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.
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.