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elders of the Yiu Ming Society speak about their experiences as Chinese in Australia

Stephen, A. (ed) ‘The Lions of Retreat Street: a Chinese temple in inner Sydney’, Powerhouse Publishing in assoc. with Hale & Iremonger, Sydney NSW, 1997

HARRY CHOY

Company director; President, Yiu Ming Society; Chairman, Tiy Loy & Co

I was born in Hong Kong in 1938 and then taken back to China when I was three months old. My mother had given birth to ten children, but only three had survived and it was safer to deliver a child in Hong Kong. I was the only son. My grandfather was a judge in mainland China and had seven daughters and five sons. He owned about 18 acres and 15 houses and had two male servants and two female servants. The family fortunes declined when the daughters were married off, as each of them needed dowry. My father had been sent to work in Australia in 1908 although he went back to China once or twice a year.

My village is known as Datangbian/Taitongbian, in Gaoyao/Gouyiu county. Our village had a temple known as Song Jian/Song Gan, similar to the Yiu Ming temple. There were many village celebrations; we would parade the temple figures during the Mid-autumn festival on 15 August. The lion dance was common in the countryside also. Weddings were celebrated at Song Gan, and funerals were held there as well. The bodies were left there one or two days, covered by a piece of cloth, for blessing and protection by Guanyin/Gunyom [Bodhisattva or Goddess of Mercy] and then they were dressed for the nether world before they were put into coffins. Prayers were also held at Song Gan before going abroad. In 1950 when the Communists came, they demolished the temple, and also burned the figures and all scriptures. This happened at every village, not only my village. It became unsafe to leave me at home as I was the only son from a big landlord family so l was brought out by my father to Australia. My mother had a very bad time. She stayed in China and was beaten with stones and spat on. I eventually brought her and my sister out in 1957.

When I arrived I did not stay with my father. He was a market gardener in partnership with other people living and working at Matraville. I first lived in Sussex Street, Chinatown. I was very lonely. I cried for a long time. We Chinese were discriminated against. Whenever I queued for something, I was always the last one to be served. Before I came, they would not sell beer to Chinese and earlier, they would cut the pigtails of Chinese. They were really bad. There are many other things which I would not like to say. I was only ten and a half years old and I was on my own. I learned everything through practice, not in the school. I had to cook for myself, look for medicine for myself; I knew a lot about herbs. When I came here I did not speak English, and the first six months in the school were really hard. I fell asleep in class. I had learned many Chinese characters by the time I was ten, but I have forgotten many of them after so many years, so now I can only read but not write Chinese.

My first job was miserable. I was only thirteen. My classes finished at 3.30 pm and I would rush to a restaurant and wash dishes in the kitchen, without gloves or a dish-washer. I quit the job and worked as a waiter for two years. When I was seventeen I opened my own restaurant at Griffith, with my brother-in-law and my cousin as partners. At that time my cousin had worked at a restaurant. I worked at Griffith for more than two years, then I was able to buy a sandwich shop on Botany Road with the money I had earned in the country. I reorganised the shop, making it both a restaurant and a takeaway shop. My brother-in-law worked with me, together with my mother, my sister, and two nephews. I got up at 6 am to prepare food and finished at 8.30 pm, more than thirteen hours a day. I provided the local factories with lunches and then sold Chinese food after midday. My brother-in-law and I worked there for sixteen years. It was a good income, but very busy and demanding labour. It would be easier to run a fish shop or fruit shop than a sandwich bar. I became an Australian citizen in 1959.

When you were married and from Gaoyao/Gonyiu or Gaoming/Gouming county it was compulsory to join our society. A lifetime membership fee was 5 pounds, now the fee is $25. The day after my marriage in 1960, secretary Han said to me: "Hello, you are not a member yet." "What for?" I asked. "Collect bones," said he. "Is something wrong with you? I just got married and you ask me to collect bones!" Originally the society collected money from members to send the bones of those who had passed away back to China. After our marriage, we both joined the society. A daughter-in-law was required to join the society, but a daughter married to someone from another county was not. Things have changed so much that today we want to move the bones of our ancestors to Australia for us to worship here.

In 1990 we formed the Committee for the Yiu Ming Society to raise the profile of the Gaoyao/Gonyiu and Gaoming/Gouming people. Previously our officials, Zongli/Zonglei [general managers] and Zhili/Jiglei [managers], were not elected. Zongli/Zonglei are the general managers, they keep their eyes on the Chinese New Year and look after the houses, and Zhili/Jiglei, they look after all baishen [worship]. I suggested that we hold elections for these positions among our people. The elected members look after different functions. I am serving a second term as president: originally I did not want this position, but I am willing to serve my fellow villagers. It is voluntary work. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre on 4 June 1989, I helped more than eighty people apply for permanent residency and citizenship, as I know many people at the immigration office, as well as some members of parliament. In this world if you do not approach other people, no one will know you, and you have no status in society. It is not good for our people to know nothing. There must be someone who stands forward. We are not interested in making money. We are interested in looking after our people, our countrymen. We have some houses for aged people, which cost only $15 a week, which is cheaper than the Housing Commission. We have plans to build modern flats so we can accommodate more than a hundred and fifty people.

Our society has some invested money. Now we are trying to modernise the society, to make it more contemporary. It is difficult. It is no exaggeration to say that I am a one-man army, as few want to help or have sufficient knowledge. Progress will be made when there are more people elected to help. Many people have said to me: How is it that you left your village when you were so young yet you care about your fellow villagers? There are more than 30,000 people of Gaoyao/Gouyiu or Gaoming/Gouming origin here, but only 2500 have joined the association. They say: 'What is the benefit?' Of course it is only an opportunity to help their fellow villagers in need. Look at this photo of the Committee members, Zhilis/Jiglei and the members of the Ladies Group, who are responsible for maintaining the temple and looking after women's business. They are mainly old people. My wife is the head of the Ladies Group in the temple. My younger son took part in the lion dance. I have two sons. Nowadays they are not enthusiastic about these activities. The younger son is a computer programmer, and the elder son is an architect. My daughters all have their degrees. Many changes have taken place. Now I have two homes, one here and another in China. I return every year and have spent thousands of dollars on repairs to my father's house, to keep his name there. Several distant cousins live there. I am warmly welcomed by local officials, heads of the county and township, which I don't really understand as I have not lived there since I was ten.

HARRY CHONG CHOY

Retired market gardener, fruiterer; Director, Tiy Loy & Co; Committee member, Yiu Ming Society

I am an offspring of overseas Chinese, born in 1923 at Liquan village, Huilong/Wuilung township, Zhaoging/Xiahing, Guangdong province, Gaoyao/Gouyiu county. My grandfather first came to Australia in 1911, then he brought my father over, and I followed in 1949. Before the generation of my grandfather, many Chinese came during the gold rush and worked in mines. My grandfather had two brothers here. He worked in Australia for thirty years, then he returned home and lived for another ten years. In those days Chinese went back home when they were sixty if they had made enough money. My father came to Australia after my brother and I were born. My mother never came to Australia.

I dreamt about Australia when I was very young. As my grandfather and my father sent money back home I believed there was wealth to be made in Australia and I should go there when I grew up. My father and five other Chinese were partners in the market garden. You have a photograph of the garden at Rockdale, which generation after generation of Chinese have worked. According to the rule, each of them would take one son to work at the garden when they came to Australia. When I arrived I lived at the garden with my father.

I was ambitious and worked hard. I came to see two things as essential to making a good life in Australia: speaking English and driving a car. Three years after I arrived, I bought a car. I paid 250 pounds for a Ford. Seeing the car, all my friends said: "You are really over-extended!" I spent almost all my money saved from three years of hard work. It was the price of half a house at that time. There were only four other fellow countrymen of Gaoyao/Gouyiu origin who owned a car. Even my father was against me buying the car, asking me: "Why do you buy a car?" I told him: "You would not be able to enjoy independence or own a business without owning a car." My ambition was not to till the land, but to do business. My family grew vegetables in our village, but I had not been involved in agriculture before. Therefore, after working as a market gardener for five years, I bought a fruit shop. It was a great success. I would not have been able to do that without a car and English. My fruit market was expanding fast. I hired five or six non-Chinese female workers. I paid them a little more than a pound per day. I eventually owned two companies, which I shared with my relatives at Willoughby, North Sydney. My father continued to work at the garden. I ran the fruit shop for several years but it was very hard work and damaging to my health so I returned to work as a market gardener and grew Chinese cabbage exclusively for fifty Chinese restaurants. I bought a house at Arncliffe in 1960, when my wife arrived. She had been barred from coming out by the Chinese authorities under Mao Zedong, and the 'white Australia' policy required citizenship as the prerequisite for any man to bring out his wife. The policy was biased against Chinese.

Both my grandfather and my father were members of the society and had contributed donations to build the Retreat Street temple. In our village, in our Liquan village temple, we had statues of Dawang/Daiwang [the Great King] and Er Wang/Yiwang [the Second King]. Annually we took out the statue of Guanyin/Gunyem [Bodhisattva or Goddess of Mercy] and put up a tent in the village for celebration, which would last for five days, hiring a local band to play music. Only those unmarried young boys were allowed to carry the statue of the goddess. This practice was suspended during the war, because villagers were scared of the Japanese bombers. During the war, my city was bombarded. When the Japanese invaded Guangzhou, my grandfather took me to Hong Kong for safety, and enrolled me in a high school there. I remember a celebration after the war when as an unmarried boy at that time I carried the statue of the goddess. My fellow villagers set up a tent bigger than the temple, using dianxin/dimsum [pastry] and fruits as sacrificial offerings. The deity figures are different in the temple here. We overseas Chinese want to get rich. Therefore, we love Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, the sworn brothers who were loyal to their friends, as well as Cai Bo Xin Jun/Coi Bag Xin Guen, the embodiment of wealth.

In the past, the Yiu Ming Society was allowed to send the bones of deceased members back to China every ten years. The society collected donations from fellow villagers as it cost thousands of dollars to send a batch of bones back to China. They would hire some one to dig up the bones with the approval of the police, customs and public health bureau. The bones would be washed, wrapped in blankets and placed in an iron coffin about one metre long and 30 centimetres high. I saw the coffin because the bones of my granduncle were sent back to China in that way. The bones were known by Gaoyao/Gonyiu people as xian you [friends of the immortals].

The Yiu Ming committee has achieved a lot in maintaining the houses, the temple and the archway. All the residents here are very comfortable. In 1994, the committee arranged a visit to China. The purpose of the trip was to pray before the mountain Baishan at our native place in China. I was among that group. We also organised a visit to Qingyun/Hingwen temple. I was the manager of the society's company, Wah Hing, for seven years, from 1972 to 1980. Since then I have been in charge of external affairs as I know lots of people. My son served as a Zongli/Zonglei and my grandson takes part in the lion dance. My son is working at a market garden and he likes it. I told my children: "If you are Chinese, life is difficult if you do not speak Chinese. If you want to have a successful career, you have to learn both English and Chinese."

WALLY HA

Retired market gardener; Chairman, Australian Chinese Grower's Association, NSW; Chairman, Yiu Ming Society

I was born at Tian Ya/Tian Ngar village, Gaoyao/Gouyiu county, Guangdong province in 1929. I quit school in my fifth year to do farm work, growing rice and some vegetables. Life was very hard in my village so I went to Hong Kong and worked in a metal processing factory. I eventually came to Australia in 1952 as my uncle was here working as a market gardener at La Perouse. I was twenty-two when I arrived and it was a really hard there. The immigration authorities did not allow us to come with our dependents so l was unable to bring my wife. My wife finally came out in 1967. I would send money to her and my four children and would see them every two years. Europeans discriminated against us. The Westerners who lived near by slandered us and their children even threw stones at us. But the Aboriginal people living at La Perouse did not; we lived in harmony with them.

My uncle was a shareholder in the Tiy Wah garden which was run by several partners. This garden at La Perouse covers about five acres of land and is rented from the government. It was very hard at the beginning. It was all manual work. It was cheap labour, £8 a week. We had to turn the soil by hand and carry water in two buckets hung from a pole over our shoulders. After several years we began to buy some machines, rotary hoes and sprays. Sometimes we worked eight hours a day, sometimes we went to work on the land at daybreak and worked till it was dark, six days a week. We took holidays during Chinese New Year and at other Chinese festivals. We sold the produce direct at Haymarket, now out at Flemington. Two of my sons, Gordon and Terry, have taken up the same work at La Perouse. I retired in 1988. When I started we grew only European vegetables, lettuce, cabbage, rhubarb, turnip, celery. Now we grow Chinese vegetables as well, such as baby buk choy, chinese broccoli, in choy, on choy as well as watercress, dill, coriander, spring onions and so on.

My fellow villagers had told me about the temple. The temple has been very important to me as I believe everyone should unite and help their fellow villagers. I have worked at the temple as Zhili/Jiglei [manager] in charge of prayer, celebration of the birthdays of the gods and visits to the ancestral graves during Qing Ming [Pure Brightness] festival and have continued the practice of the lion dance. My five sons have all taken part in lion dance performances and my daughter has been in the New Year parade.

At home we had a village temple about the same size as Retreat Street but there were less objects and different gods. Among the gods at my village temple there was Dawang/Daiwang [Great King] and Guanyin/Gunyem [Bodhisattva or Goddess of Mercy]. Celebrations were organised on their birthdays and for weddings. Once every ten years there was a parade in which the figures of the gods were taken out and carried through the neighbouring villages. There were also celebrations at the Spring festival, the Lantern festival and so on. The village temple was demolished by the Communist Party. Here it is very different. We have prayers at the temple and the lion dance.

HA ZHU JIAN

Resident of Retreat Street

I was born in 1918 in the countryside near Yuanlang/Yunlang village, Gaoyao/Gouyiu country in the Baitu/Bagtou district; to the south is Zhaoqing/Xinhing and to the north, Huilong/Wuilong.

Alas! I could not go to school in mainland China. Life was very difficult. My parents behaved as landlords, having their kids pasture cattle every day. When it was raining, it was very miserable in the open country. I was the sixth child. I had two elder brothers and nine sisters. My parents rented the land. My mother had three brothers and two of them had gone to Vietnam, leaving their land behind. That land, about a hundred mu/me, was cultivated by my family. I began to work and pasture cattle when I was four or five. When I was sixteen I went over to my husband's family. The marriage was arranged when we were young, four or five years old. We got married according to the arrangement. It had nothing to do with our own opinions. While there was a village temple, we did not go to pray every day, only on special occasions, such as weddings, New Year or festivals for Dawang/Daiwang [Great King] and Guanyin/Gunyem [Bodhisattva or Goddess of Mercy]. My parents-in-law had passed away and my husband expected me to do everything. My life has been miserable.

My son came to Australia via Hong Kong in 1973 or 1974. It was difficult for him to support the family. He got up at in the morning to sell vegetables and worked until 11 or 12 at night. My son then applied for his parents to come the year of the amnesty, that was 1988. Don't mention my husband, otherwise I will shed tears. My husband came with me. I said I would not come originally, and he applied to come alone. But his application was not approved, as the government insisted that a couple come together. We succeeded in getting the approval. Alas, he passed away in the second year after our arrival. It was terrible. Really miserable. After his death, I helped bring up my grandchildren. Then I moved to live here at Retreat Street. My fellow villagers had told me about the society when they returned to visit my village. All my sons and one daughter have come here, but the three other daughters were left behind in China. One suffers from rheumatism. We applied for her to come out, but the application was not successful, which is a great pity.

After I moved to live here, I still went back to my son's home to look after my grandchildren when my daughter-in-law went to work. I returned to live here when I found no company at their home. My son and my daughter-in-law went to work and my grandchildren went to school. They are in high school and university now. A lot of fellow villagers live here together. We chat and play mah jong, without spending any money. I watch the lion dance.

We are poor illiterates from mainland China, like beggars. We are illiterate. We can carry things with our shoulders and do farm work, nothing else, though some worked as kitchen hands or market gardeners after arriving here. I am living on social welfare for the elderly since my husband passed away. I live as frugally as possible. My rent is 15 pounds a week. Westerners do not use orange peel, as we do, as a medicine. We collect orange peel and other vegetables left over from our children who have market gardens. We dry them for later use, not for sale. Sometimes we give them away to fellow villagers. Some of the residents here are younger than me. They look after their grandchildren and take in piecework from companies. For those who are old, everything is beyond them. I am not praying, even for myself. I did so ten years ago when I was younger. I am old now and have difficulty in walking and standing. I am tired.

Westerners are quite nice. Sometimes on trains or buses they offer me a seat. I say 'shank you'. When they ask you to buy a ticket, they say 'thank you'. (Laugh) Westerners are good to Chinese.

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