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Uncovering the remarkable Way Lee

Way LeeDecades after the start of the Australian gold rush and some time before the infamous Boxer Rebellion, Yett Soo War Way Lee, the 22-year old son of a Chinese rice miller, arrived in Australia.

Against a backdrop of rising racism towards the Chinese, Way Lee (pictured), was to make an important impact on the budding Adelaide business scene, introducing the State to the notion of international trade with China and the benefits of multicultural engagement.

This year UniSA celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the death of Way Lee and took the opportunity to launch an important publication, Way Lee - 100 Years On, which documents his life and his contribution to business development in South Australia.

Published by UniSA’s Professor Roger Burritt, Dylan Walker and Amanda Carter, the idea for the monograph came from a simple question – who was Way Lee, the namesake of a UniSA building?

Professor Burritt, Director of the Centre for Accounting, Governance and Sustainability at UniSA, says when he asked the question very few people could give an answer beyond the most basic details.

Prof Burritt said he wouldn’t be surprised if many South Australians were completely unaware of the impact of Way Lee on both the business and community life of early Adelaide. He said that his story is rich with intrigue, success, endeavour, politics, prejudice and triumph.

"Way Lee was a migrant who adapted quickly to his environment," he says.

"He came to this country with very little and started up a small importing business Way Lee and Co, based originally in Hindley Street, selling tea, china and other goods, and then branching out to Currie Street, Quorn, Hawker and Millicent, and in NSW in Broken Hill, Beltana, Wilcannia, Wentworth and Menindie, and Daly River in the Northern Territory.

"He studied English at the Adelaide City Mission, married a local woman, expanded his business and his influence and maintained positive trade relations with China. Before long he was contributing to the wider community – supporting new jobs, public events and charities and pioneering and financing public celebrations such as the first Chinese New Year celebrations of 1886 for SA members of Parliament and their guests."

Prof Burritt says Way Lee’s story is iconic.

"The migrant experience is a deep and constant thread in the fabric of South Australia," he says.

"Just as his entrepreneurial approach and his determination to fit in and contribute to his new community are a hallmark of the migrant experience, so are some of the darker elements.

"Way Lee had to struggle to overcome prejudice and fought-off two false criminal accusations, mounted by anti-Chinese political forces.

"At the end of his life though, his persistence, his advocacy for fair acceptance and his commitment to his new home, to charity and community engagement, found him widely respected and honoured."

Way Lee fathered four children with his Australian wife Annie McDonald and many of their descendents, including his great-granddaughter, Patricia Monaghan-Jamieson attended the centenary event at UniSA.

The publication of the monograph and the anniversary celebrations were supported through the generosity of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce South Australia Inc, the South Australian Government’s Department of Trade and Economic Development, Tee Lee Travel, and PNG Consultancy and Associates.

Copies of Way Lee’s monograph can be ordered by emailing Joanne Tingey.