dixon Street to “remittance houses” and schools in Zhongshan, built with money sent or brought back to China. Byrne presents a useful typology of these houses, which at the upper end were palatial. The same is true of schools, the focus of Christopher Cheng’s PhD research. Photos of multistorey buildings with porticos, columns, and cupolas show the ambitions of the donors.

Read from cover to cover, The China–Australia Migration Corridor leaves a strong impression of buildings in Sydney, on the east edge of one continent, juxtaposed with buildings in Zhongshan, in the southeast corner of another. For Byrne, these two clusters represent the two ends of the transnational corridor. Yet they also seem to define a period of history. In her chapter on “(Un)making Transnational Identities,” Ang repeatedly refers to a sense of closure in the Zhongshan–Sydney connection. Kam Louie, born in Zhongshan in 1949, is the only one of a family of many siblings ever to have returned to his home village, and his own children show no interest in going. For Gordon Mar, a one-off visit “seems to have reinforced his Australianness rather than his Chineseness.”

Like everyone else interviewed for the book, Louie and Mar are at the tail-end of a history of chain migration and eventual settlement that began under the Qing dynasty in the middle of the nineteenth century. The return to Zhongshan, accompanied in some cases by renewed investment in the ancestral village, followed the huge historical rupture created by war and revolution in China. When a new history of Chinese-Australian journeyings is written to cover subsequent migration, it will mostly be about people from other parts of China whose lives have been shaped by different historical circumstances.

This is an engaging collection of essays that makes an important contribution to the field of Chinese-Australian history. Like all good scholarly books, it opens up new research questions. The concept of “corridor” powerfully evokes the historical connections between Zhongshan and Sydney, but a corridor has walls. Who benefited from Zhongshan networks? Who was left outside those notional walls? How did other native-place connections operate in Sydney’s small Chinese community? Did native-place cleavages inform political cleavages? And in this small community, with its limited number of women of Chinese birth or parentage, who married whom? •

The China–Australia Migration Corridor: History and Heritage
Edited by Denis Byrne, Ien Ang and Phillip Mar | Melbourne University Press | $40 | 288 pages