It’s always exciting, when researching for a new novel, to find a real person who existed at the time you are writing about, whose life was so interesting that you just have to include him or her in your book. For me, that person was Quong Tart.

In the late 1800s, anti-Chinese feelings ran high in Australia. Portrayed as ‘different’, anti-Chinese immigration restrictions were debated in Parliament, Chinese people were demonised, accused of being cold, cunning and deceitful, filthy barbarians who brought disease to the colony and kidnapped and raped white women. They were vilified, compared to lepers, and called one of the most depraved races on earth. Yet in Sydney, one Chinese man not only rose above this discrimination, but became one of the most popular and highly respected person of that time.

His name was Mei Guangda [in Madarin], which became Anglicised to Mei Quong Tart. In China, surnames come first, with the Christian name last, but in Australia, Tart became his surname and he dropped the ‘Mei’, becoming known as Quong Tart.

Quong Tart was born in the Hsin-ning province of China, south west of Canton, the second son to an ornamental wares merchant. At the time, Westerners were rumoured to shoot and eat children, but this never worried Quong Tart. Instead, he grew up with an interest in the world outside of China. When, in 1859, nine-year-old Quong learnt that his uncle was heading for Australia – to accompany Chinese coolies as labour to the goldfields near Braidwood – he begged to accompany him. Initially, it was agreed that Quong – who could only speak speaking a pidgin English – could learn English and become an interpreter for his uncle, but this didn’t eventuate. Instead, he began working in a store in Braidwood, kept by Thomas Forsyth and his wife, where he learnt English, picking up a Scottish accent and a love for the poetry of Robert Burns. While working in the store he caught the eye of Alice Simpson who, with her husband Robert Percy Simpson, unofficially adopted him. They made sure he learnt to read and write in English, and he was enrolled as a member of the Anglican Church.

Quong Tart with his horse Nobby – Braidwood Historical Society

When fourteen years old, the Simpsons gave him his first mining claim, and encouraged him to buy more. He took their advice, so that by the time he was 18, he was becoming quite wealthy. By that time his popularity had grown – he founded a football team, became captain of the local cricket team, became a patron of horse racing – he rode expertly and owned a race horse – and erected a school and a church for the European miners and their families. While in Braidwood he employed around two hundred Europeans and Chinese, and often negotiated on their behalf, adjusted their disputes and tried to minimise any difficulties they faced. He was also in demand at social gatherings, where he would recite the poetry of Robert Burns, sing Scottish songs and play the piano. On the 12th of July 1871, 21-year-old Quong applied for and was granted naturalisation and citizenship. He became the Government Interpreter for the districts of Braidwood, Araluen and Major’s Creek, and on the 31st of August of that year was elected a member of the Manchester Unity Lodge. He became the first Chinese man elected to an Oddfellows’ Lodge in New South Wales, and later became a Forester and a Freemason.

Portrait of Quong Tart, artist unknown,ca 1880s. State Library of NSW

When the Simpson returned to Sydney, Quong went with them – he wanted to establish himself as a tea and silk merchant. He returned to China to visit his family and establish contacts for his new business. On his return to Sydney in 1881, he opened his first store – a room in the Sydney Arcade, selling dry tea. To advertise his business, he offered free cups of tea to all comers. This proved so popular that he opened the first tea room in Sydney, selling tea and scones at a moderate cost. This was so successful that the same year he opened other tearooms at the Royal Arcade and at the Pavilion at the Zoological Gardens. A year later opened another at 777 George Street. Part of Quong’s success was his insistence that all patrons, no matter whether rich and famous or labourers and simple folk, were to be treated in the same polite, courteous manner – he was known to tell his staff that a fine silk dress did not make a lady, nor did a fine black coat make a gentleman.

During this time he became involved in politics, launching an anti-opium campaign, where he submitted two petitions to the New South Wales government requesting a ban on opium importation. Both were unsuccessful. He also continued working for the welfare of the Chinese, and became involved in many charities, organising many functions such as entertaining more than 200 newsboys in his tea room at Christmas, organised a picnic for the Aborigines of Sydney, and organised a relief fund after the Bulli  Colliery disaster. He also regularly visited orphan homes and mental asylums, having ‘feast days’ where he took cakes and scones for the inmates, coupled with a donation to these organisations.

Quong Tart & family, 1903. L to r: Arthur, Margaret, Vine, Maggie, Florence, Quong, Ettie. Photo reproduced from ‘The Life of Quong Tart’ by Mrs Tart, Sydney, 1911.

In 1884, when Quong was 34-years-old, he met 19-year-old Margaret Scarlett, who taught in a small private school in Braidwood. Margaret was the daughter of Anglo-Irish parents. When the Scarletts moved back to Sydney a short while later, Quong and Margaret’s relationship developed, until Quong asked Margaret’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. George Scarlett refused – though he liked Quong and considered him a friend, he did not approve of the relationship. So Quong and Margaret waited, then married on the 30th of August 1886, the day after her twenty-first birthday. Then, as grandchildren began to appear, Margaret’s parents became reconciled to their daughter’s marriage. Quong and Margaret had six children – four daughters and two sons, though one, Gertrude, died in childhood. All of Quong and Margaret’s children were baptised and educated in different Christian denominations to avoid prejudice.

In 1887, Chinese ambassadors – Generals Ho and Tsing – visited Australia for the first time. Because of Quong’s efforts and valuable services rendered on behalf of his countrymen, he was awarded the honour of Fifth-class Mandarin. Three years later he was further honoured by being made Mandarin of the Fourth-class, combined with the extra degree of the peacock’s feather, a distinction equivalent to the British honour of Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George.

On the 3rd of May 1888 the SS Afghan arrived in Australia, followed a few days later by the Menmuir and the Guthrie. These ships, carrying Chinese passengers from Hong Kong, caused anti-Chinese hostilities to exploded as 5,000 protesters turned out in the streets and on the wharves of Sydney to protest against their arrival, before storming Parliament House. Five days later, Quong led a deputation of Chinese merchants to meet with the Premier of New South Wales, Henry Parks, to requested that the passengers be afforded ‘the rights and privileges to which they were entitled under the present laws and regulations’. They were unsuccessful and the ships occupants were detained and deported under harsh new immigration laws that were rushed through parliament to ensure those aboard the three ships would never be allowed to settle in Australia. The crisis became the beginning of the White Australia Policy, which not only prevented new ‘Celestials’ coming to Australia, but also prevented those Chinese who had already settled in Australia from ever seeing their homeland again, at risk of not being allowed to return.

In 1889, Quong opened another tearoom in King Street – the Loong Shan Tearoom. These premises included a reading room supplied with journals and magazines of interest to ladies, also writing materials to write a letter, all free of cost. It became famous, frequented by Governors and Premiers – and Louisa Lawson, Henry Lawson’s mother, where she and the ladies of the Dawn Club met to organised campaigns for female suffrage in Australia.

In 1891, Quong was appointed to sit on the Royal Commission into Chinese Gambling and Immorality.

Then, in 1898, he opened a dining hall in the new Queen Victoria Markets. This was his most luxurious of all – downstairs was an elegant and spacious tearoom, but upstairs, sitting 500 people, was the Elite Dining Hall. Decorated with a carp pond, fountains, massive ferns, Japanese paintings and massive Chinese wood-carvings in green and gold, it also included a number of men’s and ladies’ lavatories [non-existent previously in Sydney’s public buildings] with hot and cold water laid on, writing rooms, smoking rooms, and separate rooms for ladies to withdraw. It became the most popular social centre in Sydney.

Quong Tart’s funeral procession

Sadly, at a quarter-past eleven on the morning of August 19th., 1902, Quong was savagely beaten about the head with an iron bar during a botched robbery, while in his office in the Queen Victoria Markets – an assault that shocked all of Sydney. The attack left him bedridden for many months, and he never fully recovered. Nearly a year after the attack, he contracted pleurisy and died at 9 p.m. on Sunday, the 26th July 1903. He was 53-years-old. He was buried – dressed in his Mandarin robes and with his Masonic Apron placed on the lid of his coffin – two days later in the Church of England section of Rookwood cemetery, with a Christian service read in Cantonese. Thousands of mourners attended his funeral.

As I researched Quong Tart’s life, and read his biography, written seven years after his death by Margaret Tart, I realised it would be quite reasonable to assume that Bessie, the protagonist of my novel Orphan Rock, would meet Quong Tart, and even befriend him and his wife. After all, Bao, husband of Bessie’s best friend, was just the sort of man Quong would befriend, and this would facilitate their first meeting. When Bessie then went to work for Louisa Lawson at The Dawn, and became a member of the Dawn Club that met in Quong’s Loong Shan Tearoom, what would be more natural than for their friendship to develop further. I was then able to have her accompany Quong on his visits to mental asylums – visits that would one day completely change her life. #QuongTart #China #chinesehistory #Sydney #Sydneyhistory #Chinese #Histfiction