Natalie Fong on finding her ancestors in China and Hong Kong

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way:
Finding My Ancestors in China and Hong Kong

by Natalie Fong 鄺黎頌

My research journey started in London, where I completed an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, in 2006. For one assignment, I analysed representations of nineteenth-century Chinese opium dens in London’s East End in literary texts and contemporary accounts. Living in London again in 2013, I researched opium protest movements as a “spin-off” project, possibly as a proposal for an MPhil or PhD. While reading Virginia Berridge’s ‘East End Opium Dens and Narcotic Use in Britain’, something caught my eye: in 1909, 72 Chinese residents in Liverpool signed a petition asking the Home Secretary to ban the importation and sale of smoking opium. Further research uncovered Chinese in Australia who were active anti-opium protestors: Reverend Cheong Cheok Hong (who delivered an address to the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade in London), and a letter to the editor of the Northern Territory Times and Gazette in 1907 from Chinese storekeepers in Palmerston (now Darwin, Northern Territory) responding to allegations that they were illegally selling opium. Among the signatories was “Wing Wah Loong”, the business established around 1890 by my great-grandfather, Fong How (鄺修榮/Kwong Sau Wing/Fong Sui Wing). The “spin-off project” now had global and personal significance. I needed to go back to Australia.

In 2014, I began an MPhil at Griffith University, Brisbane, on Chinese-organised protests in the Northern Territory, 1880-1920. This was a key period in Australian history with the formulation of the 1901 Immigration Act and other discriminatory legislation (collectively referred to as the “White Australia Policy”). The Chinese merchants in the Northern Territory protested against these discriminatory measures on behalf of the Chinese community in a variety of ways. Authorities in Australia and countries such as America and Canada did, however, make exceptions for merchants who facilitated Asian-Australian trade, their families and their households. Thus, discrimination was not just racial, but also class-based. Such exceptions allowed my great-grandfather and other Chinese merchants to operate businesses that were transnational, familial (branches managed by male family members) and transfamilial (between families). My great-grandfather was apparently in partnership with Northern Territory businessman Lee Chow of Man Fong Lau (萬芳楼) and wealthy Victorian merchant Louey Way Sun (雷維信). The company’s headquarters, Man Sun Wing (萬信榮), was at 9 Connaught Road West, Hong Kong. A managing partner, Lui Leung (雷亮), would later be a founding member of the Kowloon Motor Bus Company. The Fongs had businesses in Darwin, Katherine, Mataranka, Broome, Sydney, Fiji and the Philippines. Fong How was absent from Australia for periods of six months to seven years, reflecting the lifestyle of a merchant with many businesses and more than one family (the first, or principal, wife commonly resided in the ancestral home in the family village in China, with another wife in Australia). Gold was sent from Australia to the villages via Hong Kong, and children might be sent to China or Hong Kong for education and marriage. My project expanded into a PhD examining Chinese merchants as active citizens in the Northern Territory.

Natalie with a portrait of her father’s maternal grandfather, Lowe Dep, in Lowe Dep’s house in his village in Kaiping

During my candidature, I have been working as a secondary English and History teacher at Citipointe Christian College, Brisbane, and my employers have generously allowed me to stay back on overseas school trips to research. In 2016, after our school visited its sister school in Hong Kong, Diocesan Girls’ School (DGS), I enlisted the help of DGS teachers to visit the Hong Kong Public Records Office. Providentially, I found my great-grandfather’s will, long presumed lost or non-existent. He died in 1920, his last visit to China, and is buried in the mountains in Taishan, near his village. This added to our family history puzzle and confirmed the transnational nature of Chinese businesses. The Carl Smith Collection and business directories held by Hong Kong University Libraries are invaluable for locating transnational Chinese businesses. A research project I would like to pursue in future is to map Chinese businesses with links to Australia, America and Asia, with headquarters in Hong Kong (I’ve counted 230 so far).

A further connection with Hong Kong is through my grandfather, Edward Fong (Kwong), who passed away in 1995. He was born and grew up in Darwin and was four when Fong How passed away. In 1928, Edward (aged 14), his brother Harry and their mother travelled to Hong Kong, where their mother died in 1929. Edward returned to Darwin, and his eldest brother became his guardian. As mentioned, merchant families in Australia might send children to China or Hong Kong to be educated in Chinese; for sons, to become scholars, or as preparation for working in family businesses. In 1930, Edward was sent to complete his primary education at the Overseas Chinese Military Academy, part of Lingnam University in Canton (now Guangzhou). He completed his secondary education in 1933 at St Stephen’s College, Stanley. Edward began studying towards a BSc at St John’s University, Shanghai, but with the advancing Japanese forces, he returned to Hong Kong and obtained a teaching position at Diocesan Boys’ School, Kowloon, in 1938. The encroachment of the Japanese led to Edward returning to Darwin, where he worked in a family business. I only found out about his former career as a teacher through this project. This year (2018), while in Hong Kong en route to China, with the help of teacher friends I toured the grounds of St Stephen’s College and Diocesan Boys’ School. I also devised a Chinese Merchants Heritage Trail.

This was my first trip to mainland China, as part of Dr Kate Bagnall and Dr Sophie Couchman‘s Chinese Australian Hometown Heritage Tour (photo diaries @miss pom and #cahht). We visited historically significant sites in Guangdong related to the Chinese diaspora. Exploring the villages gave insight into, and appreciation for, the sacrifices made by those who left and those who remained, in order to pursue opportunities abroad but also to invest back into family villages. We observed the wonderful work of Dr Selia Tan (Wuyi University) and her team in preserving this important cultural heritage. With the assistance of Kate, Sophie, Selia and her students, I visited the ancestral villages of Fong How and the houses built from the profits of his trade, and also my father’s maternal grandfather, Lowe Dep, who was from Kaiping and became a market gardener in the Northern Territory.

Currently, I am researching wives and daughters of Northern Territory Chinese merchants (including my great-grandmother and great-aunts) and their involvement in businesses – an area of history worthy of greater exploration. This has expanded my project’s scope to 1950.

This research project has been an incredible journey, geographically, academically and personally, only possible with the help of many, particularly my aunts Lyn and Barbara Fong, whose family history research has been foundational, and my supervisors, Professor Fiona Paisley and Professor Regina Ganter, for their valuable feedback.