Chinese Anzacs Documentary

Running time
16 mins 15 secs
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This short documentary includes interviews and family perspectives from some of the descendants of Chinese Anzacs. The film is designed to accompany the Department of Veterans’ Affairs publication, Chinese Anzacs, which sheds light on the individual experiences and challenges of being a soldier of Chinese ancestry.

Between 1914 and 1916, 416,812 Australians enlisted to fight in the First World War. To date, 213 of them have been identified as Chinese Australians.

If Australia is good enough to live in, it is good enough to fight for. I hope to live in it again after the war.

[Benjamin Moy Ling, Chinese Anzac]


Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Produced by the History Teachers' Association of Victoria. Directed by Jo Clyne and Gregory McCann. Thank you to Richard Smith, Dr Rosalie Triolo, Ingrid Purnell, Tim Whitford, Christopher Shai-Hee, Serena Cheung and to staff at the Chinese Museum and Culture Victoria for their generous contributions to the research and development of this project.


Morag Loh, historian: The late 19th and early 20th century was a difficult time for Chinese Australians. Racism was endemic in Australia. There were laws affecting Chinese – non-Europeans – that pertain to almost every aspect of life. And of course, in the early 20th century, you could not become a member of the armed forces. The general attitude was one where you had to fight for acceptance. You know, the White Australia Policy was really starting to work. You couldn't be naturalised. You couldn't bring your wife and children here. And so there was no point, in a sense, if you were a young man, in being Chinese in a country town. And so, if you wanted to get on in life, you had to be Australian.

Yvonne Horsfield, grand-niece of Samuel Tong Way: Hedley Tong-Way was my grandfather, and Samuel Tong-Way was his older brother, both of whom were Chinese Anzacs. Samuel worked very, very hard to gain acceptance, and he really, to some extent, turned his back on his own cultural heritage. He never learned to speak Chinese, and he was encouraged, of course, by the parents, to speak English well.

Kevin Hughes, grand-nephew of Thomas Hughes: My great-grandfather was Chinese. James Huey married Annie Evans in 1871. They had 11 children, and 3 of those children enlisted in the First World War. Up until 13 years ago, we didn't know anything about the Chinese link. We thought we had a Welsh link with the name Hughes. We've lots of photos of Welsh Hughes things, when we visited Wales, which have now all been destroyed, of course, because we're not Welsh. What happened in – just after 1900 – when the eldest son married was the first time that the name Hughes appeared on any formal certificates or information. And appeared that at about that time, a number of the children started to use the name Hughes. So they're all born a Huey, and some of them died a Hughes.

Janis Wombwell, niece of Sydney Hustwaite: I didn't know that I had Chinese ancestry, even though it probably should have been apparent to me by looking at my dad. I didn't know my grandmother, but nobody ever talked about it. So you know, it was a big surprise to me.

Ron Poon, son of Hunter Poon: My father was a high school teacher in Toowoomba. He taught Latin, geometry and algebra, and was very well known in Toowoomba. Everyone seemed to know him. He didn't seem to acknowledge his Chinese ancestry very much. But as he grew up, his father said to him, I won't teach you my language. You're in Australia; learn English. So, he was virtually fully Australian.

Janis Wombwell: Uncle Dick, now known as Sydney John Hustwaite, he was an Anzac in the First World War – Chinese Anzac – and he enlisted in Ballarat in 1915. And yeah, he went over, over to, I think it was Egypt, where they were, and then later went to, into France. And I think about 1919, eventually came back to Ballarat. And I just remember him, you know, when I was a small child, as being badly injured. So we do have a World War I hat badge, which was over in the house where Uncle would have lived. We've only just dug it out recently, and you know, realised how significant it was.

Yvonne Horsfield: Samuel was a very early student to go to Ballarat High School, and he was successful in gaining a place at teachers’ college in Melbourne. The first Chinese student to ever do so.

Morag Loh: Samuel Tong-Way tried very hard to participate in World War I as an Australian serviceman, but the discrimination against Chinese serving the armed forces started before World War I in 1909 when there was compulsory military training for all males in Australia between the ages of 12 and 26. Now, Sam was in the second year of schooling at Ballarat High School when he was taken aside and told that he was not needed. He was quite upset, but in his understated way, he said, ‘I was the only one who wasn't in it.’ And he was determined, therefore, that he was going to be in it.

Yvonne Horsfield: I know that both Samuel and Hedley were extremely keen to be accepted, and they were knocked back twice, rejected, and it was only the third time when it was near the end of the war, and I think they were desperate at that stage for more to enlist, and their Chinese appearance worked against them initially, and that made them feel very upset, because, you see, they were born in Australia. They were Australians.

Morag Loh: Sam, first of all, had to explain his stand to his parents, who were not happy that he was going overseas to fight, and his father was partly – as a Christian minister – was a pacifist – did not believe in war – and Sam felt that they really didn't feel that Australia was home.

Ron Poon: He never talked to me about the war very much, but people would come, and he'd talk to them, and I'd listen, seeing I was a youngster and very curious, but he was probably like all the other young people at the time. They wanted to do their bit for Australia. Seeing as he was born here. So he went to France. There was some prejudice against him. He was walking down the street one day, and there was a drunk soldier who said, ‘What are you doing here? You Chinaman?’ And he went over and confronted him and said to him, ‘What do you have to say to me?’ And the soldier just backed down. A couple of other Australians were quite happy with that.

Kevin Hughes: Thomas Albert Hughes, on his enlistment, was quoted as the standard features: he was tall, he wasn't as dark as his other brothers, and he had, on one of his arms, tattooed ‘Advance Australia’.

Yvonne Horsfield: They were sappers. They were doing the digging of the tunnels, and I think it was very arduous work. And I think a lot of those wartime experiences weren't talked about because it was something that they didn't like to reflect on.

Ron Poon: He was injured in France. The area was being shelled, and they all ran for a shelter. It was a pretty big shelter, but it was chock-a-block, and he and another chap were in the entrance, and the shrapnel hit him in the back and the hand, and the other chap was dead.

Janis Wombwell: Yeah, after fighting for a number of years, he was eventually wounded in the right leg by the machine-gun fire, and he was taken prisoner of war in Germany, and then later repatriated and taken to the UK to recover and eventually arriving back home. Eventually he died, I think, from his injuries.

Kevin Hughes: Probably for 4 months during 1916, which was at the time of the Battle of the Somme, where Australia suffered significant losses in battles there, particularly at Fromelles in July 1916. And he wrote quite a lot of postcards from France and also from England, sending them back to his 2 sisters. And while he was in France, he experienced, obviously, some of some of the direct effect of the war, and some of these actually appeared in some of the postcards where the words that he's used, he's talked about the killing, and the smells and the stench. And I'm surprised in some ways that some of that information was just written on postcards and sent back. So that, some of them are quite emotional, and particularly when you put the groups of cards together to try and put th story together, which is what I'm gradually trying to do.

Yvonne Horsfield: They were both very proud that they had fought in the war, and they were very proud of the fact that they had a tree planted, and they both had their photograph taken by the tree, and well, I think that that in itself makes its own statement.

Kevin Hughes: All the brothers obviously suffered from health issues from going to war.

Ron Poon: After the war, there was an instance of shell shock. He was teaching with – he's writing on the board – when the headmaster came in, and all the students stood up and knocked over some chairs, and he had a bout of shell shock

Kevin Hughes: After the war, well, he certainly had an interest in either doing his duty, I suppose, and then he became a police constable and spent the next – the rest of his life – as a policeman in New South Wales.

Ron Poon: We used to look at his hand, and it was a big hole in the back of it, and used to ask him about that. So he had to learn how to write left-handed.

Morag Loh: The interesting thing about Sam was that he decided very young that he was going to be Australian and he was going to assimilate, and he left behind, I think, a great deal of his Chinese background.

Yvonne Horsfield: Samuel was very, very proud of the fact that he was a member of the Australian Natives’ Association, and and I remember, even as an old man, when I went to visit him at Bendigo, he proudly took out the certificate and gave me a copy of his membership, and he saw that as one of the significant achievements in his life.

Morag Loh: So it says something about Sam that the Australian Natives’ Association were so supportive of him and so appreciative of his efforts.

Ron Poon: Oh, the biggest team was formed by Dad talking to other ex-soldiers in Toowoomba, and he managed to get about 12 players, and they'd always turn up. Doesn't matter if they were sick or injured, but they'd turn up.

Kevin Hughes: Finding out about my Chinese ancestry was certainly an interesting exercise because we had talked to my father about the family history over a number of years, and he was never interested in talking about the family history, and said it was a waste of time and you might have better things to do, and there's a good chance that he possibly did know some of the Chinese history, but refused to accept that situation, where other parts of the family have embraced it with being that this is really something great. One of my sons, when he found out that there was a Chinese link and Chinese Anzacs, his initial answer was, ‘That's terrific. Is that another country I can go to without a visa?’

Ron Poon: Well, my Chinese ancestry is quite interesting. It has affected my life early on. When we went to school, all the children had chide us a bit about ‘ching, chong, Chinaman’, but after a couple of days, it all vanished, and I was one of the boys. Yeah, I think the same thing happened to Hunter right through his life. When he'd go to school, he'd have the same problems. Then he'd go to grammar school, and had the same problems there. In the army, no doubt, he had it, but he seemed to be just part of the team. And he said, ‘Well, two sides of the coin. I was Chinese and born in Australia, so it's both sides of the coin.’

Charles Zhang, Vice President, Chinese Australian Cultural Society, Ballarat: The Chinese – they came to Australia as foreigners. They're looking for God, they're looking for their future, and the one who they stayed, they took on this country as their own country, and so they enlist and into the army. And this is a great contribution because at that time, everybody knows, if you enlist into an army, you wouldn't, you probably wouldn't be able to come back to the – to your home. So, to me, and this is a – it's a great turning point from becoming a foreigner, coming into this country, looking for a future. They actually become a part of this country.


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