Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

William Ah Ket - Building Bridges between Occident and Orient in Australia, 1900-1936*

By Toylaan Ah Ket

My father, William Ah Ket rose to prominence in the 1900s-1930s as one of Melbourne's most talented and adroit barristers. He was born in Victoria in 1876, the only son among six daughters all born in Australia to his Chinese parents. His father had migrated from Canton in the 1850s, and when the Gold Rush in Australia ended, he settled in Wangaratta to raise his family. William's father, Mah Ket, became highly respected as the local 'mandarin' and Law Courts Interpreter, and prospered well as a tobacco-grower, store-keeper, and property owner.

William was educated in Wangaratta, and on gaining his matriculation he moved to Melbourne to study Law at Melbourne University. He completed his articles with the solicitors Maddison & Jamieson in 1903. After reading with (Sir) Stewart McArthur, he signed the Bar Roll in 1904 and became the first Chinese barrister to practice in Melbourne. He built up a successful practice in Selbourne Chambers alongside such famous neighbours as Arthur Deane, R.G. Menzies, Owen Dixon, James Tait, and Ben Dunn who all gained renown in that era as KCs, or Justices of the Supreme Court and knights of the realm.

At the age of 35, William was married at the Kew Methodist Church to a young Australian woman, Gertrude Bullock, whose English-born forebears had migrated to Australia from Cheshire and Cambridge respectively. In 1921, William and Gertrude established their home at No.1 Dandenong Road, Malvern where they raised a family of two sons and two daughters.

Their eldest son William Ket MBBS became Deputy Superintendent of Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. The younger son Captain Stanley Ket (LLB) served with the Intelligence Unit of the AIF in World War II and was killed during the Allied landing at Tarakan. The eldest daughter, Melaan, married Len Williams, founder of the Spanish Guitar Centre in London, and their only son, John Williams, has been acclaimed as one of the world's most talented classical guitarists. Their youngest daughter Toylaan gained her BA(hons) degree at Sydney University in 1982 and is currently writing the biography of her father.

William Ah Ket became a leading figure in the Chinese Australian community during the early years of Federation. Prior to completing his tertiary studies at Melbourne University, William received a full primary and secondary education in Wangaratta's public schools. in Chisholm Street. In addition, he had the advantage of growing up in a traditional Chinese household where his father employed a resident tutor for his 'seven little Australians' to learn the cultural traditions of ancient China, and to master the Confucian skills of reading and writing in the Chinese language. There is little doubt that William Ah Ket's youthful experience in 'bridging' the two worlds of East and West enabled him to become one of the few Chinese Australians of his time who could mix with ease, and enjoy widespread respect, not only within his legal fraternity, but within the social, business and sporting circles of Melbourne in which he moved.

In the 1900s William Ah Ket along with other leaders of the community, such as Quong Tart in Sydney and Cheok Hong. Cheong in Melbourne, publicly opposed discriminatory laws against Chinese people. He supported the creation of a committee to agitate against the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901. For the next twenty years he worked tirelessly for the alleviation of all unreasonable conditions imposed on the Chinese under the umbrella of the White Australia Policy, such as the Dictation Test and Limitation of Residence.

William Ah Ket also wrote articles and gave lectures in support of the massive petitions raised by the Anti-Opium League of Victoria, and the increasing protests of influential clergymen and educators against racial discrimination in Australia. He made several successful submissions opposing the Victorian government's repeated attempts in 1904, 1905 and 1907 to make amendments to the 1896 Factories & Shops Act to specifically exclude the Chinese from gaining a livelihood in the furniture-making trade. He was also co-founder and president of the Australian-Chinese Association, co-founder and president of the Nam Pon Soon Society, and a committee member of Melbourne's See Yup Society.

William Ah Ket was chosen as delegate by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce to represent Victoria at the Conference of Overseas Chinese called by Dr. Sun Yat Sen to attend the first National Parliament for the new Republic in 1912. After his return to Australia, William Ah Ket was appointed as Acting Consul-General for China in Melbourne in 1913-14 and again in 1917.

Popular among the press reporters and cartoonists of his times, William Ah Ket was affectionately regarded as the Chinese "Rumpole" of the Victorian Supreme Court, gaining such a reputation for his canny tactics as a cross-examiner. His witticisms were aimed less to disarm the witness than to win the reluctant approval of the bench with his propensity for reciting pithy quotations from either Shakespeare, Robby Burns or Gilbert & Sullivan.

William's personal interests were widely diversified. He was a founding member and Grand Master of the East Caulfield Masonic Lodge No.123 and held life-membership of the MCG so that he could maintain his enthusiasm for cricket as a ball-to-ball eyewitness of the Test matches between England and Australia.

Following his youthful introduction to country horse-racing in Wangaratta, William Ah Ket continued his regular attendance at Saturday's race-meetings in Melbourne, never missing his place in The Stand during the season of The Oaks, the Caulfield Guineas and the Melbourne Cup, where he was recognised as a keen if not always successful punter.

Both William Ah Ket and his wife were music-lovers and regular theatre-goers during the "Gay 20s" before the Depression. It was customary for them to celebrate the various anniversaries of their happy marriage with a small party at a Chinese banquet in Little Bourke Street or attending one of the city theatres - either Her Majesty's or the Princess Theatre - for a Melba recital, a Gilbert & Sullivan production, a Franz Lehar light opera or a Gladys Moncrief musical . Occasionally their choice would be a controversial play at The Little Theatre, or a night of comedy at the Tivoli with Stiffy & Mo.

In the 1930s world peace began to waver under the threat of Germany's fascism and Japan's expanding military aggression in China and towards the Pacific nations including Australia. In 1931, William Ah Ket's dedication to foster increased understanding and friendship between the West and the East led him to accept joint Trusteeship with Sir Colin MacKenzie in the founding of the George Ernest Morrison Memorial Lectureship in Ethnology at the National University in Canberra.

Guidelines for the Lectureship had been initially proposed by Sir Colin MacKenzie and were brought to fruition through the efforts of William Ah Ket in Melbourne and William J. Liu in Sydney who both obtained generous financial support for its foundation. Sir Colin envisaged a lectureship that would increase friendship and understanding between the people of Australia and the people of China - albeit at the academic level and not merely through trade. He believed his objective could well be achieved if the Morrison Lectureship Foundation invited scholars from interstate and overseas to deliver the kind of lectures at the Australian National University that would provide all Australians with a better knowledge of the arts, sciences, and history of the Chinese people.

The Inaugural G.E. Morrison Lecture was given in 1932 by the Consul-General for China, Dr. W.P. Chen, and in 1933 the second Morrison Lecture was delivered by William Ah Ket on the subject of 'Reconciliation between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, with particular reference to Confucius'. Three years later, the untimely death of William Ah Ket brought to an end the legal career of a truly remarkable Chinese gentleman who had made such a worthy contribution to the history of Australia, by putting into practice his personal philosophy of 'building bridges between the East and West.'

NOTE: The author, Toylaan Ah Ket, is the daughter of William Ah Ket. This paper is based on a paper she gave at the Conference of the Chinese Studies Association in Australia held at Macquarie University on 5 July 1995.

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