Num Pon Soon Society Building is a two storey stuccoed brick building built in 1861 to the design of notable architects Knight and Kerr. It was built as a clubhouse for the Sam Yup Society ("three district" society) which later became known as the Num Pon Soon Society. The society, one of the earliest district associations established in Victoria, helped miners and others from the Num Hoi, Pon Yu and Soon Duc districts in the Guangdong province of China. The clubhouse was built through donations from members of the society with assistance from Lowe Kong Meng, successful merchant and leading member of the Chinese community. Lowe Kong Meng was not a native of the Num Pon Soon districts, but he played a major role in a number of Chinese organisations and, with his knowledge of English and his standing in the wider Melbourne community, he organised the building of the society's clubhouse as well as assisting in legal and financial matters.
Many Chinese came to Victoria during the gold rushes of the 1850s, large numbers of whom were young men from the Canton Delta area of the southern province of Guangdong. Economic hardship and political upheaval forced many to emigrate and provide for family back in China. Many hoped to return home. District, clan and trade associations played an important role for expatriate Chinese, providing accommodation, places of worship, meeting places and other facilities and support.
The ground floor of the Num Pon Soon building sits on a basalt stone plinth and was originally an open Doric colonnade but has been subsequently enclosed. The architrave has evolute spiral mouldings. The upper storey balustraded loggia has fluted columns and pilasters employing the Corinthian order. Chinese influences include a timber and gild Num Pon Soon panel inscribed with Chinese characters above the first floor central square window featuring a stained glass stylised floral motif and timber framed etched glass "Palace style" lanterns on the balcony. The parapet has a mannerist pediment which includes the name Num Pon Soon.
The ground floor of the building is leased for commercial purposes. It retains its vaulted corrugated iron ceiling. A shrine room is situated at the front of the first floor which includes an altar used to honour ancestors, as well as other ritual objects and furniture. The first floor also includes living, dining and accommodation space. The attic rooms on the second floor of the building were also used for accommodation.
How is it significant?
Num Pon Soon Society Building is of historical, social and architectural significance to the State of Victoria.
Why is it significant?
Num Pon Soon Society Building is of historical significance for housing the earliest known surviving Chinese shrine in Australia and possibly the earliest outside of Asia. It also has significance as the earliest surviving Chinese community building in Victoria. It has strong associations with Chinese immigration to Victoria and is a tangible link to the Chinese who came in large numbers to the Victorian goldfields during the second half of the 19th century, and is evidence of their strong presence in Little Bourke Street since that time. The retention of the ancestors' shrine and other artefacts and furniture adds considerably to an understanding of the function of the building as a meeting place and a place of worship for the Num Pon Soon Society. The building and its contents are a physical reminder of the importance of district associations to expatriate Chinese in western countries from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. It is additionally significant for its links to Lowe Kong Meng (1831-1888), one of the most prosperous and successful early Chinese settlers in Melbourne.
Num Pon Soon Society Building is of historical and social significance for its associations with the traditional practices and customs of expatriate Chinese. Its highly intact shrine room provides tangible evidence of the lives and religious and ceremonial practices of the Chinese immigrants. The shrine room continues to play an important cultural, religious and social role for many members of the Chinese community, and Num Pon Soon Society members in particular have a strong attachment to the place.
Num Pon Soon Building is architecturally significant as a distinctive example of a Classical style building with Chinese influences designed by two of the most talented Public Works Department architects, J. G. Knight and Peter Kerr. The smaller scale of the Num Pon Soon building provides an interesting comparison with Knight and Kerr's major work of the period, Parliament House, the first stages of which were designed in 1856.