Paper Trail: Chasing the Chinese in the Cape (1904–1933)
KAREN L. HARRIS
Department Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria
The Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the Cape parliament in 1904 was one of the
first pieces of legislation promulgated in the southern region of Africawhere a partic-
ular ‘racial group’ was singled out, documented and discriminated against. Although
it had trans-oceanic antecedents and tapped into this global anti-Chinese sentiment,
unlike the Chinese exclusion legislation elsewhere, the Cape exclusion legislation
targeted the entire Chinese ‘race’. This article proposes to trace the application of this
unwieldy registration system and show how the small Chinese community was reg-
istered, identified, monitored and hounded both on paper and on the ground until
well after the repeal of the Act three decades later. Through an analysis of these paper
records, the article intends to elucidate the nature of this imposition and consider
what they tell us of the Chinese it was imposed upon and how they responded. It also
proposes that, while the Act was formulated for exclusion, ironically for just under
1,500 of the Chinese resident at the colonial Cape it eventually warranted a double
inclusion, one in the form of a certificate of exemption and hence domicile – albeit
with perpetual surveillance and scrutiny – and the other as part of the archived his-
e year 1904 marked the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act by the Cape
parliament, a signicant but relatively unknown and under-researched development
in Cape colonial history. rough this piece of legislation the gurative doors of the
Cape Colony were being closed on the immigration of a culturally identiable group,
while at the same time registering, controlling and monitoring those who were already
part of colonial society. e Act is virtually ignored in South African history mainly
because it does not accord with the black–white dichotomy of traditional historical
analysis.1 Moreover, it deals with a cultural group that was generally disregarded due
to its minority status and relatively non-participatory or apolitical prole. However,
the Chinese Exclusion Act is of signicance on ve counts: it is an important mile-
stone in the history of the overseas Chinese in this country as it is in others such
as Australia (1855), New Zealand (1881), the United States of America (1882) and
Canada (1885);2 it provides a unique window into a group of people who were very
much on the periphery of society; it is a precursor of much of the prejudice against
1 C. Bundy, ‘New Nation, New History? Constructing the Past in Post-Apartheid South Africa’ in H. E. Stolten (ed.), History
Making and Present Day Politics: e Meaning of Collective Memory in South Africa (Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute, 2007), 79.
2 P. C. Campbell, Chinese Coolie Emigration to Countries Within the British Empire (London: P. S. King, 1923), 50, 58, 80–1; P.
Richardson, Chinese Mine Labour in the Transvaal (London: Macmillan, 1982), 35; R. Takaki, Strangers from a Dierent Shore
(Boston: Little Brown, 1989), 14; H. Samuel, ‘ e Chinese Lab our Question’, e Contemporary Review, 85, April 1904, 458.
134 Kronos 40
the Chinese that emerged and was perpetuated across the cultural spectrum into
the twenty-rst century; the Act was to change the prole and place of the Chinese
community in South Africa, both in legislation and popular consciousness which
followed in and aer the apartheid era where the Chinese continued to be ostracised
and excluded; and nally, it can be agged as one of the rst procedures of individual
race-based registration which was to contribute to South Africa eventually becoming
the colonial society with the ‘most systematic and enduring forms’ of such schemes.3
is article rst considers some of the recent literature on documents of identity,
in particular the debates relevant to this discussion of the Chinese Exclusion Act. e
next two sections give a brief account of the circumstances that led to the Act’s prom-
ulgation, rst within the Transvaal and then in the Cape itself. is sketches both the
public and political background to the introduction of the exclusionist legislation.
e penultimate section considers how the paper trail and paper chase introduced by
the Act was implemented, and the last section looks at what this paper trail preserved
for the historian.
Contested: Paper Systems and the Chinese
In the recent spate of literature in the eld of documenting individuals there has been
a distinct broadening, if not an inversion, of the traditional focus and understanding
at a range of levels. To begin with, the Eurocentric idea of a Western genesis of reg-
istration systems aligned with the emergence of the modern state in the nineteenth
century has given way to an Eastern origin dating back some two millenniums to
dynastic China.4 Similarly, the origins of mobility control through individual docu-
mentation have been moved from being a structural necessity of the sovereign state
within the international system to distinct and concerted attempts to keep people
out. Here, in his seminal work Melancholy Order, Adam McKeown has argued that in
particular the eorts to control Asian migrations led to a division of the world into
two ‘cultural macro-categories’ of East and West, paralleling what was perceived as
the free or ‘civilised’ as opposed to the stagnant and ‘uncivilised’. is, he argues, led
to the assumption that essentially demanded some form of ‘exclusion, selection and
surveillance’.5 In essence China and Chinese migration – along with the resistance
thereto – has in this context been centre-staged.
At another level, the literature’s prime concern with the administrators and the
nature of the administrative infrastructures has shied to focus on those being ad-
ministered. is is very much in line with the developments in the eld of overseas
Chinese studies, where Roger Daniels explains that the tendency to concentrate ‘on
3 K. Breckenridge and S. Szreter (eds), Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2012), 15
4 R. von Glahn, ‘Household Registration, Property Rights, and Social Obligations in Imperial China: Principles and Practices’ in
Breckenridge and Szreter (eds), Registration and Recognition, 43, 61.
5 A. McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008),
3–4, 8; see also M. Lake and H. Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge
of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), as well as studies such as A. Zolberg, ‘Global Movements,
Global Walls: Responses to Migration, 1885–1925’ in G. Wang, Global Histor y and Migrations (Boulder, Colo: Westview, 1997),
297–307, both of which also focus on the Chinese dimension.
the excluders rather than the excluded [was] not a mere eccentricity’ but was partly
attributable to ‘the great paucity of immigrant materials’. is he believed resulted in
work that treated the immigrants as ‘nameless groups, mere economic pawns in the
hands of others’.6 Registration records have now been examined for the biographi-
cal information they include, and have even been heralded as ‘site[s] of heritage
recovery’.7 e latter focus also aligns with recent scholarship on the archival pro-
cess which, besides emphasising a need for contextualisation in the broadest sense,
also calls for documents to be read not only for what they contain but also for what
they omit.8 Commenting on James Scott’s reference to ‘state simplications’ that only
represent ‘that slice … that interested the ocial observer’, Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie
compellingly contends in the context of the archival turn that these ‘snatches’ re-
corded in the ocial paperwork ‘yield unrestrained and unexpected voices and un-
called for autobiographical narratives’9 providing information on what would have
remained an unrecorded sector of a marginalised group.
ere has been a focus not only on how the registered individuals complied with
or adapted to the imposition of these regulatory paper systems, but also on how
they challenged and circumvented them.10 As regards the Chinese, the ‘paper sons’
is a well-known illegal scheme whereby emigrants would adopt the names of other
men’s children – real or ctitious – to enter a country under what became known in
the Americas as the ‘slot system’.11 But taking this even further, scholarship has also
turned to the ‘subversive networks’ prevalent among the administrators themselves,
unearthing an intricate web of complicity and collusion.12
e prime concern on ‘exclusion’, which has dominated much of the scholarship
on immigration as well as the overseas Chinese historiography, has also been invert-
ed to reect on the desire for ‘inclusion’ and the concomitant benets or privileges
that the successful paperwork may or may not have entailed.13 is in turn relates
to the registration process becoming what Keith Breckenridge and Simon Szreter
have termed a ‘performative and negotiated process’ involving a dynamic where the
registering individual might present a particular ‘identity’, truthful or not, in order to
achieve certain objectives or ‘acknowledged rights’.14
6 R. Daniels, ‘Westerners from the East: Oriental Immigrants Reappraised’, Pacic Historical Re view, 35, November 1966, 375.
7 U. Dhupelia-Mesthrie, ‘e Form, the Permit and the Photograph: An Archive of Mobility Between South Africa and India’,
Journal of Asian and African Studies, 46, 6, 2011, 650–62; K. L. Harris, ‘Exclusion Reveals Inclusion: Chinese in the Late
Nineteenth-Century Colonial Cape’, paper presented at the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas conference,
‘Rising Dragon, Soaring Bananas’, University of Auckland, 17–19 July 2009.
8 C. Hamilton, V. Harris, J. Taylor, M. Pickover, C. Reid and R. Saleh (eds), Reguring th e Archive (Cape Town: David Philip, 2002),
9–11; P. Maylam, ‘Dead Horses, the Baby and the Bathwater: “Post-eory” and the Historian’s Practice’, South African Historical
Journal, 42, May 2000, 122.
9 Dhupelia-Mesthrie, ‘e Form, the Permit and the Photograph’, 658–9.
10 South African examples include U. Dhupelia-Mesthrie, ‘Cat and Mouse Games: e State, Indians in the Cape and the Permit
System, 1900s–1920s’ in I. About, J. Brown and G. Lonergan (eds), Identication and Registration Practices in Transnational
Perspective: People, Papers and Practices (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); A. MacDonald, ‘Colonial Trespasses in the
Making of South Africa’s Borders, c. 1900–1950’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2012).
11 L. Pan, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: e Story of the Overseas Chinese (London: Mandarin, 1990), 108; M. Yap and D. Man, Colour,
Confusion and Concessions (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1996), 182; see also U. Ho, Paper Sons and Paper Daughters
(Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2011).
12 A. MacDonald, ‘e Identity ieves of the Indian Ocean: Forgery, Fraud, and the Origins of South African Immigration
Control, 1890s–1920s’ in Breckenridge and Szreter (eds), Registration and Recognition, 253–76; S. Cole, Suspect Identities: A
History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identication (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001).
13 Breckenridge and Szreter (eds), Registration and Recognition, 16, 19–20.
14 Ibid, 20, 30; see also A. MacDonald, ‘Identity ieves of the Indian Ocean’, 255 esp on the notion of ‘documentary citizenship’.
136 Kronos 40
Some of the recent literature on paper documenting systems has also moved away
from the more parochial studies of separate regions where stories remained ‘parallel’
to considering the more globalised trends which are ‘dynamically inter-connected
and thus mutually formative’.15 is has also oen taken the form of edited compila-
tions that include studies across both time periods and geographic regions, with edi-
torials that point to more synergy than disjuncture.16 Yet studies of particular areas
within these broader contexts remain pertinent to an appreciation of the respective
and oen divergent forms of identication and control that evolved, while keeping or
contributing to a comparative dimension. Lastly, studies of the history and rationale
for introducing identication regulations and systems have also widened to include
specic scientic analysis of the registering procedure and apparatus.17
It is within these broader debates and fresh approaches that this article will con-
sider the Cape Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904. Of particular relevance is the position-
ing of China and the Chinese in terms of their long legacy of documenting; the piv-
otal place of the Chinese in exclusion practices across the Pacic and Indian Oceans;
the divergent responses of the registered; and the notion of the paperwork having
elements of inclusion as well as exclusion.
Catalyst: Transvaal Indenture
e decision to import Chinese labour to the Witwatersrand gold mines to solve
the post-South African War (1899–1902) ‘labour shortage’ was as hotly debated by
contemporaries as it has been by subsequent historians.18 ose in favour and those
against the labour scheme came from both ends of the political, economic and social
spectrums, and did not always hold similar viewpoints.19 e gold mines had faced a
labour supply problem ever since their inception, and thus even before the war there
had been talk of obtaining labour from beyond the African continent.20 With the
British Empire’s legacy of indentured labour from both India and China dating back
almost a century,21 this was a feasible and attainable alternative which for the min-
ing industry had the added advantage of a more controllable and hence exploitable
15 Lake and Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line, 5; McKeown, Melancholy Order.
16 See for example J. Caplan and J. Torpey (eds), Documenting Individual Identity: e Development of State Practices in the Modern
Wor l d (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Breckenridge and Szreter (eds), Registration and Recognition; I. About,
Brown and Lonergan (eds), Identication and Registration Practices in Transnational Perspective.
17 D. Lyon, ‘Under My Skin: From Identication Papers to Body Surveillance’ in Caplan and Torp ey (eds), Documenting Individual
Identity, 291–310; M. Kaluszynski, ‘Republican Identity: Bertillonage as Government Technique’ in Caplan and Torpey (eds),
Documenting Individual Identity, 123–38; K. Breckenridge, ‘Gandhi’s Progressive Disillusionment: umbs, Fingers, and the
Rejection of Scientic Modernism in Hind Swaraj’, Public Culture, 23, 2, 2011, 335–6.
18 Historians such as Sheila van der Horst, Robert Davies and Donald Denoon argue that the situation had been articially
contrived by mining magnates with ulterior motives, while Alan Jeeves, Peter Richardson and others blamed a fundamental
accumulation crisis in the low-grade ore mining industry.
19 For discussion of this see K. L. Harris, ‘A History of the Chinese in South Africa to 1912’ (Unpublished DPhil thesis, University
of South Africa, 1998), 107–33.
20 e matter had, for example, been raised from 1896 to 1898. N. Levy, e Foundation of the South African Cheap Labour System
(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 196–7; Richardson, Chinese Mine Labour in the Transvaal, 32.
21 D. Northrup, Indentured Labor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 17, 29; C. M. Malherbe, ‘Indentured Labour:
Towards an Understanding of Its Place in the Spectrum of Unfree Labour Systems Practised in South Africa’, paper presented at
the ‘Cape Slavery and Aer’ conference, Cape Town, 1989), 3, 9–12.
workforce.22 e nal decision to import labour from China rather than India was
related to Britain’s current relations with these two ‘supply’ countries, as well as the
local experience of using indentured Indians on the sugar plantations in the Colony
of Natal since 1860.23
In 1903 at an inter-colonial Customs Union conference a decision was taken to
import ‘unskilled labourers under a system of government control only, by which pro-
vision [would be] made for indenture and repatriation at the termination thereof’.24
It had also been agreed that the ‘permanent settlement in South Africa of Asiatic
races would be injurious and should not be permitted.’25 Added to this was the wide-
spread white public insistence that these labourers should ‘not enter the mines on
the same terms as the Indians had entered Natal’26 and a shared antagonism against
the Chinese as not only a potential economic rival but also a moral threat. e white
citizenry raised objections about ‘the contamination and other injury ... to civilised
communities [which resulted] from the presence among them of peoples so dierent
in their habits and requirements’.27 is resonated with the anti-Chinese sentiments
across the Atlantic and Pacic in the Americas and Australasia28 and was evident
in the anti-lobbyists pointing out how in ‘every temperate country, without excep-
tion, to which the Chinese had made their way – in the United States, in Canada, in
Australia, in New Zealand – [antagonism] has led, aer bitter experience and long
agitation, to their complete or almost complete exclusion.’29 However, they claimed
that it was ‘in vain that protests from all over the Cape, from New Zealand, and from
Australia, poured in at the Colonial Oce’ as the colonial government was intent on
importing this labour regardless.30
is was indeed the case as on 11 February 1904 the Transvaal Labour Importation
Ordinance 17 was passed. It was far more stringent than the legislation for importing
Indians into Natal (1859)31 but was heralded as the ‘most unpopular of all the unpop-
ular measures’ as it satised neither the pro- nor anti-lobbyists. e workers judged
it insucient to safeguard them against Chinese encroachment, while other oppo-
sition decried it as a ‘Charter of Slavery’.32 According to the Ordinance, a Foreign
Labour Department with a superintendent of labour was established to adminis-
ter the scheme and inspectors were appointed to monitor the implementation of
22 F. A. Johnstone, Class, Race and Gold: A Study of Class Relations and Racial Discrimination in South Africa (Lanham, Md:
University Press of America; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976), 33.
23 S. Bhana, Indentured Indian Emigrants to Natal, 1860–1902: A Study Based on Ships’ Lists (New Delhi: Promilla; Johannesburg:
Witwatersrand University Press, 1991), 7–11; U. Dhupelia-Mesthrie, From Cane Fields to Freedom (Johannesburg: Kwela, 2000),
24 Parliamentary Papers, 1903, xlv, Cd 1640, ‘Minutes of Proceedings of the South African Customs Union Conference, held at
Bloemfontein, March 1903’.
26 L. V. Praagh (ed.), e Transvaal and Its Mines (Johannesburg: n.p., 1906), 533; Campbell, Chinese Coolie Emigration, 171–2.
27 Aborigines Protection Society, ‘e Transvaal and Chinese labour’, e Aborigines’ Friend, February 1904, 11.
28 Lake and Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line, 4, 18, 20, 28; McKeown, Melancholy Order, 123.
29 H. Samuel, ‘e Chinese Labour Question’, e Contemporary Review, lxxxv, April 1904, 458.
30 F. Hales, ‘Transvaal Labour Diculties’, Fortnightly Review , July 1904, 111; An Eyewitness, John Chinaman on the Rand (London: n.p.,
31 K. L. Harris, ‘Gandhi, the Chinese and Passive Resistance’ in J. Brown and H. Prozesky (eds), Gandhi and South Africa: Principles
and Politics (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1996), 69–94.
32 H. T. Bell and C. A. Lane, A Guide to the Transvaal (Johannesburg: Bartholomew & Lawlor, 1905), 222; E. B. Rose, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Up-to-Date, or Chinese Labour in South Africa (London: n.p., 1904), 2; D. M. Goodfellow, Modern Economic History of South Africa
(London: Routledge, 1931), 216–7.
138 Kronos 40
regulations and treatment.33 Seventeen of the 35 sections of the Ordinance were purely
restrictive, conning the miners exclusively to unskilled work on the Witwatersrand
goldelds34 with oenders being liable to repatriation, imprisonment and nes.35
Peter Richardson states that the ‘magnitude of the cost’ of the Chinese indenture
system required ‘a series of institutional checks upon the quality and volume’ of the
labourers in order to make the system viable.36 e authorities were also bound by law
to introduce a stringent system of regulating the labourers from indenture through to
repatriation.37 us, once the labourer was recruited it was imperative that he should
remain in the system, and so began a protracted scheme of bureaucratic verifying
and recording. e paperwork included medical examinations on recruitment and at
embarkation en route as well as disembarkation and arrival in Johannesburg. It was,
as Richardson points out, ‘very much in the industry’s interest to preserve the health
of its labourers’, hence the continual medical monitoring.38 us the proverbial paper
trail began in the hinterland of China and was maintained from the contractors’ re-
ceiving depot through to embarkation on a journey of some 13,000 kilometres over
sea, up to disembarkation in Durban and a further railway transfer of 600 kilometres
from Jacobs, the receiving depot there, to the nal destination of the goldmining
compounds on the Rand.39
It was vital for the mining industry to optimise its control of the labour force,
hence the need for this meticulous paperwork.40 Before labourers were accepted at
the embarkation depot in China, ‘their names and addresses as well as those of their
relatives’ were recorded and a contract sheet was completed. is was followed by a
more detailed registration and an explanation and acceptance of the contract.41 On
arrival in Durban they were registered by the Foreign Labour Department, physical-
ly identied, ngerprinted, photographed and issued with a Transvaal government
identication passport.42 According to the Ordinance this had to ‘contain a complete
record by which the holder thereof may be identied and traced and shall in any
Court of Law be prima facie evidence of the facts therein recorded’.43 In addition, a
numbered register had to be kept by each employer and the labourers had to reside
on the premises where they were employed, being allowed to leave only with a permit
which would be granted for a period of less than 48 hours.44 Both the passport and
33 National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria (NASA), Cd 2026, vol 51, Further Correspondence Relating to the Labour
Importation Ordinance, May 1904; NASA, Cd 2183, vol 54, Further Correspondence re Labour in the Transvaal Mines, August
34 Lord Stanmore, ‘e Chinese Labour Ordinance’ in B. Hirson (ed.), South Africa: e War of 1899–1902 and the Chinese Labour
Question, Microlm (East Ardsley, Wakeeld, Yorkshire: Microform, c. 1983), 3–7; Denoon, ‘e Transvaal Labour Crisis’, 489.
35 Ordinances of the Transvaal, Labour Importation Ordinance 17 of 1904, section 1, 75; section 9a, 79; section 15, 81; section 18,
82; section 19, 82–3; sections 25, 86; section 26, 86; section 31, 5, 89; schedule 1, 93. Also see L. V. Praagh (ed.), e Transvaal
and Its Mines: e Encyclopedic History of the Transvaal (London and Johannesburg: Praagh and Lloyd, 1906), 534.
36 Richardson, Chinese Mine Labour, 140.
37 NASA, Cd 1640, Parliamentary Papers, 1903, xlv, Minutes of Proceedings of the South African Customs Union Conference, held
at Bloemfontein, March 1903.
38 Richardson, Chinese Mine Labour, 137.
39 Ibid, 135–42.
40 Labour Importation Ordinance 17 of 1904, section 8, 78; Richardson, Chinese Mine Labour, 142.
41 Ibid, 140.
42 Ibid, 164.
43 Labour Importation Ordinance 17 of 1904, section 15, 81–2.
44 Ibid, section 20, 83.
permit had to be produced at any time, failing which the labourer would be liable to a
ne not exceeding ten pounds or imprisonment not exceeding one month.45 Finally,
the labourer had to enter into a contract of service ‘not exceeding three years’, renew-
able for a similar period, aer which he had to return to his country of origin. e
Ordinance also required that every three months the superintendent should submit
various statistics regarding the labourers to the lieutenant-governor, to be published
in the Government Gazette.46 is overt paper monitoring of the Chinese indentured
labour system was intended to allay the concerns over both labour exploitation and
At the time it was argued that ‘few acts of Colonial legislation have created more sen-
sation’ than the Labour Importation Ordinance of 1904.48 is was particularly so, given
the increasingly hostile international environment regarding Chinese in other desti-
nations. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia had all by then
implemented their Chinese exclusion Acts.49 From the outset, in the United Kingdom
the Labour Importation Ordinance engaged the steady opposition of the Liberal Party
and provoked an adjournment of the House of Commons to discuss the principles of
the new law, which initially caused its temporary suspension.50 In South Africa, opposi-
tion in the Transvaal colony was equally vociferous in both political and public forums,
as it was in the Cape,51 to which the next section turns. e net result, however, was the
introduction of 63,659 Chinese indentured unskilled labourers for the gold mines as
well as a heightened prejudice against and awareness of the Chinese throughout the
country, not only in political circles and the media but also in popular consciousness.
One might argue that it created a negative perception of a people – a singled-out race –
who had to be so intensely monitored.
Concoction: Cape Politics
Cape society of the nineteenth century was ethnically and culturally diverse, in
both the indigenous and foreign communities. In keeping with the so-called ‘lib-
eral tradition’52 of British colonial administration, the Cape Colony’s representative
government, established in 1853, had not introduced any immigration regula-
tions or limitations on foreigners for over half a century.53 is ‘constitutional non-
racialism’54 was in stark contrast to the three other southern African states, where
there was restrictive legislation which dealt directly or indirectly with ‘Asiatics’ or
45 Ibid, section 20.
46 Ibid, section 21, 84.
47 T. Naylor, Yellow Labour: e Truth about the Chinese in South Africa (n.p., 1904), 6; F. D. Chaplin, ‘e Labour Question in the
Transvaal’, e National Review, February 1905, 999–1000; Hales, ‘Transvaal Labour Diculties’, 119.
48 Praagh, Transvaal and Its Mines, 534.
49 Lake and Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line; A. Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics and the Chinese Exclusion Act
(Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 3–16; Richardson, Chinese Mine Labour, 35.
50 Praagh, Transvaal and Its Mines, 534.
51 J. A. Reeves, ‘Chinese Labour in South Africa, 1903–1910’ (Unpublished MA thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1954), 156.
52 See P. Lewsen, ‘e Cape Liberal Tradition: Myth or Reality?’, Race, 13, 1971, 65–80.
53 S. Trapido, ‘e Origins of the Cape Franchise Qualications of 1853’, Journal of African History, vol 1, 1964, 37; J. L. McCracken,
e Cape Parliament, 1854–1910 (Oxford: Clarendon. 1967), 62–70, 138.
54 T. Keegan, Colonial South Africa and the Origins of the Racial Order (Cape Town: David Philip, 1996), 245.
140 Kronos 40
‘Aziatische Kleurlingen’.55 ere are numerous reasons for the Cape Colony’s appar-
ent milder and more liberal treatment of foreigners – including persons of Asian
descent – in the nineteenth century. Besides factors that obtained in each of the other
states, and the more generalised perception of the Cape as more liberal and therefore
socially tolerant,56 other aspects did partly account for this contrast such as the edg-
ling nature of its responsible government, the predominantly material concerns of
its parliament, the absence of sophisticated party politics, the relatively uncontested
elections,57 and the larger number of developed urban centres and ports that inu-
enced Cape demographics and economics positively.
e changes that the early twentieth century brought to some of these aspects
go a long way to explain the racist turnaround in the Cape Colony, both in terms of
public opinion and legislation, when the introduction of Chinese labour was con-
sidered in the Transvaal. e Cape Colony followed its neighbours in introducing
immigration legislation as, in the aermath of the South African War, it could obvi-
ously not remain the only southern African state with unrestricted access. e Cape’s
Immigration Act of 1902 included various restrictions on entry to the Colony, as well
as measures to remove ‘prohibited immigrants’.58 e Act was dened on similar lines
to the notorious European language test or ‘Natal formula’ (1897), which had also
become a model for other British regions such as the United States and Australia59
and therefore had the sanction of precedent. Unlike these other colonised areas, the
immigration of one specic group – Chinese in the case of the United States and
Australia and Indian in the case of the Natal – was not the sole concern of the leg-
islation. Rather, the enormous escalation of immigrants60 en route to the Transvaal
goldelds, and later, of refugees during and aer the South African War, led to a
gradual rise of ‘anti-alienism’ in the Cape. is was compounded by intensied eco-
nomic competition and post-war recession. However, Dhupelia-Mesthrie and others
have argued that this legislation reected the emergence of a distinctly ‘anti-Asian
sentiment’61 as the European language prociency test eectively succeeded in keep-
ing ‘Asiatics’ out.62 Milton Shain contends that the alien or ‘undesirable immigrant’
was increasingly becoming the scapegoat for the emerging ills of Cape society.63
Of more immediate relevance for the eventual introduction of the Chinese
Exclusion Act was that, while the post-war Transvaal government and mining mag-
nates were seeking sanction for Chinese indentured labour from the Colonial Oce,
55 Legislation prohibiting or restricting the immigration of ‘races from Asia’ or ‘Aziatische Kleurlingen’ (Asiatic Coloureds) was
introduced in the Transvaal and Orange Free State in 1885 and Natal in 1897.
56 M. Shain, ‘e Jewish Population and Politics in the Cape Colony, 1898–1910’ (Unpublished MA thesis, University of South
Africa, 1978), 8; R. A. Huttenback, Racism and Empire: White Settlers and Coloured Immigrants in the British Self-governing
Colonies, 1830–1910 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 148.
57 McCracken, Cape Parliament, 105.
58 Statutes of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, Immigration Act 47 of 1902.
59 E. Bradlow, ‘Immigration into the Union, 1910–1948’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cape Town, 1978), 1; Transvaal
Leader, 12 February 1903; R. A. Huttenback, Gandhi in South Africa (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1971), 210.
60 Transvaal Leader, 12 February 1903.
61 Dhupelia-Mesthrie, ‘Cat and Mouse Games’, 185.
62 Yap and Man, Colour, Confusion and Concessions, 62.
63 M. Shain, ‘Diamonds, Pogroms and Undesirables: Anti-Alienism and Legislation in the Cape Colony, 1890–1906’, South African
Historical Journal, 12, November 1980, 17–18; Shain, ‘Jewish Population and Politics’, 29, 32, 108–9, 150.
Cape politicians were preparing for a general election.64 e two main contenders
were the Progressive Party, which tended to represent British urban interests, and
the South African Party (SAP) embodying Afrikaner rural and agricultural inter-
ests.65 Both had to address the poor economic situation as well as reconciliation be-
tween the two white ethnic groups. Within this relatively fractured atmosphere the
Transvaal Chinese indentured labour question was seized upon as an innovative, but
also distracting, electoral weapon66 and was regarded in political rhetoric to be the
‘very greatest question they had got before them at the present time’.67 is was not
an unprecedented tactic. Politicians in countries such as Australia, New Zealand,
Canada and the United States had eectively used the ‘Chinese’ as a plank in their
political platforms.68 Once the elections were over in these areas, political parties
were then obliged to transform their anti-Chinese assurances into legislation. is
was evident in the legislation promulgated in many overseas colonies, as well as the
Transvaal and Cape Colony.
e SAP pledged to resist its introduction at all costs, not only in the Transvaal
but South Africa as a whole.69 ey argued that there were no guarantees which
would ensure that the indentured Chinese would be conned to the Witwatersrand
gold mines and alluded to the ‘object lesson’ of their ‘sister-colony’ Natal, with an-
other group of ‘Asiatics’, the Indians.70 e SAP also accused the Progressive Party of
being pro-Chinese, claiming the leaders had vested interests in the mines and there-
fore supported High Commissioner Alfred Milner’s scheme.71 ey were not entirely
wrong about the Progressive Party’s stance on the Chinese labour question as its am-
bivalence was apparent in the cumbersome way it contended with the matter from
the outset.72 Point 12 of its Progressive manifesto stated: ‘Opposition to the introduc-
tion of Asiatics in South Africa, and the adoption of practical measures to exclude
them from the Colony.’73 Commenting on this, the historian Mauritz Grundlingh
points out that if the opposition to Asiatic labour had been genuine it would not have
been necessary to adopt ‘practical measures.’74
e Cape press took up the Chinese question with enthusiasm, which did much
to raise public awareness of the Chinese labour issue75 but at the same time made the
small free Chinese community within Cape colonial society much more conspicuous.
64 McCracken, Cape Parliament, 34; M. A. S. Grundlingh, e Parliament of the Cape of Good Hope, with Special Reference to Party
Politics, 1872–1910 in Archives Year Book of South Africa, (Pretoria: Government Printer, 1969), 293.
65 T. R. H. Davenport, e Afrikaner Bond: e History of a South African Political Party, 1880–1911 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1966), 244–5.
66 M. A. S. Grundlingh, Parliament of the Cape, 294; Shain, ‘e Jewish Population and Politics’, 118–20.
67 South African News, 13 January 1904.
68 C. Price, ‘“White” Restrictions on Coloured Immigration’, Race, 7, 3, 1966, 223; C. Y. Choi, Chinese Migration and Settlement in
Austral ia (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1975), 24–5; A. Markus, Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California, 1850–
1901 (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1971), 2; E. C. Sandmeyer, e Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Chicago: University of
Illinois Press, 1973); H. Chen, ‘Chinese Immigration into the United States: An Analysis of Changes in Immigration Policy’
(Unpublished PhD thesis, Florence Heller Graduate School, 1980), 47.
69 South African News, 21 and 28 December 1903; Cape Times, 14 S eptember 1903.
70 South African News, 8 and 21 December 1903; Transvaal Leader, 15 September 1903.
71 Ibid, 15 September 1903, 8 January 1904; South African News, 8 December 1903, 4 February 1904.
72 Grundlingh, Parliament of the Cape, 295.
73 Ca pe Time s, 14 September 1903; Transvaal Leader, 15 September 1903.
74 Grundlingh, Parliament of the Cape, 295.
75 See for example South African News, 21 January 1904.
142 Kronos 40
As happened in other overseas colonies, an ‘Anti-Asiatic League’ was established in
Cape Town and petitions to the government and letters to the press revealed ex-
treme ‘orientalism’.76 ere was even a degree of hysteria among the politically active
public, as the following claim shows: ‘Not content with permitting every undesirable
non-Britisher to compete on equal terms, in the business arena, with Britons, these
mal-visioned Governments … desire to scourge, debauch, and pollute our appar-
ently accursed land with the pestiferous, yellow-skinned, almond-eyed sons of the
Phyllis Lewsen correctly assessed the Chinese experiment as having ‘obsessed
both its champions and its opponents’.78 e reaction it elicited in the Cape Colony
was likened only to the anti-convict agitation of 1848 – representative, impassioned
and determined.79 e high political prole of the Chinese question during the elec-
tion campaign, the marginal victory of the Progressive Party and the sanctioning
of Chinese labour for the Transvaal mines in May 1904 meant that the small free
Chinese community became a central issue in the Cape Colony in the immediate
post-election period. e SAP accused the Progressives of ‘insincerity’ for using the
Chinese question for electioneering purposes and challenged them to carry out the
election pledge embodied in their manifesto. ey pointed out that during the cam-
paign the Progressives had stressed the fact that they had already drawn up a dra
Bill to exclude Chinese from the Cape, and they now needed to implement it.80 is
Cape Chinese legislation became the focus of much heated debate until it was nally
accepted in September 1904.81
Conniving: e Chinese Exclusion Act
us the widespread political outcry against the Transvaal Chinese indentured mine
labour experiment ricocheted throughout Britain down to its colony in the Cape. e
small and virtually invisible free Chinese community living in the more urbanised
areas of the Colony had been propelled into the foreground of Cape ‘liberal’ politics.
It was ultimately agreed among the members on both sides of the House that the
Chinese needed to be ‘dealt with’ in order to prevent the entry of Chinese desert-
ers from the Transvaal mines and to exclude an inux of newcomers from China.82
roughout the readings of the dra Chinese Exclusion Bill there was a general con-
sensus among all members of the House of Assembly with the proposers claiming
that it ‘had been draed in as drastic a manner as one could imagine possible’.83 e
Bill had followed the example of the United States of America and Australia by ‘dealing
76 Transvaal Leader, 30 December 1903; South African News, 21 December 1903. For a discussion of orientalism and documenting
the Chinese see Harris, ‘History of the Chinese in South Africa to 1912’, chapter 1; and C. Mackerras, Western Images of China
(Nathan: School of Modern Asian Studies, Grith University, 1987), 44–5.
77 South African News, 16 January 1904.
78 P. Lewsen, John X. Merriman: Paradoxical South African Statesman (Cape Town: Ad Donker, 1982), 263.
79 South African News, 21 December 1903.
80 Cape of Good Hope. Debates in the House of Assembly, March–May 1904, 15–22, 427–34; South African News, 8, 11 and 12
81 Statutes of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, 1902–1906, Chinese Exclusion Act 37 of 1904.
82 Debates in the House of Assembly, 4 March 1904, 7.
83 Ibid, 2 May 1904, 391.
with Chinese immigration by itself’ rather than ‘mixing it up’ with other ‘alien’ im-
migration law, as these countries had found that ‘the Chinese as a race could be more
easily dealt with than any other race that came under the Alien Immigration Laws’.84
Unlike the American, Canadian and Australasian legislation which excluded mainly
Chinese labourers,85 the Cape Bill dealt with ‘all classes’ of Chinese and was therefore
made applicable to the ‘whole of the Chinese race’.86 e only exceptions were those
persons who could be admitted by permit.
us, riding on the advantage of precedent, ‘extreme caution’ was taken in for-
mulating the requirements for a permit. Although the compilers of the Act could
have acted more stringently, they did not want to oend the imperial government,
which could then simply have overruled Cape regulations, as it had in Australia.87
For diplomatic reasons it was agreed that permits should be granted to Chinese who
were British subjects (those born in British colonies) or important government of-
cials. It was decided also to issue permits to the Chinese population already in the
Cape Colony at the time the Act was passed in 1904, but to exclude all newcomers.88
According to the parliamentarians, the number of Chinese present in the Colony was
not sizeable: since January 1904, only 400 trading licences had been issued to Chinese
traders, and it was estimated that the total population was less than 1,000.89 Despite
this, the permit system was introduced and so began the paper trail to identify, reg-
ister and monitor the free Chinese resident in the Cape Colony – a trail that would
continue unabated for close on three decades.
e Chinese Exclusion Act made it illegal for any Chinese person to enter or
reside in the Cape Colony unless he (women were not included as independent
persons)90 had a valid certicate of exemption.91 Within one month of the publication
of the Act in the Government Gazette, every Chinese (male) over the age of 18 years
who was resident or present in the Colony at that time had to apply for the certicate.
In practice this meant that each Chinese adult male had to be registered with the
magistrate of the district where he resided, and his certicate had to be renewed once
a year. If he moved to another district, he had to notify the magistrates of both dis-
tricts, and re-register in the new one.92 Contravention of the Act could lead to a ne,
imprisonment or deportation to China or other country of origin. Moreover, any
Chinese who was twice convicted of ‘assault, gambling or keeping a brothel’ would be
deported at the end of his sentence. e Act also disenfranchised those Chinese who
were not British subjects. 93
To encumber the Chinese further, the 1904 legislation declared that all Chinese
who were not British subjects and who le the country would not be permitted to
85 McKeown, Melancholy Order, 122, 127.
86 Debates in the House of Assembly, 2 May 1904, 392.
89 Ibid, 395.
90 A similar point is made about women in a global and historical context of state registers being ‘relatively uninterested in female
identities’, see Brekenridge and Szreter (eds), Registration and Recognition, 16.
91 Chinese Exclusion Act 37 of 1904, section 3.
92 Ibid, sections 6, 12 and 15.
93 Ibid, sections 18, 19, 34 and 35.
144 Kronos 40
re-enter, and their certicates of exemption would lapse from their date of depar-
ture.94 In view of the tendency of most overseas Chinese to return to China to full
lial duties, visit their ancestral villages, acquire wives, conceive children and take
sons to be educated according to Chinese tradition, this proved to be an extremely
stringent and discriminatory regulation.95 e authorities eventually conceded this,
and in 1906 the Chinese Exclusion Act was amended to allow certicate holders to
visit China and return to the Cape Colony within a prescribed period. However, if
they did not adhere to the time period granted, they were then denied re-entry and
Unlike the Indian authorities, the Chinese government still took relatively little
interest in its overseas compatriots and the Chinese could not make claims as British
subjects like the Indians.97 A Chinese consul-general for the British colonies in South
Africa was appointed only in late 1905 and his prime concern was the indentured
Chinese miners.98 Given this invidious position and blatantly discriminatory regula-
tions together with their geographical dispersal in the Cape Colony (see Table 1),
the community appeared reticent to take overt action lest it should lead to further
Table 1: Demographic gures of the Chinese in the Cape Colony, 1908
Source: Western Cape Archives and Record Services, Cape of Good Hope. Colonial Secretary ’s
Ministerial Division, Report of the Chief Immigration Ocer for the Year Ending 31 Decem-
ber 1908, 6.
Besides a few traces of low-key reaction from the Chinese in some regions of the
Cape Colony against specic requirements and conditions of the Chinese Exclusion
Act,99 the most signicant consequence was that many of the regional Chinese as-
sociations that emerged in the Cape Colony aer 1900 appear to have been founded
as a direct result of the Act.100 By 1906, the small localised associations founded in
Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Kimberley and East London had aliated to form the
Cape Colony Chinese Association. Although there appear to be almost no available
records about the early history of these associations, Melanie Yap and Diane Man
94 Ibid, section 33.
95 Western Cape Archives and Record Services (WCA), e Regional Representative, Department of Home Aairs, Asian Series
(IRC), 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
96 WCA, Government House (GH) 23/95, 228, part 1, General Despatches. Bill to amend the Chinese Exclusion Act 1904; Statutes
of the Cape of Good Hope, 1902–1906, Act 15 of 1906, Chinese Exclusion Amendment Act.
97 For a comparative discussion of the Chinese and Indians in the Transvaal see Harris, ‘Gandhi, the Chinese and Passive Resistance’,
98 WCA, GH 23/89, 298, General Despatches. Appointment of Mr Liu Yu Ling to act as Chinese Consul-General for the British
Colonies in South Africa, 19 October 1905.
99 WCA, GH 35/63, 5, Native Labour Question and Chinese Exclusion Act, 1903–1906; WCA, GH 23/84, 2, General Despatches.
100 Yap and Man, Colour, Confusion and Concessions, 65, 452, 42 n 74.
Port Elizabeth Kimberley Cape Town District East London Other
351 204 192 59 109
discovered a photograph taken in 1906 of the association’s representatives which
bears an inscription declaring the organisation’s commitment to ‘ght for the rights
of the Chinese’. is was corroborated by oral evidence in their research.101
In the hearings of the 1908 Select Committee on Asiatic Grievances appointed to
investigate the Chinese, Indian and European complaints about the General Dealers’
Act, the president of the Cape Colony Chinese Association, Hing Woo, drew atten-
tion to the various hardships the Chinese suered as a result of the Chinese Exclusion
Act. He also complained that it ‘singled the Chinese out among all other aliens’. e
committee merely ignored these objections.102 With the arrival of Consul-General
Liu Yu Ling, in late 1905, and his successor Liu Ngai in 1908, some of the Chinese
community’s ‘hardships and disabilities’ caused by the Act were channelled to the
authorities concerned, with limited success.103 ese points of relief included a per-
mit to visit China, the renewal of licences of Chinese traders who were temporarily
absent from the Colony, and intervention on behalf of Chinese wives and children, as
well as some deportees.104
Towards the end of the decade, Liu also petitioned the Cape government about
the extremism of the Exclusion legislation, particularly in view of the decreasing
numbers of Chinese labourers on the Transvaal mines and of free Chinese in the
Cape Colony. He requested that the legislation be amended to allow the admission
of ‘educated Chinese subjects’.105 e government replied that it was unable to hold
out any hope of an alteration to the law and declared that, in view of the forthcoming
unication of the country, it was not in a position to make changes to the position
of the Chinese.106 Moreover, in the parliamentary debates of 1904 on the Chinese
Exclusion Act it had been predicted that ‘when federated each state would continue
to legislate for its own internal aairs, and the same laws which would apply to Cape
Colony need not … apply to the Transvaal. is colony would, when federated, have
still a perfect right to keep out Chinese.’107
is was indeed to be the case. e rst immigration legislation in the South
African Union, passed in 1913, incorporated all the salient features of the provincial
measures with the promotion of white immigration and the exclusion of Asians as the
main intentions.108 In fact, the Chinese Exclusion Act remained on the statute books
for more than two decades aer the Chinese indentured system had been termi-
nated and all the labourers repatriated, and was removed only in 1933.109 In addition,
statistics clearly indicate the ‘restrictive eciency of the law’: of the 1,393 Chinese
101 Ibid, 68.
102 SC 16-1908. Cape of Good Hope. Votes and Proceedings of Parliament, Appendix, vol II, ‘Report of the Select Committee on
Asiatic Grievances’, September 1908.
103 NASA, BEP 575, G18/54, Raadpleging en Koördinasie met Ander Instansies: Sjinese Organisasies: Vertroulik, 7 Desember 1963.
104 WCA, Prime Minister’s Oce (PMO) 222, 1231/06, Chinese Traders – Renewal of General Dealers Licences, 15 August 1907;
WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c include letters written by the Chinese consul-general.
105 WCA, PMO 238, 342/08, part 2, Discrimination against Chinese in South Africa, 1 July and 20 July 1908, 13 June 1909.
106 Ibid; WCA, GH 23/117, 186, General Despatches, Correspondence re Disabilities under Which Chinese Subjects Labour in Cape
107 Debates in the House of Assembly, 20 April 1904, 320.
108 Statutes of the Union of South Africa, Immigrants Regulation Act 22 of 1913.
109 Statutes of the Union of South Africa, Immigration Amendment Act 19 of 1933.
146 Kronos 40
registrations in 1904, 915 remained in 1908,110 and in 1917 their numbers dropped
to 711.111 While the experiences of other colonies obviously played an important role
in the framing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, in many ways it proved more restrictive.
Together with other discriminatory legislation introduced aer Union, it had a far
longer and more detrimental eect on the South African Chinese community, put-
ting an end to their immigration for close on three-quarters of a century.112
Chasing Chinese: Implementing the Act
us the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in September 1904 in the Cape Colony
marked the rst time in the history of this country ‘that race had been used to ex-
clude an entire group of people’.113 Moreover, besides the extremely discriminatory
and vindictive nature of the legislation, which had been promulgated not as a re-
sult of any wrongdoing by the Chinese who were now being targeted but to meet
capitalist requirements in another colony, the registration process was additionally
undignied. Coming almost ve decades aer the rst such Act was introduced in
New Zealand (1855) and two decades aer the last in Canada (1885), it tapped into
what could be seen as a trans-oceanic colonial mind, given the mobility of the min-
ers and the inter-connectivity of the Anglo-Saxon colonial Empire.114 e paperwork
implemented at the Cape was an inconvenient intrusion into the lives of the entire
Chinese population and was compounded by the numerous inhumane and degrad-
ing elements entailed. is was the start not only of a paper trail but a paper chase as
the Cape colonial bureaucracy attempted to trace as well as monitor the local and the
international movement of every Chinese inhabitant, with the blatant aim of exclud-
ing them from the country.
Aer the date of enactment, the Act disallowed any Chinese ‘to enter into or re-
side within the Cape colony’ unless he had a valid certicate of exemption.115 As we
have seen, ‘every Chinaman resident or present’ in the Colony had to ‘report himself
to and have himself registered’ by an ocer in the various magisterial districts within
one month of the Act coming into force otherwise he would ‘become liable to the
penalties of the Act’, which meant a ne or imprisonment or both.116 e urgency and
stringency of the matter was indicative of the extremeness of the Act and the political
and social climate it reected.
On applying for the certicate of exemption, a document labelled ‘Chinese
Exclusion Form No. 1’ had to be completed by a colonial ocer, which required per-
sonal details such as full name, date of birth, place and country of birth, occupation,
residential and business address, marital status and dependants as well as details of
110 WCA, Cape of Good Hope. Colonial Secretary’s Ministerial Division, Report of the Chief Immigration Ocer for the year
ending 31 December 1908, 6.
111 Union of South Africa Year Book, 1910–17, 192.
112 Statutes of the Republic of South Africa, Matters Concerning Admission to and Residence in the Republic Amendment Act 53
113 E. Foner, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (New York: Knopf, 2005), 657.
114 McKeown, ‘Introduction’, Melancholy Order.
115 Chinese Exclusion Act 37 of 1904, section 3.
116 Ibid, sections 7, 8, 18.
‘personal history as regards previous places of residence with dates’.117 In addition, the
form also required ‘Names and addresses of persons of repute given as references, with
the facts concerning the applicant which each can attest’.118 ese were usually letters
from business associates who had known the applicant – and they were for the most
part usually white colonists.119 If all of these details were supplied to the satisfaction of
the resident magistrate or a designated colonial ocial, the applicant would be granted
an exemption certicate, as well as a registration number.
e second round of magisterial paper documentation included an ‘Identication
Sheet’ (‘Chinese Exclusion Form No. 2’), which went beyond the personal details and
adavits of the exemption certicate to include elements of both Bertillon’s anthropo-
metric measurements and Galton’s ngerprinting.120 is was in essence a double iden-
tity check and reected on the transitional period of identity techniques. e physical
identication was of an invasive nature as the magisterial ocial would record not only
height in inches but also identication marks, which ranged from scars to moles and
other ‘unique’ identifying features. at this process required the individual to strip
naked is evident from descriptions such as: ‘small scar in le groin’, ‘several warts on
abdomen’, ‘mole in centre of back between shoulder blades’, and ‘back covered with
small scars and pimples’.121 As Dhupelia-Mesthrie notes, these descriptions could be
‘rude, judgemental and cruel’.122 e other undignied prerequisite was the inclu-
sion of a set of ten individual digit ngerprints of both hands as well as ‘of the four
ngers taken simultaneously’.123 e last degrading feature of this identication docu-
ment was the need for a signature from the applicant in both Chinese characters and
European – but with the rider in parenthesis on the form: ‘if able to write’.124 is fur-
ther underlined the orientalist approach and humiliating nature of the Exclusion Act’s
e third phase for an ‘approved and registered applicant’ would then be a
‘Chinese Exclusion Form No. 4’, which was the ‘Minister’s Certicate of Exemption’. It
was a rudimentary A4-type sheet of paper folded in half to form four pages. e front
page was the title page and had the holder’s number written on it by hand. e second
page on the inside le certied that, according to sections 6 and 10 of the Act, the
holder – whose name, address, age and occupation were specied – had permission
to be exempted from exclusion. It also stated that the certicate became ‘null and void
if not renewed by the Resident Magistrate on or before the 12th of January of each
year, or if the holder thereof leave the country.’125 It also reiterated section 9 of the Act
that any ‘male Chinaman’ who turned 18 years old had to procure the certicate, or
117 WCA, IRC, 1/2/45, 902c, Leong Lo, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 1.
118 Ibid, Leong Lo, Section 13.
119 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
120 A. Joseph, ‘Anthropometry, the Police Expert, and the Deptford Murders: e Contested Introduction of Fingerprinting for
the Identication of Criminals in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain’ in Caplan and Torpey (eds), Documenting Individual
121 WCA, IRC 1/2/64, 1202c, Huntley Ah Yee, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 2; WCA, IRC 1/2/50, 966c, Lo Chong, Chinese Exclusion
Form No. 2; WCA, IRC 1/2/45, 902c, Leong Lo, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 2.
122 Dhupelia-Mesthrie, ‘e Form, the Permit and the Photograph’, 657.
123 WCA, IRC 1/2/902c, Leong Lo, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 2.
124 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
148 Kronos 40
be liable to be ‘deported from the Colony’ in addition to other penalties.126 is page
of the document was dated and signed by the resident magistrate. e third page was
reserved for ‘Particulars of [the] Holder.’ Here the register number of the minister’s
certicate was displayed as well as the district in which the holder was registered.
is page again included the holder’s height in inches plus a list of a maximum of six
‘Identication marks’. As with the other documentation, there was a space for signa-
tures in Chinese and European characters, once more with the added impertinent
rider ‘if able to write’. Finally on this page there was a place for the thumbprint of both
hands, and for the resident magistrate as witness.127
e fourth page – and any other open space in the document – was used for
stamping and was signed annually in order for the holder to remain exempted. In
addition, should the holder relocate to another district within the Cape Colony, on
both departing the one district and arriving in the next it was incumbent upon him
to inform the respective magistrates and re-register. e same applied if he lost the
document.128 According to the legislation, this proverbial paper trail could be moni-
tored by a very wide range of ocials including ‘the Justice of the Peace, police of-
cer, constable, or person appointed for the purpose by the Minister in charge, or the
Mayor of the Town or Chairman of a Municipality, or Village Management Board’.129
e four-page certicate had to be presented periodically or on demand to the
magistrate in question. is was the start of the paper chase to monitor the holder’s
whereabouts closely. As indicated, he was then obliged to register annually. If he
failed to produce the certicate he would be brought before the resident magistrate
of his district. If unable to present an acceptable reason for not having the certicate
the ‘Chinaman [was to be] arrested and tried’ and was liable to punishment as set
out in the Act: a ne and/or imprisonment or possible deportation.130 e legislation
also monitored the movement of a holder on any temporary visits to another district.
Again, he had to produce the certicate at any time and only once the relevant ocial
was satised of his identity could he stay in the area for the ‘time required by him for
the purposes of his visit’.131
Besides the magisterial records of the Chinese in each district of the Cape Colony,
the relevant minister was tasked to compile a register of ‘every Chinese’ living or pres-
ent in the Colony when the Act was passed.132 is register was to be updated annu-
ally with the date of re-registration of each Chinese male. Moreover, aer 1906 with
the amendment of the Act which allowed the Chinese to ‘visit China or other eastern
country from which he may originally have come and re-enter the Colony’, there was
more monitoring through paperwork for permission both to depart and return. is
paper chase persisted even aer the repeal of the Exclusion Act in 1933,133 which was
126 Chinese Exclusion Act 37 of 1904, section 9.
127 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
128 Chinese Exclusion Act 37 of 1904, sections 12, 15 and 16.
129 Ibid, section 11.
131 Ibid, section 16.
132 Ibid, section 6.
133 Immigration Amendment Act 19 of 1933.
merely an insignicant procedure given that under the 1913 immigration legislation
of the Union of South Africa the exclusion of Asians had been entrenched, eectively
categorising the Chinese as ‘prohibited immigrants’.134
It is interesting to note that, unlike their compatriots in other parts of the world,135
the Cape Chinese made hardly any tangible opposition to the indignities of the an-
thropometric process. It appears from the available records that only one ‘public’
reaction emerged. In 1904 members of the Chinese community in East London pet-
itioned the British and Chinese authorities in London, objecting to the requirement
that they be stripped of their clothing in order to discover ‘marks of identication’,
a routine they regarded as ‘oensive’.136 Aer certain administrative enquiries it was
agreed that this regulation be discontinued and, some four years later, this humiliat-
ing requirement to strip for identication marks was terminated.137 As for nger-
printing, this procedure was seen as an extreme insult in China. For some it was
even against their religious beliefs, and t only for criminals. Yet the Cape Chinese
acceded to the request with oen both wives and children of the holder of a certi-
cate of exemption providing ngerprints for the document. ere is even evidence
that children as young as two years were expected to supply ngerprints.138 is ac-
ceptance was in sharp contrast to the reaction of the free Chinese in the Transvaal to
similar restrictions later in the same decade.139
It could be argued that this apparent overwhelming compliance by the Chinese
community in the Cape was probably out of desperation. Positioned on the fringes of
society as they were140 and in order to secure their livelihoods and right to remain in
the Colony, they decided to submit to the requirements. So, this can be seen as a case
of what Breckenridge and Szreter have termed the process of desiring ‘inclusion’141
and the Cape registration scheme having ‘worked’ in that it provided those ‘people
being targeted’ with ‘obvious benets’.142 Not only did the exemption certicate in-
demnify the holder from exclusion, but according to the Act it also was a prerequisite
for the granting of licences to trade, as well as contracts for employment or any form
of labour.143 While this was yet another mechanism of the paper system to control
and ensure that all the Chinese within the Cape Colony were indeed registered, it
also implied certain advantages. is aligns with what Szreter refers to in a dierent
context as the means that would obtain benet, direct or indirect.144
134 Statutes of the Union of South Africa, Immigration Regulation Act 22 of 1913.
135 See for example Lake and Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line, 15–48.
136 WCA, GH 35/63, 5, Native labour question and Chinese Exclusion Act, 1903– 1906; WCA, GH 23/84, 2, General despatches. Protest
by Chinese residents of East London against certain regulations contained in Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904.
137 WCA, GH 35/63, 5, Native Labour Question and Chinese Exclusion Act, 1903–1906; WCA, GH 23/84, 2, General Despatches.
Protest by Chinese Residents of East London Against Certain Regulations Contained in Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904.
138 WCA, IRC 1/2/46, 912c, in Watt Ching Foot: Chinese Exclusion.
139 For a discussion of the Chinese reaction to the Asiatic legislation in the Transvaal see Harris, ‘Gandhi, the Chinese and Passive
140 K. L. Harris, ‘e Chinese in South Africa: An Interstitial Community’ in L. Wang and G. Wang (eds), e Chinese Diaspora:
Selected Essays (Singapore: Times Academic, 1998).
141 Breckenridge and Szreter (eds), Registration and Recognition, 17.
142 Ibid, 16.
143 Chinese Exclusion Act 37 of 1904, section 17.
144 S. Szreter, ‘e Right of Registration: Development, Identity, Registration, and Social Security: A Historical Perspective’, Wor ld
Development, 35, 1, 67–86 as quoted in Breckenridge and Szreter (eds), Registration and Recognition, 16.
150 Kronos 40
Contribution: Paper Outcomes
is last section briey considers the content of the paper trail generated by the
Chinese Exclusion Act and what this divulges about this small marginalised com-
munity. Although limited in size by the small number of the Chinese at the Cape at
the time, this paper archive provides what could be seen as relatively comprehensive
evidence about all Chinese at the Cape for a period extending even beyond the Act’s
three decades of legitimacy. Unlike the similar research by Dhupelia-Mesthrie, where
she indicates glimpses into the lives of only the Indian migrants who ‘made ... move-
ment outside of the Cape’, the Cape Exclusion Act was all-embracing, determined to
include all Chinese at the Cape wherever they went. Ironically, therefore, it becomes
an archive of ‘inclusion’ even though it was spawned by one set up for ‘exclusion’.
By their very nature, ocial documents had their limitations, such as the bias or
indierence of colonial bureaucrats, orientalism, the language barrier, the cultural
disparity, regional inconsistencies, and a power relation of duress. Yet these Exclusion
records still provide insights into lives that would otherwise have remained unre-
corded. e Chinese Exclusion Act procedure eventually processed 1,415 individual
men, with wives and dependants included in some of the their les. From this, a
range of biographical details can be gleaned.
As with the rst sprinkling of Chinese who arrived at the Cape in the second half
of the seventeenth century,145 the Chinese who were documented just aer the turn
of the twentieth century were predominantly individual men who came from the
southern provinces of China including Kuangtung, Fukhien and Hanan Island. ey
landed at Port Elizabeth, the harbour closest to China, as well as Cape Town and still
fewer at Durban.146 Some were recorded as having come from further aeld having
rst travelled to places such as Canada and England,147 while a good number came
aer a brief stopover in Mauritius.148
Although it is generally assumed that the Chinese came to southern Africa be-
cause of the two mineral discoveries of diamonds and gold, many settled in the devel-
oping coastal towns of the Cape Colony, focusing their small businesses on the local
populations. Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, East London and Kimberley were the main
places of residence at the Cape, while a few were found in Uitenhage and Cradock.149
at these individual Chinese were fairly mobile is evident from the paper trail in
numerous les. A case in point is Lo Chang, who was born in Canton in 1865 and
travelled to the Cape Colony in 1890 settling in Kimberley, where he was employed as
a bookkeeper for a rm Ah Fin Bros. He moved to Johannesburg three years later and
in 1897 went back to China for a year returning to Kimberly in 1898. He remained
145 See K. L. Harris, ‘e Chinese in the Early Cape Colony: A Signicant Cultural Minority’, South African Journal of Cultural
History, 23, 2, November 2009, 1–19.
146 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
147 WCA, IRC 1/2/50, 953c, Law Yew Woon, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 1.
148 H. L. Pineo, Chinese Diaspora in Western Indian Ocean (Mauritius, Mauritian Stationery Manufacturers, 1985), 257; CAD, IRC
1/2/50, 953c, Piangsen, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 2.
149 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
there until the implementation of the Exclusion Act in 1904, when he registered and
qualied for a certicate of exemption (see Figure 1).
In 1907 his le indicates his intention to again go to Johannesburg, where he was
apparently going to take care of a business belonging to his brother, J. L. Wangsee.
Aer he received a permit to proceed to the Transvaal his paper trail comes to an
abrupt end. His certicate has a nal signed entry: ‘Le Kimberley for the Transvaal
10/3/07’.150 An explanation for this is provided in other documents in his le by the
Cape chief immigration ocer, who writes that, according to the Chinese Exclusion
Amendment Act of 1906,151 he is ‘precluded from granting [Lo Chong] a Permit to
reenter from any country but an Eastern country.152 On one level this episode reects
the extent to which the colonial authorities would go to keep the Chinese out, and on
another it unwittingly exposes the illogicality of this race-based legislation suggestive
of the type of incongruity that would ensue as the century of segregation and apart-
e most common occupation of the Cape Chinese was general dealer. On ar-
rival in the country, many Chinese indicated that they worked as assistants or clerks
in general dealer stores before beginning their own businesses.153 is pattern sug-
gests a chain migration typical of overseas Chinese communities around the world.
New arrivals, presumably relatives or kinspeople from the same village, would be
given assistance by established compatriots before moving on to establish their own
livelihood. Other popular occupations included small service businesses, such as
150 WCA, IRC 1/2/50, 966c, Lo Chong, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 4.
151 Chinese Exclusion Amendment Act 15 of 1906.
152 WCA, IRC 1/2/50, 966c, Lo Chong, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 4.
153 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c– 1415c, Chinese Exclusion Act, 1904: Application for Certicate of Exemption, point 6, ‘Occupation’.
Figure 1: Certicate of Exemption for Lo Chong. Western Cape Archives and Record Services,
Asian Series 1/2, 50, ref 966c, Lo Chong, Chinese Exclusion Form No. 4
152 Kronos 40
laundries and market gardens, while there were individuals who were cooks, carpen-
ters, basket weavers, sh sellers and wagon drivers.154
e number of Chinese women at the Cape during this early stage of immigra-
tion appears to have been negligible. e Cape census of 1891 recorded no Chinese
women,155 while an analysis of the rst data collected for the 1904 Exclusion Act
corroborates the general belief that the majority of overseas Chinese men were bach-
elors156 – the axiomatic ‘oriental sojourner’. is is however not entirely accurate. In
the rst place, the female gender component of the overseas Chinese at the Cape is
obscured by the chauvinist nature of the Exclusion Act, which was, as indicated, only
concerned with Chinese males over the age of 18.157 Secondly, although the Chinese
applicants were required to record their marital status for the exclusion permit,158
there were numerous misunderstandings regarding wives. On later applying for per-
mission for their wives and children in China to join them in the Cape Colony, it be-
came apparent that many Chinese thought the question on the Exclusion Act docu-
ments referred only to wives presently at the Cape.159 Some Chinese did indeed have
spouses in China, but there were others who returned to China – with a permit – to
get married or conceive children and then later requested their introduction to the
Cape. us, although the wives of the registered Chinese were subsumed into the
paperwork pertaining to their husbands, both in terms of the physical le and regis-
tration numbers, many were still captured and provided a gendered presence.
Only a small percentage of Chinese women came to South Africa as the majority
remained in ancestral villages in China where they reared children, cared for aged par-
ents and were occupied as dressmakers, silk spinners and farm workers.160 ose who
did come to the Cape arrived with their husbands or accompanied their children who
had been conceived during one of the numerous visits of the fathers to China, or in
some cases conceived in Mauritius en route to or from the Cape Colony. Most of them
were involved in domestic chores and assisted their husbands in their businesses. Of
particular interest in this regard are the local women, of both indigenous and European
descent, who married Chinese men, bore them children and oen even visited China.161
e gures are by no means accurate, but an analysis of the Chinese exemption records
reveals that at least 61 ‘Coloured’ women, 36 European women, 2 Malay women and
one African woman married Chinese men at the Cape.162 Besides those local marriages
which were not recorded, there were, of course, also many examples of cohabitation.
As in any paper system there were also numerous cases of subversion and fraud.163
Besides the introduction of ospring using fraudulent means such as the paper sons
155 Department of Home Aairs, Statisticana, Cape of Good Hope Census of 1865, ii–iii.
156 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c. e Chinese Exclusion Act, 1904: Application for Certicate of Exemption, point 10, ‘Married or
157 Chinese Exclusion Act 37 of 1904.
158 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c –1415c. Chinese Exclusion Act 1904: Application for Certicate of Exemption, point 10, ‘Married or single?’
159 For example see WCA, IRC 1/2, 43, 830c, Ah Pooi; WCA, IRC 1/2, 45, 899c, Hue Naam.
160 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
161 For a detailed discussion of such cases see Harris, ‘Exclusion Reveals Inclusion’.
162 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
163 See Breckenridge, ‘Gandhi’s Progressive Disillusionment’; Dhupelia-Mesthrie, ‘Cat and Mouse Games’; Cole, Suspect Identities;
and MacDonald, ‘Colonial Trespasses in the Making of South Africa’s Borders’ and ‘Identity ieves of the Indian Ocean’.
mentioned above, there were also cases of individuals actually working the system to
bring in Chinese illegally. Take for instance the disclosed case of Harry James Yankee,
who used the exemption and birth certicates of a deceased Chinese man Huntley
Ah Yee and his children, who had returned to China, to introduce other Chinese,
as well as his own concubine, to the Cape Colony.164 Other cases were exposed too,
while more must have remained undetected. Aligned to these fraudulent eorts to
gain entry to the Cape Colony is the apparently persistent desire among the Chinese
to want to remain in the Cape. e fact that so many of the exempted Chinese con-
tinued to return aer visits to China suggests that, although unfair and inconvenient,
the Act was not a sucient hindrance to deter many of those who had – and had not
– been granted admission rights.165
Given the various snippets of detail about the Chinese in the Cape Colony, it
could be argued that while the Chinese Exclusion Act had been introduced to keep
the Chinese out, in retrospect it has, in a sense, let the researcher in.
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that the anthropometric measurements and
the ngerprint requirements of the paperwork for the Cape Exclusion Act were in
some ways very similar to those of the Transvaal Labour Importation Ordinance of
1904. ey were also like those required by the Transvaal’s later Asiatic Registration
Act of 1907 (amended later that year).166 ese invasive processes were not unique
to the paper monitoring systems of the Chinese and Indians in southern Africa, but
probably dovetailed with most exclusion and other paper registration set on keeping
people in and out of certain jurisdictions the world over.167 But, in the eyes of the co-
lonial authorities – and one could argue, broader sectors of society – there must have
been recognition of the sinister similarity in the way in which the indentured and free
Chinese labourers in the Transvaal and the free Chinese in the Cape were treated: this
was a culturally identiable racial group that had to be documented and monitored
regardless of their status and position. It was for this very reason that Consul-General
Liu petitioned the Cape government in 1910 to amend the legislation, to remove
the ‘regrettable impression that Chinese subjects of any class are undesirable under
any circumstances’, an impression which he argued had been created by the existing
drastic clauses.168 It was this notion that was to linger beyond the termination of the
Chinese indenture scheme and the repeal of the Chinese exclusion legislation, a no-
tion that was still prevalent in popular consciousness among certain sectors of South
African society at the turn of the twenty-rst century.169 In the nal analysis, the paper
trail of the Chinese Exclusion Act had ramications that went way beyond the purpose
for which this paper chase was initially promulgated.
164 See for example the case of Harry James Yankee, WCA, IRC 1/2/64, 1202c, Huntley Ah Yee.
165 WCA, IRC 1/2/1–76, 1c–1415c.
166 Statutes of the Transvaal, e Asiatic Law Amendment Act 2 of 1907.
167 McKeown, Melancholy Order, 126–33.
168 WCA, PMO 238, 342/08, part 2, Discrimination Against Chinese in South Africa, 1, 20 July 1908, 13 June 1909.
169 For a brief discussion of this see K. L. Harris, ‘e Chinese in South Africa: Five Centuries, Five Trajectories’ in C. B. Tan (ed.),
e Chinese in Diaspora (London: Routledge, 2012). I experienced this prejudice myself when addressing a range of public
forums on the history of the Chinese in South Africa.