His name is known across the country, but until recently the true story of LJ Hooker’s early life was unknown, even to his own family. Now, after five years of research, writing and production, Natalia Hooker has published a lavish biography as a tribute to her famous grandfather. The book, LJ Hooker the Man: The Untold Story of an Australian Icon, is particularly interesting for what it reveals about LJ Hooker’s Chinese roots.
Until an article in the Sydney Morning Herald published in 1985, nine years after Sir Les’ death, nothing was publicly known, or rather said, about LJ Hooker’s Chinese ancestry. The article revealed that LJ was ‘of Chinese origin’ and had changed his name by deed poll from Tingyou to Hooker in 1925 (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1985).
In the preface to her biography, Natalia Hooker explains that there were many theories about the origins of the name Hooker:
The most popular story is that LJ’s Chinese father was a railway engineer named Tingyou who had invented the ‘hooker’ coupling system for rail carriages. Another suggestion was the LJ was an admirer of the American Civil War general, Joseph Hooker, whose statue had been built in his honour in Boston in 1903, the year of LJ’s birth. None of these accounts were particularly convincing. (LJ Hooker the Man, p. 5)
Fay Pemberton, the daughter of LJ’s cousin Sylvia, told Natalia a different and much more plausible story, however. Fay said that Hooker was, in fact, LJ’s father’s name.
LJ’s mother Ellen Tingyou, known as Nellie, was 18 and unmarried when she gave birth to her son on 18 August 1903. As was customary at the time for unmarried mothers, Nellie’s baby’s birth was registered with no record of his father.
Little Leslie grew up surrounded by family though – he and Nellie lived together with his grandfather, Chinese-born James Tingyou; aunts Mary Quan and Rosanna Davis; uncles Chun Quan, John Davis and James Tingyou junior; and his cousins William and Percy Quan and Biddy and Sylvia Davis. It was a household in which Chinese must have been spoken, at least by LJ’s grandfather, James Tingyou, and uncle-by-marriage, Chun Quan.
When LJ’s mother Nellie died from tuberculosis in 1911, at the age of 25, it was this extended family that raised him – in particular, his cousin Sylvia who was only six years his senior.
A mystery half solved
For Natalia Hooker, LJ’s parents were something of an enigma. Other than Fay Pemberton’s comment about the Hooker name, Natalia had no clue as to LJ’s father’s identity; she also knew little about the short life of LJ’s mother, Nellie. After some unsuccessful attempts to track down records of the births of Nellie and her siblings, Natalia approached me to see what I could uncover, particularly about the family’s Chinese connection.
As with much family history research, particularly those with Chinese heritage, the trick was in thinking creatively about names. Natalia knew details of the marriage of LJ’s maternal grandparents, James Tingyou and Rosanna Dillon, but there was no trace of their four children under either of their surnames. It turned out that the births of Mary Alice, Rosanna junior, James junior and Ellen (Nellie) were registered under the surname Harlet, and also that in some of the records their Chinese father was listed as being English. When James and Rosanna were married by Rev. James Fullerton in Sydney in 1874, Rosanna’s age was put up to 22 so that she did not need the consent of her parents to marry. It seems, sadly, that she may have been estranged from her Irish-born parents and siblings and felt the need to lie about her name and her husband’s birthplace.
Discovering the Harlet name led, inevitably, to some more small discoveries. But the real clincher came when I found a death registration for LJ’s mother, Nellie Tingyou, under the name Ellen Hookin. With Fay Pemberton’s comment at the back of my mind, the immediate similarity between Hookin and Hooker was striking! The story got even more intriguing when I saw that the informant of her death was a man who described himself as her husband, Harry Hookin.
From Hook Yin to Hookin to Hooker?
Harry Hookin had arrived in Sydney as Hook Yin, a thirteen-year-old boy whose cabinetmaker father was a long-term Sydney resident and naturalised British subject. Already proficient in English, Hookin attended and did very well at school and, in time, took over management of his father’s business, Sing War & Son in Albion Place. At the time of Nellie’s death he gave his place of residence as Beecroft, where the extended Tingyou family were also living – it is possible that Hookin was one among the tangle of aunts, uncles and cousins with whom the young LJ Hooker shared his home.
After Nellie’s death is would seem that Harry Hookin disappeared from LJ’s life though. Three years later he married ‘again’ (he claimed to have married Nellie Tingyou in 1910, for which I have failed to locate a marriage registration) and there remained no memory of him among the Tingyou descendants.
The obvious question remains, however – was Harry Hookin LJ’s father? As Natalia Hooker concludes, ‘it is impossible to know for sure whether or not Hookin was Les’s biological father’ and a number of facts, such as his age – only 17 when LJ was born in 1903 – perhaps suggest otherwise. But, to quote Natalia again:
the fact that Les, as an adult, chose to change his name to Hooker, suggests that, at a minimum, Harry Hookin was a father figure to Les. (LJ Hooker the Man, p. 42)
Some more records about Harry Hookin have recently come to light, but whether they are able to prove anything is another question! It may well be that this remains one of those mysteries that is impossible to solve.
About the book
LJ Hooker the Man: The Untold Story of an Australian Icon by Natalia Hooker (self-published, 2010) is available to order online: www.ljhookertheman.com. It costs $54.95, free delivery. It is available in bookstores throughout Australia as of February 2011. You can also see a preview of the book.