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Way Lee, Yet Soo War (1853–1909)

by R. M. Gibbs

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Yet Soo War Way Lee (c.1853-1909), merchant, was born at Tungkun, near Canton, China, the only child of a rice-miller. By his first wife, Way Lee had a son Yett King Sum. Arriving in Sydney alone in 1874, Way Lee stayed briefly with his uncle, the merchant Way Kee of George Street, and attended schools in Sydney and Brisbane for two years.

Working for his uncle, by 1878 he had established Way, Lee & Co., an importing firm in Adelaide. Its branches spread to the colony's far northern settlements, western New South Wales and the Northern Territory; its contracts included providing supplies to the South Australian government for the Port Augusta-Hergott Springs (Marree) railway.

Planning to visit China in 1887 after the death of his father, Way Lee offered to bring Chinese labour for the Daly River Plantation Co. in the Northern Territory. He also thought that Chinese families should be allowed to migrate—perhaps to a district solely for Chinese settlement—and to cultivate unused Australian land. Chinese commissioners who visited Adelaide for the Jubilee Exhibition that year arranged for Way Lee, Mei Quong Tart and two others to present a memorial from Australian Chinese to the Peking government. During their visit Way Lee was appointed a mandarin of the fourth degree.

Concerned for the welfare of Australia's Chinese inhabitants, Way Lee promoted education and endeavoured to improve their living and working conditions; he advocated restricting the import and use of opium and recommended that the practice of smuggling Chinese by sea into Western Australia be abolished. Furthermore, he tried to facilitate intercolonial travel for the Chinese. Although he had been naturalized in 1882, Way Lee experienced an embarrassing poll-tax incident when travelling to New South Wales in 1888; Sir Henry Parkes, who was on the same train, took his part.

In 1889 Way Lee married Margaret Ann McDonald. He became a Freemason and was recognized as a leader of Adelaide's Chinese community, many of whom lived near his tea merchant's premises in the West End of the city. More prosperous than they were, he was accepted by other Adelaide businessmen and dignitaries whom he hosted at Chinese New Year dinners. For the larger community, he provided fireworks on Guy Fawkes night. On platforms and in the press he deplored anti-Chinese feeling and legislation: 'The Australian people are always very kind to me, but the law worse than the people'. He collected money for the victims of flood and famine in China. A genial man, he spoke English fluently and followed political and municipal affairs.

He anticipated appointment as Chinese vice-consul for South Australia, but died of chronic nephritis and amyloid disease at his Rundle Street home on 21 August 1909, survived by his wife, two of their daughters (Vera Pretoria and Lily) and their son (Jack Ernest), as well as by the son of his first marriage. Next day thousands surged through West Terrace cemetery expecting to witness peculiar Chinese rites. They were disappointed. The burial was conducted with Presbyterian forms. Way Lee's estate was sworn for probate at £1000 and included his musical instruments, jewellery and property in China and South Australia. On 12 December 1911 in the Supreme Court of South Australia his widow successfully contested his will against its executor, her daughter Lily.

Select Bibliography

  • Quiz (Adelaide), 1 Nov 1889
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 Sept 1887, 29 Mar 1888, 23 Aug 1909
  • Observer (Adelaide), 4 Feb, 7 Apr, 30 June 1888, 2 Feb 1889
  • Register (Adelaide), 24 Feb, 11 May, 1, 2 Oct 1888, 23 Aug 1909.

Citation details

R. M. Gibbs, 'Way Lee, Yet Soo War (1853–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/way-lee-yet-soo-war-9015/text15877, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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