Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

The Three Promises: Story of the Lew Shing Family

By Patricia Foord


Great Grandfather William Lew Shing (Leu Sen) left his village in the See Yup district of China and arrived in Australia in approximately 1855 at the age of twenty.

I have been unable to trace his actual village, but when I showed an elder of the See Yup Temple in South Melbourne, the Chinese writing on my Grandfather Arthur's grave, he suggested he was from Toishan.

Both Great Grandfather and Grandfather, as members of the See Yup Society, would have a wooden memorial tablet each above the altar at the See Yup Temple. Unfortunately they are very difficult to find among the hundreds lined up. Some of these tablets have been there for over a hundred years, including my great grandfather's, and they are covered in dust and deteriorating. Fortunately the Temple has received a grant which will enable the memorials to be cleaned, photographed and digitized along with an English translation.

Did Great Grandfather arrive via Robe, South Australia? Possibly. And mine for gold in Ballarat? Probably. A certificate I have states he was married in Ballarat to a Bridget Gavin of Irish parentage - my great grandmother.

I always thought that my Great Grandfather's life in Australia would have been quite lonely but my research shows that the young men chosen by their village usually made the voyage to Australia as a clan group. The village scraped together the cost of the voyage and the men made three promises:-

1. To repay the village for their fare
2. To remit money home
3. To one day return home

The intervening years after William and Bridget's marriage in Ballarat and their arrival at the Garibaldi tin mine in north-east Tasmania are a mystery. It was at Garibaldi in 1877 that my grandfather, Arthur Henry, was born. He was followed by two more sons - Ernest in 1880 and Walter in 1882. Of the three sons only Great Uncle Walter's birth was registered. His birth certificate shows he was born at Moorina and provides evidence that the family moved around the tin-mining towns in the area. The transliteration of my great grandfather's name on this certificate is LUE SEN rather then LEW SHING now used by the family.


The move to Melbourne

When my Grandfather Arthur was sixteen, the family moved to Melbourne. I imagine this was because tin-mining was on the decline. The boys cut off their queues (plaited hair) and it was perhaps at this time when the family name was anglicised to Lew Shing. Grandfather's queue was kept in a box and when he was buried it was buried with him.

When the family moved to Melbourne from Tasmania, they brought with them two girls, Bertha (known as Mary Ann) and Louisa, who had both apparently been adopted or fostered. Mary Ann grew up to marry Wong Kee. My mother and two of her sisters were part of the wedding party together with Grandfather Arthur, her 'brother', who 'gave her away' (See photograph 1).

Bertha (Mary-Ann's) wedding photograph, photographer unknown, c1920
Bertha (Mary-Ann's) wedding photograph, photographer unknown, c1920
Left to right: Unknown (Best Man), My mother Louise, Aunt Hazel, Wong Kee (Groom), Mary-Ann Lew Shing (Bride), Aunt Gladys, Grandfather Arthur Lew Shing (courtesy Kevin Ah Yick Wong)

Between the years of 1893 and 1903 it is not known how the Lew Shing family supported themselves. From 1903 they ran a business in Russell Street, Melbourne.

My mother told me the family had a 'lolly shop' at 175 Russell Street, whereas other family members say it was a restaurant. Sands and McDougall Melbourne Directories show a restaurant operated by the Lew Shing family at 175 Russell Street and yet Great Grandfather William's death certificate gives his occupation as 'confectioner'. Perhaps it was a combined business, sweetshop downstairs and restaurant upstairs. It was here that my Grandmother Cathrine found a job. She had come up from Hexham in the Western district to attend her mother's funeral and decided to stay in Melbourne. She needed to support herself and so found the job in the sweetshop. This is how she met Grandfather Arthur (see photograph 2).

Unfortunately the business only operated for less than two years because Great Grandfather William died of chronic cystitis on the 4 January 1904. He was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery.

Grandfather Arthur and Grandmother Cathrine set up home

eft: Grandfather Arthur Lew Shing, photographer unknown, 1907 (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)
Left: Grandfather Arthur Lew Shing, photographer unknown, 1907 (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)
Right: Grandmother Cathrine Lew Shing (nee Pine) with first child, Lesley, photographer unknown, 1905 (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)

The Lew Shing family, which now included my grandmother, Cathrine, moved to 42 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. It was at this address that Arthur and Cathrine's first two children were born - a boy, Lesley (see photograph 3) and a girl, Hazel. Grandmother Cathrine now insisted on having her own home (away from mother-in-law Bridget) and so they moved to 24 Sydney Road, Carlton - quite close to the Victoria Market where Grandfather Arthur operated a stall in 'A' shed selling vegetables.

Further children were born at the Sydney Road address including my mother Louise.

The next family home was in Grattan Street, Carlton near the Royal Women's hospital where more children were born.

During the depression years (from the late 1920s into the 1930s) life was difficult for the family. Fortunately there was always plenty to eat as grandfather worked at the market. But when they fell behind in the rent the family were forced to move to Drummond Street, Carlton. This is where Uncle Des, the last child, was born.

The final family home was in Canning Street, North Carlton. It was quite a large house with stables, loft and tack room where Grandfather could stable his horse and cart.

My grandmother was a very strong woman as all children were born at home with only the help of a midwife. One baby, Edna, died at birth and another child, a boy named Athol, died at two of the 'black flu' which swept Melbourne in 1919.

Arthur and Cathrine now had twelve surviving children: - Lesley (1904-1968), Arthur (1907-1968), Walter (1908-1971), Howard (known as Alan) (1912-1999), Desmond (1922-1996), Hazel (1905-1997), Gladys (1910-1994), Louise (1911-1997), Freda (1914-), Yvonne (1918-2004), Audrey (1920-), Winifred (1921-1994). Most of the children attended Rathdowne Street Primary School (now called Carlton Gardens ) and at least one attended Lee Street, Carlton School.

Wedding photograph of Gladys Lew Shing, photographer unknown, 1934
Wedding photograph of Gladys Lew Shing, photographer unknown, 1934
Top row (left to right): Uncle Walter, Uncle Les, Uncle Charles (Groom), Aunt Gladys (Bride), Uncle Alan, Grandfather Arthur; 2nd row (left to right): Aunt Yvonne, Louise (My mother), Aunt Freda, Aunt Audrey (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)

Despite their large family my grandparents always seemed to 'have room for one more'. There was an old chap named Ah Pack who lived in the loft at Canning Street. His job around the place seemed to be to care for the horse and cart. Perhaps Grandfather had taken him in when Ah Pack was down on his luck. We do know that Grandfather, who was fluent in many Cantonese dialects, often attended court to act as interpreter for Chinese who were in trouble with the law.

Another young man named Frank was brought home by my Uncle Alan. He was easily assimilated into the family, as was Charles, another boy who needed a home. Charles eventually married one of my aunts, Gladys, and so became our Uncle Charles, a true member of the family (see photograph 4).

Grandfather was very much a part of the culture of Little Bourke Street. On many a late afternoon my mother, Louise, with one of her sisters was sent by their mother into town to a building which had a high tin fence with a little inset door in a lane off Little Bourke Street. She had to bang on the door and yell 'Hi Mon!' (open the door). This was where they would find Grandfather - gambling and smoking opium. Their job was to guide him back home.

The Lee Moy Sisters, photographer unknown, 1933
Top row (left to right): Louise, Evelyn, Gladys; Bottom row (left to right): Yvonne, Winifred, Audrey (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)

After the birth of their last child, Desmond, Grandmother decided 'enough was enough' and locked her bedroom door against Grandfather ensuring there wouldn't be anymore children.

The Lew Shing girls

Four of the girls learned dancing at the 'May Downs School of Dance' and later with Jenny Brennan. They appeared at the Tivoli Theatre and when they were older the four girls together with a family friend named Evelyn formed a dance troop called 'The Lee Moy Sisters' (see photograph 5).

The Lee Moy troop toured country Victoria with a theatre company called O'Donnell and Ray. When they appeared in Bendigo the girls stayed with the Pang family (Mr Pang was a Herbalist). The troop also appeared at the State Theatre on the corner of Russell and Flinders streets in Melbourne which in those days hosted live theatre. The girls learnt their tap-dancing skills from a Mr Gill whose studio was on the top floor of Kurrajong House in Collins Street.

As the girls grew up the group disbanded but one aunt, Yvonne, continued to dance with a group called 'The Melbourne Marvels'.

Nan kept some of our mothers' stage costumes in a cupboard in the dining room and we grandchildren used to love 'dressing up' in these beautiful outfits. I regret now that we didn't appreciate their historical value and preserve them.

Grandfather Arthur's grave in Coburg Cemetery, photographer: Dawn Wright (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)
Grandfather Arthur's grave in Coburg Cemetery, photographer: Dawn Wright (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)

Grandfather's death

I didn't know my grandfather as he died in August 1938 before I was born. He was buried in the Coburg cemetery in the same grave as his mother, Bridget, and brother, Walter (see photograph 6).

As well as his large family, many friends attended his funeral. My mother said that, in keeping with Chinese tradition, his Chinese friends held a feast at the graveside.

After the death of their father, my uncles ran the stand in the market, until three of them (Alan, Walter and Desmond) enlisted to serve in World War 2.

After the war some of my uncles became SP bookies in the Carlton area as well as keeping their day-time jobs. This was a very lucrative 'profession' until the 'Gaming Squad' was formed by the police and 'Starting Price' bookmakers were put out of business.

One aunt, Winifred, and our eldest cousin, Dawn, married US servicemen who were stationed in Melbourne during World War 2. When the war ended in 1945, they travelled to America as so called 'war brides' where they settled in California. We now have a large extended family in the US with whom we have always kept in touch.

Wedding photograph of Winifred Lew Shing and US Serviceman Bob Gregory, photographer unknown, 10 July 1944
Top row (left to right): Bill Safranek (U.S. Air Force), Bob Gregory (The Groom) Tom Kellett( U.S. Serviceman); bottom row (left to right): Dawn Safranek (Cousin), Winifred Lew Shing (The Bride), Freda Lew Shing (Aunt) (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)

Uncle Les

After the death of his father Uncle Les Lew Shing became head of the family and eventually purchased the Canning Street house. He was the only one of the family who didn't marry (although he did have a long time girlfriend) and he remained home and cared for his mother.

Uncle Les was a very talented Australian Rules footballer and once tried out with the Carlton Football Club. I can find no mention of his name in the history records of the club so much assume he did not play with the Senior team.

He was also interested in boxing, so much so, that he rented out the loft above the stables in the Canning Street house to a boxing trainer named Dave Shine (see photograph 8). The loft was fitted out with a boxing ring which was accessed by a very tall ladder through a trap-door in the floor above. (see 'Them golden mittens' to read Denis Buchanan's memories of the boxing ring)

We, as children, were forbidden to go up there but of course we disobeyed and had a wonderful time using the skipping ropes and punching bags etc.

The 'tack room' at the back of the stables was cleaned up and painted and became the social club of the Carlton Rovers, an amateur Sunday Aussie Rules team, of which Uncle Les was President.

Uncles Les was also interested in greyhound racing and owned a couple of racing dogs. Their boxes were just outside the 'tack room' in the back yard.

He was a man of many interests. His generosity to the Royal Melbourne Hospital led to him being made a 'Life Governor' of the hospital.

oxing photograph, photographer unknown, 1950s
Boxing photograph, photographer unknown, 1950s
(left to right): Don Prideaux, Dave Shine (Trainer), Bindi Jack (Dave Shine collection, courtesy of John Hoyne)

My grandmother, Cathrine Lew Shing, died in September 1965. Uncle Les stayed on in the North Carlton house. He was an excellent Chinese cook like most of the rest of the family. The extended family still enjoys cooking 'Chinese style' - some of us still remember the names of various ingredients in Cantonese.

After Uncle Les died in November 1968 the Canning Street property was sold.

The Lew Shing's today

Each year we try to hold a family reunion. It's always wonderful to 'catch-up' with everyone - a joy to see the babies who have been born during the year mixed with sadness as we remember that some of our 'oldies' have passed away.

Two of the 'original' Lew Shing family are left - Aunty Freda who is ninety-one and Aunt Audrey who is eighty-five. Both are still in good health and much loved by all of us.

Our last re-union was held in January 2005. Through a fortunate coincidence and courtesy of the family who lives there now, we were able to hold it at the 'old' family home in Canning Street, North Carlton. It was fascinating to see how the home had been modernised but in a traditional manner to suit the period of the house. The stables and tack room have become a family room and the loft converted to a bedroom now accessed by a staircase rather than a ladder.

Re-union of the Lew Shing family, 1989 (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)
Re-union of the Lew Shing family, 1989 (courtesy Lew Shing family collection)

Forty-eight of our extended family were able to attend on that day. We shared a meal with the present owners and were able to discuss the history of the house and marvel at the current renovations.


With the death of the last Lew Shing male in 1996 the name has now died out but the genes continue to pass on from our original ancestor who left China to come to Australia to seek a better life.

Although Great Grandfather William Lew Shing lived most of his life in Australia on the 26 March 1918 bones were exhumed and returned to China and so he fulfilled his third promise: 'To one day return home.'


- Public Records Office of Victoria
- Department of Justice, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Hobart.
- Sands and McDougall Melbourne Streets Directories
- Hansen, Brian, The History of the Carlton Football Club from 1864, Melbourne: Brian Hansen Nominees, c2002.



- John Fitzgerald and Antonia Finnane for sharing their Tasmanian tin mines research with me and who inspired me to write the family's history.
- CAFHOV (Chinese Australian Family Historians of Victoria Inc) and its members, especially Barbara Nichol and Sophie Couchman.
- The See Yup Temple, Raglan Street, South Melbourne.
- Lyn Fogarty for her help with my Tasmanian research.
- Members of my extended Lew Shing family who contributed some photos' and information.
- My daughter, Kelly, whose computer skills have been invaluable.

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