On quarantine and race: notes toward a response to “Rewriting Quarantine: Pacific History at Australia’s Edge”

1. Race was the facticity of Dasein under the arch-narrative of White Australia Policy: there was no escape from it for any individual coming into quarantine at North Head, Point Nepean, Torrens Island, Woodman Point, Townsville, etc. This existential facticity reflected the divisive state of affairs in institutionalised, organised and popular racism that marked – or scarred – the greater part of Australian modernity (at this point in time as historicising temporality).

2. Australian racism was founded upon a Weltanschaaung of European exceptionalism or white supremacy. When countering it in historical research, such as in the case of quarantine stations, do we opt for Asian exceptionalism instead? My answer is a resounding no, simply because any race-based exceptionalism distorts being, with “race” itself being a social inscription without scientific validity. But social inscriptions, like it or not, are writings on our bodies, our action and our discourse. As intellectuals, we aim for the truth of being as a classical ideal, even if we now live in an age of postmodern nihilism as the prevalent way of coping with what the French philosopher Guattari describes as chaosmosis: the raging contest between identity and mutation in the socio-cultural sphere, which interfaces with and absorbs economics, politics and religion. Where the focus should be is this instead: the differentials in power between races – between Asians and Europeans in quarantine history, and between Aboriginals and Europeans in colonial history. Here we invoke the German philosopher Nietzsche and the French philosopher Foucault. Being in quarantine is this difference in power – in access to and comportment to power. Writing history is a contested ground involving will to power (Wille zur Macht).

3. The pull factor for the maritime movements of Chinese crew in the non-European Pacific region was the existence of a dynamic and commercially successful Chinese network of businesses, one example being the highly profitable banana trade between Australia and Fiji. A causal factor for such transnational Pacific shift was the White Australia Policy that came with the birth of the Federation in 1901 (Kuo 2009), which made Chinese lives in Australia increasingly difficult through a process of multi-layered disempowerment. Facing this unprecedented onslaught, the factionalised Chinese newspapers in Australia became united on the social level as a chronicle of community and racial anxieties which today provide historians with a valuable source of information on the wide-ranging negative impact of institutionalised, organised and popular Australian racism on the Chinese psyche. While not abandoning Australia altogether, the Chinese diaspora nevertheless had to look outside their alienated, racialised home to build new bases of success and influence in the Pacific region such as Batavia, Fiji and Penang.

4. Despite the serious difficulties posed by the White Australia Policy to the Chinese community when it came into effect in 1901, the commercial elite among the Chinese thrived through their successful control of the transpacific banana trade. The reach, strength and wealth of the Chinese diaspora were indeed enabled by their astute and skilful involvements in maritime networks (Kurashige, Hsu & Yaguchi, 2014, p. 183). Precisely because of this, Chinese crew and passengers would inevitably come into contact with the Western maritime quarantine systems of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US when there were persons (not necessarily Chinese) with quarantinable diseases or without vaccination papers on board. The anti-Asian, white supremacist immigration policies of these white settler nations that were introduced in the early 1900s meant that Chinese prosperity was heavily dependent upon the commercial success of their maritime trade as a wide variety of professions were denied them in their host societies. Given that prosperity was indeed achieved by the Chinese diaspora in this manner (see Kuo 2009), the elite in the Chinese community in a racist country such as Australia was composed of those who gained power and wealth through their access to and control of maritime connections. The sea routes enabled the survival of Chinese communities in the abovementioned countries when their national policies explicitly discriminated against them, which included systematic and institutionalised inferior treatments when the Chinese were admitted to quarantine stations. When on land in a country such as Australia, there was no escape from an unwelcoming “white power” for these Chinese, whether in society or in quarantine. We are talking about the panopticon of white power at quarantine stations, if not in society at large.


Kuo, Mei-fen, “The Making of a Diasporic Identity: The Case of the Sydney Chinese Commercial Elite, 1890s-1900s”, Journal of Chinese Overseas, Vol. 5 (2009), pp. 336-363.

Kurashige, Lon, Madeline Y Hsu & Yujin Yaguchi, “Introduction: Conversations on Transpacific History”, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (2014), pp. 183-188.

Two exhumations in Third Cemetery, North Head

Two exhumations were conducted, presumably on different days, in the Third Cemetery of the North Head Quarantine Station. Both deceased suffered from pneumonic influenza (Spanish influenza) and were passengers from RMS Makura, which was quarantined at North Head in early December 1918: the 28-year-old Alice Ethel Sime, who was buried on 20 December 1918 (grave no. 216) and the 32-year-old Mon Yick, who was buried on 22 January 1919 (grave no. 218). In Yick’s case, the cause of his death was tuberculosis supervening on the influenza. The Sydney Morning Herald of 23 January 1919 reports that Yick had been sick since November 1918, i.e., during the voyage of Makura and before its arrival in Sydney, although this is not specified in the article. Earlier, on 19 December 1918, the Argus reports that Yick was one of the “dangerously ill” patients at the North Head Quarantine Station, implying death was possibly near. “Dangerously ill” patients referred to “seriously ill” patients who got worse.

The entry on Sime in the “Record of Deaths at Quarantine Station” states that her “body” was “exhumed” and “taken to Melbourne” – yet the date on which this occurred was not specified.

The entry on Yick in the same record states that his “remains” were “exhumed” for “transportation to China” on 10 September 1929.

The two entries on the exhumations of Sime and Yick were written by different hands and in red ink.

My examination of the preserved correspondence on the Third Cemetery graves in National Archives file SP399/1 80/8 unfortunately did not result in the location of any documents on the two exhumations. The author read the file, which is not at all substantial, at the National Archives at Chester Hill on 17 September 2014. Presumably the records are incomplete.

The interesting question would be who asked Mon Yick’s remains to be exhumed and then repatriated to China, and what motivated that person. The other question to be asked was the reason for Yick’s arrival in Australia. With the White Australia Policy firmly in place in 1918, was he a returning resident with an exemption certificate? Or was Yick visiting the country for the first time? If that was the case, would he not have to be a crew member of RMS Makura, given that no person of Asian background was welcome to settle in Australia at that time? If Yick was a crew member, then he would have died as a foreigner at the North Head Quarantine Station, and more than a decade after his death, some Chinese person or persons saw it fit to have his bones returned to his place of origin in China, wherever that might be.

Yick is most probably the Cantonese pronunciation of Yi in Mandarin. It is a Chinese family name – not one of the most common ones – and is written as 易 in Chinese script. However, if Mon Yick was an early Chinese settler in Australia, there was also a chance that both words were his given name, and Yick was entered as his surname in the Quarantine Station records simply because it occupied the second place in the name, following Western convention.

Chinese Lantern Festival

Among the badly faded Chinese calligraphic inscriptions on the sandstone rocks in the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station is one that stands out in terms of the timing of the inscription itself. In it a Chinese person from SS Taiyuan, then a regular maritime visitor to Australia from Hong Kong, made reference to the date of writing as “Yuanxiao” (元宵), which is an auspicious time in the traditional Chinese calendar, a time that brings families, friends and communities together in celebratory public space: the Lantern Festival.

Yuanxiao falls on the 15th day of the first month in the Chinese calendar, when the moon is full. Going by the Chinese zodiac, one can also learn from the inscription the year in which it was made.