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About the Photographs

Filial Devotion: While parents are alive, one must not travel far. If one must, one’s whereabouts should always be made known. Confucius: Analects, Book 11, Li Ron 19.

These superb photographs of Chinese prisoners are portraits of some of the tens of thousands of Chinese who came in the nineteenth century to the Victorian goldfields, a place they called Hsin Chin Shan (New Gold Mountain).

The Chinese left behind harsh conditions at home and usually the Chinese lodges helped to fund their sea voyage to Australia. Many died on the way. The lives and struggles of those who survived in the strange new land have also been largely forgotten. The majority of the Chinese diggers wanted to return to their families. By 1901 fewer than 8,000 Chinese remained in Victoria.

A very small proportion of the Chinese immigrants committed crimes and were imprisoned. The prison registers and photographs offer a fascinating and rare glimpse into their lives. These and other records held by Public Record Office Victoria give us an insight into their personal, economic and social circumstances.

Where do the photographs come from?

The prison photographs that have been found are located in two main sources:

•  Many of these photographs were selected from the nineteenth century prison registers.

•  Other photographs were selected from a series of large albums of photographs of hundreds of male prisoners.

They form one of the largest collections of individual photographs of Chinese people in Victoria during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Information from the prison registers and trial briefs have been used to help explain who each prisoner was and why each prisoner was convicted. This information gives some insight into their lives and what it was like to be Chinese in nineteenth century Victoria. But other questions remain unanswered.

Apart from the prison registers why were the albums created?

A diagram of the head showing phrenological regions. Courtesy Old Melbourne Gaol.

A diagram of the head showing phrenological regions. Courtesy Old Melbourne Gaol.

The six albums of photos were collected for some purpose which has now been lost. One explanation that people put forward is that these photographs might have been taken to assist with the study of phrenology that was popular at this time. Some scientists in the nineteenth century believed you could learn a great deal about a person’s character and personality by studying head shapes and the bumps on people’s heads. This study was called phrenology.

People in the nineteenth century were showing an increased interest in science too. Australia was a continent only known to Europeans for a very short time, the first white settlement beginning in January 1788. Everything was new and some scientists and observers were keen to record everything they could about the land, its indigenous people, animals and plant life. Perhaps the interest in these prisoners arose from this general interest in scientific things and photography provided a quicker and more accurate way of recording this information.

When you see photographs such as these, and look at the existing records, you quickly see how so much of their stories are unrecorded. There are often more questions unanswered than are answered by the information available. For example, we know very little about their family backgrounds, their lives at the time they were imprisoned, their interests, their economic situation, their work, how their families coped while they were in prison and how they coped once they were free again.

Perhaps this tells us a lot about people’s values and attitudes at this time in history. Prisoners were not highly regarded. And the Chinese certainly were not. At this time history was about rulers, leaders, important military leaders, large landowners and people, of wealth and power. The stories of ordinary people and their lives were of far less interest, let alone the stories of prisoners from an alien and often misunderstood culture.

What do you think?

How did photography help the prison system?

This 1888 photograph of Ah Yot (prisoner number 21726) shows him with his hands folded across his chest and a board bearing his name. VPRS 522/P0, unit 2 folio 7

This 1888 photograph of Ah Yot (prisoner number 21726) shows him with his hands folded across his chest and a board bearing his name. VPRS 522/P0, unit 2 folio 7.

The prison system in the 1860s in Victoria was quick to realize that the newly invented technology of photography could be used both as a record of the prisoner and for identification purposes.

Soon all prisoners were photographed at the commencement of their sentence. A photograph of their face and profile was attached to their prison record. If a prisoner reoffended and their appearance had changed over the years then a new photograph would be taken and attached to the record. Therefore, if a person had a long criminal record, the photographs provide a record of the changes in a person’s appearance over time.

Sometimes prisoners were photographed with their arms crossed on their chest and their hands and fingers clearly displayed. This was to help in the identification process. A prisoner could have a tattoo, a scar, a missing finger, a wart, or some other distinguishing mark on their hands.

Fingerprinting (although it was used by the ancient Assyrians and Chinese to sign legal documents) was not used to identify criminals until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. DNA testing, first developed in England in 1985, only began to be used as a reliable source of identification from the 1990s. Photography was therefore the most reliable method of accurately recording and identifying people available at this time.

Traditional Chinese characters




Simplified Chinese characters

这些保存完好的华人囚犯照是当时成千上万在澳华人中的一些肖像。 他们是十九世纪来维多利亚淘金地的,他们把这地方称为新金山。

这些华人来自生活艰难的中国。通常,中国的社会出资把他们送到澳洲,很多死於途中。幸存者在陌生的新大陆的生活与奋斗也大大地被遗忘了。绝大多数华人淘金者指望发财后汉奸回家。在 1901 年,只有少於八千人继续留在维多利亚州。



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