Monday, February 17, 2014

The hidden textures of Australian history - the New England Chinese

"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."

Sunday's main post was on my New England history blog, Family counts: glimpses of Chinese life in New England in the first half of the twentieth century. Growing up in Australia during the 1950s, I was reasonably familiar with modern Chinese history. That was partly due to my love of stamps, partly to closeness to the Second World War and the success of the communist revolution. At the same time, I knew little of the Chinese experience in Australia.

I am not sure how old I was, at primary school certainly, when I first found Sydney's old China Town. The thing that struck me in wandering the streets at the time were the faded notices and signs for Chinese organisations, including the Kuomintang. It was a strange new world. However, I didn't think of the living Australian experience of these people.  

I didn't properly realise it at the time, but the area I grew up in had had a very large Chinese population. This was concentrated in the gold and especially tin mining areas on the western slopes of the Northern Tablelands. At the 1891 census, for example, Chinese born still made up 11 per cent of the population in these areas. Their story did not end with Federation and the White Australia policy. It continued.

Many of the stores in Inverell, Tingha, Glen Innes, Emmaville and Tentefield carried Chinese names. Chinese immigration continued, if on a lower scale, utilising existing networks and the exemption clauses in the White Australia legislation.

My post was based on the work of Janis Wilton, a fellow member of the University of New England's Heritage Futures Research Centre. Her work provides an insight into the life of one group in one area in the first half of the twentieth century. It adds to the texture of the Australian story.      

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