In 1968 and 1969, Maisie Fook from Sydney had three ‘reader’s stories’ published in Australia’s best-read women’s magazine, the Australian Women’s Weekly. The first of these told the story of her recent adoption of two Korean orphans, the second recounted the story of her obstetrician brother Ted’s rise from ‘grocer boy to star doctor’, while the third was a reflection on what it was like to be ‘a Chinese, born and living in White Australia’.
Maisie Fook was born in Tenterfield in northern New South Wales in 1924, the ninth of eleven children of Cecilia (Cissie) Wong See and Harry Gee Hon. As she noted in her story, Maisie had an ‘Australian’ childhood, growing up in a country town where there were no other Chinese children. ‘At school I lived Australian, spoke Australian, thought Australian, and after the initial contact was accepted as Australian by Australians,’ she wrote.
But life at home was different. Her Cantonese father, ‘a proud Chinese’, had migrated to New South Wales as a young man, ‘determined to improve his lot and that of his impoverished relatives’. Her mother, Cissie, born in Sydney in 1887, was the daughter of Cantonese migrants, Ah Sam (mother) and Wong See (father), and had married Harry Gee Hon in Shekki in 1905. Maisie recalled that as a child at home in Tenterfield her family enjoyed Chinese food eaten with chopsticks, her parents ‘spoke Chinese frequently to each other’, and her father instilled in her ‘his idea of the superiority of the Chinese race’.
Although Maisie’s story was framed as an exploration of her identity as Chinese and Australian, a third element – her Christian faith – was also central to the story. Maisie told of her involvement with a Chinese church, where the congregation was mainly ‘Chinese Chinese (born in China)’, and of the communication difficulties she had. ‘I could understand neither their Chinese nor their Chinese-accented English. They could understand my English, but my attempts at Chinese were hilarious.’
By contrast, she told of spending time with a group of ‘Christian Australians’, women she had never met before but in whose company she ‘felt suddenly “at home”‘. It was through such a lens of language and religion that Maisie also mentioned her mother and maternal grandmother, writing:
Eighty years ago my mother was born in Sydney. Her mother was so Chinese and so heathen that she conducted a joss house. My mother speaks Chinese and English fluently, and has a remarkable understanding of heathenism, but she has been a Christian for 50 years.
As mother to a young and growing family in rural Glen Innes, Cecilia Gee Hon had become interested in the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church through the kindness and friendship of an Adventist neighbour. By the time the family moved to Tenterfield in the early 1920s, Cecilia was a baptised member of the church.
In time, her husband, Harry, and her nine surviving children also became Adventists, and from the late 1930s they closed the family store, Sun Sun & Co., on the usually busy trading day of Saturday to observe the Adventist Sabbath.
Maisie continued her mother’s Christian outreach through her work with the Chinese Adventist Church in Strathfield in Sydney, where she and husband Denis Fook were foundation members, and through the charity Asian Aid, which she founded in the early 1960s. One of Maisie’s outreach activities at the Chinese Church was its weekly ‘Creative Activities’, held on Tuesday morning – my mother taught crochet there for many, many years and I can still taste the vegetarian fried wontons Mum would bring home with her!
In her Women’s Weekly story Maisie Fook concluded that ‘Surely, I am Chinese, but, just as surely, I am also Australian’.
In the lives of Maisie, her mother, Cecilia Gee Hon, and her grandmother, Ah Sam, we see three generations whose lives characterise the history of Chinese Australian women over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
From the mid-1800s, Cantonese women like Ah Sam travelled out from the Pearl River Delta counties in Guangdong through Hong Kong to Australia, usually following paths forged by fathers or husbands. Some of these women, and those born overseas like Cecilia Gee Hon and her daughters, also returned to Hong Kong, Shanghai and the Cantonese home villages. Other women were mobile beyond Australia and China, taking part in the multi-sited networks and circulations of Cantonese across and around the Pacific and of British subjects around the Empire.
For more of their stories, see Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez (eds), Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia, Hong Kong University Press, 2021, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1wd02mp.
John Y. Chan, Amazing Stories From My Two Worlds, Palmer Higgs Pty Ltd, 2011 [preview available in Google Books].
Jan Fook, ‘Maisie Fook (1924–2002)’, Adventism in China [website], https://www.adventisminchina.org/individuals/3-lay-persons/fookmasie. [View PDF of article]
Maisie Fook, ‘From a land of many orphans’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 July 1968, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46443217.
Maisie Fook, ‘From grocer boy to star doctor’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 27 November 1968, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48080574.
Maisie Fook, ‘What is is like to be… a Chinese, born and living in White Australia?’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 February 1969, p. 42, http://nla.gov.au/nla-news-article51384523.
John Hammond, ‘Asian Aid’, Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists [website], 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=4JBZ.
Richard A. Schaefer, ‘Hon, Edward Harry Gee (1917–2006)’, Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, 2020, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=D9I2.
Janis Wilton, ‘HON, Harry Gee’, Different Sights – Immigrants in New England [database], https://hfrc.une.edu.au/heritagefutures/neimmigrants/main.php?area=ppl&ID=P367&form=&RecNo=2&ImgNo=&IDFlg=1&fileLetter=P. [View PDF of database entry]
Jill Wong, ‘The Asian Aid miracle’, Thornleigh Church Online Magazine, 44, December 2011–January 2012, http://www.thornleighadventist.org.au/onlinemag/edition_44/asian_aid_miracle.htm. [View PDF of article]
New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, 2005/180624, birth registration of Cissie Wong See, Sydney, 26 March 1887.
There are also various records in the National Archives of Australia (Sydney) about the Wong See and Gee Hon families.