Voices and Memory: Australian Oral History: 8 March 1997

Post-war Chinese Australians Oral History Project / Diana Giese

Suppose you started to research the history of the region where you grew up. Suppose you found that the documentary records, the official reports, the parliamentary debates, the letters and the newspapers told a thin story that seemed to have little to do with the people you lived with: an exuberant mix of Aboriginal and Malay, German, Italian, Greek and Chinese people. Most of them, you knew, had fathers, mothers and grandparents born in the area, and proud family traditions. But the tellers of the historical stories in libraries and archives seemed largely to be government officials whose families, and family names, had long ago migrated back to southern Australia.

What to do? This, of course, was the prelude to my own research in Chinese communities that began in 1990 in Darwin and has become the Post-war Chinese Australians project (which now comprises over 50 interviews in the National Library of Australia's Oral History Collection). Very early on it was clear that any excursion into Top End history had to draw on the voices of the descendants of the historical actors themselves-on oral history.

Oral history opens up a space in which both interviewer and informant can explore the ways people make sense of their lives. It can help them define themselves in the context of their times. It is a space that can open out into genuinely new territory. Oral history can reach back to other voices, to stories handed down through families-in the case of the Top End, to the time when the first Chinese man stepped off the first boat from Singapore in 1874.

And if both informant and interviewer have the courage, oral history can lead into hitherto unexplored inner spaces. An interview can stir up many different emotions, like sadness or joy, bitterness or anger. It can provide a stage for vanity, or a way of moving beyond undue modesty into quiet acknowledgment of achievement. Oral history also taps straight into the eyewitness reports, opinions, myths, gossip, comment and hearsay that are the continuing defining autobiography of any community. I see the voices and memories of oral history as part of a process of implementing and refining the existing mainstream historical record. They belong to a country-wide movement to retell from within communities the stories of the struggles, hopes and successes of different kinds of Australians.

You can see what I did with that initial work, setting the voices of oral history against the written record, by reading Beyond Chinatown , which the National Library of Australia published in 1995. I have found the conversations with Chinese Australians on which it was based, and those I have had since, moving, illuminating and stimulating in ways I could not possibly have forecasted when I began. With hindsight, it strikes me as crucial that I immediately began to give back to the community what was so generously shared with me. I did this in the form of articles, talks, radio programs and books. There was a steady stream of suggestions for further oral history informants, not only in the Territory, but in all the many places linked to Top End people by family, clan and business, or by experiences such as evacuation during World War II.

The project spread naturally to north Queensland and Western Australia, to Sydney, Melbourne and Bendigo. It also became clear that those of Chinese background who came here originally as students, from places like Malaysia in the 1960s, or as Boat People from Vietnam from the mid-70s, were also very much part of the post-War Chinese Australian community. These newer arrivals' stories have now been incorporated into the project with others; voices from Hong Kong and Fiji, for instance, and those of intellectuals who came from China post-Tian'anmen.

I have also talked to some high-profile community leaders, including the five Members of Parliament of ethnic Chinese background. I talked to Helen Sham-Ho, the first person with a Chinese heritage to be elected to an Australian parliament, and heard her passionate and eloquent arguments for maintaining our cultural diversity. I talked to Senator Bill O'Chee, the youngest person ever elected to federal parliament. We spoke of personal things, of what he has been able to find out about his family history. He told me about the second of his grandfather's two wives:

[transcribed from tape] Bill O'Chee: She was imprisoned by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. And from the stories that I heard, they would do things like take her out in the middle of the night and put a gun to her head and pull the trigger and the chamber would be empty. And then they'd put her back in the cell. Or take her round with a sign hung round her and parade her through the streets-the usual.

Diana Giese: Were you in contact with her at that period, the family?

Bill O'Chee: I was too young to know.

Diana Giese: You didn't try, the family didn't try, and get her out of China at all?

Bill O'Chee: They did-they got her out eventually. But I don't know any of that at all. I've only picked that up. And even then, it's not something we discuss in the family terribly much, either.

Diana Giese: Why not?

Bill O'Chee: I just think it's probably an unpleasant memory that we try to forget.

Diana Giese: Does the family discuss its history much, though? Sounds like a pretty interesting history. You've picked this up from somewhere. Where have you picked these stories up from?

Bill O'Chee: ... Bits and pieces ...

Diana Giese: How is history discussed in the family?

Bill O'Chee: A lot of it I got, all my father's childhood recollections I got from him. But a lot of the background I picked up from my mother, who got them from my aunts, with whom she gets on very well. And I've dug a little bit around Glen Innes and I've spoken to Aunty Lorna ...

Diana Giese: Who is Aunty Lorna?

Bill O'Chee: Aunty Lorna was one of my father's younger sisters, from that side of the family. Aunty Lorna was incredibly beautiful, and still is incredibly beautiful. In fact, I was quite surprised to find out that she was over 60 years of age, recently, when I went down to Glen Innes, because I got a copy of her birth certificate. And Aunty Lorna looks for all the world like she's about 38-just incredibly beautiful. But there was a fight over her getting married, because my father became the patriarch of the family upon my grandfather's death-my father would have been about 13 at the time. Anyway, many years later, Aunty Lorna was going out with another Chinese chap, and my father didn't approve of this-because the family wanted her to marry Max.

Diana Giese: Max?

Bill O'Chee: Max Yip, who eventually she married. And my father ended up in a punch-up and got his nose broken (laughs). I didn't get that from my father, either. I got it from Lorna and my mother.

Themes have emerged as interviewing for the project has proceeded. The kinds of questions I ask have changed in response to informants' preoccupations. They include: Who are Chinese Australians today, and what makes them different from, and similar to, other Australians? What are the cultural traditions that have shaped and continue to shape them? What does 'being Chinese' mean to young fourth- or fifth-generation Chinese Australians brought up and educated in this multicultural country, possibly losing language and traditional beliefs? What about those more recently arrived here? What meanings do visits to China have for all the different groups? I was also interested in why the contributions of Chinese Australians to our infrastructure and development had been so consistently overlooked and under-reported.

Many different answers have been offered on the tapes I have now recorded, as part of the National Library of Australia project, and for its spin-off products. You can listen to the tapes in the Oral History Collection, or scan that invaluable research tool, the verbatim transcript. But from the beginning, I have been concerned to get my oral history conversations out of the archives and into the world. Also I am concerned with providing public spaces in which the Chinese voices that we have heard so little in our literature and media can be clearly heard. I started addressing this concern with two ABC Radio National programs, Top End Chinese, based on the Darwin work, and a program last year called Reclaiming the Past. Here is an extract from the latter:

Diana Giese: In Bendigo, the Golden Dragon Museum is a centre for Chinese cultural activity. Feasts, festivals and large social gatherings have marked community life through 150 years of the Chinese presence in this country. Many, like the parade of Sun Loong, have been shared with the wider community. Russell Jack has since 1980 been president of the Bendigo Chinese Association. With his wife Joan he's been a prime mover behind the $3.25 million museum. Russell Jack ...

Russell Jack: Well, it all started back in 1871. The local Chinese in this area back in about the early 1850s, and in 1871, because the local Chinese had very colourful ceremonies in their camps, the Bendigo Easter Fair Society was formed. It was formed to raise money for charity, and the two charitable bodies were the Bendigo Base Hospital and what was known then as the Benevolent Asylum, Old People's Home. The Chinese were only too willing to do that, and they said, yes, they would like to join in with raising money for charity. As a consequence, we have been raising money for charity ever since, and that is longer than any other nationality in Australia, and something we're very, very proud of. Now, in 1882, the Chinese decided that if they're going to raise money for charity, they should do it on a grand scale, because their belief was if you're going to raise money, first of all you had to have something spectacular to attract the people into Bendigo. So they put a levy on themselves: if you worked in the gardens it was two-and-sixpence; if you owned it, it was five shillings, and so on. They raised over 750 pounds, an enormous amount of money for those years. They sent back to China and imported over 100 wooden crates full of Chinese costumes.

Diana Giese: These silk opera costumes and processional regalia, gorgeously embroidered with gold thread, have become the basis of the Golden Dragon's collections. Russell and Joan Jack took on the work of conserving them, and worked long days for no pay to build up the museum. Joan Jack's descended from a convict on the second fleet, a mixture of Scottish, Irish and English stock, but she's been a real force in preserving a specifically Chinese heritage.

Joan Jack: Probably because I mixed with the elderly Chinese. And the elderly Chinese like Wei Soon Louey and Jan O'Hoy and all the ones that are now gone would talk to me and would always relate to me very well. And mixing with the Chinese all the time I did, and in the house we always had the chopsticks, we always ate Chinese food. I cooked with the Chinese, I did the customs with the Chinese. I felt we owed them a debt: to make everything that they had worked for and accumulated here in Bendigo safe for future generations. Because I worried very much that if we just left it in the Chinese Association buildings, it would gradually disappear. Someone would take something, and someone would take something else, and gradually you've got nothing left.

Voices including the Jacks' are explicitly used in my new book, Astronauts, Lost Souls and Dragons. This begins with a quotation from Dai Yin, who came to Western Australia from China in 1987 to research a PhD thesis at Murdoch University. After an exhaustive examination of the role of Chinese people in Australian literature, he concluded that in the continuing story of conflict between East and West, with Europeans asserting that Australia was theirs against threatening and contaminating 'aliens', there was no space for the Chinese voice. So my book consists of a multitude of interleaved voices, across many communities. I use oral history as sound bite, snapshot, anecdote and case study or, to suggest the shape and feel, the push and pull, of particular conversations, as interview extracts. One of the book's 'characters', Cairns marine biologist Warren Lee Long, commented that:

from cover to cover it's like you're in a room with all of these people Diana has brought together. Like no other book I've seen, in here it's like you're privy to this big conversation, listening to the anecdotes and experiences of a whole range of Chinese people, hearing their real feelings about what it is to be Chinese in Australia.

In a talk at the Cairns launch, he went on to identify resonances in the book's voices that other readers might not notice:

You pick up that tone of respect and appreciation for the sacrifices endured by the older generations. Their perseverance is what built up the healthy social reputations, broader acceptance and financial support for the children to find easier acceptance in new disciplines and careers.

Then again, after identifying a certain pride in Chinese Australians' sense of difference, he continues:

Always in the back of your mind is the awareness that the potential for racism and rejection is forever present ... and that drives you as a Chinese to always try to be a good citizen (and if possible a better than average citizen) and to make a contribution.

I am very interested in feedback like this, in reflection on transforming the raw words of the tapes into something with enhanced cultural and historical meaning. Several responses have mentioned that the book's juxtaposition of many voices has made them more aware of the diversity of Chinese Australian experience. Darwin university lecturer Robyn On commented:

There will be experiences you will be able to relate to and experiences and beliefs that will differ from your own ... the book highlights ... that you can't put people into boxes. There is no one definition of a Chinese Australian, and we all have the ability to shape our own future, our own identities.

Warren and Robyn are both in their thirties. I became interested in voices like theirs for my oral history project when I discovered how, right around the country, younger people are the driving force behind projects uncovering Chinese contributions to Australia's development, including searches for their own roots, for their identity and their origins.

During my first field trip to Cairns, I was invited to observe the Kwong Sue Duk family history video project in operation. Kwong Sue Duk was a Queensland businessman and herbalist who came to this country in the 1870s, married four wives, had 24 children and has nearly 800 descendants spread over 11 countries. His life took him, like other adventurous migrants, from his ancestral village in southern China to Darwin, Cairns, Townsville and Melbourne. A core group of family members gathered together the documentary evidence of the life of the patriarch and his children, and wove this with videotaped oral histories into an eloquent and artful dramatisation of one family's contributions to building Australia. While the Kwong Sue Duk descendants were fine-tuning their project, I was working on the oral history component, talking to its makers in the heat of creation. This material is used in my book.

Then we pushed on further: when the video was completed, we showed it as part of the Reclaiming the Past series of presentations I convene at the Museum of Sydney, to a large and enthusiastic audience with many interesting observations to make on why this sort of work is attracting such commitment. The video has since been shown country-wide, and developed into an educational resource for use in Queensland secondary schools. The theme of family has been emphasised so that students of non-Chinese background begin to think of their own families' history in Australia. Then in another initiative, late last year, through Graeme Powell (manager of the National Library of Australia's manuscript collections), some of the Kwong Sue Duk documents, including a diary, letters and photographs, were donated to the National Library's Manuscript Collections for preservation.

Collaboration with Chinese communities-then, reaching back into them and simultaneously striking out into the mainstream-can lead to fruitful extensions of oral history into other contributions to the historical record. As described in Astronauts, Lost Souls and Dragons, the Darwin Chung Wah Society has been involved in organising two exhibitions, using family trees, life stories, pictures, artefacts, models and computer software. They had not, however, got around to collecting any oral history. I raised this with Mark Cranfield (manager of the National Library's oral history section), when I was in Darwin last December, working with young members of the Chung Wah's historical subcommittee to interview older community members. The choice of informants came from the subcommittee, although I reserved the right to include whomever I chose in the Post-War Chinese Australians project, with the possibility of recording other material on my own Marantz recorder, rather than the Library's excellent digital equipment. The informants chosen tended to be senior members of prominent Darwin families whose contributions had perhaps been overlooked by the wider community in favour of higher-profile figures. So what we recorded was in response to community perceptions of what is relevant and important. I was accompanied to each interview by at least one member of the Chung Wah historical sub-committee, sometimes a family member, who often joined in with their own questions based on insider knowledge. All this work has now been preserved, copied and fed back for use in the Chung Wah Society's display and records, as well as being housed in the National Library's Oral History Collection.

Let's 'listen' to Mr Les Yuen, who gave me a wonderful tape speaking of how people like his family lived, ate and worked in their shops, services and businesses in Darwin's vanished Chinatown between the Wars. Picture him today, relaxing on his favourite sofa in his home, low on its block on a busy road, open through its doors, windows and louvres to the tropical evening and its breezes, and with the fan whirring above. His son Des sits at one hand, and his nephew Daryl Chin at the other. We 'hear' first from Daryl:

[transcribed from tape] Daryl Chin: You also worked in a restaurant, didn't you, Uncle Les?

Les Yuen: I used to work in the Imperial Cafe. Mum used to wake me up at half past five in the morning. I'd be there before quarter to six, only next door, I used to work there til about quarter to nine, go to school on a pushbike, come back at lunchtime to serve, go back again at half past twelve. Just like a yoyo (laughs). I dreaded these nights ... getting up so early in the morning and coming back. After you do your homework, you've got to go back again at 6 o'clock, 8 o'clock, to serve dinner.

Diana Giese: What did you get paid for that?

Les Yuen: I get paid. I get a big sum of ten shillings a week-and I don't even see the pay (all laugh). I don't even see the pay because Mum always collect the pay, and she'd give me sixpence to go to the pictures. And when you go to the pictures, you don't care who the person is, just hold their hand and go in, and use the sixpence to buy a packet of chips off Mr Arabino. It was really funny. A packet of chips, little white packets, it'd be about fifteen or twenty chips in it, nice and fat chips. Hot. Or you can get a sartee for threepence (laughs). Those were the hard days.

Diana Giese: Who sold them?

Les Yuen: Raymond Arabino, his father used to sell the chips. Then you have, I just couldn't think of the Singhalese bloke that sells the sartees, with some containers, nuts in it. And they used to get a fan, and they were beautiful, beautiful sartees. They got chicken, they got chilli, they got peanut sauce. You only have to put threepence. Really nice. Sartees in those days used to be packed.

Daryl Chin: Was that a regular thing, to go to the movies?

Les Yuen: Yes. Wednesday night only.

Daryl Chin: Every Wednesday night.

Les Yuen: You can't go see the whole show. You only see half a show and you go home, have a shower, and go back straight into bed.

Diana Giese: What sort of films did you see?

Les Yuen: Mostly cowboys, Wednesday nights, cowboys in those days. And you only allowed to go see half a session.

Diana Giese: Why only half a session?

Les Yuen: Well, you've got to go to school on a Thursday (all laugh).

I see this kind of community oral history work developing, then, more and more as collaboration, moving forward together, exchanging ideas, with suggestions for themes, informants and indeed the shape of whole projects, coming more and more from communities themselves. For instance, in Cairns, during my last visit, the Cairns Regional Gallery offered space and assistance for an exhibition of photographs, artefacts and implements collected from the local community. There were pickle and wine jars, a herbalist's pestle and mortar, ceramic pillows, jade and part of the decorative roof of the vanished Innisfail temple. Those who lent these treasures were oral history informants sharing their heritage in a different way. The Gallery would now like to develop this into a much larger exhibition.

In another community networking initiative, at a two-hour session next Easter Saturday at the Museum of Sydney, presenters from Queensland and Victoria will talk about their family history projects, and there will be news of community projects in Darwin, Perth and Sydney itself. This is an extension of the networking which began as the informants of Astronauts, Lost Souls and Dragons helped me put together the words and pictures of their lives to make the book. Many are now swapping information, ideas and material. It takes time to build trust in Chinese communities, and the high quality of people and material now being offered through the oral history interviews shows the value of waiting.

So for me, oral history is far more than just recording interviews. Oral history can be a passport to new places. The interviewer, beginning as a traveller, can with repeated visits, become a citizen with rights, but also with responsibilities, to a particular community. Everyone benefits. Several informants have described our relationship as empowering, as 'a powerful one of mutual benefit' in Warren Lee Long's words. When I move on to other projects, I will be honoured to retain my relationships with cultural guides, mentors and friends around the country. The oral history I have collected and interpreted will continue, I hope, to facilitate greater understanding of Australia's Chinese history, and generate more projects from within communities.


1. Diana Giese's books Beyond Chinatown (NLA, 1995) and Astronauts, Lost Souls and Dragons (UQP, 1997) can be ordered from the National Library of Australia Shop. The latter book is based largely on interviews for the Post-War Chinese Australians oral history project.

2.Information about the National Library's Chinese Collection is available online.

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