“You couldn’t have a full-blooded Chinese or aborigine teaching” 1949

At the beginning of 1949, a 17 year old student challenged the Department of Public Instruction in a way that illuminated public attitudes and initiated controversy, expressed in the country’s newspapers from Brisbane to Broken Hill and from Townsville to Tasmania.

In January 1949, the Department of Public Instruction awarded John Hinton Quinlem, a student who had excelled academically and in sports at Brisbane Grammar School, a teaching fellowship to study Arts at the University of Queensland, subject to a satisfactory medical examination and interview. His application was supported by Brisbane Grammar’s Principal, Mr H R Piggott. Quinlem passed the medical examination, but in 16 February’s Courier Mail he stated that during the interview every attempt was made to dissuade him from teaching and to consider journalism. While his writing ability was duly acknowledged, he was questioned about his Chinese parentage and attitude to China. In the same article, the Courier Mail reported that the Director of Secondary Education informed Brisbane Grammar School’s Principal that there was a regulation “preventing Chinese from entering the teaching service.” The Director General said, “If the fellowship was refused after a personal interview, it must be because of the candidate’s lack of personality or vocal ability. He knew of no regulation preventing a person of foreign parentage becoming a teacher.” The Teachers’ Union secretary, Mr G A Daughtery, agreed that foreign parentage did not prevent union membership, but added “You couldn’t have a full-blooded Chinese or aborigine teaching.”

The Courier Mail, 16 February 1949.

The Courier Mail, 16 February 1949.

The Courier Mail came out strongly in support of John Quinlem over the next few days. On 17 February, a letter was published from John Quinlem’s brother, Kennedy Quinlem. “Would Mr. Daughtery, secretary of the Teachers’ Union (C-M., 16/2/49), consider allowing himself to be taught mathematics by Australian-born P. Chong, M.A., D.Sc. (Cantab.); the most highly qualified of the three full-blooded Chinese lecturers at Sydney University? Though highly respected by staff and students at Sydney, I suppose they would not be suitable for Queensland schools if they applied.”

On 18 February, the Courier Mail continued:

“The Chinese Consul (Mr. T. M. Chen) charged the Teachers’ Union secretary (Mr. G. A. Daughtery) yesterday with racial discrimination. Such a statement is contradictory of the policy so often emphasised by the External Affairs Minister (Dr. Evatt) that Australia never introduces racial discrimination into its foreign or migration policies. Quinlem has been advised by leading Brisbane Chinese to take legal action against the Education Department.”

On 19 February, the Director-General of Education, to the annoyance of the Courier Mail’s editor, claimed:

“Any girl or boy who displays in size, shape, speech or appearance, departure from the normal in sufficient degree to invite the attention and/or comment of the children, must possess a tremendous amount of personal force to be successful and comfortable in the teaching profession. After examining the case and reviewing this young man’s scholastic career; it is my considered opinion that, by aptitude and attainment, he is more fitted for journalism than for any other profession. [Flippancy on a serious subject of national importance ill becomes a Director-General of Education.— Ed., C.-M.]”

Mr A A Rose, former president of the Greater Brisbane State Schools’ Committee Association, said “that officialdom wanted to freeze John Quinlem out of a teachers’ fellowship. One of the most highly respected teachers at a Toowoomba State school a few years ago was an Australian born son of Chinese parents — Mr. H. Poon”.

John Quinlem’s background

John Quinlem was born on Thursday Island in Queensland, to Gertrude, a Townsville-born woman of Chinese parentage. His father had come from Canton before 1900. John was educated in Queensland; his culture, speech and interests were those of a confident, well-educated Queenslander, not those of someone struggling with the language and way of life. The Director-General’s point that it would be difficult for someone with a “departure from the normal” would have applied only to his Asian face. While the Courier Mail focused support from his brother, the Chinese Consul, the Chinese community and Mr Rose, what is missing is the wider public comment in the form of letters or news items in any of the newspapers. What did the public think?

The bitter feeling towards Chinese caused by economic competition on the goldfields, the suspicion of what was regarded as their pagan religion, and fear of their large scale invasion as ravening hordes among a small white population in a remote corner of the world, had been a significant factor in support for Federation. In 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act was the basis for the unofficial White Australia Policy, which allowed a dictation test in any European language as a way of keeping out unwanted foreigners. It was aimed at Asians, specifically Chinese. John’s father, Chong Quinlem (also Quin Lem) had travelled to, and returned from, China a number of times between 1911 and 1940, and had been exempted from the dictation test. Therefore, he was seen to have been resident in the country for some time, and of good character. These records are kept at National Archives, and provide a photographic record of some family members.

Gertrude, Charles Conway (John's brother) and Chong Quin Lem: Photographs when they left Australia in 1920 forming part of the certificates exempting them from the dictation test when they returned. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2013.

Gertrude, Charles Conway (John's brother) and Chong Quin Lem: Photographs when they left Australia in 1920 forming part of the certificates exempting them from the dictation test when they returned. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2013.


Australian born Chinese were beginning to outnumber immigrant Chinese by the mid-20th Century. The fears of the last 100 years, as encapsulated in cartoons such as that of Philip May, were being undermined by these well-assimilated Chinese, such as the Quinlems.

The Mongolian Octopus: his grip on Australia by Phillip May 1886, depicting fear of Chinese

The Mongolian Octopus: his grip on Australia by Phillip May 1886, depicting fear of Chinese.


It has been remarked that while Australians feared the Chinese as a large mass, they paradoxically respected those whom they knew. Letters defending individual Chinese were not uncommon in the papers.

Nevertheless, John Quinlem relented in his battle, making a very Australian plea:

“ ‘The Director-General has at last sold me his own propaganda that I would be taking up the wrong profession.’ Quinlem said last night:— ‘Though I wish nothing more to be said on the matter, I wish to plead for a healthier outlook towards all colours and creeds. We Chinese only want a fair go.’” (Sunday Mail, 20 February 1949).

What happened to John Quinlem?

He completed an Arts degree at the University of Queensland, and in his final year in 1951 edited the university paper Semper Floreat. He mixed with writers such as David Malouf and Christopher Koch. It is said the Chinese, highly intelligent and morally sensitive character, Billy Kwan, in The year of living dangerously (1978) was based on John Quinlem, who later took an interest in theology. He wrote articles for the Sydney Observer in the 1950s, and worked briefly for the Bulletin and Sydney Mirror, but most of his working life was in the Commonwealth public service.

He died in August 2010, and his family described him in the death notice, in Melbourne’s Age on 18 August, as “Scourge of the 1950s establishment.” Emeritus Professor of English, Peter Edwards, in his obituary of Quinlem in the Courier Mail on 16 September 2010, referred to his intellectual brilliance, sense of fun and exuberant chortle as well as his impressive knowledge of Australian cultural and social history, in particular his knowledge of Chinese Australian history.

His brother, Kennedy Quinlem, who completed his architectural studies in 1952, took his father’s actual surname, Chong, as his own. The given names and surname, as with many Chinese, had been reversed.

John Quinlem lived to see the blatant kind of discrimination he experienced in 1949 made illegal, and for such an injustice to be offensive to community standards.

Stephanie Ryan, Senior Librarian Family History, Information Services