Over more than 40 years the Adelaide City Mission provided English-language teaching for Chinese men in the hope of facilitating their conversion to Christianity. No other metropolitan mission in Australia ran such a school.
In October 1882 Sarah Lavis, then 23 years old, started the first class at Flinders Street Baptist Sunday School. Next year she moved to the City Mission in Light Square, near the Chinese quarter and its Kuan-Ti temple. The goodwill of Way Lee and other Chinese community leaders helped attract about 15 pupils each year from Adelaide’s Chinese population of about 200. Reading, writing, religious instruction and hymn-singing were taught at two weekly evening classes and one Sunday class, with at least one teacher provided for each pupil. The Chinese were considered incapable of learning geography, but excelled at bookkeeping.
Diplomatic representatives from China visited the school, as did the China Inland Mission’s founder, the Englishman Hudson Taylor. During his second visit in 1899 the school mourned a former teacher, William Fleming, who was murdered in Guizhou while working for the mission.
Prominent among the teachers in later years was anti-opium campaigner George Gee Wah, a Eurasian trained at the missionary training institution at Belair who taught the Bible in Chinese and preached in Sze-Yap dialect. Teachers and friends were given an annual banquet and gifts, much appreciated, as well as Chinese musical performances, which were less popular. While Gee Wah credited the school with ending paganism among his community, baptisms were few. With the ageing of Adelaide’s original Chinese population, demand for English language teaching declined and the school petered out in 1924.
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