Vale Malcolm Oakes 1949-2023

by Juanita Kwok, President, Our Chinese Past

Photo courtesy Oakes family

Kira Brown, Gill Oxley, Paul Macgregor, Ely Finch and I are devastated at the loss of our dear friend and colleague and Our Chinese Past committee member Malcolm Oakes, who died suddenly and unexpectedly last Monday 20 November.

Malcolm has been a part of the network of Chinese Australian community historians at least since he came to his first Dragon Tails conference at Wollongong in 2013. He attended all the Dragon Tails conferences since then, and also many of the CHINA Inc conferences in north Queensland.

I first became aware of Malcolm after reading his meticulously researched and elegantly written article “William Lee – First Barrister of Chinese descent admitted to the NSW Bar” (Bar News, 2015). Malcolm wrote that article to share with the legal fraternity the story of the life and career of that pioneering Chinese Australian barrister.

Malcolm had no Chinese ancestry himself, but he began researching his wife Bev’s Chinese family history for the sake of their children and developed an abiding interest in it, assisting his sister-in-law Alison Choy Flannigan in researching her 2018 book, Chinese Whispers: In Search of Ivy.

Malcolm brought forensic detail to his research but also passion for his subjects. He was so excited to have serendipitously come across a photo of William Lee and tracked down the photographer to obtain permission to reproduce the photograph in his article.

I met Malcolm at a number of Chinese Australian Historical Society talks and we began a correspondence. As Malcolm went to school in Lismore, we shared an interest in Chinese Australian journalist Vivian Young, who also attended high school in Lismore. I am sorry that I missed the 2017 Dragon Tails conference in Bendigo where Malcolm presented a paper on Otto Kong Sing, who was admitted as a solicitor in New South Wales in 1895, and is the earliest identified person of Chinese descent admitted as a solicitor in any of the former Australian colonies.

Tour of Chinese heritage sites at Tambaroora, for launch of Bew Chip’s Register, April 2022. L to R: Daphne Lowe Kelley, Ely Finch, Malcolm Oakes, Douglas Lam, Vivian Chan. Photo courtesy Juanita Kwok.

In March 2019, I conducted a walking tour of what was once Bathurst’s Chinatown area and Malcolm and Douglas Lam came to Bathurst, staying at my home; Malcolm bringing along a jar of his famous marmalade. In October of that year, Malcolm and I arranged an excursion for members of the Chinese Australian Historical Society to attend the second Fong Lees Lane Festival in Wellington NSW. Malcolm made special folders with information for every person who came along on that very memorable weekend, when we travelled by minibus to Stuart Town, to see old water race workings on the Macquarie River, to visit the Wellington cemetery and meet Tim Sing Lee and see the pig oven his father built in the early 20C.

Malcolm Oakes, centre rear, at a tour led by Juanita Kwok (right of Malcolm), to the Chinese water race at Burrendong, NSW, October 2019. Photo courtesy Juanita Kwok.

Only the next month (what a busy year), Malcolm, Paul Macgregor, Ely Finch and I shared an Airbnb in that other Wellington in New Zealand where we attended Dragon Tails November 2019. Ideas coalesced around forming Our Chinese Past (OCP) together with Kira Brown and Gill Oxley. Thanks to Malcolm’s work, we added an Inc. to our name and became official. We then began our first project, researching the Chinese Temples of Uralla, Tingha and Emmaville. Each of the founding members have an interest in northern NSW – Paul Macgregor and I through our visits to the museums (and my family connection to Gordon Fong of the Sam Lee store), and Gill, Kira and Malcolm through their research on family members who lived in the area. Bev’s ancestor Chin Ah Song was a storekeeper in Tingha at the same time as Kira’s ancestor Chen Quin Jack.

Our Chinese Past inc. came into being at the same time as COVID-19 so our meetings were held online, and in those lonely years we looked forward to seeing each other’s faces on Zoom and loved to hear from Malcolm about his much loved grandchildren. Through those years, Malcolm wrote two posts on our Facebook page. His post introducing himself may still hold the record of our most popular ever. Malcolm also did an excellent post on pig ovens. Malcolm’s writing was entertaining, accessible, detailed and factual.

Though a practicing Senior Counsel, as OCP Secretary, Malcolm took on the task of doing the minutes for our meetings as well as contributing his time, knowledge and energy into investigating any legal issues, most recently securing Charity status for OCP, and was underway with achieving Deductible Gift Recipient status for us with the Australian Taxation Office. Our debt to him is immense. At the same time, Malcolm was also investing considerable energy into the Chinese Australian Historical Society, of which he became Vice President, navigating legal paths for the Society to expand in its ventures.

Launch of Bew Chip’s Register, Hill End, NSW, April 2022. L to R: Darryl Low Choy, Malcolm Oakes, Juanita Kwok, Ely Finch, Kira Brown, Lorraine Purcell. Photo courtesy Juanita Kwok.

In April 2022, Ely, Malcolm, Kira and I were able to catch up in person at the launch of Ely’s translation of Bew Chip’s register. Together with CAHS President Darryl Low Choy, who launched the book, Ely’s wife Vivian Chan and Karen Schamberger, the President of Dragon Tails, we stayed in an Airbnb in the old Post Office in Hill End, revelling in each other’s company after years apart, and sharing much laughter around the dinner table.

Ely and I owe Malcom a debt of gratitude for not only organising for the Chinese Australian Historical Society to be the major sponsor of our book, but for making a personal donation to assist its publication, along with CAHS Secretary Kevin Tang.

Finally, in November 2022, all of the OCP team were able to reunite in person at the Dragon Tails conference in Launceston Tasmania, where we launched the OCP website, https://ourchinesepast.org.au/ It was a wonderful time.

Malcolm with Our Chinese Past founders at launch of the Our Chinese Past website at Dragon Tails conference November 2022 at Launceston, Tasmania. L to R: Juanita Kwok, Gill Oxley, Malcolm Oakes, Paul Macgregor, Ely Finch, Kira Brown. Photo by Karen Schamberger.

Owing to Ely’s remarkable translation skills, Malcolm was able to locate the real surname of Bev’s ancestor Chin Ah Song and his ancestral village. Together with Douglas Lam and Darryl Low Choy, Malcolm travelled this month to China to visit the village, emailing the OCP group to let us know the many volumes of the Cheng family jukpu (lineage books) had been located and the keeper had promised to look for Chin Ah Song. Shortly after his return from China, Malcolm died suddenly and unexpectedly.

Kira, Gill, Paul, Ely and I deeply mourn Malcolm’s passing, but are also aware of the good fortune to have had Malcolm as founding member of Our Chinese Past inc., to have worked with him, and enjoyed the pleasure of his company. Malcolm made a great contribution to the Chinese Australian history community and he will be greatly missed by us and his many friends and colleagues in the community.

  1. Hill End, NSW, April 2022: L to R: Darryl Low Choy, Malcolm Oakes, Kira Brown, Warwick Taylor, Juanita Kwok. Photo courtesy Juanita Kwok.
  2. Fong Lee’s Lane Festival, Oct 2019, Wellington NSW. L to R: Malcolm Oakes, Karen Schamberger, Juanita Kwok, Susan Leong, Kira Brown. Photo courtesy Gill Oxley.
  3. Dragon Tails conference, Wellington NZ, Nov 2019: Malcolm Oakes and Ely Finch.
  4. Dragon Tails conference, Launceston, Tas, Nov 2022: Front left, then clockwise: Marilyn Dooley, Megan Neilson, Susan Leong, Karen Schamberger, Malcolm Oakes, John Shuey, Daphne Lowe Kelley, Man-Yee Leanfore, Douglas Lam, Lee Ann Tam. Photo courtesy Juanita Kwok.
  5. Bew Chip launch, Hill End, NSW, April 2022. L to R: Glenn Mar, Lorraine Purcell, Douglas Lam, Daphne Lowe Kelley, Malcolm Oakes, Kira Brown. Photo courtesy Juanita Kwok.

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