Research Activities

Language, A Key to Survival: Cantonese-English Phrasebooks in Australia, 2012-2013

This project explores the significance of language for Chinese immigrants as they build lives in a new country, through a gold-rush era Cantonese-English phrasebook held by the Chinese Museum. Research was undertaken into the provenance of the phrasebook and the context in which it was used. We also researched and identified a number of other phrasebooks in Australian collections to better understand the history of phrasebooks in Australia.

This project was a joint collaboration between Culture Victoria and the Chinese Museum. It was supported through funding from the Australian Government’s Your Community Heritage Program, and by the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria

This project offered us the opportunity to collaborate with the Donald History and Natural History Group, the Mitchell Library, the Golden Dragon Museum and the See Yup Society. The outcome is an online web story published on the Culture Victoria website Available through the website will be:
• Samples of Cantonese-English phrasebooks from collections around Australia
• An Education Kit containing five classroom activities linked to the Australian curriculum based on the Museum’s phrasebook, Zhu’s English through Cantonese and Zhaoqing (c1857-c1862).
• Three short videos: ‘Speaking English with an 1860s Cantonese-English phrasebook’, ‘Learning English in 1950s Australia: Mr Ng’s experience’, ‘Learning English in 1930s China: Mr Leong’s Experience’
• Four short essays: ‘Phrasebook use in China’, ‘Introduction to Chinese and Cantonese dialects’, ‘Maa Louey (1835-1915) and his family’, ‘Donald is my home: George Ah Ling (1884-1987)’.
• Selection of high resolution images of gold-rush era newspaper engravings from the Museum’s collection.

Saving Australia’s Early Chinese Memories, 2010-2013

Interviews were recorded with ten Chinese Australians with memories about life in Australia during the White Australia period, prior to the more recent waves of immigration from the 1970s. We are lucky to have these stories, as those who can remember this period in Australia’s history are becoming fewer with every year.

Our interviewees tell fascinating stories about a period in Australia’s history when many in Australia tend to assume the Chinese population simply disappeared under the weight of Australia’s immigration restrictions. This is far from the case.

We learn about what it was like being Chinese at that time and the kinds of lives which Chinese-Australians built. A few of our interviewees can even recall family stories which date back to the gold rush era.

These interviews will become part of the Museum’s oral history program and will be made available to researchers and used in future exhibitions and public programs. You can read summaries in English and traditional Chinese here.

The Chinese Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government through the Community Support Fund and Public Record Office Victoria for making this project possible.

Dragon Tails Conferences

In 2011 the Chinese Museum, in partnership with La Trobe University, hosted Dragon Tails 2011: Sources, Language, Approaches: 2nd Australasian conference on overseas Chinese history & heritage Two publications have been produced which draw on the papers presented at this conference, edited by Curator, Dr Sophie Couchman and Dr Kate Bagnall.
• ‘Sources, language and approaches in Chinese Australian history’, special issue of Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, vol. 6, 2013
• ‘Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement, Activism’, special issue of Journal of Overseas Chinese, vol.9, no.2, 2013

Dragon Tails Conferences run every two years hosted by different organizations and at different locations around Australia. They are international, inclusive and affordable. They bring together a multidisciplinary group of scholars from across Australia and internationally to discuss the history and heritage of Chinese in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The next conference is due to run in 2015.


To learn more about previous research activity that the Museum has been involved in click here: Previous Research Activities.