Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shen, Margaret (1942–1994)

by Michelle Cavanagh

This article was published online in 2018

Margaret Shen (1942–1994), restaurateur and businesswoman, was born on 22 January 1942 in Peking (Beijing), elder of two children of Tang Yu, Chinese Air Force pilot, and his wife Shen Hung Wen (later Irene). The family lived a privileged life in the environs of the Summer Palace, as Margaret’s maternal grandfather was the chief justice. Her father was killed in January 1946, and her mother reverted to her maiden name; Margaret became Shen Wa. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 Irene moved her children and her mother, Shen Chau Shi, out of China. With the help of family and friends, they travelled to Hong Kong, via Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Taiwan.

Once in Hong Kong, Shen Wa learnt English, became a Catholic, and took the name of Margaret. By 1954 she had sufficient English to enable her to attend St Mary’s School in Kowloon, where she spent a year before completing studies in England and at a finishing school in Switzerland. She returned to Hong Kong in 1960, by which time her mother had married Walter Scragg, a senior Hong Kong police officer, and she had a half-brother.

As an eighteen-year-old Shen was fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese, as well as English, later adding Italian and German, together with a good knowledge of other European languages. These language skills helped to gain her a job as an interpreter with the special branch of the Hong Kong police. In 1961 at the Union Church she married Bruce Beaumont, an Australian advertising executive; the couple later lived in Bangkok where a daughter, Michelle, was born. It was a short-lived marriage, and after their divorce she returned to Hong Kong with their daughter, taking a job with the Australian Trade Commission.

By 1963 Shen was dabbling in modelling, appearing in a Qantas campaign promoting its Asian destinations. Constantly on the move, she left her daughter with her mother and step-father—Michelle would live with them until aged twelve—and went to London to undertake a business course (1964–65). By 1966 she was in New York studying at the New York Institute of Photography. In 1968, with Trevor Wilson, she published A Complete Guide to the Ski Trails of Australia and New Zealand; she was also the photographer for Lenk (1968), which documented skiing in the Swiss Alps, where her daughter joined her for a short while.

Shen's mother and stepfather had left Hong Kong by early 1966, first settling in New Zealand, before moving to Australia. By 1969 she herself had moved to Sydney, initially joining a group of photographers in a North Sydney studio and having photographs published in Men in Vogue. Specialising in children’s portraits, she held an exhibition in 1969. Neither modelling nor a photographic career had satisfied her entrepreneurial spirit. But after beginning to work for Oliver Shaul as a hostess at his Summit Restaurant, she discovered a love for the restaurant industry.

With Peter Steele, her then de facto and business partner, Shen looked for premises in which to open a Chinese restaurant. They took a lease in Cremorne Plaza, which became the Peking Palace: an up-market Chinese restaurant, rich in décor and introducing dishes from northern China, especially Peking and Szechuan specialities. It was different from most such restaurants of the time, which usually served only Cantonese food on plastic tabletops. Persuading one of Sydney’s most respected Chinese chefs, Lum Bah, to join her, she flew to Hong Kong to recruit another. Having always wanted to repay Chan Kum Fook—then a chef in Hong Kong—for helping her family to flee from China, she offered him a job, which he accepted. Opening in 1973, the Peking Palace was immediately successful. It became a favourite for advertising executives and those living on the lower North Shore. Concurrently, Shen and her friend Rosalie Wattel opened two shops in Sydney, selling handbags made from Indian snakeskin. The business folded after the Indian government largely outlawed the harvesting of snakes in 1972.

In September 1984 Shen opened another Chinese restaurant, Noble House, the name referencing James Clavell's book of that title. Located in the city’s financial district, Noble House became popular with politicians, lawyers, police, businessmen, stockbrokers, and merchant bankers. Her wit and taste helped her establish a loyal customer base, and her affable personality meant she became her customers’ friend, albeit one who knew when discretion was needed. Providing private rooms, Noble House was somewhere politicians could meet for private discussions while dining. For her it was hard work: up early every second day to source produce from the Sydney Fish Market, most days working until midnight.

By 1987 Shen had taken on another venture, contracting the building of a Hong Kong-style floating restaurant, the Tai Pan. Designed to seat five hundred diners, the thirty-five-metre vessel was to run four cruises daily, for morning and afternoon coffee, lunch, and dinner. Opening in 1988 it was initially a success. However, there were those who waged a campaign against the Tai Pan, on aesthetic grounds; among them was the critic Leo Schofield. ‘Sink the Taipanic’ became a catch cry, letters to the editor appeared in the Sydney broadsheets, and it became a subject on talkback radio. Those close to Shen felt that many of the objections were political, as the Tai Pan took business from other restaurants. Eventually the restaurant was sold at a loss. By December 1990 it was being towed out of Sydney Harbour.

While Noble House was providing a good income, the landlord was not willing to commit to a long-term lease, so Shen began looking for other ventures. One such enterprise was acquiring a factory in Xi’an, China, to produce phosphate for sale in Australia as fertiliser. Having finalised a joint-venture agreement for her Sydney-based company, China Sea International Trading Group, she was to join a delegation seeking stronger trade relations between New South Wales and China, led by the State’s premier, John Fahey. 

On 6 June 1994 Shen boarded a flight to Guangzhou, where she was to meet the other delegates. The plane crashed shortly after take-off from Xi’an, resulting in the deaths of all on board. When her body was brought back to Sydney two weeks later, and with parliament suspended for the day as a mark of respect, a requiem Mass was held at St Mary’s Church, North Sydney; she was buried in Frenchs Forest cemetery. Her daughter and her de facto partner Barry Forrester survived her. Although best known for the Peking Palace, Noble House, and Tai Pan, Shen had owned about six restaurants, including the Summer Palace at Bondi and Maharajas Palace—sourcing spices and staff from India—on Sydney's Bridge Street. Shen’s charm, strength of character, and generosity were qualities which saw her rise to fame during a time when racial prejudice against the Chinese was still fairly strong.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Ballantyne, Tom. ‘Chinese Food Afloat.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 10 November 1987, 10

  • Beaumont, Michelle. Personal communication

  • Johnson, Sue. ‘Deals Done Over Classy Chinese.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 1986, Good Living 1, 3

  • Pao-Lo, Lin. ‘Restaurateur With an Appetite for Challenge.’ Australian, 16 June 1994, 11

  • Steele, Peter. Personal communication

  • Urban Design Forum. ‘Sink the Taipanic.’ No. 14 (March 1991): 1

  • Wattel, Rosalie. Personal communication

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michelle Cavanagh, 'Shen, Margaret (1942–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shen-margaret-20708/text31504, published online 2018, accessed online 7 December 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Beaumont, Margaret
  • Shen, Wa
Birth

22 January 1942
Beijing, China

Death

6 June 1994
Xian, China

Cause of Death

air crash

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation