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Wong, Keith (1916–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

When Keith Wong and his brother Denis opened Chequers nightclub in 1959, a rival nightclub owner, Joe Taylor, laid odds ''2-1 on'' that the nightclub wouldn't last three months, mainly ''because they are Chinese''. How wrong Taylor was.

With its glitz and glitter, and stream of international celebrities, Chequers was to be listed by Variety magazine as one of the top-10 nightclubs in the world. Wong, who was granted citizenship in 1957, showed that Chinese migrants could not only integrate with the Australian community but could make their own culture part of it.

Principally associated with Chequers and the Mandarin Club, Wong busied himself with horse racing, entrepreneurship, cultural events within Sydney's Chinese community and fostering a closer relationship between Australia and China.

The limelight he enjoyed did attract some unsavoury characters. Towards the end of his life, Wong himself had some questions to answer, but nothing came of it.

Keith Wong was born Jup Kee Wong on December 4, 1916, in a village in Zhongshan, Guangdong province in China, one of nine siblings. The family moved to Hong Kong in 1930. Wong migrated to Australia in 1938, unable to speak English, and settled in Brisbane, where he studied accountancy. In 1941, Wong became a part-owner and cook at a Chinese restaurant. In 1945, he married Ruby Musung. He also started a business in Hong Kong, exporting to China. The same year, he moved to Sydney and became a partner in a restaurant, the Cathay, in Castlereagh Street.

In 1952, Wong opened the Transworld Importing Agency, which was arguably the first company in Australia to import Chinese products on a large scale. He expanded his chain of restaurants. To strengthen his ties with China, he hosted Chinese government delegations, which included the governor of Guangzhou. In the mid-1950s, Gough Whitlam became one of their regular diners. Then, with Denis, Keith founded Chequers.

In 1963, he and Denis formed a partnership with entrepreneur Harry M. Miller and founded Pan-Pacific Promotions to bring out international acts. In partnership with the manager of Billy Thorpe, John Harrigan, they opened the Whiskey au Go Go, Bull and Bush, and Stagecoach nightclubs. In 1964, the Wongs opened the 24-hour Mandarin Club, which became the place for performers after they had finished their shows.

With Chequers the venue for performers such as Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Liza Minnelli, Bobby Darin, Dionne Warwick and Sammy Davis jnr, and the guest list including Cliff Richard, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees and the Beatles, among others, the club became an entertainment hub. Wong's friends included the premier Sir Robert Askin, Frank Packer, the police commissioner Norm Allan and occasionally Rupert Murdoch. One night, the prime minister John Gorton created a sensation by disappearing backstage with Liza Minnelli.

The total workforce across the businesses exceeded 500 people. Wong helped hundreds of Chinese people to come to Australia to start new lives. His lawyer, Anthony Jackson, said: ''Keith was a guy with a lot of principles and standards. He did not take nonsense from anybody.''

Inevitably, the nightclub also attracted some less savoury individuals. In February, 1969, the club hosted a party held in honour of visiting Chicago mobster Joseph Dan Testa. Present were such notorious individuals as Lenny McPherson, George Freeman and Milan ''Iron Bar Miller'' Petricevic.

In 1980, the Wongs organised the first Guangdong Exhibition, at Centrepoint. Wong also went into property development.

But some dark clouds were forming. In 1982, he was called to give evidence to the NSW Police Tribunal about his dealings with the deputy police commissioner, Bill Allen. Transworld had organised Allen's trip to Hong Kong in 1981 and he had travelled on an account made out to Wong.

In 1982, Trans World Agency, the centrepiece of the Transworld group, collapsed owing $37 million, attracting the interest of the Corporate Affairs Commission. In July 1984, Wong was accused of defrauding various banks and other agencies of more than $4 million. He left for Taiwan. Wong returned in 1998 after 14 years abroad and the charges against him were not pursued.

The Mandarin Club, affected by Star City Casino, closed in 2008. It reopened in Chinatown, but unsuccessfully. In 2008, Ruby died, followed by Denis in 2009. Keith Wong died on July 26. He is survived by his eight children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 2011

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Wong, Keith (1916–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/wong-keith-16742/text28638, accessed 19 July 2019.

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