Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Chun Yut

By Pauline Rule, Board of Studies, Department of Education

In 1865 Chun Yut, sometimes known as Ah Yet or Chun Yet, arrived in Victoria aboard the Omar Pascha. By the 1890s, despite economic setbacks, he was a significant Little Bourke Street merchant. Yet by 1897-8, Chun Yut, his Victorian born wife Jane and his nine surviving Chinese-Australian children, William, Walter, Edgar, George, Eileen, Oscar, Myra, Doris and John disappear from Australian records. A tenth child Leopold had died as a toddler in 1884. Had Chun Yut come to believe that the Australia of the late 1890s was no longer a satisfactory place for his family? Would he and especially his six sons prosper in an increasingly nationalist culture which promoted unity based on a notion of race that excluded Chun Yut and his family? A wish to return to China, ill health, advancing years - Chun Yut was about sixty by then, the difficulty of finding brides for his older sons, all these factors, may also explain the departure of the Chun Yut family. But the anti-Chinese sentiment of the 1890s, which underpinned much of the move to Federation, would have been confronting and painful for those deemed outsiders.

Edited copy of birth schedule of Ivo Ernest (who did not survive) son of Chun Yut and Jane Chun Yut (nee Benson). Note list of other children. [Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Melbourne, Victoria]

Chun Yut's Chinese home was most likely Canton or its immediately surrounding districts. When Lowe Kong Meng, Melbourne's most important Chinese leader, died in 1888 Chun Yut and two other Chinese succeeded him as the trustees of the Num Pon Soon, the association of the Chinese from the Sam Yup districts. By the late nineteenth century a small number of Chinese men were taking European wives back to mainland China. Did Chun Yut take his large family back to the environs of Canton? There is no trace of the family in what would have been the more intermediate zone of Hong Kong or in American records.

By 1871, while a storekeeper in the Chinese part of Beechworth, Chun Yut decided to commit himself to the possibility of family life in Victoria. He married Jane Benson, a Victorian born girl of nearly seventeen. Jane had been largely raised by her eldest sister Mary, their family having been fractured by the violent and alcoholic behaviour of their English ex-convict father John Benson. Sent to Port Arthur for petty theft, Benson had his sentence extended for recalcitrance and appears to have been brutalised by his experience. His Irish wife, Catherine Ryan and his children, suffered from his long history of alcoholism. Castlemaine Court records of the late 1850s trace his court appearences for chronic drinking and ill-treatment of his family. Mary escaped permanently by marrying Michael Ah Tipp (later known as Chun Tipp) in Castlemaine in 1857. At the time of this marriage Michael had just imported the first Chinese circus into Victoria and it was appearing at Castlemaine. However spontaneous this marriage may have been it lasted for twenty eight years until Michael's death. The Ah Tipps moved around the gold-fields of North-Eastern Victoria where Michael worked as an interpreter and miner before settling permanently in Beechworth and raising a Chinese-Australian family. Another sister Ellen, six months after Mary's wedding, married William Ah Long, a storekeeper at Moonlight Flat, one of the areas along the Forest Creek near Castlemaine where Chinese diggers were operating . This marriage however did not last. Thus by the time Jane married she would have been familiar with the ways of small Chinese-Australian communities and Chun Yut would have had the Chun Tipp marriage as a model of successful Chinese-Australian domestic life.

Edited copy of marriage schedule of Chun Yut and Jane Chun Yut (nee Benson). Note that on the second half of the wedding certificate the minister has given the parents' names and the father's occupation. [Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Melbourne, Victoria]

Early in Chun Yut and Jane's marriage there is a break in Jane's child bearing history which may mean Chun Yut returned to China for a time or that he was establishing himself in Melbourne. By 1876 the family were together in Melbourne living mostly in Little Bourke Street. In that year Chun Yut successfully applied for naturalisation. He appears to have worked very closely with Lowe Kong Meng. In 1878 the minute book for a Lord Mayor's committee established through the influence of C.H. Cheong and Lowe Kong Meng to raise funds for the famine in China shows Chun Yut as present at a meeting held in Kong Meng's office. Chun and Jane's second last child, Doris, was born at 96 Little Bourke Street, listed as Kong Meng's address on his will. The baby was born one month before Kong Meng's sudden death in 1888 and newspaper reports of his funeral mention Chun Yut as Kong Meng's partner and the only Chinese pall-bearer. The links with Kong Meng's family continued when in 1894 Jane and Chun Yut's nephew, William Tipp married Alice, Kong Meng's daughter.

Kong Meng's death would probably have been a financial disaster for the Chun Yut family as his assets had been badly overcommitted in speculative property buying in Melbourne's 1880s land boom. Somehow Chun Yut re-established himself as a merchant with rented premises at 177 Little Bourke Street and managed to survive through the cruel years of Melbourne's 1890s depression. Melbourne Hospital records show that in 1896-97 Chun Yut had gifted enough to the hospital to achieve the status of Life-Governor. But soon after the family appears to vanish from Australia with one exception. In 1915 the fourth son, George now known as Frederick George Chunyet, died of meningitis at what must have been a residence above a shop in Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds. His occupation was given as merchant. He was buried in the grave of his baby brother, Leopold, who had died over thirty years before. Someone, possibly his Tipp cousins, may have known of the existence of the grave in the Melbourne Cemetery and helped organise his funeral. Had he remained in Victoria or after visiting China returned after some time? Re-entry records provide no clues.

Chun Yut had achieved reasonable economic and social success as a Chinese-Australian merchant. His wife and children were part of a network of Chinese-Australian family relationships. Jane's sister, Mary Chun Tipp and some of her children, for example, were now living close by in Drummond Street, Carlton. However Chun Yut appears to have decided that the Australia of the late 1890s was no longer satisfactory as a home for himself and his Australian born wife and children.

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Last Updated: 27 February, 2009