(Fewer than) six degrees of separation: James Minahan and William Ah Ket
I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sydney, and come from very good, solid Adventist stock. My paternal grandmother’s family were among the earliest Adventists in Australia, and my father’s uncle, Arthur Shannon, was behind the company that eventually sold its best-selling product Weet-Bix to Sanitarium. Both my maternal grandparents worked, as doctor and nurse, at the Adventist hospital in Wahroonga, and a wing of that same hospital was named after my Shannon relatives. I went to the Adventist school next to the hospital and, as a child, it seemed that everyone we knew was related or connected – somehow – to everyone else. Much like a country town, I guess. Or like the early Chinese Australian community.
Recently I’ve been looking again at James Minahan, the Anglo-Chinese man whose case went to the High Court in 1908, and thinking about connections between the players in his story. James Minahan left Australia as a young boy, and returned twenty-five years later. Although he could remember little of his Australian childhood – he no longer spoke English, nor could he remember his Australian mother – he was returning to a community that both expected his return and looked after him when he found himself in legal difficulties.
Legal representation was found for him after he was arrested in Sydney and, at the High Court hearings, he was represented by Frank Gavan Duffy KC and William Ah Ket. Frank Gavan Duffy was the outstanding KC who, five years later, would join the ranks of the High Court, later becoming Chief Justice. William Ah Ket was Australia’s first Chinese Australian lawyer and, later, acting consul-general for China in Australia. I haven’t yet established who exactly it was that organised James Minahan’s legal representation; the Chinese consulate began its operations the following year.
I hadn’t imagined that there was any real connection between James Minahan and William Ah Ket. Although born in the same year to families that lived no more that 50 kilometres from each other in rural Victoria, James and William’s childhoods had taken them in very different directions. James grew up in his father’s ancestral village in Xinhui, attending the local village school and failing three times to pass the gruelling imperial examinations; William was educated at Wangaratta High School and at home by a Chinese tutor, and studied law at the University of Melbourne.
But, curiously, the lives of James Minahan and William Ah Ket were connected through a web of kinship and intermarriage:
- James Minahan was related to Chin Kee (they both were Chens of Shiquli village in Xinhui)
- Chin Kee married Ethel Hun Gip
- Ethel Hun Gip’s cousin was William Hoyling (their mothers were sisters, Isabella and Emma)
- William Hoyling married Ruby Yon
- Ruby Yon was the niece of barrister William Ah Ket (her mother was William’s sister Margaret)
Did you get that? Here’s a diagram:
I’m not sure that it means anything particularly significant, except that it demonstrates the family ties that existed among early Chinese Australian families, and it’s kinda cool.