A downtown Launceston store is the face of a forgotten immigrant success story. Henry Thom Sing, aka Ah Sin and Tom Ah Sing, was a Chinese gold digger, shopkeeper, interpreter and entrepreneur, born in Canton, China, on 14 March 1844. He arrived in Tasmania on the ship Tamar in 1868.
He appears to have come to Tasmania from the Victorian goldfields, and was quick to seize on this experience when the northern Tasmanian alluvial goldfields of Nine Mile Springs (Lefroy), Back Creek and Brandy Creek (Beaconsfield) opened up. Like Launceston's Peters, Barnard & Co who hired Chinese miners through Kong Meng & Co in Melbourne, Sing began to recruit Chinese diggers from the Victorian goldfields. He had his own claim on the remote Arthur River goldfield in 1872, and bought gold from diggers working there. His good English skills were an asset in trade and communication, and throughout his time in Launceston his services were drawn upon regularly as an interpreter in court cases involving Chinese speakers as far afield as Wynyard and Beaconsfield.
By the time Sing was naturalised as a British subject in 1882, he was renting a shop and residence at 127–127A St John Street, Launceston. In 1883 he bought the site and had a new premises erected on it. The architect was Leslie Corrie. Here Sing sold imported Chinese groceries, 'fancy goods', silk, preserved fruits, fireworks for the King's birthday celebration, and the Chinese drinks Engape, Noo Too and Back Noo. Sing's residence also served as a staging-post for Chinese tin miners arriving in Launceston.
While a £10 poll tax was levied on Chinese entering the colony in 1887, Launceston's established Chinese population became part of the community. Local businessmen Chin Kit, James Ah Catt, and Henry Thom Sing supported the work of the Launceston City and Suburbs Improvement Association by staging spectacular Chinese carnivals in City Park in 1890 and the Cataract Gorge in 1891.
Fire gutted the Sing premises in 1895, and as a result it was either altered or rebuilt to the design of Launceston architect Alfred Luttrell. This building remains today as is, and is entered on the Tasmanian Heritage Register.
Sing died in 1912, aged 68. Probate valued at £1738 suggested modest success. Despite 44 years in the Launceston business community, there was no comment in the Tasmanian press, perhaps indicating that, despite his naturalisation, a racial barrier still existed between Chinese and Europeans.
Like the former Chung Gon store in Brisbane Street, Henry Thom Sing's St John Street store remains today as part of Launceston's commercial sector.
Thank you to Dr Nic Haygarth for providing this article.