Top End Footballers

Paul Ah Chee

Paul Ah Chee was a star of the Central Australia Football League for Pioneer before playing in the SANFL for North Adelaide.

In 1975, Grand Final fever took hold in Alice Springs as Pioneer Football Club took on Rovers and they triumphed due to an 18-year-old hometown prodigy.

Paul Ah Chee was freshly returned from schoolboy glory in Adelaide where he had helped lead the South Australian schoolboys team to their first national victory in 45 years.

He won the Mail Medal for best player in the Grand Final and also won the Minahan Medal for the best and fairest player in the Central Australian Football League 1975 season.

He was offered an invitation to trial with Carlton after he starred in the 1975 National Aboriginal Football Carnival in Launceston, where he was selected in the All-Australian Aboriginal side and endorsed by Syd Jackson, a two-time VFL premiership winner with Carlton.

Paul came to Melbourne for the trial but suffered terrible homesickness from the dislocation.

"I was alone in a strange, cold city without a mentor," he recalled.

Paul fled from Melbourne to Adelaide where he took a year off football and rejoined North Adelaide in 1977. Over five seasons in the SANFL, Paul played 22 senior league games and scored 15 goals, with media reports often commenting on his speed and his smooth moves.

"I was one of very few Aboriginal guys playing and definitely the only one with any Asian heritage," he said. "After a succession of injuries I went off the rails. I didn't really put in as much as I should have."

The Ah Chee story begins in the remote South Australian town of Oodnadatta where Paul's Cantonese grandfather, Cherry Ah Chee, ran a market garden to supply the town with fruit and vegetables and married Minnie Bell, an Arrernte woman.

Their son, Arthur Ah Chee, was a fettler, fixing the railroads and his second son, Fred (Paul's father), married Myra Kanakiya Taylor, a traditional Aboriginal woman. They gave birth to Paul in 1957 in the Adelaide Hills before moving to Alice Springs where Fred became an elite electrician and bushman.

In 1985 Paul formed a band called Amunda, with Paul the vocalist and guitarist alongside Charles Perkins' daughter Rachel and they produced three studio albums and for 10 years rocked nightclubs and festivals, including the Big Day Out in Sydney.

Today, Paul lives in Alice Springs and serves on the committee of his local footy club. He works as the Director of Engagement and Cultural for NT Major Events, chairs the Aboriginal Tourism Committee and is a director of Tourism NT.

Paul's son Roland Ah Chee was selected in the draft by the Gold Coast Suns before a shoulder injury ended his AFL dream.

Paul is proud of his Chinese heritage: "I tell everybody that my great-grandfather was Chinese, that's not very far away, only three generations. We wear it as a badge of pride."

Ron Chin

Ron Chin was a post-war hero of the Northern Territory Football League, winning 4 Premierships with the Darwin Buffaloes.

As a young, aspiring Darwin footballer, Ron Chin’s life was upended by the Japanese bombings in 1942 which resulted in the civilian population being evacuated.

The Chin family was split across several cities and 18-year-old Ron enlisted in the RAAF in Adelaide, before being deployed to Sydney in 1944 as a Leading Aircraftman and radio technician in the RAAF HQ Telecom Unit.

After the war he returned to join the Darwin Buffaloes, playing senior football for 10 years, winning 4 premierships in the 1950s and earning the nickname “The Flying Chinaman” for his speed.

Nightcliff legend Bennie Lew Fatt recalls being enthralled by Ron Chin: ‘It was one of the great sights to see the “Flying Chinaman” scooting down the wing. He was very quick.’

Northern Territory musician and storyteller Ted Egan recalls his friend ‘Hoonga’s playing style: ‘He was fast, a safe mark, great dropkick and great contester for the ball, a dynamic Aussie rules footballer.’

Ron’s battles with Bruce Potts from Wanderers became the stuff of Darwin legend according to Egan: ‘When Buffaloes played Wanderers, that was the matchup the spectators talked about and they had wonderful battles - on those days you would see “Hoonga” at his best,’

‘What a man: tall, handsome, a great athlete, a great singer, very funny and generous and without any malice. “Hoonga” is one of the great Territorians.’ Egan explains.

Ronald Chin was born in 1926 in Emungalan in Katherine, 260 kilometres south of Darwin, the son of Chin Loong Tang whose father Ching Mee Leung had migrated from Toishan in Canton via America before settling in Pine Creek.

His mother Lizzie Chin was the daughter of one of the Northern Territory’s most famous Chinese Australians – Granny Lum Loy, who was such a famous market gardener that she has a street named after her in Gungahlin in Canberra.

The Chin family moved from Emungalan to Darwin in the 1930s and opened a general store and Ron roamed the streets of multicultural pre-war Darwin where the Chinese community were at the centre of mercantile and social life.

Egan recalls everyone looking forward to Granny Lum Loy’s daily run from her market garden on the outskirts of Darwin into the city area: ‘She would be an amazing sight coming down the street in a white shirt, Chinese black pants, big hat and a big smile, carrying the Chinese ‘Yoke’ balancing two baskets full of vegetables and fruit – she would talk in broken English or Chinese, we didn’t care – we loved her spirit.’

Ron played football in high school and was fully integrated into Darwin's life until it was shattered by the Japanese bombing.

Ron’s son Roland feels that his father’s legacy in football helped his family: ‘My father was well respected for his football talents, and it brought respect to our family,’

‘But he would never tell you how good he was – I had to find out from other people.’

John Tye

John Tye was announced in the Northern Territory team of the Century and voted by the NTFL as the ‘greatest Darwin footballer since Cyclone Tracy’.

When the Northern Territory Football League announced its Team of the Century in 2016, it contained three players of Chinese descent.

Walter Lew Fatt was named on the interchange, Clifford Lew Fatt as a fullback and John 'Bubba' Tye on the wing alongside AFL champions Andrew McLeod and Michael Long.

Tye is largely unknown outside the Northern Territory as he only had a brief time playing in the SANFL, but he played such exquisite 'wet season' football that he was voted 'the greatest footballer since Cyclone Tracy' by the NTFL.

John Tye played over 200 games of senior football from 1964 until 1980 and brought a unique style and intensity to Darwin football.

He played the first part of his career for the Darwin Buffaloes, winning three premierships and then later switched to Nightcliff, delivering them a premiership as well.

He won Chaney Medals for best player in a Grand Final for both clubs and in the 1978/79 season he won the Nichols Medal for the best player in the NTFL.

He also played six games for the Norwood Redlegs in the South Australian National Football League before returning home to Darwin.

John played interstate representative football for the Northern Territory and one of his proudest achievements was captaining the Northern Territory to a 32-point win over Queensland in Brisbane in 1974.

John Henry 'Bubba' Tye was born in Darwin in 1951, the son of George Tye and Mavis, who was a famous midwife in the town.

Fellow SANFL Chinese heritage player, Paul Ah Chee, recalls 'Bubba' being a brilliant footballer wherever he played: "He played a bit like Cyril Rioli – a mix of pace, style and skill. I know that he missed the Territory when he was away from it – the bush was in his blood like few others I met."

Paul remembers a unique man among men who was proud of his cultural identity: "I knew him well and he was an amazing, magnificent man, who looked oriental and knew about his Chinese heritage."

'Bubba' Tye was inducted into the AFL Northern Territory Hall of Fame in 2010 with the following summary:

''There are not enough superlatives to describe 'Bubba' Tye's football ability and there is no doubt that had he so wished he could have plied his trade in the VFL. 

'Fortunately for NT football he chose to remain playing in the NTFL, entertaining legions of fans every week. 

'A spectacular, high-energy player, his inspirational play earned him the respect of all football followers. His fierce attack on the ball sent shudders through all his opponents. 

'A brilliant mark and a superb kick, to watch 'Bubba' play would often give all his supporters goose bumps.'

John 'Bubba' Tye passed away in 2014 at the age of 63 and the hard-living, hard-drinking, footy-playing bushman was described as 'The Real Crocodile Dundee' by his brother Arthur at his funeral.

Joe Sarib

One of Darwin’s finest-ever players Joe Sarib won the inaugural Nichols medal in 1949 and helped the Darwin Buffaloes to win 4 Premierships.

In 1949 the Darwin clubs in the Northern Territory Football League were still recovering from the mass evacuation of the city's citizens during World War II. Some players never returned, but the clubs were able to assemble quality teams and needed a hero to ignite the league.

Joe Sarib emerged as that hero, winning the first-ever Nicholls Medal for Best and Fairest in the NTFL in 1949, and between 1947 and 1955, he helped the Darwin Buffaloes win four premierships.

According to the family story, Joe's father, Thomas, was a Javanese Muslim who in 1880 fled Indonesia on a pearling lugger to escape an abusive father. To avoid detection in Australia, Thomas changed his surname to Sarib.

He then married a Malaysian-Chinese woman, Marion Wu, who came from a prominent Darwin family and for many years ran 'The Oriental Cafe' on Cavenagh Street in Darwin's old Chinatown precinct.

Joe Sarib's son, Rob is the Surveyor General of the Northern Territory and is proud of his father's legacy. "People would share stories about Dad being the best centreman they had seen, or that he had a great left foot stab," Rob says.

One memory that stands out for Rob was a conversation with ex-Darwin Buffaloes footballer Bill Dempsey, who would go on to play 341 games for West Perth and sit in the WAFL and Australian Football Halls of Fame.

Dempsey's career with the Buffaloes started four years after Joe retired in 1955 but he grew up idolising Joe Sarib.

"I met Bill Dempsey a few times and he said he admired him and was inspired by him and watched every game he played," Rob recalls.

Darwin Buffaloes teammate Ron 'The Flying Chinaman' Chin said that Joe was the best footballer he had seen, while Nightcliff's Bennie Lew Fatt was in awe of Joe's 'beautiful left foot that would pinpoint players in the forward line'.

Northern Territory music legend Ted Egan remains in awe of Joe's all-around ability in football, athletics, tennis, golf and basketball.

"I've seen most of them and Joe Sarib is the best all-round athlete the Territory has produced," he says. "I remember watching him play football one day and he sprang, took a high mark and landed like a cat. He moved so beautifully."