Photo could shed light on WA’s first Chinese resident

Can you recognise the buildings or date the clothing in this image?

RESEARCHERS have discovered a photo that may depict the first documented Chinese person in WA, a carpenter named Moon Chow who likely played a key role in building some of Perth’s oldest structures. 

Moon Chow, sometimes recorded as “Chow Moon”, “Johnny Chow” or “Chou”, arrived in Fremantle in March 1830 aboard the Emily Taylor. 

In August 1830 he was listed as one of two carpenters employed by Henry W Reveley, a civil engineer who was raised as a brother to Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Reveley built the original Government House (now demolished), the Old Court House (the oldest surviving building in Perth city), and Fremantle’s Round House (the oldest building in the state).

But there are many competing narratives about the details of Moon Chow’s life amid fragments of records, family histories, and modern lionised tales. 

To delve into his life UWA School of Social Science researchers Yu Tao, Benjamin Smith and Petra Mosmann worked with a fifth-generation descendent of Mr Chow, Betty Walker, along with Chung Wah Association honorary historical advisor Kaylene Poone.

Prof Smith tells us: “He was working for Reveley from pretty much as soon as he came into the state, so probably about seven-odd years. So he must have worked on some of those major projects.”

Carpenter

Government House seems a likely candidate. A temporary wooden building was erected in 1832 in what is today the Supreme Court Gardens, then a more permanent iteration was built that served as Government House from 1835 to 1859. 

There were not many carpenters in the Swan River Colony in that era.

“If it was wooden, it was almost certain Moon Chow would have built it,” Prof Smith says.

Moon Chow later worked as a highly regarded boat builder, but there are decades of his life where little is recorded.

The researchers thought they’d never see a photograph of Chow, but during the research process Ms Walker discovered a cousin in Queensland had found a box of old family photos in the attic. A faded photograph showed a Chinese man standing in what had to have been 19th century Australia. 

There were no other Chinese figures in the family’s early history, and Ms Walker and her cousin believe it’s Moon Chow.

The researchers wrote: “The man appears by a fence, just as a carpenter working on a minor fencing contract might. The architecture in the background and the fence style is plausible for Fremantle at the time. The hat in the man’s left hand is also Victorian in style.”

They are now hoping someone might recognise the background, or be able to date an item of clothing.

Moon Chow died June 9 1877 after being knocked down by a mail cart in Fremantle’s High Street. An inquest ruled his death accidental. The jury appended 

a note: “We think it our duty to mention that, for safety of life and limb, more caution and less speed ought to be observed by those in charge of mail carts … we further consider that all vehicles after sundown should be compelled to carry lamps to warn passengers of their approach.”

The full article Searching for Moon Chow: A Joint Journey is up at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/ 10.1080/14484528.2022.2120593 

If you know any details about the image, please contact Prof Smith at benjamin.smith@uwa.edu.au or 64882097

by DAVID BELL and STEVE GRANT

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