Chinese wives, migration law and White Australia

Kate Bagnall

University of Tasmania

The first two decades of the twentieth century were a time of significant change to Australian law regarding the migration of Chinese wives. For fifteen months after the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, almost no limitation was placed on the arrival of Chinese wives of men domiciled in Australia. Alarmed by the number of families making use this relaxation of restrictions, from March 1903 the Australian Government removed this right and, from then on, admission of wives and children was solely at the discretion of the minister. In this paper I consider this significant moment in the history of Chinese women’s migration to Australia, tracing the evolving legal and administrative context and detailing cases of individual Chinese wives who sought to join their husbands in Australia between 1902 and 1920. Each of these cases highlights the private negotiations made between Chinese residents and Australian authorities, negotiations that were echoed in periodic public calls from members of the Chinese community for the restoration of the right of entry for the wives of domiciled residents.


Dr Kate Bagnall is an Australian historian whose research focuses on Chinese migrants, their families and descendants in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Australia and New Zealand. She is particularly interested in histories of women, children and the family, and in legal histories of migration and citizenship. From 2016 to 2019 Kate was an ARC DECRA Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong, and she has recently taken up a position as Senior Lecturer in Humanities at the University of Tasmania


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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