Personal journeys and public scrutiny

The public and official discussions of Agnes’s experiences in China are typical of those about other non-Chinese wives of Chinese men in China. Missionaries, journalists, charitable bodies and governments focused on the unhappy, the unfortunate and the outright unsuccessful aspects of their journeys and their relationships.[51] They told moralistic tales of marital unhappiness, ill treatment, bigamy, ill health and maladjustment, underscored by a belief that a non-Chinese woman could never be truly happy as the wife of a Chinese man, particularly in China. Most of these discussions are one-sided or very brief and matter-of-fact, which makes the case of Agnes Breuer and William Lum Mow unusual in the comparative richness of source material about the circumstances of their separation. In the surviving documents, letters, photos and press clippings, the tensions between public discourse and private sentiment are evident.

Agnes chose to speak publicly about her experiences in an attempt to counter what the press were saying about her and her family. How far this was her own idea, or that of others, remains unknown. William urged Agnes, in a telegram from China, to tell the truth about what had happened, and to contact William Liu for help.[52] Liu was a businessman and social activist who devoted much of his time to improving the lot of Chinese people in Australia and to promoting greater understanding between Chinese and white Australians.[53] He was on amicable terms with government officials and was their frequent correspondent; he had acted on behalf of the Lum Mow family before, writing formal and personal letters to F. J. Quinlan, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, about their situation.[54] Liu had visited William and Norman Lum Mow in November 1931 in Townsville, as he travelled north from Sydney to China; he knew the Lum Mow family through his business connections with the Mar family of Wing Sang & Company in Sydney.

Liu attempted unsuccessfully to use his official connections to help Agnes and William. He wrote to the Department of the Interior in November 1932 giving some clarification of the circumstances of the case, and raising the issue of William Lum’s return to Australia.[55] Sleeman’s White China also stands as evidence that Liu took steps to clear the name of the Lum Mow family. Sleeman and Liu were friends, and much of White China was based on conversations they had about the situation in China and its importance for Australia. It is most likely that it was through Liu that Sleeman obtained a copy of Agnes’s statement and heard details of the events. White China was widely read and praised by the Australian Chinese community, as well as the wider white community.[56] Although it did not mention the family by name, White China’s Chinese Australian audience would have known who the family involved was.

The telegram from William that prompted Agnes to contact Liu came several weeks after she had left him in China. It is one of a handful of their personal letters that remain. Government officials, missionaries and the press dismissed the genuineness of Agnes’s feelings and desires, yet the personal correspondence between Agnes and her family while she was overseas and the communication between Agnes and William themselves in the time after their separation suggested a different scenario, in which their relationship was inhabited by love and a desire to be together as a family with their baby son. They also reveal a defensiveness in Agnes against what was said publicly about her treatment in China and a continuing bitterness against her husband’s family with whom she continued to interact in Townsville. In her letter to the Minister for Home Affairs in December 1932, Agnes wrote that her father-in-law had ‘instructed his sons at Townsville to be very rude to me, and to ridicule me as much as they possibly can’.[57] Stories of the events passed down in the Breuer and Lum Mow families suggest the strong emotions were felt on both sides.

[51] It is typical and indeed not altogether surprising that unhappy or unfortunate cases appear most commonly in the sources. See, for example, Overland China Mail [Hong Kong], 12 February 1898; Hong Kong Telegraph, 18 January 1898; Hong Kong Benevolent Society 1904, Report for 1903, Hong Kong (also reports for 1904–06); Edward S. Little, Australian Trade Commissioner in China, to the Prime Minister, 29 March 1923, NAA, A1, 1924/31745.

[52] The telegram reads: ‘Correct newspapers Exaggerations save our name. Consult Wm Liu Sydney, Quong Chong, So Gun, Norman. I will return Townsville soon. Money follows.’ Telegram from William Lum Mow (Hong Kong) to Agnes Breuer (Townsville), 18 October 1932, Agnes Breuer Papers.

[53] William Liu’s papers are held by the Mitchell Library, Sydney, as ML MSS 6294. Details of his life and career can be found in, among others, Fitzgerald, Big White Lie; Liu, William 1979, ‘Australia’s Chinese connection’, 125th Anniversary of the Battle of the Eureka Stockade: 5th Annual Lalor Address on Community Relations, Commissioner for Community Relations, Canberra; Liu, William 1978, Conversation with William Liu [sound recording], 17 February 1978, Hazel de Berg Collection, National Library of Australia; Sleeman, White China; Walker, David and Ingleson, John 1989, ‘The impact of Asia’, in Neville Meaney (ed.), Under New Heavens: Cultural transmission and the making of Australia, Heinemann Educational Australia, Port Melbourne; Wang Gungwu 1992, ‘The life of William Liu: Australian and Chinese perspectives’, Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards; Yong, C. F. 1977, The New Gold Mountain: The Chinese in Australia 1901–1921, Raphael Arts Pty Ltd, Richmond, South Australia.

[54] See, for example, two letters (one formal, one personal) from William Liu to F. J. Quinlan, Department of Home Affairs, 26 November 1931, NAA, A433, 1942/2/3297.

[55] Memorandum, 11 November 1932, NAA, A433, 1942/2/3297.

[56] See Society of Chinese Residents in Australia c. 1934, Relating to Chinese–Australian Trading Relationships and the International Question: An appreciation addresses to J. H. C. Sleeman, Esq., Sydney, Australia, Author of White China, Sydney, Alert Printing & Publishing.

[57] Agnes Lum Mow to Secretary, Department of Home Affairs, 23 December 1932, NAA, A433, 1942/2/3297.