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James Chung Gon (1854–1952)

by Jill Cassidy

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James Chung Gon (1854-1952), Chinese patriarch and businessman, was born on 23 July 1854 in Sunwui village, Kwangtung Province, China, reputedly of a once wealthy family. While working in a junk that was carrying tea to Hong Kong for transport to Australia, he heard of the gold diggings in Victoria and in 1873 made his way to Sandhurst (Bendigo). He found mining-life difficult and encountered racist sentiment, so moved to Tasmania, reaching Launceston on 16 April 1878. After being employed in the tin mines at Branxholm, and as a market gardener and woodcutter on the Lefroy goldfields, he came back to Launceston and sold vegetables.

Having learned English in the vestry of the local Baptist church, Chung Gon was naturalized on 2 November 1882. He visited China in 1885 where he married Mei (Mary) Ying Lee, daughter of a wealthy silkworm-farmer; they were to have twelve children. Next year Chung Gon sailed for Tasmania, leaving his pregnant wife with her family.

With his friend Frank Walker, Chung Gon found a rich seam of tin at South Mount Cameron; from the proceeds of its sale, he bought 200 acres (81 ha) at Turners Marsh and established a commercial orchard. In 1892 he sent for his family, including 12-year-old Rose, who had been given to them as a wedding present. They treated her as a daughter and subsequently arranged her marriage to James Chuey, a merchant and grazier of Junee, New South Wales. Chung Gon was baptized a Christian in 1893 and later became a Baptist lay preacher.

About 1904 Chung Gon sold his orchard and moved to Launceston, intending to fulfil a promise to his wife that they would return to China. When his money was misappropriated he was forced to begin again as a market gardener: he leased part of Walker's nursery at South Launceston and eventually bought 100 acres (40 ha) at Relbia on which to raise pigs and grow fruit and vegetables.

He sent two of his sons, Joseph (1895-1977) and Samuel (1901-1977) to China to be educated. World War I postponed the departure of the rest of the family. Joseph returned to Tasmania to help his father; Samuel stayed to study agriculture at Ling Nam University, Canton. Mary's death in 1919 led James to change his mind about living permanently in China, but he did revisit that country.

Joseph Chung Gon read constantly to keep abreast of innovations in horticulture; he is said to have pioneered the commercial use of irrigation in Northern Tasmania and to have adapted agricultural machinery. During long periods when chronic tuberculosis prevented him from working, his sisters Ann and Doris helped on the farm. Ann became well known in the late 1930s for her activities in support of the Chinese Women's Association in its appeal to help the Chinese during their war with Japan. Joseph acted as an interpreter for the local Chinese community and established a young people's club.

In 1920 Samuel had returned to Launceston, and on 30 September 1944 he married Queenie Young. He moved with his family to Sydney in 1951 to run his brother-in-law's fish business, and later owned a trading company and invested in property. A younger son, Edward (b.1905), opened the Canton Gift Store in partnership with his sister Lily.  Later the family also owned the Peking Gift Store in Hobart.

In 1937 the Launceston City Council had resumed James Chung Gon's nursery for a sportsground; he then took up nearby land. A distinguished-looking man, he was widely known as 'Daddy Chung'. Among his civic activities, he collected money from the Chinese community for the local hospital and helped to have the Chinese joss-house shifted from Weldborough to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston. Esteemed for his probity, friendliness and generosity to those in need, he was devoted to his family. He died on 23 February 1952 at his Launceston home and was buried with Baptist forms in Carr Villa cemetery; four of his five sons and six of his seven daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Mercury (Hobart), 21 Sept 1942, 25 Feb 1952
  • Examiner (Launceston), 25 Feb 1952, 27 Oct 1977
  • private information.

Citation details

Jill Cassidy, 'Chung Gon, James (1854–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 June 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

Life Summary [details]


23 July, 1854
Sunwui, Guangdong, China


23 February, 1952 (aged 97)
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

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