A Measure of Time

Percy Young, Pioneering Business Owner

Percy Puck Sing Young must have been impressed when he walked into the Kwong Sing War store (later known as Kwong Sing & Co.) in 1894. The owner, Wong Chee, had recently erected a new building for the business in Glen Innes, northern NSW, and it stocked a huge range of items.

Young soon got to work serving the Chinese tin miners and rural workers who initially frequented the store. He was kept busy weighing flour and salt that arrived in bulk which had to be individually packaged for sale.

It would have taken him some time to familiarise himself with all the stock. Among the farm tools, firearms, and furnishings, there were shelves of wine, clothing, and even medicines – all of which Young needed to grab at a moment’s notice.

But a much bigger challenge was about to emerge. One of the first Australian laws to be passed after Federation, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, aimed to limit non-European (particularly Asian) immigration to Australia. The beginning of what is now known as the White Australia policy, it signalled a vision for Australia that excluded people like him.

Despite these attempts to restrict his success, Young forged ahead. By 1911, he had purchased the Kwong Sing store and with the help of his large family, continued to expand the business. The building was extended, the clientele broadened, and the store became a hub for the community.

By the 1920s, the back of the store was kitted out with a shelter, toilet, horse stables, and water troughs to give families from outlying properties the opportunity to rest in town. He took advantage of exemption clauses in the Immigration Restriction Act and sponsored six nephews to join him in Australia, who he trained so they could start their own businesses in rural NSW.

Percy Young must have been an exceptional man. In his obituary in the local Glen Innes paper in 1942, he was described as ‘kindly’ and ‘generous’ with the ‘welfare of the town and district … at heart.’ He kept the business going through systemic racism, drought, a World War, and the Depression.

The Kwong Sing & Co. building is now heritage-listed and continues to house businesses that serve the Glen Innes community. But general stores that stock everything from firearms to fabrics are long gone, a measure of how much our rural communities have changed.