The above photo shows the well-worn, slightly scruffy and tarnished facade of an old building in the historic industrial inner city district of Sydney. The sign on the shopfront says ‘Chinese Ginsengs and Herbs Co’. Google Maps tells me the address is 4-10 Goulburn Street, although the sign above the entrance indicates the address is “75-77 Ultimo Road Haymarket”. I’m going to go with what the building says rather than what my iPhone indicates…the key point is that this building is within wok-tossing distance of Hay and Dixon Streets, the epicentre of Sydney’s traditional Chinatown.
The awning above the Ginseng shop gives the real clue to the building’s history – in faded blue and red (the colours of the Republic of China better known today as Taiwan or Chinese Taipei), are the words The Chinese Nationalist Party of Australasia. The letters ‘KMT’ and the building’s date, 1921′, at the top of the facade further emphasises its political association with China.
The Haymarket building was purchased in 1921 with funds raised by Chinese-Australian supporters of the KMT or Kuomintang, a Chinese nationalist party headed by Dr Sun-Yat-sen that gained prominence after the overthrow of the last Qing emperor and the transition to republican rule. The Australasian KMT had earlier evolved out of a grass-roots organisation in Sydney called the Young China League, the impetus for the emergence of YCL/Australian KMT came largely from Sino-Australian merchants James Ah Chuey and William Yinson Lee.
KMT Sydney’s regional leadership
Ultimo Road was KMT’s Australasian headquarters, from this building the local Party liaised with the KMT Central party in China and coordinated the activities of other regional KMT branch offices elsewhere in Australia, New Zealand and the wider Pacific Islands. The Sydney Office supervised seven branches – NSW, Victoria, WA, Wellington and Auckland (NZ), Fiji and New Guinea. It also directly administered Brisbane, Adelaide and Darwin and had jurisdiction over Tahiti. Melbourne office having to defer to Sydney’s seniority and hegemony provoked KMT membership tensions between Australia’s two largest cities.
KMT and the Chinese diaspora in Australia
KMT’s Sydney branch performed several functions on behalf of the Party. One of these involved an educational role for the local émigré Chinese. The KMT association fostered modern political ideas, promoting pro-republican values and the virtues of parliamentary democracy as an antidote to the gains made by Chinese communists in courting popular support in the Chinese countryside.
Recruiting new KMT members from among the community in Sydney was part of the Australasian association’s growth strategy. To bind Chinese emigrants to the Party and its objectives, the Sydney office organised dances, dinners, social gatherings, held screenings of Chinese movies. Recreational activities were another means of incorporating the Chinese locals – gyms and sporting teams were established to encourage physical exercise.
At crunch periods in the 20th century during conflicts the KMT were embroiled in on mainland China (the National Defence War against Japan, the Nationalists/Communists Civil War), the offices in Sydney and Melbourne had an instrumental role on the ground in Australia. The two associations maintained solidarity with and mobilised support for the struggles of the Chinese Nationalists headed by Chiang Kai-shek…the local Sydney branch coordinated the collection of donations❉ that were remitted back to Nanking (the Nationalists’ Chinese capital) to finance the war effort (equip the KMT Army, buy fighter planes for the Air Force, etc)
Kuomintang Nationalist Club, Melbourne
Concurrently with the establishment of the KMT headquarters in Sydney, the Chinese Nationalists with money from Chinese benefactors resident in Melbourne commissioned famous Chicagoan architect Walter Burley Griffin to convert a brick warehouse at 109 Little Bourke Road into the city’s KMT association premises. Griffin’s design of a new facade for the building in 1921 was financed by Canton-born, Melbourne social reformer, Cheok Hong Cheong. Cheong had a long association with Griffin as a client and was a shareholder in the Griffins’ Greater Sydney Development Association.
Australasian Canton Club
The Australasian association role eventually extended to working for returning émigrés from Australasia and Oceania. This happened when the Australasian KMT Canton Club was set up in that southern Chinese city(office)◊…its purpose was to assist the émigrés who subsequently returned to China. This assistance took many forms such as advocacy in legal matters, providing board and lodging for members passing through Canton to and from Australia and NZ and advice on investments. The Canton office also produced the widely distributed official journal of the Australasian KMT.
Both 1920s KMT buildings, Sydney and Melbourne, are still standing, and the clubs continue to have social associations with the local Chinese-Australian communities.
❉ this material support took on added significance and urgency for the KMT cause after imperial Japan invaded Manchuria in 1937
◊ the location was chosen mainly because of the pattern of past migration to Australia and New Zealand – most Chinese migrants had come from Canton (Guangzhou) or from the wider province of Guangdong
Judith Brett & Mei-Fen Kuo, Unlocking the History of the Australasian Kuo-Min Tang 1911-2013, (2013)
John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia (2012)
Kate Bagnall, ‘Picnics and Politics’, Inside Story, 24-Jan-2014, www.insidestory.org.au
‘Griffin’s Chinese Nationalist Party Building in Lt Bourke’ (Building & Architecture), www.walkingmelbourne.com