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Selina Hassan (1901–1996)

by Natalie Fong

This article was published online in 2023

Selina Hassan (1901-1996), businesswoman and Chinese community leader, was born Selina Lee Hang Gong on 22 February 1901 in Palmerston (Darwin), one of seven children of Hong Kong-born Emiline Lee Hang Gong, née Louie/Louey (also known as Yet Tie, Emily, or Minnie), and her husband, Victorian-born Arthur Edward Lee Hang Gong, businessman, police constable, and interpreter. Selina’s paternal grandparents were the well-known Chinese merchant Lee Hang Gong and the renowned midwife Sarah Bowman, who had moved their family from Creswick, Victoria, to Darwin around 1880, where they opened a business. Often referred to as the Lee Hang Gongs, the Lees (the more accurate name for the family) became embedded in the local community.

In 1902 or 1903 Lee’s parents had success in tin mining at West Arm and used their earnings to travel with their children to Hong Kong in 1905. Tragedy ensued as her youngest sister, Florence, died that year, followed by her father in 1906. In 1908 her mother returned to Australia, leaving Lee and two of her brothers to live with their father’s second wife—whom he had also married in line with Chinese custom—in Canton (Guangdong). Two years later the children returned to the Northern Territory, where Lee helped care for her paralysed grandmother while her mother supported the family by running a business that sold tripe soup, snacks, and soft drinks. After her grandmother’s death she attended convent school and later undertook a further year of study at Darwin Public School, though her education was limited to grade three. Bilingual in Cantonese and English, she later reflected that her learning had been primarily by ‘experience and travelling and reading’ and that she ‘never had enough education’ (Hassan 1983, 7).

Lee attracted the attention of Ali (also Ally) Hassan, a Chinese Indian Muslim who was born in Hong Kong and had come to Australia as a crewmember aboard a pearl lugger before becoming a butcher. He was over twice her age, and it is unclear whether she knew at the time that he had previously married a Japanese woman named Omaka (also Amooka or Omooka) Sagaguchi in Palmerston in 1903 and that she was still living. This may explain why the pair travelled to Canton in 1919 to wed, though that was a common custom for Chinese Australian couples. They honeymooned in Japan before returning to Darwin via Shanghai. Once settled they began their family, adopting their first child, Ruby—who was a relative’s daughter—around 1920. The couple had three more children together: Sophie May in 1921 (who died at less than two months old), Serapha Constance (Connie) in 1924, and Allan in 1928.

Ali Hassan died suddenly of a stroke in 1929, making his wife a widow at twenty-eight with three young children in her care. He left her the bulk of his estate, including two lots on Cavenagh Street in central Darwin where their family home and several businesses stood. The bequest was unsuccessfully disputed in court between 1930 and 1935 by his first wife. To support her young family, Hassan—working with other members of Darwin’s Chinese community, including Charlie Houng On Yee and her brother, Willie—offered cars for hire and in 1932 established her own tailoring and general drapery store, S. Hassan & Co., which featured products such as rubber goods imported from Singapore.

An active member of Darwin’s Kuomintang branch (KMT, a Chinese nationalist political party), Hassan succeeded her sister-in-law, Lena Lee Hang Gong, in 1930 as the only woman on the executive, serving as secretary. In 1932 she presented an address at a banquet for the consul-general for China in Australia, W. P. Chen, in which she praised the KMT for its progressive views on Chinese women. Further evidence of her status within the local community is the fact that she acted as consular agent for China in Darwin in 1932. In 1936 she was a signatory to a letter of commendation sent by leading Chinese residents to the outgoing Northern Territory administrator, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Weddell. Of the five signatories, she was the only woman.

In February 1938 Hassan married Hamdan Bin Mahomed Amid, a Malayan indentured pearling seaman. After he completed his indenture, he was ordered to leave Australia and moved to Singapore. Hassan and the rest of the family joined him in 1940—an opportunity that allowed the children to learn more about their Islamic faith. Trapped there by the subsequent Japanese occupation (except for Ruby, who had returned to Darwin for her marriage in November 1940), the family was compulsorily domiciled in a Malayan kampong (village) for the rest of World War II. While she was still in Singapore, the Commonwealth government compulsorily acquired Hassan’s holdings in Darwin. Aided by her Australian solicitor, she made a compensation claim but recovered only a fraction of what the property was worth.

After the war Hassan applied for the family to resettle in Australia. She and her eighteen-year-old son arrived in Fremantle in July 1946; her daughter, Connie, and young grandson followed, arriving in January the following year. But with the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act in operation, they initially could obtain only a temporary student visa for Hassan’s Malayan-born son-in-law, whom her daughter had married in Singapore. He was eventually naturalised in 1957, but Hassan’s husband was prohibited entry altogether. The pair divorced in 1947 and Amid remained in Singapore.

Melbourne became Hassan’s new home. She supported her family by running a milk bar and newsagency at East Richmond until 1953, then worked as a nurse. She returned to visit Darwin several times during this period. In the final decades of her life she helped care for her grandchildren, recorded the details of her family history, shared her story in interviews, and in 1986 participated in Survival and Celebration, an exhibition and seminar series on Chinese Australian women. Always ‘beautifully dressed and groomed,’ Hassan was sociable and described as being ‘proud to hail from a family that symbolised the strength of multicultural Australia’ (Herald Sun 1996, 83). She died on 30 May 1996 in Melbourne, survived by her daughters Ruby and Connie and several grandchildren, and was buried at Northern Memorial Park, Glenroy, Victoria. Her life story exemplifies the resilience and resourcefulness of Australian Chinese women who sustained their families through adversity.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Chinese-Australian Historical Images in Australia. ‘Lee, Selina.’ Last modified 8 November 2005. Accessed 18 August 2022. https://www.chia.chinesemuseum.com.au/biogs/CH00798b.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • Fong, Natalie. ‘The Emergence of Chinese Businesswomen in Darwin, 1910–1940.’ In Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia, edited by Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez, 76–104. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2021
  • Hassan, Selina. Interview by Barbara James, 1 January 1983. Transcript. NTRS 226/P0001/14, TS 236. Library & Archives NT
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Selina Hassan: Rich Life of Cultural Mix.’ 31 July 1996, 83
  • Library & Archives NT. NTRS 245/P0019/1, Firm 27, Firm Registration File, S Hassan and Company [Tailors and Merchants]
  • Martínez, Julia. ‘Chinese Politics in Darwin: Interconnections between the Wah On Society and the Kuo Min Tang.’ In Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, edited by Sophie Couchman and Kate Bagnall, 240–66. Leiden: Brill, 2015
  • National Archives of Australia. A446, 1954/61282
  • National Archives of Australia. A877, CL24137
  • National Archives of Australia. E752, 1919/21
  • Northern Standard (Darwin). ‘Denizens of the Jungle: At Home at Hassans.’ 17 February 1933, 9
  • White, Sally. A Patchwork Heritage: Thirteen Australian Families. Blackburn, Vic.: Collins Dove, 1986

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Natalie Fong, 'Hassan, Selina (1901–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hassan-selina-32717/text40669, published online 2023, accessed online 22 February 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Selina Hassan, 1923

Selina Hassan, 1923

Library & Archives NT, PH0650/0161

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lee Hang Gong, Selina
  • Lee, Selina
Birth

22 February, 1901
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Death

30 May, 1996 (aged 95)
Melbourne, Victoria, 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.

Occupation
Political Activism
Workplaces