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Tom See Poy (1853–1926)

by Catherine May

This article was published:

Tom See Poy (1853?-1926), storekeeper, was born at Ny Chuen, Nam Hui district, Kwonglung, South China, second child and eldest son of a peasant farmer In Vong and his wife Lo Hoy. Sze-pui spent his childhood in hardship. His mother died when he was 7 and, owing to poverty, he had only three years schooling. From 11 he lived with his aunt and worked for her husband, a small merchant, before running away to work on his father's small farm. When Sze-pui was 17 news came to the area that gold had been discovered near Cooktown, Queensland, and, hoping to improve the family fortunes, his father decided to go there with his two sons. There followed five years of appalling privation on the Palmer goldfield. Sze-pui then worked in a restaurant 'because to search for gold was like trying to catch the moon at the bottom of the sea'.

His luck changed from 1882 when he answered an advertisement for labourers to develop a sugar-plantation on the Johnstone River. He then joined a work-gang in the Mourilyan valley and at 30 was promoted foreman. Using the money thus saved he repatriated his father and went into partnership with one of his countrymen to purchase a peddling business. The success of that modest venture set his mind to become a merchant. Thus in July 1883 he and two other Chinese set up the Kam Woh (later the Tung Woh) store at Mourilyan. Subsequently, fearing an attack from Aborigines, they moved it to the Johnstone River, presumably near the present site of Innisfail. After three years successful trading, Sze-pui bought out the other partners who returned to China. With persistent and incorrect Anglicization of his name, he gracefully accepted the name Tom and the family name See Poy.

The business prospered and, as a result, See Poy became convinced that he could do more good for relations at home by resisting their pleas for him to return to China. In 1897, accepting his decision to stay in Australia, his relations sent a wife, Tue Chung Han (d.1925)—married to him by contract in China. He married her by Australian law at Geraldton (Innisfail) on 1 July 1901. His wife proved very capable in assisting with the business and she attracted female buyers. Subsequently their five children also became involved. During the second decade of the century See Poy secured immigration rights for several relations from China and employed them in his business. This strong familial basis was characteristic of Chinese economic life.

The family apparently had some interest in sugar-lands in 1913, but storekeeping remained the focus of See Poy's attentions. He suffered set-backs from floods and from cyclones, including a particularly severe one in 1918, but he nevertheless assisted many European farmers to re-establish themselves by extending credit without security. By the time of his retirement from active management in 1925 the business had expanded to become a substantial department store and continued as See Poy & Sons until the site was purchased in the early 1980s. Because See Poy had always geared his business partly to a European clientele he was able to expand at a time when the Chinese population in North Queensland had declined markedly.

Though typical, in background and motivation, of Chinese migrants to Australia, he was exceptional in deciding to remain abroad (he made no return trips to China) and in his close identification with the Innisfail region. He was naturalized in 1897 and 1901. He emerges from his autobiography, My Life and Work (Innisfail, 1925), written under his original name, as a practical and highly principled person, who drew on ancient Chinese wisdom in making major decisions. Chan Wen-lung, the son of his friend, noted of See Poy in the introduction that 'he contents himself with simplicity and holds himself steadfastly to honesty. Kindness is what he loves to dispense and righteousness is what he lives for'. See Poy's account of his life closes with 'ten rules' or guidelines for practical business management, which take account of North Queensland conditions and which place a high premium on calm, tactful and virtuous conduct in business relationships.

Notwithstanding contemporary prejudice against Chinese migrants, See Poy was held in high esteem by Europeans as well as Chinese in the Innisfail district. Survived by his five children he died on 18 April 1926 in Sydney. His estate in Queensland was sworn for probate at £32,576.

Select Bibliography

  • C. R. May, Topsawyers, the Chinese in Cairns, 1870-1920 (Townsville, 1984)
  • private information.

Citation details

Catherine May, 'See Poy, Tom (1853–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Tom See Poy, n.d.

Tom See Poy, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 31892

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sze-Pui, Taam

Ny Chuen, Nam Hui, Kwonglung, China


18 April, 1926 (aged ~ 73)
Sydney, New South Wales, 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.