This article commemorates the life of William Ah Ket, Australia’s first barrister of Chinese descent. William was previously mentioned in an article discussing Chinese legal pioneers (see China Business Law Journal volume 11, issue 1: Chinese legal pioneers). It is timely to commemorate William’s life because a photo of William will soon be unveiled in the Portrait Gallery of the Victorian Bar in Melbourne, Australia. In addition, the gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of memorabilia about him.
William Ah Ket [麦锡祥] was born in Wangaratta in the state of Victoria, Australia, in 1876. His father, Ma Ket [麦吉], had arrived in Victoria in 1855 to work as a community leader for the Chinese workers in the goldfields of Victoria. After completing his secondary education, he studied law at the University of Melbourne, and joined the law firm of Maddock & Jamieson (now Maddocks). After completing his training as a lawyer in 1899, William won the Supreme Court Judges Prize in 1902, and was admitted to practice in 1903. He joined the ranks of barristers the following year, and is widely understood to have become the first Australian lawyer of Chinese descent to practise as a barrister at the independent bar in the state of Victoria.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography notes the following in its entry on William Ah Ket:
Ah Ket built up a healthy practice at the Victorian Bar, specialising in civil law. He was in the front rank of pleaders and became renowned as a fine cross-examiner – quietly spoken, courteous and shrewd – and as an outstanding jury man. He acquired a considerable reputation as a negotiator of settlements. Ah Ket’s colleagues remembered him with warmth and affection as an amiable and gregarious man, greatly respected for his ability and integrity. He was an excellent after-dinner speaker, a prominent Freemason and a keen punter and golfer.
During his career at the bar, William counted many well-known Australians among his friends, including former prime minister Sir Robert Menzies, who is believed to have modelled his oratory skills after observing William in court. In his memoirs, Sir Robert wrote the following about William:
William Ah Ket did not ever sit on the Bench, though he would have been a very competent judge. He was a phenomenon at the Victorian bar, a full-blooded Chinese born in the northeast of Victoria. He was a sound lawyer and a good advocate. His bland oriental features gave nothing away; his keen sense of fun was concealed behind an almost immovable mask. A certain prejudice among clients against having a Chinese barrister to an extent limited his practice, although instructing solicitors thought very well of him. He was considerably senior to me, but we were great friends.
William was a great model for diversity and service to the community. Despite the discrimination or “bamboo ceiling” that William is likely to have encountered during his life and career, he chose not to focus on his own circumstances but, instead, to work on removing barriers and achieving reconciliation between the West and the East. William’s focus on reconciliation is reflected in the Second Morrison Lecture that he delivered in 1933. The Morrison Lectures series was founded in 1932, to commemorate George Ernest Morrison, a famous Australian who lived and worked in China between 1897 and 1919, first as a journalist and then as a political adviser to the Republic of China, which he represented at the 1919 Versailles Conference at the end of the First World War.
In his Morrison lecture, William questioned whether there was a real difference between the culture of the East and the West, and drew parallels between Western culture and Confucianism. Noting that music had a peculiar charm for Confucius, William mused that if Confucius had lived at that time, “it is quite likely that he would have found in the music of the bagpipes something particularly stirring and satisfying to the soul”. William would have had an affinity with the bagpipes as his wife, Gertrude Bullock, was of Scottish descent.
Although William worked hard to become a member of the mainstream community in Australia, and to bridge the gap between West and East, there is evidence that he was resigned to the barriers and limitations that his life involved. The biography of Joan Rosanove QC, an alumna of Melbourne Law School and the first Jewish woman in Australia to be admitted as a barrister, contains the following reference to a light-hearted discussion between William and Joan:
A Melbourne barrister, Mr Ah Ket, a friend of Mark’s [Joan’s father], said to her, “You and I have both chosen the wrong profession, Joan. We will never satisfy our ambitions. Neither of us will ever be made a judge, you because you are a woman, I because I am Chinese. We should have done medicine.”
There are many more interesting stories and facts about William and his legacy. For example, in addition to a busy life at the bar, he spent time as a diplomat, serving as acting consul-general for China in 1913-1914, and in 1917. In addition, William Ah Ket possessed a deep knowledge of the Western classics and modern languages, and was known to include quotes from Shakespeare, the Scottish poet Robert Burns, or even a Gilbert & Sullivan opera during his appearances in court.
This medal was presented to William during his visit to China to attend the Chinese National Assembly elections, held in December 1912 to January 1913, as the Australian Delegate for Overseas Chinese
William and Gertrude had two sons and two daughters. His eldest son, William, became a doctor, while younger son Stanley became a solicitor, but was killed in 1945 while serving in the Second World War. His eldest daughter, Melaan, married the English guitarist, Len Williams. Their son, John Williams, is a world-renowned classical guitarist. His youngest daughter, Toylaan, was a great champion of her father’s legacy and wrote a biography of him, which will soon be published.
William’s life was one of diversity and service. His legacy is one of which we can all be proud.
A former partner of Linklaters Shanghai, Andrew Godwin teaches law at Melbourne Law School in Australia, where he is an associate director of its Asian Law Centre. Andrew’s new book is a compilation of China Business Law Journal’s popular Lexicon series, entitled China Lexicon: Defining and translating legal terms. The book is published by Vantage Asia and available at www.vantageasia.com