In 1928 Miss Gladys Sym Choon was the first woman to incorporate a business in South Australia. At 16 years of age Gladys Sym Choon opened her mini emporium, adjacent to the Adelaide Fruit and Produce Market.
Sixty three years later the store was taken over by Joff Chappel and his partner, fashion designer Razak. Retaining its original vitriolite and chrome façade, the store is now an icon for generations of Adelaide’s shopping cognoscenti.
The ongoing commitment to innovation and good design has seen many of Australia’s “about to be famous” young designers launch their careers in Adelaide’s Sym Choon.
The Sym Choon family of South Australia were a successful middle-class business family who were well-known and highly regarded in the wider Adelaide community.
Sym Choon and his wife So Yung Moon were both form Dong Guan county in Guangdon province in southern China. Born the same year in 1867, they were from peasant families, and married in 1888 (aged 21) before coming to Australia. Sym Choon came to Australia first, arriving in Adelaide around 1890, and adopted the Christian name of John. When he had saved enough money, he brought his wife out. The couple had earlier had a son in China, who died shortly after birth, and was replaced by an adopted son, as was the custom. The adopted son remained in the village with relatives all his life, and for many decades was supported by money sent from Adelaide by John Sym Choon, and later by his younger son Gordon.
John Sym Choon started out in Adelaide as a fruit and vegetable hawker. At first he used to walk with a hand cart from his home in suburban Unley to the East End Markets in the centre of Adelaide, where he would buy produce and sell it door-to-door in the suburbs. In 1908, he rented premises in Rundle Street, near the markets, and acquired a horse and a horse-drawn cart. When business improved, he bought the premises.
It was while he was still in Unley that his wife came out to Australia, sometime before 1900, and joined him in a house in Arthur Street. Three children were born in Unley – George (circa 1900), Dorothy (circa 1902) and Gladys (born 1905). In 1908 the whole family moved to Rundle Street, where the youngest son Gordon was born in 1910. The Sym Choon parents were very patriotic towards their adopted country, particularly as they were trying to be accepted by white South Australians, and Gordon’s full name included the names of two famous British generals as well as Chinese name Robert Kitchener General Gordon Gumfoy Sym Choon.
The Sym Choons were the only Chinese Australian family in Rundle Street although other Chinese Australian families lived in the Hindley Street – Morphett Street area. These families were mostly market gardeners, furniture makers and laundry workers.
John Sym Coon was a diabetic, and due to cutting himself with a knife while preserving pickles, became ill, and sometime in the 1910s returned to China, later to die there. The family business was then controlled by his wife So Yung Moon and her eldest son George.
The Sym Choon family believed strongly in education, and all four children had been educated at Flinders Street Primary School in Adelaide. Gordon and Gladys are known to have also attended Adelaide High School. It was unusual for a young Australian woman in her day to get a secondary education, and even more unusual for a Chinese girl. At this time, John Sym Choon had already returned to China, so it is speculated that without her husband to insist on traditional ways, So Yung Moon saw the opportunity to give her daughters the education necessary to enable them to be economically independent. At Adelaide High School, Gladys studied bookkeeping and learnt commercial practices.
The Sym Choon Stores
As the Sym Choon family’s Rundle Street business prospered, they bought further shops along the street in the early 1920s, each owned by one of the brothers and sisters. While Dorothy only rented her shop, the other three ran their own businesses from their shops. The family's original store, under the name of Sym Choon and Company, continued to be run by George.
Gordon set up his own business further along the road called Gordon S. Choon Nuts Ltd, which mainly sold fireworks and peanuts, but also sold items such as matches, syrup, pickled food (which he pickled himself), paper bags, other nuts, paper cups and ice cream cones. His fireworks were imported both from the Standard Fireworks Company in England, and from the largest fireworks manufacturing company in Hong Kong. The head of this Hong Kong business in the 1920s-1930s was a man called Chanlan Fong, who was also the Godfather of Gladys. The Sym Choons held a virtual monopoly on the sale of fireworks in Adelaide and supplied most of South Australia as well. George sold a similar range of goods to Gordon, and so the two brothers were competitors who strived to be independent of each other.
Gladys’ shop, which opened in 1923 was called The China Gift Store, sold napery, fine embroidery, lingerie, lace, ornamental china, and cloisonné. These and other fancy goods were imported from China through merchants and agents in Australia. Her chief interest was in arts, craft and needlework, and once a year she went to China, for business and for pleasure. Her first trip was with her mother, and they visited her mother’s home village, and occasionally, her sister Dorothy also travelled with her. On one visit, mother and two daughters were fortunate to be present in Canton at the time of the funeral of Sun Yet Sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic and the Kuomintag, or Chinese Nationalist Party.
When Gladys when to China for business purposes, she generally went to the Shanghai area, as this was the best place in the country to obtain napery, which was what Gladys mostly sold. Gladys was both the first woman in South Australia to form a business in her own right and the first to import goods from overseas.