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Way Kee (1824–1892)

by Jane Lydon

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

Way Kee (c.1824-1892), storekeeper, was born in Canton (Guangzhou), China, son of Toy Yue, a merchant, of the Dongguan (Doong Goong) clan, and claimed to have come to Sydney about 1853. He had commenced business in the Rocks by 1871 and five years later leased 164-68 Lower George Street, where he demolished the existing buildings and built three new stores, two of which he rented out. Typical of the ten or eleven elite Chinese merchants who ran regional trading networks through their businesses in Lower George Street, Way Kee imported Chinese goods for sale in Australia, including through country stores at Bourke, Bega and Hillston and at Stanthorpe, Queensland, remitting some £7000 to £8000 in gold to Hong Kong in 1891. During the 1880s he rented a market garden at Lane Cove, Sydney, from a local policeman for £30 a year, employing four men.

Way Kee's influential position entailed obligations, such as serving from 1857 to 1889 as treasurer of the Koon Yee Tong, an association that returned the bodies of the deceased to their homes in China. Poorer Chinese gardeners and hawkers entrusted him with their savings; if they were in trouble with the police, he would bail them out. Through his firm he sponsored Chinese migrants, housed new arrivals, provided information and assistance—especially with bureaucratic procedures—and channelled job-seekers to the market gardens or country towns. A grandson Ah Wah (War Moo) arrived from China in 1881 and later became his partner.

Although anti-Chinese feeling was strong, wealthy merchants were often able to maintain their independence. Way Kee spoke no English, and stated through an interpreter: 'I very seldom go out. I am in the store all day'. He returned to China four times, marrying on four occasions. He brought his fourth wife Jung See to Sydney, with Ah Wah's wife, in 1891. Like other merchants, at times he sought to subvert restrictive immigration regulations. In June 1890 seven stowaways were detected aboard the Changsha, three destined for Way Kee's business.

A cultural intermediary, Way Kee traded with local European firms, including those of Christopher Newton and Sigmond Hoffnung, and developed personal contacts with customs and wharf officials. Like Quong Tart and other successful Sydney merchants, he was a generous philanthropist, who campaigned against the 'vices' of the lower classes of overseas Chinese, such as opium smoking. He gave evidence to the 1891 royal commission on alleged Chinese gambling and immorality.

Way Kee died of heart disease on 15 August 1892 at his home in Sydney. Following a Christian service conducted by the Rev. Young Choy, his funeral procession through the city, attended by a crowd of about 3000 Chinese representing all major clan associations, was a notable and colourful event. A mile (1.6 km) in length, with elaborate banners and two brass bands, it moved from his house along George Street to the Town Hall, then north to Smith's Wharf. Here a shrine had been erected for a Chinese ceremony before his body was placed aboard the Tsinan for return to China. His wife, and five sons of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors (Syd, 1996)
  • J. Lydon, Many Inventions (Melb, 1999)
  • Report of the Royal Commission on Alleged Chinese Gambling and Immorality, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1891-2, vol 8, p 467
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1892, p 4
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 Sept 1892, p 4.

Citation details

Jane Lydon, 'Way Kee (1824–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/way-kee-13240/text7145, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 October 2019.

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

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