Beyond the goldfields: Australian migration to early-twentieth-century Shanghai


A review of a recent book by Sophie Loy-Wilson about Australian migration to China during the early twentieth century.

Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson, Australians in Shanghai: Race, Rights and Nation in Treaty Port China  (New York: Routledge 2016), RRP $42.19 AUD. ISBN 9781315756998 (ebook).

I often find myself fascinated by Chinese-Australian relationships due to the topic’s prominence in today’s media. Yet, prior to undertaking this VIDA blog book review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I knew little beyond the mainstream Chinese-Australian histories concerning gold-rush immigration or the ramifications of the White Australia policy for Chinese Australians. When I heard Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson was releasing Australians in Shanghai: Race, Rights and Nation in Treaty Port China, I set about sourcing a copy to delve into this previously little-explored aspect of Australian migration.

Australians in Shanghai focuses upon Australian migration to China during the early twentieth century. Considering histories of both Chinese Australians and white Australians, Loy-Wilson examines life in the Shanghai treaty port in three parts: ‘Building Empires, Crossing Borders,’ ‘Finding Work in the Eastern Markets’, and ‘“Liberating” China, “Saving” Australia.’ What makes this port space so intriguing, Loy-Wilson argues, is how nationals from French and British colonies existed within this Chinese space, yet were subject to the laws of their own colonial nation.

An Australian history lecturer at The University of Sydney, Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson specialises in the social and cultural histories concerning Australian engagement in China. Significantly, Loy-Wilson’s personal background underlies her work. In 1995, she arrived in Shanghai as a teenager with her parents when her father took up a post in the Australian Embassy. It was this experience which initiated her interest concerning the experiences of Australians in China.

Australians in Shanghai narrows the broader scope of the Shanghai port to an analysis of the life of Shanghai Princess, Daisy Kwok.  Through materials from the Kwok family archive, readers are taken on a journey which considers this inter-cultural port, politics in Communist China, and transnational familial relationships. Kwok’s story becomes a means for Loy-Wilson to demonstrate how four famous department-store businesses were established by Chinese Australians, the Kwok family contribution being Wing On (22-23). During a period in which capitalism and industrialisation emerged in Shanghai, these stores became crucial capitalist sites (52). The impact of such spaces continues to be significant. Through Loy-Wilson’s descriptions of this business space, I came to feel empathy for Daisy. Her dualistic national identity in association with capitalist acts led to punitive treatment by China’s Red Guards and the deliberate destruction of her ‘luxurious’ pre-Revolution life (71-82). 

Another fascinating element of Australian history explored in Australians in Shanghai is the exploration of white Australians in Shanghai. Using records from the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) archives, Loy-Wilson considers how the Great Depression impacted Australian migrants. Her thorough research illuminates how economic migrants from Australia drew upon colonial relationships to gain economic privilege and settle in Shanghai (93). By dislodging the supremacy of narratives concerning Chinese migrants entering Australia, Loy-Wilson creates a space to examine how class and commerce intersected as Australian expatriate communities were established in Shanghai (96). Archival documents concerning people such as an Australian piano player Harry Kerry illustrate how Australians were considered as uncivilised with ‘drunken behaviour and non-payment of debts’ due to the indulgence in ‘alcoholic bouts from time to time,’ which left Kerry ‘quite unfit for work’ (118). Interestingly, the widespread behaviours of people such as Kerry led to a formal request being made to the Australian government to stop these ‘undesirables’ coming into China (96).

Some readers might interpret Australians in Shanghai as more inclined towards an academic audience, or one with pre-existing knowledge of political Chinese-Australian relations. However, Loy-Wilson provides readers with only a foundational understanding of Chinese-Australian relations with suggestions, directing them towards broader foundational works about Chinese Australian history and heritage, such as Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynold’s book Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (2008) and contemporary blogs such as Kate Bagnall’s The Tiger’s Mouth (28).

Overall, Australians in Shanghai is a fantastic book through which to consider the complex migratory relationships existing between Australia and China. Loy-Wilson expertly draws her readers in and past key moments in Australian-Chinese relations, such as the late nineteenth century gold rush and the ‘Australian diplomats visiting China to re-establish ties’ at the end of the Cold War (182). In doing so, she reveals how to move beyond the goldfields and into a boisterous space in which individual Chinese-Australian and white-Australian voices were the motivation to establish complex transcolonial connections (187).