Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Miss Suey Land and Ron Wong Loy: The Children of Little Bourke Street and the entertainment industry


By Sophie Couchman, Asian Studies, La Trobe University


Vance (Tung Gow) Chinn dressed as a soldier, Museum of Chinese Australian History, P00313, FC070, N45-118.

Since the 1850s the eastern end of Bourke Street has been well known as an entertainment precinct. A large number of theatres clustered in the area. While the first permanent cinemas in Melbourne initially located near Princes Bridge, by 1913 about half a dozen Bourke Street entertainment halls had converted to cinemas. Many of these theatres and cinemas extended all the way back to Little Bourke Street and Melbourne's Chinatown. With Bourke Street so close to home it is no surprise that the children that lived in the Little Bourke Street area have memories of the theatre and cinema.

Ron Wong Loy remembers going to the cinema. There were the 'sophisticated ones', like the Paramount at 235-237 Bourke Street and the Melbourne Britiannia at 287 Bourke Street, but it was the 'flea houses', the cheaper cinemas, that Ron and his friends visited. They would roll up on a Saturday morning with their three pence to watch the latest serial. 'We used to love that' he recalled. However female children did not seem to have the same freedoms. Jean Gooey, who was part of Ron's family, remembers going to the gardens, sometimes the zoo, and 'once in a blue moon' they went to a film, 'a Shirley Temple film'.

While cinemas may have been the latest fad, live theatre still remained very popular. The stage doors of the Theatre Royal and the Princes Theatre backed right out into Little Bourke Street into the heart of Chinatown. During performance seasons there must have been a bustle of activity at those stage doors with staff and performers coming and going. For the children of Little Bourke Street this provided a great source of amusement.

Suey Land and Kwan Ah Suey
'Miss Suey Land' and 'Kwan Ah Shem', Herald, 22 October 1913, p.1.

Russell Moy, who also grew up in the Little Bourke Street area remembers playing behind Her Majesty's Theatre as a child with his friends.

'We used to go in the back to Her Majesty's to see the showgirls, they were very good to us really, they'd say "come in", "come in", show costumes etc at the back there. We always used to be playing in the street at the back there when they were doing the stage decorations'.

As hinted at in Russell's memories of playing behind Her Majesty's Theatre children also became friends with the theatrical workers. Miss Suey Land who lived behind the Theatre Royal is one such example. In 1913 she was interviewed by the Herald newspaper about her life in the late 1890s. She had been arrested by officials as being an illegal alien trying to enter the country despite being born in Australia. In the interview she recounted fond memories of her childhood friendship with Maggie Moore, who was the wife of the well-known theatre owner J.C. Williamson as well as a popular lead actress. This is Suey Land's story as reported by the Herald.

Tung Gow dressed as a manservant
Vance (Tung Gow) dressed as a manservant, Museum of Chinese Australian History, P00313, FC070, N45-118.

'We used to live opposite the stage entrance of the Theatre Royal, in Little Bourke street,' she said. 'Maggie Moore used to take notice of me and my sister and brothers, and say how nice and clean we looked. She used to give me bunches of flowers, and I know I could point out now the room that used to be her dressing room. One day she gave my father a little perambulator, so that I could wheel my little brother about in it. Oh, I would like to see Maggie Moore again! I would know her in a crowd in the street. I am sure. I will always remember the flowers and other presents she gave me.'

According to the article Kwan Ah Shem, Suey Land's father, had taken the whole of the family to China prior to Federation and the introduction of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. Suey Land and her three brothers and sister returned to Australia separately. Suey Land's brother, who was born in China, entered Australia on a student exemption certificate. None of her other siblings had experienced any trouble landing or dealing with the restriction imposed by the 1901 Act. Kwan Ah Shem had been confident of his daughter's admission as she could remember all her 'old teachers and others'. When she was charged with being a prohibited immigrant he had to 'dash' from Geelong to Melbourne in a motor car in order to save her from deportation. Kwan Ah Shem was clearly a wealthy man, the newspaper described him as a produce merchant in Barrack Street, Perth who had stock worth £1,000 and owned a house that cost £4,500. The case against Suey Land was dismissed. Unfortunately we, as yet, know no more of Suey Land's life. Presumably she returned to Western Australia with her father.

For some Chinese Australian children their fascination with the theatre continued on into their adult lives. In the 1910s members of the Maa family, who adopted Chinn as their English name, moved to Melbourne from Tasmania. They established themselves in the old Munster Arms Hotel at 104-106 Little Bourke Street just behind Her Majesty's Theatre. Possibly influenced by living so close to the theatre, Vance (Tung Gow) Chinn, the sixth son of the family became involved in the theatre. In his late teens he played in a number of musical comedies at His Majesty's in the 1920s and then again in the 1960s.

SOURCES:

Daniel Catrice, 'Cinemas in Melbourne 1896-1942', MA (Public History) thesis, Department of History, Monash University, 1991, pp.6-9.

Susan Priestley, The Victorians: Making Their Mark, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates, McMahons Pt, NSW, 1984, p.137.

Ron Wong Loy, recorded interview with Eve Young, 1988, Museum of Chinese Australian History collection.

Jean Gooey, recorded interview with Elizabeth Saunders, 1994, 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.

Russell Moy, recorded interview with Eve Young, 1988, Museum of Chinese Australian History collection.

A. Sutherland, Victoria and Its Metropolis Past & Present, vol.1, facsimile edn, Today's Heritage, Melbourne, 1977 (first published McCarron, Bird & Co Publishers, Melbourne, 1888), p.519.

'Chinese girl's story: shows pearly teeth: safe now with father', Herald, 22 October 1913, p.1.

Theatrical ephemera and newspaper articles, Tom Chinn collection, Museum of Chinese Australian History.

NOTE:
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 a number of forthcoming publications.

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: 23 August, 2009