Alec Fong Lim AM (1931-1990)

First Australian Chinese Lord Mayor

Alec Fong Lim was born in Katherine in 1931. He was the sixth of nine children, a second generation Australian whose paternal grandfather, Fong Ding, and maternal grandfather, Low Depp, arrived in the Northern Territory in the 1880s from Canton.

Alec’s father, Fong Fook Lim, was born at Fountainhead in 1901. He didn’t go to school, but by the age of nine was apprenticed to a tailor. He also learned how to be a very useful butcher, baker and general handyman. In 1921 he married Alec’s mother, Low Sue Gee and they became known as George and Lorna Lim.

The Lims lived in Pine Creek and Emungalen, and in 1926 were one of the first families to move across the river to the new town of Katherine. They built a shop and residence of bush timber and corrugated iron, living at the rear and running a bakery and general store at the front.

In 1937 the Lims moved back to Darwin where they bought a business in the main street, an area traditionally reserved for white businesspeople. No Chinese had previously dared to trade there. Their place was in Chinatown. Despite this the Lims did well through hard work, good products and good service. The children all worked as soon as they were old enough, and Alec started on a delivery run at the age of eight.

In 1941 a week before the first air raids on Darwin, the family was evacuated to Katherine where they quickly reopened their old store. Following the air raids on Katherine in March 1942 they were forced to flee again, to Alice Springs. There they bought another shop which was both a café and tailor’s shop, with the family dwelling being improvised on a verandah and in a backyard tent.

“Lims” in Alice Springs became a wartime institution. Hundreds of thousands of men transited through the town between 1942 and 1945, and most of them ate steak and eggs or drank a lemon squash squeezed by hand by Alec.

Alec completed his primary education in Alice Springs. There were no high schools in the Territory but Alec won a Commonwealth Scholarship as a boarder to Scotch College in Adelaide. He was the only Chinese Australian in an enrolment of 250 but before long he was one of the most popular boys in the school excelling academically, and at sport and cadets.

The Lim family returned to Darwin in 1946 and bought the town’s premier pub. Alec with his sights on university and the law came home for the Christmas holidays. His father gave Alec the choice of returning but aged fifteen he went to work as cashier in the public bar.

Family ties and obligations are very strong, even among Australian born Chinese families who have been here a long time. So I had no choice but to stay. I was at the Vic for the next nineteen years.”

This was the beginning of a long and successful career in the hospitality industry. In 1962 he began a 15 year sideline, when he started bookmaking. Each St Patrick’s Day he was the most colourful figure at the racecourse, when he would alter the name on his bookmaker’s stand to ‘Alec O’Lim,’ and wear festoons of green ribbons.

In 1955 Alec went on holiday and in Sydney met and married Norma Chin who was born in Darwin but had left as a child. They had six daughters whose occupations range from solicitor and biochemist to newspaper reporter. Alec was a keen sportsman playing Australian Rules football, soccer, basketball, golf, cricket, baseball and tennis.

After cyclone Tracy in 1974 Alec Fong Lim began his career in public life as a trustee of the Cyclone Tracy Trust Fund which eventually distributed eight million dollars to relieve distress caused by the cyclone. In 1980 he became the inaugural chairman of the Northern Territory Australia Day Committee and always focussed on the positive aspects of Australia and being Australian.

Multiculturalism is wonderful, and people should not forget their backgrounds, which enrich the community as a whole. But people must think of themselves, first and foremost, as Australians.” he said.

Alec Fong Lim was an ardent worker for many other community organisations including St John’s Ambulance, NT Spastics Association, Circle of Friends of the National Museum, the Australia Indonesia Institute, Research in Cancer and the Apex Club.

He was elected Lord Mayor of Darwin in 1984 and again in 1988 and made an enormous contribution to the city he loved.

Alec Fong Lim was awarded the Order of Australia in 1986.

Source: Adapted from articles written by historian Peter Forrest, published in the Northern Territory News September 2000,
and information from Darwin City Council.

Theme: Culture, language and identity