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Quong, Rose Maud (1879–1972)

by Angela Woollacott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Rose Maud Quong (1879-1972), performer and writer, was born on 15 August 1879 in East Melbourne, eldest of four children of Chun Quong, a merchant from Canton (Guangzhou), China, and his Victorian-born wife Annie, née Moy Quong. Rose's parents encouraged their children's education, and she attended University High School. Late in 1896 she passed the matriculation examination at the University of Melbourne in nine subjects, including Latin, algebra and physics, and planned to study medicine. From June 1897, however, Quong was a public servant. She was working as a telephone switch operator in Melbourne for the Postmaster General's Department in 1901. By 1919 she had become a clerk in the Auditor General's Office, central staff, naval and military branch.

Yet her heart lay with the theatre. When questioned by a journalist late in life as to why she never married, she responded: 'I never met anyone I've been interested in. Perhaps I've been too much of an actress. Perhaps I've always acted life'. In the 1890s an Englishman Mr Chisley had taught her to read Shakespeare and poetry. After winning a prize in the elocution competition run by the Australian Natives' Association in 1903 she made her name on the local amateur stage and helped to found the Mermaid Play Society (Melbourne Repertory Players), informally connected with the university. Quong served on the company's executive and acted in works ranging from ancient Greek drama to a play by John Masefield.

In 1924 Quong won a scholarship to study drama in London at the academy of Rosina Filippi. At first Quong felt ambivalent about presenting herself professionally as Chinese. When it became clear that she was not going to succeed as a Shakespearean or general actress, her friends urged her towards a specialized career, that of exotic or Oriental reciter, actress and performer. In December 1924 and January 1925 several British newspapers interviewed her. By September 1925 she had met Arthur Waley, whose translations of Chinese poetry she read at the Writers' Club next month. She was also in demand at private receptions. In November that year, when she recited and commented on Chinese poetry on radio for the British Broadcasting Corporation, the British Australian and New Zealander celebrated her success. In 1929 she appeared with Laurence (Lord) Olivier and the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong in The Circle of Chalk, a play by the German dramatist Klabund, based on Chinese legend. She again appeared in the play in 1931.

The Australian community in London embraced Quong. By 1932 she had launched her 'Circle', a regular event on alternate Sunday evenings at which she would lecture on Chinese themes and recite poetry, probably in her own flat. She travelled frequently, addressing the Leeds Women's Luncheon Club late in 1932. Of medium height and build, she adopted an Oriental style of hair and dress to accentuate her Chinese appearance. For a lecture to the Belfast Alpha Club in October, she dressed in 'a Chinese costume of bright green trousers embroidered in gold and a kimono-like top in soft yellow patterned with snakes' and discussed the position of women in China, the 'Bandit problem' and Chinese language, poems and stories. In February 1934 she embarked on an eleven-month trip to the United States of America.

At the end of 1935 Quong returned to the U.S.A. for another extensive lecture tour, and next year she made her only visit to China, where she was reported as having lectured in Mandarin, which she had learned in London. She studied Chinese culture and literature avidly, and by 1938 had become a welcome guest at the Chinese embassy in London. By then she had adopted the role of cultural interpreter between East and West. This stance underlay the books she later published, Chinese Wit, Wisdom and Written Characters (New York, 1944) and Chinese Ghost and Love Stories (New York, 1946), the latter a work of translation. From January 1939 she lived permanently in New York, continuing to travel and lecture and to run a 'Circle'.

Despite successes, such as appearing in the Broadway production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song in 1958-59, Quong worked hard, lived modestly and frequently delivered lectures. She also used the name Rose Lanu Quong. In 1971 she appeared as herself (an aged Chinese astrologer) in a Canadian film, Eliza's Horoscope. She died on 14 December 1972 in Midtown Hospital, New York, and was buried in Rosedale cemetery, Linden, New Jersey.

Select Bibliography

  • British Australasian and New Zealander, 15 Jan 1925, p 5, 3 Dec 1925, p 14, 8 Dec 1932, p 12, 19 Oct 1933, p 10, 4 Mar 1937, p 14
  • Manhattan Tribune, 13 May 1972, p 7
  • Quong papers (Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, United States of America).

Citation details

Angela Woollacott, 'Quong, Rose Maud (1879–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/quong-rose-maud-13162/text23821, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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