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The forgotten fortune of Willie Mar, the last Chinese-born market gardener in western Queensland

Insights

Winton has kept his memory alive but the Supreme Court will decide what to do with Willie Mar’s money – 13 years after his death.

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When Willie Mar died in 2007, he left behind a depleted garden, old buildings and a ute, which would all be kept by the Winton Shire Council as a tribute. Mar had inherited the fruit and vegetable business from his father, Willie Mar Snr, and was the last of his kind.

The younger Mar’s material wealth was far from spectacular, the property considered more of a historical relic, its unusual farming and irrigation methods used by two generations across 77 years. But, as it turns out, Mar also left a bank account containing a small fortune: $87,000.

A group of local history buffs calling themselves the Friends of Willie Mar were aware of the money and in 2013 applied to use at least some of the funds to maintain his property, which had become a heritage tourism site in Winton. However, for whatever reason, their application was not successful.

Since Mar’s death, the Public Trustee has had control of his account and, after searching the world for a living relative, has now made a recommendation for the court to endorse. The money will simply be absorbed by the State Government, minus costs of the search and court proceedings.

The Chinese-Australian businessman gave half a century of his life to western Queensland and is still a household name in Winton. He had customers, and friends, but died apparently without a next of kin.

Willie Mar Jnr in his market garden. Source: Winton District Historical Society and Museum Inc

In documents filed in the Supreme Court, the Public Trustee states that Mar was born in China in August 1929, the product of a visit home by Willie Mar Snr, and came to Australia at age 20 to live and work with his father in Winton.

Just five years later, Willie Mar Snr died, leaving his son to decide whether or not to persevere in western Queensland, far away from his mother and birth country. The younger Mar stayed, becoming an Australian citizen in 1967, but never had a family of his own. Upon his death, it was left to the Public Trustee to find any of Mar’s relatives.

“As it is known that Willie Mar Jnr’s mother died in Hong Kong on 16 January 1984, an advertisement was published in the South China Morning Post and Apple Daily newspaper in English and Cantonese in Hong Kong, asking anyone with knowledge of any siblings, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts or cousins of the deceased to contact the Public Trustee,” the court documents state.

“There has been no response to that advertisement.”

A notebook belonging to Mar referred to a man in Hawaii, who pointed the Public Trustee in the direction of a woman in Townsville who suggested Mar had “step siblings and perhaps two aunts and uncles”.

By coincidence, the woman’s daughter worked for the Public Trustee, however neither was able to provide any further information on the whereabouts of Mar’s next of kin. It was a dead end.

The uncle of the man in Hawaii was able to provide a family tree written in Cantonese and Mandarin and appearing to date back to 1600. He stated that he had grown up with Mar, even visiting him in Winton, and believed his only living family member might be a “remote cousin still living in a village in China”. But that was too remote a chance for the Public Trustee.

“Because of this, because of the cost of making enquiries in mainland China, and because of the small size of the estate, no steps have been taken to locate the ‘remote cousin’,” the documents state.

Believing it had exhausted all reasonable attempts to find a next of kin, the Public Trustee decided the only option was to transfer Mar’s funds to the state.

“But, because it is always possible that at some time next of kin of the deceased may come forward, the Public Trustee seeks the protection of the Court’s direction before doing so,” the documents state.

The people of Winton may also stake a claim, if only to preserve Mar Jnr’s legacy. The Friends Of Willie Mar worked hard to keep his memory alive, as did the council and the Winton District Historical Society and Museum.

The old fruit and vegetable shop stands fixed in time.

The court has yet to decide on the application.

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