Inspiring South Australian women: Gladys Sym Choon

People of Adelaide

Posted on 30 Mar 2020

Throughout the state's history, South Australia, and indeed Adelaide itself, has produced an ever-growing collection of truly inspirational women - trailblazers across politics, social reform, the arts, food, wine and so much more. 

As a tribute to these pioneers, historian Carolyn Collins and journalist Roy Eccleston penned the book Trailblazers - shining a light on the lives of 100 extraordinary South Australian women. 

Among them is savvy businesswoman and masterful marketer Gladys Sym Choon. She operated retail stores in Rundle Street and Regent Arcade, selling an eclectic range of oriental wares imported from China, the first business to do so in South Australia.

In this extract from Trailblazers, discover more about Gladys' story and how she created 'a little bit of China established in Adelaide' (The Advertiser, 1936).

(1905–1991) Entrepreneur

Gladys sym choon

Gladys sym choon's stores offered adelaideans a taste of the exotic

She wore beautiful traditional Chinese gowns to advertise her exotic Rundle Street store but in everyday life, Gladys Sym Choon was more interested in permanent-wave hairstyles and flapper fashions.

A thoroughly modern woman for her time, Sym Choon straddled opposing worlds. She was Australian-born with Chinese parents; a successful businesswoman in an industry dominated by men; and in the early part of the 20th century, she catered to a popular demand for luxury goods from the Orient during one of the most racist periods in Australian history.

Born in Unley in 1905, she was part of the enterprising Sym Choon family business dynasty, established by her Hong Kong-born father, John Sym Choon, who migrated to Adelaide in 1891, one of 357 Chinese-born men and just six Chinese-born women recorded in the South Australian census that year.

After settling first in Unley, John Sym Choon found work as a hawker, walking with a hand cart to buy produce from the East End markets, which he then sold door to door. Later he rented a room in Rundle Street, close to the markets, and bought a horse and cart.

Once he had raised enough money, he brought his wife So Yung Moon over from China. In 1906, they established a family store, Sym Choon & Co, on Rundle Street, selling imported Chinese goods, including tea, fireworks and handicrafts. As the business prospered, the Sym Choon children opened more shops in Rundle Street.

In 1921, Gladys and her younger brother accompanied their father to China on a business trip. A year later, John Sym Choon returned to China for the last time. Sadly, he died there on 11 July 1922, aged 52. After John Sym Choon’s death, Gladys’s mother and brother George took over the business, with the other children joining them once they had finished school.

In 1923, still in her teens, Gladys Sym Choon opened her own store at 235a Rundle Street, next door to her brothers’ shop, calling it the China Gift Store. She is believed to be the first woman to incorporate a business in South Australia, and the first to import goods from overseas.

Specialising in beautiful oriental wares, for more than 60 years Gladys Sym Choon’s Rundle Street shop offered Adelaideans a taste of the exotic. She sold an eclectic range of goods, from napery, fine embroidery, lingerie, lace, ornamental china, and oriental jewellery, to chopsticks, paper lanterns, and sandalwood soaps, sourcing these on regular trips to China and Hong Kong.

She also took private orders for exclusive goods when she travelled. ‘I had lovely things only the wealthy could afford,’ she recalled in a 1990 interview. ‘If anyone wanted that type of thing they would come to see me.’

Sym Choon was a savvy businesswoman and a masterful marketer who emphasised her Chinese heritage in advertisements, in which she was pictured holding Chinese lanterns and wearing traditional dresses, while capturing the spirit of the 1920s and 1930s. She styled herself – and her shop – as exotic and glamorous, catering to popular appetites for oriental goods.

The success of the Rundle Street store allowed her to open a second business in Regent Arcade in 1928, which she operated until the early 1950s. In 1936, the Advertiser hailed her ‘remarkable establishment’, as ‘a little bit of China established in Adelaide’.

The Sym Choons’ success came against the backdrop of the federal government’s draconian White Australia policy, which for seven decades effectively limited non-British migration. Prospective migrants from other countries faced humiliating dictation tests, which could be given in any European language and where success was unlikely. Although John Sym Choon was born in the British colony of Hong Kong and his children were born in Australia, they all had to apply for a Certificate of Exemption from the dictation test and were fingerprinted when they travelled to and from China during the 1920s.

Chinese people living in Adelaide were also subject to racism and the Sym Choons were not immune. In 1912, a young man was arrested after a series of incidents in which stones and wood were thrown through the windows of the Sym Choon business. In the most serious attack, a brick was thrown through the shop window, hitting the hood of a pram in which a baby was sleeping.

Interviewed in 1990, however, just a year before her death, Gladys Sym Choon said that she could not recall any incidents of racism, emphasising that the family had been well respected in the community.

In 1937, Sym Choon became engaged to Edward (Teddy) Chung Gon, who had a similar business in Tasmania. A large photograph of the bride-to-be in a traditional Chinese dress and holding a Pekinese dog accompanied the announcement, which appeared in the women’s pages of the Launceston Examiner.

Gladys sym choon wedding
photo-icon Mei Ling Niel; Migration Museum Collection PN05630

Wedding of Gladys Sym Choon and Edward Chung Gon, Adelaide, 1939.

Two years later her ‘colourful Chinese wedding’ in Adelaide featured in the social pages in both cities. While the bridal party wore Western-style gowns and suits, onlookers were ‘delighted’ by the guests, including the bride’s mother, who turned out in ‘traditional Chinese robes’.

After her marriage, Gladys Sym Choon moved to Tasmania and had three children. She worked in her husband’s shop, Peking Gifts, as well as continuing to stock and supervise her Adelaide store, returning to the city every year, and making regular business trips to Hong Kong and China.

In 1979, she gave the Adelaide store to her daughter Mei Ling Niel, who managed it until 1985. It was then bought by fashion designer Abdul Razak Mohammed and his partner Joff Chappel, who renamed it Miss Gladys Sym Choon, vowing to maintain not only the name but also the spirit of its pioneering founder.

Gladys Sym Choon died on 16 October 1991, aged 85, and is buried in Launceston. At her funeral, her son Bob Chung Gon paid tribute to his mother as a ‘pioneer of women’s liberation’, a woman who had ‘successfully combined family life with her own separate career long before this way of life came to the fore’.

The full story of Gladys Sym Choon, and those of 99 other inspiring South Australian women, can be found in the book:
Trailblazers by Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston - published through Wakefield Press.