AH KOW, Chinese Gardener, Binalong, got a nice house, and doing good trade. I want a nice, clean, quiet young woman—any country—for A WIFE. Any young woman that wants a good husband, please come and speak to me, or send answer to Post Office, Binalong. AH KOW.
This interesting advertisement by ‘Ah Kow’ of Binalong, in the southern tablelands of New South Wales, appeared in the Murrumburrah Signal on 7 May 1884.*
Binalong is a pretty village about 35 kilometres north-west of Yass. In the 1850s and 1860s it was an important staging post for the Cobb & Co. coach heading to the goldfields at Lambing Flat (Young), about 60 kilometres away.
Digitised historical newspapers don’t reveal much about the Chinese who were living at Binalong in the 1880s, when Ah Kow was resident there, even though it was said in 1883 that their numbers were ‘getting very numerous’ (Southern Argus, 18 January 1883, p. 2). The 1891 census recorded only 8 Chinese at Yass and 8 at Boorowa, although there were 46 at Young. In Binalong the Chinese seem mostly to have been working as gardeners.
What then of Ah Kow’s search for a wife? There don’t appear to be any other obvious reports about him in the papers – certainly none identified in Robyn Atherton’s book* or that I’ve spotted in Trove – and I can find no marriage or birth registrations that might suggest Ah Kow was lucky in love, either.
There is, however, a newspaper report of a woman named Annie Ah Kow who came before the Yass police court in June 1884 for being drunk and disorderly (Yass News, 28 June 1884, p. 2). Having been before the courts previously on charges of drunkenness, Annie Ah Kow doesn’t seem to fit with Ah Kow’s requirements for a ‘nice, clean, quiet young woman’. But perhaps Annie and Ah Kow had lived together then gone their separate ways, prompting Ah Kow to look for a different kind of woman to share his life?
The following year, a similar advertisement appeared in the same newspaper. This time it was ‘Ah How’ of Cootamundra who thought he’d try his luck by advertising for a wife. The Goulburn Evening Penny Post reported on the ad on 4 August 1885, saying:
A Chinaman Seeks a Wife.
The following curious advertisement appeared in the Murrumburrah Signal:—Matrimony.—Ah How, aged 30 years, would like to take a partner for life. The lady’s age is of no consequence—but he would prefer one between 15 and 50—and she may belong to any religion under the sun. She must, however, be a good housewife,—clean, able to wash, cook, &c., as well as sober in her habits. Apply by letter, to Ah How, Post Office, Cootamundra.
Cootamundra is about 70 kilometres from Binalong, with Murrumburrah being about half way between the two. Was Ah How inspired by Ah Kow’s ingenuity, or were they the same man?
* Ah Kow’s advertisement is reproduced in Robyn Atherton, They Were More Than Just Gold Diggers: The Chinese of Murrumburrah and Surrounding Districts 1860s–1960s, second edition, Harden-Murrumburrah Historical Society Inc., Harden, NSW, 2011, p. 48.
Mary Rapley from Shipley, Sussex, arrived in Sydney at the end of August 1838. A ‘nursery girl’ by calling, she had been convicted of shoplifting at the Sussex Quarter Sessions on 7 January and sentenced to seven years. Mary was one of 172 female convicts to arrive on the John Renwick, having left the Downs, off the Kent coast, in late May.
Mary was single, Protestant and aged twenty-four. She could read but not write. Mary’s convict indent described her as being 4 foot 10 1/2 inches tall, with brown hair and hazel eyes. Her complexion was ‘fair, ruddy and freckled’, and she was missing one of her front upper teeth.
Mary became an assigned servant to James Henry, in Cumberland Street in the Rocks, but within a year of her arrival in New South Wales she had married. Her new husband, James Tim (or Jim), aged 27 in 1839, was Chinese – one of a very small number of Chinese men in the colony at the time.
In late July 1839, Mary and James’s marriage banns were published at the Scots Church, Sydney, where they were wed by the Rev. William McIntyre on Friday, 9 August. Neither Mary and nor James could sign their name, and so made their mark in the marriage register with an X. Mary’s employer, James Henry, had consented to her marriage, but the couple had not applied for permission from the Governor, which was usually required if either the bride or groom were still serving their sentence.
It seems that married life did not suit Mary, as at the end of September she found herself before police captain Joseph Innes facing an accusation of having run away from her husband. James claimed that Mary had left him after twenty-five days to live with another man. The case was reported in the colonial press under the headline ‘Conversion and Perversion‘:
Yesterday a Chinese gentleman named James Tame, appeared before Captain Innes at the Police-office, to complain of his wife, an English woman, whose maiden name had been Mary Rapsey, for running from his protection to that of another person. Upon stepping into the witness box, Mr Tame stated himself to be a Chinese catechist in his own coountry, that he was of the Roman Catholic persuasion, and was converted by the Portuguese. He said that he read the bible and believed that he read, but would rather be sworn on a saucer which was the way he had been accustomed to. He had been married by agreement with the prisoner, who had been an assigned servant to a person named James Henry, in Cumberland-street. They were married by the Rev. Mr McIntyre, and had been united but twenty-five days when the lady left her lord for the protection of another. Captain Innes said, that this case required investigation as he could not understand how permission had been obtained for the marriage, and he conveived that there had been some irregularity in the matter. The prisoner was remanded until enquiry should be made.
So many interesting things to think about in their story! When and why had James come to New South Wales? Was he from Macau? If he was a Catholic catechist in his own country, what did he do in Sydney? How had he and Mary met? In what circumstances had they married? Who was Mary’s paramour and was she compelled to return to her husband?
I have had trouble finding any further reference to Mary or her Chinese husband after this hearing before Captain Innes in September 1839. All the references to the surname ‘Rapley’ (or similar) I located in the convict indexes at State Records NSW are to Mary’s uncle, Daniel Rapley, who was sent to New South Wales in 1818. I also didn’t find any references to the surname Jim or Tim or Tame (or similar). And I can find no further Trove or BDM references either.
Any clues or further information would be very welcome!
Next month I will be giving a paper on Chinese women in colonial New South Wales at the International Conference on Chinese Women in World History at Academia Sinica in Taipei. My paper will focus on the early period of Cantonese migration to Australia, from the 1850s to 1880, and present short biographical sketches of four Chinese women who arrived in New South Wales in the 1860s – Ah Happ, Ah Fie, Kim Linn and Sam Kue. Before 1881 there were no legislative limits on the entry of Chinese women to New South Wales.
I was particularly interested in these four women because of their early arrival in the colony, and their rarity among the colonial Chinese population, but there are others I’ve come across whose lives I’d also like to know more about. One of those is Chin Sheng Geong, the wife of the fabulously named missionary and interpreter George Graham Mackie Ah Len.
Chin Sheng Geong (born c. 1856) married George Ah Len (born c. 1837) in Canton in about 1876, while he was on a visit home from Australia. They seem to have arrived back in Australia together in 1877 (along with a female Chinese servant who accompanied Chin Sheng Geong). They lived in the Rocks, which was then Sydney’s Chinatown, in Queen Street, a laneway that ran off Essex Street between George and Harrington streets. There Chin Sheng Geong gave birth to and raised her family of six: Jane (b. 1877), Mary (b. 1879), Ada (b. 1882), James (b. 1886), and twins Peter and Thomas (b. 1888). The children were all baptised. George Ah Len died in 1889, after which time Chin Sheng Geong returned to China with her children.
George Ah Len coincidentally also features in my naturalisation research. He was naturalised as a British subject in 1878 (No. 78/206), and in 1882 was registered as a ‘person known to Government whose endorsement is considered sufficient’ on applications for naturalisation. From 1882 to 1888 he endorsed the naturalisation applications of more than 60 Chinese in New South Wales.
Typically, there is much more to be found about husband than wife, but within his story we can find traces of her. The following brief chronology about George Ah Len and Chin Sheng Geong in Australia is compiled from historical newspapers, government gazettes, naturalisation records, Sands Directories, BDM records and immigration files.
Early in the year Ah Lin was baptised at Maryborough, Victoria, and later, as George Ah Lin, he began his training as an evangelist under Rev. William Mathew in Melbourne.
In October, three Chinese women (one perhaps being Chin Sheng Geong?) were in the congregation at the baptism of six Chinese men by the Rev. Dr Steel, assisted by George Ah Len, at St Stephen’s Church.
On 16 June 1886, birth of James Ah Len, to George and Sheng C, 11 Queen Street, Sydney (NSW BDM 2324/1886 and 1314/1886 V18861314 46; NAA: SP42/1, C1904/71). Birth was attended by Mrs Strange (nurse) and Mrs Morrison.
Birth of twins, Peter and Thomas Ah Len, to George and Shenn, Sydney (NSW BDM 1748/1888 and 1356/1888 V18881356 46 and V18881356 47; 1749/1888 and 1357/1888 V18881357 46)
In January, there was an unclaimed letter at the General Post Office, Sydney, for Mr Ah Len, Queen Street.
1889 ‘No. 32. LIST OF LETTERS RETURNED FROM THE BRANCH AND SUBURBAN OFFICES, AND NOW LYING AT THE GENERAL POST OFFICE, UNCLAIMED’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 2 January, p. 25, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224311037
On 23 April, George Ah Len died at 4 Queen Street, Sydney, aged 52 (NSW BDM 717/1889)
In 2011 I wrote a blog post about a photograph of an unknown Chinese Australian family held in the State Library of Victoria collection. With very few details to go on, in my post I wondered whether I would ever find out the family’s identity. In this guest post, New England local historian Gill Oxley shares with us not only the family’s identity, but more about the interesting lives of Emma Tear Tack, nee Lee Young, and her reverend husband Joseph.
On 22 February 1899, an untitled article appeared on page 2 of the Ballarat Star. It conveyed news of the death of the retired ‘Government interpreter’ for the Ararat and Stawell districts of Victoria, Mr Lee Young. The article also served as an informal obituary, giving details of the life of Mr Lee Young, including his earliest days in Australia (following his immigration from Canton in about 1852) and his life on the goldfields of Victoria in the late 1800s. Towards the end of the article, mention was made of Mr Lee Young’s surviving four daughters and two sons. Two of his daughters were named as Mrs the Rev. James Ah Chue and Mrs the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack.
Mrs the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack was Emma, born at Ararat in Victoria in 1865 (Vic BDM reg. no. 19815), the second youngest child of Lee Young and his wife Elizabeth Wright.
The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages gives Emma’s father’s name as Lee Young and her mother’s maiden name as Elizabeth Lyth. The maiden surname ‘Lyth’ is likely to have been either a mistranscription or else a mispronunciation, as Emma’s mother’s maiden name is given as Elizabeth Wright in official records of the births of most of Emma’s siblings. The record for Emma’s youngest sister, Jessie Lee Young, gives a different name again, with their mother’s maiden name given as Elizabeth Light – quite clearly a misinterpretation of ‘Wright’.
Elizabeth married (‘John’) Lee Young in Victoria in 1856 (Vic BDM reg. no. 3704) and the couple had two sons and four daughters:
William Lee Young, born Ballarat 1859 (Vic BDM reg. no. 7102)
Matilda Lee Young, born Ballarat 1860 (Vic BDM reg. no. 2269)
Henry Lee Young, born Ballarat 1862 (Vic BDM reg. no. 12268)
Alice Lee Young, born Ararat 1864 (Vic BDM reg. no. 6746)
Emma Lee Young, born Ararat 1865 (Vic BDM reg. no. 19815)
Jessie Lee Young, born Ararat 1869 (Vic BDM reg. no. 20004).
At 20 years of age, in 1885, Emma Lee Young married Chinese-born Joseph Tear Tack (Vic BDM reg. no. 4357).
Joseph Tear Tack’s Victorian naturalisation record of July 1883 gives his native place simply as Canton, his age at the time as 35 years and his occupation as minister.
From this we can assume that Joseph Tear Tack was born in Canton in or about 1848. He would therefore have been about 17 years older than Emma at the time of their 1885 marriage. Perhaps it was this age difference that caused the ‘little commotion in Chinese circles’ over their impending marriage, as reported in the Ballarat Star, and other Victorian papers, in May 1885.
After their marriage Emma and Joseph left Victoria and set up home in the tin mining district of Inverell in northern New South Wales. Their first child, Elizabeth Edith Tear Tack, was born there in 1886 (NSW BDM reg. no. 24730). From the beginning of the 1870s, the Inverell district had a very large Chinese population, with Chinese workers being drawn to the area for the rich deposits of alluvial tin that were plentiful there, and for the business opportunities that also presented themselves with the need for fresh vegetables and other supplies in the booming mining district.
Joseph Tear Tack had been sent to Inverell (or more precisely to nearby Tingha) in mid-1884 by the Wesleyan Methodist Church to minister to the resident Chinese population in the area. He was one of the ‘success stories’ of the church’s Chinese mission in Victoria (‘Wesleyan Church, West Maitland‘, Maitland Mercury, 5 June 1884, p. 2).
According to the March–April 1891 edition of the NSW Government Gazette (p. 1892), Rev. Tear Tack was registered at the NSW Registrar General’s Office in Sydney for ‘the celebration of marriages at Tingha’ on 6 March 1891. Joseph Tear Tack and his family of four persons – one male (his eldest son) and three females (Emma and two daughters) – appear as living at Tingha in the 1891 Census (1891 New South Wales Census, Australia). Helen Brown, in her book Tin at Tingha (1982, p. 35), makes mention of the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack being appointed to serve as an ‘assistant Methodist preacher’ at Tingha between 1885 and 1893, and he is also mentioned by Ian Welch in his work on the Methodist Chinese Mission in Australia.
All available evidence points to this lovely family photograph being the Tear Tack family, taken in the Inverell district some time between the years of 1893 and 1896. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location, the photograph is likely to have been taken either at Inverell, Tingha or perhaps at nearby Bundarra. The Tear Tacks’ youngest daughter, Alice Lucy, who does not appear in the photograph, was born at Bundarra in 1896 (NSW BDM reg. no. 2164). Therefore, we can probably assume that the date of the photograph is either 1894 or, at the very latest, early 1895.
To the best of this writer’s current knowledge, the people appearing in the photograph are (left to right):
Joseph Henry Tear Tack, born Inverell 1888 (NSW BDM reg. no. 26002)
the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack
Josiah William Tear Tack, born Inverell 1892 (NSW BDM reg. no. 17560)
Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young
Laura Matilda Tear Tack, born Inverell 1890 (NSW BDM reg. no. 16916)
Elizabeth Edith Tear Tack, born Inverell 1886 (NSW BDM reg. no. 24730).
The identity of the younger man standing back right is not known at this stage.
After working for some years in the Inverell/Tingha/Bundarra area, where their five children were born, the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack was sent by the church to Darwin in 1896. While living there he, Emma and their children survived a terrible cyclone that destroyed their house (‘Visit of a Chinese missionary to Lithgow‘, Lithgow Mercury, 5 June 1900, p. 2). Joseph was then sent to Cairns just at the turn of the twentieth century. There he was to establish a new mission and undertake Christian missionary work among the Chinese population in far north Queensland. Emma and children did not initially accompany him to Cairns, but shipping news indicated that ‘Mrs Tear Tack and five children’ sailed to Queensland from Sydney aboard the Aramac in November of 1900.
Tragedy struck the Tear Tack family not long after their arrival in Queensland, with Joseph Tear Tack dying of heart failure at Cairns in August 1901 (Qld BDM reg. no. C697). Joseph would have been approximately 53 years of age at the time of his death. Emma Tear Tack was only about 36 when she was widowed with five children. On 11 January 1902, a letter from Emma appeared in The Methodist under the title ‘Acknowledgement’. In it, Emma Tear Tack paid a moving tribute to her husband, Joseph, and thanked their many friends for their support in what she described as her ‘sore and heavy bereavement’.
Emma did not remarry and so remained a widow for the rest of her life. After her husband’s death, she returned to the support of her family of origin in Ballarat, Victoria, some time in 1903. She appears to have raised her five children there, before moving to Burwood, in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, at around 65 years of age (Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, Sands Street Index, 1861-1930).
Emma Tear Tack nee Lee Young died on 28 October 1948 at 83 years of age at her home in Concord (NSW BDM reg. no. 27301). She is buried in the Field of Mars Cemetery at East Ryde in Sydney. A death notice published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 October 1948 noted that she was the loving mother of Elizabeth, Henry, Laura, Josiah, Lucy, and adopted daughters Marjorie and Molly.
I am very grateful to Kate Bagnall for originally posting the photograph of the Tear Tack family on her blog, to my cousin Etty Doyle Lang for pointing me in the direction of Kate’s post, and to the keen eye of Paul Macgregor who was the first to spot and recognise the Rev. Joseph Tear Tack in the photograph. I am also very much indebted to Paul for his encouragement, mentoring, collaboration and fine detective skills, and to our friend and colleague, Juanita Kwok, whom we also consulted in solving some of the mysteries initially presented by this photograph.
LABBAYU.—In loving memory of my dear mother, Mary Ann Labbayu, who departed this life June 17, 1887, after a long and painful illness; aged 43 years.
It is just twelve months ago to-day
Since my dear mother passed away,
Since I stood by my mother’s side
And saw her breathe her last.
She faded like some southern flower
Parched by cruel rays;
And now beneath the dark, cold sod,
My dear mother lays.
Inserted by her loving daughter, Aggie Hop War, Newcastle.
According to her death certificate (NSW BDM 11450/1887), Mary Ann Labbayu, age 42, died at Watt Street, Newcastle, after suffering cancer of the uterus for three years. She was buried in the Catholic section of Sandgate Cemetery at Newcastle (Portion Catholic 1, Section D Com, Plot 389).
Mary Ann’s death left her two daughters, Sarah and Mary Agnes (Aggie), aged 21 and 19, parentless.
Four years earlier, on 6 September 1883, they had lost their father, Thomas Labbayu, in a riding accident near their home at Greta. Thomas’s accident and the subsequent inquest received a long write-up in the local Matiland newspaper. Thomas was buried at Branxton Cemetery, with a handsome headstone erected by his daughter Aggie and her husband. Mary Ann inherited her husband’s estate.
Thomas Labbayu’s death certificate (NSW BDM 8600/1883) gives some interesting particulars about his life. It says he was aged 46 at the time of his death (meaning he would have been born around 1837), he was originally from China, and had been in New South Wales for 20 years (so would have arrived around 1863). He had worked as a contractor.
But this information doesn’t quite tally with the details given at the time of his naturalisation a decade earlier, in January 1874, and it’s these earlier details that are probably more accurate.
Thomas’s naturalisation certificates states that he was from Armoa, China (presumably Amoy), that he arrived in New South Wales in 1853, and that he was aged 30 in 1874 (meaning he would have been born around 1844). In 1874 he working as a carpenter and fencer at Greta, near Branxton, and had purchased land (NSW Certificate of Naturalization No. 74/12, in the name Thomas Labbayn).
Mary Ann Coyle and Thomas Labbayu married in the manse at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, East Maitland, on 17 February 1868 (NSW BDM 2561/1868). At the time of their marriage they were living at Buttai and Thomas was working as a woodsplitter. Mary Ann had given birth to a daughter, Sarah, two years earlier (NSW BDM 10383/1866, registered under surname Coyle), and in the year of her marriage to Thomas, they had another daughter, Mary Agnes (Aggie) (NSW BDM 11567/1868).
When their mother died in 1887, Sarah and Aggie Labbayu were both already married. They had married young: Aggie was sixteen when she married James Sydney Hop War, and Sarah was eighteen when she married James J.H. Ah Chee, both marriages taking place at Greta in 1883.
Sarah married again in 1886, presumably after the death of her first husband, to a man named William Coulton — it was ‘Sara J. Coulton, daughter of the deceased’ who was listed as informant on her mother’s death certificate.
With William Coulton, Sarah had two children, Herbert and Mary, born in 1887 and 1888 (NSW BDMs 30336/1887 and 31671/1888). I haven’t immediately located the birth of any children with her first husband, James Ah Chee, but an immigration file from 1909 mentions a ‘half-caste Chinese’ man named Ah Chee who was the nephew of Aggie Hop War (NAA: SP42/1, C1909/2915).
More can be discovered about the Hop War family. James Hop War was a successful cabinetmaker in Newcastle, where he and Aggie established a home in Watt Street. They had four daughters: twins Eveline and Florence (b. 1884), Agnes Amy (b. 1887) and Gertrude (b. 1889). James Hop War was naturalised in 1882. His naturalisation certificate stated that he had arrived in New South Wales on the Isle of France in 1870 at the age of 17. In a letter to the newspaper in 1891, after certain accusations were made against him, James Hop War declared, ‘I have been a resident of Newcastle for 17 years, have a wife and four children dependent on me for support’. He appears to have been a prominent presence in the local Chinese community and acted as government interpreter.
James, Aggie and their children left New South Wales for Hong Kong in 1892. Some time after, James and Aggie’s marriage fell apart and James returned to Sydney in January 1904 while the rest of the family remained overseas (NAA: SP42/1, C1909/2915).
Versions of the family name that appear in the records are: Labbayu, Labbayue, Labbayn, Labayu, Labbayer, Lavyu.
While in Hong Kong I’ve been reading, and really enjoying, Huifeng Shen’s book China’s Left-Behind Wives (NUS Press, Singapore, 2012). The book tells the story of women who stayed in China while their husbands migrated from Fujian province to Southeast Asia between the 1930s and 1950s.
Shen interviewed a number of these left-behind wives, all in their 80s or older, and their oral history testimonies provide a poignant insight into some of the most intimate aspects of their lives — the sorts of things that I struggle to uncover in my own research. Although the women in Shen’s book are from Fujian not Guangdong, and their husbands migrated to Southeast Asia not Australia, her work rings very true with what I know of the lives of wives of Chinese men in Australia. One of the most fascinating things for me, who approaches the subject from an Australian perspective, is seeing the Chinese side of story, particularly where it comes to the question of first and second marriages.
My research has uncovered the unhappiness that many Australian wives felt on discovering that their Chinese husbands had wives, and sometimes children, in China, and the difficulties Australian wives faced when they travelled to China with their husbands. Shen’s research shows that overseas marriages and overseas families created unhappiness, and hardships, for Chinese wives too. Shen notes that — as the result of often long-term separation from their husbands and feelings of fear, jealousy, hurt and betrayal — ‘many fankeshen [left-behind wives] hated the second wives of their husbands, especially the fanpo [‘barbarian’ foreign women], even if they never met them’ (Shen 2012, p. 100).
Some years ago, when I was in a ‘Cuban’ village in southwest Taishan, I was told a story about foreign wives. The story went that foreign wives of Chinese men would give their husbands a dose of poison before they made a return visit to China, a poison that could be reversed only if the man returned overseas to his foreign wife for the antidote within a particular time. My informant stated that this was the cause of the death of his uncle, who had been a laundryman in Cuba in the 1920s and was known to have had a Cuban wife.
I was very interested then to read in China’s Left-Behind Wives that the emigrant communities of Quanzhou, Fujian, also ‘believed that fanpo sometimes … cast spells or hexes on the male migrants who married them’ (Shen 2012, p. 101 n. 58). Furthermore:
Wives who visited their husbands overseas were very careful when they met an overseas wife, believing that the woman might cast spells that would make them sick or insane, or cause them to die. Wives were particularly wary of food and drink provided by an overseas wife, suspecting something harmful might have been added. Hong Q [a left-behind wife interviewed by Shen] said she experienced stomach pain after eating with her husband when she visited him in the Philippines. She did not eat any food prepared by the overseas wife, but she believed that the woman put a spell on her by touching her hand three times (Shen 2012, pp. 100-101).
I came across China’s Left-Behind Wives by accident in the bookshop here in Tsim Sha Tsui, but I’d suggest you seek it out a bit more proactively. As Shen notes in her conclusion, ‘the story of the left-behind wives is not merely an appendix to male migration history but a subject worthy of study in its own right, and an integral part of the history of women, the history of migration, and the history of China’ (Shen 2012, p. 216). Here, here.
In answer to that age-old question of why white women chose Chinese men as husbands in colonial Australia, here’s the thoughts of one Victorian woman, reprinted in the Queanbeyan Age and Newcastle Morning Herald from the Ballarat Courier in September 1882.
I quite agree with one who would like to be an old man’s darling, as the half of the young men don’t know how to treat their wives. Those wives have the life of a dog. I have two young friends. One has been married six months only, and her husband comes home drunk, beats her, and drags her about the house by the hair of the head, until she is black and blue. In the other case, no matter what meal is prepared for him, he swears at it, and says it is not fit for a pig to eat. He also tells his wife that he is going after a better-looking woman than she is, and he is not going to keep her any longer. Now, sir, I don’t wonder at girls being afraid to marry, and ‘Peter Simple’ had better not have anything more to say about Chinamen’s wives, as I am one. I have been married seven years, and I have everything I want. All I do is right; and I have the life of a queen. If I was a widow to-morrow, I would not marry one of my countrymen, for I am sure I would not get such good life. I know another young woman who married a Chinaman, and when her sisters saw how comfortable she was, they did the same; and now the sisters are Chinamen’s wives. I know a poor woman who goes out washing and scrubbing to keep herself and two children (one babe at the breast), while her European husband goes about spending his time and money on other women and then comes home and eats the foot his wife has been out slaving for. Now, Sir, give me a Chinaman before such men. The Chinese will keep their wives—and keep them well too—and treat them properly also.
On 18 September 2013, I presented a paper on the transnational Chinese family in Australia as part of the Australia in the World seminar series organised by Marilyn Lake at the University of Melbourne.
You can read (a slightly revised version of) my paper (pdf, 1.3kb) or have a look at my slides.
All in all we know very little about Australia’s very earliest Chinese residents. The earliest recorded arrival was a carpenter named Ahuto who came in 1803 on the Rolla (according to the 1825 General Muster List of NSW) – but no more is known about him.
Best known is Mak Sai Ying, or John Shying, who arrived in Sydney as a free settler in 1818, working first as a carpenter with John Blaxland before establishing himself in business at Parramatta, marrying twice to white women and fathering four sons. Family history research papers about Shying and his descendents are held in Sydney’s Mitchell Library.
Histories by Eric Rolls, Shirley Fitzgerald, Janis Wilton and Ian Jack have sketched the presence of a small number of other Chinese men who lived in Sydney at the same time as Shying—sailors, other carpenters, and labourers brought out on contract to work primarily in agriculture.
In the 1820s there is record of John Dunmore Lang—Sydney’s first Presbyterian minister who himself only arrived in 1823—employing Chinese carpenters named Queng and Tchiou in 1827, and of two Chinese men (a cook and a carpenter) being among the multicultural labour force employed by the Macarthurs at Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta. The NSW Colonial Secretary’s correspondence shows that three Chinese carpenters—Ahehew, Ahoun and Awage—requested to remain permanently in the colony before 1825. Another man, Achin, was admitted to the general hospital in 1824. And the 1828 census recorded Ahchun, Ahfoo and Ahlong in the employ of a T.G. Pitman in Sydney.
In 1830, there was the remarkable arrival of Ah Nee and three countrymen who landed in Sydney after seven months at sea in a small sailing vessel. As noted by Ian Jack, they were employed as stockmen by Andrew Brown on his substantial grazing properties on the Castlereagh River. (Perhaps even more remarkable is that Ah Nee spent the next 75 years living in central-western New South Wales, where he worked as an agricultural labourer, before he died aged 117 in 1915.)
The colonial shipping news also records the comings and goings of Chinese men—such as the arrival of an unnamed Chinese carpenter on the Nimrod in December 1827; the departure of Yan, Hang and Nee for Mauritius on the Bee in June 1832; and the arrival of four unnamed Chinese labourers on the Regia from Singapore in September 1838.
In my PhD study of Chinese-European marriages in colonial New South Wales, John Shying’s two marriages were the only Chinese marriages I found before the early 1850s. But I now have evidence of at least two or three more (thanks to Trove). One of these was between a Chinese man named James Tame, a Catholic catechist converted by the Portuguese (presumably in or near Macau), and Englishwoman Mary Rapsey, who seems to have been an assigned convict at the time of their marriage in 1839. A family of ‘four Chinese children’ and their parents were reported as living at Goulburn in March 1842 (I’m pretty certain these would be mixed-race children, as I haven’t identified a Chinese mother in the colony before the 1860s). The other early mixed marriage I have come across involved a previously unknown contemporary of John Shying named Man Sue Bach.
The oldest Chinese colonist?
When he died in 1862, Man Sue Bach was 72 years old and had been living in New South Wales for 42 years, suggesting he had arrived in the colony in around 1820. On reporting his death, the Empire newspaper stated that Man Sue Bach was the ‘oldest Chinese colonist’, as he was considered the oldest member of the Chinese race in the colony and had been the longest resident.
(What about John Shying, you might ask. Why wasn’t he the oldest? Hadn’t he arrived earlier, wasn’t he about the same age? Shying was born in 1796, but there is no record of his death in New South Wales. He may have returned to China after the death of his second wife in the 1840s, or there is also the possibility that he married for a third time and died under the name John Sheen in 1880. Does the Empire’s claim to Man Sue Bach’s status as ‘oldest Chinese colonist’ in 1862 debunk the John Shying / John Sheen story? Maybe, maybe not. But as John Shying’s son was an undertaker at Man Sue Bach’s burial, it seems likely that if John Shying/Sheen was living in or around Sydney the claim about Man Sue Bach probably wouldn’t have been made.)
Being something of a curiosity, both the Empire and Sydney Morning Herald reported on Man Sue Bach’s passing in some detail, and their reports were reprinted in papers such as the Maitland Mercury and Launceston’s Cornwall Chronicle. My account of Man Sue Bach’s life and death is based on these press accounts and on the details provided on his death certificates. I haven’t been able to locate other records, but that’s not to say he won’t pop up somewhere else—versions of his name I’ve found are Man Sue Bach, Mum Shou Pac, John Ah Shue Bach, John A. Sue Bach, John Ah Sue and John a Shue. There may well be formal records of his baptism, his marriage and the birth of his children, but I haven’t yet managed to track them down.
A brief sketch of life …
Man Sue Bach was born around 1790 and he was said to have been a ‘native of Hongkong’. Although he could have been born in Hong Kong itself, it is equally possible that his native place was inland from Hong Kong in Guangdong province, as his birth and later departure for overseas ports took place well before the ceding of Hong Kong to the British in 1842 after the first Opium War.
He arrived in Sydney around 1820 from Saint Helena, the tiny British outpost in the mid-Atlantic most famous as Napoleon Bonaparte’s place of exile. Controlled by the British East India Company, Saint Helena was an important stop on the sea route between Britain and India, where ships restocked with supplies, and the majority of its population were African slaves. After Britain abolished the Atlantic slave trade, however, the East India Company looked to China to provide a source of labour. From 1810 Chinese workers began arriving on the island, with the population peaking at over 600 men in 1817. Most worked as agricultural labourers and were indentured for contracts of three to five years.
After he arrived in New South Wales, Man Sue Bach travelled inland and eventually settled in the New England region, where he was said to have married and had a family of at least two sons. He also converted to Catholicism. In more recent years he had moved to Sydney where he kept a lodging house on Lower George Street, which was then the city’s fledgling Chinatown. He also made the arrangements for provisioning of ships leaving for China. Between these two enterprises he supported himself, even at his advanced age. The press accounts contain no more detail about his earlier life in the colony.
… and death
Man Sue Bach died on 4 June 1862, at about half past nine in the evening. He had been lying on his bed in his home at 169 Lower George Street when, at about 8.30 pm, he started and cried out in Chinese that he was dying. Dr Wright of Hunter Street was called for, but Man Sue Bach died soon after his arrival. When the news of his death spread, the Chinese storekeepers in Lower George Street and other parts of the city closed their shops in mourning.
In the press reports there is no mention of Man Sue Bach’s wife being present, so it seems probable that she had predeceased him and perhaps even that he had little contact with his adult sons. No details about a marriage or children were given when his death was registered, suggesting that the details were not known to those around him, although the press reported that his sons were still in New England and he had a brother at Lambing Flat.
The Sydney Morning Herald said that Man Sue Bach had been a ‘valued counsellor and friend’ to his countrymen in Sydney and, according to the Empire, they called him by the name ‘Governor’. Having lived in the colony for more than forty years, Man Sue Bach spoke English perfectly and understood how colonial life worked, meaning that many Chinese had sought his advice on ‘their personal welfare or business undertakings’. He also helped them financially, being ‘very ready … to assist them with loans of small sums of money when in distress’. He was honoured and respected by his fellow Chinese colonists, too, because of his old age, and the Empire declared that he would be ‘much missed’.
A notice of Man Sue Bach’s death was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 June (and reprinted on 21 June), and the City Coroner held an inquest at the Prince of Wales Hotel in George Street North the following day. Although he had enjoyed good health during his long life, during the previous few months Man Sue Bach had been ailing, complaining of a pain in the back. Based on the diagnosis of Dr Wright, who attended Man Sue Bach in his last minutes, the coroner found that death was due to an apoplectic fit.
Man Sue Bach was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery. The funeral cortege that left from his Lower George Street home at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of Friday, 6 June, comprised ‘a long string of carriages’, numbering forty-one in total and including four mourning coaches. The funeral was attended by many Chinese, but also by white ‘diggers and others’, who, the Empire noted, ‘seemed to participate in their regret’. The death was registered twice, first by the coroner on 30 June 1862 and then, on 30 August 1862, by the undertaker, Eliza Hanslow. Witnesses to his burial were Thomas Hanslow and John Shying (son of our original John Shying), who was a foreman with the Hanslow family’s firm of undertakers. Several years later John Shying junior set up business as an undertaker with his brother George in George Street South.
Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1997.
Winsome Doyle, ‘Research papers relating to John Shying, a Chinese settler in New South Wales (believed to have arrived in New South Wales in 1818), and his descendants, 198-?-ca. 1992’, MLMSS 5857, State Library of New South Wales.