King Nam Jang: A Sydney Dynasty
Lo King Nam
Lo King Nam arrived in Australia from Lo Village, Saam Sui, China, on the SS Brisbane in June 1877 as a 16 year old boy, searching for his fortune. His intention was to travel to the goldfields of New South Wales and work as a miner, but fellow Chinese travellers also heading for the goldfields refused to take such a young boy to a place of such harsh conditions with difficult work. Mining on the goldfields was made even harder by droughts across parts of NSW. Fortunately King Nam was able to secure lodgings and work with a family in a country town. According to family folklore, he lived with a Scottish family called Cumines in or near Bega. Accepted by the Cumines, he worked for them on their farm and ran errands. He allegedly became known through the district as ‘that young Cumines’. In 1882 he used this name, at the age of 21, when he applied for naturalisation. Perhaps surprisingly, the NSW government granted citizenship within just a couple of months. The name Young Cumines stuck.
Providore and a place to rest
In 1888 three immigrant ships, the SS Afghan, Menmuir and Guthrie, sailed into Sydney Harbour. While Chinese people had been arriving in Australia for more than 30 years, this incident ignited the growing fear into open hostility. Known as the 'Afghan Incident', harsh new immigration laws were hastily passed and Chinese travellers aboard the ships were detained and deported after thousands of people marched on Parliament and demanded action.
While anti-immigration arguments and hysteria of the 'Chinese threat' arose in the broader community from the late 1870s, the migration pattern showed that rather than long term settlement, most Chinese came to Australia for a temporary period, spent several years working hard and then returned to family in Southern China with their earnings. Few actually stayed in Sydney during their working years; the city was simply the main port and stopover for those waiting to leave on the next stage of the journey bound for the goldfields, Queensland, New Zealand or other nearby Pacific Island nations, passing through once again on their return journey to China. These travellers brought with them trade and profit, and a need for short term accommodation and services near the bustling docks of Circular Quay.
By 1903 Cumines had moved from rural NSW to Marrickville, Sydney. Around 1911 he established a business at 85 George Street, The Rocks. Initally occupying just the top floors and yard, by 1913 the Sands Register records him as full tenant of the building. King Nam Jang catered to Chinese travellers and crewmen, providing short-term lodgings as well as a kitchen that provided meals three times a day. For the trading ships, fresh food and supplies were provided, as well as a walk-in general store for the local community. George Street and surrounding areas near Circular Quay contained a number of Chinese owned boarding houses, furniture-makers, laundries and general merchants and was one of Sydney’s earliest Chinatowns.
I can recall as a young boy, quite young, in the 1920s… Chinese labourers were recruited from China, and came out to work at the Phosphate Commission in Nauru and Ocean Island. There were hundreds of these people who came out and we also undertook to care for them while they were in Sydney waiting transhipment… we were unable to hold them in our premises. What my father did was he hired ships, hulks, in Sydney Harbour, and put them on board, and provided them meals. They had their own cooks as well, so we just provided the food and they did their own cooking until they were able to tranship to other ports.
Albert Cumines, grandson of Young Cumines, recorded 21 November 2002 for the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, transcribed by Cheryl Cumines.
All in the family
In 1882 the 17 year old ‘Fanny’ Ka Ching arrived from China and sometime later married Young Cumines in Sydney. Little is known about her, but the couple had three sons and two daughters. All the children lived on the King Nam Jang premises and all the sons worked in the family business. Many of their grandchildren were born and lived on the King Nam Jang premises as well.
In 1921 Young Cumines retired and returned to China with his wife and daughter Alice. A third daughter, Violet, was later born in China. His eldest son, Richard, managed the business for the next five years, along with assistance from his brothers. In 1926 Richard took his own growing family to Hong Kong and China for an extended break, as well as to provide an opportunity for his own children to attend school and learn to read and write Cantonese. They returned to Sydney and the family business after two-and-a-half years. His brothers, William and George, managed the business while he was away and, before the outbreak of the Second World War, took their own families to China for extended stays.
The Cumines family was well known and prominent in the local Rocks community as well as the then small Sydney Chinese community, with many of the established Chinese families passing through the George Street store. Richard’s son, Albert, grew up in the backstreets and laneways of The Rocks, attending Fort Street Public School until the age of ten. In the late 1930s Albert was a founding member of the Dragon Ball Festival and the Chinese Relief Movement, helping to raise funds to buy ambulances for China for civilian aid during the Second Sino-Japanese war. Later the Ball supported orphanages in China and Taiwan, and providing donations to Sydney Hospital, the Deaf and Dumb Society, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Crippled Children’s Association.
In 1938, Albert was a member of a Chinese community committee formed to organise a parade for the sesquicentenary Sydney celebrations. The parade featured a 150 foot dragon and lanterns created by craftsman brought from China to Sydney especially for the event. The parade was so well-attended that the showground had to be closed. As a result, another parade was organised later that year, as part of the city’s Easter celebrations.
When Albert finished school in 1934 he initially worked in the business, helping his father who was again running King Nam Jang single handed, before joining an electrical company in 1938 and rising from apprentice to Managing Director during his career before retiring in the 1980s. Edward, Albert's younger brother also worked as an electrician at Federal Electrics, located just around the corner in Argyle Street, maintaining his connection to The Rocks until his retirement in the 1980s. Another brother, Henry, was successful in the import and export business and was colloquially known as "Mr Pacific", trading and supplying goods throughout the South Pacific. Although passing away in 2002, the company, Henry Cumines Pty Ltd, still bears his name and can be seen on products throughout stores in the region.
King Nam Jang stayed in Cumines management for nearly 60 years, with three generations living in The Rocks. The doors of King Nam Jang finally closed in the early 1960s, though the boarding house branch of the business had already closed in 1957. The age of the jet had arrived and the services offered by the business were sadly a relic of past times.
Another occasion was in the middle of the night, a stormy night, when a phone call came, that a ship was being wrecked on the outskirts of Maroubra. The ship was named Malabar. It was a Burns, Philp [and Co] ship and it struck rocks there, and the ship eventually submerged. We took the [Chinese, Indian and Malay] crew in to look after them while they were able to make other arrangements…
Albert Cumines, grandson of Young Cumines, recorded 21 November 2002 for the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, transcribed by Cheryl Cumines. The MV Malabar was wrecked off Long Bay on 2 April 1931, and the Cumines family also assisted by acting as interpreters for government departments.
The Cumines family today
The family of Young and Fanny Cumines continues to grow, with fifty-five great grandchildren and many more descendants born since. The original 1860s building at 85 George Street North still stands and is part of the Unwin's Stores, located next to the Orient Hotel. The Cumines name continues to be prominent in the Chinese and broader Australian community. Sisters Cheryl and Margaret are founding members of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia. Cheryl is its current President and Margaret its Secretary.
Young and Fanny Cumines’ great-granddaughter, Eleanor Prouting (nee Cumines) received the Minister’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1999, in recognition for her teaching excellence and her significant contribution to establishing the Children’s Play Centre at East Hills Safe Haven. Eleanor, with her TAFE team, provided play experiences for all but the first group of Kosovo refugee children, and later all the East Timorese children, who entered Australia at that time.
In 2005, Albert Cumines was posthumously awarded a Special Commendation in the NSW Premier’s Chinese Community Service Awards. Albert was active in a number of community organisations and was a founding member of the Dragon Ball Festival and the Chinese Relief Movement. He became a Scout Master at the age of 17. He was also Chairperson of the Masonic Lodge, President of the Arncliffe Rotary Club, Foundation President of the Sylvania Probus Club, Founding President of the Sutherland Shire Language School and the first Chairman of the Chinese Language Education Council of NSW.
In 2014 Young Cumines’ youngest daughter, Violet, is about to celebrate her 90th birthday, as is his granddaughter Dorothy (Richard's only daughter). The grave of Mabel, Young and Fanny Cumines’ oldest daughter, has recently been rediscovered in Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery. Mabel died, aged 12, in 1914.
The exhibition Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story, which ran from 29 March 2014 until 12 October 2014 at the Museum of Sydney, was about the history of Sydney’s Chinese community.
With thanks to Cheryl and Margaret Cumines for their knowledge and assistance with this story.