(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:

Diagram showing the relationship between James Minahan and William Ah Ket

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.

5 comments

  1. Alistair says:

    G’day,

    William Ah Ket was my great uncle as he married my mother’s youngest maternal aunt, Gertrude Victoria Bullock.

    I will ask his daughter, Toylaan, if she knows of WAK’s involvement with JM. Though she was born in about 1920 she has researched her father and is writing a book on him. He was a brilliant barrister.

    I do know WAK was active in getting the government to assist aged Chinese men in returning to China following unsuccessful prospecting in The Digs.

    Cheers,
    Alistair

    • Kate says:

      Hi Alistair! It’s lovely to hear of your own connection to William Ah Ket. I have met Toylaan Ah Ket on a number of occasions as we both used to attend Chinese Australian Historical Society activities ten years or so ago.

      I am really interested in the fact that there was such community support for James Minahan/Ying Coon when he found himself in difficulty on arriving in Melbourne, including the legal defence of his case. I haven’t yet found the details of how all that was arranged, but it demonstrates I think the close-knit nature of Chinese community at that time.

  2. Claire Faulkner says:

    Hi Kate,
    Great article.

    In regard to your comment that William Ah Ket was Australia’s first Chinese lawyer matriculating in 1893 and commencing law studies after that.

    Otto Kong Sing, son of Kong Sing (Lee) and Ellen Ann Mann of Parramatta. Otto passed the NSW Law Matriculation Exam in 1889, became a Sydney solicitor, and moved to Hong Kong in 1904 where he reportedly became a successful barrister.

    His mother Ellen Anne Mann is the sister of my gg grandmother Emma Mann, who married Yung Sing in Sydney 1862 (Another Fullerton Marriage) mentioned in your blog of 29 July 2010 on the tiger’s mouth.

    I can email you the source of my information and I should add Ellen Mann and Kong Sing’s marriage documents to your Kinship project.

    Claire

    • Kate says:

      Hi Claire,

      Thanks for your comment. I think William Ah Ket was the first fully Chinese lawyer in Australia — but you’re certainly right about Otto Kong Sing, too.

      I know a little about the Kong Sings – from files in the National Archives, newspaper articles in Trove and from the article by Gary Osmond and Mary-Louise McDermott (2008), ‘Mixing race: The Kong Sing brothers and Australian sport’. Australian Historical Studies, 39 3: 338-355.

      Kate

  3. Sarah Taylor says:

    I am most interested in your research on William Ah Ket as my family is connected also. If you do a google search for E R Murray An Oriental Thread you will find the story. My great Grandfather was in the Victorian goldfields at the same time as Ah Ket. I met William’s daughter Toylaan last year she is in frail health but was trying to complete her family story. She lives in Sydney. I married Chen Cheng in 1971 and my sister married Shin Koyama in 1980.

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