Mei Quong Tart may have married a white woman (Margaret Scarlett) in the late 1800s, a time when few dared to cross racial lines in the name of love. But he’s known less for his interracial marriage and more as one of the most beloved Chinese public figures in late Victorian Sydney, Australia.
Mei Quong Tart was born in Guangzhou, China, and migrated to the goldfields near New South Wales, Australia when he was only nine years old, accompanied by his uncle. But he was fortunate to have the Simpsons, a well-to-do Scottish family, serve as his guardians:
He was educated by Mrs. Simpson, who took a lively interest in his welfare during the years he remained on the field, and, on leaving, Mr. Simpson gave him a big interest in an important gold claim, which the fortunate young protege turned to the best advantage. Mr. Tart employed about two hundred Chinese and Europeans, and in the course of a few years his mining speculations made him a comparatively wealthy man.
His education and the affluence that surrounded him also turned him into an unusual figure among the Chinese community:
He could sing Scotch songs with singular pathos, recite Burns’ poems with a genuine accent, play Scotch airs on the piano, and jokingly alluded to himself as being a native of Aberdeen.
People would come to think of him as a regular English gentleman.
So it’s not surprising that when he resolved to marry, he chose to marry a Western woman. “…Quong’s good sense asserted itself, for he told his mother that when he did marry, it would be a European, for a Chinese woman in Australia would be but little help for him in carrying out the good works he intended doing.”
That woman turned out to be Margaret Scarlett, who went ahead with the marriage despite objections from her father.
…Quong asked Margaret’s father, George Scarlett, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Even though he was a friend of Quong’s, George refused. Quong Tart and Margaret waited until the day after her twenty-first birthday, on 30 August 1886, and married anyway. Quong was then thirty-six. The appearance of grandchildren eventually reconciled Margaret’s parents to their daughter’s marriage.
I have to wonder, did her family ever take note of Mei Quong Tart’s success as an entrepreneur? His teahouses and restaurants in Sydney were some of the most popular meeting places of the era, where he dazzled patrons with fine tea and even finer service:
His employees were ordered to treat all alike, whether they wore silk dresses or cheap prints, for Quong Tart had long learned that the silk dress did not make the lady, nor the fine black coat the gentleman.
Mei Quong Tart also became a well known philanthropist of his time, including building schools, caring for the poor, and supporting the local arts scene. He campaigned against the scourge of opium addiction in Sydney’s Chinatown.
But no story about Mei Quong Tart is complete without acknowledging the contradiction in his presence. He was a popular Chinese man in a Victorian-era Australia marked by a venomous case of yellow peril:
…a well-known labour man was speaking in public and was pouring out his vials of wrath on “the wretched Chinese,” “everyone of whom,” he said, “he would, if he had his way, drive out of the State.” “Would you do that to Quong Tart,” cried out one from the crowd. “No, certainly not,” replied the Labour orator. “If they were all as good as Tart, I would let them stay here and come here, as they would be sure to be good citizens.”
Mei Quong Tart’s prominence in Sydney and his interest in the welfare of others, including his fellow Chinese, led to his involvement in some of Australia’s tragic anti-Chinese episodes.
For example, consider the case of the Afghan, a steamer carrying a large number of Chinese immigrants bound for Sydney in 1888. While the ship was en route to Australia, anti-Chinese groups successfully lobbied the government to pass a drastic Chinese Restriction Bill that made it impossible for anyone Chinese to land. It didn’t matter if they had all the lawful paperwork – if you were Chinese, you were denied entry. (Just replace “Chinese” with “a citizen of one of seven Muslim majority countries” and it sounds an awful lot like the US immigration brouhaha after Trump abruptly enacted his Muslim Ban 1.0 in early 2017.)
Quong Tart served as a mediator between the Chinese passengers and the government, but even his best efforts couldn’t undo the harm, as this excerpt from a Sydney Morning Herald article shows:
[Quong Tart] says that we can form little idea of the anger that was manifested by the masses in Hong Kong and Canton upon the return of the ships with the rejected immigrants on board. Many of the unfortunate people were landed in their native country in a state of utter destitution….when they landed after their enforced trip back they formed a rather striking illustration of the manner in which Australia had come to regard the question of Chinese immigration. Their want and destitution appealed to the sympathies of their countrymen and their stories of imprisonment on board the ships in Sydney Harbour inflamed the popular anger.
Mei Quong Tart’s service to the Chinese in Australia didn’t go unnoticed by the Chinese government, who named him acting Consular official to China and later conferred the title of Mandarin upon him.
You can learn more about Mei Quong Tart and his fascinating life by reading The Life of Quong Tart or, How A Foreigner Succeeded in A British Community by Margaret Tart.