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Wang, Alma Mary (1908–1982)

by Patrick Bourke and Julia T. Martínez

Alma Wang, 1939

Alma Wang, 1939

photo provided by family

Alma Mary Wang née Chong (1908—1982), English secretary to the Chinese government, newspaper editor and teacher, was born in Dubbo, New South Wales in 1908. She was the youngest child of Cantonese storekeeper James Chong (c.1863-1930) of Wing Jang and Co. and Ah Kee. Ah Kee was the daughter of naturalised Chinese storekeeper Googan and she had immigrated from Guangdong to Coonamble as a baby (NAA: SP42/1 C1905/814; SP11/2). 

Mary Wang is an important figure in Chinese Australian history, being the earliest known second-generation Chinese Australian to graduate from an Australian university. As the Dux of Dubbo High School in 1925 her Leaving Certificate results included Honours in Latin and A's in English, Mathematics, History and Chemistry.

She won a scholarship to study at the University of Sydney, and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in 1929 and a Diploma of Education in 1930 (https://alumniarchives.sydney.edu.au/as/). She also studied journalism in the Sydney Law School. 

Immediately upon graduating Mary Wang was offered a prestigious position as the English Secretary for the Consul General of China, Fartsan T. Sung. When interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald (June 20, 1930) she spoke against the White Australia policy and the limits on the entry of Chinese wives, noting that in 1928, there were 13,614 Chinese males and only 185 Chinese females in Australia. In June 1930 she conducted a study of Chinese Australian life in Queensland with Mrs Sung. 

In 1931 Mary Wang travelled to China. Though able to speak Cantonese, she studied Mandarin on the voyage there on the St Albans (SMH, 11 February 1931). In China she worked for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Nanking, and later moved to Beijing. In 1935 Australians could have heard Mary Wang speaking on the radio from the Chinese Central Broadcasting Station. Mary married Dr Sweding Wang (1907-2000) in 1939. Sweding was a lawyer, educated in Belgium in the 1920s, during which time his father, Wang King-ky, was Chinese Minister to Belgium and delegate to the League of Nations. Sweding Wang worked as advisor to the Vice-Mayor of Shanghai. Mary and Sweding Wang had three children. 

In 1947 Mary Wang wrote to her family in Dubbo with news that she had been working for Dr Wellington Koo, the China’s Ambassador to France, Britain, and a League of Nations delegate. During World War II, Mary Wang co-edited the Shanghai English-language newspaper the China Critic. She also joined the underground movement against the Japanese. 

When the Communist Party took control of China in 1949, neither Mary nor Sweding Wang were allowed to practice their professions and Sweding had to hide his dealings with the previous Republican government. Living under the Communist government they had no income, but lived on Mary's savings, which she had sent to her uncle Peter Googan (Dixon Street, Sydney), for safe keeping in the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and China were re-established in 1954. In 1956 Mary was able to claim her Australian citizenship and she applied to bring her Chinese-born family to Australia. She was one of a number who gained an exemption from the restrictions of the White Australia policy. In 1957 the family arrived in Australia, with airfares paid for by her mother Ah Kee. 

On returning to Australia Mary Wang visited Dubbo High School, meeting with Harry Treverrow, the 1925 boys' Dux and now a teacher at the school. She wrote in the school's “Bindyite” magazine about her optimism about Australia, pleased that Australia was welcoming new migrants, had a growing appreciation for other cultures, and through the Columbo Plan was training students from Asia. Back in Sydney, Mary worked her way up from being a typist, using a dictaphone, at Reader’s Digest, to become the secretary to the General Manager.  She worked as a school teacher at Kingsgrove High School and for the NSW Education Department Blackfriars Correspondence School. She wrote teaching materials in English, French, Latin and Spanish for outback students. While teaching she also undertook postgraduate studies in psychology. 

Mary Wang died in 1982 and was buried in Woronora Memorial Park, Sutherland Shire. She was survived by her husband Sweding and her three children. June was an industrial chemist for Soul Pattinson Chemists, Ken was General Manager of Operation & Revenue for Cathay Pacific Airlines, Hong Kong, and Patsy was a community pharmacist in Sydney. 

Select Bibliography 

  • ‘An Oriental Maid: Appeal to Women of Queensland’, Brisbane Courier, June 14, 1930, p. 24, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21537466
  • Bell, Pam (ed.) Milestones and Memories, Celebrating the past 100 years of Public Secondary Education in Dubbo, 1917-2017 (Dubbo: Bindyi Club Inc, 2017).
  • Bindyite, 1957, 'Messages from Ex-Students'.
  • ‘Chinese: Want to Bring Wives Out’, Sydney Morning Herald, June 20, 1930, p. 14, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16669402.
  • Craft, Stephen G. K. Wellington Koo and the Emergence of Modern China (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), pp. 28, 105
  • 'Examination', Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1926, p.8, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16260671
  • ‘Dubbo Schoolgirl Doing Good Work’, Dubbo Liberal, 6 February 1931, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article132218547.
  • ‘Dubbo High School Ex-Student’s Career’, Dubbo Liberal, December 11, 1947, p. 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article132615778.
  • ‘Historic Schools’, Dubbo Liberal, October 13, 1934 p. 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131587414; ‘Over the Teacups’, Dubbo Liberal, August 8, 1935, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131288138
  • National Archives of Australia. ‘Mrs Chong and Thomas Goo Gun’ (Collector of Customs, Sydney, 1905), NAA: SP42/1 C1905/814; ‘Ah Kee Chong [Chinese – arrived Sydney, c. 1888. Box 19]’, NAA: SP11/2, Chinese/Chong Ah Kee.
  • Martínez, J.T. ‘Mary Chong and Gwen Fong: University-Educated Chinese Australian Women’, in K. Bagnall, & J.T. Martínez (eds.) 2021. Locating Chinese women: Historical mobility between China and Australia, Hong Kong University Press, ch. 9, 204-229.
  • New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Birth registration of Alma Mary Chong, 24134/1908, Dubbo, 1908; Death registration of Alma Mary Wang, 23121/1982, Sydney, 1982.
  • ‘Wang, Alma Mary’, 1958, and ‘Wang, Alma Mary’ and ‘Wang, Sweding’, 1963, Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903–1980, in Ancestry.com [online database] (Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007).
  • ‘Town and Country’, Cairns Post, June 3, 1930, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article41070538.
  • University of Sydney Archives, Alumni Sidneienses, https://alumniarchives.sydney.edu.au/as/
  • Wang, Patsy, Material for eulogy for Mary Wang in 1982.
  • Who's Who in China, 1936, 'Wang King-ky', p. 245.
  • Women’s College Archives, University of Sydney, Register of Students 1892–1939, pp. 84 and 537.

Citation details

Patrick Bourke and Julia T. Martínez, 'Wang, Alma Mary (1908–1982)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/wang-alma-mary-32108/text39674, accessed 20 October 2021.

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