For the past eighteen years that The Tea Centre has occupied its shop in The Glasshouse shopping centre, on the corner of Pitt and King Street. Thousands have visited us and enjoyed a quiet pot of tea with a warm traditional scone served with thick cream and strawberry jam, with many quite unaware of the history they're partaking in.
One man, not far from where The Tea Centre sits today, introduced this tradition of sitting and enjoying quality teas with scones, in a relaxed and pleasurable environment to Sydney. His name was Mie Quong Tart, and Quong’s story starts in Canton Provence, China where he was born in 1850. At age nine, Quong was allowed to travel ( after heavily petitioning his parents) with his Uncle – the leader of a group of coolies who are bound for the goldfields of Braidwood, NSW, Australia. Young Quong soon joined the family of Robert and Alice Simpson, who introduced him to the English language and Christianity, and encouraged him to acquire shares in gold claims. The Simpsons later moved to Sydney whilst Quong stayed in Braidwood and built himself a cottage at Bell’s Creek. With his fortune on the rise, Quong built himself a name, as a prominent figure in sporting, cultural and religious affairs. In 1871 on July 11th, Quong became a naturalised Australian, and by 1877 he was appointed to the board of the local public school at Bell’s Creek, he became a member of the Freemasons and joined a lodge of Oddfellows.
After making his fortune in the goldfields, Quong moved to Sydney by the 1880’s with his aspirations of trading tea and silks. In 1881, he decided to return to China to secure quality products and trade agreements. Before his departure Quong acquired letters of recommendation from the highest of Sydney’s society, including the Premier. His visit was a great success, allowing him to complete the trade agreements he wanted, and gave him the opportunity to return home and visit with his mother. Unfortunately by this time his father had passed away and never knew how successful his son had become.
Quong returned to Sydney and opened his first tea and silk business, selling dry Chinese tea leaves and promoting it with free tasting cups. In 1886, Quong had met and married another migrant to Australia, Miss Margaret Scarlett of Liverpool, England. Quong and Margaret were very happy in married life and had six children (two boys and four girls).
After a few years, Quong soon realised that he would be better off selling the dry leaf in a shop alongside pots of tea with scones. He acquired and developed what is believed to be Australia’s first true tea rooms at 137 King Street, Sydney in 1889. The Sydney public, had seen nothing like this, with its princely splendor, areas for entertainment and private reading & writing rooms for ladies. The staff were trained to treat all as equals and visitors from all levels of society were happy to visit Quong Tart’s establishment. Quong would throw large functions at which he would invite all of Sydney’s upper social class, large numbers of clergymen and influential gentlemen. These functions were occasions for Quong to promote his aspirational and philanthropic endeavours to help improve the lives of the poor.
The King Street entrance to The Glasshouse, is at 135 On King. Number 137 King street was at some sage merged in to 135 and became a part of the Glasshouse complex.
Quong Tart’s tea rooms were an enormous success and Quong continued to open more establishments, including tea rooms in the Queen Victoria Markets (today the Queen Victoria Building) at street level. Then in the same building, he opened the “Elite” dining hall and tea rooms on upper floors, which were to become Sydney’s most prestigious dining venue.
Quong went on to become one of Sydney’s, if not Australia’s, greatest philanthropist but unfortunately left us far too soon aged 53 on the 26th July 1903, after a murderous attack.
So the next time you are looking for a pot of tea with warm scones, rich jam and luscious thick cream, pop into The Tea Centre, Sydney, and become a part of history. As you sip on your hot tea spare a moment of thought for this man from China who brought us luxury, fine tea, and a helping hand for those less fortunate.
Mei Quong Tart 1850 – 1903.