Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Andrew Leon (1841–1920)

by G. C. Bolton and Kathryn Cronin

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Andrew Leon (1840?-1920), businessman, was born in China, probably Zhongshan county, Guangdong province. After some experience of tropical agriculture in the West Indies, including two years in Cuba, he settled in Queensland from 1866 where the Palmer gold rush was later to attract many Chinese. Closely aligned with business interests established by several Hong Kong firms at Cooktown, where he was manager of Sun Yee Lee & Co. and associated with Sun Tung Lee, he became a partner in the trading firm Sun Chong Lee at Cairns. On 8 February 1869 at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Bowen, he married Irish-born Mary Picket (Piggott), a general servant.

In 1878 and 1879 Leon took up 1,250 acres (505 ha) near Cairns for tropical agriculture in which the Hap Wah Company, formed of Chinese traders in Hong Kong and local businessmen, invested £45,000.  Having planted cotton and sugar, in 1882 the syndicate crushed the first cane processed in the Cairns district, exporting both cotton and cane sugar. The Hap Wah plantation was entirely Chinese-run, with up to 200 employees, the only European being an engineer and sugar-boiler. With improved machinery, increasing skill and 400 acres (162 ha) under cane, the Hap Wah's pioneer efforts won wide respect in North Queensland, but falling sugar prices and the lack of capital hit them and the rest of the industry in the mid-1880s. In 1886 the plantation land was sold for £15,000 to the Charters Towers mining magnate, Thomas Mills, and its cane and machinery to a group of Cairns merchants, who lost heavily in the speculation. In 1888 Leon bought a 1,280 acres (518 ha) selection above the Barron Valley for fruit-growing, where most of his energies were then directed, and he continued to invest in property. A convinced believer in tropical agriculture, Leon had nearly succeeded in a venture which had implications for the future of the sugar industry and the concept of White Australia. Hap Wah’s closure can be attributed to a number of factors that affected the Queensland sugar industry at the time, primarily the fall in world sugar prices by mid-1884, as well as the cost of labour. Even at the peak of the Hap Wah development, the returns barely covered the investments made; none of Cairns’ three sugar plantations made a profit in this period: Hap Wah was sold, another was broken up into smaller parcels with a central mill, and the third relinquished.

Survived by his wife and two daughters, Leon died at Cairns on 27 June 1920 and was buried in Cairns Cemetery. As leader of a large group of Chinese in North Queensland and one of the most prominent members of the whole Cairns community, he was able to combine the best of both cultures. A naturalized citizen he was immersed in the social and business life of the European community in Cairns. He also represented the Chinese community in many matters, organising much of their business, acting as an interpreter, and serving as a trustee of the Lit Sung Goong Temple.  His achievements and his social status posed great problems for anti-Chinese enthusiasts of the day.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission into the General Conditions of the Sugar Industry, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1889, 4, 37
  • Queenslander, 2 May 1877
  • Cairns Post, 1884, Apr 1887
  • K. Cronin, The Chinese Question in Queensland: A Study of Racial Interaction (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1970)
  • mortgage no 218, Hop Wah Plantation mortgage book 17 (Queensland State Archives)
  • CRS/158 and LAN/AG 201, 212 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton and Kathryn Cronin, 'Leon, Andrew (1841–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




27 June, 1920 (aged ~ 79)
Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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