A fascinating family history byway and Chinese Australian history…

A branch of the Whitfield family, also descended from the convict Jacob Whitfield (arr 1822) via William and Caroline Whitfield left Picton for Braidwood and nearby gold fields in the 1870s.

My father knew a great deal about them, but I have never met any of them. However, yesterday I was searching a database of cemeteries for Whitfields and encountered this.

In Braidwood Cemetery

On Facebook I said: Fascinating — a Chinese family connection, at least in Braidwood. Very famous Chinese family there. Gwendoline was a Whitfield. My father used to talk about the Nomchong family sometimes. But that I am afraid when I was of the age where I was not really listening….

Group portrait of the Nomchong family, ca. 1919 (Trove)

This 2008 blog entry by historian Kate Bagnall summarises the background:

The Canberra Times this morning is reporting the destruction of an 1850s building that was once used by the Chinese family, the Nomchongs. The single-storey wooden building stood in the main street of heritage-listed Braidwood, near Canberra and was demolished apparently in error. The Canberra Times says that the demolition was approved by the local Palerang Council, but there had been a mix-up over the address of the building.

The Nomchong brothers first settled in Braidwood in the 1860s–70s, and the descendants of one of the brothers still live and run businesses in the town today. The first Nomchong in the Braidwood area was Sheong Foon Nomchong (his name was spelt in a range of ways), who established a business at Mongarlowe and then Braidwood, and married Ellen Lupton, a woman of Irish-English descent. As his business grew he called for his brother Chee Doc to come to Australia from California. It is Chee Doc’s descendants who remain in the area today.

See also Braidwood Museum.

After 1875, the mining population – Chinese as well as European – was in serious decline because of falling yields and low rainfall.  Many of the Chinese men and their families moved into the towns and villages, in particular Braidwood, and this movement was accompanied by a change in associations and allegiances.  Almost all the town dwellers were members of a Christian church and when deceased were buried in the town cemetery.  Two of the most notable Chinese entrepreneurs in this period were Mei Quong Tart and the Nomchong brothers, Shong Foon and Chee Dock.  Quong Tart was perhaps the best-known Chinese person in late nineteenth century NSW, and a fine example of a Chinese immigrant who successfully bridged the racial divide and in so doing helped pave the way for many others to follow suit.  He made his fortune on the Bells Creek goldfields and was a member and patron of many Braidwood institutions, such as the lodges, sporting clubs and the Anglican church.  Quong Tart departed for Sydney in 1882, where he ran several successful businesses; he married a local woman, Margaret Scarlett. 

Shong Foon Nomchong arrived in Australia in the 1860s and was a storekeeper on the Mongarlowe goldfields, later setting up a store in Braidwood   He sent for his brother Chee Dock, who was living in California, in 1877 and the two men became business partners.  In 1881 he married Ellen Lupton, a European woman; they had four children.  After Shong Foon’s death in 1889, the Mongarlowe business was sold and Chee Dock concentrated his business activities in Braidwood.  He married a Chinese woman and became the patriarch of a large family with responsibility for Shong Foon’s family as well as his own.  Chee Dock’s family were adherents of the Roman Catholic church and very highly respected in the town and district.   

Chee Dock’s family was heavily involved in philanthropic and charitable activities and owned many businesses.  Some time in the early 1900s he added fruit and confectionery to his shop, developed a flourishing general store business and began a carrying business plying between Braidwood, Tarago and Nelligen. With the advent of motorised transport, he acquired a trucking fleet to carry a wide range of produce throughout the district and the south coast.  Later he purchased several pastoral holdings in the district.  Chee Dock’s thirteen surviving children were almost all, whether male or female, involved in the family businesses, although some also started their own.  One of his sons, Leopold (Mick) also managed several rural properties in partnership with his father, and ran a liquor business in town.  Another son, Paul, began a movie theatre in 1913, and ran several other enterprises such as an electrical business, a furniture and drapery store and an auctioneer’s business.  The Nomchong family business did not close until 1980, after 103 years of trading and the family still operates important retail businesses in Wallace Street today.

But the Nomchongs were not the only Chinese people in town.  Another Chinese entrepreneur was Nam You, a Braidwood storekeeper who ran a mining enterprise in the late 1880s in partnership with Quong Tart and the Nomchong family.  

Anyone knowing anything at all about the history of the Chinese in Australia will have encountered the name Quong Tart.

Back to Gwen Nomchong, who passed away aged 85 in November 2000. She was born Gwendoline Belgium Whitfield in 1915 — hence no doubt the odd name.She was the daughter of a Claudius Joseph Whitfield, a younger son of a Jacob Whitfield (1838-1885) the brother of my ancestor William Joseph John Whitfield. Gwen married Leopold Rees Nomchong (aka Mick) in 1943, the year of my birth. Did my father know of this? Quite possibly. Some of those details were there all the time in the family tree compiled some years ago now by Bob Starling.

Group portrait of the Nomchong family, Braidwood, N.S.W., 1902

2 thoughts on “A fascinating family history byway and Chinese Australian history…

    • Combination of background racism which has a long history here, plus diplomatic difficulties lately, plus the rhetoric indulged in by the former US President. Next post I will share some relevant follow-up videos. Search this blog for “China” too.

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