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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4789


Senator TCHEN (7:55 PM) — On 11 September 2002 Mrs Ida Lee, the youngest daughter of Kwong Sue Duk, passed away in Melbourne, a day shy of her 93rd birthday. Ida Lee was born in Hong Kong in 1909 and came to Australia in 1913. In those days the children of Australians who were not white did not find their right to come home an automatic matter. Ida lived in Darwin until World War I, when her family moved to Melbourne. She attended Rathdowne Street State School and married Harry Lee Yook Hong when she was 16. She had her first and only child, Joyce, when she was 19. However, Joyce, who survives Ida, made up for her and Ida was surrounded by her full quota of grandchildren and great-grandchildren in her latter days.

By all accounts Ida had the full but not extraordinary life of an Australian housewife and mother. Like thousands of other Australian women, she was a strong and capable helper to her husband, a good and loving mother to her daughter and a doting and inspiring grandmother and great-grandmother to the younger generations. But she did not shrink from her community duties either. In Ida's eulogy, Joyce recalled how Ida actively involved herself in the war effort during World War II through tin rattling and selling badges and raffle tickets. Amongst her mourners I saw as many non-Asian Australians as Asian Australians and as many young people as older people. All came to farewell a woman who was, as Joyce said:

... a gentle, kind, patient and loving person and everyone was drawn to her personality. She spoke well of all people, never unkind words.

Like so many of her contemporary Australians, by her ordinary life Ida Lee achieved the extraordinary goal of making Australian society the image of her personality—tolerant, caring and wisely accepting. Ida was the ordinary daughter of an extraordinary father, but her contribution to our society was no less.

Ida's father, Kwong Sue Duk, was a herbalist and business entrepreneur. His life was a notable example of those Chinese Australians whose business and civil achievements received such recognition, both in their own community and in the mainstream community in pre- and early Federation Australia. They helped to moderate significantly the antipathy that Chinese Australians faced during that time and eventually facilitated the maturity of our community attitude. Kwong Sue Duk was born in the Toishan district of Guangdong province in southern China in 1853. He moved to the adjacent Zhongshan district when he was still a young man. This was quite an unusual event, since in this part of China parochialism was exceptionally strong in those days. From Zhongshan he first went to the Californian goldfields and then came to Australia, in 1875, and settled in Darwin where he established a general store trading under the name of Sun Mow Loong and practised his healing arts.

At that time there were large Chinese populations in the towns and goldfields of northern Queensland. Kwong Sue Duk, aided by his healing skills, established extensive business interests throughout Queensland, Northern Territory and eventually Victoria. His healing skills were especially appreciated in Melbourne, which until the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was established in 1891 to put things right was a most unhealthy place, as its unofficial name, Smellbourne, graphically testified. Kwong Sue Duk died in Townsville in 1929. His clan thrived, however, and by 1982 he had descendents in America, Canada, Britain, France, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia. But Australia remains the home base of the clan.

As a well-respected healer and successful businessman, Kwong Sue Duk played an important role in establishing a place for, and acceptance of, the Chinese in Australian society. He was, however, also very much Chinese in that he lived his life regardless of the mores of the society he had come to live in, which probably added to the misunderstanding that could arise between peoples of different cultures and certainly did arise between the Chinese and Australians during the early part of the last century.

In his book on Chinese Australian history entitled Citizens: Flowers and the Wide Sea—published by the University of Queensland Press in 1996—Eric Rolls wrote that when he started his research into Chinese Australian history Arthur Calwell, the then Leader of the Opposition, sent him a photograph of Kwong Sue Duk, taken with his four wives and some 40 of his 60-plus children and grandchildren. Rolls said that he only realised afterwards that Calwell had sent him the photograph as an example not of the vital people that Rolls was studying but of the immoral people Calwell had to contend with as Australia's first Minister for Immigration. Knowing that Arthur Calwell was a devout Catholic, I can understand his reaction to Kwong Sue Duk's eccentric family arrangements. However, it continues to be a source of amazement to me that a person who could condemn a whole race of people on the basis of one eccentricity of one person could aspire to be the leader of this great nation a mere 35 years ago. It was a close call indeed for Australia.

However, my purpose tonight is to remember the life of the ordinary Ida Lee, not the extraordinary life of Kwong Sue Duk. Let me close with words about Ida from Ida's great-granddaughter Fiona Wong. She said:

Heart shaped sticker on your purse,

Stuck on so many years ago,

But still you kept it,

Treasured it and loved it.

Gimmicky long haired troll dolls,

Always a pat a day, just for luck,

And still you kept it,

Believed it and loved it.

Hoping that there is a Heaven

More beautiful than anything dreamt

And we'll still have hope

That you will still love us

And look down on us from up there.