Mak Sai Ying (who became known as John Shying) was the first documented Chinese landholder in New South Wales. He arrived in the colony in 1818 as a free settler and worked as a carpenter in Sydney and Parramatta. In 1829, Shying became Australia’s first Chinese publican when he was granted the licence for the Golden Lion inn in Church Street, Parramatta.
Shying had useful connections in the young colony. He had arrived on the ship Laurel where he met the gentleman farmer John Blaxland who was returning from a trip to England. Shying began working as a carpenter for Blaxland and helped his employer negotiate a number of favourable land deals. A subsequent position saw him working for Elizabeth Macarthur (wife of the wool pioneer John Macarthur) at their property at Rose Hill (later Parramatta). In 1823, Shying married an English woman, Sarah Thompson, and the couple established a shop in Parramatta.
The Golden Lion (also known just as the Lion) was among many public houses in Parramatta and the district granted liquor licences in 1829. Although this made John Shying Australia’s first Chinese publican, he didn’t hold onto the property for long. In 1830 it was advertised for sale or lease. It was described as:
A beautiful, well-built brick House, measuring 60 feet in front by 28, with a Chinese verandah, not to be equalled by any in the Colony, containing 7 rooms well fitted up, with a good cellar, 25 feet by 12 feet, likewise a good store room the length of the house; the yard containing a brick house, with kitchen, and 3 rooms, likewise, a 4-stall stable, and a fine well of good water; will let immediately at £2 per week.
A number of Shying’s other properties were advertised at the same time, an indication that his real-estate dealings for John Blaxland had provided valuable experience.
Shying had four sons with Sarah but in 1832 he left his family and returned to China for five years, coming back to Australia when his wife died. He continued his property dealing in Parramatta, at some point becoming the owner of the Peacock Inn, also in Church Street. That property was put up for sale in 1844, with the following description:
That well known and respectable establishment, the PEACOCK INN, at present let to Mr. John Stow, at an annual rent of Eighty Pounds. The house is brick built, in good condition, having an excellent China fashioned verandah running the whole frontage, and contains a bar, tap-room, three sitting and three bed rooms, large yard, stables, coach-house, a never-failing well of good water, and cellars.
Shying married again, but his second wife died not long after. His subsequent history is a mystery. While there are stories that he was eventually buried in Sydney under the name of John Sheen, recent DNA investigations have discredited this theory. It seems likely that he returned to China sometime in the 1840s and remained there for the rest of his life.
There were many other Chinese pubs in Australia’s early years, ranging from disreputable “grog shanties” to respectable establishments like those owned by Shying.