As you wander up Little Bourke Street towards Spring Street, make sure you pause to look at the tops of buildings. At the ground level, shops have been modernised at various times over the 20th century, but their upper storeys often reveal their 19th century origins.
If you do look up as you walk along, you cannot help but be struck by the impressive Num Pon Soon building on the left-hand side as you walk towards Spring Street.
This stuccoed brick building has inspired artists and photographers since it was built in 1860–61. It was built to the designs of J.G. Knight and Peter Kerr, who were architects for the Department of Public Works and also drew the plans for Parliament House. If you look closely you will see European design features, such as classical Romanesque columns, mixed with Chinese elements, such as the wave pattern between the first and second floor, the flower-pattern glass window on the upper storey, the timber and gild Num Pon Soon panel in Chinese characters and the timber-framed etched-glass lanterns on the balcony.
Upstairs on the first floor the original altar is still used for worship. This is the earliest known surviving Chinese shrine in Australia and possibly the oldest outside Asia. Both the building and altar are listed as two of Victoria’s significant cultural assets on Victoria’s National Heritage Register. This building is the oldest surviving building constructed for Chinese in Australia and was erected as the clubrooms for the Num Pon Soon Society and funded through member donations.
The Num Pon Soon Society is a district society, which are benevolent associations that support members from the same district in China, in this case, Sam Yup (or Sanyi in Mandarin) or the so-called ‘three districts’ province in Guangdong. It was one of a number of district associations established in Melbourne which still operate today. The main district society in Melbourne is the See Yup Society for people from See Yup (or Siyi, four districts province in Guangong). It has its clubrooms on the upper floors of 124 Little Bourke Street and a large temple in South Melbourne that has operated there since 1856.
Because of the large number of See Yup people in Melbourne, societies were also established for three of the four districts within the See Yup region as well. One of these, the Kong Chew Society, established in 1854, is the oldest district association in Melbourne. It built its clubrooms in 1862 but this magnificent building was demolished in the late 1960s and the association’s clubrooms are now in Tattersall’s Lane off Little Bourke Street near Swanston Street. The other district associations are the Ning Yang and the Chong Shen societies.
The Num Pon Soon Society, and other societies like it, continue to provide many of the same services as they did when they were first established. This includes financial support, dispute resolution, temporary accommodation, a place to worship and a friendly social environment for their members to talk about and catch up on news from home.
The societies are also particularly active in fundraising activities and support charitable causes in both Australia and China. As is typical of these district association buildings, the ground floor of the Num Pon Soon building has always been let to Chinese businesses with accommodation and other club space on the first and second floors.
This text is from Stories from the Heart of Melbourne, a book commissioned by the City of Melbourne and written by authors Dr Arnold Zable and Dr Sophie Couchman. The stories are based on research, and information provided by interviewees. The book is available for borrowing from City of Melbourne libraries.