Almost 140 years since Kwong Sue Duk (left) came to Darwin, his descendants including Hamilton Chan and Rosalie Hiah have returned. (Supplied / Emily Smith)
Four wives and 24 children were always going to guarantee Kwong Sue Duk a legacy.
But he never could have anticipated the care to which more than 860 of his descendants have taken in acknowledging his achievements and maintaining their family ties.
Almost 140 years since the Chinese businessman first arrived in Darwin — where he built the famous “Stonehouses” to sell goods and store opium — about 50 of his descendants have returned from all over the country for a family reunion.
It is a tradition his great-granddaughter Rosalie Hiah said they had kept up since 1982, meeting every two years anywhere from Monterey in California to Cairns in North Queensland.
“That sense of family is so important to us. We take it quite seriously,” she said.
“And we feel that it’s one way of showing respect just to ourselves, our children, but also our ancestors who’ve gone past as well.”
Kwong Sue Duk with three of his wives and fourteen children in Cairns, in 1904. (Supplied: State Library of Queensland)
While it is the family’s first time meeting in the Northern Territory, Sue Duk’s 22-year tenure in the area has left plenty to explore — including a block of land near Berry Springs that the family only discovered he owned in 2010.
Ms Hiah said “it was quite a shock” when a local historical group got in touch to let them know her great-grandfather still owned title to the land on Kersley Street.
After paying back some rates, they were able to acquire it through their family’s foundation.
But with so many descendants, she said they would “probably just hold onto it until we can decide what to do”.
While she said the family would visit it during the reunion, it would be among several stops a convoy of minibuses would make to visit the prevailing reminders of Sue Duk’s memory.
Gold and opportunity fuels Darwin move
Sue Duk left southern China with his first wife and son for Cooktown in North Queensland in 1875.
In 1882 he arrived in Southport, near the modern day Berry Springs in the Northern Territory, driven by stories of gold and opportunity.
After setting up a shop selling mining tools and equipment at Southport, he bought land on Chinatown’s Cavenagh St in 1888.
It was there he built the block of buildings known as the “Stonehouses”, now the site of Darwin’s famous Stone House wine bar, to sell merchandise and store opium.
Rosalie Hiah and her father Hamilton Chan, outside the Stonehouses built by their ancestor Kwong Sue Duk. (ABC News: Emily Smith)
Today, they represent the only remaining building associated with Darwin’s 19th century Chinatown and Chinese presence, after surviving a cyclone in 1897, the bombing of Darwin and Cyclone Tracy.
Although Sue Duk prospered in the Northern Territory, owning rental properties and at least five mining leases under his business name of Sun Mow Loong, the economy dwindled after the 1897 cyclone, so he moved the family — which at that stage included four wives and 19 children — to Cairns.
About 50 of Kwong Sue Duk’s descendants have returned to Darwin for a reunion this weekend. (Supplied: Rosalie Hiah)
In the proceeding years the family also moved to Townsville and Melbourne — where a large Chinese population was sure to provide eligible bachelors for his daughters — and established Chinese herbal medicine practises.
Sue Duk died in Townsville in 1929, leaving behind four wives and 24 children.
In 2001, it was believed he had about 860 descendants, spread across five generations and 11 countries.
A lasting legacy
Ms Hiah said her great-grandfather moved at a time of peak Chinese migration to Australia, and was not the only one to leave a lasting legacy.
“Kwong Sue Duk made a large contribution, but so did many other Chinese,” she said.
“You’ve got large Chinese families who have lived here in Darwin particularly for generations and generations.”
Perhaps the most striking example of her great-grandfather’s legacy will be seen as family photographs are taken during the Darwin reunion.
It has required detailed planning.
Hamilton Chan, Stephanie Chan and Rosalie Hiah represent three generations of Kwong Sue Duk’s descendants. (ABC News: Emily Smith)
“We do the big group photo,” Ms Hiah said.
“Then we divide them by wives — so those from second wife we take a photograph, third wife and fourth wife.
“Then we have a generational photo.”
The location of each reunion in eagerly anticipated.
“Look it’s amazing, throughout the reunion you have people talking, saying, ‘Oh it’s Darwin this year so in two years time where will the next one be?'” she said.
“So they’re all waiting to find out where and when.”
But as much of the family plans their travel around the reunion, the next two destinations are already locked in — Brisbane in 2020 and Melbourne in 2022.