2017: Australia’s second richest man was almost stopped from fleeing from China to Australia in 1948 by a government decision that split his family forever …
AT CAAN we found there were still a few gaps to be filled. It is a bit of a read but well worth taking the time …
Within the article he is described as his father’s son … and this is borne out in his immense ability to accumulate wealth … his business acumen … and drawing on the childhood he spent in China to later become the means by which he became as Managing Director of MERITON, Australia’s biggest residential property developer … was it Harry Triguboff through the Developer Lobby, the Urban Taskforce that convinced the government to increase the sell-off of ‘new homes’ from 50% to 100% overseas? And thus pioneered selling apartments to the Chinese through the FIRB Ruling.
By which means aspiring Australian First Home Buyers have been locked out by the huge competition of Chinese buyers laundering ‘black money’ in our domestic housing …
As for the money, do you believe for one minute, that the Triguboffs arrived with only some?
It seems at best disingenuous, or the very least a misinterpretation of what a lot of money was in 1948!
Ask yourself, who paid what to:
-who paid the fares
-who paid the school fees/uni fees/ living expenses
It takes more than working hard to do what he did.
Some understanding of his attitude to authority is gained in the article, but why should he be treated any different to others?
That’s the real question … what has happened so that he has won more than anyone else?
Is there a cloud out there, a veil that will only be lifted when he finally goes to the other place?
*Perhaps then the truth will emerge about the past, and hopefully due process available to communities across Sydney and elsewhere will have a chance to be heard, respected and achieve outcomes that are more about amenity than profit …
HARRY TRIGUBOFF’S DARK SECRET – THE 19 YEAR STRUGGLE THAT SPLIT HIS FAMILY
Harry Triguboff, meeting the AFR Magazine at his home in Sydney’s Vaucluse, breaks his silence about the one battle he couldn’t win: “I didn’t cry at the time; I cried all those years later.”
Geoff Winestock AFR Woodcut
by Geoff Winestock
Dec 8, 2017
Harry Triguboff is the hard man of Australian property. He is known for his sharp temper and his public battles with everyone from Reserve Bank governors and prime ministers to state politicians, planning bureaucrats and anyone else who gets in the way of his huge apartment construction machine, Meriton.
But there was one moment when the hardened Triguboff gave a small glimpse into the turmoil that he buries deep inside. It was 1994 when Triguboff was aged 61, his wealth and fame as “High Rise Harry” well established.
In front of 800 pupils at Sydney’s Moriah College, he took the podium at the first school assembly in the Moshe Triguboff Auditorium, newly built with his money. A small article published in Australian Jewish News captured the scene.
“Standing in Moriah College’s new modern auditorium bearing the name of his father, benefactor Harry Triguboff was almost lost for words,” the article began. “Choking with emotion, he paused several times, saying it was hard for him to speak at all.” The article did not pry into the cause of Triguboff’s tears, and he has never felt the need to publicly explain what happened. Until now.
Here, told for the first time, is the story of the Kafkaesque nightmare inflicted on Harry Triguboff and his family. Having fled China after World War II, Harry and his brother, Joseph, spent two decades pleading for visas so their parents could live with them in Sydney. But their pleas were rejected. Their mother, Frida, died in 1966 followed by their father, Moshe, less than a year later. He had no relatives in Israel and was alone when he died.
The reason they were refused visas remains hidden, but it almost certainly concerns allegations of wartime collaboration by Harry’s father with the Japanese.
Indeed, if the Immigration Department had its way, Harry Triguboff would never have become an Australian, let alone one of its richest men. They tried to stop him, when he was 14 years old, from fleeing here from China in 1948 and considered deporting him and his brother after the pair slipped past border authorities.
In a Sydney restaurant in 2017, Triguboff is seated at a discreet table in his business attire of jacket and tie drinking a scotch. The conversation turns to the time of his father’s death and that moment 27 years later at Moriah College. “I didn’t cry at the time. I cried all those years later, that’s when I cried,” he says. “Interesting how the mind works.”
Not one to seek sympathy
Harry Triguboff is not the type who ordinarily seeks public sympathy. Having started his business at the age of 30 in 1963 with a block of eight units in Sydney’s inner south, he has built more than 75,000 apartments, along with a fortune estimated at $11.4 billion. He is Australia’s second-richest person. He almost went broke in the 1970s, and vowed never again to be so reliant on banks.
*He pioneered selling apartments to the Chinese – a business strategy that would prove to be a stroke of genius. He has fought and won against bureaucrats and planning ministers, waged court battles against rabbis for control of Sydney’s Yeshiva Centre and beaten off bowel cancer. The architectural quality of his buildings has been attacked, most famously by Paul Keating, and his tactics as Australia’s largest landlord have landed him in court. Yet even at the age of 84, he is still in complete charge of Meriton, his work ethic driven by a relentless desire to win in the game of business.
But the story of his family also points to a desire to stay a step ahead of the arbitrary hand of fate, and never knuckle under to petty bureaucrats and politicians.
Former NSW premier Nick Greiner has known Harry Triguboff since the 1970s, when he worked for his father’s company which built roofs for Meriton apartments. Greiner says he only ever knew vague details about Triguboff’s time in China and nothing about his father’s problems. “Having heard the story I think it explains a lot,” he says. “Someone with that background would have a healthy disrespect for authority and government.” *
Until now, Triguboff has even shielded his own children from the truth. “It makes me feel sad to read what you found,” says Harry’s older daughter, Orna Triguboff. “It was certainly an injustice that I never got to know my grandparents. The few times I have seen Dad tear up were all to do with him remembering his parents not being allowed to be with us in Australia. They would have died in the Chinese civil war had it not been for the state of Israel being created and I think that is a big reason Dad is a supporter of Israel,” she says. *
“For someone who has been so very successful in his life, accomplishing what so many have not been able to do, he was not able to arrange his parents to live with us. It’s very sad. Dad is fiercely passionate about all the family staying in Sydney, always saying it’s the best place on earth. Maybe part of that passion is knowing the pain of separation when family members live far apart.”
*The story arcs across the horrors of Japan’s invasion of China, the Communist takeover, the creation of the state of Israel, the contradictions and prejudice of Australian immigration policy over two decades and an English-Canadian-Jewish adventurer who has inspired three Hollywood movies.
*It is detailed in a 300-page dossier from the Department of Immigration, held in the National Archives. Having already known the story’s bare bones, I unearthed the dossier in 2011 and sent it to Triguboff in an attempt to get him to talk. He invited me to lunch and shared a few reminiscences but declined to participate in an article.
Six years later, I tried again and the two of us met for lunch at his favourite Italian restaurant. Suspecting he would once again brush me off, I began my pitch. He quickly interrupted, and said in his abrupt and direct manner of talking:
“Turn on the tape recorder.” The 84-year-old drank two neat scotches while we talked. We spoke mostly in English, but sometimes we talked in Russian, which is a family language for both of us.
Growing up in Tianjin
Triguboff says the treatment of his father was “100 per cent an injustice”. James Brickwood
Harry Oskar Triguboff was born in China in 1933 and spent his childhood in Tianjin, a port near Beijing that China had ceded to the European imperialist powers in the 19th century. His father had fled the anti-Semitism of Tsarist Russia and moved to China in 1916. In Tianjin the Triguboff family lived on the shabbier fringe of the British and American concessions. Moshe had a store that traded woollen cloth, silk, leather, anything to turn a buck. Harry remembers his father had trouble paying the rent and he slept with his older brother Joseph and his Russian nanny in the same room.
The Chinese outside the concessions were in a different world altogether. Harry remembers seeing Chinese day labourers lugging sacks of grain up gangplanks on to barges. And then he watched as even poorer Chinese sneaked up behind them, cut holes in the sacks, and collected the grain as it seeped out to try to feed themselves.
When Japan invaded China in 1937, the British and American traders were mostly left alone in the confines of their concessions. But after their attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and the invasion of British Malaya, the Japanese placed the British and Americans into internment camps.
Russians like the Triguboffs, however, were largely left alone. The Soviet Union shared a border with Manchuria, which had been seized by Japan, and the Japanese were careful not to provoke Moscow.
*With the British and the Americans out of the picture, the Triguboffs and other Russians seized the opportunity to take over trade in and out of China. Moshe established four more stores and put much of his wealth into building. Harry was taken to watch construction of some of the 20 apartment properties his father acquired around Tianjin.
*The Triguboffs bought a bigger house with separate rooms for the children and a car, which Harry says could drive only at walking pace because the Chinese still ambled down the narrow streets.
As a child, Harry only glimpsed the war occasionally. When taking the train back from the sea resort at Beidaihe, where his family spent the summer to escape dust storms, Harry noticed that instead of tourists the carriages were filled with coffins carrying the bodies of Japanese soldiers for burial back on the islands of Japan. He saw many, many coffins.
After Japan surrendered in 1945, the Guomindang Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek took back control. This was good for business, too. Moshe started exporting leather and pig bristles used to make brushes to the US department store Macy’s.
But in early 1946 the Triguboffs’ wartime idyll suddenly became a massive liability. The returning Guomindang were suspicious of Moshe’s wealth. The District Court of Tianjin and the British-run Customs Bureau seized all of the Triguboff shops and warehouses. Then six months later, in September 1946, the High Court of the province of Hebei arrested Moshe Triguboff and charged him with treason for collaborating with the Japanese.
Some of the Triguboff family files contained in a 300-page dossier from the Department of Immigration, held in the National Archives and recently released.
Harry, then 13, remembers the daily visits to take food to the fairly comfortable jail where his father was imprisoned. The charges against his father, he says now, were simply an attempt by the corrupt Guomindang government to extort cash. But his father refused to pay up because he was innocent. “I remember it like now,” he says. “I said, ‘Father don’t be stupid. They want money from you, what do you care …The more innocent you are the madder they get.'”
Dealing with the Japanese
He can remember one piece of business his father did with the Japanese that made him a small fortune in late 1941. When Britain declared war on Japan, the Japanese seized textiles owned by British merchants that were in bonded warehouses. The Japanese military needed a distributor to sell the textiles throughout northern China. Harry went with his father to the Jewish community hall near their home to try to raise the money for a down payment to the Japanese.
The incident demonstrates how closely Harry followed the business affairs of his father, even at this young age. It also shows how his father was keen to take calculated risks.
Harry was only vaguely aware of the actual charges against his father until he was shown a translation of Chinese court documents in the 300-page dossier. They show Moshe was alleged to have sold leather goods cheaply to the Japanese Army as well as selling scrap metal to the Japanese government.
Moshe was convicted on first instance and then appealed. The case was transferred to the High Court in Nanjing, then the capital of the Guomindang government.
*In October 1947, Triguboff was acquitted after the court found that the leather and scrap metal had been confiscated by force. The Japanese had made a nominal payment for the leather, but paid nothing for the scrap. It was not collaboration, the judges held. All charges were dismissed and Moshe Triguboff was released. The family started making plans to leave China.
But it left a stain, one that would later be exploited, Harry believes, by an English-Canadian adventurer of Jewish origin, known by the nickname Morris “Two Gun” Cohen. The consequences would torment the Triguboff family for the next two decades.
A Jewish gun slinger
Morris “Two Gun” Cohen was one of the more bizarre characters in the drama that consumed China in the middle of last century. His life has inspired three Hollywood movies, including one in 1936 called The General Died at Dawn, in which Cohen was turned into an Irishman and played by Gary Cooper.
More of the secret Triguboff family files including, left, one of many attempts of the boys trying, in 1952, to bring their parents to Australia. The visas were cancelled at the last minute.
As the name suggests, Two Gun Cohen was both Jewish and a gun slinger. After a life of petty crime in England then Canada, a 1997 biography says Two Gun headed to Guangdong in the 1920s, where he became the trusted bodyguard of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Guomindang Nationalist Party. After Sun Yat-sen died, Two Gun continued to use his connections to run guns to various warlords and conduct business, often with Jewish merchants in the treaty ports of China.
When Moshe Triguboff was arrested, associates in Shanghai recommended he seek Two Gun’s assistance. Harry remembers Two Gun coming to live with his family in their Tianjin home while his father was in jail. A thank-you letter from Harry’s brother, uncovered by Two Gun’s biographer, suggests Two Gun helped Moshe by convincing the authorities to transfer his case from Tianjin to Nanjing where it could get a fairer hearing.
But Two Gun fell out with the Triguboffs over money. The family could not pay the sizeable reward that he believed he’d been promised upon Moshe’s release.
By late 1947, the Communists were at the gates of Tianjin and Moshe found it it was impossible to sell his properties. His problems would become a childhood lesson for the young Harry in timing the real estate market. “He tried to sell what he could,” Harry says. “The reason he lost the big chunk [of his fortune] was because they made him problems straight after the war. He tried to get it out of China. Every door was all locked for several years when he was in prison. It killed him. He missed the boat.”
Harry says Two Gun was paid “something” but he was bitter. Eventually, Harry and his family would come to believe that Two Gun took vengeance by denouncing his father to diplomats based in China. These “vindictive allegations”, Harry and Joseph believed, were passed along to Australia and were the reason why his parents could not obtain visas to move to Sydney.
The truth is still hidden inside the National Archives. About 15 pages of the 300-page Triguboff file, in which Australian officials detail allegations against the family, have been redacted.
When asked to reconsider and open up the whole file, David Bell, the acting assistant director of the National Archives, refused on grounds that disclosing the material could threaten Australia’s access to intelligence from other countries and its release could cause distress to members of the family.
The first part of that explanation – that disclosure might threaten intelligence from other countries – supports Harry’s belief that Two Gun, who worked for British and Canadian intelligence during the war, was the source. The second part of the explanation is probably true.
*One letter that survived redaction is from Alexander (Alick) Downer, immigration minister in the early 1960s and father of the prominent Howard-era cabinet minister. In jarringly unofficial language, Downer wrote that the reports indicated Moshe Triguboff was an “unsavoury character”. It is the one line in the 300-page dossier that even today visibly distresses Harry because he finds it so unfair.
Harry and Joseph in Sydney.
Refused by Canada and the US
*The Triguboffs were refused visas for Canada and the United States, which had strict quotas on Jewish immigrants. But they had obtained landing permits for Australia back in 1946 when the country had an open-door policy to Jewish refugees.
*By early 1948, however, Australian policy had changed and a family of rich Jews carrying Soviet passports and facing allegations of collaborating with the Japanese were not the migrants Australia was looking for.
In postwar Australia, Jews were tarred with a mix of old-fashioned anti-Semitism and suspicion they were either communists or Zionists attacking British forces in Palestine. Things came to a crisis in January 1947 when an old ferry called the Hwa Lien docked in Sydney carrying 300 stateless Jews from Shanghai.
Sydney’s The Sun newspaper claimed that criminal syndicates run by communists had backed the Jewish immigrants and hinted that Jewish refugees had collaborated with the Japanese. The Sun editorialised: “The danger of infiltration by professional trouble makers, whether Jewish terrorists or Communist agents, will arouse the natural suspicion of all who wish to see Australia kept Australian.”
Arthur Calwell, Australia’s immigration minister following World War II, was a champion of mass migration (although famously within the confines of the White Australia Policy) and had initially been sympathetic to the plight of Jewish refugees. He let the Hwa Lien unload its passengers. But in the heated aftermath he quietly imposed a secret quota on the number of Jews who would be given entry on any future migrant ships.
This was the political background when, a year later in March 1948, the Australian consul in Shanghai, O.W.C. Fuhrman, sent an urgent cable in code back to Canberra: Harry and Joseph Triguboff had left Tianjin three weeks earlier, were on their way to Australia and must not be allowed to land. (Their parents had sent the boys to Sydney while they finalised their affairs, and planned to follow.)
*Fuhrman said he had learnt that Moses Triguboff was worth $US3-4 million and had transferred much of it to the United States. He was deeply concerned about the Triguboffs’ alleged ill-gotten riches and in the next few months got Australian officials to check how much money they had transferred to Australia. It was only 8000 Australian pounds.
Hostility to Jews
For the Australian Jewish community, Fuhrman would became a notorious character due to his hostility to Jews from China. He wrote a report around this time warning that the Jews of Shanghai, where the Japanese had set up a ghetto, were an “enigma” who were involved in prostitution and drug running. If Two Gun levelled accusations against Triguboff to Fuhrman, he would have got a very good hearing.
His urgent cable, in Harry’s mind, is evidence that Two Gun was the cause of his family’s problems. Who else would have taken the trouble, he asks, to warn the Australian consulate in Shanghai that a 14-year-old and a 23-year-old had just left Tianjin bound for Australia. “Who else would be interested?” asks Harry. In any case, the secretary of the Immigration Department in Canberra, Tasman Heyes, personally took charge of the matter. He dispatched a flurry of classified telegrams to Sydney, Darwin, Brisbane and Hong Kong to keep an eye out for the young men.
One-time bodyguard of Dr Sun Yat-Sen, Morris “Two Gun” Cohen.
“Please advise urgently whether they have landed your port. If not please advise all airlines that they should not be accepted as passengers and that if they come to Australia they may be restricted from landing,” the telegram said. But the wheels of bureaucracy moved too slowly. A few days later, word came back that Harry and his brother had already landed in Darwin and then been waved through customs in Sydney.
The presence of the two youths raised a problem familiar in today’s Australia of what to do with unauthorised arrivals. Heyes floated and rejected the idea of deporting them as impractical. He devised another idea: split up the family to convince the two brothers to leave.
“As the Chinese Authorities do not permit Europeans to return to China, it is most unlikely that it would be possible for us to enforce the departure of the two sons (Joseph and Oskar) Triguboff but if their parents are prevented from coming here they may eventually leave the Commonwealth,” Heyes wrote in July 1948.
Harry starts year 10
All of this was unknown at the time to Harry, who started year 10 at Scots College in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Joseph enrolled in the law faculty at the University of Sydney. Harry remembers feeling proud that when he arrived at Scots College the teachers put him up half a year because he was quick at maths.
Back in China, the situation for Moshe and Frida was growing ever more urgent. They had moved to Shanghai as the Communists got closer to Tianjin. From Shanghai they cabled Joseph to send some final documents that Australian consular officials in Shanghai demanded. On August 10, 1948, Joe walked into the office of the Department of Immigration in York Street, Sydney. It would be his first step into the bureaucratic labyrinth where his family was stuck for the next two decades.
*The immigration official told Joseph his parents could not come to Australia, but would not say why.
“Mr J. Triguboff was insistent that I should give him the reasons for the refusal of permission of his parents to enter Australia,” the official wrote in a one-page memo. “I did not acquaint him with the reasons for the withdrawal of authority for the admission of his parents.”
The Triguboffs were growing desperate. Moses had taken a Soviet passport, the only document he was entitled to as a Russian national, but he risked being repatriated to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Chinese Communist victory was only months away.
Harry with his parents in Israel in the 1950s. (Photo)
Lobbying the minister
In late 1948 the Triguboffs tried to pull all the strings they could.
With support from a prominent member of the Jewish community, Joseph secured a meeting with Calwell in October and handed him a long memo which appended an English translation of the judgment of the Nanjing Court to prove that his father had been cleared of collaboration.
“The family is now broken up which may mean the separation of the two sons from their parents for life as the former cannot return to China. This would be a particularly tragic blow for the younger son, (Harry) Oscar, who is aged only 14 and is missing his parents greatly,” he wrote.
In December, Joseph wrote again: “As you are aware the position in China is steadily becoming more desperate day by day and this separation may result in my younger brother (who is just 15 years of age) and myself never seeing our parents again as the previous decision reached well-nigh condemns my parents to death. Please for the good of humanity be good enough to grant my parents the entry visa saving the whole family.”
Harry went to school and concentrated on his studies but he felt the uncertainty. “We were scared of [our parents] getting stuck there.”
Then in early 1949 the post office called to tell him there was a telegram waiting for him from a place he had never heard of, called Ramat Gan. He walked to the post office in Bondi Junction in Sydney’s east and asked the postal clerk where Ramat Gan could be. The postal clerk did not know either.
As he read the telegram, Harry realised that Ramat Gan was a suburb of Tel Aviv. Barred from Australia, and fearful of returning to Russia, the newly independent state of Israel was the only country to which they could turn. “That is the first time I knew that they got out,” Harry remembers. His parents were safe, but they were on the other side of the world.
Australia or Israel?
“Please … allow them to enjoy their grandchildren in Australia. Perhaps you are a grandfather yourself,” Triguboff wrote in a letter to immigration minister Alick Downer in 1963. (Photo: James Brickwood)
For the next 17 years, Harry and his brother faced an agonising choice of staying in Australia, where they felt at home, or moving to be with their parents. Harry finished Scots in 1950 and then decided to move closer to Moshe and Frida. He went to Leeds in England to study textile engineering, visiting his parents in Israel every summer. He joined his family in Israel in the 1950s for a few years but did not fit in. Neither did his brother, who had changed his surname from Triguboff to Travers to sound more Australian.
In 1959 the pair left Israel and after a brief stint in South Africa returned to Sydney. When told he could not obtain an Australian passport, Harry protested that he had lived in Australia and gone to Scots College. Immigration officials said if he obtained a letter from the headmaster they would give him a passport. “Thank god he was still there and he remembered me,” says Harry. He became an Australian citizen in 1961.
Joseph, a lawyer, wrote a flood of letters to every new minister or local MP in a bid to reunite the family. Adding to Harry and Joseph’s sense of frustration, Australia had reopened diplomatic relations with Japan and embraced many figures responsible for Japan’s wartime atrocities.
*The normalising of Australian-Japanese relations was a point used by Harry when he made his own attempts to obtain visas for his parents in 1963. If nothing else, the epic struggle had taught him the art of working the bureaucracy.
*“My poor brother was writing these letters. It got him nowhere,” Harry says. “I thought enough’s enough. I told him I’ll do it my way.” Harry called the offices of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in Melbourne and left a message in his Russian accent hinting that he had some information about some Soviet spy.
He says the ASIS agent who called him back “thought I wanted to dob someone in. So he met me, a nice big fellow. Lovely guy. I tell him, look I didn’t come for what you think. I have this problem with the father. He was a very nice guy. He said, ‘leave it to me, I’ll find out.'”
Lobbying a new minister
Harry wrote to then immigration minister Alick Downer describing his conversation with the ASIS agent with a supporting letter from Les Bury, the member for Wentworth. He claimed the agent had said “our relationship with Japan had undergone a drastic change and that whatever dealing my father had at the time of the war with Japan it was no longer of any vital importance to the security of Australia”.
Harry and his brother faced an agonising choice of staying in Australia, where they felt at home, or moving to be with their parents.
Harry then added: “For 16 years now, my brother and I have been pleading with the Immigration Department to allow our parents to settle here. Our parents were definitely cruelly treated by fate … Please allow us, their sons, to give them this small gift – to allow them to enjoy their grandchildren in Australia. Perhaps you are a grandfather yourself.”
*It was all to be of no use. The issue of collaboration with the Japanese was a difficult one for Downer, who had been a prisoner of war in Changi 18 years before. This was when Downer, in a letter marked confidential addressed to Bury, explained he would never let Triguboff in.
“The detailed reports indicate that Mr Moses is an ‘unsavoury character’,” he wrote. (Downer Junior told the AFR magazine that he believed his late father was acting ‘with a good heart’).
*Harry’s mother died aged 58 on May 26, 1966. Two days later his brother wrote again to the new minister Hubert Opperman. “We are most apprehensive that [our father] is losing his will to live.” Harry, 32, flew over to meet his father, who was sitting unshaven as is traditional in the Jewish religion after a death in the family.
To this day Harry deeply regrets that during that trip he took too much time out to see some of his old friends from his years in Israel. It would be the last time he would see his father. “There are many things that I did in life which I was sorry for. I was sorry that I didn’t spend more time with him,” he says.
*Just six months later on February 20, 1967, The Sydney Morning Herald published a small notice that Moshe Triguboff had died, mourned by his two sons Harry and Joseph.
*Another six months after that, another notice appeared in the classified section of The Sydney Morning Herald. It was an advertisement for “Harry Triguboff and Co”, the company that would become Meriton. The ad read: “Cash for your flat site: Builder wants centrally located flat sites. All suburbs.” *
A secret til now
In four decades in the public eye Harry has barely spoken two sentences about this story. Every history of Australia’s second-richest man glides past this chapter of his life. But I always knew the bare bones. My father, also a Russian-speaking Jewish migrant, was close to Harry, especially in the early 1960s when my uncle and Harry were partners in a taxi licence. Harry, working his day job as a textile engineer, was living in a rented house with his first wife, Hanna, and two young children in Kensington in south-east Sydney. He would come to my uncle’s on the weekend to count the fares.
On a trip to Israel in about 1965 my parents met Moshe Triguboff shortly before his death and they later told me about his plight. While the story was known in this small circle I believe Harry was still deeply embarrassed about his past, because he was not sure how the allegations of collaboration might be received. I mentioned it to a Financial Review journalist who wrote a profile of Harry in 2005. Harry refused to talk about it and told the journalist to “clean out his ears”.
*After sending him the 300-page dossier and being rebuffed in 2011, I resolved to let Harry take his secret to his grave. Then in May this year I was surprised when, apparently unprovoked, Harry mentioned in an interview to another colleague that immigration officials had refused his father entry. “As far as they were concerned, he was co-operating with the Japanese in the war,” he said. “He was selling textiles. It wasn’t as if he was selling guns or something.” *
I asked him if it was finally time to tell his whole story. Five months later, when he agreed to fill in the gaps, I asked him whether he thought the Australian government had wronged his family. “Was that an injustice?” I asked.
Is there justice?
He says the treatment of his father was “100 per cent an injustice”. But then, in a sharp break from his usual rapid-fire delivery, he paused as he tried to find the words. “I suppose I don’t think there is justice. Worse, I am sceptical.” For Harry Triguboff, what is just depends on where someone is sitting.
Harry is his father’s son and is unapologetically proud of Moshe’s achievements and smarts. Even now, his closest friends in Sydney are Jews who fled from Tianjin, like him. He laughed telling me stories of how Moshe escaped from Tsarist Russia and his travels in China which clearly inspired him. He wants to defend his father’s memory.
One thing that still stings: he is reluctant to concede that he came to Australia with money. He insists repeatedly that the claims of his family’s millions were exaggerated. They had money, but not a lot.
In an odd transition he then launches into an attack on politicians and planners who obstruct his apartment blocks citing reasons of high policy. They apparently remind him of the sanctimonious Australian Immigration Department officials who fobbed his family off for decades. He says they take decisions based not on common sense but on what will win votes or just because they want to “cover” themselves.
*And so in an obscure transference, every time he fights and wins a battle over building apartments it is partly a way of getting even.
Australia’s second richest man was almost stopped from fleeing from China to Australia in 1948 by a government decision that split his family forever.
Harry Triguboff on the cover of the Summer issue of AFR Magazine. James Brickwood