Retracing Chinese Australian family history and colonial settlement of regional New South Wales

Retracing Chinese Australian family history and colonial settlement of regional New South Wales

Retracing Chinese Australian family history and colonial settlement of regional New South Wales

Updated 20 November 2017, 14:05 AEDT

'You don't look very Chinese': Retracing a Chinese Australian family's role in the colonial settlement of regional New South Wales.

When Kira Brown talks about her mixed Chinese and Anglo-Celtic heritage, she often receives one astounding response from people.

"They straight away say, 'You don't look very Chinese'," Ms Brown said, laughing.

"I try to explain to them that five generations ago, I had quite a bit of Chinese on my mother's side."

To prove her story, Ms Brown often shows visitors a vast collection of family materials she has inherited over the years.

The collection includes rare photographs, antiques, letters and personal items that illustrate the role her Chinese ancestors played in the early settlement of regional New South Wales.

Trash or treasure: reconnecting the past

Ms Brown grew up in the western New South Wales town of Coonabarabran and now lives in Orange.

She credits a great-great uncle, Sidney Leslie Jack of Inverell, who originally hoarded the artefacts that now tell the story of her forebears.

"I started to discover that the family was quite a bit larger and more integrated into the Australian Chinese narrative," she said.

One branch of the family tree stretches back to her great-great grandfather, Chen Quin Jack.

He originated in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and arrived in Australia in the 1850s, initially trying his luck on the goldfields of Ballarat, Victoria.

After settling in the northern New South Wales tin mining town of Tingha, he converted to Christianity to marry a white woman named Mary Fuller.

Chen Quin Jack was not only a prolific miner but possibly contributed to the construction of several town buildings, including the Wing Hing Long trade store that still stands today as a museum.

Ms Brown found that several of his descendants also had intriguing life stories.

This included his son, Frederick Charles Jack, who died tragically in 1931 while rescuing two people from drowning in the Macintyre River at Inverell.

Frederick's son Trevor Jack significantly contributed to the Australian war effort by joining 'Z' Special Unit — a team that operated behind Japanese lines in South-East Asia during WWII.

Challenges of genealogy

Several obstacles hindered Ms Brown when she started researching Chen Quin Jack's personal story.

Firstly, he was recorded on official documents by several different names — a common occurrence among early settlers from China.

He even signed the birth certificates of his eight children with variations of his Anglicised name.

"He would be referred to as Quin Jack, Chen Jack, Chen Jek, Quin Jek, Ah Jack , CG Jack, Ah Jack Ah Jack," Ms Brown listed.

"It would have been fantastic if he stuck with the one name."

Finding missing piece of the puzzle

Ms Brown said one of her biggest challenges was trying to decipher several documents and letters written in traditional Chinese characters.

"For me being a non-Chinese speaker, this is insurmountable, it's an impossible task," she said.

A lucky break came when Ms Brown invited a local Chinese-speaking woman to view the collection at her home.

Sifting through the artefacts, the woman fortuitously came across a chop — a hand-carved, wooden stamp, traditionally used for signing documents — which revealed Chen Quin Jack's original Chinese name.

"It was like a eureka, it was like bingo! We found it. It was fantastic," Ms Brown exclaimed.

Despite this discovery, she has yet to find a photograph that puts a face to his name however, she believes that four gold, false teeth left in her possession once belonged to him.

"It's a bit ghoulish. I would rather a photograph, put it that way," she said.

While the collection remains in her keeping, Ms Brown has considered the idea of museums acquiring it for posterity.

"I think it's really important that the wider Australian Chinese community are able to access the information and that it gets out there and is displayed more widely than just in my living room," she said.

In the meantime, the relics have inspired her to delve further into her family's past and unearth the origins of the mysterious Chen Quin Jack.

"I'd love to go to China, to go to the village where he was born, maybe even find some distant relative," she said.

"That would be an amazing story."