Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Leong Har: Successful banana merchant


By Sophie Couchman, Asian Studies, La Trobe University

Leong Har was one of three partners who owned Hoong Cheong, a banana merchant firm at 137 and 141 Little Bourke Street at the turn of the century. As well as Queensland and Fijian bananas, they also imported oil, peanuts, tea and preserved ginger. Chinese farmers grew almost all bananas exported from Queensland and were to a lesser extent involved in Fijian farming. Growers used Chinese commission agents to assist them sell their crops. Melbourne and Sydney Chinese merchants quickly emerged to provide an outlet for sales in the cooler southern states. In Melbourne one third to a half of fruit merchants were Chinese. Sixty to eighty percent of Chinese fruit merchants were located in Little Bourke Street. These individuals became the new elite class within the Chinese community and dominated Chinese political, social and commercial activities.


Loading bananas in Innisfail, Museum of Chinese Australian History, P00604, N45-185.

With a turn over of 'anything up to £10,000 per annum' and an average stock value of £3,000, Hoong Cheong can be considered a successful business. In the 1910's the firm was also in the process of purchasing the block of four buildings from 137 to 143 Little Bourke Street. According to one of his colleagues, Leong Har was worth over £200. However Leong Har's financial success came at a personal cost.

Leong Har came out to Australia in 1896 in the same year that his wife gave birth to their first child. His wife and new family remained in China. He was one of the fortunate sojourners who made enough money that he was able to make periodic visits to China to visit his family. In 1917 he wrote a letter to Atlee Hunt, Secretary of the Home and Territories Department requesting permission to bring his eldest son, now aged 21, to Australia. He wrote:

I have been residing in Australia now for 21 years. I am anxious, now, to get my eldest son, Leong Hop, aged 21 years, to take charge of my business in Melbourne, and to study the General Principles of Australian Business.

Despite providing information about the financial status of his business, offering to pay any 'Bonds or Cash you may require' and noting that his character would 'bear the strictest investigation', Atlee Hunt asked the local Little Bourke Street detective to report on Leong Har and his business. The report was favourable. Eventually, in January 1918, Leong Hop was granted a Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Test (CEDT) for one year.

This was the beginning of several entreaties over a number of years from Leong Har and his son to try and extend the CEDT. Each request was matched by another report by the local detective on Leong Hop's activities. In May 1919 Leong Hop was granted a one year extension and again in May 1920. However by this time Atlee Hunt started to ask when Leong Hop intended to return to China. He was told he intended returning in two years but an extension of only one year was granted with a note that no further extensions would be approved.

By May 1921 Leong Har is becoming more desperate and his request to the Department more personal.

I am well up in years, I find it difficult to secure the services of a suitable person to assist me in carrying on my business which is a large one. Further I am alone in this country, I would like the companionship, and assistance of my son for another year.

His plea that he was unable to find a suitable person to work for and take over his business was one that was becoming increasingly common within the Chinese community in Australia. As the predominantly male Chinese population grew older the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act meant that there was no younger generation in Australia to take their place. Something in Leong Har's request softened officials but only as far as a six month extension. After the six months were up Leong Har approached the Chinese Consul-General who made representations to the Department on his behalf and obtained a further six month extension. This was to be Leong Hop's last reprieve. In April 1922 he finally returned to China after a stay in Australia of about four years. His handprints were forwarded to the Sub-Collector of Customs to confirm his departure. A later request for Leong Hop's entry into Australia in April 1925 'for the purpose of assisting in the management of the business' was refused. A copy of the rejection letter was sent to the Chinese Consul-General.

Leong Har's success as a merchant made it possible for him to bring his son to Australia without having to sit the notorious dictation test and probably also secured the extensions granted. However his success was not enough to enable Leong Hop to stay permanently, despite support from the Chinese Consul-General nor did it prevent both his and his son's lives being scrutinised by the local police on an annual basis for the four years Leong Hop was in Australia. Both were law-abiding citizens. The report of Leong Har corresponded with claims made in his initial letter. All reports into Leong Hop's time in Australia were favourable. He worked hard in his father's business and was making very good progress at night school. For a time he even adopted a western name and called himself 'Paul Leong Hop'. Whether this extended beyond the one letter written to the authorities is uncertain.

After four years with the companionship and assistance of his son one can't help but wonder what Leong Har's life was like when his son finally returned to China. Did he sell up his share of Hoong Cheong and return to China as well? Maybe he was grateful to have extended a one year visit by his son to four years, or maybe he simply took solace in the many children of George Leong Moy, one of the other partners in the firm, who married Bertha Poon an Australian-born Chinese woman.

SOURCES:

National Archives of Australia (NAA), CA 789 (Collector of Customs and Excise), B13/0 (General and Classified Correspondence - Collector of Customs), 1925/6055, Leong Hop applies for a CEDT.

C. May, Topsawyers: The Chinese in Cairns 1870 to 1920, James Cook University, Queensland, 1984.

C.F. Yong, 'The banana trade and the Chinese in New South Wales and Victoria, 1901-1921', ANU Historical Journal, vol.1, no.2, 1964, pP.28-35.

S. Couchman, 'The banana trade: its importance to Melbourne's Chinese and Little Bourke Street, 1880s-1930s' in P. Macgregor (ed), Histories of the Chinese in Australasia and the South Pacific,: Proceedings of an international public conference held a the Museum of Chinese Australian History, 8-10 October 1993, Museum of Chinese Australian History, Melbourne, 1995, pp.29-45.

Russell Moy, recorded interview with Paul Macgregor, Australia-China Oral History Project jointly conducted by Australia-China Council, Museum of Chinese Australian History and National Library of Australia, Museum of Chinese Australian History collection, 1994.

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Last Updated: 27 February, 2009