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William Joseph Liu (1893–1983)

by Barry McGowan

This article was published:

William Joseph Lumb Liu  (1893-1983), businessman and Chinese community leader, was born on 29 January 1893 in Sydney, eldest of three children of Chinese-born William Ah Lum (later Lumb Liu), barber, and his English-born wife Florence, née Thomas.  When his mother became ill, William was sent initially to friends at Glen Innes and then, in 1900, to his father’s village in Taishan county, Guangdong province, China, where he lived for eight years.  On his return to Sydney he continued his schooling at Christ Church St Laurence School, Wahroonga College and Stott & Hoare’s Business College.  Later, in Melbourne, he attended evening classes at the Working Men’s College and with the Young Men’s Christian Association.

From 1912 to 1914 Liu was an English translator and clerk at the Chinese consulate in Melbourne.  There he met William Ah Ket, who was acting consul-general (1913-14), and Fred Quinlan, at that time second-in-charge in the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs; Liu was strongly influenced by both men.  He then joined the Sydney fruit and vegetable merchants, Wing Sang & Co., with whom he was associated for three decades.  On 12 February 1916 at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, he married with Anglican rites Mabel Ting Quoy.

Liu, with William Gockson and Peter Yee Wing, helped to form the China–Australia Mail Steamship Line in 1917.  He was appointed general manager and two ships, Gabo and Victoria, were purchased and registered in his name.  The Australian government soon requisitioned both ships for war service.  By the time the ships were returned in October 1919, the company faced intense competition from British vessels re-entering the route.

In 1920 another ship, Hwah Ping, was chartered, but heavy losses continued, and the company became embroiled in a price war.  A bitter management dispute arose.  Rival factions were split between conservative businessmen associated with the New South Wales Chinese Chamber of Commerce and those linked with the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Chinese Masonic Society.  Although Liu straddled both camps, he and his father-in-law, Gilbert Yet Ting Quoy, were attacked by Percy Lee (Li Xiangbo) in the republican newspaper, Chinese Republic News.  Underlying much of the antagonism was the implication that Liu had subordinated his native-place allegiances (See Yap) to family when he married into the Quoy family (Doong Goong).  Yee Wing, a Kuomintang leader, replaced Liu as general manager in 1921; in response the conservatives withheld financial support from the company, which collapsed in 1924.

In the interwar years Liu travelled between China and Australia.  As English secretary of the Kuomintang in Sydney, he was invited in 1921 to meet the Chinese leader, Dr Sun Yat-Sen, in Canton (Guangzhou).  Vice-president (1927-33) of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in New South Wales, he successfully lobbied the Australian government to again appoint an Australian trade commissioner to Shanghai in 1935.  He published a booklet, Communication between Mr V.G. Bowden,  Australian Trade Commissioner in Shanghai and William Liu, Chinese Businessman in Sydney about Sino-Australian Trade (1936).  An adviser to the four Australian department store chains (Sun Sun, Sincere, Sun and Wing On) that operated in Hong Kong, Canton and Shanghai, in the mid-1930s Liu was employed as the Sun company’s English secretary.

Back in Australia, Liu joined his brother-in-law Harry Fay in his Inverell department store, Hong Yuen & Co., in 1936 and rejoined the Wing Sang company in Sydney in 1939.  That year he co-founded the Chinese Australian Association of Hong Kong.  From the 1940s Liu helped businesses engaged in the wholesale marketing of fruit and vegetables, Chinese market gardeners and new Chinese restaurants established in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart after World War II.

A strong opponent of Japanese imperialism, in 1931 Liu had compiled China and the Trouble in Manchuria, condemning the Tanaka memorandum.  Living in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded in 1932, he worked as a propagandist for China’s 19th Route Army.  John Sleeman’s  book, White China:  An Austral-Asian Sensation (1933), included a section based on conversations with him.  In 1932, with Sir Colin MacKenzie, Fred Quinlan and William Ah Ket, Liu had co-founded the George Ernest Morrison lecture in ethnology.  He was also friendly with William Henry Donald.

During World War II Liu was a leading fund-raiser in the Chinese community for the Australian government’s war loans.  The war also spurred his immigration advocacy on behalf of prospective Chinese settlers in Australia.  He was a founding member of the New South Wales branch of the Australia-China (Friendship) Society; this was a significant political step following the Communist Party’s accession to government in mainland China.  From the mid-1950s he campaigned for a review of the Australian government’s immigration policy and redress of institutional discrimination, embodied in the annual citizenship conventions, towards Aboriginal, Chinese and non-European people.  By 1966 he had successfully lobbied the government to reduce the qualifying period from fifteen to five years for Chinese immigrants wishing to become naturalised.

In 1973 Liu was appointed a member of an Australian-Chinese committee making submissions to the National Population Inquiry.  One result was the establishment of the Australian Chinese Community Association of New South Wales.  The minister for immigration, Al Grassby, introduced more equitable procedures for obtaining Australian citizenship.  In 1976 the Australia–China Chamber of Commerce and Industry of New South Wales was established; Liu was its first governor.  He was appointed OBE in December 1981.

Known in his later years as Uncle Billy, Liu was regarded by many as the 'elder statesman' and 'father' of the Chinese community in Australia.  Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 25 April 1983 at Randwick and was cremated.  His name is perpetuated in a prize for Chinese studies at the University of New South Wales, in the William J. Liu memorial scrolls project and in the Harvest of Endurance scroll.

Select Bibliography

  • C. F. Yong, The New Gold Mountain, 1977
  • J. Hardy (ed), Stories of Australian Migration, 1988
  • X. and Y. Mo, William J. Liu, OBE – Pathfinder, 1991
  • S. Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors, 1997
  • J. Fitzgerald, Big White Lie, 2007
  • Asian (Melbourne), November 1977, p 4
  • Asian (Melbourne), December 1977, p 8
  • Asian (Melbourne), February 1978, p 16
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 December 1981, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1983, p 9
  • H. de Berg, interview with W. Liu (ts, 1978, National Library of Australia)
  • Liu papers (State Library of New South Wales)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Barry McGowan, 'Liu, William Joseph (1893–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Liu, n.d.

William Liu, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ah Lum, William Joseph

29 January, 1893
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


25 April, 1983 (aged 90)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (liver)

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.