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LNY 2021 SPOTLIGHT: Lee See Lim

Lee See Lim (Granny Lum Loy)

As one of the closest points to both China, and the large trade-based southern Chinese Diaspora in South East Asia, the land now called the Northern Territory (then part of the larger South Australia) was one of the most logical destinations to set out for in boats—be they dhows and sampans, or larger ocean going boats as well.

One of the early women who made this long journey was Lim Lee See (born Lee Toy Kim). Born in Shekki in Guangdong Province, she migrated to Australia at about age ten, under the adoptive protection of, Fong Sui Wing, a prominent merchant operating in several towns in Northern Australia. When she arrived in Darwin, there was already a bustling Chinese community, and she was put to work in one of Fong’s stores. This strong Chinese community lives on in Darwin today, and many families still run important businesses in the city, which is now Australia’s fastest growing urban area.

When Lee See Lim was about 14 years of age, she married Lum Loy, a mining engineer who worked in several of the towns south of Darwin. The couple settled in Pine Creek for several years, where she gave birth to her only child. Sadly, her husband died in a mining accident, and around 1918 Lim returned to Darwin with her daughter to live among the Chinese community there. Back in Darwin, she started a mango plantation, and used the profits to educate her daughter Lizzie. As an English educated Chinese woman, Lizzie played an important role as one of Darwin’s early court interpreters in matters involving Chinese background people. In later years, Lee See was also remembered for her generosity towards the aboriginal community in Darwin.

During World War Two, when the town was bombed by Japanese forces in 1942, Lee See evacuated with other townspeople to Katherine. When that too was bombed, the refugees were relocated to Alice Springs, and then Adelaide. After working in Lizzie’s in-laws farming business for several years, the family relocated to Sydney. Lee See would experience personal tragedy again when Lizzie died of complications from the birth of her ninth child. Within a year Lee See and a female friend would set out on the long journey back to Darwin via Adelaide.

After the devastation of the bombing of Darwin, the new town planning commission acquired much of the town’s land and prevented the rebuilding of the Chinatown area. Lee See used some of the compensation money to start another small farm on the edge town, which thrived for over twenty years, until the town was hit hard again, by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. And yet, Lee See Lim rebuilt once again, living on into her nineties, when she died of medical complications from surgery. Her funeral was attended by many Darwinians who remembered her fondly.

The nineteenth century Australian historical archive is at times very quiet on the role that Chinese women and children played in migration to Australia, but figures like Lee See Lim, or Granny Lum Loy, remind us that they were a central part of the social, cultural and economic life of early Chinese Australia, and of the Australian story overall.

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