Sunday, February 09, 2014

Sunday Essay - musings on Eric Rolls and the Chinese experience in Australia

I have mentioned the New England writer Eric Rolls before.Chinese testing wash for tin, Emmaville On Saturday, I bought another of his books, Sojourners: the epic story of China's century old relationship with Australia (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia 1993) at a second hand bookshop. I found its a strangely dissatisfying book.

The rather poor photo shows a Chinese tin panning at Vegetable Creek, now Emmaville. 

A little while ago, a friend commented that she found Australia a very inward looking country when she first arrived. 

I thought that that was true. I also thought that Australia had actually become more inward looking over the last forty years, partly because of the increased size and wealth of the place. You can see this, I think, in Australian history books. They focus just on the Australian experience. There is limited recognition of the broader back story of which the Australian experience forms part. That which is there is very Australian, focused on the way external events affected this place.

Rolls does not fall into this trap.

He has consciously chosen to set his story in a context of change in China, of the way Chinese migration was affected by those changes. In Australia, he focuses on the Chinese perspective. the way that the Chinese organised themselves, just what they experienced. In writing of the often dreadful conditions the Chinese experienced in coming here, he compares that with similar experiences from non-Chinese migrants. These are all good things. And yet, I am dissatisfied.

I think that the core of my dissatisfaction lies in the way that Rolls allows his own opinions, his biases, to affect the story. This leads to inclusion of unnecessary content, but those opinions also affect my reaction to the book.

If I happened to hold the same opinions, they would wash over me. But in some cases I don't, I find myself debating the opinions to the neglect of the main story line. For example, Rolls makes comments about the source of that first small pox epidemic that so damaged the Aborigines at Port Jackson and beyond.This has nothing to do with the Chinese story.

This book has lessons for me at two levels. First, in writing my history of New England I do need to provide the back story. It doesn't have to be detailed, but it makes for a much richer history if you can understand where people are coming from. Secondly, I need to avoid the explicit insertion of my own opinions and biases. 


Rereading the book today, Tuesday 11 February, it' Roll's persistent anti-English/British flavour that annoys me. It unbalances the early discussion.       


Neil said...

I can't really comment intelligently as I read the book about 20 years ago when I was working on my own book "From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt" and for me at the time it was a godsend! I can't remember all the details you refer to and no longer have my copy -- sacrificed that in downsizing to Wollongong. Maybe I'll borrow it and Volume 2 from the Library and revisit!

Jim Belshaw said...

I don't want to be too critical, Neil. There is some good stuff there, especially in his descriptions of Chinese organisations in Australia. Actually, that was frustrating because they no doubt operated in New England, but there is insufficient detail to localise!