Cover of book: South Flows the Pearl: Chinese Australian Voices

Mavis Gock Yen (edited by Siaoman Yen and Richard Horsburgh)
South Flows the Pearl: Chinese Australian Voices

There are few Australians who would have a better claim to the title of “battler” than the post-gold rush Chinese immigrants and first-generation Australian-born Chinese whose stories are told in South Flows the Pearl. In fact, they tell their own stories, as oral histories are at the heart of this book.

They are station cooks and drovers, shopkeepers, wharfies, gardeners, indentured labourers, panelbeaters, teachers, produce merchants and more, who had to negotiate challenges of isolation, hardship and prejudice as well as the myriad restrictions imposed on their rights to work, study and travel under the White Australia Policy.

They persisted and made lives in the big cities, the outback, on sheep and cattle stations, in Broome, Darwin, Moree and towns that were little more than one dusty street in the middle of nowhere. Some spoke no English, others no Chinese. Some married European or Aboriginal women, or were the product of such unions. There are many testaments to the multicultural strength of Australian society before the word even existed, despite the ambient racism that also saw Chinese immigrants’ non-Chinese wives suffer social exclusion.

Many of the Chinese Australians profiled here also spent periods of their lives in China at times of banditry, starvation, warlordism and revolution. Some returned to look after wives and families left behind on account of the racially restrictive immigration laws. Others were sent by their families to learn their language and culture. One found himself an uncomfortably close witness to an infamous massacre of protesters by semi-colonial police in Shanghai in 1925. Another was recruited for a time into a warlord’s army. Australian-born Evelyn Yin Lo, who was sent to Hong Kong in 1939 as a young woman to learn to speak Cantonese, recalls that, compared with life in Australia, “It was a wonderful feeling not to see a drunken man lying in the gutter.”

Mavis Gock Yen was born here in 1916. Her family, inspired by Sydney’s Anthony Hordern & Sons department store, had gone from selling bananas in Haymarket to founding China’s first and most famous department store, Shanghai and Hong Kong’s Wing On. Adventurous and sociable, she became an educator, writer and translator. Like many others, she felt she belonged to two worlds, but fitted neither perfectly.

At the age of 70, she began an eight-year-long project of recording and transcribing the stories of fellow Chinese from the part of the Pearl River delta from which her family had come. Her aim was to fill in a major gap in Australian history. By then there were several historical accounts of the Chinese in Australia, but none written by Chinese Australians. As Sophie Loy-Wilson writes in the introduction, Yen was able to “capture her community in all its complexity”. What’s more, “this was no polite exercise, no simple history project, this was a call for justice”. 

Racism is an ever-present theme in even the most upbeat of these recollections. At a time when our federal Education minister is demanding schools ban historical nihilism – oops, that’s what Xi Jinping calls it – and present an uninflectedly positive view of such things as the Anzac tradition, it’s instructive to read, among the many accounts of racial bullying on these pages, the story of how a mob of drunken Diggers chose Anzac Day 1919 to invade a Chinese produce shop in Perth. “Mouthing abuse about dirty chows”, they grabbed the fruit and vegetables and chucked them into the middle of the street. The shopkeeper called the police. The officers of the law duly arrived “and formed two files, one on each side, as the ex-soldiers emptied the shop of its stock and ground it into the road”.

Anti-Chinese racism hardly belongs to history. From the start of the pandemic in 2020, there has been an alarming and steep rise in verbal and physical attacks on Chinese people and other Asians assumed to be Chinese in Australia. Coalition politicians and other right-wing commentators have never stopped dog-whistling on the idea of the Chinese–Australian community being a potential “fifth column” in service of the People’s Republic.

Yen died in 2008, having failed to interest mainstream publishers in the project. Her daughter Siaoman Yen and son-in-law Richard Horsburgh persisted, editing and updating the stories and commentary and collecting the many photographs that are a highlight of the book. It’s easy to see why commercial publishers might have shied away: the structure, in which some individual stories are broken up into separate chapters and interpolated with others, doesn’t always make them easy to follow, and there’s a confusing and somewhat repetitive abundance of prefaces, forewords and introductions.

Yet South Flows the Pearl remains a valuable reference for Australian social history, with fascinating details of Australian life you might not find anywhere else. These include stories of how market gardeners collected horse manure from racing stables and came away with tips on the horses – and mentioning the Chinatown restaurants where they spent their winnings – as well as how some Eurasian families in the outback had the habit of eating fermented bean curd in sandwiches of white bread and butter. It also describes the impact on the community of the normalisation of relations between Beijing and Canberra in 1972.

Looking at a photograph of his extended family, with its mix of Chinese, Aboriginal, Japanese, Anglo and German heritage, elderly Perth businessman John Fong (1925-2008) observed: “They’re the real Australians.” 

Sydney University Press, 404pp, $40

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "South Flows the Pearl: Chinese Australian Voices, Mavis Gock Yen (edited by Siaoman Yen and Richard Horsburgh) ".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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