Unbroken Commitment: Fred Wong, China, Australia and A World To Win

Drew Cottle

A Workworn Apron
Arthur Gar Lock Chang was asked to donate an artefact to the Chinese Historical Museum in Beijing. The required object was to symbolise the dignity of working Chinese in Australia. Arthur sent a soiled, threadbare canvas apron once worn by market gardeners, barrowmen and greengrocers in the Haymarket, the working world of Sydney’s Chinatown. For Arthur, the apron represented the industriousness, earthiness and integrity of Chinese labour. It was also given in memory of a man with whom Arthur worked respected and admired: Fred Wong.

During the crowded dozen years before a New China was born – as the Old China was convulsed by war, death and destruction and as patriotic resistance to Japanese militarism deepened – the lives of Arthur Gar Lock Chang and Fred Wong were immersed in struggles to assist the countrymen of their ancestral home to secure a better life.2

Wong Gar Kin, or Fred Wong, the son of poor Cantonese peasants, was Arthur Gar Lock Chang’s political mentor. Twenty years Arthur’s senior, the plain speaking Wong was a driving force in a number of broad, popular Chinese organisations formed in Sydney as expressions of cultural resistance and social advance. But who was Fred Wong? And why is he part of Australia’s Chinese heritage?

A Sydney Life and the March of History
As compared with the closely documented lives of the highborn and the wealthy, too little is known about the infancy, youth and early manhood of Fred Wong. He was born into a market gardening family on 14 October, 1906, at Cobar, NSW. As a boy he was sent back to his father’s village in Zhongshan County, Guangtung Province, in the final years of the Manchu Dynasty to receive a traditional Chinese education. At the age of 15, he married Quan Wong Chong in Canton and returned to Australia. With the assistance of family and friends the Wongs established a greengrocery in Leichhardt, a working class inner Sydney suburb.3

His given anglicised name, ‘Frederick William Wong’, was soon shortened to ‘Fred Wong’ by Leichhardt vegetable and fruit buyers and workers at the stalls, the warehouses, kitchens, cafes, pubs and laundries in the Haymarket. Wong eked out a living as China was convulsed by warlordism, revolutionary upsurge and Japanese invasion. As Australia descended into economic depression, Wong witnessed China’s agonies from afar. Of greater immediacy was the want and suffering Wong saw in Sydney’s streets. The Depression brought only a deeper anguish to China and Australia. There seemed no recourse but resignation and despair. Although Wong’s business connected him to the Chinese community, ancestral China, and the privations of Sydney’s unemployed it offered no solutions to their mounting social problems.

China Imperiled and Political Engagement
In the first years of the Great Depression Japanese militarism reduced Manchuria to the puppet state of Manchukuo. From 1935 Japan embarked on an undeclared war against China. The Japanese armies swept through coastal and southern China. Their killing, raping and pillaging went virtually unchecked. The European and American imperial powers appeased the Japanese war-drive, just as they appeased the military expansionism of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. No support was offered to China.

Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces were either unable or unwilling to wage an effective military campaign against the invading Japanese. For much of the thirties the Kuomintang’s military efforts were directed at destroying the Chinese Communist Party whose survival after the Long March seemed to offer hope to growing numbers of peasants in Yenan and elsewhere. A China invaded and divided confirmed the worst fears for Chinese at home and abroad. China’s dissolution appeared imminent.

Fred Wong’s patriotism and humanity was stirred by China’s plight and steeled by the politics of the Depression. His engagement in Chinese and Australian politics was circumscribed. The Kuomintang in Australia reflected the anti-communist outlook of the parent body in China. Whatever their differences, the Chinese in Sydney supported the Kuomintang’s direction and objectives. Major Chinese merchants in Sydney contributed to its coffers.4 Until the late 1930s Wong and other Chinese patriots could not look beyond the Kuomintang for political solutions. The Kuomintang could not defend China against a rampant Japan. Chinese unity was required and the Chinese Communists sought to build a united front against Japanese aggression. If the position of the Kuomintang was being questioned by Wong and other Chinese patriots, the possibility of political work within Australia beyond the bounds of the Kuomintang was fraught with difficulty.

Australian parliamentary political parties held no concern for events in China. The federal United Australia Party/United Country Party coalition government actively appeased Japanese expansionism in China. Powerful mining companies and pastoralists were key supporters of the Lyons coalition government. The growing trade with Japan was vital to their interests and to Australian economic prosperity. Driven by divisions exacerbated by the Depression’s affects on the working class, the opposition Labor Party wanted isolation from the troubles of the world. It recoiled from involvement in the Spanish Civil War, opposition to European fascism and the tragedy of China. As the official upholder of the White Australia Policy the Labor Party was historically hostile or at least indifferent to the worsening events in China.5 Labor’s isolationism and the Coalition’s appeasement of Japan denied Fred Wong any possible political involvement on the question of China.

Organisations close to the interests and aspirations of the working class drew Wong into political action. The only Australian party which opposed and campaigned against Japan’s war against China was the Communist Party. From Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, the Communist movement internationally had called for resistance to Japanese militarism. Throughout the 1930s Australian communists conducted boycotts of Japanese goods and mobilised ‘Hands Off China’ campaigns. Although miniscule in number the Australian Communist Party during the Depression rallied against the ruin of the working class, the appeasement and profligacy of the ruling class and demanded international opposition to the rise of fascism.6

The Communist Party found most of its membership and a growing body of support amongst Australian workers. During the Depression, Communist activists secured the leadership of trade unions in the mining, maritime, power, transport and manufacturing industries.7 Wong’s buying of fruit and vegetables in the Haymarket occurred almost on the steps of Sydney Trades Hall. In the wake of the worst years of the Depression the Sydney Trades Hall became the hub of militant unionism.

By the mid 1930s Fred Wong was a well-known and popular figure amongst the Chinese workers, trade union officials and rank and file activists in the Haymarket. He was of the common people and moved amongst them. The possibilities of a political commitment to the Left by Wong in Chinatown and the wider world required a catalyst. When Japan seized the Nationalist capital of Nanking in 1937 the level of barbarism unleashed against the Chinese people demanded resistance. In China the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists formed ‘an uneasy united front’.8 The small Chinese community in Sydney also united in the fight against Japanese militarism. Freed of the constrictions of the Kuomintang but still able to work within its united front with the Chinese Communist Party, Wong sought radical allies in the Australian Communist Party and militant unionists.

SS Silksworth, the Chinese Youth League and the Chinese Seamen’s Union of Australia After the ‘Rape of Nanking’ the New South Wales Trades and Labour Council set up a ‘Hands Off China Campaign’ Committee to mobilise public support for China’s war of resistance against Japan. Fred Wong became an influential committee member.9 When the Chinese crew of the British vessel, SS Silksworth, refused in Newcastle to sail back to a Japanese-controlled China they were given refuge in the homes of radical coalminers, steelworkers and communists.10Fred Wong was instrumental in ensuring the Chinese seamen were safely billeted. They were able to speak out, through Chinese interpreters arranged by Wong, about their refusal to return to China and their appalling working and living conditions aboard the British freighter.11 When the SS Silksworth left Newcastle the Chinese mariners were promised that they would end their journey at Singapore. The Silksworth dispute highlighted the patriotic resolve of the Chinese seamen, their refusal to be exploited and the relative effectiveness of united front work. Action by Communist-led maritime unions in New South Wales ports was a key to the Silksworth victory.12 From 1937 until his death in 1948 many of Fred Wong’s political activities did not stray too far from the waterfront.

The Silksworth struggle gave the maritime unions, Chinese patriots and Communist Party activists organising experience, confidence, discipline and determination. When watersider workers at Port Kembla refused to load the SS Dalfram bound for Japan with a cargo of pig iron in November 1938 these abilities were pitted against the shipowners, the steel monopoly of BHP and the federal government. The wharfies struck, believing that the pig iron would be turned into Japanese bombs and bullets to subjugate China, and eventually Australia. Their employers and the Lyons government attempted to starve the striking workers into submission. Wharf labourers could not be allowed to determine Australian trade and foreign policy!

During this long, bitter strike Fred Wong organised the collection and distribution by trucks of vegetables and fruit given by Chinese market gardeners to the families of those on strike. Money was donated by Chinese crews on foreign vessels to the Port Kembla wharfies. Its collector was Fred Wong.13 Wong’s embrace of radical politics merged his Chinese and working class worlds. His life as a greengrocer was transformed. With a handful of friends he founded the Chinese Youth Dramatic Association in the ‘Shanghai’ café in Goulburn Street after the 1937 Silksworth dispute.14 Its purpose was to promote Chinese culture and to raise money for China’s resistance to Japan. After the Port Kembla strike the Association became the Chinese Youth League (CYL). Immediately before and during the Second World War, the CYL found great popularity and many members amongst the Chinese of Sydney. A spur to its popularity was the plight of hundreds of stranded Chinese seamen ashore in Sydney because of the war. Among these seafarers were gifted musicians, singers and actors who took major and minor roles in the CYL’s presentation of Cantonese and Hainanese operas. Their presence in Sydney was a poignant reminder of the perils besetting China.

Wartime Unity
War in the Pacific brought at least two thousand Chinese seamen amongst the hundreds of other Chinese evacuees to Australia, principally to the port of Sydney. When the SS Neptuna, (the first Australian ship ever to carry troops) was destroyed in the Japanese raid on Darwin in February 1942 its entire Chinese crew of forty six were killed. Chinese merchant seamen died at Milne Bay and Merauke serving the Allied war effort.

At Fremantle docks in March 1942, five hundred Chinese seamen went on strike. They demanded higher rates of pay, improved conditions and information about their employer’s intentions. Australian soldiers armed with machine guns broke the strike. One Chinese seamen was killed. Through the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA), the Chinese seamen were encouraged to volunteer for the Australian army. They formed a Western Australian labour battalion with their own officers.15 Such an outcome in wartime conditions was fortuitous.

When a number of ships employing Chinese crews were involved in similar strikes in Sydney, Fred Wong, Elliott V. Elliott, leader of the SUA, and the striking seamen founded the Chinese Seamen’s Union (CSU) of Australia. Because of his standing amongst radical Australian and Chinese workers and his efforts in organising the CYL Wong was instrumental in the formation of the CSU.16 Although never formally registered as an Australian trade union the CSU was supported by the SUA, E.V. Elliott acted as the CSU’s advisor. The Chinese Seamen’s Union was the first non-Australian union ever formed in Australia. Its creation led to Indonesians, Indian and Malayan seamen forming Australian based unions.17

The CYL helped the Chinese seamen with translations, interpreters and welfare. Two of Fred Wong’s friends, Arthur Gar Lock Chang (from the CYL) and Louis Wong, ensured the seamen were found lodgings, registered for work and obtained taxation clearances and medical checks. Unofficially, Fred Wong acted as the CSU’s banker. His safe in the shop at Leichhardt held the savings of the Chinese seamen. Through their active unionism the Chinese seamen, supported by SUA, were, by 1944, receiving the same rates and conditions as Australian seamen.18

These gains were shared by Indian and Indonesian seamen who, prior to the war, received different levels of wages on ships according to their nationality although all worked for the same ship owners.19 Because of labour shortages and disrupted shipping runs, between 1942 and 1944 Fred Wong and Stanley Wei organised, through the Chinese Youth League, several hundred Chinese seamen to work on the construction of the Warragamba Dam.20

In October 1944 the CSU (which had branches in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) with the CYL established the Madam Sun Yet Sen Appeal for China Committee. Its purpose was to collect money for the welfare of Chinese war widows and orphans and to assist the Chinese guerilla war against Japan. Fred Wong was its elected president. Throughout the war Wong and members of the CYL staged concerts and Chinese operas at the Sydney Town Hall and in Melbourne outside of Myers department store to sell Australian victory bonds.21War work on behalf of the Australian and Chinese people consumed Fred Wong’s energies.

Indonesia Calling
When Holland attempted to re-establish control of its 450 year old Indonesian empire after the war, in September 1945, Indonesian seamen voted to strike for their country’s independence. They called for a boycott of all shipping assisting the Dutch effort to re-impose colonial rule. Australian, Indian, Malayan and Chinese seamen walked off Dutch ships in Australian ports. The boycott of Dutch shipping was joined by Australian waterside workers who struck in support of the Indonesian independence movement. The Chinese Seamen’s Union donated £1000 to the Dutch boycott. Fred Wong and the Chinese Youth League organised meals for Indonesian strikers in Chinese cafes. Chinese market gardeners provided food for all striking seamen in union hostels.22

For the Indonesian cause Fred Wong, the shopkeeper, turned his talents to acting. In a re-enactment of the black ban on Dutch shipping for the Joris Iven’s documentary film ‘Indonesian Calling’ Wong delivered a speech offering Chinese support for an independent Indonesia. In the last scene of the film Wong is shown shouting ‘Indonesia Merdeka’ to a departing Dutch vessel from an open boat in Sydney Harbour. Wong’s efforts in collecting money from the Chinese community helped to fund the Ivens film.23

Asian Airlines
Wong’s commitment to independence in Asia did not end at documentary film-making. Nor did his activism go unnoticed by Australian security forces. Like other Chinese radicals Wong was seen as a risk to national security because of his pre-war and wartime activism on behalf of Chinese and Australian working people. In a Commonwealth Investigation Service file dated 24 August 1948:

Frederick Kenneth Wong was reported during 1947 to be one of the most active Chinese communists in Sydney. During the same year he was reported to have taken part in the Communist propaganda film ‘Indonesia Calling’. He was President of the Chinese Youth Club (League) Sydney. This was one of several clubs set up during 1943 and 1944 as social auxiliaries of the Chinese Seamen’s Union. The Clubs raised funds for social functions and were alleged to act as recruiting centres for Communism.24

Another intelligence report dated 11 February 1947 concluded:

The Chinese seamen’s Union is entirely under Communist control. Since its inception it has been closely connected with bodies such as the S.U. of A., the Kuomintang Revolutionary Committees, the Chinese Youth League. The main executive positions in the union have been occupied by Communists. Clubs such as the Chinese Youth League were promoted by Communist officials and were used under the guise of providing entertainment to seamen to recruit new members for the Party and to spread Communist doctrine.25

The wartime unity in the struggle against fascism, for Asian independence and improved working conditions, was seen by Australian intelligence agents, in the context of the emerging Cold War, as subversive. To be Chinese or of Chinese parentage, and to be a radical, constituted one as a political criminal in the eyes of the secret state. Militant Chinese seamen and evacuees who failed the Chifley Labor Government’s Dictation Test were deported.26 Trade unions in the transport power and metal industries waged successful strikes to improve their wages and working conditions. Their action was depicted in the press as a plot by communists to cripple the Australian economy. Anti-communism and a fear of Asia in revolutionary ferment replaced the unity and optimism generated by the people’s struggle during the Pacific War.27

It was in this increasingly hostile context that progressive Australians and Chinese tried to create an independent airline based in Australia which would serve the needs of the infant Indonesian Republic. Clarrie Campbell, an engineer, businessman, Anzac survivor, socialist, and a friend of the Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, was encouraged to establish an airline service by the Indonesian government. Campbell with Louis Wong, a Chinese seamen born in Semarang, Indonesia, Fred Wong and other Chinese and Australians, formed Asian Airlines. They planned to purchase nine Catalina flying boats from the Commonwealth Disposals Commission.28

In June 1947 Campbell and Fred and Louis Wong approached the Chifley Labor government with the proposal to buy the aircraft. By August 1948 the Asian Airlines project has been forced out of business. Throughout this period Australian security forces carried out a campaign of intense repression against the company. Each of the shareholder’s political backgrounds was described as communist. Their motives and plans for the airline were declared subversive. Selected journalists and parliamentarians were informed that Asian Airlines was to carry drugs and guns to criminal gangs throughout Southeast Asia.29 It was alleged ‘that £3,000 worth of wireless equipment, including a radio compass and transmitter receiving sets stolen from Rathmines was fitted to a Catalina owned by Asian Airlines at Rose Bay’.30 The claim proved false but the damage was done. Asia Airlines became an early business casualty of the Cold War.

The Accidental Death of An Activist? On the 20th of July 1948 the only flying boat Asian Airlines had been able to purchase flew from Rose Bay to Lake Boga, an ex RAAF base near Swan Hill in Victoria. One of its passengers was Fred Wong. On the 23rd of July 1948, Wong, and an aircraft engineer, Albert Taylor Stewart, were to fit beaching gear to aircraft moored on Lake Boga. Wong and Stewart worked from a dinghy. As they attempted to move the tail wheel the boat capsized. Both men were thrown into the water.

Stewart stated to the coroner: ‘Wong was treading water about two or three yards from me. He appeared to be keeping himself afloat alright. I called out to him, “Don’t get rattled Fred”. I called out for help several times’. Wong and Stewart were able to tread water. Stewart swam to a rope tied to the aircraft and pulled himself to safety. When he looked for Wong he had disappeared. Stewart was the only eyewitness to Fred Wong’s drowning. The coroner concluded that Fred Wong ‘died through asphyxia caused by accidental drowning’.

Was this possible? Wong was known to be a competent if not a strong swimmer.32Did the cold water and the long reeds prevent Wong from reaching th ae Catalina? Was Wong’s death no more than an accident? It may be impossible to make an independent judgement. Soon after Fred Wong’s funeral Asian Airlines disbanded. A death and political interference in the gathering Cold War led to the airlines undoing.

Wong Gar Kin’s Legacy & Australia’s Hidden Chinese Heritage Wong Gar Kin’s life was a generous contribution to both Australia and China. He was an uncommon common man. In the darkening years of the Great Depression he joined the struggle to free China and the Chinese people from war, want and despoliation. With others of Chinese background he helped form organisations to end these scourges.

Fred Wong, the greengrocer, did this work when the Great White Walls of prejudice were a monumental barrier for most Chinese. Wong undertook these tasks not for himself but for his love of humanity and his two countries Australia and China. The political and cultural organisations Wong helped to build – the Chinese Youth League, the Chinese Seamen’s Union and the various aid for China committees drew Australians and Chinese together to fight for social justice.

At 42, in July 1948, his life was cut short as the Cold War congealed Australia’s relations with China for a quarter of a century. Fred Wong’s contribution to Australia’s Chinese heritage was buried in the ideological wilderness. Fred Wong lived out Mao’s dictum, ‘Serve the people’. Wong Gar Kin’s life is a crucial part of Australia’s unknown Chinese heritage. A workworn apron is a precious gift in memory of Fred Wong.


  1. The author is indebted to Arthur Gar Lock Chang and Doreen Lum, Helen Liem and Jackson Wong for their generous assistance to this paper.
  2. Interview, Arthur Gar Lock Chang, Forestville, 2 December 1999.
  3. Interview, Chang, December 1999.
  4. Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape Gold Scissors. The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1996, pp.135-136.
  5. E.M. Andrews, Isolationism and Appeasement in Australia, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1970, passim.
  6. Alastair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California, 1969, Chapter 3.
  7. Davidson, The Communist Party, pp.55-65 and Raymond Markey,
    In Case of Oppression: The Life and Times of the Labor Council of New South Wales, Pluto Press Leichhardt, 1994, pp.262-271.
  8. Fitzgerald, Red Tape, p.136.
  9. Fitzgerald, Red Tape, p.136.
  10. Vic Bird, SS Silksworth Dispute of 1937: A Memoir, Melbourne May Day Committee, 1991, esp. pp.6-15.
  11. Oblique references are made to Fred Wong’s work in ‘Sino-Japanese dispute – Chinese view of SS Silksworth’, Series A16061D41/l, National Archives of Australia.
  12. Bird, SS Silksworth, pp.12-15.
  13. Interview, Chang, December 1999.
  14. Fitzgerald, Red Tape, pp.136-138.
  15. Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan J. Cahill, The Seamen’s Union of Australia. A History, Seamen’s Union of Australia, Sydney, 1981, pp.178-180 and E.V. Elliott, Merchant Seamen in the War, Seamen’s Union of Australia, Sydney, 1944.
  16. See ‘Employee organisations – Chinese Seamen’s Union of Australia’, Series A6122/1 849, National Archives of Australia.
  17. Rupert Lockwood, Black Armada, Australasian Book Society, Sydney South, 1975, p.168.
  18. ‘Employee Organisations – Chinese Seamen’s Union’, Series A6122/1849; and Elliott, Merchant Seamen.
  19. ‘Arthur Gar Lock Chang’ in Morag Loh and Judith Wintenitz (eds), Dinky-di: The contributions of Chinese immigrants and Australians of Chinese Descent to Australia’s Defence Forces and War Efforts, 1899-1988, Australian Government Printing Service Press, Canberra, 1989, pp. 106-108.
  20. Fitzgerald, Red Tape, p.141.
  21. ‘Chang’ in Loh and Wintenitz, Dinky-di, pp.108-109.
  22. Lockwood, Black Armada, p.169.
  23. Interview, Arthur Gar-Lock Chang, Forestville, 27 May, 2000. See Joris Ivens film, Indonesia Calling, (25 minutes), Quality Films, Sydney.
  24. ‘Asian Airlines’, Series A432/80/48/676, National Archives of Australia.
  25. ‘Employee organisations — Chinese Seamen’s Union’, Series A6122/1 849, National Archives of Australia.
  26. Loh and Wintenitz, Dinky-di, p.37; and Fitzgerald, Red Tape, p.45.
  27. See, Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism and the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1955, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1975, pp.144-205; and W.J. Brown, The Communist Movement and Australia, Australian Labor Movement History Publications, Hay Market, 1986, pp.146-160.
  28. ‘Asian Airlines’, Series A432/80/48/676.
  29. See cuttings from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Melbourne Herald, The Adelaide Advertiser and The Brisbane Courier Mail in ‘Asian Airlines’, Series A432/80/48/676.
  30. ‘Asian Airlines’, Series A432/80/48/676.
  31. Stewart’s testimony is found in ‘Asian Airlines. Question by Mr Harrison, MP’ series A432/80/1948/676, National Archives of Australia.
  32. Interview, Chang, May 2000.