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Darwin’s Chinatown

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(An extract from Darwin’s Chinatown and the Territory’s Chinese written for The Territory Remembers by Bob Alford).

All over the world the Chinese have made their mark in business and in developing trade centres known as Chinatowns in cities, towns and settlements, they have left an enduring legacy.  

With the build-up of Darwin’s defences in the late 1930s came the troops, sailors and airmen from all parts of Australia. To them Darwin was a strange, hot and dusty town with a population reflecting many nationalities and all seemingly with an unquenchable thirst. The pubs overflowed during business hours and when they closed the drinking and fighting continued on the streets, notably at the Don Hotel on Chinatown’s edge.

On 8 December 1941 the long expected attacks by the Japanese were mounted in Malaya and Thailand, at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and at points throughout the Pacific. Australia, and the Northern Territory was in no doubt that their turn would be next.  On 16 December the Federal War Cabinet announced that women and children must be compulsorily evacuated from Darwin as soon as possible.  

Over the next few weeks to 15 February 1942, 1414 people, mostly women and children including 206 Chinese, were evacuated by sea. The Koolinda took 225 on 19 December, 530 went on Zealandia the following day and the President Grant took 222 on the 23rd. The Montoro took 187 on 10 January, followed on the 26th by 173 persons aboard the Koolama. The Koolinda took the last 77 on 15 February, the day Singapore surrendered. Others went by road, rail and air. The last flew out aboard a Guinea Airways Lockheed 10 on the evening of 18 February, leaving just over 2000 civilians in Darwin, 63 of these women in essential services.

Despite the government expecting citizens to assist the process by “…cheerfully carrying out all requests”, the voyages were anything but cheerful.  Many of the younger Chinese men remained in Darwin. It was their home and many assisted in defence and other works, while maintaining the family businesses in Chinatown and in the town itself.  

Most wanted to join the military, despite discrimination, and from 1939 when Australia went to war some did. However, the restrictions were such that in 1940 the enlistment of British subjects of non-European descent and Aliens was referred to a Committee for consideration.   In both the army and navy the enlistment of persons so classified was arrogantly declared as being “neither necessary nor desirable”.

The RAAF was more relaxed and could admit non-Europeans at its discretion, but only as ground crew and confined to service in Australia. By mid-1941, however, these regulations were increasingly ignored, as the threat to Australia intensified.

Tom Cheong, the son of Darwin businessman Chin Cheong, was one who enlisted, recalling that during: “…1939 a lot of the Darwin boys, school friends, joined the AIF…They used to march along the streets, the bands playing…and you’d get all excited, and you’d feel that you should be part of it. You didn’t care what nationality or colour you were – you were just friends – all Australians. And I’d always wanted to fly.”   And fly he did. Joining the RAAF on 22 July 1942, Thomas Cheong went on to fly with No. 43 Squadron in Catalina flying boats from Karumba and later Darwin on missions against the Japanese in the Netherlands East Indies.

Others also joined the military during the period 1941 to war’s end.  Some joined either the RAAF or the army. Many served in the Territory and overseas.  Some served with distinction and many went on to become successful in business and civic affairs following the war.  

Harry Chan, born Hen Fook on 14 June 1918, enlisted in the army on 28 July 1941 and served in the Darwin area. He went on to become a successful businessman and accountant, a member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly and was twice elected as Darwin’s Lord Mayor.

On 19 February 1942 the wait was over. Many of those who had remained after the earlier evacuations chose to leave Darwin and went south, some of them never to return.  Many, including Chinese men, went as far as Adelaide River and enlisted there.

The town was abandoned except for the military and a handful of essential personnel and while some buildings were used for accommodation others, including Chinatown, weren’t so fortunate.  

Materials for use in building defences, camps and airstrips along the north-south road were desperately needed and, with no one to claim ownership, the destruction of Chinatown began.  Whenever time permitted they went into Darwin where they collected the iron off buildings that had been bombed, together with any timber they could collect.

Darwin also provided some comforts for those units at the remote camps and airstrips, where recreational material, furniture and the essentials to maintain squadron operations were in short supply.

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