36. Ma brothers heads

These two heads were found siting in a yard in the Pearl River Delta village of Heng Mei (恒美), Zhongshan County about 15 years ago. They are of two members of the Ma family of that village – Ma Yin Piu (馬應彪 Ma Yingbiao 1868–1944) & possibly Ma Ying Xing, founders and developers of Sincere & Company. The origins of Sincere & Company and the celebration of the prominent and successful in their villages of origin are all closely linked elements of Chinese-Australian history.

Sincere & Co is one of the so-called big four – four department stores[1] – that were prominent in Shanghai in the 1930s. All four are interesting from a strictly Australian view point in that all four have strong Australian links and even origins. All four enterprises were based on wealth and business experience that had there origins in the Sydney markets. Despite these origins all four businesses ultimately made their real wealth not in Sydney or Australia but in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Former Sincere & Co. building Shanghai

Men such as the Ma’s fulfilled the dream of many who left their Pearl River Delta villages to seek income overseas in places such as Australia. Business success enabled them to ‘return with glory’ as the common phrase went to their villages. The very successful such as the Ma’s often maintained large houses (see No. 39) in their villages and donated to schools and other community needs (see No. 30). The village community in return would go to great lengths to ensure that these successful members and their descendants were celebrated and remembered (see No. 33).

In the case of Heng Mei village this celebration apparently included the carving of two monumental heads, though it is now unclear what happened to these. Instead the achievements of the Ma family have been more recently commemorated in a new park with its own statue of Ma Ying Bien. The park is a community facility but was funded with donations from the Ma family now largely based in Hong Kong.

While the Ma’s and Sincere & Company and the others of the Big Four represent the most successful in terms of wealth and business, all the villages of the Pearl River Delta have statues, memorial building, schools and libraries that were founded with donations from successful members who returned from periods working around the Pacific or in South-East Asia. (See No.30) Their donations not only helping their villages but demonstrating the possibilities of successful sojourns overseas that encouraged the next generation to also leave the village in the hopes of returning in glory. (See also No. 17 & No. 21.)

It is this pattern of lengthy sojourns overseas and return to provide money not only to the family but to the village that enabled the pattern of overseas Chinese history to reproduce itself over many generations. The Ma’s of Sincere & Company did maintain homes in the villages but ultimately the family moved away from Heng Mei to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Returning to the village on special occasions and continuing to donate money for local projects.

[1] The others are Wing On, Sun Sun and Da Sun. For an interesting overview see here.