Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Family counts: glimpses of Chinese life in New England in the first half of the twentieth century

Kwong Sing store

back in May 2009, I posted an introductory post, The Chinese in New England 1848-1853, on the story of the history and experience if the Chinese in New England. The following is an excerpt from Janis Wilton's Chinese Whispers from New South Wales looking at aspects of the life of the Chinese on the Northern Tablelands in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a photo of the Kwong Sing store in Glen Innes.

This excerpt is far more than I would normally publish, but I really wanted to preserve the material. Far too often recently, on-line stuff has just vanished.

The story:

The result of the (Immigration Restriction Act 1901) combined with the drying up of gold and tin deposits and with the intention of many Chinese immigrants that they should ultimately return home, witnessed a dramatic fall in their number in Australia. Despite the pressures, some Chinese continued to settle, bringing with them customs and networks which shaped their lifestyles and their ability to negotiate the hostile legislation and attitudes which frequently confronted them. They also put down roots, had families and made significant contributions to the economic development of Australian localities and regions.

The recounted experiences of a small group of Chinese-Australians who, from around the end of the nineteenth century, settled in a particular area in northern New South Wales, confirm the vital role of an oral and local history approach in evaluating the Chinese contribution, beyond that afforded by conventional sources.

The area of interest is a part of the northern tablelands of New South Wales and, in terms of the history of the Chinese in Australia, is defined by the discovery of gold in the 1850s and especially the discovery of tin in the 1870s and 1880s. These events saw an explosion in the number of Chinese in the district. According to the 1891 census, for example, the area contained one of the highest concentrations of Chinese (over 11 per cent of the recorded population in a particular district) in New South Wales at the time. Once the tin was mined, many of the Chinese moved to other areas or returned to China, and the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act discouraged new immigration and settlement. The number of Chinese-born in the district dropped from the 1891 figure of around 1,300 to 593 in 1901, 169 in 1921 and forty-seven in 1947. This decrease, however, did not mean a cessation of new arrivals. Many Chinese living in the district regarded the opportunities sufficiently rewarding for them to sponsor relatives and fellow villagers to migrate to Australia. The methods and networks involved emerge through the stories passed on about the immigration of fathers and uncles.

One such story relates to the efforts and acumen of Percy Young, the founder of an Australian branch of the Kwan clan. Percy was born in about 1865 in the village of Wing Ho, Shekki, Chungshan. When he was about twenty years old he emigrated to Australia where, through Chinese (most likely Chungshan) networks, he spent the next ten years working in a number of different Chinese stores, largely in rural New South Wales. He also spent some time in China, although he saw his future in Australia as he sought naturalisation in 1883. In the late 1890s the network led him to a Chinese store, Kwong Sing War, which had been established in Glen Innes, northern New South Wales, in 1889. By 1907 he had become a partner in the business and by 1912 was a major shareholder and manager of the store. Percy’s children were born in Australia and he sponsored his nephews, one by one, to come to Glen Innes to work in his shop. They then branched out and established their own stores, married and had families of their own.

This sponsorship, expansion and settlement all took place after the imposition of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. Percy Young, and other storekeepers in the northern tablelands, took advantage of exemption clauses in the Act to sponsor relatives, and to seek regularly and successfully to extend their stay in the country. The exemption clauses were a recognition by the legislators that, by the turn of the century, some Chinese had already settled in Australia, and that among those still in the country were a number who were providing a boost to the economy through owning and running profitable small businesses, especially shops. Storeowners were permitted to bring in Chinese-born assistants and family members provided they stayed for limited periods, and that the businesses in which they were employed had a minimum turnover and were engaged in a certain amount of export trade with Hong Kong or China. As Daisy Yee, Percy Young’s daughter, explained:

Dad brought out all the nephews one after the other. He had to take out a bond of £100 for each member, and he had to import/export a certain amount of goods for each member. I can remember apples. He brought the nephews out gradually. They had to be at least sixteen to come out.

Elaine Jang whose parents, John and Mary Hong, owned the Hop Sing store in the town of Tenterfield, recalled the networks and strategies used to make the legislation work for the benefit of relatives and fellow villagers in Australia and China. It was a network which they utilised until 1950:

I think ... my father knew the people in Sydney who had business [in assisting with immigration papers] and he’d write to them to give them names of people who could want somebody from China as an assistant of a shop. That way the law said you can be brought out to help ... That’s one of the ways he brought people out. There were other ways as well, but this was the main one.

The legislation requirement that a shop could only employ a certain number of Chinese-born assistants provided a stimulus for business expansion which went beyond concerns for profit. The more stores that were established, the more relatives could be sponsored to come to Australia. This was particularly apparent in the branches and businesses which stemmed from another of the Chinese stores on the northern tablelands. The Hong Yuen store in the town of Inverell had been established in 1899. By 1915 its manager and major shareholder was Harry Fay, an Australian-born Chinese who had spent a good part of his childhood and adolescence in his ancestral village of Dau Tau, Shekki, Chungshan. By the late 1930s, the Hong Yuen store had become the centre of a network of businesses which included three other small shops in Inverell itself, three Hong Yuen branch stores and two cash-and-carry shops in nearby towns.

These businesses, and the other twenty to thirty Chinese stores on the northern tablelands, were located in small communities. The largest town boasted a population of around 5,000. Consequently, the Chinese did stand out as different and were subjected to, at times, what could only be described as racist and discriminatory jibes and practices. Yet the businesses prospered. They provided a much-needed service offering the jumble of goods familiar to Australian country stores of the time, while, increasingly, assistants serving in the stores were local non-Chinese residents or Australian-born Chinese. Descriptions offered through oral history interviews evoke this past era of country stores. Beatrice Winmill who joined the staff of the Hong Yuen store in Inverell in about 1915 recalled the store’s layout and the goods offered:

The drapery section was a big long counter with everything on it, even shoes, all the men’s mercery (trousers and cardigans), haberdashery, dress materials. At the bottom [end] of the counter there was a showroom with corsets and dresses. And we had lots of hats then. You don’t have so many hats now. There were big shelves behind the counter for the stockings and things like that. The cash box was in the middle of the shop. And the counter on the other side was for all the groceries and veggies and fruit. We also had a bit of furniture – you went through a door to the furniture. And an ironmongery.

Ken Gett provided the following recollection of the inside of his parents’ store, Yow Sing and Company, which was opened in the old tin mining town of Emmaville in the early 1930s:

As a child I remember going into the store. It had two big doors and when you entered the first thing that you saw was all the products hanging off the ceiling. You know those country stores. We had bicycles and tubs hanging off the ceiling … We sold a tremendous range of things. We sold guns, we had things like horseshoes and horseshoe nails. We had a drapery, a haberdashery section, grocery section. We had a produce section – chaff, bran, all those things – kitchen ware.

Bessie Chiu, whose father, Ernest Sue Fong, also had a store in Emmaville particularly remembered a different atmosphere and different tasks compared to stores of the late twentieth century:

In the olden days you had a lot of people’s loyalty, people would speak to you. We used to have a couple of chairs and they’d come and have a talk. Now there’s nothing like that. In those days we used to weigh everything – sugar, dates, sultanas – everything was bulk.

What was clearly different were the activities and lifestyles of the Chinese storekeepers and their Chinese staff. Behind the scenes, storeowners worked through their network of associates which stretched through Sydney and Hong Kong to home villages in Chungshan to negotiate the immigration of family members, and to further their business interests. It was here that the cultural and social needs of Chinese employees were looked after. It was here that the mainly young men brought out from China contemplated the strangeness of their new environment and sought to put down foundations for some sort of life.

Recollections of the routines involved in working in the stores provide a sense of the specifically Chinese community and traditions which underpinned business and employment practices. Overseas and Australian-born, young Chinese men were provided with jobs, accommodation and food, and worked in an atmosphere permeated by paternalism and a Chinese work ethic. Ernest Sue Fong who joined the staff of the Hong Yuen store in Inverell in the early 1930s recalled his early years at the store:

I worked at Hong Yuen for 25 bob [shillings] and keep. I lived in the shack with about seven other Chinese boys from all over. Another five lived upstairs [above the shop].

Now the way it worked: at 7.30 in the morning the cook would ring the bell, and everyone would go down to the kitchen...and we’d have a Chinese breakfast with rice and Chinese food. Then into the shop until the shop opened and we’d cut up bacon, fill the shelves, jobs like that. At lunchtime, the bell would ring again and all the staff [Chinese and non-Chinese] would go for lunch. It would always be English meals... Then back to work.

At 6 pm supper was served. Chinese food this time... Some nights, say two or three a week, we’d go back to the store to, for example, bag up sugar, depending on what was needed. We’d work until 9 pm.

In the Kwong Sing store in Glen Innes, manager and owner Percy Young framed and hung on the wall some Chinese proverbs (in Chinese characters) demonstrating the values he honoured which he, presumably, exhorted his Chinese employees to follow. They included, for example: 

When men are born they all want to be wealthy, but you have to learn to be satisfied with what you have in your daily life.

If you are poor it is because you are lazy.

Work hard at your business and never complain of hardships.

Harvey Young evoked what took place out of sight of the customers of the Kwong Sing store in Glen Innes in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Among the boiling water used for melting honey, the sheds, the stables, and the loading bays for chaff, wheat, super phosphate and rock salt, he could remember:

... growing vegetables round the back of the shop. There was quite a bit of land there. Chooks and ducks. They used to kill those quite regularly.

Then there were the cooks. They used to make noodles out the back of the shop. Fresh noodles. And the old method then was on a table with a bamboo pole which was tied at one side and a person with one leg over it jumping up and down on this thing to make fresh noodles.

Harvey Young’s sisters, Valmai Au and Olma Gan, recalled the accommodation and facilities available for the Chinese cooks and other staff. They remembered specific employees and where they stayed:

There was George Woo and Jimmy Sheah … They were in the bedrooms upstairs, on the side facing Tattersalls Hotel. And I think the cook lived there too. Though not Kum Jew [one of the cooks] … he lived in a room close to the kitchen.

There was another cottage, separate cottage, at the back of the shop which has now been pulled down. The kitchen was there. … And then there was the dining room where the staff used to eat …

Leona Tong, another sister, also remembered the Kwong Sing cooks whose presence figured in her childhood: 

I can remember three or four different cooks in my time. When I was little there was big fat Long Go. He was bald and big like a giant. He ate a great bowl of rice. Then there was George Lay. He had long finger nails. I can remember him stirring the rice at night with a big stick.

The presence of Chinese cooks, staff, food, language and other cultural practices were a constant reminder of the roots and links which extended well beyond the relatively isolated Australian rural towns they serviced. These links were reinforced by regular visits to China by family members. Visiting relatives, pursuing business interests, returning to share material goods and wealth acquired while overseas, honouring ancestors, revering the ancestral village, providing children with a Chinese education, contemplating a permanent return to the home village: these were the motives behind such visits.

The experiences they entailed were not always the happy homecomings anticipated, however. After all, these Chinese had lived for some time in a foreign country and many of the children were born overseas. They had become strangers in their ancestral land. Recorded recollections capture a sense of this dislocation. Members of the Fay family from the Hong Yuen store in Inverell visited Hong Kong and China in the early 1930s. Joyce Sue Fong (nee Fay) recalled her visit to the family’s ancestral village:

Well [Dau Tau] was strange at first. All little Chinese children running around with no shoes on and just playclothes. And when we first went there, they all followed us and called us – you know, how we call people ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ here.

They called us the opposite when we went over there. Because we looked different … We had English clothes on and they had Chinese clothes on, pants and that.

Joyce Sue Fong’s sister, Eileen Cum, added:

I can also remember the Chinese kids used to throw stones at us and call us ‘white girl’ – Ton Yang

Not all differences and experiences were seen as negative or disconcerting. There are recollections of a comfortable life and a feeling of being ‘at home’ which strengthened bonds to China or which at least emphasised that some differences were due to a wealth and cosmopolitanism unfamiliar to the lifestyles available in northern New South Wales. Eileen Cum, for example, was stunned by the vibrant nature of 1930s Shanghai:

It was like the Paris of the East. One part was American, one part was French. There were beautiful buildings and lovely things. Lots of American things. It was under the Nationalists then. There were also lots of friends who’d been in Australia and had gone back to China.

The pull of China remained. However, the Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s followed by the Second World War and then, in the late 1940s, the Communist revolution closed the door to China. Visits ceased. Emigration ceased. Chinese in Australia had little option but to view their new country as the site of their and their families’ immediate futures. The stores had provided a base. Then, as Australian-born children acquired Australian education, and careers, other occupations became possible. Many of the children and grandchildren moved to metropolitan centres like Sydney and Brisbane and away from the rural towns in northern New South Wales. Some pursued careers in business; others joined the ranks of the professions.

At the same time, the climate of tolerance in Australia was slowly undergoing a change. By the late 1950s, it was becoming clear that the attitudes and practices associated with the White Australia policy were becoming untenable. Over the next three decades the official climate moved from racism through assimilation to multiculturalism. Chinese-Australians born before the Second World War lived through these changes. In the eras of officially-sanctioned racism and assimilation they had learnt to remain silent about their Chinese heritages. In the era of multiculturalism they were encouraged to claim or perhaps reclaim those heritages. As May Lun and her daughter-in-law, Rosalie Lun, observed:

May Lun: In the old days, when we were quite small, people hated you because you were Chinese. They were not only not friendly, they really had a hate for you. I used to be frightened to walk home by myself in case they bashed me up … for nothing at all. …

Rosalie Lun: Years ago it wasn’t good to speak another language … outside. You just wouldn’t. But nowadays, tradition, culture, its changed and is becoming more broadminded, so you wish you had that second language.

Source: Janis Wilton, Chinese Whispers from New South Wales, History Today, Volume 47, Issue 11, 1997, http://www.historytoday.com/janis-wilton/chinese-whispers-new-south-wales, accessed on-line 16 February 2014

Further reading:

On the Kwong Sing store:

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