Tag: family history

(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.

LJ Hooker’s Chinese roots

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.

Black and white portrait of LJ Hooker

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.

Harry Hookin, 1911. NAA: ST84/1, 1911/68/61-70.

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.

A transnational Chinese-Australian family and the ‘New China’ – Melbourne Chinese Studies Group

Date: Friday, 6 August 2010
Time: 6pm
Admission: $2
Venue: Jenny Florence Room, 3rd Floor, Ross House, 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets)

Topic: A transnational Chinese-Australian family and the ‘New China’

Speaker: Pauline Rule

Chung Mow Fung arrived in Melbourne in 1857 as a single man and left nearly forty years later in 1895 to settle in Hong Kong together with his Chinese wife and a large family of eight surviving colonial-born children. Twenty-five years of constructing a family in country Victoria had seen Chung Mow Fung and his wife Huish Huish negotiate between Australian and Chinese culture and between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ values especially in the area of gender roles. Settlement in the complicated liminal space of Anglo-Chinese Hong Kong allowed the family to identify to varying degrees with the different parts of their cultural formation. Their Australian background was acknowledged and their life-style was largely westernized but some members of the family became involved in the Republican era in the struggle to change aspects of Chinese culture, especially the role of women. This paper will examine how the Australian childhood of the family members played some part in how they, especially the women, lived out their adult lives while also retaining a strong commitment to their Chinese heritage.

Pauline Rule undertook postgraduate research on the Bengali intelligentsia and then the social history of Calcutta during the period of the British Raj. She worked in both the curriculum and assessment areas of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority and its prior manifestations. She has also researched and written extensively about the experiences of Irish women in nineteenth century Victoria. As part of this research she has examined marriages between Irish women and Chinese men in colonial Victoria and the outcomes for some of these families. This has lead to an interest in those Chinese women who came to Victoria in the colonial period.

Talk followed by an informal, inexpensive meal in a nearby Chinatown restaurant.

From Shekki to Sydney: An Autobiography by Stanley Hunt

A new book that might be of interest (via chinatown.com.au):

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries large numbers of Chinese travelled to the USA, Australia and other parts of the world to prospect for gold, or to work as labourers, gardeners and traders, but there are few eyewitness accounts of the lives of these people who predominantly came from South China. Stanley Hunt’s From Shekki to Sydney fills part of that gap in Chinese and Australian social history by documenting his childhood in Shekki, his experiences after relocating to Australia, and the lives of his parents and grandparents. His story will resonate with those of many silent others all over the world.

From Shekki to Sydney by Stanley Hunt

Stanley Hunt was born Chan Pui-Tak in Shekki, Zhongshan county, Guangdong province, China. The Japanese had invaded North China, and were beginning to bomb Shekki and the nearby coastal areas of South China when he, his mother and two younger siblings, left home to join his father in Australia. Reunited in Sydney on 5 April 1939, the small family travelled north to the county town of Warialda where his father ran a general store. Australian troops were fighting in Europe and Asia, the country was still suffering lingering effects of the Great Depression, and his father was on the verge of bankruptcy. On the timely advice of a travelling salesman, his father was able to save himself from financial ruin by negotiating new terms for repaying his accounts.

Through times of rations and quotas, the family value-added to their limited supplies, worked very hard and paid off their debts before relocating to Sydney in early 1945. Stanley and his father acquired businesses and prospered. Stanley is recognised for his significant contributions to social and community work in Australia, and China.

The father worked in Australia and had only returned to Shekki a couple of times during the author’s childhood: father and son were virtual strangers when they were reunited in Australia in 1939. As a twelve-year-old boy he began to work as a man alongside his father, and the development of their relationship contains many poignant moments that underscore the impact of ‘old country’ traditions on a younger generation of Chinese maturing into adults in Australia. The author is a highly observant ‘outsider’ as he grows from boy to man and is transformed into an ‘insider’.

If you are interested in the above abstract, please order your new book: From Shekki to Sydney: An Autobiography by Stanley Hunt, 200 pp. including 42 black & white photographs. Softcover: AUS $37.50.

In Sydney, copies are now available at GLEEBOOKS at 49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037, phone (02) 9660 2333, www.gleebooks.com.au.

Alternatively, the book can be ordered through local bookshops.

ISBN: 978 1 876957 15 5
Sydney: Wild Peony, September 2009
International distribution: University of Hawaii Press. www.uhpress.hawaii.edu

Who are the genealogists of Australia?

Via aus-archivists (16 July 2009):

Family history, since the advent of the Cook Bicentennial in Australia, has changed from the interest of a select few to become one of the most popular pastimes of Australians. Yet in spite of the dramatic increase in membership of and numbers family history societies, the changes in library and archive practices and collections to meet the demands of those wanting to research their family history, and the vast numbers of subscribers to commercial family history websites, little is known about the interests, research practices and make up of Australian genealogists.

A survey of Australian genealogists has been launched to examine these questions as part of a master’s research program at the University of New England. Entitled ‘Who Are the Genealogists of Australia’, the survey asks genealogists about their motivations for beginning their research and why they continue to conduct their research. It also asks about their research interests and how and where they conduct their research and why they make those choices. The survey will also investigate their plans for the product of their research. Finally, genealogists are asked about their demographic characteristics.

The survey can be found at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~ausgensurvey/.

It is open for participation from August 1st 2009 until 30th November 2009.

All queries about the survey can be directed to Leon Alekna at the University of New England: lalekna@une.edu.au.