He fought against the White Australia policy and racist laws targeting Chinese workers as Australia’s first barrister of Chinese descent.
Despite these achievements, William Ah Ket’s story is little-known.
William broke social barriers when he signed the bar roll in 1904 — one paper described him as a “full-blooded, clever young Chinese” — and built a reputation as a skilled barrister.
That in itself was an “impressive feat”, says Reynah Tang, the founding president of the Asian-Australian Lawyers’ Association.
“If you think about someone who’s a first-generation Australian … trying to break into a white, Anglo-Saxon dominated legal profession, it would’ve taken a fair bit of work to build up his reputation, get to be known and respected,” he says.
On top of that work, William also had to deal with racism.
His great grand-daughter, Blossom Ah Ket, recalls a family story of a white Australian man taunting the barrister on a train on the way to court.
“[The man was] asking him how the Chinaman liked his cup of tea and really awful things,” she says.
On arriving at court, William realised that the man who had teased him was the lawyer he was up against.
“He famously won the case that day and then went over afterwards and put on a stereotype Chinese accent and said: ‘How you likey my cross-examination?'” Blossom says.
Studying law to overcome discriminatory laws
William was born in 1876, in the north-east Victorian town of Wangaratta — one of eight children.
His father Mah Ket had arrived in Australia in the 1850s, during the gold rush era, and his mother in the 1860s.
His mother, Hing Ung, had bound feet and spoke no English. She was sent to the Beechworth Lunatic Asylum and diagnosed with mania when William was five, and she lived there until she died in 1896.
Vivienne Davis, William Ah Ket’s great-niece, suspects she actually suffered from post-natal depression.
“She never saw her children raised, she never was never able to live in the community like her husband or anything,” Vivienne says.
“I think she suffered very much.”
William’s father, Mah Ket, was one of Australia’s earliest tobacco farmers. He sold opium, among other supplies.
Father and son worked as court interpreters in their spare time.
Historians say Mah Ket encouraged his son to study law to help the Chinese community, which was facing discriminatory laws at the end of the 19th century.
Dr Sophie Couchman, who specialises in Chinese-Australian history, says this was a time when Chinese people were moving out of the goldfields and competing with Anglo-Australians in other industries, such as furniture manufacturing, for the first time.
“There was definitely a fresh wave of discrimination that was being put in place,” she says.
“In the mid-1880s the colonies decided they were no longer going to naturalise Chinese, and then in 1903 that was enshrined in federal legislation.
“William Ah Ket is in his teens at this time and he’s being brought up to be a smart, educated young man, so he would’ve seen all this going on.”
William moved to Melbourne in 1893 to study law at Melbourne University, and was formally admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1904.
“Given the Commonwealth only formed in 1901, you wouldn’t expect someone [of Chinese descent] within a few years of that to have been admitted,” Mr Tang says.
“That’s even before we have female lawyers coming into the profession.”
Ah Ket challenged laws in High Court
William specialised in civil cases, including lawsuits over divorce petitions, wills and contracts.
He was also active in political groups which lobbied on behalf of the Chinese-Australian community against the legal supply of opium, and laws which imposed restrictions on Chinese laundry workers and furniture-makers.
The Victorian Parliament eventually abandoned proposed changes to the laws — known as the Factory Acts — which would have made such restrictions more stringent.
Dr Couchman says the changes William spoke out against were “very invasive”.
“They were about making sure Chinese were on view, they were really pretty abhorrent,” she says.
“And if nobody had stood up, like William Ah Ket, to protest against them then they might’ve passed.”
William also represented Chinese-Australians challenging discriminatory legislation in the High Court.
One case he was involved in successfully challenged the Immigration Restriction Act — better known as the White Australia policy — in 1908.
William’s client, James Minahan, was born in Australia to an Anglo-Australian mother and Chinese father.
He went on to live in China for several years. On returning to Australia, he was threatened with deportation when he failed the dictation test that the law required “prohibited immigrants” to take.
Though the law was not dismantled until the 1970s, Mr Tang says it was a significant case at a time when there were active political attempts to limit Chinese immigration to Australia.
“It’s about a person’s right to identity and the place they were born, so it was pretty important,” he says.
Advice to his daughter on tackling racism
William later married English-Australian typist Gertrude Bullock, courting her for four years before her father would accept him.
The couple had four children — William, Stanley, Melaan and Toylaan.
Toylaan, the youngest daughter, died in 2015 at the age of 94.
In an interview with the National Library of Australia in 1993, she remembered her affluent childhood.
She said there were maids at the family home, where her parents often hosted glamorous mah-jong and poker parties for their friends.
“He played the game of affluence and gambling and carding and living it up,” she recalled.
“But when it came to law, he knew very well what it was like to struggle and be poor and oppressed, so his sympathies were always on the side of the underdog.”
Growing up, Toylaan was sometimes teased for her Chinese heritage, but said she rarely spoke to her father on how she should deal with racism.
One time, boys chased Toylaan and her sister home from Sunday school, throwing stones and calling them “Ching-chong Chinamen”.
Their father said “the boys were teasing her and boys tend to do that”.
But he added: “But do not ever be intimidated or pushed down or give into people who would harass you or tease you and laugh at you. Defend yourself nobly but always in a dignified fashion.”
‘Not afforded the same opportunities’
William died in 1936 at the age of 60, with his wife and children by his bedside.
Toylaan remembered his final words: “Unity is strength.”
In his more-than 30-year career, William was never promoted to the rank of senior barrister or appointed judge.
Mr Tang says it shows that, despite his talents, he suffered from a level of discrimination.
“He probably would’ve seen people that were junior to him progress past him in that career and of course that would’ve been disappointing to see that, and not be afforded the same opportunities as everyone else,” he says.
“That’s why his story’s so important to us.”
Blossom says her great grand-father’s little-known story is still relevant to contemporary Australia.
“Remembering William Ah Ket is about remembering these rights were fought for — they weren’t just given by the benevolent government,” she says.
Even though the laws he fought against no longer exist, she says Australia continues to treat new migrant groups with suspicion.
“Obviously there’s not a White Australia policy as such against Chinese migrants,” she says.
“But we’re living in days of the incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers.
“The borders of Australia have always been closed to people who aren’t white Australians. The marginalised group has shifted but it’s not that distant.”
By Jane Lee for The History Listen