During the early decades of twentieth century, women could not even open a bank account in Australia without their husband’s permission, yet women founded almost a dozen of the earliest Pentecostal churches. The media ridiculed this minority sect as the religious hysteria of “weaker willed women.” Furthermore, women made up less than 2% of the Chinese population in Australia and they suffered the double marginalisation of being Asian and female. Hence, there is a noticeable absence of historical biographies about early Chinese Australian women. Yet, despite the triple marginalisation of being a Chinese female Pentecostal, the extraordinary Mary (Wong Yen) Yeung (1888-1971) stood firm in her calling as a preacher and missionary to make a substantial contribution to Christianity in Australia and beyond. As part of my research into the history of Pentecostalism during the early twentieth century, I happened upon the personal diaries and sermons of Mary. This led to further interviews with her relatives and the publication of two journal articles. I trust that Mary’s story of early hardship, spiritual transformation, courageous calling and social contribution inspires all Australian Pentecostals today to stand firm in their calling from God and bring transformation to their neighbourhoods and nations.
Born in Wahgunyah, Victoria, in 1888, Mary was the eldest of six children of James Chen Ah Kew and Lum Kou Gum. The family operated a local convenience store and land clearing business. As eldest daughter, Mary was required to care for the home and her four younger brothers and one sister. Mary writes:
I myself had no education, of either Chinese or English. I was not allowed to go to school because at that time the…custom would not allow any girls to read or write, so that they could be under man and do as he wish. It is a life of misery… [mother] would rather pay for the [government] summons, and keep me away as much as she could. I was only in the second class.
Household chores were often quite a challenge for a young girl. Because of the New South Wales/Victoria import duties, it was cheaper to buy meat across the river at Corowa, so Mary had to swim over and carry meat back on top of her head!
In 1901, when the ‘White Australia’ policy was introduced, the family moved back to the Chen native village of Huangchun, Guangdong. According to tradition, 13-year-old Mary was forced to have her feet bound and kept in embroidered, high-heeled shoes. This caused ongoing pain for the rest of her life. At the age of 16, Mary was matched with a wealthy Canadian Chinese she’d never met.
When Mary’s husband died in 1917, Mary moved back to Australia with her daughter, Yip Dee and her son Robert. The family converted to Christianity through English classes at the Church of Christ in Carlton. Less than 100 Chinese women lived in Melbourne at that time. Again, following Chinese custom, in 1918, Mary’s brothers arranged for her to marry Andrew Wong Yen, who was a Christian fruit merchant. Together they ran a local fruit shop and had six more children – James, Ida, Dorothy, Vena, David and Esther.
A radical turning point came when Mary adopted a Pentecostal spirituality. This movement centred on the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ as a post-conversion manifestation of ‘gifts of the Spirit’, including speaking in tongues, healing, prophesy and miracles. Mary describes her experience:
In the year 1923 a revival came to Australia, my husband and I both received the wonderful baptism of the Holy Ghost, according to Act 2:4… I was caught up in the cloud to meet the Lord, in the air… The night I received the Holy Ghost I never forget as long as I live. I was praising God all night. The Lord filled me with the Holy Ghost. I was under the power trembling all night… A personal baptism with Holy Ghost and fire. I was in the presence of God, I meet Jesus face to face.
Mary would pray in her bedroom three times every day, often weeping or reading the Bible, having only learned to read and write after her conversion to Christianity. Her focus on prayer is clear:
He who loves God find real joy in prayer…we find fellowship with God, compassion, life, power, knowledge of his presence fills our soul with His glory. I prove God. He hears and answers prayer…if we do not delight in the hour of secret prayer, it is because you do not live in harmony with the laws of God…You never be successful winning souls for Christ until you enter into fellowship with Christ. Sometimes you may feel all your work is vain and burdens press upon you, and the Victory can never be gained – get alone with God and pray.
When Mary’s four-year-old daughter, Dorothy, died, Mary writes that only faith sustained her.
Mary’s surviving children: James, Ida, Vena, David and Esther
After her second husband died unexpectedly, Mary decided to become an independent missionary in China. So, in 1929, she left Australia, with her five youngest children and elderly mother, establishing a mission and girls school in the Chen family home in Huangchun village, Sunwai. Each day, she walked on her crippled feet around 20 km, to visit surrounding villages.
She saw many people converted, including those from wealthy families, despite opposition from relatives. Being marginalised as both Christian and Pentecostal, believers often had rocks and cow manure thrown at their houses. Another ongoing concern was the nightly bandit attacks on the village. Her daughter, Esther, recalls running to the wall towers when the alarm bell rang. Mary had to take her family into the tower even when two of the children were ill with measles. Through courageous perseverance, Mary founded a 400-strong non-denominational church.
When Mary returned to Australia, in 1932, to settle her children into school, she was greeted by the Pentecostal assemblies as a local hero. Mary became a popular public speaker, telling “heart gripping story of her work among the bandits in China.” Then in 1935, Mary returned to China, while a friend cared for her children in Melbourne. Counter to her previous two arranged marriages, in 1936, Mary chose to marry a Presbyterian minister from Guangzhou, Jack Nam Chick Yeung. The following year, Japan invaded China and Mary’s journals record that Japanese aircraft circled over Sunwai several times a day, so low down that Mary could actually see the pilots’ faces and the bombs hanging on each side of the plane. The aircraft bombed Sunwai railway station, as well as the waterfront and some city streets, killing hundreds of people.
Eventually, the Yeungs escaped to Hong Kong and returned to Australia, in 1939. In order to raise support for the mission, Mary went on iterating tours throughout Australia and New Zealand. Mary spoke at a crowded Chinese Association Hall in Bendigo. Never complacent for a minute, when someone later brought Mary a cup of tea, she pointed out that the people of China were still thirsty for the Word of God! Mary also preached at Ballarat and Adelaide to large crowds. At times, the family even ministered in different cities at the same time. When the new pastor of Richmond Temple, Charles Greenwood, preached on Sunday 10 September 1939, Mary’s daughters, Vena and Ida, sang a duet. On the same day, at the assembly in Adelaide, Mary spoke at the 3pm and 7pm services.
The Yeungs decided to return to Hong Kong, in 1948, to minister to refugees escaping the Communist advance. Using money from the sale of their house in Melbourne, as well as donations from supporters, they bought a block of land in Ngau Chi Wan village. The Oriental Full Gospel Church was officially opened, in 1950, along with an aged care home and school.
Jack Yeung died, in 1959, but Mary continued with the ministry, opening chapels in Yuen Long and Macau, as well as the Yeung Jack Nam Memorial Kindergarten and another free school with 150 children. She explained to her children: “I am writing…to let you know I am not an ordinary mother. I am called and ordained by God…I am going back for God’s work.” Ultimately, Mary handed the Oriental Full Gospel Church over to the Mission Covenant Church of Norway, which eventually included 11 churches, four kindergartens, a secondary school, a primary school and an aged care home. Mary finally retired back to Australia. She passed away, in 1971, at the age of 82. Two years after her death, the ‘White Australia’ policy was abolished.
Mary’s life serves as an inspirational role model of determination despite hardship, spiritual transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit, commitment to God’s calling and a generous heart for the needy. At the close of her memoirs, Mary writes:
May I just add this little verse – God grant that these simple words so full of truth, may be to you my readers and many others, a means of salvation and you that you may say as the confession of your soul:
In peace let me resign my breath
And Thy salvation see
My sins deserve eternal death
But Jesus died for me.
About the Author: Denise Austin is the Director of Accreditation and Standards and Associate Professor of History at Alphacrucis College. She and her family served as Assemblies of God missionaries in Hong Kong, before returning to Brisbane, where Denise received her PhD in history from the University of Queensland. She has published widely in the areas of Pentecostal history, Chinese Christian history and oral history. As Director of the Australasian Pentecostal Studies Centre, Denise received Community Heritage Grants from the National Library of Australia, totalling almost $14,000. These grants have contributed to the preservation of the APSC archival collection. Denise is an ordained minister with Australian Christian Churches and is Secretary for the Theological Commission of Asia Pacific Theological Association.
 “Extraordinary Irreligious Proceedings,” Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser, March 20, 1908, 2.
 Denise A. Austin, “Mary Yeung: The Ordinary Life of an Extraordinary Australian Chinese Pentecostal – Part I”, Asian Journal Pentecostal Studies, 16, 2 (August 2013), 99-122; Denise A. Austin, “Mary Yeung: The Ordinary Life of an Extraordinary Australian Chinese Pentecostal – Part II”, Asian Journal Pentecostal Studies, 16, 2 (August 2013), 123-137.