Serialised in 1909-1010, The Poison of Polygamy by Wong Shee Ping is the first novel of the Chinese Australian experience. It recounts the story of a man from southern China who tries his luck on the Victorian goldfields. A new bilingual parallel edition presents The Poison of Polygamy to English language readers for the first time, translated by Ely Finch, with introductory material by Michael Williams and Mei-Fen Kuo. This is an extract from Michael Williams’ introduction to the novel.
The Poison of Polygamy’s 1909 – 1910 serialisation in the Chinese Times was published without its author being named, a not unusual circumstance for the times. However, references discovered in other stories published in this and another newspaper make it clear that the author is Wong Shee Ping (黃樹屏), also known as Wong Yau Kung (黃右 公/黃又公).(1) Beginning with that name a picture of the author has now gradually evolved that includes not only elements of his life before and after the novel’s publication, his Christian ministry, political affiliations and additional literary efforts, but also the fact that descendants via his Australian-born daughter, Bonnie Ping, live in Australia today.
Wong Shee Ping was in his thirties when he wrote The Poison of Polygamy, having been born in Kaiping County (開平) in the 1870s.(2) Kaiping had long been one of the primary districts in southern China from which people travelled throughout the Pacific and so it is not surprising that even before he left home Wong Shee Ping had been trained as a Christian preacher as well as in traditional Chinese culture.(3) That Wong Shee Ping would go to Melbourne was no coincidence either, as his father was a shareholder in Sun Goon Shing & Co. at 198 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne and his brother Wong Shee Fan (黃樹藩) later became its manager.(4) This brother was also part owner of the Pekin Cafe and was so immersed in the Australian ethos that at one time he was sued for unpaid overtime by a unionist waiter.(5) Wong Shee Ping himself was originally appointed a compositor for the Chinese Times before joining the editorial team with Lew Goot Chee in 1910.(6)
Wong Shee Ping’s Australian connections were, therefore, well established by the time he arrived in Melbourne. More than this, it can be seen that it was his family’s stories that inspired and shaped the plot and characters of the novel. Not only had his father been a gold miner but, like Ching Nam in The Poison of Polygamy (who had the same name), he owned a mine in Ballarat and employed European miners to work it for him.(7) Even more closely connected, an incident in the novel involving a girl reflects a case prominently covered by Melbourne’s English-language press that took place on premises associated with Wong Shee Ping’s father’s business interests.(8) Regarding the factual basis for other characters and plot incidents we can only speculate. But that Wong Shee Ping was not only thoroughly aware of Chinese-Australian history but also intimately connected with it there can be no doubt. Thus Wong Shee Ping arrived in Melbourne as a young educated man well versed in the literary traditions of China and keen to engage with the modern world, to which he was anxious China should belong. For a man of Wong Shee Ping’s background, the modernisation of China meant foremost the removal of the non-Han Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty and their replacement with a modern republican form of government.(9) He was therefore involved from an early stage with those who later established the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, which governed or aspired to govern mainland China from 1912 until 1949. But for Wong Shee Ping China’s modernisation also meant reform of its culture, a reform that involved religion and education. These were for him interlinking concepts, believing as he did that Christianity was the only doctrine that could save China and the Chinese.(10) To this end Wong Shee Ping was a leading Christian pastor, a writer of novels (and at least two plays), as well as a newspaper editor, and in his later life a republican government official.
Wong Shee Ping rose to the position of editor of the Chinese Times after Lew Goot Chee moved in 1914 to the United States. Such a position was heavily political and in 1918 Wong Shee Ping was elected Chinese-language Secretary (中文書記) of the new 奧洲華僑維持禁 例會, ‘Maintenance Association of Australian Chinese Against the Prohibitory Regulations’, an association founded to resist the White Australia Policy and in particular to re-institute permission for Chinese wives to come to Australia.(11) Wong also found himself criticised by his political opponents, who used the rival Tung Wah Times newspaper to do so. In 1919 he was described as being ‘silver-tongued’ (12) – though not, it appears, in English; in 1921 he needed an interpreter to be interviewed by a Perth English-language newspaper after more than a decade in Australia.(13) The Tung Wah Times also insinuated that Wong was formerly an opium addict. While this may be a piece of scandal from a political rival, it could also hint that the strong condemnation of opium usage found in the novel was inspired by an ex-addict’s abhorrence.(14)
Wong moved to Sydney and served, from June 1919 to late 1920, as acting editor of the Chinese Republic News.(15) At the same time he was very active in Australia’s Christian communities and in the early 1920s was appointed by the Federal Foreign Mission Committee of the Churches of Christ Conference (外國總傳道會) to travel and preach on behalf of the church in South Australia and Western Australia.(16) At one point he resigned as editor to pursue this pastoral work.(17) Despite this change of occupation, on these pastoral visits Wong also helped to establish branches of the Chinese Nationalist Party in Adelaide and Perth.(18) His political efforts were not limited to giving speeches, and in 1921 he and other leading party members in Australia sought and secured – in a move very much in line with the views on women expressed in the novel – the approval of the party’s leader, Dr Sun Yat-sen, to exempt female members from membership fees and to open committee membership to women. Finally, among all this political and proselytising activity, he also found time to write plays, which were performed in Sydney and Melbourne in connection with Chinese Nationalist Party conventions held in 1920 and 1921.(19)
When the Chinese Times was re-launched, this time in Sydney in 1922, Wong was again its editor.(20) The following year he married Ellen Louisa (Cissie) Sam, and a daughter, Maude Florence (Bonnie) was born very soon after.(21) Both the wedding and birth occurred in Melbourne, and Bonnie would go on to marry and raise children of her own without knowing more than the vaguest details of her father.(22) This was because within a year of his marriage Wong Shee Ping had left Australia, never to return.(23)
His Australian ties were not cut entirely, however, and in 1924 he was representing Australasian KMT branches as an official delegate to the inaugural National Congress of the Chinese Nationalist Party in Canton. Following the convention, he was appointed by Dr Sun Yat-sen as one of the executive members of the party’s first Central Propaganda Committee. His editing work also continued, and soon after this political appointment Wong became involved with the Hong Kong Morning Post (香港晨報). From 1929 to 1931 Wong was an executive member of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission of China’s government.(24) In the middle of the 1920s Wong Shee Ping also held a number of positions as ‘County Head’ in Guangdong Province while continuing to be attacked by his enemies in Sydney’s Tung Wah Times.(25) However, by the end of the decade, and looking considerably more gaunt in a final 1929 image, there is no further mention of Wong Shee Ping – or Wong Yau Kung – in the English or Chinese press in Australia. His ultimate fate remains a mystery. A great deal more detail could be provided concerning Wong Shee Ping, his life in Australia and perhaps with further research, also about his life (or at least his death) after years in China. Here it is sufficient to emphasise that it is to this member of the Chinese diaspora of the beginning of the twentieth century, a man bridging both traditional Chinese and modern culture just as the empire of China was transforming into a republic, that we owe the dramatic, political and moral Chinese-Australian tale that is The Poison of Polygamy.
As interesting as the original story of The Poison of Polygamy is, and as exciting as its re-publication over 100 years later in bilingual form, the discovery of Wong Shee Ping’s continuing Australian connection is also not without its fascination. The keen investigations of Ely Finch and Mei-fen Kuo proved that the originally anonymous author of the novel was in fact Wong Shee Ping, who was also known as Wong Yau Kung.(26) As was often the case with Chinese names in an anglophone environment, the Wong family name was replaced with his given name, so that he became Mr Shee Ping, and even Pastor Shee Ping.
Knowing this allowed further Trove searching by Ely Finch, who discovered that a Bonnie Shee Ping of Essendon in Melbourne had married a Raymond Honman Mar of Sydney in 1954.(27) This led to confirmation via the birth and marriage records that ‘Joseph Wong Shee Ping’ had married ‘Louise Ellen Sam’ in 1923 and that Bonnie Shee Ping was the daughter of our author.(28) But were there any further descendants? Mar is a fairly common family name and name-by- name inquiry through the telephone book was a daunting prospect.(29) A chance stab at tracing Raymond Honman Mar’s middle name, as it is less common, turned up a link. ‘Honman’, despite its possibly Chinese look, is in fact British in origin. However, the ‘false’ Honman who had been contacted kindly pointed out a Commonwealth Gazette entry of 1981 that had not previously been seen. In this Bonnie and Raymond Mar are mentioned as certified tax agents, and most decisively for the research, that they then lived in Ryde.(30) This allowed for a quick check as to the number of people named Mar in the Sydney suburb of Ryde, which revealed a mere four. A call to the first on this list found one of four sons of Bonnie and Raymond, who confirmed that the descendants of Wong Shee Ping in Australia were numerous and were delighted to discover a long-lost grandfather. A delight only tinged with sorrow that their mother Bonnie had not lived to learn more of the father she never knew.
This is an extract from Michael Williams’ introduction to the Sydney University Press bilingual parallel edition of The Poison of Polygamy: A Social Novel by Wong Shee Ping, translated by Ely Finch, published on 1 June 2019.
- See the Translator’s Introduction to The Poison of Polygamy, footnote 8, for a more detailed explanation. Shee Ping was his original name, and Yau Kung was adopted as his pen or courtesy name.
- Also known as Hoi Ping or Hoy Ping. His exact year of birth is uncertain. In his 1919 Chinese Nationalist Party membership record, his date of birth is 1875 (Sydney KMT Archives, Records of membership [Melbourne, Perth, Broome, NZ and Hamilton],1916–1924, 523-01-0152-108); in his January 1923 marriage certificate it is 1878 (State of Victoria, Certificate Marriage, No. 946, 31 January 1923); and in his December 1923 CEDT it is 1871(National Archives of Australia, ST84/1, 1923/358/31-40).
- Yong, The New Gold Mountain, p. 129. Wong Shee Ping was trained in China as a preacher: see A. W. Stephenson, A Hundred Years: A Statement of the Development and Accomplishments of Churches of Christ in Australia (Melbourne: Stone-Campbell Books, 1946), p. 67, available online at http://digitalcommons.acu.edu/crs_books/398
- Chinese Times, 19 February 1902, p. 1 and Chinese Times, 21 November 1914, p. 2.
- Age, 6 December 1912, p. 13.
- Chinese Australian Herald, 22 October 1910, p. 2. Lew Goot Chee arrived in Australia in 1908; Critic, 15 April 1908, p. 25.
- Ballarat Star, 28 July 1883, p. 4.
- Weekly Times, 18 August 1888, p. 11 and Ballarat Star, 26 January 1882, p. 4.
- See Chinese Times, 26 June 1909, p. 9 and 11 October 1911, p. 13, for examples of speeches by Wong Shee Ping on these themes.
- Chinese Times, 13 November 1920, p. 5 in an open letter to his fellow party (KMT) members.
- Chinese Republic News, 9 November 1918, p. 7 and 24 August 1918, p. 6.
- Tung Wah Times, 20 December 1919, p. 8 and again criticised 14 February 1920, p. 8.
- Call, 1 July 1921, p. 1.
- Tung Wah Times, 20 March 1924, p. 7.
- Chinese Republic News, 21 June 1919, p. 6 and 12 December 1919, p. 6; Chinese Times, 20 November 1920, p. 5.
- Chinese Republic News, 13 November 1920, p. 6; Call (Perth), 1 July 1921, p. 1; Daily News (Perth), 9 April 1921, p. 5.
- Chinese Republic News, 10 July 1920, p. 6.
- See Mei-fen Kuo and Judith Brett, Unlocking the History of the Australasian Kuo Min Tang 1911–2013 (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2013, and Chinese Republic News, 6 November 1920, p. 6, for his itinerary.
- Chinese Times, 4 February 1922, p. 5; Chinese Australian Herald, 1 May 1920, p. 2; Chinese Republic News, 10 July 1920, p. 6.
- Sun, 27 August 1922, p. 2.
- Births, Deaths and Marriages, Victoria online index. The Sams were a Tasmanian Irish-Chinese family.
- Correspondence with Mar family members, July 2018.
- Chinese Republic News, 5 January 1924, p. 6.
- See a letter from Wong to the Central Committee of the KMT in 1924, Archive of KMT in Taipei, ‘漢 7959’. List of Officials of the Government of the Republic of China, 1925–49 (國民政府官職年表 Guominzhengfu Guanzhi Nianbiao) (Beijing: Chunghwa Publishing, 1995), p. 283.
- Chinese Republic News, 7 February 1925, p. 6; Tung Wah Times, 21 March 1925, p. 5; Chinese Republic News, 12 December 1925, p. 8.
- See the Translator’s Introduction to The Poison of Polygamy.
- Argus, 24 June 1954, p. 8.
- State of Victoria, Certificate of Marriage, No. 946, 31 January 1923.
- There were at least forty-five Mars in New South Wales alone.
- Commonwealth Gazette, 1981, p. 74, and correspondence with Louise Honman, June 2018.