57. White Australia’s Red Tape

A well perused file

People are generally familiar with the term ‘White Australia policy’ and to some extent with the Dictation Test that backed it up for the first 50 years or more of Australia’s federation. (See also No. 1No. 40 & No. 49) People are however less familiar with the White Australia bureaucracy that evolved to keep Australia white. Thousands of files were generated in this effort and that of Yeung Cheuk featured here provides us with a glimpse into white Australia’s red tape.

Yeung Cheuk was a young man from China who in 1952 jumped ship in Sydney to work as a cook and was able to do so for a year or more before being picked up and deported back to Hong Kong. His crime was being a ‘prohibited immigrant’ and this was proven in the customary manner by giving him a test of dictation to fail, in his case in Estonian. As far as this bare summary goes the White Australia bureaucracy did its job according to the laws and majority social consensus of the day. These were laws introduced in 1901 with the Immigration Restriction Act and although much modified, including a name change to the Migration Act, continued their purpose of limiting non-white entry into Australia in much the same manner.

A ship’s deserter

Yet some things had changed in the intervening 50 years, most obviously that the bureaucracy that by the 1950s dealt with Yeung Cheuk was just that, a bureaucracy. The file that bears his name has very little about Yeung Cheuk himself, his life in Sydney or the efforts to find him (of this last there is scant evidence). Rather the file is fat with references to fines, bureaucratic procedures, and such a meticulous assessing of associated costs that someone unfamiliar with the purpose of the administration might assume it was an accounting file.

Once it is discovered that Yeung Cheuk had not returned to his ship (where he served as cook) the machinery of White Australia leapt into immediate action to ensure the shipping company was levied a £100 security. In fact, it was only after six months that the officials distributed a photo of this violator of the ‘great white walls’ to the NSW police among others. As a Zhongshan person Yeung Cheuk no doubt had connections in Sydney and had no trouble finding work. In fact, it was not any efforts on the part of the Department of Immigration that ended his sojourn in Sydney but an informant within the Chinese Australian community. (Or it is conceivable Yeung Cheuk himself arranged this if he was ready to return home.)

A test it was a crime to fail

After the ritual reading of a passage from the Australian-Estonia Weekly the bulk of this file is made up correspondence to determine how much it cost among other things to keep Yeung Cheuk in Long Bay Jail, to feed him, and to give him vaccinations. The grand total (£40) to be deducted from the £100 paid by the shipping company so that the Commonwealth of (White) Australia could make itself believe the whole process had not cost it anything.

See here for a more detailed examination of Yeung Cheng’s file:

A Deserter’s Fate: The Dictation Test at work

For the complete file:

NAA: SP1122/1, 1952/24/1639, Yeung Cheuk [deserter ex MENELAUS]