Some people know that I am a 4th generation Asian-Australian. Others know that I grew up in country NSW, in Tamworth!
What, however, is less known is that I have strong connections with Tasmania as both my grandmother and father were born there!
This past weekend has been a pretty poignant one for me.
With 113 of my relatives, I spent two days with them celebrating the arrival of my great-great-grandfather, James Chung Gon, in Tasmania in 1873.
That’s right – 150 years ago … he was aged 18!
Over his 80 years in Australia, till his death in 1952, James became a prominent Chinese-Australian storekeeper, tin miner, market gardener, and a Baptist lay preacher in Launceston. He was also one of the leaders of the Tasmanian Chinese community.
However, life wasn’t easy for James.
When he arrived in Melbourne with just a shilling, he was stoned in the streets as he was clad in a Chinese costume and had his hair in a pigtail. He then left for Tasmania, where he lived for the rest of his life, except for occasional trips to China.
The importance of building strong relationships
What I found fascinating was learning about how James survived and thrived in Australia.
Not only was he able to master verbal and written English, but he also blended well into Australian and Chinese communities.
Not long after he arrived in Launceston, James leased the backyard of a florist, Frank Walker, and sold the vegetables he grew there from a cart in the streets.
James and Frank eventually became business partners and ran a tin mine at South Mount Cameron, 122 km from Launceston. Their business was so successful that when they sold to the Colossal Tin Mining Syndicate of Melbourne, they each made a profit of £1,000.
He then bought 200 acres of land at Turners Marsh, 20 km from Launceston, where grew vegetables and established one of the first commercial orchards in Tasmania.
Frank also greatly influenced James and encouraged him to be a Christian.
In the local Baptist church’s vestry, he learnt English, and in 1883, he was naturalised as a British subject. This allowed James to travel freely in and out of Australia and permitted him to bring my great-great-grandmother, Mei Ying Lee, to Australia in 1892. In due course, they would have eleven of their own children. However, as World War I prevented the family from returning to China, they remained in Launceston.
If he had not had such a good relationship with Frank, it is unlikely that he would have been able to stay in Australia, have a family (as there were few Chinese women in Australia at the time), nor do well financially.
Give back to society
‘Daddy Chung’ was also a respected community leader. He collected money from the Chinese community for the local hospital among his civic activities. In addition, he helped to shift the Chinese joss house from Weldborough to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston.
In addition to being entrepreneurial and hard-working, he was esteemed for his probity (honesty and decency), friendliness and generosity to those in need, and devotion to his family.
On our reunion weekend, we visited the Gateway Baptist Church in Launceston, where James preached.
I was particularly touched by the kind words that some of the more senior church members shared on how some of our family members had impacted their lives through their shops and personal friendships.
Some of James’ children were also gave back to society, through groups such as the Chinese Women’s Association and acted as interpreters for the local Chinese community.
In my book, Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations: Lessons from Those Who Smashed the Bamboo Ceiling, I wrote about how family values shape us and what we look for at work.
Learning more about James’ legacy and considering how it influenced my upbringing has been fascinating.
My experiences over the weekend have made me even more proud of my Chinese-Australian heritage and ancestors’ contributions to Australian society.
James’ story, however, does remind me that, as Australians, we all have a role in helping each other, no matter our backgrounds, to ensure that all of us can contribute to the best of our abilities.
Australian Dictionary of Biography at http://www.chung-gon.com/australian-dictionary-of-biography.htm
Chung Gon family website at http://www.chung-gon.com/history.htm’
Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Chung_Gon