Kate Bagnall shares stories of some of the women who left China for Australia in the late Qing dynasty, as well as the families and communities they formed here.
Transcript for Chinese-Australian Communities in the Qing Era
Speakers: Kathryn Favell (K), Kate Bagnall (B)
Location: National Library of Australia
K: Lovely to see you all this afternoon. For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favell and I am part of the Community Outreach Team here at the National Library. And as we begin today I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we’re now privileged to call home. Quite a topical time of year to be talking about home and elders and the past and the present and we’re going to explore some of that through a Chinese perspective this afternoon.
This weekend has been the first of our Experience China weekends where we’re looking at Chinese culture, cuisine, art, landscape and architecture and the Chinese diaspora as part of our public programming for the exhibition, Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644 to 1911. Celestial Empire and its public programs wouldn’t be possible without the support of a tremendous group of partners. It’s been an extraordinary collaboration between government, corporate partners and individual donors. First and foremost I’d like to thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary collection with us and with all of you. I hope you’ll take the opportunity if you haven’t already to pop down to the gallery after today’s talk and explore the exhibition. I also thank our partners, Shell in Australia, the Seven Network, Wander One Pty Ltd, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels, the ANU Centre on China and the World and Asia Society Australia for their generosity. I thank too our government partners, the Australian Government, for supporting the exhibition through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program and the Australia China Council and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra.
One of the things I’ve learnt just in the last day or two is that at the beginning of the 20th century, as the Qing dynasty was drawing to its end, there were 30,000 people of Chinese origin living in Australia. That was a figure that struck me as being quite extraordinary. This afternoon our speaker, Kate Bagnall, will be revealing to us some of the lives of those Chinese immigrants and particularly the Chinese women who came to Australia and settled here. Kate’s a local and I think that you’ll agree with me that we’re very privileged to have someone of her calibre living in our community. Much of Kate’s historical research focuses on the lives of women, children and families of Australia's early Chinese communities. A large proportion of these early immigrants came from the Pearl River delta where Kate has lived and conducted research over many years. Her PhD thesis, ‘Golden Shadows on a White Land’, explored the lives of white women who partnered with newly arrived Chinese men. Kate’s published prolifically and is co-editor of the 2015 book, Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance. In 2014, she received an Australian Academy of the Humanities Travelling Fellowship to undertake field work in southern China, and this year she’ll be a research fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. She also generously shares her research through her blog, The Tiger’s Mouth and I encourage you to have a look because she has put up a wonderful online exhibition drawn from photographs and newspaper records held in Trove and it’s a really interesting way of exploring Trove and exploring the stories of Chinese Australians.
That’s enough from me. I know you’re going to enjoy this afternoon’s talk so please join me in welcoming Kate Bagnall.
B: Alright. Thanks very much, Kathryn. And I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians on the land that we’re meeting on today and to pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal nation both past and present. Okay. I’m going to start today by asking you to do a bit of imagining. If you closed your eyes, and feel free to do this if you actually want to, and imagined a scene, a typical scene of the Chinese in colonial Australia. I wonder what your mind would conjure up. Perhaps a view of the goldfields with Chinese men panning or puddling or sluicing for gold, their long queues stretching down their backs or hidden under conical hats. Or perhaps a view of a Chinese market gardener or vegetable hawker balancing his baskets of produce on a pole over his shoulders and selling his goods door-to-door. Whatever you imagine I suspect it wouldn’t be images like these. A storekeeper and his wife and child. A Chinese woman at home in Sydney with her child. A family outside their neat weatherboard cottage. A Chinese family from the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales with a gaggle of children. More children. This family were on the south coast of New South Wales and then at Parramatta. And another family from Sydney.
Such images of domestic and familial life aren’t, I think, what we usually bring to mind when we think about Chinese in colonial Australia. In the mid to late 20th century when Australian historians slowly began to turn their attention to the history of the Chinese in Australia few scholars paid much attention to the question of women and children and families. In what are now the classic works of Chinese Australian history, Chinese-Australian families are really most notable by their absence. In fairness to my predecessors, there was a lot of other ground to cover and as I found out as a fledgling PhD student in the late 1990s, finding sources then that documented the lives of women and children and families could be very slow and painstaking and expensive.
There was also the question of numbers. If we look at some population figures from the census there really were a small number of Chinese women who came to live in Australia in the 19th century, particularly in the middle decades of the 1850s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. If you look at New South Wales, for example, in 1861 there are two women, in 1871 there are 12. For New South Wales the proportion was no more than one Chinee woman to each 120 Chinese men during the colonial period. Nineteenth-century Chinese migration around the world was generally a male pursuit, but the proportion of Chinese women to men in Australia was even lower than in other overseas Chinese destinations such as California, Hawaii and southeast Asia. There were only a few dozen women among these thousands and thousands of men. The statistics could also be a bit puzzling. This is the 1861 census for New South Wales and I’ve pulled out the two locations where there were Chinese women so those two women, one was at Balmain, one was at ... oh ... and one was at Maitland. But you’ll notice that the women in Balmain, there are no Chinese men. So when I first looked at this statistic I thought ... it really struck me as odd that there was this solitary Chinese woman living at Balmain in Sydney, and I wasn’t alone in my puzzlement. Writer Eric Rolls, in his then recently published two-volume History of the Chinese in Australia commented that this, quote, “lone woman is exceptional and inexplicable.” ‘What was she doing and how difficult was her life?’ he asked.
So I was looking at these statistics at the beginning of my PhD study and I kind of realised that probably my research should take a different direction and it has and I uncovered a different and probably in fact more significant part of colonial Chinese Australian family life and that is the prevalence of intimate relationships between Chinese men and white women. These interracial relationships were more than just a stereotypical few illiterate Irish girls who were down on their luck and took up with a Chinaman for wont of something better. Chinese European couples and their families were central to Australia’s early Chinese communities, often forming a bridge between the Chinese and the broader white community. My work on mixed Chinese families has focused on New South Wales but there are historians, Pauline Ruel in Victoria and Sandy Robb, who’ve also pursued the topic in Victoria and Queensland.
As I pursued this other research the handful of very early Chinese women migrants to Bew South Wales has always remained in my mind and on a visit to Vancouver in Canada a couple of years ago I saw a museum display about the first Chinese baby born in Canada. His name was Alexander Cumyow and he was born in British Columbia in 1861. Cumyow went on to work as a labour contractor and a court interpreter, he was fluent in four languages including Chinook Jargon which was a local pidgin trade language. He studied law, although he was never allowed to practise, and among other community activities he founded the Chinese Empire Reform Association in Canada. So this first baby required a mother, of course, and Alexander’s mother was Wong Shee, the wife of Won Long Sing, one of the very earliest Canadian Chinese women.
So this got me to thinking about whether it might be possible to find the names of those very first Chinese women living in New South Wales. Could I find them through the records of birth of their children? What might I discover about them in the millions of pages of digitised newspapers that were now available through the National Library’s wonderful Trove? And could I find out the identity of that Chinese woman living alone at Balmain in 1861?
So today I’d like to share with you a bit of what I’ve uncovered in this new research journey and as an arbitrary challenge to myself I thought that it would be brilliant if I could identify the 12 Chinese women listed in the New South Wales census in 1871 so here’s a list of where they were living and on a map. So there were four in Sydney, one in Paddington, two at Jembaicumbene near Braidwood, one at Nerrigundah down the coast, one at Peel River goldfields in Nundle, one at Warren, one at Orange and one at Raymond Terrace. So far my research has mostly focused on one of these women, Gim Leon and ... who was one of the two Chinese women who was living at Jembaicumbene. And so I’m mostly going to talk about her today but I’ve also managed to identify three of the other women and I’ll share a bit of their stories too.
My telling of Gim Leon’s story starts in Hong Kong in 1868 as she’s preparing for her marriage. Gim Ling is not yet 20 years old and with the marriage an arranged one she has not yet met her husband to be, a man 15 years her senior. His name is Ah How. As brides, Cantonese women like Gim Leon prepared themselves to leave home when they married, to take themselves away from family, from friends and from familiar sites as they took on new roles in their husband’s families. For most this separation came with a journey to a neighbouring village or town but for Gim Leon it meant leaving China for Australia. Her betrothed, Ah How, was a gum saan haak, a ‘gold mountain guest’, one of the many thousands of Cantonese who’d left for the goldfields of California, British Colombia and the Australian colonies in the 1840s and 1950s. Gim Leon set sail from Hong Kong on board an American barque called The Sunshine in the middle of summer in July 1868. The Sunshine’s hold was full of cargo including rice, tea and clothing for various Chinese traders in Australia but on board were also 19 passengers, 16 of whom were Chinese. And most unusually five of these Chinese were female. There was a married woman, aged 28, a three-year-old girl who I think was probably her daughter and four young women aged between 16 and 19.
Life in the colonies could be a rough and ready endeavour particularly on the goldfields and in rural settlements and Chinese colonists regularly stated this is one reason why they didn’t rush to bring their wives and families to live with them. As Sydney merchant Henry Leau Appa told a government inquiry in 1858, Chinese women were ‘shy’ and would ‘rather stay at home’ than face a long sea voyage on a ship full of men followed by life in such a foreign and isolated place.
And a long and difficult sea voyage was exactly what Gim Leon faced. The Sunshine’s journey south from Hong Kong took 132 days over four months as the barque was beset by bad weather, gales and high seas at the outset which lasted for about three weeks, then the loss of several sails then strong easterly winds mixed with long periods of calm. The Sunshine finally arrived in Melbourne on the 29th of November 1868, and you can see where I’ve plotted on the map quite how far out of the way they went. They should have just come down through past the Philippines and down the coast.
In Melbourne Gim Leon and her companions were met by two men who had themselves travelled down from New South Wales. There was a Sydney cabinetmaker named Hie Yeak who I think may have been the husband of the married woman and father to the little girl, and Ah How, the man who was to become Gim Leon’s husband. After a short stay in Melbourne the women were on the move again. Leaving Melbourne along with Ah How and Hie Yeak on The Hero on the 10th of December 1868 to journey north to Sydney where they landed four days later. And in the top right there it’s not very clear but there are the names of the women and then written to the side it says Chinese women and then the arrival’s noted in the newspaper with Hie Yeak, Ah How, five Chinese ladies and one child.
So Gim Leon and Ah How’s voyage did not end in Sydney, though. Ah How’s home was in the small mining village of Jembaicumbene on the Braidwood goldfields south of Sydney. How many of you are from Canberra? Are you mostly from Canberra? So you’ll be familiar with where Braidwood is and Jembaicumbene’s just a little bit south of Braidwood.
So the last part of Gim Leon’s journey from Hong Kong would have comprised either taking the train from Sydney to Goulbourn and then a coach from Goulburn to Braidwood and then travelling the final seven miles by horse. Or alternatively they might have taken a steamer from Sydney to Nelligen, then a coach from Nelligen to Braidwood. And this coach went up what was then a somewhat terrifying journey up the steep and winding road over Clyde Mountain. Either of these routes would have taken at least a couple of days but it’s a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon now, to drive out to Braidwood by car.
Gim Leon’s remarkable journey and her remarkable presence in such an isolated corner of the colony didn’t go unnoticed. The local newspaper, The Braidwood Dispatch, reported on her arrival, a report that was republished in other papers around New South Wales. The report stated that Ah How had, quote ‘just returned from Melbourne with a Chinese lady whom his parents selected for him in his native land and sent him out ... and sent out to him to become his wife. He has arrived her and taken her to his home at Jembaicumbene.’ So finally after travelling for five months in January 1869, 20-year-old Gim Leon was living at Jembaicumbene as a housewife.
Jembaicumbene was one of the earliest of the Braidwood goldfields with gold discovered there in 1851 and digging beginning the following year. The first Chinese took up residence there in 1858. The population fluctuated as diggers came and went with the fortunes of the field and of those at surrounding locations like Kiandra and Lambing Flat. But there were as many as 500 Chinese at Jembaicumbene in 1861 and the Chinese population was consistently said to outnumber Europeans.
In 1866 Jembaicumbene was described as having a post office and three hotels, a flour mill, which you can see here in this picture, and a population in the neighbourhood of about 400 of whom half were Chinese. The area had at last two Chinse temples, one at Strike-a-Light Flat along the creek to the east and the other in the Chinese village itself erected in 1861. And the doors to this temple are today on display in the Braidwood Museum.
The Chinese village was located at Jembaicumbene Swamp while a European village grew up along the river crossing on the Braidwood to Majors Creek road, about a kilometre away and although these were two different settlements ... the Chinese were in one village and Europeans in another ... they’re only a kilometre away and I think reading newspaper accounts of life at Jembaicumbene there was a lot of interaction between the Europeans and Chinese in the area.
The Chinese village with its stores, butchers, cookshops, communal oven, gardens, temple and cemetery served as a hub for Chinese miners living at scattered sites along the surrounding gold-bearing creeks and rivers. And I’d just like to acknowledge now that a lot about what we know of the Chinese at Jembaicumbene has been through the work of Barry McGowan, who’s here today, and also the archaeological work of the late Lindsay Smith, who conducted a detailed study of Chinese mining sites at Jembaicumbene in the early 2000s.
Mining reports published in the press suggest that Chinese miners overall did consistently well at Jembaicumbene and Ah How was one of those who made I think a smart decision to profit from his countrymen’s success. He had arrived in New South Wales in 1857, possibly after a period in Victoria, and by the early 1860s he was running a store at Jembaicumbene in partnership with two other Chinese. As well as storekeeper Ah How was a publican, running the aptly named All Nations Hotel in Jembaicumbene and he was one of if not the very first Chinese to successfully apply for a publican’s licence in New South Wales. Among his enterprises may also have been the ‘Chinese coach’ which was reported in the newspaper that carried parcels and passengers to and from Braidwood and the neighbouring villages of Majors Creek and Araluen.
Ah How spoke English, was known to be ‘a very respectable Chinaman’. He was a community leader acknowledged by both the Chinese and Europeans in the district. In 1872 he was naturalised under the name of Ralph Ah How so that he could purchase land. And just an aside, I’m very intrigued by his choice of the name, Ralph. He’s the only Chinese Ralph I’ve come across and I wonder in fact if he called himself after Ralph Clemenger. Clemenger had lived in the area from the 1860s and was variously the local police magistrate, clerk of petty sessions and the district registrar, and he seems to have had a very good relationship with the Chinese around Braidwood.
So in bringing Gim Leon to live with him Ah How went against the ideas of many of his fellow Chinese colonists who stated that they wouldn’t subject their wives to the indignities, irregularities and dangers of colonial life but that is exactly what Ah How did. Jembaicumbene was really a remote and dangerous place in the 1860s. Newspapers carried reports of severe floods that swept away tents and Chinese diggers, of robbery under arms and even of murders occurring in the Chinese population there. In the mid-1860s it was widely acknowledged that Jembaicumbene and the surrounding area had inadequate police protection.
Ah How himself was robbed on two notable occasions. In December 1864 he was stuck up near his store by three Chinese who beat him and stole £11 and then two years later in November 1866 his store was held up by the infamous Clark gang, the New South Wales equivalent of the Kellys, and this was an attack that reaped them more than £30 worth of gold and goods. Among their bounty was a silver watch, a Chinese sash, a purse, pipe, tea, sugar and sardines, all the property of Ah How as well as cash, gold and jewellery belonging to two other men. And curiously the Clarks, who you can see up here after their capture, also got hold of more sardines that night when they held up another Chinese store, Chong Changs, at nearby Neighbour’s Creek and I guess bushrangers had to eat something.
We will of course never know what motivated Ah How to organise to bring Gim Leon to come to Australia as his wife when so many others in similar circumstances did not. According to the New South Wales census in 1871 the male population at Jembaicumbene was 511, of whom 158 were Chinese so this was after the main boom on the Jembaicumbene goldfield. In 1871 there were 326 females including two Chinese-born females, one of whom was Gim Leon and frustratingly I haven’t yet been able to certainly identify the other woman although I believe she may have been a woman known as Mrs How Ling who died in Cooma in 1880.
Although men certainly outnumbered women at Jembaicumbene there were still more than 300 women and girls living in this small local area as there were in other mining communities at Braidwood and across the colonies and I think this fact is sometimes forgotten, that women lived and worked on the goldfields too. A few were miners in their own right but most would have mined alongside their husbands and children or earned in other ways. The fact that a public school was opened at Jembaicumbene in 1870 with an attendance of up to 40 children a year in the early 1870s also shows that this was not a community of men alone.
Ah How and Gim Leon’s family situation was unusual but he was by no means the only Chinese man at Jembaicumbene with female companionship. If we look at the birth registrations for Braidwood we can see that from the late 1850s babies with Chinese fathers are being born there. One of the earliest of these babies, born in December 1860 at Majors Creek, was John Sanling, the son of storekeeper Simon Sanling and his Irish wife, Marcella Madigan. Six months later this family would have their home at Lambing Flat destroyed in the anti-Chinese riots. One of the earliest Chinese marriages was that of Leaw Wee Ding, a medical man or Chinese doctor, and Anne Robson who were married according to Presbyterian rights at Jembaicumbene in March 1864. One of the witnesses to their marriage was Margaret Moy Tung nee Martin who herself had just been married to her Chinese husband.
Other couples had met and married on other goldfields before moving to Braidwood. James Ah You and Catherine Annie Latham, for example, had married at Tambaroora in 1866 before moving to Braidwood a year or so later. So by the time that Gim Leon arrived in 1869 there would have been a small number of established households in the Braidwood area comprising Chinese husbands and white wives and these were both legal marriages and de facto partnerships. Some of these families were the Young Sams, Ah Yous, Wee Dings, Ah Kins, Chu Chins and a little later the Hamiltons, Dan Hawks and Moy Mows. These families were the precursors of better known Braidwood families that might be familiar to some of you, families from the 1880s and 1890s. The best known of these would be the Nomchongs. Brothers Shong Foon who married in 1881 to a woman of English-Irish descent, Ellen Lupton, and his brother, Chee Dock, who brought his wife, Mary, from China in 1887.
Some of the Chinese families around the area also had connections to the area’s Aboriginal residents and these families are perhaps the most difficult to find evidence of but we know for example that the last initiated elder of the Yuan people, Guboo Ted Thomas, who was born in 1909 at Jembaicumbene had an Aboriginal father and a mother whose heritage was Chinese, Aboriginal and European. Her name was Mary Gwendolyn Ahoy. She was born at Jembaicumbene in 1886 and was the daughter of James Ahoy ... sorry, Chinese ... a Chinese man named James Ahoy and Ettienne de Mestre, a woman of European and Aboriginal descent.
So back to Gim Leon. It would appear that very soon after her marriage Gim Leon became pregnant. She gave birth to her first baby, a boy, at Jembaicumbene in August 1869 attended by a Mrs Callaghan. The baby was premature and lived for only half an hour. He was buried without a name. Within a few months Gim Leon was pregnant again and she gave birth to her second baby, another son, in June 1870 also attended by Mrs Callaghan. This baby died too two days later. I think it’s not hard to imagine the effect that the deaths of her babies might have had on Gim Leon’s health and wellbeing especially so soon after her arrival in Australia. In the 1860s and ‘70s the standard of medical care in the Braidwood district was poor and births were generally attended by a local woman or neighbour rather than a medical doctor or trained midwife. There was the Chinese doctor at Jembaicumbene, Leaw Wee Ding, swho was even called on by European families when conventional medical care failed, but who knows if any treatment he could have provided would have helped.
As well as a personal tragedy for Gim Leon and Ah How, their sons’ deaths may have also affected the Chinese community at Jembaicumbene more broadly and here’s where another of my Chinese women might serve as an example. A Fie, who was aged about 30, married 40-year-old Ah Foo in Sydney in 1864, soon after she arrived in Australia. Ah Fie went to five with her husband at Happy Valley on the Peel River goldfields near Nundle where Ah Foo was a gold miner and storekeeper. The local press reported in October 1864 that the Chinese community at Bowling Alley Point, near to Happy Valley, had held a grand feast in honour of Ah Fie and A Foo’s marriage and of her coming to live in the district. The press described how more than 170 Chinese sat down to a feast of roast pigs, fowls and ducks and plenty of wine and spirits and took up a collection of £180 as a present to the new bride and that’s some serious money.
The following April Ah Fie gave birth to a boy who was described in the paper as a ‘fine, healthy son’. The baby, who was named Ah Cong by his parents, was christened by the local minister as Henry Sydney Ah Foo. Once again the local Chinese on the Peel River goldfield were elated with the Ah Foo’s good fortune and were said to have presented the new parents with a gift of £150. There’s some money in that community, I think.
So I imagine that the Jembaicumbene Chinese—who also came together for celebrations at new year and other holidays—may well have celebrated the birth of Ah How’s sons in a similar fashion had they lived. Instead they buried two tiny babies, sons of one of the community’s long-standing and most respected residents and his young wife. It was most likely that it was among the Chinese European families at Jembaicumbene—the Ah Yous, Wee Dings, Moy Mows and others—that Gim Leon found support and friendship during these early difficult years and then later as she raised her young children. For within a year of her second son’s birth, Gim Leon safely delivered her third baby, a girl named Lone Zese born in May 1871, once again attended by Mrs Callaghan. Two more sons followed, One King, born in August 1873, and John, born in January 1876.
I like to think that Gim Leon may have found particular friendship with Sarah Moy Mow, wife of Christian storekeeper, John Moy Mow. Sarah was born at Concord in New South Wales, and she was the daughter of a Chinese man, John Sheen, and an Irish woman, Mary McGovern ... sorry, Margaret McGovern. She married John Moy Mow in Sydney in 1867 at the age of 17. The Moy Mow family moved to Jembaicumbene around 1870 or 1871 after John Moy Mow had gone bankrupt but he had had business dealings with the Chinese at Braidwood throughout the 1860s and had shares in a store at Araluen. John Moy Mow and Ah How were naturalised in the same year and evidence suggests that they knew each other well. For example in 1871 there’s a report in the newspaper that they had ... that John Moy Mow had host ... sorry, start that again ... in 1870 ... December 1871, John Moy Mow had attended a small dinner hosted by Ah How in celebration of a Chinese hospital ... holiday, sorry. John Moy Mows was one of a number of men of the Moy clan from Taishan who were living at Sydney or Braidwood. Others were Moy Ping, who became a wealthy merchant in George Street, and Charley Moi Hing, who worked as an interpreter, and Moy Thung who was husband to Margaret who I mentioned earlier, and John Moy Sing, who eventually became grand master of the Chinese Masonic Lodge. And of course most well-known of all there was Quong Tart, whose family name was also Moy, who in 1859 at the age of nine had come to live at Braidwood with an uncle. Ah How was not a Moy, but he was also from Taishsan and so have ... would have spoken the same dialect.
It seems likely to me then that living in such a small settlement the wives of Chinese men would have provided each other with companionship and mutual support. Sarah Moy Mao had two children born at Jembaicumbene out of 10 children altogether in the same years that Gim Leon’s older two children ... surviving children were born, so there was Ernest Moy Mow, who was born in 1871 and his sister, Ada, born in 1873. And this is a copy of Ernest’s birth certificate and a photo of him later in life.
By the mid-1870s Jembaicumbene’s mining heyday was over and life there became increasingly precarious because of drought. In fact in 1877 it was reported that the creek, the only source of water on the field had ceased running. It’s likely that with the dwindling population Ah How’s store was no longer profitable. Ah How, Gim Leon and their three children therefore left Jembaicumbene in about 1878 moving up to Sydney where they took up residence at 55 Cambridge Street in Sydney’s Chinese quarter in The Rocks. Other families also moved away from Jembaicumbene. The Moy Mows also returned to Sydney where they lived at Harrington Street just around the corner from Gim Leon and her family. The Ah Yous moved into the town of Braidwood itself while Annie Wee Ding, the wife of the Chinese doctor met a much more terrible fate. In 1877 her body, naked except for her stockings, was found face down in a shallow waterhole near her home at the Chinese camp. Marks on her body suggested that she’d been forced under the water, quote, ‘until death stopped all struggles’ and the perpetrator of this crime was never identified.
After moving to Sydney in September 1878 Gim Leon gave birth to her sixth baby. It was another boy, named Albert. Somewhere along the line Gim Leon acquired a new name too. She was listed on Albert’s birth certificate as Elizabeth Gim Leon and other documents from around the same time called her Mary Elizabeth or just Mary, and one possibility is that she was baptised at this time.
Just over a year after baby Albert’s birth, tragedy hit Gim Leon again. Her husband, Ah How, died at age 48 after suffering from hydatid disease of the lungs for five months. He was buried in the Chinese section of Rookwood, and then some years later in 1887 his body was exhumed and his remains sent to China. So what of Gim Leon then? Widowed before the age of 30 with four young children to care for living in a foreign country. She inherited her husband’s estate and I think probably then took her young family back to China. I have found no further mention of Gim Leons herself in Australian records after 1879.
Two of the other Chinese women I’ve identified as living in New South Wales in 1871, Ah Fie, who I mentioned living at Nundle earlier, and Ah Happ, who I’ll tell you more about in a minute, similarly eventually disappear from the records. But the life of a fourth woman, Sam Kue, or Mrs John Ah See, of Sydney then Grafton then Tingha, provides an explanation for what might have happened to them all. Hong Kong-born Sam Kue married John Ah See, or Tse Yet Chong, some time in the late 1860s. Her husband was a merchant with an import-export firm in Sydney and it was George Street, Sydney at the age of 20 that she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, in 1870 and then that was followed by a son in 1872. The family then moved to Grafton where John Ah See ran a store before moving again to Tingha. Sam Kue had four more children, two sons and two daughters, neatly born every two years between 1876 and 1882. The family became Christians in the late 1870s and the children were all baptised as Anglicans.
One visitor to Tingha in 1885 spoke with Sam Kue, describing her as, quote, ‘very agreeable, anxious to tell about her family and very fairly satisfied with her lot’. Satisfied she might have been, but two years later John Ah See, Sam Kue and their large family upped sticks and returned to Hong Kong. We know this for certain because her second son, James Ah See, or Tse Tsan Tai as he was known in Hong Kong, went on to become a leading political reformer, feted by some as the true founder of Republican China, rather than Sun Yat-sen. Tse also founded the South China Morning Post, a newspaper which continues to be published in Hong Kong today, more than 110 years later. And in 1924, Tse published a book in which he described his early life in New South Wales.
So a return to China such as James Ah See's mother, Sam Kue, explains the apparent disappearance of these women from the documentary record in New South Wales. But there's one further document that suggests to me that I’m right in thinking that Gim Leon and her children went to China after Ah How’s death. In 1925 a man named Johnnie Ah Howe died at Lower Campbell Street in Sydney, in the heart of Sydney’s China town. The informant was Moy Ping, and if you remember his name he was someone that the Ah Hows knew from their time at Jembaicumbene. Moy Ping reported that Johnnie Ah How had been born at Braidwood and was aged 50 and to my mind this man has to be Gim Leon’s second youngest son, John, who was born at Jembaicumbene in January 1876. The death certificate further states that Johnnie Ah How had married in China at the age of 30, so that would have been just after the turn of the century and that he had three children.
Johnny Ah How was buried in the Chinese section of Rookwood Cemetery, and the Chinese inscription on his headstone provides tantalising clues for further research. The highlighted section in the middle is his name in Chinese, Chiu Won Dart, and his village of origin in Taishan is in that section down the right-hand side. And some of the other work that I’ve been doing has been looking at tracing Chinese Australian families back to their ancestral villages so for me when I found this I thought ooh, very exciting, need to go back and find out if I could.
So with the magic of Google Maps we can easily find this village so here’s a map, you can see where Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou are so Taishan is to the west there. And if we zoom in even a little bit further we can get a satellite image of the village. So was this where Gim Leon took her children after Ah How’s death in 1879? It seems quite likely to me that it was but I probably will never know for certain.
So to finish up today I’d like you to cast your minds back to the beginning of my talk and to that elusive solitary Chinese woman living at Balmain in 1861. You will notice that the woman I’ve talked about so far—Gim Leon, Ah Fie and Sam Kue—all came to New South Wales as wives or as wives-to-be. The last woman I’m going to tell you about, Ah Happ, was also a wife and mother and in fact I believe that she was the first Chinese mother in New South Wales but I don’t think that’s how or why she came to Australia.
Ah Happ first appears by name in a tiny, tiny, tiny article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1863 and I’d just like to say I would never have found this were it not for Trove. So this is a report on a case in the Water Police Court. The article notes ‘the case of Ah Happ, a Chinese woman, who claimed the sum of £8 9s 6d. wages for her services as nurse in the employ of Cyril Cecil of Snail’s Bay, Balmain’. Unfortunately for Ah Happ the case was dismissed by the court, but a year later, aged 28, she was living at Nelson’s Bay north of Sydney, married to a Chinese fisherman named Ah Jong and about to give birth to their first baby. She and Ah Jong went on to have three more sons together. Altogether there was George born in 1864, Charles born in 1865, Frederick born in 1868 and William born in 1870 and the story of these Chinese fishermen around Port Stephens or Nelson’s Bay is a really interesting one. Newspaper reports describe up to 80 Chinese fishermen living in these villages.
But what of the possibility that Ah Happ was the woman who was living at Balmain in 1861? After all she was definitely there in 1863. A bit of digging revealed that Cyril Cecil, Ah Happ’s employer, was a well-to-do and educated Englishman who was originally from a good family but who had a somewhat shady past and a penchant for changing his name. He was sent to Western Australia for larceny in 1850 and after serving his sentence he set himself up as an auctioneer in Melbourne and I think he must have used family money and connections for this. Before he moved to Sydney in 1850 he got into financial difficulties and took his wife and young child to Hong Kong in 1861, where another baby was born before returning to Sydney in 1862
Mr and Mrs Cecil travelled separately arriving three months apart but each travelled with a child and a servant, and I think it’s possible that Ah Happ was one of these servants. But if Ah Happ arrived with the Cecils in 1862, she couldn’t have been that Chinese woman at Balmain in 1861, or perhaps she was the Balmain woman who joined the Cecil household later after they took up residence there in 1862. Either way, I think that Ah Happ’s story provides a plausible explanation for the seemingly inexplicable presence of that solitary Chinese woman at Balmain. She was a servant in a white household.
As the 19th century progressed the number of Chinese women migrating to New South Wales and to the other colonies continued to increase and many more Chinese families were formed as colonial-born Anglo-Chinese daughters grew up to marry Chinese men. Relationships between Chinese men and white women also continued to grow in number ranging from casual sexual encounters and prostitution to stable, long-term partnerships and the parenting of large families. These women and their families in their many and varied forms are an important but often overlooked part of the story of the Chinese in 19th century Australia. History has privileged the telling of the story of Chinese migration and settlement from a male perspective and while there’s a lot that we can’t ever hope to learn about these women’s lives I don’t think that this should stop us from asking questions, seeking answers and using our creativity and imagination to think beyond those typical, even stereotypical images of the Chinese in colonial Australia that still I think so readily spring to mind. Thank you.
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