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The Sun Tong Lee Shop is now part of the Gulgong Pioneers Museum

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Sun Tong Lee Shop, Gulgong

Also know as: Ah Lum's Store
6 Herbert Street, Gulgong

Now forming part of the Gulgong Museum.



In 1851 the geologist named Stutchbury found gold in the neighbourhood of Gulgong. However it was the discovery of a rich gold seam called the Canadian Lead in August 1871 that led to a population explosion.  By December of 1872 the population of Gulgong and district reached  approximately 20,000 [1]. This brought with it commercial dealers of all kinds who set up shop initially in rough slab buildings, typically with a sign written  pine board façades and parapets.

The centre of town was the cross streets of Herbert Street, which led down to the Black Lead gold mine, and Mayne Street. Here a multicultural society of Greeks, Italians, Americans, English, Irish, Bulgarians, Scottish, Australians and Chinese vied for services and stores.

After the Lambing Flat race riots Chinese were generally banned from mining. So they turned instead to the supporting activities of supplying stores and vegetables.

Sun Tong Lee along with other Chinese storekeepers and market gardeners quickly set up business.

On 17th June 1871  it was noted in Issue 18 of the Gulgong Advertiser a local paper that ‘A celestial store keeper is opening an unusually large store next to Langdon’s Emporium in Herbert Street.’  Mr. Lee had bought two lots of land in Herbert Street: Lots 3 and 4 in section 5. Further up Herbert Street N. Langdon owned Lot 3b.

In Issue 22: on July 15 1871 Sun Tong Lee made the following announcement:

 SUN TONG LEE General Store Keeper begs to inform the housekeepers, hotelkeepers,  miners and others, that he has opened a branch of his Sydney store in Herbert Street, with a choice  lots of  ‘choices’.

In  Issue 25, on 5 August 1871 another advertisement  appears disguised as a news item:

Gulgong differs in a business way from any goldfield we have seen opened in this Colony since 1861,  by reason of the enterprise exhibited by the Chinese Traders in competing with the Europeans.  In Herbert Street there are 2 Chinese stores owned respectively by Sun Tong Lee and Co. and On Lee & Co., which in size and stock compares very favorably with the European rivals.  The site of the latter is the largest store under one roof on the goldfield, being 70ft l inch.

 This was followed by other regular adds in the Advertiser including the following on 28 September 1871 describing in more detail the type of merchandise he carried:

Glorious news. Sun Tong Lee, General storekeeper, begs to inform Hoteliers, Miners and others that he has opened a branch of his Sydney store in Herbert Street (Gulgong) , with a choice and well-assorted stock of groceries, drapery, ironmongery, hardware, boots, rope, tin ware, at such low prices as will enable everybody to patronize him and get full value for their money. His goods are all new, and of the best description. Remember – Sun Tong Lee – Herbert Street.’

 On the 10th August Mr. Lee opened another branch store at Home Rule. In the advertisement for this new store Sun Tong promised  Strict attention to the wants of his customers, To merit a share of the business there as has been so liberally afforded  here.’

 Sun Tong Lee continued to use the local newspapers to advertise his business.

Other items in the papers testify to his honesty and general charity towards others. For example two advertisements placed in issues 88 and 89 of the Advertiser state that two purses (in the possession of Sun Tong Lee)  containing money and found during February if not claimed within 14 days will be given to the Treasurer of the Gulgong Hospital. In June 1873 another purse was found, and this time the successful claimant put a notice into the paper to show his gratitude. This read: I wish to advise that I have receive from Sun Tong Lee, the amount of 36 pounds 5 shillings being the amount in the purse he found, which belonged to me.   It is much appreciated for the trouble he went to  Signed G. R. BROWNE, Gulgong

 Further proof of his generosity is seen in an article  entitled ‘a Generous Chinaman [2 . This reads:

A few days ago, during the heavy rain and piercing winds, a poor woman has been  observed   passing  up Herbert Street, with an  infant in her arms and another unfortunate child clinging to her skirt.  Heavens knows where she was straying but her appearance was that of object poverty. A few persons were looking on with pity when a Celestial was observed to hurry from his place of business with a large parcel which he gave to the woman, and at once returned to his store.  The parcel proved to be a pair of superior blankets.  The gift was made in a quiet manner without the slightest ostentation, that it took those who witnessed it by surprise.  The donor was Sun Tong Lee, a Chinese merchant in this town, and this generous action is in the highest degree creditable to his humanity.

Henry Lawson in Christmas in the Goldfields reminisced about those days in Gulgong. He referred to Sun Tong Lee as ‘Santa Claus as a Chinaman with strange and delicious sweets that melted in our mouths and rum toys and Chinese dolls for the children’

 There were other newspaper issues that told of brushes with the law on the gold field:

In  Issue 150, 22nd January 1873 Sun Tong  is named as the bailer for Ah Young, who was charged with passing a gilt sixpence purporting to be half- sovereign to another Chinese man, one Dunn Hoo. Just 3 days later a man R.J. Robinson was charged with obtaining monies under false pretenses including twice from Sun Tong Lee.

In Issue 166  19th March  1873 a ‘lad named Richard Rossiter charged with stealing a pair of boots, value 5/6, from the store of Sun Tong Lee at the Home Rule.  It  appeared that a number of boys entered the store at once to make purchases, one of them ran off with a pair of boots, Sun Ton Lee identified the lad.  During the examination the prisoner wept bitterly.  The lad stated he went to purchase a melon and saw another boy run away with the boots but he did not know him, if he did he would give his name, said he never touched the boots.  Mr. Clarke made an appeal to the Bench, who discharged the boy with a caution.’

Finally in September1875 at the end of 4 years of business Mr. Lee, the manager of the Sun Tong Lee store left Gulgong and returned to Sydney.  The premises became the store of Mr. Ah Lum. The departure was noted with regret by the local paper which stated that ‘since his arrival in Gulgong—now some four or five years ago—he has earned the respect of all classes of the community and we feel sure that many will regret his departure, especially those who have in their time of need received many act of kindness from him.’




Ah Lum’s  grave at Gulgong


Description; . The grave of the son of  Mr and Mrs Ah Lum, Shopkeepers, who it is believed was 8 or 9 year old . The grave site was restored in the 1990s through the efforts of local members of the community with an interest in local history.


A simple half sandstone stele with rounded top and two vertical lines of Chinese character writing. The headstone was broken and fallen, and has been repaired. Included in the repairs was a new fence constructed of simple painted flat steel members, and a plaque at one end reading: ‘Geo Ah Lum’ and …



George Ah Lum was the son of  local storekeepers Mr. And Mrs Ah Lum. They had come to Gulgong in the 1870s and  bought an existing Chinese store in Herbert Street in 1875,the store of Sun Tong Lee.

 Sun Tong Lee along with other Chinese storekeepers had set up business in Gulgong in June 1871.  His store was considered exceptional  for a gold field town and was described in the Gulgong Advertiser , issue 25  as follows:

August 5th, 1871 

‘Gulgong differs in a business way from any goldfield we have seen opened in this Colony since 1861,  by reason of the enterprise exhibited by the Chinese Traders in competing  with the Europeans.  In Herbert Street there are 2 Chinese stores owned respectively by Sun Tong Lee and Co. and On Lee & Co., which in size and stock compares very favorably with their European rivals.  The site of the latter is the largest store under one roof on the goldfield, being 70ft long x 30ft wide.  It has plate glass windows and is neatly fitted inside with counters and shelves.’  Mr. Lee sold this business four years later in September 1875 to Ah Lum.

At this time Ah Lum was already in business in Gulgong. In the Gulgong evening News of 21 November 1874 under the heading ‘Practical Joke ‘ the following was reported: ‘At the Police Court, this morning, a youth named John Bourke was charged with stealing a silver watch chain, value 8/-, from a chinaman named Ah Lum.  It appears that a lad named Welsh and another went into the shop of Ah Lum, to purchase a chain, the accused put the chain in his pocket and refused to pay, left the shop and lost the chain.  Snr. Sgt. Kneepan made a search and the chain was recovered.   In the absence of a second magistrate, the case was remanded.’

Mrs Ah Lum carried on the business until the end of 1903. In the Gulgong Advertiser of May 14 1903 she advertised a clearing sale of products at ‘cost price’ in preparation for leaving the district. 

Mrs Lum only moved as far as Mudgee however and in the Gulgong Advertiser of January 7 1904 it was reported that ‘Mrs Ah Lum is doing a nice little trade at her store in Church Street Mudgee and is quite satisfied with her change from Gulgong.’

Upon the death of their son George Ah Lum  his body was conveyed to the Gulgong cemetery where he was buried.

Two newspaper articles of the period describe the ceremony associated with a Chinese funeral:

The Gulgong Miner  No 9  December 31 1873

Chinese Funeral

‘We witnessed the burial of Ah Ching, The undertaker is supplied with about 3000 slips of paper, on which, is written in Chinese characters, an invitation to any person who may obtain one of them to pay a complimentary visit to the deceased man’s friends in China, should he ever visit the land.  These slips are thrown by the undertaker broadcast along the road to the cemetery.  The clothes, bed and bedding and all other personal effects of the deceased are taken with him in the hearse to the burial ground and there  destroyed or thrown away.  His body is then lowered into the grave, not waiting to see it filled in, as is customary with Europeans. ‘

And The Gulgong Evening Argus report of 6 April  1875 described a Chinese funeral under the heading Feasting the Dead  as follows

‘Yesterday afternoon about 20 or 30 Chinamen proceeded in spring carts to the cemetery.  Besides the living freight, the carts contained one whole roasted pig, weighing about one hundred pounds, hampers of roast beef, boiled eggs, cake and fireworks.  They also had brandy and tea.  After being at considerable trouble in  making  a  mound over one of the Chinese graves and excavating a drain about it, they lighted some wax candles down at the foot of the grave and prostrated themselves as if in prayer.  They then proceeded to partake of the refreshments and at the same time scattered the liquids, as well as the solids, over the grave.  We hear that it is a custom with these peculiar people once a year to pay similar visits to the graves of their departed friends.  There appeared to be a great deal of solemnity in their actions.  At the conclusion, they took the roasted pig and fowls back to their carts, not having partaken of these in the cemetery.  We may also mention that they erected a hardwood slab at the foot of this particular grave with the name in Chinese characters, of the deceased written upon it.  In the course of time it is the custom of this singular race to take up the bones of their friends and forward them to China, from which place alone they suppose there is an entrance into the joys of a future state of existence.’



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[1] Eileen Maxwell The Story of Gulgong p12

[2] Gulgong Evening Argus   July 9 1874