Arthur Gar Lock Chang: An Australian-Chinese link with the Indonesian independence struggle
On 27 January a well-attended memorial service was held at the Sydney Trades Hall to honour the life and work of an outstanding Chinese-Australian, Arthur Gar Lock Chang (18 February 1921 – 14 January 2016). Curator Dr Stephen Gapps explores some of the important connections Arthur had with the events surrounding the museum’s Black Armada exhibition.
In 2011, a chance conversation about events on the Sydney waterfront in 1945 led to a reunion of two people who had not seen each other in 65 years. During the annual Indonesian Independence commemorations at the Indonesian consulate in Sydney, Anthony Liem from the Australia–Indonesia Association was listening to Charlotte Maramis, then in her 80s, telling stories of her experiences as a young 17-year-old girl involved with the maritime strikes against Dutch shipping from 1945 to 1949. (See Chapter 1)
Charlotte ‘Lotte’ Maramis told Anthony how she and her mother were called upon one freezing winter morning in 1946 to come to the aid of a group of Indonesians who were suffering from tuberculosis and had been unceremoniously turfed out of the Queen Juliana hospital in Turramurra, in northern Sydney. While government policy had not yet changed from an exclusionist white Australia one, there were at least some Sydneysiders who were compassionate towards the Indonesians who had been cast on Australian shores by the Japanese invasion of their country in 1942.
Lotte described how Fred Wong of the Chinese Youth League had arranged for a truck to pick up the homeless patients and take them to the Chinese Youth League building in Dixon Street, Haymarket, or ‘China Town’ in the city. The Chinese Youth League and the Chinese Seamen’s Union had given much support to the Indonesians who, as the Chinese had been against Japan, were also fighting an anti-colonial struggle.
The Indonesians were given space in the loft of the building, mattresses were laid out and meals provided. The driver of the truck was Assistant Secretary of the Chinese Seamens’ Union Sydney Branch, and a protégé of the energetic Fred Wong. His name, Lotte remembered, was Arthur Gar Lock Chang.
When Anthony heard Fred Wong’s and Arthur Chang’s names, he mentioned to Lotte that Fred was the father of his wife, Helen Wong. Fred had died in 1948. (See Chapter 3) But Anthony knew that Arthur was still alive and in his 1980s. Lotte had spent many years in Indonesia after she married one of the Indonesian exiles in Australia during World War II, Anton Maramis. She left Australia with Anton and had a distinguished career as a foreign journalist in Indonesia during a time where Australia had very little to do with its northern neighbour.
Wondering if they would still recognise each other after all these years, Anthony soon arranged for Lotte and Arthur to meet up. They did recognise each other and became friends again. During the last years of Lotte’s life before she died in 2012, Lotte and Arthur met for coffee and chats about their shared pasts nearly 70 years before, when Chinese and Indonesian political struggles united them in the streets of Sydney.
Arthur Gar Lock Chang was born in February 1921 in the village of Longxu, in Zhonshan County, Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong in southern China. His father, Chang Yat, was one of the few Chinese who had not been deported or returned to China after the introduction of the White Australia Policy in 1901. Chang Yat had managed to make a life in rural Australia after the goldrushes — working as a market gardener, kitchen hand, furniture maker, road builder and even as a jackaroo.
Chang Yat brought his son Arthur out to Australia at the age of 14 – to the tin-mining township of Tingha on the Western Tablelands of New South Wales. As Chinese (and most non-British who sought to live or work in Australia prior to World War II) were subject to the White Australia Policy, they had to pass strict rules to enter the country.
His father arranged for him to be indentured to an employer so Arthur would not have to pass the dictation test, which could be set in any language the immigration officials desired. But this also meant Arthur was not allowed to look for other work, or he would lose his right to stay in Australia.
Arthur’s father had promised his wife that he would return with his son to China in five years time. As Arthur said later, ‘I didn’t see my mother for 27 years. Under the White Australia Policy I couldn’t leave at my own will.’ These restrictions, and the experiences of other Chinese who had managed to stay in Australia, were to underpin much of the work of the rest of Arthur’s life.
In the 1930s, already dismembered by years of colonialism and civil war, China came under attack from an imperialist Japan. As Chinese resistance to the Japanese became known, as well as news of the shocking events of the Massacre of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1937, many overseas Chinese began to do what they could to support their homeland.
In Sydney, the Chinese community efforts were led by Fred Wong, the driving force behind a number of broad, popular Chinese organisations that as labour historian Drew Cottle has described, were ‘formed as expressions of cultural resistance and social advance’.
In 1937, led by Australian Communists – the only political group in the country actively protesting against Japanese imperialism in China – 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.
While support for the Communist Party in China was not popular among the Sydney Chinese community, when the Communists united with the Kuomintang Nationalists after 1937 to fight the Japanese, the small Chinese community in Sydney also came together in support China’s defence of what is now called the War of Resistance Against Japan. Fred Wong was able to see the opportunities for support for the Chinese cause among the only sections of Australian society interested – the Communists and other left wing groups, particularly the maritime trade unions.
The maritime workers were a key factor, as the main connections between Australia and Asia at this time were shipping and trade based and their unions were led by Communists and the radical left. The 1938 Dalfram dispute – in which politician Robert Menzies attained the nick name ‘Pig Iron Bob’ – saw Chinese seamen refuse to crew ships and Australian waterfront workers refuse to load them with iron that was destined for Japan – and to be turned into bombs and bullets to subjugate China.
At this time, most of China’s ports were in Japanese hands. Thousands of Chinese seamen were stranded, working on foreign vessels. At the Japanese entry into World War II in December 1941, many found refuge in Australia – often jumping ship and ‘disappearing’ into the Chinese community. They were all at least nominal members of the Chinese Seamen’s Union, which had been founded as early as 1913. When a Sydney branch of the union was established in 1942, it was important to find committee members who were fluent in English to work with Australian authorities, and to fight for better working conditions.
Arthur Gar Lock Chang had moved to Sydney in March 1942, working in a fruit shop, then on the assembly line at a tyre factory in Granville. He joined the Chinese Youth League, drawn to its social activities and political discussions. As he spoke English, he was appointed assistant secretary of the Chinese Seamens’ Union Sydney Branch.
Chang helped seamen in finding accommodation, negotiating contracts and organising crews. During the war there was a desperate shortage of crews, and despite the official White Australia Policy, Chinese sailors were needed. The Chinese Seamens’ Union was accepted by Australian unionists as well as the government – both historically opposed to non-Australian labour. Despite shipping companies’ reluctance to pay equal wages, in 1943 they were forced to at least pay a basic wage with wartime bonuses.
When the war came to an end, so too did the Chinese Seamens’ Union branches in an Australia keen to return Asians exiled by war back to their home countries. As Drew Cottle notes, ‘the final mobilisation of the disintegrating CSU was for the cause of Indonesian Independence against Dutch imperialism’. Chinese seamen spearheaded actions against Dutch shipping in Australian ports and the Chifley government pushed to deport them because of their militancy.
But the Chinese union and allied Chinese Youth League were not only militant, but well-supported by the sympathetic businessman and fundraiser Fred Wong and members of the Chinese Community. When the exiled Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens wanted to make a film of the events of the black ban against Dutch shipping in support of Indonesian Independence, the CSU and the CYL raised most of the funds.
By 1946, many of the Chinese sailors returned to China, now free from a defeated Japan and undergoing a struggle between Communists and Nationalists for the country’s future. But Arthur Gar Lock Chang continued his work to support Chinese in Australia, and to support his homeland from Australia. He fought to prevent unfair deportations and his work was an important part of a shift in public opinion about the White Australia Policy.
Despite Australian political distance from a communist China after 1949, he continued to promote engagement with China in the 1950s. From 1961 to 1974 Arthur was the Chairperson of the Chinese Youth League. He was involved in many cultural exchanges with China, particularly after diplomatic ties between Australia and China were opened in 1972. In 2003 Arthur was awarded the Centenary Medal of Australia for services to the Chinese community in Australia.
Arthur Gar Lock Chang died on 14 January 2016. Arthur was the last known link with the 1946 film Indonesia Calling and one of the last people involved in the incredible events on the waterfront at Sydney in 1945. He held a longstanding interest in these events and was present at the opening of the exhibition Black Armada: Australian support for Indonesian Independence at the museum in November 2015.
- Na., ‘Arthur Gar-Lock Chang’
- Drew Cottle ‘Forgotten foreign militants: The Chinese Seamen's Union in Australia, 1942-1946’ http://roughreds.com/rrone/cottle.html
- Shirley Fitzgerald ‘Chinese’ http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/chinese
- Marina Kamenev ‘Should Australia say sorry for its old anti-Chinese laws?’http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2081397,00.html
- Esther Han ‘Chinese Australians call for an apology’http://www.smh.com.au/national/chinese-australians-call-for-an-apology-20110629-1gr1t.html#ixzz3xveIxiAr