In October last year, along with other members of the Melbourne History Workshop (MHW), I presented at a public seminar, ‘Untimely Ends: Using Inquests for Family and Local History‘, at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), which focused on a specific collection of documents at PROV. We looked at the broader details of information you can find in these Inquests (Series VPRS 24) and how to use them in historical research. You can find more information on the MHW website, including the PowerPoint of the talk, which is full of useful material.
For my specific section, I talked about some research that I have been doing on Fong Fat, the Chinese owner of several Fancy Goods stores: two on Swanston Street and one in the Eastern Arcade in the 1860s and 1870s (although not all at the same time). The inquests research revealed more about his story but, more significantly, gave some greater detail about the women in his family: his daughter, Ah Chow; his first wife, Chinese-born Quinti; and his second wife, English immigrant Catherine Downey, formerly the family’s housekeeper and shop assistant.
In the last post on Fong Fat, I wrote about English-born New Zealander Charles Rooking Carter‘s comment on the shopping opportunities in the city of Melbourne in 1869:
he could find only one handsome Chinese shop in all Melbourne, and that was kept by ‘celestial’ individual rejoicing in the name of Fong Fat. He indeed, had an excellent display of Chinese fancy goods, in the way of carved ivory work, ebony work, porcelain baskets — besides tea and tobacco.Carter, Victoria: The British ‘El Dorado‘ (1870)
Fong Fat’s shop, at 96 Swanston Street, near Little Bourke, was joined by another at 48 Bourke Street, in 1871 and then by another, in 1872, in the new and prestigious Eastern Arcade on Bourke Street. It was this shop that led me to Fong Fat and his story. In my research work on nineteenth-century Australian shopping arcades I came across advertisements for the wares that Fong Fat sold in the arcade, including imported Chinese homewares, bric-a-brac, fireworks, tea, and tobacco.
While we imagine arcades in this period, and indeed Melbourne itself, as rather heterogenous and white, Chinese, Indian, Afghani and other non-European shops appeared in them to satisfy the taste for, to European eyes, exotic products from these regions. These shops and the stories of their proprietors demonstrate that Australia and its urban centres were more cosmopolitan that we often imagine.
The image we often have of the Chinese in Australia is of goldfields immigrants, sojourners that return or intend to return to China after making their money, who send their profits home, and whose Chinese wives that are left behind with the extended family. But, as scholars of the Chinese-Australian experience such as Sophie Loy-Wilson and Kate Bagnall, have explored, the story is far more complex. Many also decided to remain in Australia, becoming an integral part of Australian urban and regional life.
Fong Fat’s life is a one of those that little different to the Chinese sojourner trope, as is that of his family. Born in Canton around 1820, he came to Australia about 1857, presumably for gold, and established himself as a shopkeeper. He died in Stawell in 1884 after having married English-born widow Catherine Downey in 1872. This aspect of his story is really interesting, although not so highly unusual for Chinese-Australian men of the period; quite high numbers began relationships and had children with non-Chinese women. What intrigued me even more though was the story of his first family.
As I searched through Trove, as you do, for newspaper reports on him, I found some intriguing articles about two inquests in which he gave evidence. The first was that of four-month-old Ah Chow, the child of Fong Fat, who died in 1865 of inflammation of the lungs. The second, was that of his Chinese wife Quinti whose death, five years later, was caused by a stroke, and the newspapers claimed was probably the first inquest on a Chinese woman in the Australian colonies. These stories really intrigued me because our general story is that almost no Chinese women were present in Australia during this period. The Victorian census records indicate that there were eight Chinese women in 1861 (although 7% of the total population was China born), which grew to 31 in 1871. But there were a very very small number, of which Quinti was one .
Interested in finding more, I obtained the inquest records (now almost all digitised!) from PROV, which told us a little more about the findings of the coroner, although the majority of the information was really quite well reported in the newspapers. But the inquests help to personalise this much more as we read the words of Fong Fat’s testimony for both his little daughter’s and wife’s deaths (the second was given through a translator). Like many testimonies, they seem dry, but we can imagine the probable distress of the father and husband at these events. Of Ah Chow’s death he stated:
The deceased female infant Ah Chow was my child. She was 28 days old. She was healthy up to the day before yesterday. She was in bed with her mother when I went home at 12 o’clock at night. My wife was crying. I saw blood coming from the child’s mouth. I went for a doctor but he was not at home. The child was alive then but lived only two hours.
The inquests are also interesting as they not only have testimonies from Fong Fat but also non-Chinese associates. This includes, in the inquest of Quinti, their housekeeper and shop assistant in Fong Fat’s store, Catherine Downey. Name sound familiar? Yes, this is the English-born widow that he married in 1871 and was his wife until her death fifteen years later!
I approach the history of urban Australia often in through the avenues of family history such as this. Using the personal stories of individual personalities to tell bigger histories and revealing larger events, such as the goldrush and its aftermath, Chinese migration to Australia, and the history of the city. Someone like Fong Fat, making his way in a city we often envisage as European and the presence of his Chinese wife and child, gives a different complexion to our imagination of Australia during the period.
Once I had found the inquests, I sourced as many other documents as I could to build a picture of these people and their lives – more newspaper reports, including advertising for the shops, stories about a court case Fong Fat’s second wife brought against someone, records of Catherine’s burial in the Melbourne General Cemetery and the gold that is the death certificates of Ah Chow and Quinti, which told us a little about them. Quinti, we find was born in Canton in around 1846 and had come to Victoria in around 1864 or 5, presumably to be a wife to Fong Fat. She quickly bore her only child, Ah Chow, in the colony, only to lose her, and then to die herself five years later.
The inquests themselves are only suggestive of what life would be like for Chinese women in Australia. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of detail in these particular ones but … in many other inquests we would receive a wealth of other detail about individuals. The death certificates reveal a little more, but they add to the story we are building. Importantly to me they also disrupt the idea that Chinese women were not present in Australia at all and the trope of the single sojourner Chinese man.
I think they also put a human slant on the often racialised and sensationalised newspaper reports about the Chinese community in the colonial city. Together with all these other documents, the inquests provide another window into the lives of Fong Fat, Quinti and their baby daughter, as well as his second wife, and show how these types of records can provide more detailed information and illuminate the stories of Australian families.