Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harry Chan (1918–1969)

by A. Heatley

This article was published:

Harry Chan (1918-1969), by unknown photographer

Harry Chan (1918-1969), by unknown photographer

N.Gleeson Collection, Northern Territory Library, PH0120/0118

Harry Chan (1918-1969), businessman, mayor and politician, was born on 14 June 1918 in Darwin and registered as Hen Fook, third of five children of Chin Yepp Gnee (Chan Fon Yuen), a tailor from Hong Kong, and his Darwin-born wife (Wong) Quee She (Shee). Educated at the local public school and at Oriental College, Hong Kong, Harry completed an accountancy qualification by correspondence; he was to become a fellow (1968) of the Australian Society of Accountants. Chan married a typist Lilyan Yuen on 18 January 1941 in Darwin. He worked as a tailor, and in the retail and timber industries, and participated in the affairs of the Chinese community. In 1942 he was evacuated to Sydney where he was employed by the Bank of China.

Back in Darwin after World War II, Chan established a successful grocery business, invested in real estate, became a millionaire and extended his involvement in welfare, social and sporting organizations. His efforts made him a popular figure in what was then a small and intimate town: it was said that he knew the names of almost all Darwin's residents and those of their domestic pets. Chan's gentle, cheerful and courteous nature, together with his generosity, compassion and helpfulness, served him well in seeking public office. In July 1959 he was elected to the Darwin City Council as representative for Fannie Bay Ward. He entered the Legislative Council for the Northern Territory as member for Fannie Bay in December 1962.

In 1965 Chan was unanimously chosen by his parliamentary colleagues to become the first elected president of the Legislative Council; he was to hold the office until his death. The clerk regarded him as 'the most popular person ever to sit in the Council'. Chan also continued as a city councillor (later alderman) until 1966 when he was elected mayor. Believing that his only loyalty was to his constituents, he sat as an Independent on both councils. His tenure of the two most prestigious, elected positions in the Northern Territory was a tribute to his standing and to the racial tolerance of postwar Darwin. Returned as mayor with a resounding majority in 1969, he was appointed O.B.E. that year.

Although Chan never pretended to be a consummate politician, a dynamic leader or a skilled orator, he was diligent and constructive. His character and style suited the roles of mayor and president, both of which he filled with distinction. While he favoured restricted immigration, he hoped to see a multi-racial university established in Darwin. A keen advocate of the Territory's constitutional development, he delivered a paper, 'Problems of an Anachronistic House', to the 1968 conference in Darwin of presiding officers and clerks from Australian parliaments in which he made a reasoned statement of the need for change. He died of cancer on 5 August 1969 in Darwin and was buried in the local cemetery with Anglican rites; his wife, daughter and three sons survived him. A nursing home and the Legislative Assembly building in Darwin are named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. W. Lockwood, The Front Door (Adel, 1968)
  • A. Heatley, The Government of the Northern Territory (Brisb, 1979)
  • A. Heatley, A City Grows (Darwin, 1986)
  • F. Walker, A Short History of the Legislative Council for the Northern Territory (Darwin, 1986)
  • Northern Territory News, 25 Apr 1970.

Citation details

A. Heatley, 'Chan, Harry (1918–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Harry Chan (1918-1969), by unknown photographer

Harry Chan (1918-1969), by unknown photographer

N.Gleeson Collection, Northern Territory Library, PH0120/0118

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Chan Tien Fook
  • Fook, Hen

14 June, 1918
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia


5 August, 1969 (aged 51)
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.