Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

The Guo Brothers and the Yong An Company (Cantonese: The Kwok Family and the Wing On Company)


Translated, adapted and compiled by
John Fitzgerald, Asian Studies, La Trobe University

In 1901, at the age of 16, Guo Shun boarded a boat in Hong Kong bound for Australia. Guo Shun was born on 10 December 1885 in Zhuxiuyuan Village in Xiangshan County (now Zhongshan City) in Guangdong Province.

Wing On Store and Mansions, Shanghai, 2001

Wing On Store and Mansions, Shanghai, 2001, J. Fitzgerald collection

He was the sixth in the family. The oldest brother came to Australia in 1882 but died not long after his arrival. Guo Le, the second brother, arrived in Australia when he was eighteen. The second brother went to work in a vegetable garden and later became a hawker, selling vegetables door to door. Later, he joined several fellow-villagers from Xiangshan County in founding the Wing On Fruit Store in Sydney. The store also handled money deposits and so attracted a great deal of capital. It was the second brother, Guo Le, who invited his youngest brother Guo Shun to come to Australia in 1901.

Shortly after he arrived in Sydney, Guo Shun went to work as an apprentice in a firm run by another Xiangshan County resident, basically to learn how to do business. Three years later, he left his fellow townsman's company to join his brother at the Wing On Fruit Store. His elder brother, Guo Le, soon left Sydney for Hong Kong where he started up another branch of the business. Guo Shun then took charge of the family's Wing On Fruit Store in Sydney.


Wing On store and Sincere store, Shanghai

Wing On store and Sincere store, Shanghai, 2001, J. Fitzgerald collection

At that time, the Australian government legislated that only Chinese immigrants who came to Australia before 1901 had the right to permanent residence. This restriction caused great difficulties for Chinese businessmen. As Guo Shun had already become established in Australia, he helped new comers to get around the problem of residency and to start their own businesses. 

Guo Shun enjoyed a great reputation among Australian Chinese because he was good at business and basically got on well with people. He was elected as the chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Sydney, which is reputed to be the first Chinese Chamber of Commerce anywhere in the world (including China).

In 1917, Guo Shun founded a shipping company in Sydney. He bought two ships, and leased another, which plied the route between Hong Kong and Australia. Some other shipping companies disliked the competition and collaborated with Australian authorities to wipe out the company. The Guo family shipping firm could not cope with this kind of competition, and eventually went bankrupt. This spurred Guo Shun to pioneer business enterprises in China rather than in Australia.

Sincere store, Shanghai, 2001, J. Fitzgerald collection

Sincere store, Shanghai, 2001, J. Fitzgerald collection

In 1920 Guo Shun left Sydney for Shanghai. A few years later he helped his elder brother, Guo Le, to found the Wing On Textile Mill in Shanghai. This later developed into one of China's largest corporations. The Wing On Textile Mill began operating in 1922. In 1925 the Guo brothers bought another textile mill which they renamed the Second Wing On Textile Mill. Over the period from 1927 to 1937, the Wing On Corporation developed rapidly. It expanded to become China's second-largest textile business enterprise, embracing five textile mills, one dyeing plant, one power plant, one depot, and a textile machine factory. It also operated department stores in Hong Kong and in many major cities throughout China.

The company suffered greatly when China was occupied by Japan (1937-1945). With the outbreak of the War, Guo Shun moved to the United States of America where he lived until his death in 1976.

Sun Sun store, Shanghai, 2001, J. Fitzgerald collection

Sun Sun store, Shanghai, 2001, J. Fitzgerald collection

The Wing On Department Store was just one of four major chains started up by Australian Chinese in China - most notably along Nanjing Road in Shanghai. The first of these was the Sincere Company. The Sincere Company was founded in 1900 in Hong Kong by Ma Ying-piew and other Australian Chinese originally from Xiangshan County (now Zhongshan City) in Guangdong. The Ma family drew on the profits of the Wing Sang fruit and vegetable company in Sydney. The Sincere Company opened its first department store in Nanjing Road, Shanghai, in 1917.

Next came the Guo family's Wing On Company. The first of their department stores was founded in Hong Kong in 1907. Wing On opened its first Shanghai Department store on Nanjing Road in 1918. The third Australian Chinese department store to open in Shanghai was the Sun Sun Company, established in 1912 in Hong Kong by Liu Xiji and Li Minzhou. This company opened its Shanghai department store on Nanjing Road in 1926.

 Dah Sun store, Shaghai, 2001, J. Fitzgerald collection

The fourth large Australian Chinese department store to open in Shanghai was the Dah Sun Company, which was founded by the Choy Hing and Choy Chong. Dah Sun opened for business in Shanghai in 1936.

Every one of these firms was founded by a network of Sydney business people, and each became a major trading company in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The building designs and the commercial organisation for the stores were based upon Australian department stores in Sydney, including Anthony Hordern's and David Jones. Ma Ying-piew, founder of the Sincere Company, later wrote that his inspiration for founding the Sincere Company had been to change the old ways of doing business in China. He said that living in Australia had opened his eyes to large-scale business organisation and strategies. He believed that China would regain its national strength if Chinese businessmen would modernise their practices to compete in international markets. They did.


SOURCE:

Adapted from Zhongshan ren zai aozhou [Zhongshan people in Australia], Zhongshan wenzhi [Records of Zhongshan] No. 24 (Guangzhou: Zhengxie guangdongsheng zhongshanshi weiyuanhui wenshi weihuanhui, 1992), pp. 84-90 and 198-219.

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Last Updated: 27 February, 2009