Chilling death behind the ‘ghost’ of Sydney’s QVB

As the Sydney Town Hall clock struck 8 o’clock on a recent Thursday night, and crowds bustled into the final hour of late-night shopping, a group of people gathered in the Queen Victoria Building with retail therapy far from our dark minds.

We were there for something else entirely — a very spooky, very exclusive tour of Sydney’s most iconic shopping mecca.

The QVB could well be the most majestic building in downtown Sydney but the old girl has seen plenty of macabre stuff in her 121-year history. And in night-time tours held as part of the QVB After Dark program this month, those sordid secrets are being told.

The tour guides led us on a dark journey through the QVB. Picture: QVBSource:Supplied

Before the clock chimes had even stopped ringing out, we were greeted by two tour guides dressed in 19th century finery and over the next hour, they theatrically recounted the QVB’s dark history as they led us around the magnificent building and into rooms and passageways usually off-limits to the public.

We winced at the story of the man who died a gruesome death in the building’s old cage lifts, used for horses in the early days of the marketplace.

We shuddered hearing about remains from Sydney’s first cemetery under our feet in the QVB forecourt, and of the funeral trains that used to transport the recently and not-so-recently departed out to Rookwood Cemetery from creepy Mortuary station.

We were taken to parts of the building usually off-limits to the public.Source:News Corp Australia

A rare look at the building’s central dome from a secret courtyard.Source:News Corp Australia

In a secret QVB courtyard visitors would have no idea existed, the mood really shifted when one of the guides suddenly dropped the theatrics and confessed the energy in the next room was so unnerving he could barely stand to enter it.

We also heard about the QVB’s “resident ghost”, a spectre some people have claimed to have seen pacing the floors and circling the spectacular central dome.

The ghost is said to be a QVB business owner who died from a violent robbery more than 100 years ago and never really left the building.

The Queen Victoria Building has stood through a lot. Picture: City of SydneySource:Supplied

But it turned out, the real-life story of the slain merchant, Mei Quong Tart, was even more interesting than the spooky tales of his alleged apparitions.


Mei Quong Tart would be one of Sydney’s most popular personalities, but his origins were humble. Born in China, he came to Australia as a nine-year-old in 1859, at a time of strong anti-Chinese sentiment in the colonies.

He was taken in by a Scottish family — and took from them a somewhat unexpected Scottish accent — in rural Braidwood in the NSW Southern Tablelands.

The ghost of Mei Quong Tart is said to haunt the QVB.Source:Supplied

When he was old enough, he started building his fortune at the goldfields near there. He also worked as a government interpreter and was outspoken on issues affecting Chinese communities in goldfield towns, such as the scourge of opium.

He then made his home in Ashfield, in Sydney’s inner west, and worked in the tea and silk trade in Sydney. He opened restaurants across the city, but his most famous was the Elite Dining Hall and Tea Rooms in the then-new QVB. The elegant venue on the ground floor was much favoured by Sydney’s high society.

Quong Tart outside one of his tea shops in central Sydney.Source:Supplied

It was also fairly groundbreaking. Quong Tart was a well-liked employer, allowing his workers paid holiday and sick leave. He was known to give out leftover food to staff and other hungry people at the end of the day.

His tea rooms became meeting places for members of the women’s suffragette movement and Quong Tart provided ladies’ powder rooms, at a time when there were no public toilets for women.

He gave generously to charity, he was an excellent local sportsman, and was generally adored far and wide — as far away as Beijing, where the Chinese Imperial Court acknowledged his work with the Chinese-Australian community.

So the events of August 19, 1902 — 117 years ago today — were particularly devastating to many people.

An oil portrait of Quong Tart, circa 1880s. Picture: Mitchell LibrarySource:Supplied

As Quong Tart was counting money at the end of a day’s trade in his QVB office, the married father-of-six was brutally bludgeoned with an iron bar and robbed of just a few pounds. He initially survived, though the city was outraged.

His attacker was Frederick Duggan, who was described in a more recent Sydney Morning Herald article as a “dimwitted thug”. Some thought it was a mere robbery gone wrong, others speculated about sinister political motives. Duggan was jailed for 12 years, and the light sentence set off another wave of outrage across Sydney.

A bust of Quong Tart in Ashfield.Source:Supplied

Quong Tart didn’t recover. Eleven months after the brutal attack, he died in his home in Ashfield from pleurisy — inflammation of the lining of the lungs and chest wall. He was about 53 years old.

Those who have reported Quong Tart “hauntings” in the QVB have described him as a friendly ghost, who often waved at people as they walked by. On the After Dark tour, we were encouraged to wave back if we saw him.

However, did not see the ghost of Quong Tart on the tour and nor did this writer expect to. More meaningful, anyway, was hearing the true story of the man, one of the most charismatic characters to walk the corridors of the QVB — whether or not, as some say, he still does.

QVB After Dark is on during August. It will culminate with the QVB After Dark Live event on Thursday, August 22, featuring music, performance art, storytelling and retailer workshops.

The writer took the After Dark tour as a guest of the QVB.

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