WITH Chinese New Year celebrations due mid next month, let’s look into an unlikely yarn that’s almost slipped under the radar.
The Hunter Valley is full of strange stories, many of which have been forgotten over time. You might even call today’s tale “The case of the disappearing Chinese church”.
It concerns the fate of a once prominent Newcastle Chinese Presbyterian Church in Hunter Street’s West End. It seems to have operated for 35 years in Devonshire Street (once Devonshire Lane), the narrow passageway connecting Hunter and King streets, Newcastle.
The street is best known these days for being the King Street location of the once notorious Star Hotel, but up in the lane about 1904 there was a timber mission hall. The single-storey wooden building with its distinctive porch became famous locally for decades as the Chinese Mission Church.
It’s remembered best these days for an eye-catching picture taken outside, on June 7, 1915, when a group of Chinese residents in colourful, national costume posed on the church steps.
There’s also another lesser known, undated photograph, showing about 70 parishioners, but all in formal, Sunday-best European dress also posing outside the church hall. The building’s certainly not there now, but it wasn’t demolished and managed to survive in its entirety elsewhere. For over the years, with presumably dwindling church numbers or the site being sold, the timber church building was physically removed and shifted to Kotara, apparently in 1939.
Here, at its new site, it reportedly became the suburb’s first church. But what’s the background of this unusual building? During its time in Newcastle, the church besides being a place of worship served as somewhere Newcastle’s growing Chinese community could learn to read and write English.
Here, its first and probably only pastor was the legendary Reverend Kem Yee. He and his English-born wife made their home in Newcastle, operating the Newcastle Chinese Mission for 32 years.
I’d first stumbled on the tale in the 1990s with the help of historian Cynthia Hunter. My interest, however, renewed recently when Newcastle Library’s local history staff alerted me to the fact the same Rev. James Fong Kem Yee had now attracted the attention of philatelists.
The reverend has a place of honour on the Australian Postal History website which features several historic letters to Kem Yee at his mission, plus a short biography. Born in Canton, China, in 1862, he left his native land for Australia in 1878 and was then baptised in St John’s Presbyterian Church, Ballarat, in 1882.
He came to Australia as a gold seeker but then left the Victorian gold fields in 1888 to become a missionary, to work among the Chinese in Maitland and Newcastle.
Kem Yee married an Annie Fuller who had worked for the Presbyterian Church through the Central Methodist Sisterhood. Their three sons were born between 1899 and 1907.
Rev. Kem Yee died in 1923 while overseeing mission work in Sydney. He’s buried in Newcastle Cemetery. One son, of Paterson, graduated in medicine from Sydney University in 1921.
Rev. Kem Yee’s former Devonshire Street church when relocated to Kotara was initially a Presbyterian church, then became a Reformed Baptist church, then a Baptist church. Some older Kotara locals still remember it when it was a Sunday school.
Today it’s a private house with only the unusual facade giving clues to its past. Along both main sides of the rectangular timber building are five tall, pointy framed windows. And above the main door, probably in recognition of its former history as a Chinese Mission Church are three individual Chinese words wrought in metal.
Many years ago, when I first wrote briefly about the old church building, I received a call from Mrs Gwen Hunter of New Lambton.
She was one of many callers back then who remembered the low-profile Chinese community well.
“Rev. Kem Yee’s wife was the daughter of a missionary who left China before the 1900 Boxer Rebellion,” she told me.
“Much, much later the family changed the name from Kem to Kemble. And two of the reverend’s sons did very well. One ended up being a very clever engineer and the other a doctor, a specialist, in Harley Street, London,” she says.
At the same time, Newcastle University history lecturer Henry Chan told me the best known photograph of Newcastle’s Chinese community in 1915 (pictured) perpetuated a popular myth.
“The Hunter Chinese never dressed like that. It’s probably members of a Chinese operatic troupe who were visiting here for a performance,” Chan says.
He added that many Chinese worked as shepherds at Stroud for the famous pastoral firm, the A.A.Company.
Meanwhile, other readers thought the group were here for a fundraising activity and that’s probably the truth.
In June 1915, the whole of Newcastle participated in a carnival day to raise funds to help Belgium which was badly affected at the start of World War I.
The Chinese were keen to be involved in community activities. The Newcastle Herald reported on June 8, 1915, that the local Chinese community had even imported a huge 158 foot (48 metre) long traditional dragon from Melbourne. Chinese performances were also the mainstay of public events later on at Newcastle Showground.
But there was another surprise about the Chinese Mission Church once in old Devonshire Lane, according to Kotara resident Jim Winsor this week.
Winsor believed the former Chinese church hall faced west into the lane at its northern end, close to Hunter Street and Newcastle Technical College.
“Look at the brick building at left in the Chinese costume picture. I’m sure that lane cottage later became the popular Kurt’s Coffee Lounge (in the 1970s),” he said.
For the final word, let’s hear again from New Lambton resident Gwen Hunter all those years ago. She remembered the 1904 West End Chinese Presbyterian Church very well.
She said her mother, formerly Christine Miller, used to work there as a Sunday school teacher.
Mrs Hunter said she was flabbergasted to learn that about 30 years afterwards, in about 1936, her mother was standing by the front fence when a Chinese vegetable hawker came by.
Despite the years, recognition was immediate.
“You Chrissie Miller,” the street hawker exclaimed.
“You taught me one-two-three and all about Jesus.”
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