Chinese publicans in Australia

lively lady fight chinamans hotel ballarat 1876


IT’S fair to say that the Chinese are not the first settlers who spring to mind when telling the story of Colonial pubs in Australia.

Although the Irish and English dominated as Colonial publicans, there were others from far away lands who donned the innkeeper’s apron.

The entrepreneurial Chinese have a reputation when it comes to business, and knew where best to make money. While most Chinese settlers came to Australia in search of their fortune on the goldfields, some cleverly noticed there were other means of making their money – behind the bar.

The Chinese, though, had one hurdle to get over before they were to become publicans. They could not own property or be granted a publicans’ licenses unless they were British subjects.

To get around this, the early Chinese settlers sometimes married British subjects – either for love or a means to gain citizenship. As a result, ‘Chinese hotels’ began springing up around Australia, many in the goldfields, catering for their countrymen, and others in the larger cities and towns.

The first Australian Chinese publican was a bloke by the name of Mak Sai Ying. He was also known by the more Anglo-friendly name of John Shying.

Shying’s Golden Lion was located opposite the Government wharf in Church Street, Parramatta, near what was then the intersection of the Windsor Road.

The Golden Lion Hotel, Parramatta, 1901 after it seemingly lost its “Chinese verandah”. Picture: Cumberland Argus, 1901

The brick pub measured 60 feet at the front by 28 feet, with a “Chinese verandah, not to be equalled by any in the Colony”.

Shying had a short stay at the Golden Lion and was host from 1829 to 1830. The Sydney Gazette advertised his pub for sale or for lease at £2 per week in September 1830.

The Golden Lion contained seven rooms, was “well fitted up, with a good cellar, likewise a good storeroom the length of the house; the yard contained a brick house, with kitchen, and three rooms, likewise, a four-stall stable, and a fine well of good water”.

Besides the first Chinese publican, Shying is also the first documented immigrant from that country’s shores to Australia. He arrived in 1818 and later married an English woman, Sarah Thompson in 1823, enabling him to purchase property and gain a publican’s license.

Shying went to China the following year before returning five years later. He died in Sydney aged 84 in 1880. Some of his children became furniture makers, and his descendants still live in Sydney today.

Another Chinese publican was Thomas Ashney, who ran the Queensland Hotel in Gayndah, Queensland. He arrived from the port city of Amoy, now known as Xiamen, on the barque Nimrod in 1848.

Ashney was born in Amoy in 1825 and would have witnessed the infamous Opium Wars. After the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 Amoy opened up to European commercial and cultural influences, particularly large numbers of British traders and Christian missionaries.

One of these traders was Henry Moore, the captain of the Nimrod. Moore set about contracting Chinese men to come as immigrants to Australia in 1848. Among those passengers was another early Colonial Chinese publican, Thomas Ashney.

Moore had managed to find employers for 64 of the Chinese workers in Sydney, with the remaining 56, including Ashney, being found employment at Moreton Bay.

The arrival of the Nimrod represented the first and largest organised importation of Chinese workers in Australia.

After five years Ashney was released from his indenture and in August 1854 he married Scottish born, Jemima Wood. They settled in the Gayndah district of Queensland, and in 1860, at the age of 35, while working as a shearer, he was a naturalised a British subject.

The enterprising Chinese settler though had grander ideas. He like many of his business minded Chinese settlers, became a storekeeper, and later added wine and spirits to his shelves.

Ashney, at the age of 42, opened the Queensland Hotel in Capper Street Gayndah during April 1867.

The following year the Ashneys experienced just how violent the customers of a goldfield’s pub could become when tanked-up on alcohol.

Almost 100 drunken miners stormed his pub, helping themselves to all the grog he had on the premises, and in the process breaking up his furniture and threatening the lives of guests and other customers.

Ashney’s wife, Jemima died later that year and he remarried Georgiana Schnitzler in 1870, whom with he would have another five children. He became a governor of the local hospital, an alderman of the municipality of Gayndah and eventually mayor.

In 1883 he became embroiled in the debate over the controversial new £10 poll tax on Chinese immigrants, legislated by the Queensland Colonial Government.

Designed to discourage the “indiscriminate influx of the lower Chinese grades”, Ashney and his son were prevented by Customs authorities from returning to Queensland after a trip to Sydney because he refused to pay the tax. The Maryborough Chronicle reported in December 1883:

When the Hon. John Douglas, as Premier, accomplished legislation to check an indiscriminate influx of the lower Chinese grades by the imposition of a poll-tax of £10 per head, it was evidently not intended to obstruct the movements of those colonists of Chinese origin who bad become naturalised subjects of Her Majesty, and taken up permanent residence in Queensland. It was therefore not in accordance with the spirit of the Act of Parliament that no worthy a colonist as Mr. Thomas Ashney, of Gayndah, was yesterday prevented from landing from the steamer You Yangs until he had paid the poll-tax. Mr. Ashney, who is of Celestial origin, is one of the oldest and most respected residents in the Burnett district. Twenty three years ago he took the oath of naturalisation, married an English wife, and has subsequently won esteem as an enterprising colonist of strict integrity, and has held office as Mayor of Gayndah. In consequence of pre emptory instructions telegraphed from the Brisbane authorities yesterday to the Sub-collector of Customs at Maryborough, to collect the poll-tax on Mr. Ashney and his son, who were returning from a visit to Sydney, the local officials had no alternative but to demand the money. The required sum was paid, under protest… their action in telegraphing instructions to enforce the poll-tax at Maryborough appears to be a direct violation of the spirit of the Act which deals with such cases.

Ashney remained publican at the Queensland Hotel for almost 18 years, before retiring at the age of 60 in 1884. He died in 1908, in Maranoa, aged 83. His second wife Georgiana outlived him by another 20 years,

Further south in Victoria, the Chinese had also arrived in large numbers seeking their fortune in the goldfields. Like in Queensland, they too turned their trading skills to the hotel industry. While the Chinese did host grander hotels in the townships and cities, they were also opened smaller shanties and grog shops on the goldfields. The Victorian newspaper, The Yackandandah Times described a typical Chinese goldfields’ pub on Friday April 10 1903.

Chinese Publicans who trade in our colonies

The Chinese public house – though it’s not so called, “grog shanty” being its usual signification – is a common institution in the Colonies, and is always situated on the main road leading to some flourishing town. The house itself will be a galvanised iron or wood building, with a small stable and a rough shed-like building behind. The latter is used for accommodating passing strangers who are down on their luck and require a night’s rest. This is not done out of generosity, but from policy, because, if the Chinaman were to refuse a traveller accommodation he would be liable to have an exceedingly rough time of it.

The front of the house will be given over to the business.

This will consist of a long room with a table running down the centre flanked on each side by a couple of forms.

A few chairs are scattered about the room, and at the extreme end is the “bar”, a large side board containing three or four shelves, on which the bottles are stored.

John is honest

The principal stock carried by the Chinese publican is whisky, beer, and gin, the latter a liquor for which the Celestial himself has a great weakness and out of which be concocts cunning drinks in the warm weather. In many cases the up-country Chinaman will have a white wife, but in some parts the people do not look kindly on the union of white and yellow, and he will lead a bachelor existence.

A large amount of the grog shanty business will be on a credit basis. It is a common occurrence for a party of neighbours to meet at one of these small outposts of civilisation and have a jovial time together. On these occasions no money is paid, but the host keeps tally of each man’s account, and on his next visit the white man will cash up. A check has at times been kept on the Chinaman to discover whether he “piled on the agony” or not, but it has always been found that he was scrupulously exact in his charges. This is the one solitary virtue he possesses. The price of a drink in one of there houses is invariably the same, spirits 6d. a glass (help yourself), and bottled beer 1s. 6d. a small and 2s. 6d. a large bottte.

Striking Signboards

You can always tell when you are coming to a Chinese public house by the signboard which will be swinging from a pole fastened to the roof of the building.

Some of these signs would be of value to the collector of curios, because each Chinaman fashions his own board, and as a rule expands all his ingenuity in getting out something bizarre and startling that is likely to astonish a passer-by even if it does not interest him. This, however, is really unnecessary, because the up-country traveller who can pass by a public house without going inside has yet to be discovered; but all the same John Chinaman is a firm believer in the old saying that business comes to him who looks for it, and he lets no opportunity slip by to workup trade.

A typical goldfield’s Chinese shanty pub was opened by James and Anne Ah What at Campbells Creek, Victoria in 1864.

Located 120km northwest of Melbourne and 40km south of Bendigo, a canvass-tent shanty town emerged at Campbells Creek after gold was discovered there in 1851. By 1853 it was estimated that 3,000 people, from all walks of life and countries, were living along Campbells Creek.

There were numerous hotels, a brewery, houses of worship and a denominational school. By 1858 the roads had improved, and stone and brick dwellings and stores appeared. In the second half of the 1850s a huge Chinese camp of more than 3000 people emerged along Campbells Creek and Guildford.

Calico tents were the main domiciles, lining narrow thoroughfares dotted with joss temples, tea-houses, tailors, apothecaries, gambling establishments, opium dens, herbalists and barbers.

The Ballarat Star reported on August 15 1864 that “a Chinaman”, named James Ah What, made application to the Castlemaine Bench of Magistrates, through his wife, Ann for a publican’s license at Campbells Creek.

“The request was supported by Mr Leech, the barrister, and after some objections by the Bench on the ground of insufficient accommodation, was granted. This, we believe, is the first instance in which a Celestial has enrolled himself among the corps of licensed victuallers in Victoria.”

Ann Coogan was born in Kilkenny and married James Ah What in 1860. She bore six children between 1861 and 1875 to Ah What in the Guildford, Loddon and Campbells Creek districts. The birth of her first son, William, in 1861 was attended by a doctor and a midwife with the registration giving the father’s occupation as storekeeper.

Between 1870 and 1880 Ann was gaoled repeatedly for prostitution. On many other occasions she was arrested and fined as drunk and disorderly, or for using offensive language.

Her husband James Ah What placed the following advertisement in the Mount Alexander Mail on Monday August 31 1868: “I hereby give notice that I will not be answerable for any debts contracted by my said wife, Anne Ah What, from this date, she having left me with three children without any cause – Am Ah What.”

Ann Ah What was refused her publicans license in 1871 on character grounds. When the marriage failed in 1873, Ann unsuccessfully sought maintenance from James for herself and three children.

The Mount Alexander Mail reported on Wednesday December 15 1875:

Ann Ah What was complained against for behaving riotously at the Chinese Camp at Campbell’s Creek. She was described by the police as a perfect nuisance, a prostitute, and a harbourer of prostitutes. There were convictions against her and she was sentenced to imprisonment for 9 months.

Two daughters were sent to Industrial School in 1876. In 1889 the Ladies Committee of the Benevolent Asylum gave Ann two shillings weekly while they investigated the ability of her two sons in Wilcannia to support her. Ann died in Campbells Creek in 1905.

The fate of Jimmy Ah What is unknown.

Jimmy and Evelina Ah Foo

Another well-known Chinese publican, Jimmy (or Jemmy) Ah Foo (or Affoo) made quite a name for himself on northern goldfields of Queensland during the 1870s and 80s.

Ah Foo was one of three Chinese publicans in the town of Springsure during the early 1870s.

There were four pubs trading in Springsure at the time, with three of them run by Chinese men. Harry Ah Hing had the Shearer’s Arms, Willie Ah Wah the Springsure, and Jimmy Ah Foo the Carrier’s Arms.

Born in the Guangzhou district of China around 1843, Ah Foo came to Queensland in the 1860s, where he was the proprietor of a boarding house and market garden in the central Queensland town of Springsure.

At 23, in 1866, he made a trip to Rockhampton and married Evelina Vessey, a 16 year old girl from Lincolnshire, England.

The couple returned to Springsure and continued hosting a boarding house and started a family.

In the 1873 they moved to the goldfields of Charters Towers and later Cooktown, where they ran hotels. In a remiscence published in the Charters Towers’ newspaper, Northern Miner on July 16, 1921, the author recalled Cooktown in 1876:

The chief hotels were Poole’s, ‘French Charley’s’ and Balser’s, the first two being two-storey hotels… Two of the hotels were kept by Chinese, viz., See Wah and the evergreen, Jimmy Ah Foo, who kept the Canton Hotel, and afterwards was in Longreach and other towns; liked and respected by all who knew him.

Ah Foo was injured while publican of the Canton Hotel, Cooktown when a “countryman” shot and wounded him. A Cooktown correspondent to the Queenslander newspaper reported on April 22, 1876:

A Celestial landing here from Hongkong some months ago put up at the hostelry of Mr. Jemmy Ah Foo, who keeps a public-house of a not very reputable character, at the Chinese quarter of the town. According to his own account he was gambled out of all his money, except a £6 note, at Mr. Ah Foo’s hostelry, and with that sum in-tended to leave for the diggings and owe the landlord for two weeks’ board that was unpaid. But to this the latter appears to have demurred, and, assisted by some of his countrymen, set upon the unfortunate immigrant and took from him the £5 note, from which he helped himself to what was owing and returned the change. John vowed vengeance. “Me go along’ee Palmer,” he said, and come back and shoot’ee you by’n bye.” And sure enough he came back shortly, pistol in hand, and found Jemmy Ah Foo deep in the mysteries of pastry making. To let fly straight for the region of the heart was the work of a moment, but Jemmy started in the nick of time, and the bullet, instead of passing through his body, glanced from his rib and passed under the skin, almost round to the other side, the powder even burning the body, but still the injury inflicted was not dangerous. The other at once gave himself up to the police, but according to his own utterances the unfinished work is yet to be completed after he has paid the penalty of the law for what he has already done. 

In 1877, the Ah Foos returned to Springsure, running the Post Office Hotel, followed by the Carriers’ Arms, and finally the Springsure Hotel.

The Federal Hotel, Longreach, 1898, built by Ah Foo in the 1880s. Picture: State Library of Qld.

During the 1880s they moved to Barcaldine, building another Springsure Hotel, and then Longreach, where they built the two storey brick Federal Hotel.

The Ah Foos had a family of 13 children by the 1890s, who were all highly musical and formed the ‘Affoo Family Bands’, which toured providing musical entertainment.

After a brief hotel venture in Rockhampton in 1899, Jimmy and Evelina retired to Barcaldine to run a small store and garden.

Jimmy, in poor health, and his family moved to Longreach where he died in 1916. Both he and Evelina, who died in 1918, are buried in the local cemetery.

The Federal Hotel, Longreach, Qld and inset: Jimmy Ah Foo. Pictures: Supplied.

The most popular tale that did the rounds about the Chinese publican Jimmy Ah Foo relates to the way in which he handled a situation relating to brewing anti-Chinese sentiment. In a letter to the editor, The World News reported on January 1 1953:

CHINESE cooks were once common enough in the outback but a Chinese publican was something of an oddity.

Jimmy Ah Foo was a shearers’ cook before he took on hotel keeping at Barcaldine in Central Queensland. He had the shearers’ interests at heart and during the 1891 strike he was one of the few hotelkeepers in the district who were declared “white” by the strikers. But, unfortunately, Jimmy employed one of his countrymen as cook.

The shearers held a meeting and declared they couldn’t put up with cheap colored labor any longer. The Chinese cook would have to go. When told of this decision Jimmy took prompt action.

“All li’ all li’, he told the chairman of the strikers, “me un-nerstan’ you no likee Chinkee about th’place. So me sackee him an’ cookee mesel”.

Jimmy had another side to his character. He was very fond of music. His numerous family was a band in itself. He was fond of Irish airs and on one occasion, during St Patrick’s Day celebration, his voice was heard high above the crowd, “Come on, now,’ chil’len, play The Dear Lil’ Slamlock an’ make me poor ol’ Irish heart glad!”

– Swagman. – (Q.)

World News, January 1, 1955

The Union newspaper, The Australian Worker reported a much-more amusing version of the story on May 4 1927:



JIMMY AH FOO, Barcaldine publican and Queensland’s best- known Chinaman, was an amusing chap, who always took himself seriously. His hotel was well conducted by his wife, who was Irish, and their bevy of well educated daughters.

It was diverting to hear the old fellow maintaining decorum in the bar, or in the music-room which adjoined the licensed premises.

I was yarning to him one night while his daughter favored with a Beethoven Sonata, when some young Bushmen became noisy. He signalled to the girl to cease playing, and gravely approached the chief offender.

“Now Sittenee Loss (Sydney Ross), you look here! You behave you’self ploppa in my house while my daughter Mayalee (Mary) playing first-class music.

Suppose you don’t, I must puttee you outsi’, myself.

Jimmy Ah Foo welly old man, but my cli’ you find me tough old Fowl yet!”

The offender laughingly withdrew to the bar, the girl resumed the classical masterpiece, and Jimmy went on talking.

“Welly dam flash. Good shealer, but lazy. Befo’ blekfast, sho’ eight- sheep eight minutes – then stop in hut, all day, welly tired!”

Asked if Sid had a big cheque to knock down he replied scornfully: “Only got one thousand sheep in his pocket (£10). All time dlink Gleen Stlipe whisky, dance Highland Fling, pullee girl about. Tommy O’Shea, he diffelent.”

His comments on his customers were quaint and amusing, and I desired to know more about Tommy O’Shea.

“Him welly ploppa-man. Got five thousand sheep (£50) in his pocket. Dlink blandy, dance Irish Jig, shout Hulloo Blian Boloo (Hurroo Brian Boru) and shout for eblybody. Him Ilishman – my wife Ilishman too.”

He professed great admiration for Jacky Howe, who about that time was cutting the big tallies that made his name known throughout the sheds.

“Jacky Howe champion. Him much first-class man altogether. Got nine-ten thousand sheep (£90 or £100) in tlousa pocket. Quiet man. No dlink much. No dance Highland Fling. No pullee girl about. No make a low when my girl playing good music. No larrikin tlicks. My word! two gleat flends – Jacky Howe champion she-a-ler, Jimmy Ah Foo, champion publican.”

At the close of the musical selection he called to the pianiste: ”My daughter, play ‘Dear Little Shamlock of Ireland.’ Make your father’s poor Ilish heart bleed.”

This, I found, was a regular interlude on the night’s programme, and always brought the house down. Jimmy received a great shock when we boycotted the Chinese. He was Aramac and, with pigtail flying, flogged his horse with his hat into Barcaldine, his trousers above his knees and feet sticking through the stirrups. The steed galloped into the hotel yard and stopped suddenly, and Jimmy sailed over his head. Picking himself up unhurt, he dashed into, the kitchen, seized the cook and literally kicked him out.

Then he told his family how serious it would be if the shearers came in, and found a Chinaman in the kitchen.

“Now I do the cooking myself,” he said.

Chinese cook 1907 B
SHEARER : “If we stay here you will have to get rid of your Chinese cook.”
LANDLORD : “All li, me sack him; go cookem myself.”
The Sydney Arrow, May 4, 1907.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015

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