Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Mei Quong Tart (1850-1903)

Mei Quong Tart was a complex individual. Chinese born, he was arguably one of the most westernised of Australia’s Chinese. A successful businessman, particularly as a tea importer and restauranteur he also worked for social causes both within and outside the Chinese community. He was one of the best known nineteenth century Sydney Chinese. While seen by the non-Chinese community as a leader of the Chinese the Chinese community was divided in their views and support of him.

Mei Quong Tart was born in the Hsin-ning (Sun-ning) province of China, south west of Canton to Mei Quong a successful merchant, His full name was Mei Quong Tart but in Australia ‘Tart’ became his surname and he dropped the use of ‘Mei’. He received some education in China before arriving in Sydney in 1859 aged nine with an uncle en route to the Braidwood diggings.

In Braidwood he worked in a store kept by Thomas Forsyth and his wife where he picked up a Scottish accent and love of Robert Burns which he kept for the rest of his life. While working in the store he caught the eye of Alice Simpson who with her husband Robert Percy Simpson unofficially adopted him. The Simpson's had strong links with Sydney's establishment and the legal fraternity, literary and artistic world. As part of the Simpson family he was enrolled as a member of the Anglican church and was taught to read and write English. At aged 14 he was given his first mining claim by the Simpson's who also encouraged him to buy shares in further mining claims. By the time he was 18 he was a wealthy bachelor who was prominent in sporting, cultural and religious affairs on the gold fields. In 1871 at 21 he applied for and was granted naturalisation and citizenship. When the Simpson family moved to Sydney he went with them.

Although a part of the Simpson family he maintained contact with his family in China and visited them in 1881. On his return he opened his first tea and silk store in Sydney. Although the store initially provided tea for sampling it proved so successful that he opened a chain of tea rooms. In 1889 he expanded his business and opened a elaborate restaurant in Sydney's King Street and in 1898 a dining hall in the new Queen Victoria Markets in Sydney. The dining hall became one of the most popular social centres in Sydney.

On his return from China he also became more involved in politics. He is considered to be the first Chinese to raise opposition to opium smoking in Australia. As early as 1883 he launched an anti-opium campaign and submitted a petition to the New South Wales government asking for a ban on the importation of opium. He submitted a second petition to the government in 1887. Both were unsuccessful but paved the way for later anti-opium movements. He also appointed to sit on the 1891 Royal Commission into Chinese Gambling and Immorality.

He was a prominent member of the Chinese Commercial Association (1892-1903) and spoke on a number of occasions on their behalf. In 1900 he was involved in the establishment of the New South Wales Chinese Empire Reform Association but was never on the committee or associated with the group as he was dissatisfied with the founders and leadership of the Association.

In addition to his business and political activities he was also a prominent socialite. He was in constant demand as a speaker at social and charitable functions. He also supported and organised many charitable functions of his own.

On the 30 August 1886 he married an English woman, Margaret Scarlett. They had four daughters and two sons: Ann Alice Vine (b.1887-d.1946), Henrietta (Ettie) (b.1890), Arthur Malcolm (b.1892), Maggie (b.1897-d.1917), Florence (b.1898) and George Henry Bruce (b.1903-d.1946). All children were baptised and educated in different Christian denominations to avoid prejudice.

On 26 July 1903 he died of pleurisy. An intruder had savagely assaulted him in his office in the Queen Victoria Markets some time earlier and he had only partially recovered. With 1,500 mourners his funeral, was a major ceremony. He was buried in Rookwood cemetery with a Christian service read in Cantonese.

Sources/Further Reading

Fitzgerald, Shirley, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney's Chinese, State Library of New South Wales Press: Sydney, 1996

Lea-Scarlett, E.J., 'Mei Quong Tart', Pike, D. (ed), Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1851-1890, vol.5, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1974

Travers, Robert, Australian Mandarin: The Life and Times of Quong Tart, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW, 1981

Yong, C.F., New Gold Mountain: The Chinese in Australia, 1901-1921, Raphael Arts, Richmond S.A., 1977