Who do you think you are?

… by Michael Bennett

I really should have had a haircut!

After being asked half way through last year to appear on the Casey Donovan episode of SBS’s Who Do You Think You Are, I naturally began thinking about how TV shows are made.

I imagined rocking up to the set to be greeted by a team of hairdressers and makeup artists who would transform my scruffy self into something more palatable for the TV viewing audience.

Nothing was further from the truth.  The crew consisted of a cameraman, director and assistant, and they were happy to take me as I came, wild hair and all.  It was simple and I liked it.

Of course, the purpose of my being there was not to look stunning, but to convey the depth of Casey’s Aboriginal connection to the north coast of NSW.

A renowned performer and winner of Australian Idol in 2004, Casey is a Gumbaynggirr woman from Bowraville and Nambucca Heads.

Part of the show was dedicated to tracing the Aboriginal heritage of her father, from whom she is estranged.

Drawing on 20 years of native title research conducted by me and a long list of colleagues, I was able to fill in some of the genealogical gaps, showing how Casey was connected to the Ballangarry family who were first recorded in the mid-19th century.

Following research into several Federal Court determinations, I was able tell Casey that she was a native title holder.

What struck me on viewing the episode was not so much Casey’s response to the information that I provided to her, but her reaction on meeting the Elders of her north coast family.

You could see a visible change in Casey as she learned first hand the struggles of Gumbaynggirr people to survive colonial times and then make a place for themselves in the modern world.

She was moved to hear a rare recording of her great-grandmother singing in language and the impressive efforts of the community today to keep the Gumbaynggirr language alive.

The team at Who Do You Think You Are did a fantastic job to build the story to its emotional conclusion.

That is the power of television and it doesn’t matter at all if one of the contributors has had a haircut or not.

Image: Casey Donovan and Michael Bennett

Five minutes with…Kylie Andrews

Introducing our new PHA NSW and ACT member, Kylie Andrews

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
I’ve always had an interest in history and biography, but I think it was when I began to research histories of adoption, as I pursued my own family story, that I began to appreciate the ways history can foster new understandings of the past. I became particularly interested in histories that illustrated the experiences of young women in the 1950s and 1960s. (Thanks to the Post-Adoption Resource Centre for its seminars and resources).

Before becoming a historian, I had a career in media production. I spent more than a decade immersed in the creative industries, working across a variety of formats, from the animated feature film ‘The Magic Pudding’, to radio commercials, broadcast design and corporate videos. At one point I decided to extend my knowledge of media and communications theory at UNSW; it only took one history subject and I was hooked. Quickly developing a love for Australian history, I realised that I could also apply my new historical skills and see the media landscape with an insight I had been craving; to understand why certain industrial and cultural practices were the way they were, to shine a light on the complex relationships and dynamics of past lives. My interest in media theory very quickly developed into a passion for histories of media, and history in the media.

Do you have a favourite historical source, book website or film?
Gosh, too many to choose just one! I love history in so many formats: from the work of Inga Clendinnen and Peter Cochrane, to popular television histories like ‘The Hour’ and ‘Band of Brothers’. In regard to sources and archives, Trove has been incredibly valuable, as have the media archives held by the National Archives of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?
First, I would visit my parents in their youth, to gain a sense what their lives were like during WW2. I’d then shadow the protagonists of my history of the ABC. (For my PhHD thesis I wrote a history of women who worked Australian public broadcasting in the post-war era). I would love to see, first hand, the workplace dynamics and production cultures that existed as media craft and radio and television technologies were blossoming throughout the 20th century.

Why is history important today?
History allows us to challenge limiting narratives, particularly those that privilege certain identities and silence others. As a historian interested in the intersection of gender and media, I love history’s democratic nature — by making alternative identities and perspectives visible and by using an expanding variety of sources to serve those new perspectives.

Intermarriage in colonial Singapore


…by Dr Marc Rerceretnam, principal researcher, Yesteryear Heritage Researchers

The year 2019 is historically significant in Singapore. It marks the bicentenary of the founding of a modern trading outpost on the island. Although evidence of strong commercial activity goes back as far as the 14th century, by 1819 the island had reverted to a sleepy settlement. This year’s bicentenary in Singapore celebrates the beginning of its continued success as a social, economic and political hub in Southeast Asia.

In January 2019, I began a six-month Research Fellowship with Singapore’s National Library Board. As part of my project, I planned to extend my 2012 paper[1] on race mixing and intermarriage in 19th century Singapore to show how early Singaporean communities were much more resilient, inclusive and integrated than previously recognised given the racial polarisation under British colonial rule. I decided among the best candidates to gauge levels of integration were the then newly emerging Christian church communities because, unlike other religious or secular organisations that were  regionally, gender or ethnically aligned, the Christian churches tended to accept people from all backgrounds. They also kept excellent records.

Delving into 190-year old archival records is exciting enough. Still, I was not prepared for what I found. I didn’t find a handful of intermarriages; I found masses of them: up to 33% of all marriages held between 1834 and 1858 were racially mixed! These marriages were largely Asian-to-Asian marriages. European-Asian marriages did exist but were still relatively rare, as most colonial British and Europeans tended to treat local Asian communities with condescension. Indeed, it was not uncommon to come across British or European males with several mistresses or even a harem. Their illegitimate off-spring were often abandoned. Asian-to-Asian unions seemed more genuine and permanent. Within the newly formed churches, these unions were common among newly arrived China-born male migrants. Most tended to marry local-born girls from Melaka, many of whom were 16th century descendants of Portuguese colonialists. Melaka is located 205km from Singapore, with many migrating from there to Singapore immediately after 1819. Others of the Chinese-born men married local-born Malay girls.

Such intermarriages (Chinese with locals) are referred to as Peranakan unions. The Peranakans have long been regarded as an ethnic group descended from early Chinese, Indian or Arab settlers (among others) who came to the Southeast Asian region to trade. Far from home, they settled in these new lands, married and had children with local women. This practice potentially dates back to at least the 10th century, with strong evidence from the 16th century. These communities were widespread, established and harmoniously embedded within socially pliable indigenous communities in their host countries of settlement. In the Malayan archipelago (now Malaysia and Singapore) these communities were dominated by Peranakan families of Chinese lineage. This was especially so in Melaka, Penang, Singapore and parts of Indonesia.

Today, the popularity of identifying as a Peranakan has burgeoned, though why is hard to explain. It could roughly be equated with the dubious but recent thrill an Australian gets when they find they are descended from a ‘First Fleeter’. While Peranakan communities dominated social, economic and political life during the colonial period, the prestige associated with being one greatly diminished after the Second  World War and the advent of independence in the 1950s. However, in the last 15 years, there has been a revival in Peranakan culture and heritage. My recent historical find of evidence  of a Singapore-specific Peranakan community is attracting keen interest. Up to this point in time, historians believed all Peranakans in Singapore migrated to the island from elsewhere in the region. I have been presenting my findings at  public events in Singapore, with the next scheduled for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore on Wednesday 26 June 2019  My paper will be published in the Singapore National Library‘s research journal ‘Chapters on Asia’, ‘BiblioAsia’ and ‘The Peranakan’ magazines in the coming months.

For more information on my work, please go to my Facebook page ‘Yesteryear Heritage Researchers’ or email, marc@nullYesteryearResearchers.com.au

[1] ‘Intermarriage in colonial Malaya and Singapore – A case study of late 19th and early 20th century Asian Christian communities’ , Journal of Southeast Asian Studies,Vol. 43, No. 2, June 2012.