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Australia’s First Tea Rooms

Today we are seeing the re-emergence of fashionable tea rooms and tea houses across the world. The new found interest in meeting with friends for high tea events, has become a regular occurrence for many. I visited this subject in an 18ThirtyFour blog back in July 2014 – High Tea – It’s Just A Little Bit Posh! The bandwagon for high teas is truly loaded up, with just about every café, hotel and tea rooms offering high teas. What we are presented with can be from glorious and spectacular to downright ugly and disappointing. Unfortunately, many of the hospitality professionals managing these establishments opt for convenience and not quality, they forget they are in hospitality and not regular customer service. Though as always in life the cream will rise to the top, and excellence in the service of high teas will shine out – crème de la crème. We just have to find them!

One man who understood the principles of hospitality and business, and combining both to raise the level of expectation, was the man who is believed to have opened Australia’s first tearooms. Mie Quong Tart was his name and he opened his tea rooms at 137 King Street, Sydney. But who was the man that brought a touch of luxury in the form of these tea rooms, to this still newly forming city?

Born in Hsinning, Canton Province, China, and the son of a dealer in ornamental wares. At age nine, Quong after much requesting to his parents, was allowed to travel with his uncle – the leader of a group of coolies who are bound for the goldfields of Braidwood, NSW, Australia. He lived for a short while at Bell’s Creek with the store keeper Thomas Forsyth but soon joined the Simpson family, Robert and Alice. It was Alice who introduced him to the English language and Christianity, and encouraged him to acquire shares in gold claims. The Simpsons later moved to Sydney whilst Quong stayed in Braidwood and built himself a cottage at Bell’s Creek. With his fortune on the rise, Quong built himself a name, as a prominent figure in sporting, cultural and religious affairs. In 1871 on July 11th, Quong became a naturalised Australian, and by 1877 he was appointed to the board of the local public school at Bell’s Creek, he became a member of the Freemasons and joined a lodge of Oddfellows.

Quong’s success in creating himself a fortune from the goldfields, allowed him to spread his wings again with a move to Sydney in the 1880’s. His aspirations for Sydney was to set up in trading of tea and silks, popular items in this new and growing city. In 1881, he decided to return to China to seek opportunities of securing quality products and trade agreements. Before his departure Quong acquired letters of recommendation from the highest of Sydney’s society, including the Premier Sir Henry Parkes.

His visit to China was a great success. Armed with his newly created status and the accompanying letters of recommendation, they helped him to secure the trade agreements he wanted. While in China, Quong took the opportunity to return home and visit with his mother. Unfortunately by this time his father had passed away and never got to know the success his son had achieved.

Returning to Sydney, Quong opened his first tea and silk business, selling dry Chinese tea leaves and promoting it byoffering free tastings. On the 30th August 1886, Quong married another migrant to Australia, Englishwomen Miss Margaret Scarlett of Liverpool, England. Quong and Margaret were very happy in married life and had six children (two boys and four girls). Within a year of his marriage, Quong returned to a subject he felt strongly about, the abolition of opium. He was to publish pamphlets and petition parliament on the subject. In the same year 1887 anti-Chinese sentiment created disputes in NSW, and Quong found himself acting as an interpreter over many of the grievances. Quong was later recognised by the Chinese Emperor, who appointed him as a mandarin and once again he returned home to China.

His tea businesses in Sydney were a great success. Quong realised it would be far more beneficial to open a shop, where he could sell the dry leaf tea, and which would allow customers to sit and drink his tea. His desire to replicate the English style tea rooms in Sydney, started a search for suitable premises. He acquired and developed what is believed to be Australia’s first true tea rooms at 137 King Street, Sydney in 1889. The Sydney public, had seen nothing like this, with its princely splendour, areas for entertainment and private reading & writing rooms for ladies.

His staff of mainly European dissent, were trained and expected to treat all visitors as equally. This created customer patronage from all levels of Sydney society. Quong would throw large functions at which he would invite all of Sydney’s upper social class, large numbers of clergymen and influential gentlemen. These functions were occasions for Quong to promote his aspirational and philanthropic endeavours to help improve the lives of the poor. His employees benefited from Quong’s enlightened work policies, sick leave with pay, and even time off for shopping. The King Street tearooms and restaurant were to be followed by more of his establishments. Then in 1898, came the opening of his tearooms in the Queen Victoria Markets (known today as QVB), followed by the opening of “Elite” dining hall and tea rooms on upper floors, in the same building. These were to become Sydney’s most prestigious dining venues and Australia’s largest tearooms.

Quong went on to become one of Sydney’s, if not Australia’s, greatest philanthropist. A Chinese migrant respected by all levels of NSW social, political and religious communities, for his stance on opium, equality, entrepreneurial and business skills, and his strong convictions for the Anglican church. Unfortunately he left us far too soon at age 53, on the 26th July 1903. A savage attack by an intruder into his offices at the Queen Victoria Markets in August of 1902, left Quong mortally injured, he died at his home, Gallop House in Ashfield.

Let’s not forget this man of simple beginnings, who dreamed of making a difference to people’s lives. Especially those who were less fortunate than himself, the poor, the mentally ill, the ridiculed and so many others. Power and wealth is not what makes the man, it’s what he does with his power and wealth, which makes him.

Today Quong’s tearooms at 137 King Street, have been demolished, and the address has been merged into the office block known as 135 On King. This modern building offers us no reflection of the history or the achievement of Quong and his tearooms at 137, but members of the Sydney community and his family members, regularly reflect on the life and achievements of this incredible individual.

Mei Quong Tart 1850 – 1903.

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