Museum of Chinese Australian History virtual exhibition: 08 March – 20 May 2022 

Curators: Dr Ethel Villafranca and Vanessa Shia 

HerStory: Multiple facets of Chinese Australian Women highlights and celebrates the stories of nine Chinese Australian women. Aligning with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, Break the bias, this exhibition explores the multiple roles, accomplishments, and contributions of Chinese Australian women from early 1900s to the present.  

Museum of Chinese Australian History exhibitions and collections detail historical events and anecdotes about the Chinese in Australia but seldom touch on themes centred on Chinese Australian women and their stories. HerStory: Multiple facets of Chinese Australian Women, a play on the word ‘history’, refocuses historical narratives on women by advocating an alternative lens with which to view Chinese Australian women in history.  

Using objects to help in telling stories of these nine women, we challenge viewers to rethink traditional roles generally attributed to women across history; question what women’s experiences and achievements means to our contemporary life; and celebrate often ignored contributions of Chinese Australian women to our society.

Featured Women: 

Mrs Ho 
Herbalist/Businesswoman/Humanitarian/Life Coach 

Mrs Ho was born in China and arrived in Australia in the late 1800s. She married a Chinese herbalist (Ho Lup Mun) who ran Suey Gee Chong, an herbal business in Celestial Avenue in Melbourne, Victoria. Aside from selling herbs and offering diagnostic services to locals, they were also wholesaling and importing herbs as well as served as the distributor for Chinese herbalists around Victoria. When her husband passed away, Mrs Ho took over the business. 

Aside from being an accomplished business owner and caring mother of at least one child, Mrs Ho also adopted a few orphaned children who did not have any family members left in Australia. Numerous People came to her not only for medical consultation but also for guidance and advice on their lives. Remembered as always being sensible, wise, and jolly, her selfless actions made her a very well-respected figure within the Chinese community and the neighbourhoods around Little Bourke Street.

Mary Tong Way (nee Kong) 
Assistant Herbalist/Education Advocate 

Mary Tong Way was born in either 1870 or 1873 to parents Snig Kong and Ah Kong (nee Non) but was raised by German missionaries in Hong Kong. In 1893, Mary moved to Ballarat, Victoria for an arranged marriage to Reverend John Tong Way. They had several children including Alfred, Doris, Gladys, Hedley, and Samuel John.  

She urged her children and grandchildren to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them, to make something of their lives, and encouraged them to think independently. To family and friends, she expressed her views in a forthright manner, strongly opposing all manifestations of racial discrimination. 

In Ballarat, Mary was involved in the community, participating in activities such as the 1901 Australian Industrial Exhibition Ballarat, where her needlework was included. She is recognised as the trusted assistant of her husband, who was also an herbalist. Mary would receive herbs from his garden and boil these then pass on instructions to his patients. Oftentimes, she would be the one directly engaging with patients, especially white females.

Olive Mabel Clarice Yuk Seen Chinn (nee Wong) 

Mabel Chinn was born in Australia in 1884 to an Australian-born mother. Her father was born in China but moved to Australia as a child and later became a court interpreter for Chinese goldfield workers.  

Her musical talent is well recognised. Having been playing the piano since childhood, she later joined the Sydney Philharmonic Society. In the 1930s, Mabel founded the Oriental Orchestra, which was composed of Chinese and Australian musicians. They mainly performed for charity and fundraising events. In 1931, they held the ‘Grand Oriental Evening Concert’ to raise funds for the Hamilton District Hospital. Mabel was made a Life Governor of the hospital in recognition of her contributions.  

Chinn family members also performed with the orchestra—Mabel’s children sang and played musical instruments.  

The orchestra, whose members wore Chinese attires in all their performances, played mostly Western tunes but also a few Chinese ones or Western songs while using Chinese instruments. Over the decade, the orchestra supported numerous fundraising and charity events through their performances.

Alma Rose Quon 
Musician/Dance Instructor/Etiquette Coach 

Alma Quon, daughter of Charles Quon Senior and Violet Geechoun, came as a young woman to Melbourne from Rutherglen in the mid-1930s. She held several piano performances at Toby’s and Raffles and at the Golden Dragon Restaurant on Little Collins Street, Melbourne. She later joined a ladies’ orchestra, Merry Makers, with her sister Lorna. They both left the group at start of WWII, and founded the notable all-woman professional jazz band, Alma Quon and the Joy Belles 

Band members, who came from diverse cultural backgrounds, included Lorna Quon (violin), Alma Quon (drums), Moya Brown (accordion), Lotte Rehn (piano), Grace Funston (trumpet), Dawn Smith (bass), Mary Worral (saxophone), Gladys Torrens (saxophone), and Valma Frecker (saxophone). The Joy Belles was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. They performed in hospitals for returned soldiers, retirement homes, monthly dances, and public functions in and around Melbourne, including the Young Chinese League’s annual debutante balls.  

Alma also helped raise funds to support the war against Japan by training a group of Chinese Australian girls for a Hawaiian-themed performance at Hoyt’s Cinema. This initiative led her to become the trainer and choreographer of all the Young Chinese League debutante balls until 1988. She taught debutantes how to present themselves and behave in society. Alma was also a popular dance instructor in many Melbourne suburban schools. 

Eunice Joyce Leong (nee Chinn) 
Born: 1920 
WWWII Soldier/Telegrapher/Musician/Educator 

Eunice was born in country Victoria on 24 November 1920 to Chinese Australian parents. Her mother, Mabel Chinn (1884-1991), was a trained musician who founded the Oriental Orchestra in Hamilton during the 1930s, and her father, Timothy Coon, was a Chinese herbalist. Eunice, her brother, and three sisters all participated in their mother’s concerts.   

During WWII, Eunice and her sister were keen to join the RAAF but were rejected due to their “not substantially of European origin”. Not giving up on supporting Australia during the war, she applied as a telegrapher at the Australian Women’s Army Service since she used to be a member of the Australian Women’s Legion volunteer group and was trained at RMIT in transmitting Morse code.  

She was officially enlisted in 1942 at Army Headquarters, Victoria, and had further training in Morse code at Park Orchards. After attending Non-Commissioned Officer School in Sydney, her rank advanced to Corporal. She was sent to Alice Spring for six-months to lead a telegraph team of six who receive and send coded messages and forward them to the local Commandant. Before the war ended, she was sent to Bonegilla to be an instructor in Morse code and signals procedures, which become a starting point of her teaching career.   

Eunice attended the University of Melbourne after the war to study French. She was appointed as a part-time tutor in French after receiving her Master of Arts (Honours) and transferred to Monash University as a full-time tutor and later become Reader in French Literature. She was also an English teacher at Nanjing University in China during the early 1970s.

Mabel Wang (nee Chen) 
1924- 2018 
Civic Leader/Businesswoman 

Mabel Wang was the daughter of George Wing Dann Chen, who ran a banana wholesaling company called Wing Young & Co, established in 1924-5 at 139 Little Bourke Street. Mabel was born in Melbourne and met her husband, David Wang, in the same city. They got married in 1946 in Shanghai and she gave birth to their eldest son, Chris, after the World War II. In 1948, the couple established a gift shop in Melbourne. Originally located in South Yarra, it was later moved to Little Bourke Street, Chinatown in 1950. The shop eventually became a company called David Wang Emporium with branches in shopping malls. 

Mabel and her husband were both enthusiastic about public welfare. They worked extremely hard to oppose immigration regulations that discriminated against the Chinese in Australia through constant communications with politicians and sending letters to newspapers. She was the founding president of the Melbourne Chinese Women’s Association, which held functions to raise money for charity in the 1960s.  

She continued to devote herself to protecting the welfare of Chinese Australians after the sudden death of her husband in 1977. Mabel, and her two sons, contributed to numerous projects that help to protect the heritage of the Chinese Australian community including the redevelopment of Melbourne’s Chinatown, the establishment of the Museum of Chinese Australian History, and the acquisition of Melbourne’s big processional Chinese dragon, Dai Loong.

Evelyn Lau  
TV Personality/Celebrity Chef/Culture Guide 

Evelyn Lau moved to Australia from Hong Kong when she was 18 years old. Her father, Ming Shek, was an American Chinese and her mother, Irene, was an Australian Chinese (from Wangaratta, Victoria). 

Between the 1970s and 1980s, she extensively traveled in China and worked for an Australia-based tour company, Travman China Tours, to introduce and help tourists explore its history, culture, cuisine, handicrafts, and antiques. 

In Australia, Evelyn introduced Cantonese and other Chinese cuisines to non-Chinese audiences through her cooking programmes on television and led the ‘Celestial Gourmet Club’.  

“The Chow with Lau Cookbook: A selection of international recipes from the TV shows presented by Evelyn at ATV.O, Melbourne” was published by Craftsman Press in 1976. The book contributes to the understanding of Australian food culture and the wider incorporation of Asian food into the diets of Australians of different cultural backgrounds. It also tells stories about early Chinese Australian celebrity chefs in Australia, Chinese Australian food culture, and the history of Chinese food in Australia. 

Evelyn began writing and publishing restaurant reviews in the 1980s. Geoff Goullet, her partner, said that they would visit the restaurants together. While Evelyn was taking notes on the food, Geoff would make notes on restaurant décor and ambiance.

Jenny Kee 
Born: 1947 
Fashion Icon/Entrepreneur/Author 

Jenny Kee was born in Sydney in 1947 to a Chinese father and a mother of Italian-English descent. Her great-grandparents migrated to Australia from Guangdong, China during the 1870s gold rush and settled in Cooktown, northern Queensland.  

At 15, she left school to study fashion at East Sydney Technical College but dropped out 18 months later to go to London because she found the school to be conservative—favouring designs that used blues and browns.   

In London, she worked at the famous Biba fashion boutique and at a vintage clothing shop in the Chelsea Antique Market owned by Vernon Lambert, an expatriate Australian fashion historian and collector. Vernon provided numerous opportunities to expose Jenny to the ever-changing fashion styles and trends, a critical experience in finding and developing her own unique sense of style. She considers Vernon not only as her mentor but also her “school of fashion and life”.  

During a polo game in May 1982, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, wore a Blinky jumper designed by Jenny. This led to a vast number of women wanting to acquire the same jumper with an adorable koala in front.    

Jenny attributes her business sense to her father, a successful businessman who taught her when to take risks and when to play it safe. This sense of balance has been a key to Jenny’s triumphant journey in the Australian fashion world.

Joy Li 
Born: 1996 
Artist/Graphic Designer/Activist Artist 

Joy Li is a Sydney-based graphic designer whose works are influenced by her personal experience as an Australian-born Chinese. Using art as a platform, she expresses how she feels about her identity and highlights social struggles and pressure that children of immigrant parents face while growing up. The satirical nature of her works visualise cultural stereotyping and social expectations but, more importantly, confronts these by conveying experiences and challenges faced by migrants. Although often seen as humorous, Joy's works provide insights into the experience of Chinese and other Asian women growing up in the West. 

In November 2016, Joy participated in University of Technology Sydney’s ‘Emergent Practices’ assignment to research and produce works in response her chosen topic, mental health. After finding difficulty connecting with predominantly Anglo-centric narratives, she decided to explore her personal mental health and designed a set of posters. These posters, characterising Asian youth culture in the West during the latter half of the 2010s, strongly resonated with Asian communities, particularly the Chinese diaspora. From late February 2017, these simple, but visually striking and engaging posters, went viral and was featured in many news and link sharing websites, including YOMYOMF, Buzzfeed, and Women of Graphic Design.