Frank Wong

Born in 1925, Frank lived in Surry Hills all his life. His father immigrated to Sydney in 1871 from China, living in Chinatown first until he married and moved to Campbell Street Surry Hills.

In this interview Frank talks about his family history and the impact of Australian immigration laws on his family and others in the Chinese community, particularly during the Depression and WW2 years. Frank explained that as Chinese people were classified as aliens, they were not able to receive social security or any support being offered to others at the time. His brother was rejected from joining RAAF on ethnic grounds and instead joined the American Fifth Air Force.

Frank’s father ran a haberdashery shop in Surry Hills, but when the Depression hit, he was forced to close the business and go hawking his wares. Frank recalled that around the 1950s the community in Surry Hills started changing. People were now permitted to bring family members from China, there was more money around and Chinese restaurants were being opened. He added that because it was difficult to return to Communist China, people felt more settled here and embraced Australia as home.

FW:     Dad originally had a manufacturing company.  Then the Depression set in.  Then he went into hawking because in those days if you wasn’t an Australian citizen you couldn’t get any social security in those days; you had to be an Australian citizen. It was haberdashery, like making dresses.

FW:      It was on the corner of Campbell and Foster Street.

SR:      So when was it that your father went hawking?

FW:     In about ’32, ‘30s, because when Lang brought in the Moratorium Act and the people didn’t have to repay their debts that got him into trouble.

FW:      because he couldn’t collect, people owed him money and also the banks closed.

FW:      It was a matter of survival because you couldn’t get social security and the whole Chinese population or the majority were former migrants or immigrants, classified as aliens, so they’ve had to look the best they could.  A lot of them worked down the nearby markets, was in Haymarket.  They worked there and they couldn’t get no social security so they’d usually help in these local stores and had their meals there.

SR:      Did the Chinese community look after each other?

FW:      They had to in those days.  They had individual little clubs, associations, which attended to them. And if anybody got sick they were sent back to China or those that passed away the bones were sent back to ancestral grounds.

SR:      And how would you describe Surry Hills in the ‘30s?

FW:      In my locality it was all Chinese, that was Chinatown.  The whole lot was Chinatown in those days because it was close to the markets, the original city markets.  The original market was in Queen Victoria and they moved it to Haymarket and all the Chinese that worked in the markets lived nearby which is in Surry Hills.

SR:      Was it a safe neighbourhood in the ‘30s?

FW:      Yes.  We were safe in one way because we had the two-up school was close by, was Thommo’s, and they had cockatoos that made sure that none of the neighbourhood would get into trouble and they used to escort anybody who’d come home late and they’d escort you home and make sure you wasn’t bothered.

FW:      Because it would bring the police ‘round to them so they looked after us.

Sue Rosen
Sue Rosen