banner graphic depicting exemptions document

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.

register page graphic

Born in Australia but travelling on a CEDT?: The O’Hoy and Tong families

By Sophie Couchman (Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria)


Sometimes you will find people who did not need a CEDT to travel but who nevertheless applied for one. In 1918 several members of the O’Hoy family of Bendigo made a trip to Hong Kong to celebrate Louey O’Hoy’s (Louey Duk Hoy 雷道海) birthday in Hong Kong.

Louey Duk Hoy surrounding by his family celebrating his birthday in Hong Kong, c1918. A selection of photographs were taken to mark the celebration. He was 91 years old.
[Photograph courtesy of Dennis O’Hoy]
O’Hoy and Tong family members travel to Hong Kong in July 1918
[PROV: VPRS 948/P1, Outward Passengers to Interstate, U.K. and Foreign Ports]

Passenger lists show Mr and Mrs Louey O’Hoy (Louey Duk Hoy and Ah Kit), their daughter Melan (Meelan), their son Fee and Fee’s wife Alice O’Hoy (nee Tong) all left Melbourne on the Tango Maru for Japan via ports (including Hong Kong) on 19 July 1918. Alice’s younger sister Ethel Tong was also with them.

Meelan (born Bendigo 1904), Fee (born Bendigo 1890), Alice (born Melbourne 1900) and Ethel (born Melbourne 1906) were born in Australia and Louey Duk Hoy and Ah Kit in southern China. We would therefore expect to see CEDT applications for only the two senior O’Hoy family members.

A search of the Victoria CEDT registers, however, shows CEDT applications in 1918 for Mrs Louey O’Hoy, Fee O’Hoy, Alice O’Hoy and Meelan O’Hoy. So there are no applications for Louey Duk Hoy or Ethel Tong. We would expect Ah Kit (Mrs Louey O’Hoy) to travel on a CEDT and Australian-born Ethel Tong not to have one. But the rest?


Vic CEDT Index search results for O’Hoy

Given Louey O’Hoy was about 86 years old at the time, Duk Hoy perhaps did not intend to return to Australia and therefore did not need a CEDT to gain re-entry. As Fee, Alice, Meelan and Ethel were born in Australia they were British subjects and entitled to travel without restriction. Nevertheless this did not always occur in practice as Alice and Ethel had discovered a few years earlier.

After their father’s death in 1912, Alice and Ethel travelled with their mother, two sisters and brother, presumably to their father’s ancestral village. Tragically their mother and two sisters died leaving the remaining children orphaned. When Alice and Ethel returned to Melbourne in 1914 they were stopped by officials and had to prove their identities. They did this with the help of a family portrait and interviews with Alice and Melbourne-based friends of the Tong family. They were eventually permitted to land.

Portrait of Mrs Tong with her Melbourne-born children Alice, Ethel, Elsie, Willie and Phyllis prior to travelling to China in 1912 used to identify them when they returned to Melbourne in 1916.
[NAA: B13, 1920/13667]

The children were detained because they needed identification to prove they were Australian born. Under the Immigration Restriction Act officials could set a deliberately unpassable dictation test to any arrivals. If you failed the test you were declared in illegal immigrant. The administrative practice was to only give this test to ‘coloured’ arrivals.

Without official documents that included identification photographs or physical descriptions on them, it was not possible to know whether the person holding a birth certificate, or a naturalization certificate was actually the owner of the certificate. This is an era before the universal use of passports. You can therefore see why some Australian-born ‘coloured’ travellers may have decided that it was simply easier to apply for a CEDT than risk travelling on an identification document without photographic identification on it.

What is puzzling then, is why Ethel did not also apply for an exemption at this time. She was only 12 years old and was living with her sister in Bendigo and so was effectively part of the O’Hoy family group. We can see from the Victorian CEDT Register entries that the family’s CEDTs were only issued two days before they boarded the ship. Perhaps Ethel’s application was not processed in time or she decided to join the trip at the last minute.

In any case, rather than a CEDT, she left two lovely photographs of herself and Alice with officials to use to identify her on her return in 1920. This they duly did.

Photographs left by Ethel Tong with officials on their departure from Melbourne in July 1918
[NAA: B13, 1918/14419]

Further reading

Story of the Tong family features in the episode ‘Alien Nation’ of Claire Wright’s ABC Radio National podcast Shooting the Past, which first aired on 12 Feb 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/shootingthepast/shooting-the-past-alien-nation/10665816.

Couchman, Sophie, ‘Tong family networks revealed through the camera’s lens’ in Couchman, S. (ed), Secrets, Silences and Sources: Five Chinese-Australian family Histories, Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria, Melbourne, 2005.

Couchman, Sophie, ‘Oh I would like to see Maggie Moore again: Selected women of Melbourne’s Chinatown’ in S. Couchman, J. Fitzgerald, P. Macgregor (eds), After the Rush: Regulation, Participation and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860-1940, Special edition of Otherland, vol.9, Dec 2004.

McKinnon, Leigh and Jack, Anita, A Biographical Dictionary of Historic figures in Bendigo’s Chinese Community, Golden Dragon Museum: Bendigo, 2015.

Rasmussen, Amanda, ‘The Chinese in Nation and Community, Bendigo, 1870s-1920s’, PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 2009.