Mei Quong Tart

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This is a Chinese name; the family name is Mei.
Mei Quong Tart
Qt portrait.jpg
Traditional Chinese 梅光達
Simplified Chinese 梅光达

Mei Quong Tart (1850–1903) was a leading nineteenth century Sydney merchant from China. He was one of Sydney's most famous and well-loved personalities and made a significant impact on the social and political scene of Sydney at a time of strong anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia. In Australia, he is usually referred to by his given name, "Quong Tart," or by a shortened nickname, "Quong."

Public life[edit]

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

A prominent businessman, he owned a network of tearooms in the Sydney Arcade, the Royal Arcade and King Street. His crowning success was the ‘snotty state’ in the Queen Victoria Market, now the Queen Victoria Building. He was also a community leader, well connected with the local political and social elites. An acting consular to the imperial Chinese government at the time, the Chinese Emperor made him an honorary Mandarin of the fifth degree in 1887, in acknowledgment of his service to the Overseas Chinese community and to European-Chinese relations in Australia.[1] In 1894, he was advanced to the fourth degree and was appointed Mandarin of the Blue Button, honoured by the Dragon Throne with the Peacock Feather.[2]

Bon voyage letter from employees (20 April 1894)

An active philanthropist, he often provided dinners, gifts and entertainment at his own expense for recipients ranging from the Benevolent Society home at Liverpool, to the newsboys of Ashfield, Summer Hill, Croydon and Burwood. From 1885 to 1888, he provided a series of dinners for the inmates of destitute asylums.[3]

He also had progressive ideas about Sydney social politics. His tea rooms were the site of the first meetings of Sydney's suffragettes, and he devised new and improved employment policies for staff, such as paid sick leave.[3]

He was a spokesman for the Chinese community, often advocating for the rights of Chinese-Australians and working as an interpreter. He was one of the founders of the first Chinese merchants association in Sydney, titled the Lin Yik Tong.[1]

He campaigned against the opium trade, and in 1883 went on an investigation to the Chinese camps in Southern New South Wales. The report revealed widespread opium addiction, and on 24 April 1884, Quong Tart presented a petition to the colonial secretary requesting the ban of opium imports. In June that year Quong Tart also tried to win support for a ban of opium in Melbourne and Ballarat, Victoria. In 1887, he presented a second petition to parliament, and produced a pamphlet titled A Plea for the Abolition of the Importation of Opium.[3]

He was also part of the NSW Royal Commission on Alleged Chinese Gambling and Immorality and Charges of Bribery Against Members of the Police Force from 1891 to 1892.[1]

Early life[edit]

Mei Quong Tart was born in 1850 in the village of Shandi[4] (山底), Duanfen (端芬鎮) in southern Taishan, Guangdong province, China.[5][6] His father, also named Quong Tart, was a fairly successful merchant[2] dealing in ornamental wares.[3] He immigrated to Australia in 1859 with his uncle, transporting a shipload of coolies to the goldfields around Araluen and Braidwood in regional New South Wales. Once in Braidwood, Quong Tart lived at Bell's Creek in the store of Scottish Thomas Forsyth.

In the following years, he was taken in by the wealthy family of Robert Percy Simpson, whose wife Alice Simpson, née Want, was charmed by his Scottish accent.[2] Under the Simpsons, Quong Tart learnt to behave as a proper English gentleman[5] and was converted to Christianity.[3]

Aged just 21, Quong Tart built a cottage at Bell's Creek with a small fortune developed from investing in gold claims and was prominent in sporting, cultural and religious affairs. On 11 July 1871 he became a naturalised British subject, joined the Freemasons in 1885, and in 1877 he was appointed to the board of the Bell's Creek public school.[3]

In 1881 he returned to Taishan, China at the request of his family, and set up operations for a tea trade to Sydney. On returning to Sydney, he established a chain of silk stores and tea shops. The tea shops were intended to provide customers with samples of tea, but became so successful that he turned his shops into tea rooms, the first tea rooms in Sydney.[3]

On 30 August 1886 he married a young English school teacher, Margaret Scarlett.[3] Her family, although friends with Tart's, did not approve of the union and her father refused to attend the wedding.[2]

Personal life[edit]

Bust of Quong Tart near Ashfield train station

Quong Tart had two sons and four daughters, who, although Anglican himself, baptised in different denominations to avoid charges of prejudice.[3] He also had a wife in China (a little-known fact to many Australians) with whom he produced many descendants, several of whom still reside in his home village of Long Xin and in the U.S.[citation needed]

Quong Tart and his family lived in his mansion, 'Gallop House', in the Sydney suburb of Ashfield, while his four daughters attended the nearby Presbyterian Ladies' College at Croydon, the first Asian students to attend the school.[7]

He was well known as a uniquely Victorian character, being a Chinese Australian who adopted the dress and manners of an English gentleman, all while performing Scottish songs on his bagpipe. He is distinguished as the first Chinese person in Australia to be initiated into the Society of Freemasons.

Despite the virulent anti-Chinese agitation in Australia at the time, Quong Tart was "as well known as the Governor himself" and "quite as popular among all classes" in NSW (Daily Telegraph, 10 October 1897).

Death[edit]

On 19 August 1902, Quong Tart was brutally bashed with an iron bar and robbed of a few pounds at his office in the Queen Victoria Building, a crime that shocked Sydney. The attacker, Frederick Duggan, described as a "dim-witted thug",[2] was jailed for 12 years, a light sentence for a crime that police believed was a simple robbery gone wrong. After the attack he never fully recovered, and died from pleurisy[3] at his Ashfield home 11 months later, in July 1903, aged 53. His funeral, held on July 23, 1903 featured the "who's who" of Sydney, and was widely covered in the newspapers. Two hundred men escorted the coffin from his Ashfield mansion to a train which transported the funeral party to Rookwood Cemetery.[2] There, thousands of Sydneysiders gathered to pay their last respects. Quong Tart was dressed in his ceremonial robes of a Mandarin of the Blue Button, under his masonic apron.

Many believe that his attack and consequential death was more than a burglary mishap. Letters from his Chinese friends indicate that many of them had suspicions about Quong Tart's death, believing that it could have been arranged by "the Western people" or by other jealous Chinese businessmen.[2]

As a commemoration, in 1998 a statue was erected for him in Ashfield. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and four daughters.

Tea rooms[edit]

In December 1889, Quong Tart opened the Loong Shan Tea Giyse at 137 King Street, Sydney. It was his grandest Tea room, with marble fountains and ponds with golden carp.[2] The tea and grill rooms occupied the ground floor, while on the first floor there was a reading room. It soon became one of Sydney’s most important meeting places. The site is now part of the Glasshouse shopping complex, home to the Tea Centre.

With construction of the Queen Victoria Market building being completed in 1898, Quong Tart saw it as an opportunity to expand his business and set up a tea room with additional cloak and smoke room.

Quong Tart’s Elite Hall in the Queen Victoria Market Building was formally opened by the Mayor of Sydney, Matthew Harris, in 1898. The tea rooms were on the ground floor near the centre of the markets, fronting George Street. A plush-carpeted staircase led to the function hall on the first floor. The Elite Hall had capacity for nearly 500 people and included a stage with an elaborately carved proscenium. At the other end was the Elite Dining Saloon, described as having ‘elegant appointments’.

Quong Tart's tea rooms were also located at 777 George St, in Moore Park Zoo, and in the Haymarket theatre district.[2]

Racehorses[edit]

Between 1887 and 1927, a number of racehorses were named for Quong Tart.[8]

Centenary celebrations[edit]

To mark the centenary since Quong Tart's passing, a 12-month celebration was held in venues throughout Sydney.

During July and August 2004, an exhibition was held in the Queen Victoria Building titled, "No Ordinary Man. Sydney's Quong Tart: citizen, merchant & philanthropist". Curated by Dr Nicola Teffer, it featured information and photographs documenting Quong Tart's comprehensive life in China and Australia and was coordinated by the Quong Tart Commemoration Committee. A 32 page illustrated catalogue was also made available.

The Powerhouse Museum also held a 3-day international conference at the start of July, "Quong Tart and his time, 1850-1903" which featured a multimedia performance held at the University of Technology, called "Tales of a Tartan Mandarin - The Story of Quong Tart".

The QVB Tearoom and the Tea Centre on King St also arranged a special menu item of "quong tarts", a unique fruit tart, to celebrate their historical link with Mei Quong Tart.

Descendants[edit]

  • Josh Quong Tart, Australian actor (Great-grandson)
  • Harrison Gordon Rorke, Australian Rugby Union Player + Inventor of the "Shooey standardized drinking method" (Great-Great-grandson)

Further reading[edit]

  • Australian Mandarin: The Life and Times of Quong Tart, by Robert Travers; Kangaroo Press 1981

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Chinese-Australian Historical Images in Australia: Tart, Quong (1850 - 1903)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i "The man who brought cafe society to town", The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), July 18, 2003 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lea-Scarlett, E. J. (1974). "Mei Quong Tart (1850 - 1903)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5. Melbourne, Victoria: Melbourne University Press. pp. 234–235. 
  4. ^ Shan Dai, Roots Village database
  5. ^ a b Chinese Australian Historical Society biography[dead link]
  6. ^ (Chinese) 梅光达和他的中国情结(图)
  7. ^ McFarlane, John (1988). "Ex-Students". The Golden Hope: Presbyterian Ladies' College, Sydney 1888-1988. Croydon, NSW: P.L.C Council, Presbyterian Ladies' College, Sydney. pp. 208–215. ISBN 0-9597340-1-5. 
  8. ^ "Entries, Weights, &c.". Australian Town and Country Journal (NSW : 1870 - 1907) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 12 March 1887. p. 37. Retrieved 17 April 2013.