Nancy and William Lee at their home in North Parramatta

The family history of William Lee

Today, William Lee and his wife Nancy live in Parramatta. The following account of his life and of his family history is based on an interview with Nancy and William Lee conducted at their house in Parramatta, Sydney, in 2017,  and of years of detailed research carried out by Nancy Lee.

William Lee (李惠林)was born in Sydney in 1934, the son of Wah Hook Lee (1911 -1972) and Doris Gay (1915-2013). Doris was the daughter of an Australian Chinese family; her father, George Louis Gay (1870-1946), whose original family name was Louie, was born in Du Tou village in Zhongshan and left there for Australia in 1890. In the first decade of the 20th century he managed a banana plantation in Fiji for the Wing On company (based in Sydney’s Haymarket). On his return to Australia, and after marrying Ada Hong, he leased land at Rose Bay, on Sydney Harbour, to establish a market garden (they lived in Kent Street, Rose Bay). Louie Gay had a stall at the Haymarket produce markets. William’s mother, Doris, was born at Rose Bay. When the local council resumed this land in the 1920s for a golf course he bought 25 acres of land for a market garden at Guildford, 25 kilometres inland in Western Sydney.

William Lee's mother and her siblings in their market garden in Guildford

On his father’s side, William’s grandfather, Chee Win Lee (1880-1951), came to Australia in the late 19th century and established a grocery business in Sydney. His ancestral village was Xin Cun (Cantonese 'Sun Chun' or New Village), which was located just south of Shekki, The county town of Zhongshan. The village has now been absorbed into the urban area of Zhongshan City which has expanded greatly since the 1980s, spreading out from its core, Shekki. Chee Win left the village to live in Shekki some time before he migrated to Australia. In Sydney, Chee Win Lee opened a grocery shop at 82 Harbour Street, Haymarket, in a building that remains there today. In the 1940s was living at 39 Waterloo Street in Surry Hills.

He and his wife See Ying Wong were married in Zhongshan during a lengthy return visit Chee Win made there from Sydney. He was 30 at the time.  See Ying stayed behind in Shekki when he returned to Sydney (their son, Wah Hook was born in Zhongshan in 1911). On this visit (or a subsequent visit), Chee Win bought a shop at 86 Yuelai Road, one of Shekki's main streets and built a house nearby at 46 Meiji Street, both of which are still standing and owned by his descendants in Sydney. See Ying lived in this house while Chee Win was in Sydney. When the Japanese invaded Guangdong in 1938, Chee Win went back to Zhongshan and bought his wife and daughter back to the safety of Australia. The shop and house in Shekki was left in the care of needy kinsmen.

William ’s father, Wah Hook Lee went to school in Shekki. He came to Australia in 1923 to help in his father’s grocery shop in the Haymarket but in about 1923 he was sent to school in Honolulu, Hawaii where he stayed with relatives. He returned to live in Sydney in 1931 at which time he married Doris Gay at Christ Church St Laurence church in George Street, near Sydney's Central Station. After their marriage they travelled to China to live in Shekki, Zhongshan, for a year, staying at Wah Hook’s father’s house at 46 Mei Ji Street, Shekki. Doris was impressed by the carved wooden furniture and screens in the house. While away in Australia, both William’s grandfather and father sent money back to Shekki to help family members there. 

Wah Hook Lee and Doris Gay got married in early 1930s in Sydney

When they returned to Sydney, Wah Hook and Doris lived in the market garden at Guildford where three of their children were born. The garden was run by Doris’ brother, Bill Gay, who kept it in production till the 1950s. William remembers spending time there as a boy.  Wah Hook and Doris had earlier moved from Guildford to a small terrace house in Little Riley Street, Surry Hills, within walking distance of the Haymarket (Sydney’s Chinatown) and the family grocery shop in Harbour Street, named Yet Shing & Co. The shop sold both Australian and Chinese goods, and the customers were mainly Chinese market gardeners who brought their produce to the fruit and vegetable markets opposite the shop (the markets were demolished in 1979 for the construction of the Sydney Entertainment Centre). One side of the shop was a Chinese potato merchant, the other was a Chinese butcher. Wah Hook, like his father, regularly sent money back to Zhongshan to support relatives and maintain the house in Shekki.

The terrace house in Little Riley Street became too crowded when Chee Win Lee with his wife and daughter moved in with them so they all moved to a house in 82 Quarry St, Ultimo, where William enrolled at Ultimo Primary School. His parents sent him on weekends to the Presbyterian Church in Crown Street, Surry Hills, to learn Chinese but he recalls that he often used to go to the movies in George Street instead. William contracted diphtheria as a boy and was a patient at the the Coast Hospital in 1942–he remembers how the patients had to practise hiding under their beds in case the Japanese shelled the hospital. He worked in the family shop when he was a schoolboy, along with his sister, Joyce. 

William and his mother Doris at their family grocery store in Chinatown

William attended the renowned Fort Street High School in Petersham between 1947 and 1954 and then studied medicine at the University of Sydney. It was there in 1956 that he met Nancy Logan who was studying for a teaching degree. They married in 1959 and have four children, Wendy, William, Roger and Geoffrey. They lived in Concord for a time before buying land at Castle Hill, on the north edge of Sydney, in 1965, on which they built their family home. William and Nancy moved to a new townhouse in North Parramatta in 2014.

William and his classmates at Fort Street High Street 

In the late 1980s William and Nancy visited Zhongshan, the first time either of them had seen William’s ancestral homeland in China. Vising the Xin Cun village, they discovered that William's ancestral house was gone, bombed by the Japanese during the war but the shop and house in the old centre of Shekki were still there. During the Mao era the house had been divided up and the Lee family now only has title only to one portion of it.  The site of the house in Xin Cun was resumed by the government for the building of a highway. William and Nancy’s son, Geoffrey (a Minister of the NSW Government since 2019 and Liberal Paty Member for Parramatta since 2011) has also visited these ancestral sites during a number of trips he has made to Zhongshan. 

William Lee's ancestral home in Shekki in the 1980s

William's ancestral home in Shekki (circa 1980)

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