Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Lowe Kong Meng (1831–1888)

by Ching Fatt Yong

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Lowe Kong Meng (1831-1888), by unknown engraver

Lowe Kong Meng (1831-1888), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN27/09/66/4

Lowe Kong Meng (1831-1888), merchant and Chinese community leader, was born as a British subject in Penang, son of Lowe A Quee, merchant, and his wife Chew Tay. His forbears were natives of Sze Yap near Canton. He was educated at a high school in Penang and at 16 went to Mauritius to study English and French under private tutors. His command of these languages partly explains why he was readily recognized as a leader and accepted by both the Chinese and Australian communities.

Kong Meng entered the commercial field by trading extensively with merchants in Mauritius, Calcutta and Singapore and by travelling regularly between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea as a supercargo. In 1853, hearing of the discovery of gold in Victoria, he went to Melbourne in his own ship. A year later he was established in Little Bourke Street as Kong Meng & Co., importers of tea and other delicacies. He was then the only Chinese in Australia to own a fleet of six ships; later some of them were engaged in procuring bêche-de-mer from the Torres Strait. In 1864 he was one of the first to attempt trade between Melbourne and Port Darwin. Among other lines of business he bought a gold mine at Majorca, Victoria, and speculated in many other mining ventures in the colony. He was also connected with banking and insurance. With Louis Ah Mouy he served on the provisional committee of the new Commercial Bank of Australia in 1866 and they were amongst its most important shareholders. He represented the Chinese insurance companies, the On Tai and Man On, and had large interests in Hong Kong and Cairns, Queensland, where he helped to found the Hop Wah Sugar Co. which crushed its first sugar in 1882. Very successful in the variety and extent of his business he was probably the wealthiest Chinese resident in Melbourne as claimed by the Mount Alexander Mail in 1888.

A popular and enlightened leader in Melbourne's Chinese community, Kong Meng supervised Chinese clubs, settled disputes among his countrymen, helped them to find work and urged them to respect the British flag, law and justice. In 1859 he initiated a petition against the annual residence tax of £4 on every Chinese resident. He and two other Chinese leaders, Cheong Cheok Hong and Louis Ah Mouy, wrote a pamphlet in 1879 on The Chinese Question in Australia, 1878-1879, presenting the Chinese case on immigration restrictions. One of the main arguments was that the British government should apply the 1860 Peking Treaty to allow Chinese migrants to enter British territories as it gave reciprocal access to Britishers to enter China. In 1887 with other leading Chinese in Melbourne he helped to organize the Victorian Chinese petition to the two visiting Chinese commissioners, General Wong Yung Ho and U Tsing, against anti-Chinese immigration restriction laws. During the 1888 anti-Chinese campaigns in both New South Wales and Victoria, Kong Meng again took an active part in protesting against anti-Chinese legislation.

Despite his attitude towards the immigration issue, Kong Meng was far from unpopular and was elected by the Victorian government as a commissioner for the Melbourne Exhibitions in 1880 and 1888. Contemporary Australian writers described him as 'cultured', 'superior', 'influential' and 'highly esteemed', a gentleman with an 'exceedingly generous disposition' who 'gave liberally to churches and public charities, without respect to creed and denomination'. His leadership of the Chinese community in Victoria was also recognized by Emperor T'ung Ch'ih, who conferred on him the title of mandarin of the blue button, civil order, in 1863.

On 4 February 1860 in Melbourne Kong Meng married Mary Ann, daughter of William Prussia of Tasmania. He died on 22 October 1888 at his home in Malvern, survived by his widow and twelve children. The family later left Malvern and established a residential hotel at Fitzroy Street, St Kilda.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men (Melb, 1887)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • I. Selby, History of Melbourne (Melb, 1924)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1856-57 (D19)
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 May 1859
  • Illustrated Australian News, 20 Sept 1866
  • Mount Alexander Mail, 5 May 1888
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Oct 1888
  • Leader (Melbourne), 27 Oct 1888
  • Australasian Sketcher, 29 Nov 1888
  • G. A. Oddie, The Chinese in Victoria, 1870-1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1959).

Citation details

Ching Fatt Yong, 'Lowe Kong Meng (1831–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lowe-kong-meng-4043/text6431, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017