Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Fred Wong: Humanity, Justice and Equality


By Julie Chong

In the spring of 1906, Kenneth Frederick Wong (Wong Gar Kin) was born in the copper mining town of Cobar, New South Wales. One of five siblings in the Wong family, his parents emigrated from Canton, China, to Australia in search of the 'golden mountains'. In Cobar, his father, Sing Foo Wong, ran vegetable market gardens while his compatriots ran businesses such as laundries, or worked in mines.

The Wongs prospered and Sing Foo and his wife, Ah Kue, returned to their family village, Chin San, in Canton, to found the children's roots with a Chinese education. Fred Wong, as he was known, spent his youth learning the Cantonese language and fine tuning his knowledge and understanding of Chinese culture and customs.

He travelled back to Australia re-tracing the route to prosperity that his father had once sought. As a young man, he returned to his family village where he met and married his Chinese bride Quan Chong. In 1931, they had one child, a girl called Gee Fong, known as Gow Gun. Leaving his wife and child behind, Fred took passage to Sydney to run a business so that he could provide amply for his family. Gow Gun was not to see her father again until she arrived at the Woolloomooloo wharves with her mother, at the age of nine. Today, Gwen, as she is known, aged 74, reminisces village life in China and her family's efforts to help the needy, “Everyday, my mother would cook a big pot of rice and dishes to feed about a dozen beggars at the gate of the house. They were very poor.”

Fred's deep set feeling for humanity, justice and equality, was the seed of his philanthropy, political and business activities. As a progressive leader and founding president of the Chinese Youth League, he busied himself dealing with the day to day struggles of Chinese people both in Australia, and those at war in his ancestral land fighting to save the lives of Chinese during the Japanese invasion. Newly arrived migrants faced the White Australia policy.

An enterprising businessman, he set up a fruit and vegetable shop on Parramatta Road, Homebush, and later moved the business to Leichhardt. Fred made daily trips with his Chinese workers to the city markets to buy fresh produce, starting out in a lorry as early as 4am.

Fred and his Chinese Youth League colleagues including Stanley Wai, William (Billy) Jong and Louis Wong, stood ground for the equal rights of Chinese people and to help those in difficult and dire circumstances. The extraordinary levels of determination and resilience of these men were springboards to confront the challenges of the tough issues of war and social justice.

An activist on the New South Wales waterfront, during the Depression, Fred supported the waterside workers' picket at Port Kembla, to halt the export of iron to Japan which the wharfies believed could be used to make military weapons. Fred organised Chinese market merchants and market gardeners to donate fruit and vegetables to provide for striking workers and their families, and trucks laden with produce were sent.

Fred was one of the pioneers to assist in the establishment of the Australian branch of the Chinese Seamans' Union. Members of this organisation lobbied for better wages and working conditions for Chinese seamen employed on foreign-owned ships. On one British ship, negotiations resulted in Chinese workers gaining wages equitable to the pay of British seamen. CSU members also worked together with CYL members to address health and welfare issues of Chinese seamen who arrived in Australia.

Stanley Wai, Billy Jong, Fred Wong and members of the Chinese Seamens' Union organised Chinese seamen to send up to an American camp in Bulimba, Queensland, to train and work as welders and labourers in the production of steel barges. Navies used barges to land troops in the Philippines, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands to resist and fight Japanese invasion. Billy Jong was recruited to work as superintendent of a camp of some 1000 men. In 1942, as many as 800 Chinese were housed in Bulimba barracks.

The origins of the Chinese Youth League date back to 1939. Fred Wong and a dedicated group of collaborators - including Chinese seamen and local Chinese men who sought peace and harmony both in Australia and in their ancestral homeland, China - established the first performances of Cantonese Opera in Sydney, to raise funds from ticket sales and donation collections to send to China, in support of the War of Resistance in China. They contributed their time, labour and used their resourcefulness to help the war effort.

Fred Wong inspired his colleagues. A young Arthur Gar Lock Chang, 15 years junior to his mentor, Fred, recalls the dedicated leader: “Fred would come into the (Chinese) Youth League after a hard day's work to chair meetings. Sometimes he would still be wearing his (canvas greengrocer) apron and he would lay down on the lounge - apron and all - for a short nap, to regain energy so that he could work late into the night. He did a lot of work to help people especially those who were suppressed. I know that he felt a deep hurt for the suffering of Chinese people during the Japanese invasion. He put his life at risk with his political activities.”

After the war, Fred was motivated to spearhead a local campaign to support pro-Indonesian independence, for the plight of the Indonesians suppressed by the rule of Dutch colonialism. He worked to co-ordinate the despatch of medical aid to the Indonesians and on the return flight bring back quinine to treat Chinese seamen who were sick with malaria. For this cause he needed funds and aircraft to carry medicine and supplies. Fred formed a new business venture, Asia Airlines Pty. Limited, which had a number of shareholders. Capital of some ₤10,000 was raised and three catalina ‘flying boats' were purchased.

In the winter of 1948, Fred Wong met a tragic and suspicious death on a trip to inspect one of the purchased catalina flying boats at Lake Boga, Victoria. A strong swimmer, he drowned in the icy waters with a nearby witness at hand. A police statement outlines a seemingly dubious, eyewitness report. A local newspaper brief simply reporting that a Chinaman was found dead in Lake Boga, belies the magnitude of his passing. Back in Sydney, the circumstances surrounding his death have been a subject of scrutiny for more than 50 years, by those closest to him.

At his funeral procession along Parramatta Road, Leichhardt, a motor bike police escort lead a dignified farewell journey. Deep reverence for Fred Wong was displayed in an unprecedented homage - along several miles, shopkeepers closed their doors and stood on footpaths along with many others from the local community, paying their last respects.

Fred Wong, the loving family man, is survived by his four children, Gwen, Doreen, Helen and Jackson; his two sisters Nellie and Jean, now in their 90s, who live in Sydney; and, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and nieces and nephews and their children and grandchildren. Fred had another brother who sadly died during his childhood. Current senior CYL members fondly remember Fred's brother, the late George Wong, who was also active with CYL.

Through CYL, Fred Wong worked towards bringing people together for friendship, and for Chinese people and their Australian-born descendents to enrich their lives through Chinese culture and harmony in the broader community. Early on, Chinese opera performances that he introduced were not only staged to raise funds, but also to serve as entertainment for the Chinese community, especially to bring some joy and comfort to the many lonely, single, Chinese men who had little prospects of marrying a Chinese woman, given the few granted entry to Australia at the time.

The CYL went on to organise many other happy community events including dances, and annual picnics at Bobbin Head. Today, CYL is a bustling mix of children, youth, and young adults up to seniors participating regularly in a wide range of Chinese cultural and sporting activities including Chinese opera, Lion dance, dragon boat racing, and classes of dance, martial arts, tai chi and table tennis. CYL also organise group travel to China. The legacy of Fred Wong and the Chinese Youth League continues to thrive for young and old at the club house, located in the heart of iconic Chinatown in Dixon Street, Sydney.

Thanks to

- My mother, Gwen Chong (nee Wong), daughter of Fred Wong, for her personal account of the Wong family.

- Arthur Gar Lock Chang for his wonderful memories and oral history of Fred Wong's life, work, activism, and the activities of CYL in the early years.

References

- 'Unbroken commitment: Fred Wong, China, Australia and a world to win' by Dr Drew Cottle. Online abstract: http://www.asslh.org.au/sydney/hummer/vol3no4/fredwong.htm

- Red Tape Gold Scissors: the story of Sydney's Chinese by Dr Shirley Fitzgerald, 1996.

- Chinese Youth League of Australia 60th Anniversary magazine, 1999.

* Julie Chong is the daughter of Gwen Chong.

The views and opinions expressed in these stories do not necessarily reflect those of La Trobe University or the editors of the website.
Last Updated: 27 February, 2009