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Moon Kong Fong

The Chinese-Australian Community in Sydney’s Haymarket

The pictorial tabloid Pix was ground-breaking with its idiosyncratic coverage of crime, crossword puzzles, fashion, horoscopes, human-interest stories, jokes and cartoons, movie and stage celebrities, international and local politics, scandal and sport. At the height of its popularity in the 60’s and 70’s, it was read by millions of Australians, and as curator Margot Riley notes, the magazine ‘played an important role in the post-war aspirations which shaped Australians and their sense of national identity, albeit in a light-hearted manner.’1

In 1960, the magazine published a three-part article by journalist Harry Cox documenting the history of the Chinese in Australia during the nineteenth century, with an update on the modern Chinese community:

…since the turn of the century, they have moved steadily into the broad currents of business, professional and social worlds. They are making their influence felt on the Australian way of life, and in new building schemes they are giving their community a status and pride of place.2

The article was illustrated with images by Sydney photographer Ivan Ive (1905 – 1972). Born in Queensland, by the early 1930’s Ive was working in Sydney as a press photographer for Associated Newspapers. He credits his prolific career as a Pix staff photographer, which began in about 1935, to the fact that it was ‘the only magazine of its kind which sent its staff in search of news pictures’, Australia wide and internationally.3

Today, this rich photographic legacy is a valuable resource, since the work of Ivan Ive movingly documents Sydney’s Chinese Australian community and life in Sydney’s Haymarket Chinatown in transition.4

The subject range is eclectic: photographs of singers and glamourous Australian show girls entertaining patrons at the famous Chequers Nightclub, prominent Chinese businessman Dr Norman Hing with his chic wife, and the Australian customers of the upmarket Bamboo Restaurant, and the Emporium store. These images were intended to impress, and to promote a rising generation of Chinese- Australian entrepreneurs including Denis Wong, Dr Norman Hing and Mr T.Y. Lin, whose business ventures were creating new wealth and changing the face of a stereotypically traditional Chinatown.

In sharp contrast are the familiar images of everyday life and work for Sydney’s Chinese-Australian community in Haymarket’s Chinatown and its environs, although these pictures may have seemed ‘exotic’ to more traditional Australians at the time.

Ivan Ive records the all-male lunchtime crowd at the Lean Sun Low Café which was famous for its no-frills interior and cheap but delicious wonton soup, the Reverend Tsai conducting Sunday service at the Chinese Presbyterian Church in Surry Hills, the cheeky boys in a Sunday School class and hardworking staff in local Chinese shops. This body of work explores a more traditional narrative of kinship ties, nativeplace networking, traditional Chinese work ethics, traditional Chinese family values and cultural heritage. It also celebrates the fact that one could still converse in Chinese, dine out and shop for traditional Chinese foods and medicines in downtown modern Sydney. At the same time, Harry Cox reports that a major change had occurred:

Australia’s modern Chinese, although they still, as a rule, locate their business in the old Chinese quarter, now live mostly in the suburbs, attend Christian churches, go to football or cricket on Saturdays and live and work pretty much like Australians…’5

The arresting portrait of a Chinese man solemnly weighing herbs using a traditional steelyard scale, appeared in Part 3 of the article with the accompanying sub-title, “New ways replace old, but some of the old linger on”.6 The text failed to identify either the man or the shop. However, King Fong, a respected member of the Chinese community in Sydney and a walking encyclopaedia on Haymarket’s Chinatown, identified the mysterious subject as none other than his paternal uncle Moon Kong Fong, working in King’s family’s grocery store, Say Tin Fong & Co.7

The building complex purchased by Say Tin Fong & Co. in 1951, 56-66 Dixon Street, Haymarket, 1960. Courtesy of King Fong. Advertisement for Say Tin Fong & Co. Eastern Merchants, 56-58 Dixon Street, Sydney. Published on back cover of Mrs Mai Ling Wong’s authentic Chinese Cookery, Melbourne, Southdown Press, c. 1966, Private Collection.

Originally from Duntao village (Zhongshan County, Guangdong), Moon Kong Fong and his son Saimun had migrated with Moon Kong’s younger brothers Say Tin (King’s father) and Sum Sing from China to Fiji in 1932, in search of a better future. In Suva, Say Tin, the more entrepreneurial sibling, established a successful mixed grocery store, a café, and a farm and held diverse investments in food manufacturing businesses. Moon Kong and Sum Sing managed a number of village grocery stores on the islands of Fiji.

In 1946, after 14 years in Fiji, Say Tin and his family with Moon Kong and his son Saimun decided to return to China via Australia. During the ship’s week-long stopover in Sydney, they learnt of the outbreak of civil war in China and had to change their plans. In spite of the White Australia policy, Say Tin was eligible to apply for a ‘merchant status visa’, which allowed his family to remain in Australia, and permitted his sponsorship of his brother and nephew as temporary business employees.

For the next two years, both brothers worked for the Hang Sing grocery store, in Dixon Street, owned by Mr Chang, a business acquaintance from Fiji. By 1949, Say Tin had founded his own business Say Tin Fong & Co., at 56-58 Dixon Street, Haymarket, selling Chinese groceries, fresh produce, kitchenware, and arts and crafts to the local Chinese Australian community on a wholesale and retail basis.

This new enterprise prospered because it was a family-based business. Moon Kong and his son were employed at the store to fulfil their visa requirements, and King Fong recollects that like many Chinese immigrants, he started working part-time at the store while still attending primary school. Each of his six siblings, sisters Sit Moue and Sit Jan, and four brothers Kong Shing (David), Tat Sing (George), Gee Sing (Colin) and Ting Sing (Arthur) also worked part-time while pursuing their studies. In 1951, Say Tin purchased the entire building for the astounding sum of £27,000 or $1.2 million today, much of the capital borrowed from the bank.8

Shortly afterwards, the upper floor of the building was renovated to provide lodging accommodation for single Chinese male residents. Now owned by Say Tin Fong & Co. from 1951 to 1986, tenants included the Green Jade Café, Hong Sing & Co. and the Chinese Youth League Clubhouse.

Following his father’s death in 1958, as the eldest son, King had to leave school to help his mother manage the family business and work as the general manager, until his retirement in 1986. Later his brothers Kong Shing and Tat Sing also joined the family company.

Another key to the company’s commercial success was their entrepreneurial endeavours to diversify and promote new Chinese, and later South-East Asian products. In 1956, it started importing and retailing traditional Chinese herbal medicines, using a relative based in Hong Kong as their agent.

Although Moon Kong Fong was not a qualified herbalist, he had originally trained as an apprentice in China in the preparation and dispensing of traditional Chinese herbal medicines. In the store he was responsible for dispensing prescriptions, monitoring the stock and ordering new supplies. Mr Fong worked six days a week, from 8.30am until 7.30pm, and for ten years, every Wednesday, King acted as an interpreter for his uncle whose English was less proficient. According to King, this new line was not initially profitable. However, the store was able to attract Chinese customers as a qualified herbalist, Mr Lee, practised next door.

The large timber medicine cabinet shown in the background of the photograph used in the window graphic was in the kitchen. It was custom made with 100 individual drawers, each divided internally into four separate compartments to store different combinations of Chinese herbs. Their contents were identified by labels, neatly inscribed with Chinese characters by Mr Fong. The timber shelving adjacent to the cabinet held additional stocks of Chinese herbal medicines carefully wrapped up in brown paper. It was a highly skilled traditional craft, which required a thorough knowledge of Chinese herbal medicines and meticulous measurement skills.

While the colonial history of Chinese Traditional Medicine still requires more comprehensive research, it appears that Chinese medicine was first introduced to Australia in the mid-1850’s in the Victorian gold fields. The widespread presence of Chinese doctors and herbalists in Australian cities and country towns, and the popular patronage by Chinese and non-Chinese patients, is amply documented by newspaper advertisements, patients’ testimonies in oral histories, business and street directories and the volume of mail-order business.9

As the acceptance of Chinese traditional medicine began to flourish in the wider Australian community, Moon Kong trained both King’s mother Poy Kin and his wife Kathy to assist with the increasing volume of dispensary work. Following Moon Kong’s retirement in 1965, the family hired a qualified Chinese herbalist, Fong Man Chow who could provide patient consultations and dispense prescriptions.

For 37 years, Say Tin Fong & Co., Eastern Merchants, was a legendary ‘Chinatown institution’ supplying Chinese provisions and goods to not only the Chinese- Australian communities in Sydney, and throughout regional New South Wales but all over Australia, despatching goods by post or by rail service to cities as far away as Darwin and Perth.

King Fong behind the counter at Say Tin Fong & Co., 1955. Courtesy of King Fong.

The research of historians such as Janis Wilton, Sophie Loy-Wilson, John Fitzgerald, and Michael Williams has documented how Chinese-run stores were also a vital part of the regional communities throughout Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.10 Equally, the histories of Chinese general stores in Sydney and the families that established and operated them deserve more investigation and documentation.

If you or any members of your family were involved in operating Chinese stores, such as Kai Yuen & Co., Hang Sing, Kwong War Chong, Tiy Loy & Company, War Hing & Co., Wing On, Yet Sing & Co., or other commercial businesses in Haymarket’s Chinatown, or have documentary archives, photographs or other relevant memorabilia, please contact the Museum at: [email protected] or www.facebook.com/SydneyMOCA.

Ann G. Toy
April 2021

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian and Director, Engagement, State Library of New South Wales for drawing my attention to the Pix image archive, and King Fong who generously provided information and images about his family and Say Tin Fong & Co.

1 M. Margot Riley, Curator, Research and Discovery, State Library of New South Wales, https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/blogs/popular-tabloid-pix-magazine-now-online, p.3, 23/02/2021.
2 Cox, Harry, The Chinese in Australia-3. They grace the new life of the cities, in Pix, 6 February 1960, p. 22.
3 Barrier Miner, Broken Hill, Thursday 18 September 1941, p. 1.
4 ACP Magazine Ltd., Photographic Archive including Pix negatives, 1930s-1980s. ON 388 PXD 1133 - Digital order no: Album ID: 1148202, October 1959. See: https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/1JkmE5QY/6NQPPvW6Z2kyx
5 Cox op. cit., p. 22.
6 Ibid.
7 Personal communication from King Fong, 28 January 2021.
8 Calculation based on the RBA Pre-Decimal Calculator. https://www.rba.gov.au/calculator/annualPreDecimal.html
9 See M. Loh, ‘A country practice: Thomas Chong-herbalist of Bairnsdale, Victoria: his place, his peers” in P. Macgregor (ed.), Histories of the Chinese in Australasia and the South Pacific, Museum of Chinese Australian History, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 15-28; Rolls, Eric, ‘The Flow of Life: Doctors and herbalists’ in P. Macgregor, Ibid, pp. 7-14.
10 Wilton, Janis, Golden Threads: The Chinese in regional New South Wales 1850-1950, Sydney, Powerhouse Publishing, 2010; Loy-Wilson, Sophie, ‘A Chinese shopkeeper on the Atherton Tablelands: Tracing Connections between regional Queensland and regional China in Taam Szu Pui’s My Life and work’, Queensland Review, Vol. 21, Issue 2, 2014, pp 160-176; Fitzgerald, John, Big white lie: Chinese Australians in white Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2007; Williams, Michael, Returning Home with Glory, Hong Kong University Press, 2018.

The Chinese Dragon

According to Chinese legend, ever since the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, defeated a neighbouring tribe and adopted its dragon worship as his own, the dragon has held an unrivalled status among mythical creatures in Chinese culture. Through the centuries, Chinese rulers and commoners alike have revered and worshipped the dragon as a sacred symbol of their country.

Archaeological discoveries of dragon motifs dating as far back as 8,000 years ago indicate the creature served as a totemic figure for some clans and tribes in prehistoric China. Dragons came to be viewed as wielders of supernatural powers controlling thunder, rain and rainbows.

The dragon’s favour was sought as protection against ill omens and to ensure a good harvest and resulting prosperity for an increasingly agricultural society. Religious figures, such as shamans or Daoist immortals, appealed to dragons in their bid to connect heaven and earth and ensure the afterlife of their followers.

During China’s long struggle for unity, many kings and emperors claimed to be descendants of dragons in order to legitimise and consolidate their rule. From the 13th century onwards, the dragon motif itself became the exclusive preserve of the imperial court.

In the centre of the plate used for this window graphic, is a five-clawed descending dragon among lotus flowers. On the sides are two chrysanthemum and six peony floral designs. The design of dragons amongst floral motifs on porcelain first appeared on Yue ware of the Five dynasties (906-960).

This motif enjoyed great popularity during the Ming dynasty, employed mostly on blue and white porcelain, and was often copied in the Qing dynasty. Being the most common flower in Chinese design, the lotus was viewed as a symbol of purity and integrity by Confucian scholars and an emblem of Buddhism. The application of chrysanthemums and peonies, representing autumn and spring respectively, alludes to the cyclical relationship of yin and yang.

Yin Cao
March 2021

The Lion Dance

On Wednesday 5 January 1938, a giant dragon arrives in Sydney travelling from Hong Kong in the hold of the ship Changte. This dragon will be the star attraction of the Chinese Festival to be held at the Showground on 24 February, the contribution of Sydney’s residents of Chinese background to the Sesquicentenary Celebrations – the 150th Anniversary of Australia. But before that, the dragon’s “little brother” will entertain the public and steal the show at the Pageant of Nations held at the Town Hall. Performances were held over a week starting on Monday evening 14 February and finishing with a matinee on Saturday.

The Lion Rehearsing. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW. Chinese carnival rehearsal, 28 February 1938

“Little brother” was not a small dragon, as the newspapers reported. He was a dancing lion, the dance being performed by two people – a man manipulating the head and a boy the torso, pictured in the image used for this window graphic. The dance was accompanied by a Chinese orchestra and there is a good description of a rehearsal held in the Chinese Masonic Hall in Surry Hills.

Although titled “A Chinese Dragon” this is the lion performing at the Chinese Festival at the Sydney Showground on the evening of 24 February 1938.
The Sydney Mail (NSW: 1912 - 1938), Wednesday 2 March 1938, page 5. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

The lion dance was performed by a man and a boy in a small lion, assisted by eight Chinese girls. An orchestra of Chinese instruments slowly played the lion up and down the hall. From a slow, monotonous dirge, the music increased to a crescendo that brought the 200 spectators to their feet, and sent the lion writhing and twisting to all corners of the hall. At the end of four minutes the noise was deafening and the crowd was nearly delirious with excitement.

The Dragon. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW/ Chinese carnival rehearsal, 28 February 1938

But the main event starred the giant dragon from the hold of the Changte. The dragon’s skin was paper mâché, its bones made of bamboo. Its tail was 140 feet long (that’s 43 meters), manipulated by 90 men in three shifts of 30. It danced in the evening of 24 February at the Hall of Industries at Sydney Showground.

A crowd of 40,000 Sydneysiders packed the hall. Every seat was taken and hundreds sat on the stairs. A further 10,000 were turned away at the gates. “Tramwaymen (sic) said they had never seen anything like the pressure of people for any night show at the Showground.”

The Fiery Dragon on Parade. Labor Daily (Sydney, NSW: 1924 - 1938), Monday 21 February 1938, page 1. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

When the floodlights went out, the hall was lit by scores of people carrying lanterns representing animals, birds, fish, fruit and butterflies, even the Sydney Harbour Bridge – tigers, elephants, horses, goats, peacocks, doves… There were seven floats representing Chinese opera and history. When the dragon danced among the lanterns, hundreds of tiny bells attached to the long tail rang out. The night ended with a display of fireworks shipped from Hong Kong just for this occasion.

The Chinese Festival was a resounding success and the proceeds went towards a unit of Australian doctors and nurses and a fully equipped ambulance to be sent to China as aid following the Japanese invasion in July 1937. By February 1938, the Chinese controlled areas of Shanghai had been bombed and shelled with horrific loss of civilian life and news was now filtering through of what today is known as the Rape of Nanking. Around the world, where there were Chinese communities, organisations were established to send aid to China.

Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), Thursday 7 November 1940, page 5. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

The giant dragon that danced for Sydneysiders at the Showground became a symbol of Chinese defiance. The Chinese dragon, a symbol of power and strength, could never be defeated by invading Japanese armies. The dragon from Hong Kong travelled around New South Wales, appearing at many fundraising events including the Newcastle Sports Ground on Saturday night 16 November 1940 in aid of the NSW Chinese Women’s Relief Fund, a registered charity sending aid to China.

Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), Friday 15 November 1940, page 2. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

During the Second World War, China was a strategically important ally, occupying the efforts of a large part of Japanese military forces in mainland China while American and Australian forces moved across the Pacific and through South East Asia. For China, the war started four years before Pearl Harbour. During World War II, Australia started exercising its own foreign policy as distinct from British Empire policy. In October 1941, as an indication of the significance of China at the time, Australia’s third diplomatic posting was to Chungking (Chongqing) in central China, the capital of the Republic of China at the time.

To this day, clanging symbols, dancing dragons and firework displays, still have the power to bring the Australian community together in a common love of spectacle and pure entertainment.

Do you have relatives who attending the Pageant of Nations or the Chinese Festival in 1938? Do you have photographs or memorabilia of these events?

Peter Hack
March 2021

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 - 1954), Thursday 6 January 1938, page 8
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 - 1954), Friday 4 February 1938, page 9
Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW:1931 - 1954), Wednesday 9 February 1938, page 2
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 - 1954), Friday 25 February 1938, page 7
Sydney Mail (NSW:1912 - 1938), Wednesday 2 March 1938, page 5
Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), Thursday 7 November 1940, page 5
Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), Friday 15 November 1940, page 2
Bagnall, Kate (2015), The Chungking Legation: Australia’s diplomatic mission in wartime China, Melbourne: Chinese Museum
Fitzgerald, Shirley (2008), Red Tape Gold Scissors; The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, Sydney: Halstead Press (pp. 175-176).

The Dragon Festival Balls

Sitting in the centre of the front row, wearing an elaborately embroidered gown, is Agnes Lumbewe (1889 - 1950) surrounded by debutantes at a Dragon Festival Ball, most likely early 1940’s. Sitting on the floor in front of Agnes are the young page girls.

The Dragon Festival Balls were Chinese debutante balls held annually for about 40 years. They were started as fundraisers for China’s resistance to Japanese imperialism in the late 1930s and in the early 1940s raised money for the “warphans”, Chinese orphans of the Second World War.

The first of these balls was held on 21 July 1938 at the Trocadero in Sydney. “The Troc”, as it was affectionately called, was an art deco dance and concert hall that could accommodate up to 2,000 people. It opened in 1936 and operated until 1971.

The centrepiece of the decorations at this ball was the Chinese dragon shipped to Sydney a few months earlier for the 150th Anniversary celebrations (see the “The Lion Dance”). The dragon, the rallying symbol for fundraising events at this time, was adopted as the “mascot” of these community balls. Funds raised at the 1938 ball also contributed to the unit of Australian doctors, nurses and fully equipped ambulances to be sent to China in aid of the war against Japan.

MOCA 2021/18 Agnes Lumbewe, girl and debutantes with a dragon. The Mei-Lin Yum Gift, 2021. Museum of Chinese in Australia.

Agnes Lumbewe was a member of the organising committee of the dragon balls and was likely the President at some point. Agnes was also one of the two Honorary Treasurers of the NSW Chinese Women’s Relief Fund (the Fund), a registered charity established in 1937 to send aid to China after the Japanese invasion. The other treasurer was Keziah “Kiss” Young Wai.

MOCA 2021/17 Members of the Dragon Ball Committee; L-R Agnes Lumbewe, unknown, Keziah “Kiss” Young Wai. The Mei-Lin Yum Gift, 2021. Museum of Chinese in Australia.

The Fund was an extremely effective and efficient organisation. An article published in the Daily Telegraph on 20 November 1937 reports that the Fund had raised nearly £1,000 since early September from private parties and subscriptions. This enabled the Fund to send over £600 worth of medical supplies to China in just two months, which in today’s terms would be nearly $57,000. The supplies were purchased from the wholesale druggists, Elliotts & Australian Drug Pty. Limited of 20-22 O’Connell Street, Sydney and appear to be for a field ambulance station or hospital. There was nothing fancy, everything geared for casualties rather than medical illnesses – basic surgical instruments, lots of disinfectants, bandages etc. which reflect basic medical capabilities in the late 1930’s.

A file in the State Library of NSW contains details of 20 shipments of aid sent by the Fund to China in the period from October 1937 to April 1941. Goods shipped to Hong Kong included second-hand clothes and shoes, rice, milk (tinned or powdered), cod liver oil, blankets and second-hand sewing machines. The bulk of the shipments were made up of second-hand clothes. Early in December 1937, there was a major shipment of 26 bales and 8 cases of old clothing on the Nellore. It seems there was a major drive to collect clothing in the first couple of months of the Fund’s operation. Every shipment had a few cartons and sacks of clothes, but 26 bales is an enormous consignment. The clothes were desperately need for refugees fleeing inland with little more than the clothes they were wearing to escape Japanese forces. And we do know something of the where clothes came from. On the file, there are lists for thank-you letters, with names and addresses. The vast bulk of donors were ordinary Australians, not just Chinese Australians, reflecting the shift in public opinion turning against Japan.

The cod liver oil and milk powder were needed for malnourished children and orphans of the war. A special request came from Hong Kong in early 1938, after the “Rape of Nanking”. In May 1938, the Changte carried 43 cartons of milk powder and 10 barrels of cod liver oil to Hong Kong. Reconstituted, that is a lot of milk, and based on one measure, 10 barrels would be 1,590 litres. Sydney may have had a shortage of cod liver oil in 1938!

Fetes, as always, were one successful means of raising funds. The Fund held theEastern Fair, a grand fete at Sydney Town Hall on 19 November 1937, opened by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Howard Mowll. Receipts from the 15 stalls as well as games, donations and raffles came to £186 10s 9d. Groceries, fruit and nuts produced £34 16s 8d. Other big successes were drapery, the jumble stall, raffles of course, fancy goods and cakes. All the items were donated. Expenses came to £20 6s 9p. The largest expense was the hire of the Town Hall at £10 12s 6p – that’s just under $1,000 ($995). The stalls were hired from the Presbyterian Church and the Fund also had to pay for the cartage (£1 10s). That left a surplus of £166 4s.

MOCA 2021/8 Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 5 March 1938, p. 14. The Mei-Lin Yum Gift, 2021. Museum of Chinese in Australia.

A cheque for £166 4s was handed over to the Red Cross, worth about $15,600 today, a nice profit from a fete! In the Sydney Morning Herald photograph, there are three members of the Fund’s committee. Miss Margarite Kaw was one of the secretaries, Mrs James Ah Chuey was the President and Mrs Tart Lumbewe was one of the treasurers. Agnes was known as Mrs Tart Lumbewe, using her husband’s first name, as was the custom of the time. After her husband’s death, she would be known as Mrs Agnes Lumbewe. Similarly, Rose Chuey used the first name of her husband, James Ah Chuey, a successful wool broker in the Riverina district who moved to Cremorne and became a leader of Sydney’s Chinese community and the Chinese Masonic Society.

Do you have relatives connected with the Dragon Festival Balls or the NSW Chinese Women’s Relief Fund? Were you a debutante at one the balls or have a relative who was? Or do you recognise any of the debutantes? Do you have photographs or memorabilia of these events?

Peter Hack
March 2021

Chinese Women's Relief Fund records, 1937-1941, MLMSS 10277, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW
The Mei-Lin Yum Gift, 2021, Museum of Chinese in Australia Limited
Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW: 1931 - 1954), Saturday 20 November 1937, page 11
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 - 1954), Saturday 5 March 1938, page 14
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 - 1954), Saturday 18 June 1938, page 19
Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW: 1931 - 1954), Thursday 23 June 1938, page 7
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 - 1954), Thursday 13 October 1938, page 7

George and Emma Ah Poo

Gwok (郭) Ah Poo was born about 1843 near Shekki (Shiqi, 石岐) in the Pearl River delta.

Ah Poo was attracted to the ‘New Gold Mountain’ by the gold discoveries of the 1850s, and he arrived in New South Wales before the end of February 1862 according to his certificate issued under the Chinese Immigrants Regulation & Restriction Act of 1861.

Ah Poo tried his luck on the Turon goldfields at Tambaroora (near Hill End), and later in the Braidwood and Shoalhaven River districts, but like most of his fellows had little success in his search for gold. In January 1876 he was working as a gardener at Numbaa, downriver from Nowra, when he married Emma Ann Lowe in the Wesleyan church at nearby Terara.

Born in Swan Street, Sydney – in the block now occupied by the World Square tower – in 1857, Emma had been raised in Terara by her half-sister Louisa after being orphaned at the age of seven.

Louisa Amelia Lowe had married a man named Manni ‘John’ Utick, one of the first indentured labourers from Amoy (Xiamen, 廈門), in 1865. Their marriage was successful enough for her to welcome a Chinese husband for Emma.

‘George’ Ah Poo and Emma’s first child, the short-lived Elizabeth, arrived in 1877. Their first son, Herbert William, was born in Milton (near Ulladulla) in May 1878, followed by Lily May in 1880 and Jessie in 1882.

At the end of 1882, while resident at Lake Conjola, Ah Poo applied to the Office of the Colonial Secretary for naturalization as a British citizen. On the 12th of February 1883, Ah Poo took the Oath of Allegiance and collected his Certificate of Naturalization from Magistrate Thomas Hobbs in exchange for the fee of £1.

In response to the demand for skilled horticulturalists in Sydney’s north-west, George and Emma took the family to North Parramatta not long after his naturalization. Here George continued to successfully employ his skills as a market gardener and orchardist on land leased from Pye’s Rocky Hall estate. The couple had five more children there: Emmeline (1885), Clara (1888), Alice (1890), Arthur (1893) and Maude (1894).

Lily May Ah Poo married Henry Fine Chong at St John’s cathedral in June 1896; the newspaper reports of the event described George as “a well-to-do Chinaman”. The following September, Emma Ah Poo’s name appeared on the contract for a cottage at the corner of Thomas and Betts Streets in Parramatta: the house was later named Turon.

This portrait photograph of George and Emma, and another of the whole family (both part of the Powe Family Collection), was taken at about this time – presumably in the back yard of their new home – when he was in his mid-fifties and she was about forty years old. It is clear from their clothing that the family had an ‘English’ lifestyle, and that they were indeed reasonably prosperous.

Contemporary newspaper reports reveal George Ah Poo as a man confident of his place in colonial society, willing to use the law to prosecute assailants and defend his rights as a British subject. At the same time, his ties to his clansfolk remained strong; there is a strong likelihood he provided work opportunities to the Kwoks (Paul Gock Quay, Philip Gockchin and William Gockson), who went on to establish the Wing On company in the Haymarket before taking their business ideas back to Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Gwok Ah Poo died in April 1923, and is buried in Rookwood Necropolis: his headstone is inscribed “George Ah Poo [Harper]”. Emma ‘Grannie’ Harper joined George in 1931.

Brad Powe
February 2021

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