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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Young Wai, John (1847–1930)

by Adrian Chan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

John Young Wai (1847?-1930), Presbyterian minister, was born in Canton, China, and came to the Victorian goldfields in 1867. After spending three years mining with no particular success, he devoted his life to the Presbyterian Church. Realizing his inadequacies, in 1875 he began full-time training for the ministry at the Presbyterian Church of Victoria's new Chinese Mission Seminary at Fitzroy, Melbourne.

Before he completed his training the seminary was closed in 1877 because of 'student unrest' allegedly orchestrated by an instructor C. H. Cheong. Young Wai next worked among Chinese communities in Victorian towns. In 1880 he was asked by the Presbyterian Mission to the Heathen to mediate a dispute between the American superintendent of the Chinese Mission in Melbourne and a Chinese mission worker. His efforts resulted in the departure of the American. Having declined an invitation to take over his post, Young Wai accepted a call to Sydney in 1882 where the Presbyterian Church's work among the Chinese had met with little success because of language difficulties. An eloquent preacher, he conducted his mission from the Scots Church. Following custom, he returned to China to seek a wife and married Sarah Ti See Man on 27 January 1886 at the German Church, Hong Kong. He brought his bride to Australia to share his work, especially among old people; he was also later assisted by his children.

His congregation having outgrown the schoolroom in the Scots Church, in 1893 Young Wai established a Chinese Presbyterian Church in Forster Street. He was ordained in October. His mission flourished and he established another church at Waterloo in 1897. He was inducted at Forster Street on 22 October 1898. At both churches he supervised the teaching of English to Chinese four nights a week. From the Moody and Sankey hymnal he translated 302 hymns into Chinese which were used throughout Australasia. He also helped to establish churches at Newcastle and Wollongong. On 20 July 1905 Young Wai was elected moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales; he declined the honour because he considered himself an unworthy successor to Rev. Dill Macky.

Greatly respected in the Chinese community, Young Wai candidly supported the republican cause during and after the Chinese revolution in 1911. He had been involved in the Chinese anti-opium crusade (1905) and later campaigns to press for relaxation of the Immigration Restriction Act. Planning to retire in 1919, he learned that his replacement from Hong Kong had been refused an entry permit and stayed on while the moderator successfully petitioned the prime minister W. M. Hughes for special dispensation.

Although Young Wai retired in 1920, he continued intermittently to help his Church and its congregations. Some of his flock went to Hong Kong and China, among them Harr Chan and Kwok Bew. They set up businesses there and also established Presbyterian churches in Hong Kong and in their ancestral villages in China. Survived by his wife, three daughters and three sons, Young Wai died at Summer Hill, Sydney, on 21 June 1930 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. J. Campbell, Fifty Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria (Melb, 1889)
  • J. H. Terras, The Mission of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales (Syd, 1928)
  • J. Cameron, Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales (Syd, 1905)
  • C. A. White, The Challenge of the Years (Syd, 1951)
  • C. F. Yong, The New Gold Mountain (Adel, 1977)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23, 24 June 1930
  • I. H. Welch, Pariahs and Outcasts: Christian Missions to the Chinese in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1980).

Citation details

Adrian Chan, 'Young Wai, John (1847–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 5 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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