Ah Chee: Gentleman hotelier and Gem of the Pacific

A rare photo of Ah Chee (centre) outside his hotel with two Australian friends who no doubt benefited from his famed generosity. Photo kindly supplied by Adam Peripatus Liu.

If Rabaul in its halcyon days was the pearl of the Pacific town, then the human gem of the Pacific was its famous hotelier Ah Chee.

A small man with a large heart, Ah Chee’s innate kindness, generosity to those in distress and quiet dignity made him deeply admired, respected and befriended across racial lines in a time when that was sadly uncommon.

On his death in 1933, The Pacific Islands Monthly published an extraordinarily moving tribute – titled A Chinese Gentleman – saying he would ‘be mourned around the world’ and on reading it (see below) you can understand why.

It’s the stuff of potential documentaries and feature films about one of the most colourful destinations in one of the most fascinating eras of Pacific history. Ah Chee (Chee Jour Chee) should be better known. He sits easily among the pantheon of early settler characters in New Guinea including Emma Forsayth, Richard and Phebe Parkinson, Ah Tam, Governor Albert Hahl, George Brown, Rudolph Wahlen, Jean Baptiste Mouton, Bishop Coupé and Peter ‘the island king’ Hansen.

Credit CHM Group, Papua New Guinea

But like Ah Tam (himself an inspiring story for another time), Ah Chee had a tougher path to success than the others, simply because the overt racism of the time against Chinese who’d been brought to the islands as ‘coolies’. Rather than harden his heart, this discrimination had the reverse effect on Ah Chee, who opened his doors and, by default through his generosity, his wallet … to all and sundry.

*Ah Chee was decorated by Germany for his kindness to Germans awaiting deportation during WW1 and honoured by Chiang Kai-shek for his many donations to Chinese causes. Many down and out Australians benefited from the generosity of the man who started life in Rabaul as a cook. He’d served as a boy steward with the British Fleet before being brought to Rabaul in 1912 under indenture to the NGK.*from author Peter Cahill Needed but not Wanted, Chinese in Rabaul 1884-1960

Ah Chee’s Hotel eventually became the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the establishment under both names spawned generations of experiences and legends. Errol Flynn was but one of the colourful guests.

Here is the PIM article, which appeared in ‘North of Twenty-Eight’ column, probably authored by RW Robson who later wrote the Queen Emma book.

A   Chinese   Gentleman  

“The   last   papers   from   Rabaul  tell   of   the   death   of   Ah   Chee,   who   will be   mourned   round   the   world.   Old   Germans,   of   the  Hasag- Hernsheim   era,   grieving   in   Hamburg   for   their   lost   estates   in  the   Mandate,   will   pause   sadly   to   remember   him,   and   hundreds   of   Australians  who   knew   him   will   join   them.  

 “‘Ah   Chee   kept   the   hotel   opposite   Ching  Hings  in  Rabaul,  on   the   corner   of  Chinatown.   Other   hostels   came   and  went.   The   new   post-war   Mandate   Administration   formed   three   clubs   and   a  “white”  pub   opened   its   doors,   but   “Ah  Chees’   survived.   

“There   was   a   large   bar  on   the   ground   floor   and   a   dining-room   in   which   an   old   German   musical   box   with   a   peculiarly   sweet   voice   played   “When  Irish   Eyes   Are   Smiling”   over   and   over  again. 

 “The   hotel   of   Ah   Chee   was   built   of  wood   and   set   on   volcanic   ground,  so   that  every   sound   in   it   was   amplified.   The   walls  of   its   bedrooms,   which   opened   through  French   lights   on   to   a   broad   verandah,  had   been   cut   off   a   foot   or   so   from   the   ceiling   for   ventilation.   Each   room   was  furnished   with   a   specklessly   clean   bed   with  a   sheet   and   a   mosquito-net,  a   washstand  and   one   chair.  

“Bed   is   the   coolest   place  in   Rabaul,  and   to   lie   there   in   the   evening   a   decade   ago   was   a   cosmopolian  adventure,   for   nothing   was   hidden   in   Ah  Chee’s.   You   could   hear   every   sound   in  the   bar—the   “prosits”   of   the   sad   expropriated,   the   “Ludwig-two-bottle-beer-he come”   of   the   Civil  Service,   the   arigatate  kamisen   of   the   visiting   Jap   skipper,   the  lusty   “Whisky   soda  along   King   George—  quick-time”   of   the  arrogant   police   in   for  their   free   “nine  o’clock”;   the  whispered   love   tale   on   the  verandah  ;   the   domes  tic   discussion   three  doors   down   ;   the   sage  debate   between   committeemen   as   to  whether   the   salary   of  you,   a   stranger,   would  be   £6OO   a   year,   which  would   make   you   eligible   for   membership  of   the   Rabaul   Club.  Somebody,  perhaps,  would   be   playing   a  concertina   round   the  corner,   not   loudly  enough   to   mute   the  malarial   sobbing   of   the   sick   Teutonic  planter   just   bereft   of   the   results   of   his  life   work.

 “Above   all   the   medley   song   would   rise.  

 “German   voices   in   the   dining-room   lifted  the   roof   with   “Ein   Pflanzer   auf   ein  Kiistenreis ”   The   musical   box   did   its  best;   the   picture-show   gramophone  across   the   road   blared   “Susie”;   the  stewards   off   the   Norwegian   boat   shouted  “Ja,   jeg   elsker   dette   landet”   without   blotting   out   the   insistent   “You   did,”   “I  didn’t”   of   two   Cantonese   engaged   in   a  long-drawn   quarrel   in   the   street   against  a   background   of   native   sing-sing   wafted   across   the   hot   kunai   grass   in   the   moist  square. 

 “Through   all   the   babel   and   turmoil  moved  Ah   Chee,   never   disturbed,   always  gentle,   kind   and   smiling.   When   the  young   Australian   girl   next   door   fell   ill  of   fever   and   the   oppression   of   the   tropic  atmosphere,   the   little   man   was   there   in  person   with   cool   drinks   and   comfort.  

 “When   the   drunken   sailors   on   the   steps  at   3   a.m.   were   moved   to   wrath   because  you   threw   water   on   them   as   they   sat  singing   “Ma,”   it   was   Ah   Chee   who  arrived,   placatory,   pleasant,   unruffled,  and,   looking   smaller   than   ever   in   a   pair  of   loose   pyjamas,   persuaded   the   outraged  mariners   not   to   knife   you   and  burn  the  house   down.  

 “Fights   in   the   bar,   attempted   suicides,  gurias   which   seemed   likely   to   shake  Rabaul   into   the   sea,   oppressive   ordinances,   cheeky   locals   —none   of   them  rattled   Ah   Chee.   

“And   the   poor   were  always   with   him.   The   German   deprived  of   his   property   by   the   fortune   of   war,  the  shell-shocked   youngster   ruined   by   high  living,   the   gambling   fool   with   the   empty  pocket,   the   weakling   taken   in   crime   and  in   search   of   bail,   the   hungry   and   the  thirsty,   deserving   and   undeserving—all  patronised   him.   Paper   and   pencils   were  cheap.   One   more   chit   would   be   added   to  the   pile   in   his   little   office   with   a   gentle  “Some   time   you   will   pay   me.”   But  nobody   ever   did.  

 “Ah   Chee   was   a   legend   through   the  Pacific.   He   even   got   into   the   songs   of  the   colorful   Bismarcks   in   the   days   when  “Willst   du   reich   werden”   was   still   sung:  

Will   you   be   wealthy?   Down   to   Rabaul   flit,  Stay   at   Ah   Chee’s   for   months   and   pay   by   chit;  

Fill   up   your   sleeves   with   ace   and   king   and  joker,Then   start   indulging   in   a   little   poker.  

Produce   those   jokers   from   your   sleeve—be  stealthy,  And   then   if   you   aren’t   caught   you’ll   soon   be  wealthy.  

 “A   fortnight   after   Ah   Chee   died, his  flowerlike   wife   and   his   fine   young   son  did   something   on   Christmas   Eve   which  must   have   pleased   the   spirit   of   the   little  hotelkeeper.   They   gave   a   banquet   in   his  memory.   Eighty   people   came   to   it.   Men   of   the   old   German   time,   civil   servants,  white   traders,   Orientals   joined   in   a   party  which   only   needed   the   Absent   Guest   of   Honor   to   make   it   a   representative   human  historical   gallery   of   all   Rabaul’s   past. 

 “But   I’ll   wager   that   a   good   many   of  the   guests   owed   Ah   Chee   a   lot   more  gratitude   than   is   represented   by   sitting  at   a   man’s   dinner-table   as   the   guest   of  his   estate. ” 


Ah Chee’s legacy continues to this day through his descendants in Papua New Guinea.

His son Chin Hoi Meen became a pillar of society, famous photographer and war hero who helped rebuild his beloved Rabaul after its destruction in World War Two.

*The hotelier’s son was given official recognition for his wartime bravery in 1949 when he was awarded the King’s Medal for courage and service in the cause of freedom.  This medal is intended to acknowledge those who perform “acts of courage entailing risk of life or for service entailing dangerous work in hazardous circumstances in furtherance of the Allied cause during the war.”

In 1954, Chin Hoi Meen was presented to the Queen as a war hero in Australia for his services to the Allied Forces and for risking his life to rescue two American pilots who were shot down. * courtesy Noel Pascoe

Ah Chee should be remembered as a Legend of Rabaul.

Photo courtesy of Adam Peripatus Liu

2 thoughts on “Ah Chee: Gentleman hotelier and Gem of the Pacific

  1. As my first place of living in PNG was Rabaul in 1966, this all brings back the stories I heard whilst there. The next year, my husband, Neil Smart, was transferred to Bougainville which became our home until being evacuated off during the Bougainville Crisis in 1990.
    The connections between Rabaul and Bougainville were very close and the Chinese population at that time was truly respected, with cause.
    The descendants of those are still tough in business, but fair and generous in assisting the people of not only East New Britain Province but the people of the places their companies service.
    Sadly, it is a much different story today. And I will leave it at that.
    Thank you for your story. Happy memories for me, I learnt lessons during that time wonderful preparation for the rest of my time in Bougainville and other parts of PNG. Rabaul truly is a special place on earth.

    Like

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