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Alexander (Alec) Fong Lim (1931–1990)

by David Carment

This article was published:

Alexander (Alec) Fong Lim (1931-1990), businessman and lord mayor, was born on 18 February 1931 at Katherine, Northern Territory, sixth of nine children of Fong Fook Lim (George Lim), storekeeper, and his wife Lau Suey Gee (Lorna Lim), both born in the Northern Territory. Alec’s Chinese name was Fong Soong Lim. His grandparents had arrived in the Territory from China during the 1880s. In 1926 his parents were among the first inhabitants of the new town of Katherine, where they built a shop and residence of bush timber and corrugated iron, living in the rear and operating a bakery and general store at the front.

Alec was educated at primary schools at Katherine, Darwin and Alice Springs, and at Scotch College, Adelaide, where he obtained his Intermediate certificate. Returning to Darwin in 1946, he commenced a successful business career. He worked in the Victoria Hotel, which his father owned, until 1965. He had hoped, he later recalled, to attend university, but family ties obliged him to stay. On 19 November 1955 at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, he married with Anglican rites Norma Elizabeth Chin, a packer. Between 1962 and 1977 he was a licensed bookmaker at the Fannie Bay racecourse, Darwin, and from 1967 to 1982 a wholesaler in wines, spirits and groceries. He was a director of Lim’s Rapid Creek Hotel, later the Beachfront Hotel, between 1971 and 1983. Fong Lim also owned at various times a dress shop and a fruit-juice bar, and was a director of the Territory Building Society. A keen sportsman, he enjoyed Australian Rules football, baseball, basketball, cricket, darts, soccer and tennis. He loved all music, from classical to country-and-western.

Active in community affairs, Fong Lim was vice-president of the Northern Territory Spastics Association (1981-85), chairman of the St John Council (1975) and the Northern Territory Australia Day Council (1981-84), and a member of the Darwin Cyclone Tracy Relief Trust Fund (1975-80) and the Northern Territory council of the Australian Bicentennial Authority (from 1981). An admirer of Harry Chan, he was elected lord mayor of the city in a hotly contested poll on 26 May 1984. He held the position until ill health forced his resignation on 9 August 1990. His most notable achievements in office were the introduction of an innovative corporate plan that radically changed the style of council oper­ations; the energetic oversight of Darwin’s sister-city relationship with Ambon, Indonesia; and a highly successful operation to keep Darwin’s beaches clear of rubbish. His daughter Tanya, later recalling his love of the job, observed: `It wasn’t uncommon for him to be going to five functions a day’. He was appointed AM in 1986 and made a freeman of the City of Darwin in 1990.

Fong Lim was remarkably popular. Articulate and intelligent, he had friends from a wide cross-section of the Darwin community and was respected as a hard worker. He was a proud Australian who believed that he lived in a community where Asians were generally well accepted. He did not, however, hesitate to point to the prejudice that his family and other Chinese in the Northern Territory had experienced before and during World War II. Applauding multiculturalism, he urged people to retain their cultural traditions, `which enrich the community’, but encouraged them to think of themselves `first and foremost as Australians’. He liked to tease his Anglo-Saxon friends by saying, `at least we were educated when you were still swinging from the trees’. The Northern Territory News commented at the time of his resignation that he `always presented Darwinians with a jovial face and a solid confidence in the development potential of the city’. Of medium height, he was for a time very solidly built but, after being diagnosed with diabetes as a young man, he succeeded in losing a good deal of weight.

Survived by his wife and their six daughters, Fong Lim died of a cerebrovascular accident on 3 September 1990 in Darwin. Although baptised as a Presbyterian, he had a traditional Chinese funeral before being buried in Darwin general cemetery. He was widely mourned. The chief minister of the Northern Territory, Marshall Perron, captured the feelings of many when he said that Fong Lim was the embodiment of Australia’s most successful multicultural community and a fine ambassador for Darwin during his many years of public life. The administrator of the Northern Territory, James Muirhead, reflected that, growing up in a multicultural society, Fong Lim `understood the potential stresses involved, but there was nothing shallow or racial in his assessment of people’. He did not recognise social barriers; in him there was no humbug. He was `both a strong and a gentle man’. The historian Diana Giese provided perhaps the most perceptive assessment. Fong Lim, she wrote in 1995, was `a generous, outgoing, highly visible role model for those who took on an entire society, and won’.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Giese, Beyond Chinatown (1995)
  • P. A. Rosenzweig, For Service (1995)
  • Northern Territory News, 26 May 1984, p 7, 10 Aug 1990, p 8, 3 Sept 1990, pp 1, 8
  • S. Saunders, interview with A. Fong Lim (typescript, 1981, Northern Territory Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

David Carment, 'Fong Lim, Alexander (Alec) (1931–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 February, 1931
Katherine, Northern Territory, Australia


3 September, 1990 (aged 59)
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.