This safe was found in 1999 helping hold open a door in an modest house located in an average village in the district of Liang Du of Zhongshan County, southern China. The safe had originally been purchased in Sydney in the 1930s from Anthony Hordens & Sons, then Sydney’s leading department store.
The purchaser was Lee Man Duk, a fruit shop proprietor in Kogarah in Sydney’s south-west, who, like many who had arrived in Australia from China at the end of the 19th century, had a house and family in his village of origin. While working in Sydney Lee Man Duk had sent money over the years back to his parents, then to his wife and eventually, as he prospered in business, to his two wives. (See No. 17)
Lee Man Duk would also make a visit every few years to his family in China (see No.1) and when doing so he would buy gifts for them and for those who would visit him in his village home on what would be considered his ‘returning home with glory’. Like many Sydneysiders the favourite store for purchasing such gifts by Lee Man Duk and others traveling to China was Anthony Hordern & Sons, located on George Street and a prominent advertiser in such Chinese language newspapers as the Tung Wah Times. (See No.87)
Thus when Lee Man Duk wished to purchase a practical item such as a safe, Anthony Horderns was a natural choice. That a prosperous man such as Lee Man Duk might feel the need of a safe to keep his valuables in is also telling. In fact not only did he purchase this safe but the house in which he placed it, while an ordinary village house in many respects, had been added to in a manner that was increasingly common in the Pearl River Delta of the 1930s.
This was the building of a diao lou (碉樓) or a gun tower, a protective tower with a lockable grate and narrow gun slits designed to protect the people of the family as well as valuables. (See No.22) This was because attacks by bandits on villages had grown greatly in the years since the collapse of the Qing Empire and even more so in the years of the Great Depression.
For a man like Lee Man Duk and his family, the very money he was able to earn in Sydney that made him a wealthy man in his village, also made him a target for bandits. Kidnapping and holding of people for ransom was a favourite activity of such bandits and Lee Man Duk had gone through this experience, while his family had had to retreat to their tower and use guns and rocks to beat off a attack on at least one occasion.
By 1999 none of Lee Man Duk’s family lived in the house any longer, all having moved to more modern homes in larger cities in China or around the Pacific. One son, Clifford Lee, was however a regular visitor to the house with its safe, when he would pray to the family ancestor shrine and air out the house.