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Sue Wah Chin (1901–2000)

by Natalie Fong

This article was published online in 2024

Mrs Sue Wah Chin, 1952

Mrs Sue Wah Chin, 1952

Library & Archives NT, PH0553/0077

Sue Wah Chin (1901–2000), businesswoman and matriarch, was born on 21 July 1901 in Canton Province (Guangdong), China, only daughter of Chiu Hing Foy, landowner and businessman, and Chiu Wu See. Sue Wah’s family was well-off: her father had a successful business in Baltimore, United States of America, and held a large amount of land in China. Her brother, Chiu Goon Pak, migrated to Baltimore to study medicine, while she trained as a schoolteacher in Canton (Guangzhou). On 4 September 1920 she wed Australian-born Chin Ack Sam, son of a naturalised Chinese merchant, Chin Toy, in an arranged marriage held in his family’s local Chinese village. She gave birth to their first two sons there: Eric (1922) and Raymond (‘Ray,’ 1923).

Over the next decade Chin and her children moved back and forth between China and Australia as, at the time, the Immigration Restriction Act permitted Chinese wives and dependents to enter the country on a short-term basis with a certificate of exemption. In 1929 they arrived in Darwin and set up residence at the rear of her husband’s family’s tailoring business, Fang Chong Loong & Co., in Cavenagh Street. She worked from home as a seamstress for the shop, sewing as many as six pairs of shorts or trousers a day and earning more than the general manager. Other local Chinese women were inspired by her to take up sewing as a source of income. She had a further three children while there: Darwina (1929), Oswald (‘Ossie,’ 1931), and Wellington (1933).

In 1933 Chin returned to China with her children and father-in-law. Sending Eric and Ray to a private boarding school in Canton, she and the younger three lived in the countryside. After the Japanese invasion of China escalated from mid-1937, Chin and her non-Australian-born sons applied to return and, along with their other siblings, landed in Darwin in 1938. They lived in a dwelling in Wood Street and resumed working for Fang Chong Loong. She had another three children: John (1939), Florrie (1940), and Norma (1941).

Chin and her six youngest children were evacuated from Darwin aboard the SS Montoro in January 1942, a few weeks before the city was first bombed by Japanese forces. Disembarking in Townsville, they soon proceeded to Charters Towers and then Adelaide, where she reunited with her husband. The couple owned and operated the Silver Grill Café in Rundle Street. Chin registered as an alien under wartime legislation, but her registration was later cancelled owing to the fact that she had acquired British nationality through her marriage to an Australian-born man. While in South Australia Chin gave birth to three more children: Gordon (1942), Sylvia (1944), and Victor (also known as Michael, 1945).

Returning to Darwin in 1949, the family operated a restaurant at the Don Hotel in partnership with members of the Fong and Chan families. Chin and her husband were responsible for running the kitchen. After a few years they embarked on a new venture. In the early 1920s her husband and his father had purchased the historic ‘Stone Houses’ building in Cavenagh Street. The Royal Australian Navy took it over in May 1943 and the freehold was compulsorily acquired in 1946, but by 1952 the lease was back in the family’s name when her brother-in-law, Chin Gong, repurchased it. Thanks to Chin’s financial acumen, in 1953 she was able to buy the whole property and move her family in. Alongside renting out some of the shopfronts, they opened a business named after her as family matriarch.

The store Sue Wah Chin sold Chinese goods, menswear and children’s wear, police uniforms made of cotton drill, and prison guard uniforms. Customers reportedly came from as far as Alice Springs to be measured for uniforms. Chin assisted the business by sewing buttons onto clothing and sorting the famed salty plums into jars, a favourite of local children from the nearby school. She also cooked and cared for the family, getting up early every morning to make them a hot breakfast.

At five feet (152 cm) tall, Chin was small of stature but very resilient, working hard to support her eleven children and maintain the family’s different businesses. She was registered as an Australian citizen in October 1958 but, remaining deeply connected to Chinese culture, raised her family to respect Confucian and Taoist beliefs. Described as ‘proudly Chinese and fiercely Australian’ (Forrest 2000, 13), she enjoyed literature and opera from her homeland, practised Chinese medicine, and helped her local community as a translator. In her old age she continued cooking for her family and spending time in her garden.

Predeceased by her husband (d. 1968), Chin died on 27 March 2000 and was buried in Darwin general cemetery. She was survived by ten of her children, thirty-five grandchildren, thirty-one great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. The family business was carried on by her son Ossie until 2007, and the Sue Wah Chin Building, formerly the Stone Houses, was placed on the Northern Territory Heritage Register that same year. It stands as a proud testament to her and all the other hard-working Chinese businesspeople who were dedicated to serving their families and the Darwin community.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Chin, John, Norman Chin, and Diane Trimble. Interview by Natalie Fong, 12 March 2022. Recording. In author’s possession
  • Chin, Ray. Interview by Diana Giese, 22 December 1996. Recording and transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Fong, Darwina. Interview by Diana Giese, 18 December 1992. Recording and transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Forrest, Peter. ‘Matriarch Bridged Two Cultures.’ Australian, 12 April 2000, 13
  • McDonald, Ivan, and Helen J. Wilson. Sue Wah Chin Building (and Footpath): Heritage Assessment Report. Brisbane: Ivan McDonald Architects, 1994
  • National Archives of Australia. A435, 1948/4/2487
  • National Archives of Australia. E40, CHIN WAH SUE S229
  • Northern Territory News (Darwin). ‘Empress of NT: Sue Wah Chin.’ 11 April 2000, 26
  • Yee, Glenice. ‘Chin, Sue Wah.’ In Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, revised edition, edited by David Carment, Christine Edward, Barbara James, Robyn Maynard, Alan Powell, and Helen J. Wilson, 95–96. Darwin: Charles Darwin University Press, 2008

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Natalie Fong, 'Chin, Sue Wah (1901–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chin-sue-wah-33257/text41500, published online 2024, accessed online 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mrs Sue Wah Chin, 1952

Mrs Sue Wah Chin, 1952

Library & Archives NT, PH0553/0077

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Chiu, Sue Wah
Birth

21 July, 1901
Canton, Guangdong, China

Death

27 March, 2000 (aged 98)
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

general debility

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.

Occupation