Can’t find your ancestor?: Cheok Hong Cheong and his family

By Sophie Couchman (Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria)

The Victorian CEDT Registers contain the names of people who applied for a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test in order to ensure they could return to Australia without having to sit a dictation test. The decision whether to set the test, designed to be unpassable, rested with officials who were instructed to give it to ‘colored’ arrivals.

There are a number of reasons why you might not be able to find your ancestor in the Registers:

  • They did not travel between 1904-1959
  • They travelled but did not intend to return to Australia
  • They were born or naturalized in Australia and travelled on their birth or naturalization certificates
  • They obtained a special exemption and travelled with an official letter
  • They travelled under a name that you do not know or spelled in a way that you have not considered

Note that sometimes you will find that people who did not need a CEDT actually travelled on one (see ‘Born in Australia but travelling on a CEDT?: The O’Hoy and Tong families‘ blogpost). Some people may also have applied for a CEDT even though they did not intend to return – ‘just in case’ (see ‘Found: : Louey Leong Hock‘ blogpost).

Sometimes you might never know why your ancestor did not travel on a CEDT but sometimes you might find the answer elsewhere. For example in 1891 Cheok Hong Cheong, his wife and children were issued a lifetime exemption from the Victorian Chinese Act 1890. This exemption was published in the Victorian Government Gazettes.

Lifetime exemption granted to Cheok Hong Cheong and his family granted in 1891 under the Victoria Chinese Act 1890
[Victorian Government Gazette, 2 October 1891]

This lifetime exemption was used with limited success by James Cheong when he returned to Australia in 1930. I say limited success, because although his father wrote to the Department of External Affairs prior to his return James was stopped by officials when he tried to disembark in Tasmania. In a letter to the Department of External Affairs Cheok Hong Cheong quotes his son’s experience of this.

I felt hurt [...] that I hadn't free ingress into the land of my birth and education & training, where I had hoped to spend the best years of my life. I have a feeling now that I am a sort of exile from my native land & that it wants to take very little to cause me to turn my back upon it & go elsewhere... You will I hope make it all right with the Customs people so that I may land at Melbourne without any fuss or annoyance.

Searching the Victorian Government Gazettes we find that Chinese missionary James Tong Wai was also granted an unlimited exemption under the Victorian Chinese Act in 1890 but then in 1894 was nevertheless granted a two year exemption under the Act. Do not be surprised when these administrative systems do not work as you think they should.

And while we know that some prominent Chinese Australians were able to find ways to travel without a CEDT there are also plenty of prominent figures that you can find in the Victorian CEDT Index. This includes Chinese missionaries Paul Chin (of Carlton) and David Lu Gohn (of Castlemaine), Chinese Times newspaper editors T.C. Luke, Wong Shee Ping, well-regarded merchant families such as the O’Hoy family of Bendigo and Chinese herbalists like Frank Sam Goon and his family of Ballarat East.

software interface graphic

How did we transcribe these records?

By Terry Young (Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria)

Some of you may be wondering how did this project come about?

In 2017, I had the pleasure of contributing to a fascinating project called ‘The Real Face of White Australia’. It was an online project to crowdsource the transcription of Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test (CEDT). I found it to be an immensely satisfying project in which to be involved. The records were from migrants who applied for certificates issued in New South Wales.

Sophie, another member of the Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria (CAFHOV), had also participated in the project. We started to talk about how we might do something similar and make CEDT records for Victoria more ‘discoverable’. Together with Andrew Wong, Alan To and Jonathan O’Donnell we started to look for a solution.

Unfortunately Victorian CEDT records were not archived in the same way as those from New South Wales.

Anyone who applied for a Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test was registered in three volumes from 1904 to 1959. These volumes are stored at the National Archives of Australia in Melbourne.

The challenge: ‘How do we convert over 13,000 handwritten records into a database?’.

The solution: Ask as many volunteers as possible to help transcribe these paper records into a digital format. Hence the Transcribing Chinese travels into Victoria’s history project was born.

This was a daunting task to accomplish as we needed many people to transcribe the volumes and we needed a software system to store these transcription records.

Seeking volunteers April 2019

To enlist a team of volunteers, we advertised in local libraries and on our Facebook page.

Library poster

Facebook promotional video

Develop a system

We needed a system to efficiently and effectively facilitate the task of transcription. CAFHOV are indebted to one of our members, Andrew Wong, for volunteering for this task. He designed a brilliant web-based software system where our volunteers could view a digitized copy of the register page and enter a line by line transcription record.

Transcription software interface
Transcription software interface

CAFHOV would like to thank Andrew Wong for his valuable contribution to this project. Without it we would not have made any where near the progress we had made.

Andrew’s system can be found at It uses the original unverified transcription data.

Transcription Event May 5, 2019

As part of the Australian Heritage Festival, we held a transcription event at the Chinese Museum with approximately 50 volunteers in attendance. Volunteers also participated online locally and from interstate. We were pleased to see at least half of our volunteers came from the general public. There were volunteers from Hobart, Western Australia, Canberra and Adelaide. Our marketing campaign had been successful.

Transcription event at the Chinese Museum (Photo: Terry Young)

It was a challenging and exciting day not knowing how the software would perform and how the volunteers would respond. Fortunately the network and the web based software worked well, as long as participants were patient. Our volunteers came from diverse backgrounds and technical ability. Feedback from our participants told us they found it to be satisfying and a worthwhile task.

Volunteers young and old supported each other (Photo: Terry Young)
Keying data (Photo: Pranjali Sehgal)

We were not sure how many of the records would be transcribed by the end of the day but were hopeful that we might achieve a target of 50 percent. The count at the end of the event was 30 percent completion. Those on the committee were already thinking about organising two more events to complete the task. Little did we know what lay ahead for the project.

We sent out emails to thank our volunteers and ask them to continue transcribing online. The system was still available for those who wished to continue from their home computers.

The online system was able to display the number of records transcribed and also show the highest number of records transcribed by any volunteer (The Top Ten). This proved to be an incentive for people who are competitive. In educational design practice it is called Gamification methodology, which is used to facilitate motivation.

Dashboard statistics
Dashboard leaderboard

Any volunteer who reached a milestone number of transcriptions completed was sent an email with a specific badge image to congratulate them. This communication formed a message to the users that we were recognising their individual efforts.

The completion of the transcription project of 13,127 records was finished in an unanticipated timeframe. It was completed in three weeks not thirty weeks.

The organising committee was completely flabbergasted and very happy that we were able to complete the transcription work in such a short timeframe.

The following email was sent out to all our volunteers:

Dear Transcription Volunteer
We would like to inform you that last Friday afternoon, the first and most labour intensive phase of our transcription project was completed.
This would not have been possible without your generous help and support.
The team has been impressed with the speed at which you completed this task.
Some of you transcribed every day.
Some of you transcribed in the wee small hours.
Some of you transcribed before the sun came up.
Some of you worked from interstate in Hobart, Adelaide and Canberra.
Everyone’s efforts contributed to this enormous feat.

Our next task will be to review the accuracy of our transcription data.
Once this is complete we will be making the data available to the public.
We will keep you posted.

 Many thanks again from the Chindex Team. 
Victorian CEDT Index transcription project team at launch event, May 2019. Left to right: Terry Young, Alan To, Sophie Couchman, Jonathan O’Donnell and Andrew Wong [Photo: Pranjali Sehgal]


So this is a story of the original transcription work that was needed to get us to this current project, the Victorian CEDT Index. It has only been possible because of the combined contributions from passionate people inspired by family history. Without their enthusiasm and support we would not have achieved this mammoth task.

Key outcomes

  • Building of community within CAFHOV
  • Increased profile of CAFHOV within family history networks
  • Strengthened partnership with Museum of Chinese Australian History
  • Public outreach and awareness
  • 13,127 records transcribed

NB. We affectionately referred to the original project with a working title of the Chindex Project but we recognise that the records contain data about many other nationalities, not just Chinese, we have changed the name to the Victorian CEDT Index.

Terry Young

Terry is a first generation Chinese Australian. As an adult he developed a curiosity about the unspoken lives of his Cantonese speaking parents. Both migrated to Australia during difficult times, personally and historically. Terry’s family research has helped shape his persona and identity. He continues to research and discover details about his ancestors and his extended family, not only for his personal satisfaction but also for future family generations.