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Robert Chen Chow (1937–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

For a 10-year-old Chinese boy fleeing the communist revolution then throwing his country into turmoil, things did not look all that promising when Leung Fai Chen Chow set foot in Australia in 1948. The boy, who adopted an Anglicised name, Robert, started small but took advantage of the opportunities this country gave to any migrant prepared to apply himself, or herself. He rose to become a successful businessman, hotel owner and passionate Manly Sea Eagles supporter.

Robert's father, Sik Hei Chen Chow, owned lychee orchards in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province, when Robert came into the world on November 7, 1937. When the Japanese looked ready to invade, Sik Hei migrated to Australia, intending to bring his family after him. But the Japanese invasion came sooner than expected and wrecked the family's travel plans. Robert, his mother Moy and sister May were trapped in China during the Japanese occupation, continuing to run the lychee orchards. In 1948, when the communists took over the orchards, the family migrated to Australia to join Sik Hei, who had anglicised his name to George and was working in Brisbane as a produce merchant.

The family lived in Sydney, where they took up residence in Strathfield. Another child, Geoffrey, was born in 1949. George worked at Haymarket, then opened a fish and chip shop at Homebush. Robert worked part-time with his father both at the markets and fish shop and left Homebush Boys High School early to do an apprenticeship to become a motor mechanic. He worked at several garages, then set up his own business at the bottom of King Street in the city, on the edge of Darling Harbour.

When the King Street land was resumed for the western approach to the Harbour Bridge, Chen Chow shifted his premises to Sussex Street. His business became the Downtown Service Station, next to the ''Hungry Mile'', and he became very friendly with wharf labourers and Labor Party members. He also bought a pub nearby, called the Big House Hotel. Chen Chow helped pioneer the concept for which many Sydneysiders are grateful: putting Chinese restaurants into hotels.

Chen Chow married a secretary, Susanna Leung, whom he met in Hong Kong. The couple married there on April 6, 1966. Returning to Australia, they lived in Strathfield for a time, then shifted to Northbridge. The couple had three children: Anthony, born in 1967, Anna (1970) and Kevin (1973). Chen Chow never lost his Labor connections and became prominent in Chinatown, just up the road from his business. He also bought another hotel, the Captain Cook Hotel at Millers Point, and ran both hotels as well as his mechanical business, which was well placed for the cars towed off the bridge.

In Chinatown, Chen Chow was president of Goon Yee Tong, a society dedicated to the assistance of Chinese immigrants. Late in his life, having had no religion to that point, he embraced Catholicism.

He expanded in other directions, being a long-time supporter of the Sea Eagles and sponsor of the club. His support became legendary. He was also a sponsor of the Balmain Tigers.

Sadly, he then became afflicted with leukaemia and, following a long and courageous fight, he succumbed to the disease at St Vincent's Hospital on February 6. A requiem Mass was held at St Philip Neri Catholic Church at Northbridge on Monday, February 14.

He is survived by his mother, widow, brother and sister, daughter-in-law Stephanie, his three children and a grandchild soon to be born.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Chen Chow, Robert (1937–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Chen Chow, Leung Fai

7 November, 1937


6 February, 2011 (aged 73)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (leukemia)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Key Places
Political Activism