At the turn of the 20th century, women made up less than 2% of the Chinese population in Australia and not a great deal is known about them. I’d like to tell you about one remarkable Australian Chinese woman – Mary Yeung – a Pentecostal missionary who defied culture and religious traditions to make an extraordinary impact in Australia and beyond. If you would like to know more about this story, please see my articles in the Journal Pentecostal Studies, 16, 2 (August 2013).
Born in Wahgunyah, Victoria, in 1888, Mary was the eldest of six children of James Chen Ah Kew and Lum Kou Gum. The family operated a local convenience store and land clearing business. However, in 1901, when the ‘White Australia’ policy was introduced, the family moved back to the Chen native village of Huangchun, Guangdong. According to tradition, 13-year-old Mary was forced to have her feet bound and kept in embroidered, high-heeled shoes. This caused ongoing pain for the rest of her life. At the age of 16, Mary was matched with a wealthy Canadian Chinese she’d never met.
When Mary’s husband died in 1917, Mary moved back to Australia with her daughter, Yip Dee and her son Robert. The family converted to Christianity through English classes at the Church of Christ in Carlton. Less than 100 Chinese women lived in Melbourne at that time. Again, following Chinese custom, in 1918, Mary’s brothers arranged for her to marry Andrew Wong Yen, who was a Christian fruit merchant. Together they ran a local fruit shop and had six more children – James, Ida, Dorothy, Vena, David and Esther.
A radical turning point came when Mary adopted a Pentecostal spirituality. This movement centred on the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ as a post-conversion manifestation of ‘gifts of the Spirit’, including speaking in tongues, healing, prophesy and miracles. Mary describes her experience:
In the year 1923 a revival came to Australia, my husband and I both received the wonderful baptism of the Holy Ghost, according to Act 2:4…I was caught up in the cloud to meet the Lord, in the air…The night I received the Holy Ghost I never forget as long as I live. I was praising God all night. The Lord filled me with the Holy Ghost. I was under the power trembling all night...A personal baptism with Holy Ghost and fire. I was in the presence of God, I meet Jesus face to face.
When Mary’s four-year-old daughter, Dorothy, died, Mary writes that only faith sustained her.
After her second husband died unexpectedly, Mary decided to become an independent missionary in China. So, in 1929, she left Australia, with her five youngest children and elderly mother, establishing a mission and girls school in the Chen family home in Huangchun village, Sunwai. Each day, she walked on her crippled feet around 20 km, to visit surrounding villages. Proving a great success, Mary founded a 400-strong non-denominational church.
When Mary returned to Australia, in 1932, to settle her children into school, she was greeted by the Pentecostal assemblies as a local hero. At this time, women could not even open a bank account without their husband’s permission, yet 11 of the first 18 Pentecostal churches in Australia were founded by women. Mary became a popular public speaker, telling “heart gripping story of her work among the bandits in China.”
In 1935, Mary returned to China, while a friend cared for her children in Melbourne. Counter to her previous two arranged marriages, in 1936, Mary chose to marry a Presbyterian minister from Guangzhou, Jack Nam Chick Yeung. The following year, Japan invaded China and Mary’s journals record that Japanese aircraft circled over Sunwai several times a day, so low down that Mary could actually see the pilots’ faces and the bombs hanging on each side of the plane. The aircraft bombed Sunwai railway station, as well as the waterfront and some city streets, killing hundreds of people.
Eventually, the Yeungs escaped to Hong Kong and returned to Australia, in 1939. In order to raise support for the mission, Mary went on iterating tours throughout Australia and New Zealand. They decided to return to Hong Kong, in 1948, to minister to refugees escaping the Communist advance. Using money from the sale of their house in Melbourne, as well as donations from supporters, they bought a block of land in Ngau Chi Wan village. The Oriental Full Gospel Church was officially opened, in 1950, along with an aged care home and school.
Jack Yeung died, in 1959, but Mary continued with the ministry, opening chapels in Yuen Long and Macau, as well as the Yeung Jack Nam Memorial Kindergarten and another free school with 150 children. She explained to her children: “I am writing…to let you know I am not an ordinary mother. I am called and ordained by God…I am going back for God’s work.” Ultimately, Mary handed the Oriental Full Gospel Church over to the Mission Covenant Church of Norway, which eventually included 11 churches, four kindergartens, a secondary school, a primary school and an aged care home. Mary finally retired back to Australia. She passed away, in 1971, at the age of 82. Two years after her death, the ‘White Australia’ policy was abolished.
Without doubt, her Pentecostal spirituality brought transformation to daily life. At the close of her memoirs, Mary writes:
May I just add this little verse – God grant that these simple words so full of truth, may be to you my readers and many others, a means of salvation and you that you may say as the confession of your soul:
In peace let me resign my breath
And Thy salvation see
My sins deserve eternal death
But Jesus died for me.
Rev Assoc Prof Denise A. Austin, PhD, MA(CS), GradDipA, BA (Hons 1), BMiss
Denise Austin is Director of Accreditation and Standards and Associate Professor of History
at Alphacrucis College. She has published widely in the areas of Pentecostal history, Chinese
Christian history and oral history. Denise is an ordained minister with Australian Christian
Churches and teaches in the areas of history and cross-cultural ministry. She is also involved
with the Asia Pacific Theological Association.