Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Kwong Sue Duk (1853-1929): His Life and Family in Australia

By Rosalie Hiah, Kwong Sue Duk Foundation (June 2001)

Kwong Sue Duk was a prosperous and generous Chinese gentleman who had four wives and twenty-four children, and made Australia his chosen home, during and after the nineteenth century northern Australian gold rush period.

Kwong Sue Duk was born in Guangdong Province, China, in 1853 and ventured abroad to the California goldfields at an early age to seek his fortune. After several years, he earned enough money for his family and passage home to Toishan, China, then embarked on an education in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In 1874, Kwong Sue Duk married his first wife, Gee An Gow.

In 1875, after the birth of his first son (Kong Sing), Kwong soon heard of the gold rush of Australia and took a ship to Cooktown, North Queensland. He made several trips home to China and in 1879 a daughter (Jon Gee) was born. In 1882, Kwong arrived in the prospering township of Southport in the Northern Territory, where he eventually established a successful general trade store and real estate enterprise, operating under his business name, Sun Mow Loong. He became well respected and influential amongst the Chinese and European communities and was consulted over many matters concerning the Chinese.

In 1884, Kwong Sue Duk married his second wife, Chun Ngor Gwei, and obtained his naturalisation certificate in Australia. Kwong moved to Palmerston (early Darwin) and in March 1887 he met and married his third wife, Yuen Yuk Lau. He returned to China and another daughter (Toy Mee) was born to his first wife. Not long after the birth, he travelled back to Australia to tend to his thriving businesses and to buy a number of rental properties. In 1888, Kwong's third wife gave birth to a daughter, Ly Kin.

He returned to China in 1889, and subsequently brought out his first wife and three children to Palmerston, where she later bore him another daughter (Sum Gwai). Kwong and his three wives lived in harmony and supported the family together. Over the next twelve years, eleven more children were born - Thomas, Edward, Leslie, Elsie, Fred, Lim, Maizie, William, Kathleen, May and Lily. By 1902, there were sixteen Kwong children. Kwong prospered well in the remote Northern Territory, purchasing rental properties and at least five large gold mining leases.

In January 1897, a tropical cyclone damaged much of the town, including Kwong's properties. His first wife had difficulty adjusting to the harsh conditions and in 1898 he travelled with her to China where she chose to remain with their four children. In 1899, Kwong met and married his fourth wife, Wong Kwei Far, and returned with her to Palmerston.

The cyclone of 1897 and the dwindling economy of the Northern Territory had left Kwong Sue Duk in a poor financial state and in 1902 he sought relief in the growing economy of the Cairns region in North Queensland. The family set up a store and business in Cairns where he sold mostly Chinese goods. In the back of the store he had an office where he dispensed Chinese herbal remedies. Displaying their respect for him, both Chinese and European patients called him 'Dr Kwong'. Whilst in Cairns, five more children were born, Harry, Annie, Maud, Victor and Kong Won, to third and fourth wives. Kong Won died at an early age and to compensate for this loss, Kwong later adopted Violet and her brother, Lawrence.

In 1907, Kwong Sue Duk and his large family boarded a ship for Hong Kong to visit his family and to select suitable wives for his sons. In 1909, Ida, the youngest of the 24 children, was born. He returned in 1910 to settle in Townsville, Queensland, and in 1913 most of the family followed. Kwong established another successful Chinese herbal medicine practice in Little Flinders Street.

In 1917, Kwong made another major move to Melbourne, the thriving capital of Victoria, where a large Chinese population existed, with more eligible bachelors for his daughters (who were now of a marriageable age). Kwong Sue Duk continued his herbal medicine practice in Melbourne and country Victoria, including the townships of Ballarat and Bendigo.

Whilst the children were establishing their own lives, wives two, three and four moved to stay with them, and Kwong Sue Duk travelled to visit them all. In 1925, at the age of 72 years, he visited his son in Shanghai and his family in Hong Kong. In 1927, he returned to Melbourne to visit his children and their families, and then retired to live in Townsville where many of his eldest children had settled. He continued with his herbal medicine practice from Townsville until he died at the age of 76 on the 17th February 1929.

Many of the children of Kwong Sue Duk established careers and families in North America and South East Asia. However, a large proportion of the descendant families settled in Australia, and through the years have played important roles in the development and colour of the Australian community. Kwong Sue Duk's descendants now number around 860, and include five generations spread across eleven countries of the world.

Rosalie Hiah and Warren Lee Long, 'Kwong Sue Duk' in Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, Vol.3, 1996

Nui Bo and Victor Kwong, 'Biographical Sketch of Kwong Sue Duk' 1982.

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