Quong Tart, the Chinese man who played a key role in Australia’s fight for women’s suffrage, and how he wasn’t just a successful entrepreneur

  • Quong Tart came to Australia in 1859 as an enterprising nine-year-old, where he later established a tea export business and set up elegant tea rooms
  • At a time when there were few places women could mingle with ease, the tea rooms formed important venues for women’s early discussions on getting the vote

Sian Powell

Published: 5:15am, 14 Aug, 2020

Quong Tart was a notable philanthropist in addition to being a successful entrepreneur and playing a key role in the fight for women’s suffrage in Australia. Photo: State Library of NSW

A group of wealthy and respectable middle-class Sydney women gathered in a tea room in the 1890s, where they “sat by favour of that Chinese gentleman” Quong Tart while considering how best to fight for the right to vote, a movement that was gaining ground in England.

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald decades later, Maybanke Anderson, one of the city’s prominent women’s activists, remembered the moment in 1891 when she and a comrade, Rose Scott, “first spoke a few words on the subject of women’s suffrage” in one of Quong Tart’s tea rooms.

By the 1890s, women around the world had been fighting for the vote for years, and they would keep up the struggle for many more, despite being beaten, arrested, sent to prison and force-fed when they went on hunger strikes.

Australia, after New Zealand, was one of the first nations to allow women to go to the ballot box, first in individual states and federally in 1902.

Quong Tart’s elegantly appointed tea rooms on Sydney’s King Street, and later in the still-standing Queen Victoria Building and elsewhere in the city, were important venues for Australian women’s early discussions on the battle for universal suffrage.

Quong Tart outside his Loong Shan Tea House on King Street in Sydney. Photo: State Library of NSW

Quong Tart outside his Loong Shan Tea House on King Street in Sydney. Photo: State Library of NSWMei Quong Tart had arrived in Australia from Taishan, in southern China’s Guangdong province, in 1859 as an enterprising nine-year-old, accompanying an uncle who was headed to the goldfields.

Taken in first by a Scottish shopkeeper and then an English family, the youngster learned to speak fluent English (with a Scottish accent if he felt like it), did well with gold claims in his youth, dropped the name Mei (his Chinese surname), and prospered.Post Magazine NewsletterGet updates direct to your inboxBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy PolicyIn 1881, he returned to Taishan to see his relatives, and he visited Canton (now Guangzhou) and Nanking (now Nanjing) to establish a tea export business.

On his return to Australia he set up tea shops so his customers could sample his wares. They became immediately popular and evolved into his famed tea rooms, fitted out with fountains, ponds of carp and upstairs reading rooms. At the age of 36, he married a young English woman, Margaret Scarlett, and they went on to have six children.

In a memoir written after his death, his wife recalled how Quong Tart had established venues particularly for women in his elegant and elaborate establishments.

“On the first floor of the King Street premises a reading room was established, and tastefully supplied with journals and magazines of interest to ladies, also writing materials, so that if one desired to write a letter or address a parcel, the means were at hand, free of cost, and this great convenience was much appreciated by visitors,” she wrote.

Quong Tart and his family circa 1900. Photo: Museum of Chinese Australian History

Quong Tart and his family circa 1900. Photo: Museum of Chinese Australian History

In the late 1800s in Australia, wealthier women were constrained. There were few places they could mingle with ease and they couldn’t even walk on the streets unaccompanied.

Meetings were possible in one another’s homes, but there they could be observed or overheard. Quong Tart’s tea rooms became the venue of choice for all manner of meetings.

“Quong Tart’s invitation to host women’s suffrage meetings in his tea rooms was enormously important in the Womanhood Suffrage League getting a toehold in New South Wales,” says Clare Wright, professor of history at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and author of You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World.

“In the late 19th century, it was not the done thing for respectable, middle-class women – from the ranks of which the early suffrage organisers were largely drawn – to be socially active outside their own homes, or the drawing rooms of other women in their set,” she continues.

“What having a public venue for their meetings meant was that the issue of women’s enfranchisement was transformed from being a ‘domestic’ matter to a political matter.”

Maybanke Anderson, one of Sydney’s prominent women’s activists in the 1890s who is credited with being among the first to start discussing women’s suffrage in Australia. Photo: National Library of Australia

Maybanke Anderson, one of Sydney’s prominent women’s activists in the 1890s who is credited with being among the first to start discussing women’s suffrage in Australia. Photo: National Library of AustraliaThe businessman’s tea rooms, she adds, were known as a place for noisy and topical meetings, held by lobby groups as diverse as the Single Tax League, the Opium League (against the importation of opium) and various civic associations such as the Cyclists Union.

“Being discussed out in the open – though not on the streets, which is where ‘rough’ people gathered – made suffrage ‘in the national interest’, unlike other ‘feminine’ drawing-room activities such as piano recitals and poetry readings,” Wright says.

He came across as a very amiable figure who was prepared to make the most of opportunities and make jokes and sing Lisa Murray, city historian with the City of Sydney Council, on Quong Tart

The Women’s Literary Society, founded in 1889, was the first women’s organisation ever to meet at night in Sydney, says historian Susan Magarey, professor emerita at Adelaide University, in South Australia, and author of a number of histories, including Passions of the First Wave Feminists. The society met at Quong Tart’s Loong Shan Tea House on King Street.

“Its members met on the first and third evenings of each month at eight o’clock,” Magarey says.

“Beginning with a small number of members, it had grown to 120 financial members by 1893. But it had stopped being concerned with women’s suffrage after a meeting early in 1891 at which Maybanke Wolstenholme [later Anderson] and Rose Scott raised the question of ‘woman suffrage’ as a matter for the literary society to consider, only to meet strong and outraged opposition: ‘an energetic and much-esteemed member rose and said, with white heat, that she hoped we should never discuss such a disgraceful matter’.”

A bust of Quong Tart near Ashfield railway station in Sydney, Photo: Marc Pasquin

A bust of Quong Tart near Ashfield railway station in Sydney, Photo: Marc Pasquin

The outraged member was apparently concerned that giving women the right to vote would somehow lead to the amendment or elimination of marriage laws.

After that first thwarted effort, the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales did subsequently meet at one of Quong Tart’s tea rooms, perhaps one elsewhere in Sydney, Magarey says.

Quong Tart had established tea rooms in the Royal Arcade, the Sydney Arcade, at the Moore Park Zoo and a flagship tea room in the Queen Victoria Building, which had a large “Elite Hall” that could be hired for evening events.

Quong Tart was still trading in tea and he again voyaged to China, on one occasion with his wife and daughter, where he was received with great honour and awarded the title of Mandarin of the fifth degree for his services to the overseas Chinese community and bilateral ties.

Quong Tart and his family in their sitting room at Gallop House on Arthur Street in Sydney circa 1900. Photo: State Library of NSW

Quong Tart and his family in their sitting room at Gallop House on Arthur Street in Sydney circa 1900. Photo: State Library of NSW

In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, he was a notable philanthropist. Concerned about his fellow Chinese immigrants, he campaigned against the importation of opium.

He was also involved with the operation of Sydney’s soup kitchens, paid for annual dinners at various asylums for the destitute, and fed and clothed children from the Waterloo Ragged School, as well as devising new and progressive plans for his employees, including paid sick leave.

Three small caricatures of Quong Tart in Highland dress, and one of him in formal attire, possibly singing, drawn by Walter Syer, circa 1887-88. Photo: State Library of NSW

Three small caricatures of Quong Tart in Highland dress, and one of him in formal attire, possibly singing, drawn by Walter Syer, circa 1887-88. Photo: State Library of NSW

Lisa Murray, city historian with the City of Sydney Council, says Quong Tart was well connected with Sydney’s Chinese community.

“He could speak English very well, and he came across as a very amiable figure who was prepared to make the most of opportunities and make jokes and sing, and he was known for reciting poetry in a Scottish accent,” she says. “He was obviously a very intelligent man and moved between societies.”

Like other historians, Murray believes he and his tea rooms played an important role in the fight for women’s right to vote. “Quong Tart definitely created a space for women that was both a public and private space in a way, where they could meet and socialise,” she says. “I do believe that’s significant in Sydney’s history.”

An anti-suffragist postcard from the “Shut Up Series” produced in Australia around 1900. Photo: State Library of NSW

An anti-suffragist postcard from the “Shut Up Series” produced in Australia around 1900. Photo: State Library of NSW

Women across Australia were given the vote by the new nation in June 1902. A few months later, in August, Quong Tart, then 53, was brutally attacked in his office in the Queen Victoria Building by a man wielding an iron bar.

There was speculation it was more than a simple robbery, and perhaps connected with his commercial empire of tea rooms and import business. Nothing of that nature was ever proved, and the so-called “simple-minded thug” who attacked him was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Quong Tart never fully recovered from the savage bashing and he died of pleurisy the following year, leaving behind his wife and children – two sons and four daughters, ranging in age from just a few months old to 16.

His death was a huge blow to many who relied on him in Sydney, from his employees to the recipients of his welfare. Thousands of mourners attended his funeral to bid him farewell.

Condolence notes after the death of Quong Tart in 1903. Photo: State Library of NSW

Condolence notes after the death of Quong Tart in 1903. Photo: State Library of NSW

In her memoir, his wife – who married him against the wishes of her family – remembered her late husband as an extraordinary man.

“Quong Tart”, she wrote, “had won from all classes, by his natural and genuine kindness, a character and name impossible to be bought for money.”Did you know that China supplies 40% of the world’s active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) for drug manufacturing? Learn what other ways local healthcare players are expanding their global footprint from the China Healthcare Report, brought to you by SCMP Research, and get a comprehensive industry review and insights on Covid-19 induced market shifts. Purchase now and get a 30% discount before 30 September 2020. You will also receive access to 6 closed-door webinars led by China healthcare’s most influential C-suite executives.