This was COSHA’s contribution to the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Laila Ellmoos, a Historian with the City of Sydney spoke to us about Mei Quong Tart, a leading nineteenth century Sydney merchant and importer from China.
Mei Quong Tart (1850-1903) was a well-known member of the Chinese community who bridged Chinese and non-Chinese worlds in Sydney in the late 19th century. He is generally regarded to have been ‘the only Chinese who at the time succeeded in being accepted fully by the NSW community. He arrived to Australia when he was just nine years-old, living on the Braidwood goldfields until his early 30s.
10 According to his wife, who rather formally refers to him as Mr Tart throughout her biography of him. ‘Mr Tart was associated with many Scottish families on the diggings, from whom he acquired a good knowledge of the Calendonian customs, manners and habits. He could sing Scotch songs with singular pathos, recite Burns’ poems with a genuine accent, play Scotch airs on the piano, and jokingly alluded to himself as being a native of Aberdeen.’
In late 1881, Quong Tart opened a tea and silk shop in the Sydney Arcade. It proved very popular, and he eventually he opened a chain of tea shops including the Elite Dining Hall and Tea Rooms in the Queen Victoria Building . Building, would be used for meetings of other women’s organisations, such as the Kindergarten Union.
But Tart did not rest on his laurels as far as his business success was concerned. As noted earlier, it appears from all accounts that he had a strong sense of social justice from an early age and a need to give back to the community that he had been welcomed into. He was active in the campaign against the
importation of opium, According to his wife,he was seized with ‘moral passion and
purpose’ on this issue, although his fervour was also about preserving the respectability of the wealthy Chinese merchant class These factors caused tensions with the Chinese community. Sydney’s Chinese community in the 19th
century was riven by ‘factions’ and despite his representations on behalf of the Chinese community, he was ‘separated by a wide social and cultural gap’.
Quong Tart was brutally attacked at his tearooms at the Queen Victoria Building in
August 1902 – an intruder entered his office, pretending to be a detective and when Tart’s back was turned, beat him around the head with an iron bar. On 26 July 1903, he died from pleurisy at his family home in Ashfield. His death was undoubtedly caused by complications from the injuries from his attack. There is speculation that it was ‘revenge for his intervention in a libel case brought unfavourably against a Chinese language newspaper’.