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Life & Time

 

Home Up Heritage Food The "Q" Life & Time Clan Diaspora Chinese Pioneers Clan Genealogy

Introduction

In this page, we attempt to paint a picture of the "life & time" of the Chinese Pioneers who lived through an interesting period of Australia's development. 

In his book "Comedy of Life" Sir Lionel Lindsay (1874 to 1961), Chapter 1, Creswick, recalling his youth, Page 3 to page 5, he had this to say:

 

"The Chinese camp was our Paradise. Here were two joss-houses, from which the burning joss-sticks could be looted, and here lived a wizened old Chow called Sinkum who would match his inimitable fi-shang toffee against our pennies.

 

At the entry of the Chinese camp stood the dwelling of Ginger Mary Ann, a bedraggled representative of the oldest profession on earth, and as we passed we cast curious glances at the opened door or window and would sometimes see the old ginger-beer maker, who had been replaced in the affec­tions of his wife by another, taking his ease in his drum. But our business was with Sinkum the toffee-maker, and we de­bated the inevitable alternative—should we toss or buy? Pen­nies were produced, and if a surplus beyond what was needed for an essential restorative to the fatigues of swimming could be declared, we opened Sinkum's door on the street and threaded our way past the deserted little opium-smoking dens to his kitchen at the back. "You shakeum, Sinkum?"

 

"All li" or "welly good" would be the laconic answer, and Sinkum shuffled into his bedroom in which he stored his precious wares. The celadon bowl and dice were placed on the table, the tin opened, and after knocking the rice flour from a stick, Sinkum would place it on a little square of paper and the dice were thrown. If Andy Birch was present his diabolical luck was always requisitioned, but if Sinkum won we would attempt to change the luck by throwing in turn. On one occasion Andy won thirty-six sticks successively, and saying "I'm sick of this", grabbed his winnings and the penny. Sinkum, like a gentleman, would have lost the whole tin without a murmur, but this breaking of immemorial cus­tom made him see red: he rushed for his hatchet and we escaped just in time. For weeks after this painful incident nothing would induce him to shake "No good, no likeum!" and it was only by our hearty diplomatic denunciation of Andy that pleasant relations were ultimately restored.

 

The Australian boy likes the Chinese, yet nothing will keep him from pelting a distant Chow. Now when I think of this great race, with its positive virtues, its amazing art, its pro­found philosophy, I know that we were the barbarians, atavistically impelled by our instinctive savagery. The honours were with the Chinese. "

 

 

Of more recent time, we have an account of the Chinese in the New England District.  Specifically, Lawrie Burgess had the good fortune of meeting the original proprietor of Hong Yuen, a large Chinese Store in Inverell (New South Wales)

Memory of An Old Chinese Gentleman of Inverell by Lawrie Burgess

"This subject came up when we talked about people at my school in Inverell. In particular, I remembered Harry Fay, a Chinese chap of my age, and how we danced around him, chanting,

          “Ching-ee chong-ee Chinaman,” without a thought about his feelings.

My friend from the Chinese Heritage Interest Network mentioned to me that he might be interested in interviewing me as part of an oral history project he had under way. I was surprised and flattered. Imagine being a source of history!

I looked back at those school days, and realised there was no malice in what we children did. Harry was never visibly upset. What happened was normal. It was not vindictive; it was just something kids did.

          My hometown was Presbyterian in origin, like nearby Glen Innes, Glencoe, Ben Lomond, and other places in the New England area. Hence, prejudice was built in at the beginning. Anyone who was not white, Caucasian, and originated from the British Isles, was a stranger. Hence, he was not to be trusted. However, mine was a time of change, and it was not many years before racism became a conscience problem for people like me. I had followed the teachings of my parents, as they had followed their parents before them. Now was the time for revision, and it was not without some pain.

          Across the flat from our home, a distance of a few hundred yards, were some small, unpainted, rather poor dwellings, occupied by dark skinned people. Mum told us they were Syrians. They were dirty and bad, she lectured, and we were not to go near them. Consequently, never during my youth did I ever speak to a Syrian. That is, I do not think I did. My parents never allowed me to go close enough to know what they looked like. We behaved the same towards the occasional aborigine who wandered into town. Blacks were dirty, unwanted, and unwelcome. Years before, the blacks in Sydney speared Grandma’s brother, her beloved Harry, to death. Her father was, at the time, helping to build the first railway bridge across the Parramatta River, at Meadowbank.

          I do remember the family, Zantis. They were Greeks who owned a local milk bar. There was the Psaros family, also Greeks. Poppy Psaros was in my class at high school. She was a girl I liked, and who was just one of my friends, the same as any other friend. We never said nasty things to her as we did to Harry. He was of Chinese origin, but I can think of no special reason for his being the target. He was my good friend.

          Harry’s father owned Hong Yuen’s, the biggest store in Inverell, so he was very rich. I did not know his father very well, but I frequently met Harry’s grandfather. He was a big, very old man, and always wore slippers, and long flowing silken gowns, with big sleeves. His gowns were red and made of silk. They were covered in designs, like dragons, and had a split up the side. I never saw his arms, because they were permanently folded into his sleeves. Occasionally an old, gnarled hand would appear as he emphasised a point during a story. On his greyed head he wore a round, black, embroidered scull cap. With his pencil-thin, drooping moustache, and the monstrous, black, carved chair, or throne, where he sat, all I could think was that he must be a Mandarin. I had read about Mandarins, and had a deep-rooted impression that they were the aristocracy of China. His voice was strong and expressive, and his English was impeccable, but still colourful. Harry and I squatted on the floor in front of him to hear what he had to say.

Being afraid, I usually sat, at first, a little further from him than Harry did, but the authoritarian gentleman would motion me to come closer, telling me that I need not be afraid. He said that if he had to raise his voice for me, others might hear his story, and he did not want that to happen. The story was only for Harry and me. As it was, every word of his was as clear as crystal, and I quickly became so intoxicated with him, that I found myself even closer to him than he had at first indicated.

          Stories from Harry’s grandfather left enduring memories. He summoned us into his presence, and we squatted there in engrossed silence as he launched himself into the most bizarre stories of his experience in colonial China. It was from him that I learnt that men from sailing ships docked in Shanghai used to forcefully capture Chinese peasants from the street, and drag them to the ship. They were released later, but out at sea, and offered two alternatives. They became seamen and worked their passage to the other end of the voyage, or they were thrown into the sea immediately. Most became seamen. They had been “shanghaied” into service.

He also told of ships that had started out in England, loaded with cloth, coal, or machinery, but arrived empty in China. Pirates had attacked them as they passed through the Straits of Malacca, and stolen their valuable freight. They were lucky to have escaped with their lives. Now, their only chance was to collect some worthwhile goods to take back to England, to see if they could recover at least a part of their losses. One case he related was about a boat that was robbed both going out, and on the way back, by the same pirates. To make it worse, as they arrived in England, the hapless creditors set upon the ships crew, and most were stoned to death.

The last I heard about Harry was that he had married, in Sydney. The girl was a real beauty who was well up in society. I do not know if they lived happily ever after, because I know no more.

Hong Yuen’s, the shop Harry’s father owned, was what we called a “general store.” It was almost twice as big as Cansdell’s, the other general store. Hong Yuen’s was well down Byron Street, which ran from near the Railway Station, right through the town, and across the main bridge across the McIntyre River, and up into Ross Hill. Otho Street met Byron Street at right angles in the centre of the shops, and Cansdell’s was about half way along Otho Street, towards the Town Hall and Post Office.

As you arrived at Hong Yuen’s from the centre, you came first to the doors leading into the Manchester and Drapery departments. This part of the store held no interest for me, but next to that was the Clothing department, and sometimes there were lifelike female shop dummies, dressed in fine clothes, to be seen near the windows. I used to watch these, convinced that at times, they actually moved, and I would stand near the doors to watch for any movement.

Next, near the street, you turned right into the Grocery. As you went through the doors, the long counter was on your right, stretching from the front of the store, for possibly forty feet without a break. This counter was about 30 inches wide or more, and was made of clean pine timber, and only the supporting cupboard along underneath was painted, the palest of blues. The shelves were built right along behind the shop assistants, and painted the same colour, and were stacked with goods for sale. The shelves themselves were as long as the counter, each shelf being separate and self-supporting, but every so often, they had built a vertical strut linking all the shelves, for extra strength. There were a couple of short half step ladders, about four feet high, which had short metal hooks instead of back legs. They hung these hooks where they needed the ladder, over a wooden rail, in front of the shelves, running the length of the shop. An assistant standing on the top of one of these ladders might just reach the top shelf, so I suppose the top shelf was twelve feet (3.7m) from the floor. A short man often could not fetch things from the very top shelf.

Groceries, stacked neatly on the shelves, sometimes matched a small label on the edge of the shelf. They were always neat, but there never was a price shown. Occasionally, a small heap of an item was on the counter near the till, with a card showing “1/3d,” one and threepence, as its special bargain price for today, but “1/3d” was all it ever said for itself. The two tills were large, silver, and very mechanical. The assistant pressed down on all the price keys at once, and up came the appropriate tags for the price in the little window. The bell rang; “ting,” and the drawer flew open ready for the money. The only things electrical in the shop were the big hanging lights, each fitted with a 100-watt clear glass globe, and a conical, white-enamelled reflector. I guess there were possibly twelve of these altogether, and in our eyes, that was more than were needed.

First on the left as you came into the Grocery department, were a couple of hand trolleys, for wheeling your bag of sugar or flour out to your dray or sulky. Then came several bags of produce, already open for removal of the contents. Potatoes, pumpkins, and apples came first, although the apples were usually packed in wooden boxes. Then there was wheat, oats, pollard, bran, and perhaps other bags. Between the groups hung a spring balance and scoop, for weighing out the orders. Further to the back, beyond those bags, you could buy straw, hay, chaff, and other produce.

Now, immediately behind the bags, also on your left, was a big, long cool room with zinc-mesh fly wire all around it. Here they stored all the cured bacon and cheeses, and other things that needed a cool atmosphere, and protection from the flies. Today they would call it the “deli,” but at that time, the only processed meats available were “Devon sausage,” and “pork Fritz.” I loved to watch through the fly wire. If someone asked for bacon, the shop assistant would let himself into the fly proof area, and proceed to cut and weigh the bacon. The cutting was done with a big knife; there was no rotary blade cutter until later. So it was, that bacon rashers were frequently almost half an inch thick. When this happened, my mother would say horrible things about the assistant, and then proceed to re-slice the pieces, flat on her table under the palm of her left hand, at great danger to that hand, until they were a better thickness. This often meant that Mum had made up your “rasher of bacon” from several short pieces, because her knife ran off line as she went.

At Hong Yuen’s, they cut cheeses with a string fitted to a big frame like a fretsaw. It may have been a fretsaw, but with a string blade.

Harry’s house was through there, at the back of the shop, but I cannot recall Harry’s mother at all. She must have known me, because I was there often enough. Again, I cannot remember anything about the house, except the bare room where Harry’s grandfather sat on his great throne-chair to tell us stories. Harry had a sister, but no brother, as I remember, but I could be wrong. There was something upstairs in the shop, but I do not think Harry lived there.  Most of the men in the shop- there were no women- were not Chinese. There was one Chinese grocery assistant, a thin man, not very old. These memories are from my youth, in the years starting from about 1936, up until 1943. Harry said to me once that “Hong Yuen” was his Chinese name, but, sure it was a joke, I did not believe him.

There was a Chinese shop in Glen Innes, called Kwong Sing’s, and later I recall there could have been another Kwong Sing shop in Armidale. We never went into Kwong Sing’s. Glen Innes was only a brief stopping place for us as we travelled on the back of Uncle Clem’s truck, down to Grafton and Yamba or Woolgoolga for our occasional camping holiday by the beach.

Our family knew nothing about Chinese foods until well after the war, (1945). The best I can remember was that, by 1952, the year Phyllis and I were married, we had probably tried some food in Dixon Street, Sydney’s Chinatown. Other than that, there were no Chinese restaurants around until late in the 1950s, when the occasional suburb had one. Then there were several between Haymarket and Central Station, mainly with Malaysian dishes, catering for the rapidly increasing Asian student population, but attracting, as well, custom from the curious, like myself. By 1965, most towns sported at least one Chinese restaurant, and some had several. By this time, a standard menu had evolved, and people knew what they liked, and knew what to order. Up until then, Australian cooks had only served rice as a sweet, almost exclusively. Just occasionally, they served boiled rice as an accompaniment to curry. Nevertheless, they still made curry the Australian way, by adding curry powder to a stew, rather than first frying the meat with the flavouring, in the Asian way.

In Broome, in 1965, right opposite the old established Chinatown, the town’s only Chinese café, “Mrs. Cully-an-Li,” (Mrs. Curry and Rice), still served Steak and Egg, (“Steak-a-Leg”), or Curry and Rice. That was her menu, no variations. The waiter was surprised when I asked for an omelette, and chopsticks. The good lady herself came out to see who had been so bold with his order. I ended up with my omelette and some other dishes, plus many smiles and curtsies. This café was next up from the water, after the Roebuck Hotel. Its front looked straight across at the quaint two-storied houses of old Chinatown. A local chap had told me that, at that place there, he pointed across through the window of the Roebuck, was where “they” smoked opium, and gambled big money on cards. 

After the meal, I walked a little way into Chinatown. It was a surprise to me to note with fear, the upstairs door, on the second floor, opened to the air, with neither steps, nor railing, nor balcony. What would happen if they had little children? Would they surely not tumble out of the door to their deaths?