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LNY 2021 SPOTLIGHT: John (JAK) Ah Kit

The following profile and photos are gratefully published with permission from John's daughter, Ngaree Ah Kit.

John (JAK) Ah Kit

John (JAK) Ah Kit was a prime example of Australia’s rich multicultural heritage, and his family history showed the way that the hard scrabble life of Australia’s first Chinese migrants in the bush brought them into contact with Aboriginal culture, history and traditions. In some ways, as second-class citizens themselves, Chinese migrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth century had a better understanding of Aboriginal country and custom than many whitefellas were willing to appreciate or understand.

Jimmy Ah Kit, JAK’s grandfather, came to Australia on a sampan with six other Cantonese comrades, landing at what was then called Palmerston, now the city of Darwin, sometime in the 1890s. He walked with his companions all the way from there to Mount Isa looking for work, a long and sweltering trek. He married JAK’s Grandmother, Nanna-Jane Ah Kit a year or two after arriving in Australia. Nanna-Jane was a Waanyi-Garrawa woman.

As he tells it, JAK’s father was strongly connected to the Darwin Chinese Recreation Club, because he was the President of the Darwin Amateur Basketball Association. Still under the White Australia Policy in the 1950s and 60s, Chinese, Indigenous people and other “coloureds” were kept out of the general recreational clubs in town. But in JAK’s own words, “The Chinese, from the mid-50s onwards through the Darwin Chinese Recreation Club excelled in basketball and Aussie Rules and the Chinese and Aboriginals used to play together.”

JAK was born in 1950, and his family, retracing his grandfather’s footsteps, moved back to Darwin in 1954. As the era of Aboriginal Land Rights began in earnest in the 1980s, he was elected to the Full Council of the Northern Land Council in 1983. A year later he was elected Director of the Northern Land Council, and remained in that position until 1990, when he resigned to contest a seat as a member of the Labor Party in the Northern Territory. Of that election, he recalled, “I remember my first attempt at running for parliament was a total failure. I was preselected for an impossible seat for Labor.” But this was only the beginning of his political career.

In 1991 he was a central player in the Jawoyn people’s push to resist the development of Coronation Hill as a mine site, arguing alongside his peers that the area was a central site in the Jawoyn people’s worldview, and should not be disturbed. The Coronation Hill case, though rarely remembered today, was a key part of Australian political debate at the time, and a central cause of the Labor Party spill that led to Paul Keating’s 1991 party-room victory over Bob Hawke.

On the back of successful land rights campaigns, JAK entered the NT parliament as a Labor MLA in 1995 after prevailing in the Arnhem by-election, and was appointed as the first ever Indigenous Minister in the Territory, serving in a number of different portfolios including Housing, Local Government, and Sport and Recreation. His service is well-regarded and he’s still remembered fondly by many Territorians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. In 2016, his daughter Ngaree Ah Kit was also elected as a Labor MLA in the Territory.

JAK’s family’s story is a testament to the ways in which Australia’s history was influenced by Chinese migration, in ways that have often gone unrecognised even until today. As he said in a speech later in life, “A lot of the Chinese community need to understand - the younger generation - that their grandparents and parents had a battle for them to be treated and accepted as equals in Darwin in the old days. In the same way, Aboriginal kids need to learn about and understand the struggles their old people had in establishing civil and political rights.”

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