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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lau, Kong Shuen (1892–1987)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Kong Shuen Lau (George Ah Ling) (1892-1987), market gardener, was born on 5 December 1892 at Xin Tang village, Toishan county, Kwantung (Guangdong) province, China, son of Lau Hay, farmer, and his wife, née Pon.  He married Wong Suey and they had four children.  In about 1928 he entered Australia as an illegal immigrant.  To elude immigration authorities, fellow clansmen took Lau in about 1930 from Melbourne to Donald, where he was harboured by his cousin Lau Bo-ling, a market gardener and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, who was well known in the district as Harry Ah Ling.  Introduced as Harry’s brother, Lau became known as George Ah Ling.  When Harry left Donald in 1936 to practise medicine in Fitzroy, George took over his garden and quarters.

Hawking his own vegetables and fruit supplied from Melbourne, from a horse and cart, 'Georgie' formed lasting friendships at Donald.  He was the last Chinese market gardener in the area, becoming a particular favourite among local children and a cherished figure in the town.  With halting English (which he could neither write nor read), he remained something of a mystery.  Even his Cantonese name was little known in Donald during his lifetime.  Legend grew to fill the gaps in local knowledge.

Lau was short and of sunny disposition.  His generosity and kindliness were proverbial.  Welcomed in many homes, he would light up his hand-made cherry wood pipe, enjoy the company and occasionally, especially in his later years, share a meal.  Townsfolk supported and encouraged him, offering advice on legal and financial matters, carried his presents overseas to his family and reputedly protected him on occasions from an intrusive Chinese bureaucracy.  In 1959 he applied successfully for naturalisation and was entered on the electoral roll as 'Ah Wah, Ah Foo'—the name by which he had been registered under the Aliens Act in 1948, as an alien claiming residence in Australia since 1901.

Lau was dissuaded by his family, now domiciled in the United States of America, from returning to China but no entreaty from his prospering sons in New York could move him to join them.  Nor would he accept local businessmen’s offers to replace his earthen-floored hut with a modern house.  Featured as something of a novelty by Melbourne press and television stations, he was quoted in 1971 as declaring 'Donald is my kind of town. The people are beautiful'.  The Wimmera/Mallee Country Bulletin commented in 1977 that 'few men, whatever their station, have written themselves so indelibly and affectionately into the life of any community as this gentle market gardener'.

Following a traffic accident in 1984 Lau’s health declined.  The Asian Wall Street Journal ran a sympathetic front-page story on him and his adopted town.  When GTV9’s 'The Willesee Show' depicted him as a lonely man, a Donald townsman remonstrated that 'nothing could be further from the truth'; he had 'thousands of friends and no enemies'.  Donald had indeed enfolded 'Georgie' to itself.  Lau died at Mount Royal Geriatric Hospital, Parkville, Melbourne, on 18 October 1987, predeceased by his wife in 1974 but survived by their children.  His remains were flown to New York and buried on 4 November in Cypress Hills cemetery, Brooklyn, beneath a stone inscribed 'George Lau'.  The Donald community held a memorial service on 8 November.  'In his day, in his way,' said 'Goff' Letts, 'George placed a big question mark over the White Australia policy'.  'He may not have had the freedom of a city', the Donald Times memorialised, 'but he had the freedom of every house in Donald'.  On 17 April 1988 the Donald History and Natural History Group unveiled a memorial plaque to '"Georgie" Ah Ling' on the site of his hut and market garden.  In 2007 his hut was added to the Victorian register of historic places.

Select Bibliography

  • George Ah Ling, Donald’s Friend, 2008
  • Donald Times, 13 August 1971, p 2
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 13 October 1971, p 1
  • Wimmera/Mallee Country Bulletin, 1 August 1977, p 8
  • Asian Wall Street Journal, 21 June 1984, p 1
  • Donald Birchip Times, 23 October 1987, p 1
  • Donald Birchip Times, 19 April 1988, p 1
  • Donald Birchip Times, 4 June 1991, p 8
  • MT1078/2, item V1959/61473 (National Archives of Australia)
  • family information

Citation details

John Lack, 'Lau, Kong Shuen (1892–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/lau-kong-shuen-14105/text25097, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ah Ling, George
  • Ah Wah, Ah Foo
Birth

5 December 1892
Toishan, Guangdong, China

Death

18 October 1987
Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation