Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Father James Cheong (1872-1941): Priest and Scholar


By Revd Dr Colin Holden, Archives, St Peter's Eastern Hill Church, East Melbourne

The celebration of the silver jubilee of Fr Cheong's ordination, 21 December 1931. St Peter's Eastern Hill archive.

James Cheong was born in Ballarat of Chinese parents, both of whom had come to Victoria during the goldrush. His father, Cheok Hong Cheong was a prosperous businessman in Melbourne, owning properties in the commercial business district and in Fitzroy. Cheok Hong Cheong was at once an ardent spokesman for Chinese culture, capable of delivering addresses on Chinese culture and history in the Melbourne Town Hall to an audience of two thousand; and he strongly supported the creation of a Chinese Christian mission in Victoria, to be run by Chinese Christians to work among the Chinese community. Both of these priorities of the father influenced his son.

The Cheong family - Father James Cheong (far right), his three brothers (standing behind), Cheok Hong Cheong and Mrs Cheong (seated), c.1906-1910. St Peter's Eastern Hill archive.

Cheok Hong Cheong, supt Chinese Missionary, part of a montage of images titled ‘Chinese mission work in Victoria’. Weekly Times, 2 September 1899, p.10. [more]

James showed remarkable aptitude for scholarship, attending Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar. His skills in Latin and classical Greek were such that he won the classics exhibition at Melbourne University in 1890. In his undergraduate days he was a resident of Trinity College.

James Cheong seated in his study in either Bishops or Clarke, Trinity College, c1890s. St Peter's Eastern Hill archive.

Between 1897 and 1901 he taught at the Queen's School in Hong Kong. While he was at first interested in entering the political world in China as a supporter of reform as a transition to democracy (a position he had learnt from his father), Chinese members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council dissuaded him. At much the same time, significant figures in government and political circles in Victoria provided him with references for the British diplomatic corps.

James Cheong (centre) as a teacher at Queens School, Hong Kong, 1899-1900. St Peter's Eastern Hill archive.

At this point his life clearly took a direction that commenced when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Melbourne. Until then he had identified himself as a Presbyterian, but he became an Anglican, strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement (the revival of Catholic belief and practice among Anglicans). In 1903, he went to Oxford, where he studied theology at Cuddesdon College. He was ordained as a deacon in England, returning to Melbourne where he was ordained a priest in 1906.

James Cheong as theological student at Cuddesdon College, Oxford, c.1903. St Peter's Eastern Hill archive.

For the rest of his life (1906-1941) he was assistant priest at St Peter's, Eastern Hill (corner of Albert and Gisborne Streets, East Melbourne). He developed a reputation as a gifted counsellor with deep spiritual insight. His reputation became known across the whole of Australia; Anglican bishops from as far away as Broome and rural Queensland came to him to make their confessions. Many Melbourne Anglicans likewise came to him for counselling; others were regular or occasional correspondents. The archives at St Peters contain letters, diaries and other material that document this part of his life.

Father Cheong with other clerical staff at St Peter's, c.1925. St Peter's Eastern Hill archive.

Father Cheong after a high mass at which Reginal Halse, bishop of the Riverina, presided. Halse (seated centre), Father Cheong (right of centre) and Father Maynard (left of centre). St Peter's Eastern Hill archive.

His love of scholarship remained with him and he was a serious collector of books, with a large and varied library, ranging from classical Greek and Latin texts, to English poetry and works on Christian socialism. A particularly valued possession was a 16th century edition of the work of the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus which had once belonged to the great 18th century historian Edward Gibbon.

Father Cheong as retreat conductor, St George's College, Perth, WA, c.1935. St Peter's Eastern Hill archive.

Father Cheong remained proud of his Chinese identity all his life, referring to it in his letters. Close to the time of his death, the Hungarian-born sculptor Andor Meszaros (1900-1972) created a bronze medallion which shows him in profile, his thin, scholarly hands firmly holding one of his beloved volumes. A cast of the medallion can be seen in the church which he loved and served so well, and is a moving tribute to this gifted and complex individual.

Bronze medallion of Father James Cheong created by Andor Meszaros (1900-1972). St Peter's Church archive, image courtesy of Nina Waters, Trinity College.

For further information:

Colin Holden, From Tories at Prayer to Socialists at Mass: St Peter's Eastern Hill, 1846-1990, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp.156-168. [more]

Father James Cheong online exhibition, Trinity College

James Cheong diaries, correspondence and photographs, St Peter's Eastern Hill archive [more]

Books from Father James Cheong's library, St Peter's Eastern Hill archive [more]

Biographical material relating to the Reverend James Cheong [more]

Picture collection, St Peter's Eastern Hill Church Archive [more]

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