War, Business and Orchids – the Smith Story


We did it! I was part of an international research project that has led to the publication of this book. No Substitute for Kindness: The Story of May and Stanley Smith (May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, 2017).

Stanley Smith was an Australian businessman, WWII operative in China and expert horticulturalist. His life took him from a comfortable Brisbane upbringing to the danger of war and finally to a life half-way across the world. His Chinese-born wife, May Wong, grew up during the civil war in China and the fighting against Japanese occupation. May and Stanley met through their work for British propaganda and intelligence in the Chinese wartime capital of the city then known as Chungking (Chongqing).

Together the lives of Stanley and May Smith make a gripping read in the newly published book, No Substitute for Kindness. Commissioned by one of the philanthropic funds established by the couple, a team of researchers and writers from the United States, England and Australia have pieced together a fascinating biography.

I was one of the historians who worked on the book. My principal task was to research the early years of Stanley Smith’s life. He was born in Brisbane in 1907 and was a student at Eagle Junction State School. Stanley then won a state scholarship to the Church of England Grammar School or ‘Churchie’ as it is commonly known.

Researching a person by the name of Smith is painstaking. I pored over advertisements and articles in digitised newspapers, over school records and electoral records. There were two fathers who had the same name as Stanley’s father. They both had daughters of the same name enrolled at the same school. Who was Mrs W Smith? I had to be very conservative about what I accepted as evidence.

In this research I discovered a wealth of information in classified advertisements. When gathered together those few lines in tiny font size revealed a pattern of living. They showed a middle-class family who could afford to hire help in the home. The advertisements alerted readers to the social status of a family who publicised events they hosted in their home, their celebrations and their travels.

And quietly the electoral rolls indicated the marriage between Stanley Smith’s parents was troubled. The newspaper announcements about social activities stopped and his parents moved into separate houses. The set of annotated Queensland state electoral rolls I consulted at the State Archives in Brisbane were helpful. Sometimes a handwritten annotation by an electoral officer concerning a change in a person’s electoral details can give a hint that opens up a different aspect of someone’s life.

Stanley Smith left Brisbane after he finished school and so started a life of travel. His first job was as a jackaroo in the Outback and then a drover. He married his first wife while he worked in advertising in New Zealand and they moved to Sydney. During the war he was recruited by the British to assist with propaganda in Singapore. He was then transferred to China and met May Wong who was working on the editorial staff for the British Ministry of Information.

After the war, Stanley Smith and his business partner, John Galvin, found many business opportunities in East Asia which they took advantage of. They made their fortunes with Malayan mines, the Japanese-Australian wool trade and other business ventures.

After marrying in Hong Kong and living in various places in East Asia, Stanley and May Smith moved to the Bahamas. By this stage Stanley was a serious orchid collector and was recognised for his expertise in the area. He chartered a Boeing 707 to transport his collection of over 3000 plants from his home in Singapore to his new residence in the Caribbean.

Stanley Smith was setting up a trust to fund horticultural endeavours when he died suddenly in 1968. May Smith ensured that the foundation was developed as well as establishing another one to help people develop self-sufficiency and fulfil their highest potential.

I had a wonderful time working on this project. Susan Milstein and Andi Reese Brady of Personal History Productions in the United States did a marvellous job managing the writing, research, editing and publication of the book. This was no small task given the number of people working on the project who work in a number of different countries. A project that at the start looked so difficult and perhaps impossible to complete, has succeeded because of the persistence, professional skills and above-all the personal qualities of Susan and Andi.

I would also like to thank the staff at the Queensland State Archives and Susan Dudley of the Nundah & Districts Historical Society who assisted me while I was researching in Brisbane.

No Substitute for Kindness: The Story of May and Stanley Smith was published earlier this year. It is available for sale on Amazon and can also be downloaded as an epub or pdf for no charge from the website of the May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust.

4 thoughts on “War, Business and Orchids – the Smith Story

  1. I worked for many years at the Robert & Catherine Wilson Garden in Costa Rica which has received essential grants from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. I tried to find information about Mr. Smith online, but to no avail, so I am quite thrilled to learn that you and your team have succeeded in shedding light on this extraordinary couple. Thank you!


    • Costa Rica! The quiet influence of Stanley and May Smith pops up in surprising places. I hope you download the book and get some quiet time to read it.

      Thank you for leaving a comment. It is lovely to know that there are more people out there who are interested in the work we have done.


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