In the early 20th century, Chinese workers on market gardens in Bibra Lake and Jandakot were frequently ‘caught’ by immigration inspectors and taken into Fremantle to prove their right to stay in Australia.
Biased immigration restriction in Australia
From 1897, Western Australia introduced migration restrictions that gave officers the right to refuse entry to any person who could not pass a dictation test in English.
This was followed in 1901 by the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act, with much the same prohibitions.
Proving the right to stay
Part of the Act stated that if anyone was found in the Commonwealth within one year (and after 1912, two years) of entering and could not pass a dictation test, they could be considered a ‘prohibited immigrant’ and deported. As is generally accepted now, the wording of the Act meant it was impossible for ‘undesirable’ immigrants to pass the dictation test in practice, even if they could speak and write English, and many Chinese were turned away or deported for being unable to write a paragraph in any European language.
The most common court cases became those held to determine that a Chinese migrant had already been in the Commonwealth for longer than the Act required, meaning they did not have to take the test at all.
Proof of residency
The Chinese community of Fremantle and the Bibra Lake and Jandakot districts spent a great deal of time in court, proving either for themselves or for each other that they had been resident in Western Australia longer than one or two years. Evidence ranged from salary books and letters to simple word of mouth: many cases were proved simply by several Chinese and white men asserting that they had worked with or for the accused many years ago.
Speaking English in court
It was apparently common for Chinese who could speak good English to pretend that they had none at all during court cases like these. While on the stand defending Ah Fook in 1908, Quong Fad of Bibra Lake
protested his utter ignorance of any knowledge of the English language and asked for an interpreter. Mr. Unmack strongly objected to an interpreter, pointing out that Quong Fad had resided in Australia for the past 28 years. After some persuasion Quong consented to "allee same have good try," and then gave his testimony in excellent English.
Were the Chinese gardeners reluctant to speak English in court because the stakes were higher? There is no shortage of evidence that gardeners like Quong Fad regularly chatted confidently to local residents while delivering vegetables or selling at the markets in Fremantle, and even when being questioned by police.
Perhaps they preferred to go through an interpreter as it made the court proceedings more official, and they did not trust their own English to give the best evidence for their countrymen and employees.
The immigration cases
Ah Fook, Jandakot, 1908
The earliest case in Jandakot was also the flimsiest; most Chinese were easily able to prove that they had been in the Commonwealth for years, because they evidently had. The case of Ah Fook, who spoke no English and tried to escape the Immigration inspector by running into the bush, was harder to prove.
In July 1908, Ah Fook was caught in a raid on a Jandakot garden belonging to Quong Fad and Ah Yung. It was claimed that an Immigration Inspector had allowed him on shore in February because he had claimed to be a member of the crew of the S.S. Charon who would not be staying long. He then disappeared into the port city and wasn’t seen again until July, when a police informant saw him working at Jandakot.
Chinese employers were called to the stand, demonstrating with wages books that Ah Fook had worked for them throughout the past two years. They were all discredited by the prosecution, and there seemed to be plenty of evidence that Ah Fook was indeed a stowaway who had been in Western Australia for only a short time.
Nevertheless, Magistrate Robert Fairbairn dismissed the case, and Ah Fook was allowed to stay at Jandakot.
The anti-Chinese tabloid newspaper Truth was unhappy with the verdict, calling it ‘an extraordinary magisterial decision’, which ‘came as a pleasant surprise to Ah Yung, Ah Fook, and other lecherous looking Chows’.
This was the beginning of two decades of increasing raids and arrests of Chinese migrants in the Cockburn area.
Quon Ah Sue, Jandakot, 1910
A similar case occurred in 1910, when Quon Ah Sue was arrested at the Jandakot garden of War Lee.
Quon Ah Sue had arrived in Broome at least six years previously. Quong Sing, of Jandakot, gave evidence in court that Quon Ah Sue had worked for him six years ago, and Quong Fad, of Bibra Lake, testified he had employed him for four years.
In this case, a white civil engineer named Edward Gjedsted also recognised the accused, having employed him to put survey pegs in for measuring land in Bayswater. The case was dismissed and Quon Ah Sue permitted to remain.
Ah Gin, Bibra Lake, 1913
In 1913, Ah Gin was arrested at Bibra Lake suspected of being a prohibited immigrant.
During the court case five Chinese employers came forward to give evidence that he had worked for them over the previous five years, including Ah Ching of Bibra Lake, and the case was dismissed.
Ah Man, Bibra Lake, 1921
1921 saw a ‘sullen faced unintelligent looking’ Chinese man named Ah Man interrogated for over an hour about his knowledge of Western Australia.
He claimed to have been in the state for over 20 years, and the defence repeatedly tried to catch him out in knowledge of areas from that time. He was asked if the railway at Bibra Lake had had a double line when he was there, and if he knew where Robb’s Jetty was.
In evidence, John Dixon and Joseph Bassett, both of Bibra Lake, stepped up to testify that they had known Ah Man in 1914. The case was dismissed, with the magistrate noting that although it was suspicious that Ah Man could not speak English after being in the Commonwealth since 1898, ‘a man should not be convicted on such a suspicion’.
Le Tong & Ban Chong, Bibra Lake, 1927
The tide turned in the later 1920s, with both leniency and interest in such cases declining. Two Bibra Lake gardeners, Le Tong and Ban Chong, both in their 40s, were arrested in late 1927 for being prohibited immigrants.
Though able to provide evidence that they had been in Australia for a number of years, Le Tong was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment pending deportation. There is no record of what happened to Ban Chong.
Notably, these two Chinese men were brought to Perth to be charged in the City Court by customs officials, whereas all previous cases of Cockburn Chinese immigration had been heard at Fremantle. Perhaps Fremantle had gained a reputation for leniency on Chinese cases, or perhaps the mechanisms for enforcing the unfair dictation tests had become more entrenched by this time.
Regardless, the anti-Chinese legislation was having its desired effect, and Chinese successfully migrating to Australia were becoming increasingly less common.
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