Descendants of Australia’s First Chinese Settler Rediscover Their Roots After 200 Years


This year, the Chinese community in Australia is celebrating 200 years of settlement — a rich history that dates back to the moment a man named Mak Sai Ying set foot on the land Down Under.

Today, Mak’s descendants are fulfilling the task of sharing his story while rediscovering their Chinese roots. Barry Shying, his great-great-grandson, has been invited to speak in gatherings that commemorate Chinese settlement in Australia.

Barry Shying. Image: Screenshot via ABC News

“I feel a bit overwhelmed, quite truthfully,” Barry told ABC News. “But I am very glad to do it. It sort of gave me a feeling of connection which I have never had before, and that feeling of connection has continued on.”

Meanwhile, Barry’s grandson, 23-year-old Nick, is learning more about his Chinese heritage.

“I haven’t always appreciated and fully understood what it meant, but I have certainly been brought up in an environment where I have known our family history,” he told ABC News.

Nick Shying. Image via ABC News

The fact that Nick knew of his ancestry from an early age — unlike his grandfather — made it much easier for him to reconnect. He studied Chinese in high school, visited China for a study tour and is thrilled to be with the local Chinese community.

Speaking to The New York Times, Nick, with blue eyes and a pale complexion, said that people still laugh whenever he brings up his Chinese heritage. He added that Australians still use appearance as basis for ethnic assumptions, “but here I am as an example of the potential flaws of taking that approach.”

Image via ABC News

And while he doesn’t feel “naturally” Chinese, he’s interested in learning key facets of his heritage.

“It is hard to say that I feel naturally like I am a Chinese in the same way others who might have a closer connection probably do.

“But I think it’s been specifically interesting for me to learn about that history, language and culture because of the fact that I know that part of my family history extended back to China.”

Image via ABC News

Nick believes that he must return to China to acquire more information about his lineage. And while he’s aware that going through government records will be challenging, he’s open to the idea.

“Maybe one day, I’ll give it a crack and see if I can find something.”

Three examples of Mak’s signature.

Nick’s presumably tedious research will likely begin from Mak, his great-great-great-grandfather.

Born in 1796 Guangdong — then known as Canton — Mak arrived in Australia on February 27, 1818, aboard the ship Laurel, an Indian-built vessel likely part of the East India Company fleet.

Upon his arrival in New South Wales, Mak, who became known as John Shying, worked as a carpenter for the renowned English explorer John Blaxland, whom he met on the Laurel. There, he received £2 ($2.67) a week, the same rate given to other workers.

He then worked for Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur, the pioneer of Australia’s wool industry.

Some of Mak’s children ran an undertakers shop. Image via Parramatta Heritage Centre

According to the Parramatta Heritage Centre, Mak eventually became an entrepreneur as well, owning the Peacock Inn in Parramatta, Sydney, among other shops.

On February 3, 1823, he married Sarah Jane Thompson, an Irish migrant, and together they had four sons: John James (1823–1885), George Hugh (1826–1893), James Henry (1828–1891) and Thomas Jones (1830–1894).

Some of their children and their descendants would later become furniture makers in Sydney.

Image via Parramatta Heritage Centre / Sydney Living Museum

However, for some unknown reason, Mak left his family after the birth of his fourth son in 1831 and returned to China. He went back to Australia five years later, just after Sarah’s death.

Mak then married Bridget Gillorley on October 10, 1842, but his second wife died six months later.

Mak’s marriage register to Bridget Gillorley

His whereabouts had been unknown since then, but it is believed that he left Australia permanently and his four sons behind. It was also reported that he married Margaret McGovern on April 30, 1846.

Feature image via ABC News