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Father James Cheong (1872-1941), priest, scholar
James Cheong was born in Ballarat of Chinese parents, both of whom had come to Victoria during the goldrush. His father, Cheok Hok Cheong was a prosperous businessman in Melbourne, who owned properties in the commercial business district and in Fitzroy. He was an ardent spokesman for Chinese culture, capable of delivering addresses on Chinese culture and history in the Melbourne Town Hall to an audience of two thousand; and he strongly supported the creation of a Chinese Christian mission in Victoria, to be run by Chinese Christians to work among the Chinese community. Both of these priorities of the father influenced his son.
James showed remarkable aptitude for scholarship, attending Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar. His skills in Latin and classical Greek were such that he won the classics exhibition at Melbourne University in 1890. He was a resident of Trinity College in his undergraduate days.
Between 1897 and 1901 he taught at the Queen's School in Hong Kong. While he was at first interested in entering the political world in China as a supporter of reform and a transition to democracy (a position he had learnt from his father), Chinese members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council dissuaded him. At much the same time, significant figures in government and political circles in Victoria provided him with references for the British diplomatic corps.
At this point his life clearly took a direction that had commenced when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Melbourne. Until that time he had identified himself as a Presbyterian, but he became an Anglican, strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement (the revival of Catholic belief and practice among Anglicans). In 1903, he went to Oxford, where he studied theology at Cuddesdon College. He was ordained as a deacon in England, before returning to Melbourne where he was ordained a priest in 1906.
For the rest of his life (1906-1941), he was assistant priest at St Peter's, Eastern Hill (corner of Albert and Gisborne Streets, East Melbourne). He developed a reputation as a gifted counsellor with deep spiritual insight. His reputation became known across the whole of Australia; Anglican bishops from as far away as Broome and rural Queensland came to him to make their confessions. Many Melbourne Anglicans likewise came to him for counselling; others were regular, or occasional, correspondents. The archives at St Peters contain letters, diaries and other material that document this part of his life.
His love of scholarship remained with him and he was a serious collector of books, with a large and varied library, ranging from classical Greek and Latin texts, to English poetry and works on Christian socialism. A particularly valued possession was a 16th century edition of the work of the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus which had once belonged to the great 18th century historian Edward Gibbon.
Father Cheong remained proud of his Chinese identity all his life, referring to it in his letters. Close to the time of his death, the Hungarian-born sculptor Andor Meszaros (1900-1972) created a bronze medallion which shows him in profile, his thin, scholarly hands firmly holding one of his beloved volumes. A cast of the medallion can be seen in the church which he loved and served so well, and is a moving tribute to this gifted and complex individual.
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A project exploring the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation has collected an archive of pictures of historical interest, including several of Fr Cheong from the St Peter's archives. These can be viewed at The Chinese Australian Historical Images Database. Search this database on "Cheong" or "St Peter's" to access the relevant pictures.