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 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 early 30s. He became naturalised in 1871. During this time, Mei Quong Tart become a wealthy and a well respected young man in Braidwood – his wealth had came from high yielding gold leases between 1872 and 1877, and it was said that he employed up to 200 men, both Chinese and European, to extract the gold.
Quong Tart travelled to China to visit his family in April 1881, but also to ‘perfect arrangements’ in order to set himself up ‘in the metropolis as a tea and silk merchant’. He opened a tea and silk shop in the Sydney Arcade in late 1881. It proved very popular, and he eventually he opened a chain of tea shops including at the Royal Arcade, Moore Park Zoological Gardens and Haymarket. An ‘elaborate restaurant’ was opened at 137 King Street in 1889 and the Elite Dining Hall and Tea Rooms in the Queen Victoria Building, was formally opened by the Mayor Matthew Harris in 1898.
Mei Quong Tart was known to be a good employer at his tea rooms – he gave his staff ‘time off for shopping and sick leave with pay’ – and the service was both professional and egalitarian. According to his wife Margaret, ‘his employees were ordered to treat all alike, whether they wore silk dresses or cheap prints’.
Apart from running successful tea shops all over Sydney, Quong Tart had a roaring trade in packet tea.
But Tart did not rest on his laurels as far as his business success was concerned. It appears from all accounts that he had a strong sense of social justice and civic duty from an early age and a need to give back to the community that he had been welcomed into.
Mei Quong Tart was active in the campaign against the importation of opium, he lobbied on behalf of the Chinese passengers aboard the steamer Afghan when it sailed into Sydney Harbour in May 1888 who were refused permission to land, and provided feasts for inmates at the Parramatta and Newington destitute asylums.
From 1881 when he first moved to Sydney to set up his chain of tea shops, Mei Quong Tart was a regular fixture at civic and vice-regal events, and would often turn up dressed in traditional Chinese costume. For example, when the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall visited in June 1901, there was a levee at Government House in Sydney and ‘the address from the Chinese residents of Sydney was presented by Mr Quong Tart, who wore his robes and peacock’s feather as a Mandarin’.
Quong Tart moved between two cultures. He was identifiably a Chinese man, who dressed in traditional costume at all manner of civic and social functions and decked out his tea shops with Chinese art and decorations. But he was married to an English woman, was socially well-connected in Sydney’s legal fraternity and mixed in high society and was in most regards was assimilated into and accepted by European society.
These factors caused tensions with the Chinese community regards to his role as a community leader and cultural ambassador. Sydney’s Chinese community in the 19th century was riven by ‘factions’ – these differences within the community were along class lines, along cultural lines and along political lines – and despite his representations on behalf of the Chinese community, he was ‘separated by a wide social and cultural gap’ from them.
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. Although he his assailant was captured, arrested and gaoled, no definite motive was found. Quong briefly recovered from the attack, and was feted at a presentation at Sydney Town Hall. But on 26 July 1903, he died from pleurisy at his family home in Ashfield. Quong Tart’s death was undoubtedly caused by complications from the injuries from his attack.
Mei Quong Tart was a prominent – and accepted – member of Sydney society, active in the anti-opium campaign and a notable philanthropist. He had his feet in two worlds and was both assimilated and exotic. He was a figure of fascination, not only during his lifetime but long after his death, and remains so.