Gong for Chinese Australian buffalo pioneer in Queen’s Birthday Honours List

People in Australia are today being recognised for their service to the country with Honours award to mark the occasion on Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday. Among the recipients is Chinese-Australian Laurence Cheong Ah Toy from Howard Springs in the Northern Territory.

Laurence Cheong Ah Toy has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) as part of this year's Queen's Birthday Honours.

Laurence Cheong Ah Toy has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) as part of this year's Queen's Birthday Honours. Source: Supplied

Third generation Australian Laurence Cheong Ah Toy has been awarded Member of the Order (AM) as part of 2022 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

The 83-year-old has been recognised for his contributions to Australia’s primary industries, education sector and communities.

“It was a great honour of recognition of the years of community service,” he said.

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Mr Ah Toy says his contributions to society started in the Northern Territory after establishing his early career as a chartered accountant in Adelaide where his family had evacuated following the bombing of Darwin in 1942. 

Laurence attributes the AM award to his wife, Marian, and late mother, Lily (pictured).
Laurence attributes the AM award to his wife, Marian, and late mother, Lily (pictured). Source: National Film & Sound Archive of Australia.


He said there was a real need in the area at the time for professional people to give advice to voluntary organisations. In his case, first as an accountant, then as the chairman of various primary industry bodies.

“If you’ve got the talent, you must use it,” he said.

Contribution to primary industries

Mr Ah Toy was instrumental in starting research into mangoes in the Northern Territory in the 1960s because he could see the economic benefit it could bring to the local industry.
Accountant no longer: Laurence Ah Toy has been recognised for his contribution to primary industries.
Accountant no longer: Laurence Ah Toy has been recognised for his contribution to primary industries. Source: Supplied


As a result, the CSIRO set up a research program trialing varieties in the mid 1970s, which became the foundation for the current large mango industry across the Northern Territory and Western Australia. 

“The CSIRO came and appointed a scientist and the mango industry story is history.”

Mr Ah Toy was also involved in other primary industry ventures.

He led research into the buffalo industry and met researcher Donald Tulloch who believed the buffalo was the best animal for tropical Australia.

Despite being in his 80s, Mr Ah Toy has not given up his buffalo duties.

Once the Buffalo Industry Council president, he still directs a pastoral station with about 3,000 cattle and 2,000 buffaloes at Koolpinyah Station, near Darwin.
Laurence Cheong Ah Toy still owns and operates Koolpinyah Station with hay cattle and buffalo.
Laurence Cheong Ah Toy still owns and operates Koolpinyah Station with hay cattle and buffalo. Source: Supplied


“I don’t physically do any work because I haven’t got the stamina or the strength, but I’ve got staff and they work under my direction.

“But I still go out to the station daily, or every other day. So, I’m still active and that’s what I like to be.”

Commitment to education and community

Another proud achievement for Mr Ah Toy is his accounting role in the establishment of Darwin Community College, now Charles Darwin University.

As his children went through Darwin High School, Mr Ah Toy played a fundamental part in getting funds to build a science block as well as a home economics centre, which was later named in his honour.

Laurence Ah Toy standing in front of home economics building named after him at Darwin High School.
Laurence Ah Toy standing in front of home economics building named after him at Darwin High School. Source: Supplied


Mr Ah Toy says he can relate to other Hakkas Chinese like him, for example, the Hakkas from Timor Leste, who have settled in Darwin and have become successful business people in Australia.

“They have a work ethic to be admired,” he said.

Refugees or anyone like that can do anything here as long as they have the information to do so. That goes for any people migrating to Australia.

A history of cheap labour

Mr Ah Toy says his Chinese ancestors, Hakka people from Kowloon, Hong Kong, came to Australia in the 1870s as cheap ‘Coolie’ labour to work in mines and to build the Northern Australian Railway, a 509km track in the Northern Territory. 

Chinese 'Coolie' workers building the Northern Australian Railway in 1912.
Chinese 'Coolie' workers building the Northern Australian Railway in 1912. Source: Library & Archives NT


When the repatriation of Chinese people took place under the White Australia Policy starting in 1901, Mr Ah Toy’s family remained in Australia however and settled in Pine Creek, 226km south of Darwin.

Pine Creek was a town that included 2,000 Chinese people at the peak of the mining boom in the mid-1880s and there Mr Ah Toy’s father ran a grocery shop called Ah Toy Bakery.

He made it rule after they returned from Adelaide post World War II not to let his family speak Chinese again because customers would start “talking about it”.

The Ah Toy family (pictured) is well known in Pine Creek in the Katherine region of the Northern Territory.
The Ah Toy family (pictured) is well known in Pine Creek in the Katherine region of the Northern Territory. Source: Supplied


“I was not able to learn any Hakka or Chinese at home. It was a small country town that mainly had pastoral people, buffalo shooters and miners around it. They were pretty conservative people,” Mr Ah Toy said.

But Mr Ah Toy says his family were accepted “very much” in the community and mixed with the Indigenous people.

“In fact, we employed Aboriginal people as yard people and looked after the kids, washing and things like that.

I’m known as a Wagiman man. Our family were very much appreciated by the Aboriginal community.
Picture of Ah Toy Chinese Bakery in Pine Creek taken in 2015.
Picture of Ah Toy Chinese Bakery in Pine Creek taken in 2015. Source: Aussie Towns
Decades on, Mr Ah Toy says his Queen’s Birthday honour is dedicated to his wife of 43 years Marian and his mother Lily who passed away in 2001 and was a person recognised across ethnic boundaries for the extent of her generosity and involvement in the community.

Her efforts in 1974 to assist people made homeless and hungry by Cyclone Tracy being a case in point.

“She was the person who really nurtured and got me to where I am today.”



 


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Published 12 June 2022 at 10:11pm