Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Mrs Tong and Her Family: A difficult time to raise a family

By Sophie Couchman, Asian Studies, La Trobe University

Tong Family, c.1912, National Archives of Australia, B13/0, 1920/13667, 'Fingerprints of Alice Tong, Ethel Tong, Willie Tong and Elsie Tong, 4 Chinese children departing by Eastern, 21 June 1912'.

At the turn of the century Chinese-born Mrs Tong lived with her husband Chin Tong and their five children (Bou Youk (Alice) Tong, Bow Jun Chung (Elsie) Tong, Kay Sing (Willie) Tong, Boo Line (Ethel) Tong and Bow Meu Chin (Phylis Edna) Tong). The Tong family should more correctly be referred to as the Chin family, however all official records, including birth certificates use Tong as the family name. In official records Mrs Tong was also called Ah-Tong Youk, Hue Lue, Sue Tong and Sue Hoe and Chin Tong was also known as Chun Toong, Chin Toong or Chung Tong. Boo Line was also referred to as Boo Laan or Lure.

The Tong family lived in one of a number of tiny houses in Lacey Place that would have measured only about 20 by 14 feet. The area where there house was located is now occupied by the Chifley Hotel. In the foyer of the hotel there is a small exhibition which displays some of the items found during an archaeological excavation of the site. All five children were born while they lived there as well as a boy named Chung Tee and two baby girls who did not survive long enough to be named.

The children, including the girls attended school in the area. Alice went to the Presbyterian Chinese Mission school in Heffernan lane off Little Bourke Street, then St Peter's Eastern Hill school near to top end of Little Bourke Street and finally to Rathdowne Street State School in nearby Carlton. Ethel attended the Central Mission kindergarten in Exhibition Street. Possibly through her children's attendance at church run schools, Mrs Tong became friendly with some of the European women associated with these organisations, particularly Sarah Shaw of the Presbyterian Chinese Mission, Sister Mary Emilie Anthoness of the Central Mission. Miss Pye possibly a teacher at Rathdowne Street Primary School also reported cried when the family returned to China.

'Exercises in arithmetic', Australasian, 20 December 1902, p.10.

Sadly death took a heavy toll on Mrs Tong and her family. In 1912 her husband Chin Tong died. He died on 27 April just a day after completing his will, suggesting he was probably very ill and knew he was close to dying. Chin Tong had worked as a merchant and storekeeper possibly in partnership with the merchant and herbalist Chin Wah Moon of 186 Little Bourke Street. He would have been the primary income provider for the family. In his will he appointed Chin Wah Moon as the executor of the estate and, as was typical in Chinese families, left all of his wealth to his eldest and only son, Kay Sing for his 'sole use and benefit'. The estate came to £598/16. Although Kay Sing was only nine years old he would now have been considered the head of the household and responsible for the family.

A couple of months after Chin Tong's death, Mrs Tong decided to return to China with her family. It is not known why she returned. It is possible that, like many other overseas Chinese, she wanted to take her husband's body back to be buried in his homeland. It was also stated in official documents that they returned so the children could be educated in China. However she may simply have been homesick and wanted to return home to the support of village and family members.

Ethel and Alice Tong, 1918
Alice and Ethel Tong, 1918, National Archives of Australia, B13/0, 1918/14419, Ethel Tong.

While in China Mrs Tong and her family met further hardship. Both she and two of her daughters, Bow Jun Chung and Bow Meu Chin, also died there sometime between 1912 and 1916. The surviving children, Alice, Ethel and Kay Sing were placed under the guardianship of Chin Wah Moon. Chin Wah Moon appears to have been a fairly significant person within the Melbourne Chinese community. He operated a firm at 184-186 Little Bourke Street around 1912 and was also a herbalist between 1912 and 1932 with a business in Russell Street. In 1925 he was a shareholder with the Reverend Cheok Hong Cheong in Walter Burley Griffin's development of the suburb of Castlecrag in Sydney. They were two of only five shareholders who commissioned Burley Griffin to build them houses that were to be display homes for the development.

Under the guardianship of Chin Wah Moon all three children eventually returned to Australia. Alice returned in 1916 to marry Fee Lan O'Hoy, probably a marriage arranged by Chin Wah Moon. Fee Lan O'Hoy was from a well-known Bendigo family.

Alice brought Ethel back with her when she returned. On arrival in Australia they encountered difficulties with Australian immigration officials who refused to believe that they were Australian-born and wanted to apply the Dictation Test to them. Alice was interviewed on her memories of Little Bourke Street and Chin Wah Moon wrote a letter supporting their case. Eventually officials were convinced and they were both allowed into Australia.

Wedding of Bill Moy (Bor Nam) of Ruby Flat, Tasmania to Ethel Tong, Museum of Chinese Australian History collection, FC052, N45-100.

Ethel stayed in Bendigo with her sister for a while before returning again to China. She eventually returned permanently to Australia in 1922. While living in Bendigo with her sister she met Bill Moy. Bill was born in Ruby Flats near Branxholm in Tasmania. He spent his early years and adulthood in that area and was highly respected by the community of Branxholdm. Bill, in partnership with a European, Tas Kincade, owned and operated a tin mine in the area. Bill and Ethel married in 1927 and after a brief stay in Melbourne moved to Geraldton, Western Australia. Alice and Ethel are both affectionately remembered by their children who also settled in Australia. Kay Sing followed in the footsteps of his guardian Chin Wah Moon and worked as a herbalist in Australia. He married a Chinese woman in China in the early 1920s, but like many others they spent most of their married lives apart. His wife was not able to join him in Australia until the early 1960s after the loosening of the White Australia policy. What is clear is that while Mr and Mrs Tong may have considered themselves sojourners in Australia, their descendants certainly didn't.


National Archives of Australia (NAA), B13/0, 1920/13667, 'Fingerprints of Alice Tong, Ethel Tong, Willie Tong and Elsie Tong, 4 Chinese children departing by Eastern, 21 June 1912'.

NAA, B13/0, 1918/14419, Ethel Tong.

NAA, B13/0, 1922/9836, Boo Line Chin Tong (Ethel).

Public Records Office of Victoria (VPRO), VA 2624 (The Master in Equity, Supreme Court), VPRS 7591/P2 (Probate), Unit 482, Chin Tong (126/21). PROV, VA 2624, VPRS 28/P3 (Will), Unit 308, Chin Tong (126/21).

City of Melbourne, c1895, Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, map collection, University of Melbourne.

M. Walker, A. Kabos & J. Weirick, Building for Nature: Walter Burley Griffin and Castlecrag, Walter Burley Griffin Society Incorporated, 1994, pp.9, 37.

Marjorie Law, recorded interview with Sophie Couchman, 1999, Australia-China Oral History Project jointly conducted by Australia-China Council, Museum of Chinese Australian History and the National Library of Australia, Museum of Chinese Australian History collection.

Marriage certificate of Ethel Tong, curtesy Marjorie Law.

Noela Hassell & Brian Hassell, 'Brief biography: Ethel Tong (Boo Laan/Line?) and Bill Moy (Bonurn Ah Moy Ng)', unpublished notes, 1999, author's collection courtesy Noela and Brian Hassell.

This piece is constructed from research collected for my Masters thesis. S. Couchman, 'Tong Yun Gai (Street of the Chinese): Investigating Patterns of Work and Social Life in Melbourne's Chinatown, 1900-1920', MA (Public History), Monash University, 2000. It is also discussed in 'Using database technology to research individuals with Chinese names: A case study of Little Bourke Street Melbourne' Locality, vol.11, no.2, 2000, pp.31-38 and S. Couchman, 'Selected women of Melbourne's Chinatown' in After the Rush: Regulation, Participation, and Chinese Communities in Australia 1860-1940, A special edition of Otherland, December 2004..

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