Child Prospector

Oil portrait of a Chinese man with moustache, wearing a fine suit and an elaborate lapel pin.

DURATION: 3mins 20secs

Quong Tart, c 1880s
by unknown artist
oil on board
acquired 2004
ML 1346

Senior Curator

This is a portrait of Mei Quong Tart. He was a vey successful Sydney businessman, restaurant owner and a very generous philanthropist. He arrived in New South Wales as a nine-year-old. He actually travelled out to Australia with his uncle, to try their luck on the New South Wales goldfields. He came from Kanton Province, now Guangdong Province in China.

He lived on the Braidwood goldfields at Bells Creek, now called Stoney Creek, and was taken in by the family of Robert Percy Simpson, whose wife, Alice, taught him English and converted him to Christianity. And he remained a staunch Anglican for the rest of his life.

By the time he was 18, he was actually independently wealthy, having speculated in gold claims, and he built a cottage at Bells Creek and apparently had a very good social life, establishing lots of friendships with both Chinese and Europeans in the district, and he was actively involved in lots of community activities. It sounds as though he was quite a sporty man, which of course is a great shortcut to acceptance and popularity in our society, then and now. He was captain of the local cricket team. He also founded a football team and promoted horse-racing in the area.

In 1881, he visited China to see his family and, on returning to New South Wales, he opened up a tea and silk shop in Sydney. By 1886, he had married an Englishwoman, Margaret Scarlett, and they went on to have six children, two sons and four daughters.

In December 1889, Quong Tart opened an elaborate restaurant in King Street called Loong Shan Tea Shop. It soon became very famous and it was frequented by the great and the good of New South Wales society, including governors and premiers. And the décor of his restaurants sound fantastic. There were fountains and ferneries and fishponds inside, and he provided special rooms for reading and non-smoking rooms for ladies.

He then opened up a very luxurious large tea house and restaurant in the newly built Queen Victoria Building in December 1898, and apparently it could hold 500 people. His employees, mostly Europeans, benefited from his enlightened policy, with time off and also sick leave with pay.

Apart from being a successful businessman, he was also a great philanthropist, holding many benefits for charitable organisations. He provided a series of free feasts for the inmates of destitute asylums and also held a dinner for all the city’s newsboys at one time. He helped clothe and feed the children of the Waterloo Ragged School and he was heavily involved in the anti-opium campaign. He actually published a pamphlet called A Plea for the Abolition of the Importation of Opium.

Opium, at this time was sold and consumed in Australia for its medicinal purposes and he actually lobbied politicians for many years, with the support of the clergy, but he never lived to see the importation of opium stopped. This actually happened in 1905.

In August 1902, he was badly assaulted by an intruder in his office in the Queen Victoria Markets. Unfortunately, he never properly recovered from the assault. He died from pleurisy at his home, Gallop House, in Ashfield, in July 1903, at the age of 53. He was farewelled with a huge public funeral and thousands of mourners turned out to pay their respects to him.