Shanghai's lost history of Chinese-Australians

23 September 2016
How the search for one woman, uncovered the story of a Shanghai princess

In the aftermath of Federation, many Chinese-Australians fled discriminatory Australian laws to start new lives in Shanghai. Daisy Kwok was one of them, Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson tells her story.

Daisy Kwok.

Daisy Kwok.

If the White Australia Policy has an afterlife, I came face-to-face with it in 1996. Flicking through Tess Johnston's book, A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai, I saw an image of Daisy Kwok outside her family's now decrepit mansion in the Jingnan district of Shanghai.

Standing on cracked cement next to a clothesline, she wore a black velvet dress and white pearls. She must have been at least in her 70s. The caption on the photograph told me that Daisy had been born in Australia but came to Shanghai in 1917 and that she identified as an "Australian in Shanghai".

This struck me as unusual. I had spent seven years of my adolescence in the Australian embassy in Beijing and, having studied at a Chinese university, knew that Australia had not established formal diplomatic ties with China until the 1970s.

Most of what I had read about this history of re-engagement centred around images of banquets and handshakes, leadership meetings and Australian politicians standing on the Great Wall. Nowhere in the visual canon of Sino-Australian relations had I encountered anyone like Daisy Kwok.

Twenty years on, I now know that Daisy was a second generation Australian of Chinese descent who spent her childhood in the Sydney suburb of Petersham before her father, George Kwok Bew, took the family to China.

Fleeing Australian racism and White Australia on the one hand and embracing Shanghai's famed modernity on the other, in China George Kwok Bew helped open the Wing On department store, now an iconic Shanghai institution.

The Kwok family, Shanghai 1931.

The Kwok family, Shanghai 1931. Clockwise from left: Edith Kwok, Elsie Kwok, Daisy Kwok, Pearlie Kwok, Darling Kwok. (Supplied: Private collection of Bobby Fu)

The surprising fate of Chinese-Australians

His daughter Daisy was just one of many Chinese-Australians who made lives in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Their homes, workplaces, religious headquarters, nightclubs and dance halls are hard to find now, and any trace of an Australian connection has been long forgotten.

Yet these were places that teemed with international life. In the period between the world wars, Shanghai was Europe's premiere treaty port in Asia, with a "French town" modelled on Paris and a Bund lined with the old headquarters of the British elite — clubhouses, banks and hotels.

When I first travelled there in my teens I was in awe of the Art Deco grandeur of the Peace Hotel, where every room was themed to differing national tastes (the Japanese room, the India room, the British room) and where an ageing jazz band from the 30s still played in the bar.

Leading off the Bund is Nanjing Shopping St. It was on this street that returned Chinese-Australians such as Daisy's father built decadent department stores: Sincere, Wing On and Sun Sun among them. These were the so-called four great companies, the harbingers of consumer capitalism to Chinese shores after WWI.

As a teenager in the 1990s I was blind to this surprising Australian heritage at the heart of Shanghai's capitalist history. But in my 20s I learnt of the fate of the Chinese-Australian families who had sunk their money into the city at the height of its jazz era buzz.

They lost their wealth, they went into exile in America, or they stayed on in the changed city where many suffered terribly under communist rule. Some survived and ended up assisting Australian diplomats when they arrived in China after "reform and opening" began, acting as cultural liaison officers. They are testimony to the history of China-Australia relations that reaches back to the period before the cutting of ties in the 1950s.

Daisy herself was swallowed by Chinese history. She stayed in Shanghai after the communists came to power in 1949 and was persecuted and impoverished during the political campaigns of the 60s.

The image that so captivated me in A Last Look was taken in the 1980s when economic reforms in China had inspired nostalgia for Shanghai's capitalist past and new respect for the men and women who remembered it.

Daisy Kwok

Daisy Kwok.

Citizenship at last

Daisy began assisting staff at the Australian consulate when it reopened in Shanghai in 1987; translating documents, teaching Chinese language, and acting as a repository of a longer history of China-Australia connections.

In a ceremony in 1990, a few years before she died, Daisy was given the Australia citizenship she had long been denied. In the Australia of her birth, "Asiatics" were undesirables, out of place in Australia's vision of itself as a white fortress in the British Empire.

Overseas Chinese in other settler colonies faced the same laws. This was a global history of racial exclusion. Chinese immigration restriction acts were in force in the Australian colonies from 1855 and subsequent iterations of these acts gradually denied Chinese arriving in Australia property rights and, after Federation in 1901, citizenship, voting rights or rights to welfare.

Daisy, the descendent of gold-rush era migrants, was one of many Australian born Chinese who looked to Shanghai for a better future, seeking opportunities not afforded them in the southernmost dominion of the British imperial world.

What did it mean to identify as an Australian in China? Daisy gives us a version of Australian history from a Chinese perspective. Her life provokes a series of historical memories often forgotten in much of the future-focused rhetoric about Sino-Australian relations in the 21st century.

In between the gold rushes of the 1850s and the reengagement of the 1970s are the remarkable lives of people like Daisy: living embodiments of a long history of movement and cultural exchange between Australia and Asia. We are very preoccupied by our future in this region, but that future will grow out of this long history of engagement.

Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson is an ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Dr Loy-Wilson's research was supported by an Australasian Pioneers’ Club International Fellowship for Early Career Researchers.

This article originally appeared on the ABC