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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mei Quong Tart (1850–1903)

by E. J. Lea-Scarlett

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

Mei Quong Tart (1850-1903), merchant and philanthropist, was born at Hsinning (Sun-ning), Canton Province, China, son of Quong Tart, dealer in ornamental wares. At 9 he went to New South Wales with an uncle who had charge of a shipload of coolies for the Braidwood goldfields. He lived in Thomas Forsyth's store at Bell's Creek and soon joined the family of Robert Percy Simpson whose wife Alice, née Want, taught him English and converted him to Christianity. Encouraged by his guardians to acquire shares in gold claims, he was wealthy at 18. After the Simpsons moved to Sydney he built a cottage at Bell's Creek and lived a gay and leisured life, friendly with both Chinese and Europeans. At Braidwood and Araluen he was prominent in sporting, cultural and religious affairs and organized a series of popular Chinese horse-races at Jembaicumbene. In 1871 he was naturalized on 11 July, joined a lodge of Oddfellows and in 1885 became a Freemason; in 1877 he had been appointed to the board of the public school at Bell's Creek.

Quong visited his family in China in 1881 and on his return opened in Sydney a tea and silk store, followed by a tea shop which was intended to provide customers with samples of China tea, but proved so successful that he began a chain of them. He also agitated for the suppression of opium imports and in 1883 accompanied Sub-Inspector Martin Brennan on an investigation of the Chinese camps in southern New South Wales. Their report revealed widespread opium addiction and on 24 April 1884 Quong presented to Alexander Stuart, colonial secretary, a petition seeking the ban of opium imports. On a visit to Victoria in June he tried to win support for his anti-opium crusade in Melbourne and Ballarat.

On 30 August 1886 Quong married a young Englishwoman, Margaret Scarlett. In 1885-88 he provided a series of free feasts for the inmates of destitute asylums. In 1887 he revived the anti-opium campaign with a second petition to parliament and published a pamphlet, A Plea for the Abolition of the Importation of Opium, but in that year anti-Chinese sentiment flared and he spent much time defending his countrymen and often acted as an interpreter. In January 1888 he was appointed a mandarin of the fifth degree by the Chinese Emperor and again visited China. On his third Chinese tour in 1894 he was advanced in rank to a mandarin of the fourth degree.

In December 1889 Quong opened an elaborate restaurant in King Street; it was followed in December 1898 by a dining hall in the new Queen Victoria Markets which became one of the most popular social centres in Sydney. His employees, mostly Europeans, benefited from his enlightened policy with time off for shopping and sick leave with pay. After August 1890 when he opened a bazaar at Jesmond near Newcastle he was in constant demand as a speaker at charitable and social functions; his Scottish songs and recitations mingled with quaint wit guaranteed full attendances. A zealous Anglican, he had his children baptized and educated in different Christian denominations to avoid charges of prejudice. On 19 August 1902 he was savagely assaulted by an intruder in his office in the Queen Victoria Markets. After a partial recovery he died from pleurisy at his home, Gallop House, Ashfield, on 26 July 1903 and was buried in the Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters.

Quong was the only Chinese who succeeded in being accepted fully by the New South Wales community, but the popular view of him as a Chinese leader was not that of the Chinese community which was split by factions and separated from him by a wide social and cultural gap.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Tart, Quong Tart, or How a Foreigner Succeeded in a British Community (Syd, 1911)
  • Quong Tart papers (Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney).

Citation details

E. J. Lea-Scarlett, 'Mei Quong Tart (1850–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 19 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 5

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