Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

The Chinn Family and the Oriental Orchestra: A new stream of Chinese music


Based on an account by Wang Zheng-Ting, University of Melbourne [*]

Mrs TC Chinn
Mrs T.C. Chinn (nee Miss M. Wong) in procession in Sydney at 15 years of age, 1889.
Private collection of Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn).

At the time of Australia's Federation there was a small but growing number of Australian-born Chinese in Victoria. Many of these Australian-born Chinese were educated in the Western School system and so it was naturally easy for them to accept and appreciate Western music. Thus while Chinese entertainment in Victoria from the gold rushes till the late 1940s tended to be confined within Chinese communities, a new stream of musical culture emerged in the 1910s that appreciated and adopted Western instruments and repertoire. The Oriental Orchestra and the Chinn family's involvement in it exemplify this new development.

The Oriental Orchestra was established in the early 1930s to accompany a series of concerts called the 'Oriental Concerts' and consisted of Chinese and Australian musicians. Mrs Chinn and two of her daughters were all members of the group. Mrs Chinn, formally Miss M. Wong (Tungon), was a well-trained singer from an early age. In August 1902 she was accepted as a member of the Sydney Philharmonic Society. After she married she moved to Victoria with her husband. Following the western custom, she took her husband's name and was known professionally as Mrs T.C. Chinn.

Under their mother's influence, the children learned Western music from a variety of private teachers. Hazel and Eunice learned both piano and singing. Mavis played the violin and the guitar. Valda played the violin and viola and also sang and danced, whilst the son, Max, also played the violin and sang.

One of the Oriental Orchestra's early performances was the 'Grand Oriental Evening Concert' held in 1931 where they played two overtures and accompanied some dances. The concert was held in Hamilton in the Western district of Victoria and was subsequently repeated in many Western district towns. The Chinn family were the main feature of this concert, with Western artists also incorporated into the programme.

concert
Cover of programme for the 'Oriental Concert' held at the Brunswick Town Hall to raise money for the Bush Fire Relief. Private collection of Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn).

The orchestra as part of the 'Oriental Concerts' was a non-profit organisation that mainly played at charity and fund raising events for the general community. The entry fee for the 'Grand Oriental Evening Concert' was three pennies with money raised going to the Hamilton District Base Hospital. In 1931 in honour of her contribution to the Hospital Mrs Chinn was made a Life Governor. In subsequent years the orchestra continued to be involved in other performances for charity in Hamilton and surrounding areas. A letter of appreciation was received from the Honorary Secretary of the Hamilton Town Band for the family's contribution raising money for the band at an event in Coleraine in April 1931.

Members of the Chinn family were also invited to perform in Western entertainments. Mrs T.C. Chinn and Miss Mavis Chinn played in 'A Specially Selected Entertainment' event in St Jude's Parish Hall, Lygon Street, Carlton in Melbourne in 13 June 1934. On 2 March 1939, the Chinn family took part in a fund raising concert for the Bush Fire Relief at the Brunswick Town Hall. In the programme the orchestra was described as 'Mrs T.C. Chinn and Party' rather than the 'Oriental Orchestra'. Many of the pieces played by the family matched those played in their earlier 'Grand Oriental Evening Concert', though in this event the Orchestra were concentrated in the second half of the programme rather than being its feature.

The 1931 'Grand Oriental Evening Concert' was typical of the Orchestra's musical repertoire. It consisted of eighteen pieces, arranged in a very characteristic variety programme. The programme mixed songs, duets, instrumental solos and recitations, with the orchestra playing an overture at the beginning of each half of the concert. According to Eunice Chinn members of the Orchestra did not play Chinese musical instruments. The music played was almost entirely Western, either popular or popular light classical.

Chinn group
Misses Eunice, Valda, Hazel Chinn and Mrs T.C. Chinn (from left to write) in costume for the Bush Fire Relief charity concert. Newspaper clipping, The Sun, 2 March 1939, from Mrs Chinn's scrapbook, private collection of Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn).

However they did made use of some decorative elements of Chinese culture, which their Western audiences would easily accept. Included in their repertoire were pieces like In a Persian Market which made use of 'mock' orientism. The children also on appropriate occasions, such as during church concerts, sang the hymn Jesus Loves Me in Chinese and played two Chinese pieces, the Chinese National Anthem (Republic of China), played by an instrumental trio, and Jasmine. Jasmine is a folk song that has prevailed in China (especially in the Jiangsu province) since the Qing Dynasty. It is well-known to Western audiences from Puccini's Turandot.

In addition to some Chinese influence in the musical repertoire, the Chinn family also wore Chinese costumes at all their concerts. They were photographed in costume for an article in the Sun on the 1939 Bush Fire Relief charity concert. The article reported that 'to aid the local appeal for the bush fire relief fund, Misses Eunice, Valda and Hazel Chinn and Mrs T.C. Chinn will wear their national costumes, which are centuries old'. These costumes had been lent to the family by the Chung Hwa Society of Victoria. In 1940 and 1941 the Chung Hwa Society lent these costumes for pageants at the Exhibition, the Myer Mural Hall Bamboo Festival and the MCG where Chinese girls on horse back represented famous ancient Chinese women warriors and beauties. These pageants were used to raise funds for the Chinese civilian refugees in the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinn daughters also participated in these activities.


Chinn family inside
Inside of programme for the 'Oriental Concert' held at the Brunswick Town Hall to raise money for the Bush Fire Relief. Private collection of Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn).

Chinn piano
Miss Anna May Young (left) rehearshing "China Girl", a song sung at the Bush Fire Relief charity concert, with Miss Hazel Chinn (right) accompanying. Newspaper clipping, The Sun, 2 March 1939, from Mrs Chinn's scrapbook, private collection of Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn).

Members of the Chinn family appear to have been more able to accept Western culture than many other Chinese immigrants in Australia. Eunice Chinn argues the two main reasons they were more Westernised were that she, her brother and her sisters had all had a Western education and were all born in Australia. In addition, they were not as keen on Chinese music. Even though her father, a Chinese herbalist and interpreter, had knowledge of Cantonese opera, the children did not appreciate the form. When he played the recordings of Cantonese opera, the children laughed at the strange sounds. In addition few other Chinese played Chinese instruments so they rarely heard live Chinese music.

The Orchestra finally became inactive in the early 1940s. Hazel Chinn had married and Mavis Chinn had gone to live in China with her husband and the youngest children joined the Australian Army and the Air Force. However the musical legacy that their mother brought to them remained. In 1954 Max Chinn, a tenor, was a finalist in the ABC's Concerto and Vocalist competition and the rest of the family continued to play and appreciate music privately.


SOURCES

Wang Zheng-Ting, Chinese Music in Australia - Victoria, 1850s to mid 1990s, Asia Australia Foundation, Melbourne, 1997.

Interview with Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn) with Wang Zheng-Ting, 6 September 1994.
Certificate of membership to Sydney Philharmonic Society, private collection, Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn).

Letter from Honorary Secretary of Hamilton Town Band in April 1931, private collection, Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn).

'Grand Oriental Evening Concert', private collection, Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn).

The Sun, 2 March 1939.

* NOTE
Based on account in Wang Zheng-Ting, Chinese Music in Australia - Victoria, 1850s to mid 1990s, Asia Australia Foundation, Melbourne, 1997. Compiled by Sophie Couchman. Special thanks to Mrs Eunice Leong (nee Chinn) for her comments.

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Last Updated: 27 February, 2009