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Charles Que Fong (Charlie) Lee (1913–1996)

by Amanda Rasmussen

This article was published online in 2020

Charles Que Fong Lee (1913–1996), diplomat, was born on 5 May 1913 at Pine Creek, Northern Territory, third of four children and first-born son of Youin Gon Lee, cook, and his wife Mow Tam (Margaret), both Chinese-born. Excelling at school in Darwin, Charlie won a scholarship in 1927 that entitled him to three years tuition at any secondary school in Queensland, books, a stipend, and a return steamer fare each year. He attended The Southport School and, later, the University of Queensland (BA, 1935). A fine sprinter on the athletics track, he played rugby union for the university and the State; a sports journalist judged ‘the little Varsity’ half-back ‘the best scrum worker in Australia’ (Horsley 1934, 19).

In 1936 Lee joined the Commonwealth Public Service. His appointment as a clerk in the Department of Trade and Customs, Canberra, was reported around the country, newspaper headlines signalling the singularity of the occasion: for example, ‘Chinese Graduate in Federal Public Service’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1936, 17) and ‘Federal Service. Full-Blooded Chinese Admitted’ (Mercury 1936, 11). He was posted to Sydney in 1937. Bilingual in a dialect of Cantonese and English, he studied Japanese part time at the University of Sydney; later he learnt Mandarin. After transferring to the Department of External Affairs in 1941, he was appointed third secretary to the first Australian legation to the Republic of China; the legation was headed by Sir Frederick Eggleston and located in the wartime capital Chungking (Chongqing). An engaging character, Lee quickly gained access to the inner circles of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government of the Republic of China, and their rivals, the Chinese Communist Party, making friends on both sides. He was also well known among diplomats, intelligence agents, and journalists from the United States of America, the Soviet Union, Britain, and Australia. Many regarded him as ‘a puzzle’; ‘here was a man in China who was clearly Chinese but who represented Australia’ (Hamilton 2004, 56). This made some of his Australian colleagues deeply uncomfortable. In 1942 Second Secretary Keith Waller claimed that, ‘in Canberra, [Lee] was a neat and scrupulously clean little fellow,’ but once he was ‘among his own people’ he began ‘reverting to type with astonishing rapidity’ (quoted in Rasmussen 2001, 24). Waller was known for his scathing tongue and race and class prejudice. His words reflect the kind of bigotry Lee faced; they do not accurately portray Lee who was promoted to second secretary in 1946 and first secretary by 1950. From posts in Chungking, Nanking (Nanjing), and Canton (Guangzhou), he provided close accounts of the country’s changing military and political situation at a time of major geopolitical realignment as Australia reconsidered its position in Asia.

Lee returned to Canberra in 1950. Three years later he was posted to Singapore for a year as an official secretary. On his return, the minister for external affairs, R. G. (Baron) Casey, briefly considered inviting him to join the Australian delegation to the 1954 Geneva Conference to assist in discussions with the People’s Republic of China’s Premier Zhou Enlai; however, (Sir) Alan Watt, second-in-charge of the delegation, was not convinced that Lee was any more likely to influence Zhou than other members of the delegation, and the idea was passed over. Lee was acting counsellor in Jakarta (1954–56) and Wellington (1958–60). He married Nancy Chow, the widow of a Kuomintang officer and mother of two children, in Washington, DC, in 1958. They had met during his posting to China in the 1940s. In 1960, on his way to a new post as deputy chief counsellor in Manila, he downplayed the significance of his position, stating that ‘anybody, irrespective of race, colour or creed, could have attained the same post, so long as he was an Australian citizen’ (NLA MS 9509). Putting a gloss on his experience of racism, he further stated that ‘the so-called “white policy” of Australia was a misnomer’ (NLA MS 9509).

From 1965 Lee spent four years as first secretary in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His highest posting was as counsellor, one rank below ambassador, in Madrid (1971–73), after which he retired. That year, as preparations to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China gained momentum, he offered advice to the Whitlam government. A modest, dapper, athletic man, and a fine cook, he enjoyed golf in retirement. He died on 17 November 1996 in Canberra. His wife and stepchildren survived him.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Booker, Malcolm. ‘Diplomat Served with Distinction.’ Canberra Times, 23 November 1996, 7
  • Hamilton, William Stenhouse. Notes from Old Nanking: The Great Transition. Canberra, Pandanus Books, 2004
  • Horsley, Keith. ‘Queensland Prepares for All Blacks.’ Telegraph (Brisbane), 27 July 1934, 19
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Federal Service. Full-Blooded Chinese Admitted.’ 16 May 1936, 11
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9509, Papers of Charles Lee, 1930–1996
  • Rasmussen, Amanda. ‘Charles Lee: Glimpses of a Chinese Australian Diplomat in China, 1941–1950.’ Honours thesis, University of Melbourne, 2001
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Chinese Graduate in Federal Public Service.’ 16 May 1936, 17
  • Watt, Alan. Australian Diplomat: Memoirs of Sir Alan Watt. Sydney: Angus and Robertson in association with the Australian Institute of International Affairs, 1972

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Amanda Rasmussen, 'Lee, Charles Que Fong (Charlie) (1913–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 13 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 May, 1913
Pine Creek, Queensland, Australia


17 November, 1996 (aged 83)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


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.