Forgotten Faces is a series of unique 19th Century photos of Chinese prisoners discovered in Public Record Office Victoria’s archival collection of prison records. These photographs are portraits of just a handful of thousands of Chinese people who travelled to the Victorian goldfields, Australia. It was known to many Chinese settlers as Hsin Chin Shan (New Gold Mountain).

Stories Behind the Faces

These photographs of Chinese prisoners are particularly unique because so few photographs exist of early Chinese migrants to Australia.

Despite these photographs few Chinese were involved in criminal activities in Victoria, in fact early Chinese communities were generally described as being sober, peace-loving, kindly, industrious and careful with their money and possessions.

A number of them introduced what was seen at the time as bad habits such as opium smoking and gambling, and many practiced idol and ancestor worship, but a very small proportion of the Chinese immigrants committed crimes. 

What do these photographs offer historical research? 

Archived prison registers offer a fascinating glimpse beyond the prisoner's crime and into their daily lives. These and other records held by Public Record Office Victoria give us an insight into the personal, economic and social circumstances of early Chinese immigrants to Australia.

Ah Oun James Prisoner Number 7911 (24597)

The Chinese left behind harsh conditions at home and usually the Chinese lodges helped to fund their sea voyage to Australia. Many died on the way and unfortunately the lives and struggles of those who survived in the new land of Australia have also been largely forgotten. The majority of the Chinese gold diggers wanted to return to their families, and so by 1901 fewer than 8,000 Chinese remained in Victoria.

Ah Oun James Prisoner Number 7911 (24597)

James Ah Oun Prisoner Number 7911 (24597)

James Ah Oun had several aliases and was in and out of prison in Geelong, Melbourne and Ballarat during the 1880s and 90s for offences including larceny, vagrancy, being idle and disorderly and shop breaking. His sentences varied from 1 month to 12 months, increasing in gravity as he grew older. In the 1890s James Ah Oun served five prison sentences. He was 82 when the last entry was written across the page in red ink: '23.9.98 Died in Gaol'.

Ah Oun James Prisoner Number 7911 (24597) Prison Register Page

How did the Chinese communities help new arrivals to Victoria?

Arriving in a new land with different customs, language,  attitudes to work and dress is difficult for all immigrants. To help them adjust to living in a new land, most Chinese miners joined a society of people from their home districts in China. These societies set rigid rules for them to live by and also helped sick miners. The best known of these was the See Yup Society. Membership of the See Yup Society cost 25 shillings per year (the average weekly wage in 1855) plus one shilling per month. The society provided friendship, protection and advice to the new arrivals. The society helped new members by giving them a list of rules to help them settle in quickly and peacefully. They advised them to wear European clothes to avoid offending Europeans with their bare legs. They were to abide by European mining methods and to remain calm and peaceful. If they broke the rules, society officials flogged them.

It is quite likely that some of the men who were old and found themselves in prison did not belong to one of these societies and were therefore not looked after in their old age by a society. They were forced to steal as they had no family or other assistance. James Ah Oun may have been one such man.

Ah Choey Prisoner Number 23398

A brawl at the opium shop

Ah Choey, Ah Lem and Ah Fook were at Gee Jack’s house in the Chinese camp in Minyip on the night of 6 July 1889. Gee Jack ran the camp’s ‘opium shop’. Jessie Ah Chin was there smoking and drinking with some other women and Chinese men. Ah Fook entered the room where she lay on a bed with Ah Chi. Ah Fook struck Jessie with his hand. ‘What did you strike me for, I’m not your wife!’ she demanded. He struck her again.Ah Lem told him not to hit her saying, ‘If you are strong enough come with me and I’ll fight you’. Ah Fook backed down.Ah Lem and Ah Choey left Gee Jack’s around 11.00 pm but returned later threatening to knock down the door. Witnesses reported a brawl involving the three Chinese men. Next morning Ah Fook was found dead in the street.Ah Choey and Ah Lem were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years hard labour.

Ah Choey Prisoner Number 23398
Ah Choey Prisoner Number 23398 Prison Register Page
Ah Choey Prisoner Number 23398 Prison Register Page 

Fighting over debts

Ah Ang and Ah Chee started arguing in an opium shop on the night of 30 May 1875. They were both miners living at Green Hill Creek near Avoca in central Victoria. The argument began when Ah Chee asked Ah Ang to repay some debts. Ah Ang offered to give him a pound but Ah Chee wanted more money. Ah Chee then asked Ah Ang to smoke some opium with him. After refusing this invitation, Ah Chee demanded Ah Ang settle their account completely. Angry words were exchanged and then they began fighting. The two men continued their fight outside the opium tent. It ended when Ah Chee struck Ah Ang in the back with a knife. Ah Ang collapsed and had to be carried home bleeding. Found guilty in the Maryborough Assize Court in July 1875, Ah Chee received two years imprisonment with hard labour for maliciously wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm

Ah Chee Prisoner Number 13046
Ah Chee Prisoner Number 13046 Prison Register Page

Perjury on the gold fields 

The Governor released Charlie Fun Chung on 26 October 1895 after he had served 8 months of an 18 month sentence for conspiring to commit perjury. On 17 March 1894, Kum Youey claimed to have given Fun Chung £18 for a share in a tailings mine. Fun Chung did not honour this arrangement and kept the money. When Kum Youey took him to court, Fun Chung falsely claimed that no such transaction had ever taken place. Fun Chung returned to his mining business when released. It appears he was accepted back into the Bendigo community. He involved himself in the Bendigo Easter Procession and helped organise several Chinese football matches for charity. Fun Chung’s prison record reveals he had a wife and lived in Golden Square in Bendigo. He married Ellen Duffy in 1886 and they had three children. Fun Chung built a miner’s cottage next to his mine, some time in the 1870s His grand-daughters continued to live in the cottage until recently. Notices written in Chinese described the way witnesses should take an oath by cutting off a rooster’s head. It was said that the ritual of swearing on the cock’s head would ensure the truth was told. These notices were posted up at a previous trial involving Charlie Fun Chung. They were later translated for the court and presented as evidence.

Charlie Fun Chung Prisoner Number 26909
Charlie Fun Chung Prisoner Number 26909 Prison Register Page
This 1888 photograph of Ah Yot (prisoner number 21726) shows him with his hands folded across his chest and a board bearing his name. Sometimes prisoners were photographed with their arms crossed on their chest and their hands and fingers clearly displayed. This was to help in the identification process. A prisoner could have a tattoo, a scar, a missing finger, a wart, or some other distinguishing mark on their hands. 

How did photography help the prison system?

The prison system in the 1860s in Victoria was quick to realize that the newly invented technology of photography could be used both as a record of the prisoner and for identification purposes.

Soon all prisoners were photographed at the commencement of their sentence. A photograph of their face and profile was attached to their prison record. If a prisoner reoffended and their appearance had changed over the years then a new photograph would be taken and attached to the record. Therefore, if a person had a long criminal record, the photographs provide a record of the changes in a person’s appearance over time.

Sentenced to death

Duncan Brown was awoken by a noise outside his Wahgunyah farmhouse in northern Victoria around 1.00 am on 2 June 1869. ‘I went to the door and was in the act of opening it, when some person sprung at me with a yell – and struck at me with a knife’, Duncan Brown said in his witness statement. It was Wee Cow who had lunged at him as they wrestled. Duncan warned his daughters that Wee Cow had a knife. Brown’s daughter Agnes fetched her brother Donald from his nearby house. Donald arrived to find his father covered in blood, holding Wee Cow down. He tied Wee Cow up with a clothes line. The previous day Wee Cow had begged Agnes and her sister, Margaret who were home alone, for some food. Wee Cow kept returning for more, and they had to call Donald to chase him away. In April 1870, Wee Cow was found guilty for wounding with intent to murder and sentenced to death. A review commuted the sentence to twenty years imprisonment on account of temporary insanity.

Wee Cow Prisoner Number 8761 was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment instead of the death penalty on account of temporary insanity
Wee Cow Prisoner Number 8761 Prison Register Page

Attack by tomahawk

Ah Toy and Cheongah Cheeut lived and worked in a furniture factory in Little Bourke Street, Melbourne. On the night of 31 March 1885 the two men were seen talking in the passage outside their rooms. At around 8.40 pm, others living in the building heard someone call out ‘Murder!’ in Chinese. Wing Rane saw Cheongah Cheeut fleeing from Ah Toy, who was chasing and striking him with a tomahawk. Cheongah Cheeut was found lying on the ground moaning. He was rushed to hospital but died 45 minutes later from horrific tomahawk wounds to his head, arms, back and face. His skull had been shattered and his right thumb had been severed. 

Ah Toy was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity and was held ‘at the Governor’s pleasure’ between 1885 and 1921. He was granted ‘freedom’ in 1921 by special authority ‘for the purpose of being admitted to the Victorian Home for the Aged and Infirmed’.

Ah Toy Prisoner Number 10828
Ah Toy Prisoner Number 10828 Prison Register Page
Wing Shin Yook Prisoner Number 29167

Insurance claim scandal

Early on Good Friday morning in the year 1900 Constable Clarke noticed smoke coming from a Chinese shop in Little Bourke Street. He sounded the fire alarm on Exhibition Street and a fire cart soon arrived. Firemen located the fire in a storeroom among bundles of newspapers, jars, Cameo cigarette boxes, canisters and tin boxes. Initially, police believed the owner of the grocery store, Wing Shing Yook had lit the fire himself but further enquiries confirmed he was in Ballarat at the time. Despite this alibi, Wing Shing Yook was investigated by the police and his insurance agency. In his insurance claim, Wing Shing Yook declared a substantial loss on account of a large amount of opium damaged in the fire. Detailed investigations into the damage revealed many of the canisters were empty. The insurance company filed charges against Wing Shing Yook for perjury and he was sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour.

Wing Shin Yook Prisoner Number 29167 Prison Register Page

About the Photographs

Where do the photographs come from?

The prison photographs that have been found are located in two main sources within the Public Record Office Victoria collection.

• Many of these photographs were selected from the nineteenth century prison registers. 

• Other photographs were selected from a series of large albums of photographs of hundreds of male prisoners. 

They form one of the largest collections of individual photographs of early Chinese immigrants in Victoria during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Information from the prison registers and trial briefs have been used to help explain who each prisoner was and why each prisoner was convicted.

A typical page of a Victorian prison register from the late 19th century. 
A sample page from a series of albums of 19th century Victorian prisoners

Apart from the prison registers why were the albums created?

The six albums of photos were collected for some purpose which has now been lost. One explanation that people put forward is that these photographs might have been taken to assist with the study of phrenology that was popular at this time. Some scientists in the nineteenth century believed you could learn a great deal about a person’s character and personality by studying head shapes and the bumps on people’s heads. This study was called phrenology.

Where did many of the Chinese gold diggers come from? The early Chinese migrants to Australia came from thirteen counties around Canton, the capital of Kwangtung (English name for Guangdong) province. 

Click on the map below and the link in the 'details' to view more information on an interactive map!

This map highlights areas around Canton where many of the Chinese migrants came from before they migrated to Australia for the gold rush. Click in the 'Details' section of this item to view interactive map. 

Often Chinese mining camps were separate camps. Usually the Chinese did not join a major rush or establish themselves on a popular mining area but worked slowly and patiently through the mullock heaps of tailings (left over rock and earth from mines) already washed out by the European diggers. The returns were not great, but they appear to have been steady.

From an image in the ‘Australasian Sketcher’, (vol. 8 no. 99, 5 June 1880) depicting life on board a ship to the goldfields. The Chinese shown here are contrasted with the Europeans elsewhere in the picture. Courtesy, State Library Victoria.

What was it like for Chinese gold diggers on the goldfields?

They brought with them a blend of beliefs including ideas from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. As a result, many joss-houses or temples were built by immigrant Chinese on the goldfields and in Melbourne at this time. Like other nationalities, a small number of Chinese began to arrive in Victoria in 1853, but from the middle of 1854 they came in large organised groups and generally did not mix with the European mining population. 

In 1857 nearly eleven thousand Chinese walked from Robe to the Victorian goldfields. Between 1856 and 1858, 16,500 Chinese landed at Robe. By 1857 there were 23,623 Chinese on the goldfields of Victoria, and a total of 25,424 in the colony at large.

In the early days of Chinese settlement in Victoria, Australia, the centre of the Chinese community was on the goldfields, particularly Avoca, Creswick, Castlemaine, Ballarat, Maryborough, Beechworth and Bendigo (previously called Sandhurst). Later many Chinese moved to Melbourne although Chinese communities still exist in some of these towns and cities today. If you visit these places you can often find a Chinese section in the local cemetery.Click on the map above then the link in the 'details' to view an interactive map! 

Conflict on the Goldfields 

The Chinese practice of sending gold back to Canton created dissatisfaction and jealousy among the European diggers. In 1857, 205,464 ounces of gold were shipped to Canton. Although the Chinese kept to themselves their presence caused resentment amongst the European gold diggers. The European objection to the Chinese was racist and economic. Racial hostility led to riots on the Buckland goldfields in Victoria in 1857 where a large mob destroyed stores and homes of 2500 Chinese settlers forcing them off the Buckland gold field.

Ah Cheong Prisoner Number 23451

Four stolen copper plates 

Ah Cheong arrived in Victoria in 1865. Twenty-four years later, at age 50, he was sentenced to nine months imprisonment for vagrancy. He was also tried for the theft of four copper plates containing gold, stolen from the crushing mill at Harrietville. A judge’s notebook includes testimony given at Ah Cheong’s trial by miner Robert Corcoran. Early on 11 September 1889, the day the plates disappeared, Corcoran saw Ah Cheong at the mine. Corcoran thought this odd because he had not seen a Chinese man there for many years. ‘To the best of my belief [the] prisoner is the man.… I saw him before he saw me,’ Corcoran said. ‘When he saw me he put his hand over his face turned around and went away by the road he had come, into the bush.’ Chinese trial witnesses said they had known Ah Cheong for 20 years. Many of these witnesses said they worked as market gardeners. Ah Cheong himself grew tobacco and had worked as a miner. The conviction for this theft added three years to his sentence for vagrancy.

When did the first photographs of Chinese prisoners appear? 

Thousands of individuals are documented in the Victorian prison registers, though not all were photographed. The earliest image of a Victorian prisoner in the Public Record Office Victoria’s holdings is dated 1853. Englishman William Jones the 6th, a shoemaker, was convicted in Castlemaine on 9 June 1853 for ‘robbery with violence’. He was sentenced to 10 years hard labour on the roads. 

There are no other prison photographs from this early volume. The first photographic evidence of Chinese prisoners in the prison registers appears in 1863. Gee Dee was sentenced in 1860 to two years imprisonment for robbing a store. In October 1863, at 40 years of age, he was convicted of murder for the brutal stabbing of William Humffries in his Bright store. It was then that a photograph was placed on his record. Gee Dee’s death sentence was commuted to hard labour for life, with the first three years in irons. He was released after 21 years, aged 61, was paid £5.9.11 and given a ‘suit of clothes’.

Gee Dee the first Chinese man to be photographed, 1860
Gee Dee's prison register

Racial hostility on the gold fields 

Racial hostility led to riots on the Buckland goldfields in Victoria in 1857.

On 4 July 1857, a meeting was summoned at Buckland where the leaders of the meeting called on their fellow gold diggers to take the law into their own hands and drive the Chinese community out of the Australian bush. Men on horseback armed with bludgeons and whips tore at the Chinese camp. Some 500 tents and stores were destroyed. The Chinese population, estimated at 2400, were all driven off the Buckland mine site. If it were not for armed English miners who protected the Chinese from the mob, as they rushed a single log that bridged the river, many might have died.

Ah Chuck Prisoner Number 7017 (24597)

Ah Chuck Prisoner Number 7017 (24597)

Jantz Charles Kohlmann was shot in the back by Ah Thong while walking home through the Chinese market gardens in the early morning hours of 5 October 1889. He had been fishing for eels during the night at his regular spot on the Yarra River near Burnley Street and was returning to his home in Bridge Road, Richmond. 

Kohlmann remembered that Ah Thong held the gun to his head, while Ah Chuck held a knife and beat him with a stick. Other Chinese men turned up with sticks. According to Constable Brown, who attended the crime scene, Ah Thong said Ah Chuck had urged him to shoot Kohlmann. They believed Kohlmann and two others had been stealing cabbages from their garden. They received four months hard labour for wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

The prison register of Ah Chuck
In this petition from Melbourne Chinese residents you can see the name of John Alloo, well-known as an interpreter and as an early restauranteur in Ballarat. It's  petitioning for clemency for Sing-lup who was sentenced to death for murder.

Early attempts to restrict the entry of the Chinese

The foundation of the racist White Australia Policy was laid on the goldfields where the arrival of many Chinese diggers caused alarm and fear among the European mining community.

In June 1855, the Legislative Council of Victoria imposed an entry tax on all Chinese coming to Victoria. The master of a ship was required to pay a poll-tax of £10 for every Chinese immigrant on his ship. In addition each ship was limited to carrying one Chinese immigrant for ten tons of their registered tonnage.

By 1857 there were 23,623 Chinese on the goldfields of Victoria, and a total of 25,424 in the colony at large. During 1859 the number of Chinese in Victoria passed 40,000 and made up nearly 20 per cent of the adult males in the colony.

The legislation also established an apartheid-like protectorate system. All Chinese would have to register, live within designated areas on the goldfields and pay an annual residence tax of £1. The protectorates were never fully implemented.

 (Adapted from Chinese and the Law by Brian Barrow Deputy Chief Magistrate, 2001. Published by The Golden Dragon Museum, Bridge Street, Bendigo.)

Chinese Influx Restriction Bill. A Bill proposing to restrict the 'influx' of Chinese people entering the Colony of Victoria, 1881. One of various attempts to restrict Chinese gold diggers from joining the new Colony of Victoria, Australia. 

The Chinese pleaded for a calm and reasonable response. In a petition to the ‘Honourable Speaker and Members of the Legislative Assembly sitting on Chinese business’ in 1857, they explained how glad they had been to come to the goldfields. They had heard the English were good and kind to everybody. Now they had heard the Assembly was going to put a tax of £1 a month on them, and they did not know what to do. 'Digging was very difficult, and it was hard to earn a living. If they paid £1 a month, they argued, they could not get enough gold to buy food to eat.' They asked the members not to proceed with their proposal.

A sketch of 'Chinese quarter Ballarat' in the Australian Illustrated News, 1868. Click to zoom in a little closer. 


PROV has many petitions from Chinese residents in colonial Victoria. The petitions show Chinese people representing their concerns to the government, but they are also a rich repository of Chinese names, often given in both Chinese and in an English form. In the following petition dated towards the end of 1856 and containing 5168 signatures , Chinese in Victoria protested against the £10 poll tax that sought to restrict Chinese immigration. To read more about this petition and others like it click on the link within the item details  to   an article by Anna Kyi. 

What is a petition? 

Petitions are written documents that usually ask for a change in a law. If you are presenting a petition in Australia to a council or Parliament then it must be done in a particular way. At the top of the page or at the beginning must be clearly stated what the petition is about. People usually print their names, write their home address, and then sign it. The various pages are put together to form the petition. Some petitions might just have a few names. Others will have tens of thousands of names. It is then either posted or given to the appropriate authority.Governments and councils and others take petitions seriously. They can show that people’s attitudes towards something are changing or that a large number of people are dissatisfied with the way their government is acting.

Immigration tax repeal petition from Chinese storekeepers and miners. Page 1 
Immigration tax repeal petition which highlighted the benefits of Chinese gold mining to the colony. Page 2
Immigration tax repeal petition. Page 3.

These next two petitions argue against the use of opium in the colony. They represent the concerns of both European settlers as well as Chinese settlers, providing a useful reminder that the stereotypical image of an all encompassing  opium smoking Chinese community is just that, a stereotype.

Wesleyan Methodist Chinese Mission  Committee anti-opium petition 1884
Chinese community anti-opium  petition 1884
Watch an interview with curator Diane Gardiner. Created by New Tang Dynasty TV 2005 depicting the Public Record Office Victoria travelling exhibition Forgotten Faces: Chinese and the Law (2005) 

This exhibition is based on the original 2005 touring exhibition of the same name, and the subsequent html online exhibition. 

The material on these pages is based on the original PROV touring exhibition Forgotten Faces: Chinese and the Law produced by Public Record Office Victoria  in collaboration with the Golden Dragon Chinese Museum in Bendigo. 

Editor: Dr John Andrews

Sources include: 

Images and additional material courtesy of:

Parliament of Victoria

State Library Victoria

Sovereign Hill, Ballarat

Robert O’Hara Burke Memorial Museum, Beechworth

Dr Kok Hu Jin

'Chinese and the Law' by Brian Barrow Deputy Chief Magistrate, 2001. Published by The Golden Dragon Museum, Bridge Street, Bendigo.

Interested in the raw data that underlies this exhibition?

If you are a digital humanist, a developer or simply a curious person you can browse the data thanks to an Italian based developer who has independently created software to do just this. Copy and paste this URL  into a new web page to browse the data relationships between the PROV wiki pages on which the exhibition draws some of its material.

To access the  data in its raw form simply copy and paste this URL into another page

Either <select all> the entire web page and copy into your preferred application or scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the CSV link. (using Microsoft Access  with a ~ separator setting works well to view the data)

The data is also available as Linked Open Data.  Simply copy and paste this URL  into another page to see the text file representing the exhibition metadata modelled as RDF, the web standard for Linked Open Data. The prisoner record metadata is only a subset of all the entire PROV wiki metadata viewable here Alternatively copy and paste this URL  into a web page to see the RDF triples for each prisoner only featured in the exhibition.

Sample raw data of Forgotten Faces Data Step 1 Result
Forgotten Faces Data Step 2
Forgotten Faces Data Step 3
Credits: Story

Principal Curator  — Diane Gardiner (AM)
Original  physical exhibition curation by Diane Gardiner (AM). Contributing editors: Dr Sebastian Gurciullo, Daniel Wilksch, Kasia Zygmuntowicz, Louisa Scott
Cultural Institute Online Producer  — Asa Letourneau
Cultural Institute Online Editor — Kate Follington

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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