South Australia's Chinese History














































































The Chinese Presence in South Australia

Recent and controversial research by Gavin Menzies, author of "1421 The Year that China Discovered the World", suggests that the Chinese visited South Australian shores as early as the 1400's.  The existence of Asiatic pigs on Kangaroo Island before European settlement is cited as evidence of their visit(s).  

However South Australian history books usually report Chinese settlement to have commenced with the arrival of over 17,000 Chinese men at Robe in 1857.  They were bound for the Victorian gold diggings and many walked 500km to Bendigo to avoid paying the $20 tax charged in Melbourne. Some of these men even arrived in Port Adelaide and were housed temporarily in the Adelaide suburbs.  On their way to Victoria they dug wells and many of these constructions are still visible today.  

What the history books rarely record is that at least one Chinese person arrived in South Australia far earlier than 1857 and well before the gold rush.  In 1842 records show a Chinese Cabinet Maker was plying his trade in Port Adelaide.  Like most Australian cities of the time, Adelaide probably had other Chinese people working in mining, labouring, cooking, cleaning, furniture making and of course in the ubiquitous Chinese laundry.  The South Australian Migration Museum houses a beautiful Chinese Proclamation (pictured below) which is thought to be the earliest document linking Adelaide's Chinese community with their homeland. The proclamation was sent to Adelaide in 1889 in gratitude for money raised by the Chinese Famine Relief Committee.  The proclamation is made from a sandalwood tablet covered in gesso and gilded in gold leaf. It features embossed birds and foliage and reads "Benevolence comes from over the seas. To the members of the Adelaide Committee for raising relief funds for the Jiangsu and Anhwei provinces."  

The current Chinese community in South Australia is diverse in its origins.  Many are originally from the People's Republic of China, but others have come from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Still more are descendants of the Chinese gold minors who came in search of gold in the 1850's.  In 2004-2005, 11,095 people came to live in Australia from the People's Republic of China.  The adopted children of SACAS members were amongst them.  This was 9% of all immigration and the Chinese currently form the third largest number of migrants to Australia.  More immigrants, presumably of Chinese descent, came from Hong Kong (1273), from Taiwan (776), and from Macau (31).  

Like many things in Adelaide, our Chinatown is modest compared with those to be found in the eastern states.  Centered in Moonta Street and guarded by imposing lions and gates at either end, it does however house a vibrant and active Chinese Community.  Unlike those in the eastern states, Adelaide's Chinatown only really began to take shape in the 1970's and 1980's.  This time saw an influx of migrants from Asia, most notably from Vietnam.  Market gardeners took their produce to the Central Markets, Asian Grocery Stores appeared and many South Australian's began to gain an appetite for Chinese food.  However the myriad of Asian restaurants and shops that flourish in and around Moonta Street today are but the surface of the real Chinatown.  Take the time to look around and one can find Chinese medical practitioners, herbalists, acupuncturists, martial arts practitioners, Chinese Churches, welfare services, and cultural groups.  Many of Adelaide's most active leaders can also be found within the Chinese community.

Our children's stories are in many ways the latest chapter to be written in the history of the Chinese in South Australia.  As parents of adopted Chinese children we can consider ourselves to be very fortunate to have access to an established Chinese community who are willing to share their culture with other South Australians.


More Snippets of Chinese History in South Australia

This web-page is added to on a regular basis as interesting snippets of Chinese history are unearthed by the author.  Stay tuned to this page and the Latest-News Page for regular History Updates.  See below for historical information on the following:

  • Miss Gladys Sym Choon

  • The "Joss House"

  • Adelaide's Chinese School -  A Tale of OpiumMurder and Martyrdom!

Miss Gladys Sym Choon
Ever walked down Rundle Street and wondered why there is a side-street and a fashion boutique called Miss Gladys Sym Choon?  Sounds very Chinese doesn't it?  Well that is because it is very Chinese!  Gladys Sym Choon was born in Unley in 1905 of Chinese immigrant parents.  Her parents (John) Sym Choon and So Yung Moon were both born into peasant families in China's Guangdong Province.  They married in 1888 at the age of 21 and had a son who died shortly after birth.  I was then that they became adoptive parents to another boy.   Adoption, and in particular the adoption of boys, was a common practice at the time and is a theme that occurs throughout Chinese history.  In 1890 John Sym Choon arrived in Adelaide and worked for some time before bringing his wife over to join him.   Their adopted son remained in China and was supported by relatives and money that was sent to him by his adoptive parents in Adelaide and later by the family's youngest son.  John Sym Choon began work in Adelaide as a fruit and vegetable hawker.  He would walk his hand cart from Unley to the East End Markets to buy produce that he would then sell door-to-door in the suburbs. In 1908 he rented premises in Rundle Street, adjacent to the markets.  He acquired a horse and horse-drawn cart and when business improved he bought the premises.  


At 16 years of age his daughter, Gladys Sym Choon opened her mini emporium adjacent to the Adelaide Fruit and Produce Market.  In 1928 she became the first woman to incorporate a business in South Australia and to import goods into the state.  The Sym Choon family had four children born in Adelaide, George (circa 1900), Dorothy (circa 1902) Gladys (born 1905), and Gordon (born 1910).  The family were well-known and highly regarded by the wider Adelaide community and the parents were very patriotic towards Australia.  Like many Chinese families, education was considered to be very important and all of the children attended the Flinders Street Primary School.  When John Sym Choon fcreturned to China due to diabetes, and illness that would soon take his life, his wife saw an opportunity to depart from traditional ways and chose to send her daughters to secondary school.  Gladys was recorded as attending Adelaide High School and this was unusual for any girl, let alone a girl of Chinese origin.  Her shop opened in 1923 and was called The China Gift Store.  It sold napery, embroidery, lingerie, lace, ornamental china, and cloisonne all imported from China.  Mainly from Shanghai.  


The history of this remarkable Adelaide family is just one story of Chinese migrant success in Australia.  If you are interested in history I encourage you to take a look at the street sign and the boutique next time you are in the East End.  Just try and imagine what Rundle Street looked like in the early 1900's and how a young Chinese woman found such success in this unlikely place.  I am sure you would agree that it is an amazing story.  The photograph below is of Miss Sym Choon's wedding day and this and more information can be found at by clicking on the image and visiting the stores current website.  It is great that such a contemporary business has maintained this important historical link.



The "Joss House"
As some of you may have gathered I am a bit of geeky history buff.  What really interests me are the many quirky stories that often lay hidden in the history books.  The little human things that are typically crushed under the immense weight of kings, queens, battles and endless boring historical dates.  Take this little gem for example.  Did you know that Adelaide had a Chinese Temple in 1891?  Did you also know that it survived until 1985 when it was demolished?  It was located near the north western corner of Hindley and Morphett Streets.  Most of us probably walked past it over the years and never even imagined what it's history was.  That isn't surprising really as it didn't look like much of a temple from the outside.  To be honest it was a rusty old tin shed.  However story has it that inside was a colourful collection of Chinese lanterns, banners and ornaments.  Indeed excavations of the area have uncovered some interesting turn of the century Chinese artifacts.  The West End of town was the traditional haven for Chinese culture in early Adelaide.  Every Chinese New Year the temple would be the centre of celebrations and newspaper reports of the time describe fireworks, drums and cymbals causing a disturbance and attracting "larrikin elements".   The temple was officially called the Kaun Ti Temple, but for many locals  it was not so affectionately known as the "Joss House".  The temple was dedicated to the 'Three Brothers of the Peach Orchard', Kuan Ti, Chang Fei and Liu Pei. Kuan Ti was the god of war, wealth, oath-taking brotherhoods, upholder of justice, preventor of strife, and protector against evil.
Images of Kaun Ti appear in Taoist, Confucian and Chinese Buddhist Temples.  So it is difficult to say what religious practices actually occurred at the temple.  However perhaps considering the origin of the Chinese settlers, Taoism would be the most likely of the three.  Those of us who have visited the Taoist Temples in Hong Kong will know just how smoky they can get and this little one in Adelaide must have billowed with incense smoke over the years.  Anyway the next time you cross the Morphett Street Bridge into Adelaide - or see a Chinese movie at the Mercury Cinema - remember that an old Chinese Temple used to be located close by.  If you take the time to visit the area I wouldn't be at all surprised if you smell a waft of sandalwood incense the air or hear the faint beat of a Chinese drum.  History has a strange way of permeating both our minds and our environment.


Adelaide's Chinese School -  A Tale of OpiumMurder and Martyrdom!

Today many South Australians, including adoptive families and Australian born Chinese, are interested in learning Mandarin. But in the early days of South Australia it was of course the Chinese who were keen to learn English. Historically Adelaide can lay claim to a unique "Chinese School" which operated for 40 years through the Interdenominational Adelaide City Mission in Light Square. The school developed from the work of Miss Sarah Lavis who began to teach English and Christianity to a Chinese hawker in her Wright Street home. In 1883 the school formalised its operations in Light Square.  Of Adelaide's 200 strong Chinese population there were 15 students who attended the school annually. The curriculum included reading, writing, book keeping and religious instruction. Two items of note are recorded about the schools history. The first was that the Adelaide City Mission led the fight to close Adelaide's "Opium Dens" and counselled many opium addicts. It has been alleged that in 1905 Adelaide had eight opium dens, which was apparently more than existed in Melbourne! The second item of interest related to one of the schools teachers. William Flemming was a Scottish sailor who jumped ship at Port Adelaide. Local historian Bob Peterson notes that William was described as being "slow of intellect; steady but slow" and that he never managed to learn Chinese. William taught at the school and undertook an exceptionally long apprenticeship before being reluctantly accepted as a missionary. Peterson notes that William's motivation to volunteer may have been to secure free passage to Shanghai rather than to save souls.  To his credit when Flemming did finally arrive in China he immediately commenced his missionary work.  Fortunately for him it was with a non-Han ethnic group and so his lack of Mandarin skills was of no consequence.  Not so fortunately he arrived in China at a dangerous time and was soon murdered, presumably by those he had attempted to convert.  In fact to be precise her was hacked to death on a dusty road. Thus the unlikely William Flemming became a martyr with a monument in Shanghai dedicated to him and other Christian missionaries.  All of this occurred much to the annoyance of his old Adelaide acquaintances who felt that his ascendance to heaven was less than deservedConsidering the remarkable Chinese history of the west end of town it is not surprising to find that today we have several Chinese Christian congregations in the vicinity.  The Chinese Welfare Service also operate close by and offer assistance to new migrants as well as a Mandarin School for children.  And although the opium dens are now gone, the west end retains a wild reputation and still attracts "lost souls" as well as those seeking to save them.



11 January 2008 - Chinese Support Groups – History Repeating Itself

One of the interesting things about history are the patterns that emerge across the centuries as history is seen to repeat itself.  The emergence of “societies” to assist new Chinese migrants is one such pattern.  These societies first began to emerge as the gold-rushes encouraged Chinese to come to Australia and they continue to be formed today.  Historically one of the oldest and best known was the See Yup Society in Victoria.  In 1855 membership of this society cost 25 shillings per year and an ongoing contribution of 1 shilling per month.  That may sound cheap but the annual membership fee alone was equivalent to the average weekly wage.  The total membership fee would be over $1200.00 in today's money.  Nevertheless the See Yup Society was one of the most popular and successful groups in Australia.  It provided friendship, networking, protection, advice, cultural information, and assistance in times of need.  Over time they also acquired property for community, religion, education and health services.  Generally the Chinese didn’t receive a warm welcome from Australian society and our various governments were less than helpful to them.  The early Chinese migrants did lobby for change and over time they achieved much and on occasions even gained the support of mainstream Australia.  However in response to discrimination, inequity and government inaction the establishment of largely self supporting communities was perhaps their greatest achievement.  In quintessential Chinese fashion they demonstrated that “he who depends on himself will attain the greatest happiness.”  Australian society and its governments are certainly more helpful these days, but new Chinese migrants still feel the need to form support groups.  SACAS formed as a support group in 2004 some 150 years after the formation of the See Yup Society.  There are however many similarities between to two organisations, although SACAS certainly doesn't charge a weeks wages to join!  For the record at only $20.00 our Membership Fee is only 2.35% of the average weekly wage.  Now that is cheap!  By joining SACAS our members are in essence joining the latest “Chinese Society” to form in response to the migration of Chinese people to Australia.  SACAS is providing a community for adoptive families and their Chinese born children as well as plugging gaps in service provision.  History is repeating itself.  So what lessons can we draw from this history?  Well there are two very obvious lessons to be learnt.  Firstly don’t try and go it alone.  Join and contribute to a community so that you and others can enjoy the many benefits that it offers.  Secondly whilst you may always request help from society and government, you should never expect to receive it.  Society moves slowly and government is often slower in its response to emerging needs.  The history of Chinese migrant support groups teaches us that as well as lobbying for change we need to focus on helping ourselves and our community.  Society and government will catch up eventually, but as any parent of a young child will tell you, time is of the essence.  The Chinese Societies that arose in Australia, and around the world, are historical models for groups like SACAS to follow.  Together we can achieve great things and if we depend on ourselves we will “attain the greatest happiness”.