China in the Tasmanian imaginary

by Cassandra Pybus

THE SHARP CHILL of winter has settled upon southern Tasmania and I now rise at the same time as the sun to witness an eerily beautiful phenomenon unique to this part of the world. The 'Bridgewater Jerry' is caused by cold air draining down the mountain overnight and collecting in the Derwent Valley at Bridgewater, where it is expelled each morning as a dense column of fog that rolls down the river to dissipate into the ocean. The curious name, like so many Tasmanian oddities, is long forgotten vernacular from the early days of the penal colony. According to that sly convict James Hardy Vaux, who compiled The Vocabulary of the Flash Language to assist magistrates translate the patios of felons, 'jerry' was London criminal slang for mist. So, this winter morning when I pull back my curtains I see the jerry hovering on the river's surface, backlit by the rising sun and tinged with gold.

No matter where I am on this island, every day there will be a sight to stop me in my tracks and fill my chest with sudden radiance. What I feel is passion, no doubt about it; Tasmania is my one enduring love. When I am away for any substantial length of time this glorious landscape fills my dreams and impels me homeward. Herein lies my conundrum: I can't live anywhere else than this beautiful, empty terminus of the world, yet living here poses an intellectual challenge I find difficult to transcend. After an extended period of time in Tasmania, I experience a pervasive low mood settling upon me like a jerry. It can be dissipated by the engagement of lively conversation, or the touch of sensual fingers, but soon enough the ennui will be rolling down again and I will be scanning expedia.com for the best deal on a ticket out of here.

My research projects are invariably chosen to provide an escape route to busy, noisy, crowded and intellectually electrifying places on the other side of the globe. For the past several years, researching the transatlantic slave trade has taken me to London, New York, Washington, the Caribbean and the west coast of Africa. But as there is nothing to connect my exquisite birthplace, or my settler family history, to this Atlantic world, I have become somewhat schizophrenic, alternating between the big world of my research and the small place of my home. Lately, my thoughts have turned to China, which could make me even more bifurcated, except that the China which has engaged my attention is not the postmodern megatropolis, indeed, it is not anywhere in the vast stretch of North Asia. My interest is an entirely fanciful China that is a product of a perculiarly Tasmanian perspective. It was brought to my notice at a symposium with scholars from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, recently held in Launceston, of all unlikely places.

 

LAUNCESTON IS THE one qualification I allow to my enchantment with Tasmania. While this dour northern town boasts many handsome colonial houses, Launceston remains as dull and self-satisfied as it was in the early nineteenth century, when the aspiring bourgeoisie clucked their tongues at Hobart as a sink of criminal depravity. Launceston has but one spot of glory: the Cataract Gorge, a classic site of the romantic picturesque where the powerful waters of the South Esk River have cut a deep gash through dramatic dolerite cliffs, to be admired from an exquisite Victorian music pavilion nestled amongst sylvan glades of ferns and English trees, complete with decorative peacocks. This sublime picnic spot, together with the awesome cliff walkway, was created in the early 1890s by the City and Suburbs Improvement Association, which was just the kind of worthy body one would expect to find in colonial Launceston. But here is the surprising thing: most of the funding for this substantial undertaking came from the proceeds of a Chinese Carnival that was held in the town over three days in February 1891.

Billed as 'the most magnificent pageant in the history of the colony', the event took place in a park illuminated with ten thousand Chinese lanterns, where 'three hundred representatives of the celestial land in national costume' presented the curious public with a ceremonial procession, a Chinese opera and art exhibition, and concluded with a spectacular fireworks display. It attracted more than four thousand paying spectators on the first day. The awed correspondent for the Launceston Advertiser pronounced the carnival 'a once in a lifetime' experience. Like his fellow citizens, he was astonished by the influx of some three hundred and fifty celestials into his town, and greatly impressed by their sober politeness and dignified grace. From whence had all these Chinamen sprung? Apparently two Chinese merchants in Launceston, known as Ah Kat and Tom Sing, had collected hundreds of their countrymen from settlements at Moorina, Garibaldi, Thomas Plains, Ruby Flats, Branxholm, Gould's County and Weldborough in the remote northeast corner. These places have now all but vanished back into the wilderness, but in 1891 they were crowded, noisy and unsanitary hives of activity focused on the dark veins of crystalline cassiteritein the granite rocks that dominate the rugged landscape.

In the 1880s it was thought that the low range known as the Blue Tier that separated the northeast coast from the pastoral hinterland was a solid mountain of tin. It was the tin that lured the close to one thousand Chinese over a couple of decades, most coming directly from Guangdong in Southern China. These men landed in Launceston where they could avoid the entry tax the other colonies had imposed and were sponsored by entrepreneurial clansmen such as Tom Sing who had preceded them and negotiated for them to work the accessible tin deposits on tribute, which is to say they paid the mining lease owners about 15 per cent of their haul. It was a mighty good deal for the owners. Early in the mining boom in 1879, the Australian And New Zealand Gazette reported that Tom Sing had dispatched 176 bags of tin mined by his compatriots working the Blue Tier. Ten years later, when the boom was at its height, the Chinese in the Blue Tier outnumbered Europeans by ten to one, with the main centre of their activity at the village of Weldborough on the high point of the range, home for some seven hundred Chinese men, plus a handful of women, not all of them Chinese.

These miners worked the shallow seams of cassiterite by hand. Assisted only with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow, they dug deep into the topsoil which they carried to a sluice, where a wooden race diverted water from the creek and forced it into a concentrated jet that would wash the dirt and sand away, leaving only the granules of tin. The tin was bagged up and delivered to merchants in Launceston for sale. The conduit between the miners and the town merchants was the clan leader in Weldborough, Maa Mon Chinn. He was one of the first miners to come to the Blue Tier, arriving in Tasmania with his father and brother in the 1860s when he was just a youth. Twenty years later he had prospered and held several mining leases in the region, as well as running a gambling den and all-purpose store in Weldborough. He dealt directly with Tom Sing in Launceston, who handled all the buying and selling of ore, the interpreting and negotiations with officialdom, in addition to the importation of goods from Hong Kong. Tom Sing was also the middleman who made it possible for miners to remit much of their earnings to the families left behind in China. This was a circuitous business, as there was no post directly into China. The miners took their money to Maa Mon Chinn, who would address their letters in Chinese on the left hand corner, and then take the mail to the warehouse at 27 Johns Street, Launceston, where Tom Sing would write in English on the right hand side and ship it to a business associate in Hong Kong, who in turn arranged to have it delivered to an appropriate merchant in Guangdong. It would be five or six weeks before the money found its way to the home village, with multiple palms to be greased along the way.

The miners were nearly all lonely bachelors, or lonely husbands whose wives were far away in China. It was almost impossible for Chinese women to get entry into the Australian colonies and even though Tasmania had the most favourable entry requirements, only four women came from China. Ah Moy, who ran his own mine at Ruby's Flat and later opened a store at Branxholm, arrived with his wife in the 1860s and they had seven children in Tasmania. Maa Mon Chinn used his considerable influence to bring his future wife, Lula Kow Yonn, aged sixteen, who arrived in 1886 with her nine-year-old 'able footed' attendant, Len Heng. Over the next twenty-two years Lula Chinn had eleven children at Weldborough, whereas her maid married Fook Lee, a market gardener in Gladstone, some thirty miles from Weldborough. Another shopkeeper in Weldborough was Chin Kaw, who did well enough to bring out his wife in 1890. A few of the miners married European women. One of these was Chin Mon Tok, who came to Weldborough from the Victorian goldfields with his wife, Louise McIntyre, with whom he had eleven children. At nearby Garibaldi, Him Sheen married Maria Glover in 1876, while his brother married her sister, and a little further afield at Lottah was the family of the herbalist Sing Ge Bak Hap, who came from Victoria with his wife Margaret and two children. In a community of nearly a thousand souls, such families were extremely rare.

Weldborough was the centre of the spiritual and social life for this hard-working Chinese community. In addition to Ma Mon Chinn's gambling establishment, Weldborough was home to an ornate temple, built for the worship of Guan Gi, the warrior sage deified in the Ming dynasty. The temple always thronged with men making offerings of food and wine, burning paper and incense, and casting divination sticks in the hope of receiving a message from the deity. The Weldborough 'joss house' was a source of fascination for the few Europeans in the region. They came from miles around to witness the gaudy pageantry and noisy activity, especially at Chinese New Year when the vast night sky would provide the backdrop for a celestial theatre created from dazzling fireworks imported from China in large wooden cases. The fireworks display would last for several hours and was artfully constructed on a series of scaffolds forty to fifty feet high, where legendary narratives of heroism and bravery were played out with papier-mâché figurines and explosive firecrakers. When the scaffolds had finally burned through and collapsed into a smouldering heap, there would be feasting on pigs that had been roasting slowly in special circular stone ovens, and then frenetic gambling that lasted all through the night.

 

THESE DAYS THERE is no apparent evidence of this vibrant Chinese community. Weldborough is little more than a spot marked on the map on a minor road to the coast where the solitary pub survives as a waystop for the occasional tourists and car rally enthusiasts. Chinese tenure in northeastern Tasmania was terminated by the combined pressure of discriminatory practices in the mining industry and immigration restriction by government. Two decades after Federation nearly every one of those lonely miners had melted back to China, although a few families stayed and diversified into mercantile businesses or market gardens. Chin Kaw quit Weldborough in 1899 to set up business as a merchant in Launceston, while a decade later Maa Mon Chinn took his family to Melbourne. By 1930 the teeming camp was little more than a faint memory. The sole Chinese presence were the children of Chin Mon Tock working their own mining lease known as the Chintock Battery, and an old bachelor, Hee Jarm, who made his living by selling vegetables around the Blue Tier, while his real vocation was looking after the Weldborough temple, which threatened to fall into ruin. In despair about the deteriorating state of the temple, Hee Jarm organised to have it removed to the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston in 1934, where it was reassambled to serve as both museum artefact and place of worship. By 1945 there was said to be only one elderly man using the temple for devotional practice. Soon he too was gone.

When the Weldborough 'joss house' was put on general exhibition there was so much vandalism that it was moved deep into the back of the museum, roped off and allowed public inspection only under the supervision of a uniformed attendant. Tucked away in the dusty, darkened inner sanctum of this place of curiosities, the 'joss house' became an enduring source of fascination and joy for generations of Tasmanians, who vividly remember approaching in darkness and then, as the display illuminated, entering into an inexplicably exotic world. The gilded red lacquerwork of the temple was hung with embroidered scrolls inscribed with the teachings of Confucius and decorated with images of fierce red dragons, white cranes, crimson peonies, yellow chrysanthemums, and multi-coloured fish. Mounted on eight long cedar poles were eight flat boxes covered with the brilliant blue feathers of the kingfisher, while on a central altar were fourteen figurines in elaborate makeup and vivid embroidered silken robes, arranged around the central figure of Guan Di, who was seated on a throne, looking terribly fierce in his glossy green robes. Entering this gorgeous, but slightly shabby, shrine was an awesome pleasure that many Tasmanians never forgot.

 

NOVELIST KATHERINE SCHOLES remembers the thrill of being allowed access to something secret, from a faraway time and place, and she never minded that everything looked a bit worn because that was just the way the mysterious worshippers had left it. Intimation of faraway places was what enchanted novelist Carmel Bird, whose memories of the temple included the guard in his dark uniform who she persuaded to strike one of the brass gongs. 'I used to move in and out of the banners on poles, amazed and transported into an exotic world of which I had no understanding beyond the magic of the colours and the fabrics and the wholly foreign images,' she wrote. Like generations of children, she found in the dark reaches of the museum in this small provincial town 'a magical space which I could enter, where I could imagine I heard the movement of the wings of the kingfisher and the distant sound of a Chinese gong'.

To the dismay of both these novelists, and many of the museum stalwarts, the 'joss house' has been moved from its hideaway and now has pride of place in a brightly lit niche just inside the main door of the museum. The gilded and lacquered woodwork has been restored and the display tidied up, but much of it, including the fourteen figurines that surrounded Guan Di, have been removed to protect them from further deterioration.

It was the prominent display of a Guan Di temple in the museum which drew the scholars from Zhejiang University to this island at the end of the world. Professor Guan of the Institute for Ancient Booksexplained that prior to the Cultural Revolution there had been hundreds of thousands of Guan Di temples in China, but precious few had survived that iconoclastic rage. Such temples could still be found wherever the Chinese diaspora made landfall throughout South-East Asia and the Pacific – there are at least three still in use in Sydney – but nowhere else is there a temple in a museum. What makes this one remarkable is that it has been frozen in time at the end of the nineteenth century, the heyday of Guan Di's adoration.

Professor Guan and his colleagues were astonished to be told by the museum's director that the temple was greatly treasured by the people of Launceston, who considered the 'joss house' the museum's most significant artefact. They were even more bemused to discover that it is now promoted as the first stop on a tourist route through the remote northeast corner of Tasmania billed as 'The Trail of the Tin Dragon' which runs through the old mining settlements. By a stroke of luck, I got to accompany the Chinese scholars on an excursion along the trail that was organised by an enthusiastic tourism officer from the region. My companions were politely intrigued by the whole exercise and diligent in their attention to the tour guide, but no amount of careful dissembling could mask the profound culture shock of people from one of the most crowded places on earth, who spoke of their home base of Hangzhou, population seven million, as a small city. The region of the tin dragon, it is fair to say, is basically empty of people and doesn't have many cows or sheep either.

 

ONCE THE MINIBUS was clear of the rolling emerald paddocks of Scottsdale we climbed into ruggedly beautiful ranges where we gazed out over thousands of hectares of trees with the rare sighting of a few dilapidated weatherboard cottages. This undulating landscape was lovely to look at but has no use as pastoral country, the mining industry has long since finished and now the timber mills have closed, making this one of the most economically depressed areas in Australia.

Our first stop was at Branxholm where there were a handful of weatherbeaten cottages and a big, red, brand-spanking-new interpretative marker to commemorate the 'celestial sojourners' who so briefly mined the tin thereabouts. My companions could certainly read the marker, but they were at a loss to comprehend its purpose and implored me to explain what it was meant for and who could possibly be interested. Before I could respond, we were whisked away to stand in front of a small cleared area, empty except for the collapsed foundations of a small building. This, we were solemnly told, was the remains of the hut that had served as Ah Moy's shop, which sadly burned down six years ago.

Branxholm turned out to be the most densely populated and richly endowed heritage site we visited all day. There was no sign of any human habitation at Moorina where we gazed at the second red marker beside the lonely cemetery which boasted a small funerary burner for burning paper facsimiles of money and possessions to serve the deceased in the afterlife. Such things are ubiquitous in China and you see them all over the place in South-East Asia, but apart from a solitary Chinese headstone, there was nothing else to see in Moorina. We clambered back into the bus for a breathtaking drive to Weldborough where the narrow road wound precariously through a lowering rainforest – massive tree ferns were interspersed with stands of blackwood, sassafras and myrtle, utterly magical in the dappled winter light.

Professor Wu, who was the Director of the Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage Studies at Zhejiang University, among other positions, had by now recovered from his initial shock and surprise and was now enjoying himself hugely. He was captivated by the curious irony that the presence of a few Chinese in Tasmania in the late nineteenth century had been creatively re-imagined in the hope of stimulating the economy of this impoverished, empty region. He thought his graduate students would be very interested in this project, and asked me if I had any idea about how their research in Tasmania might be funded. He was delighted to hear that 50 per cent of the company that was still extracting tin on the west coast of Tasmania was owned by Yunan Tin, a massive Chinese government enterprise. He had a colleague with contacts there, he said, who could write to them.

At Weldborough the pub was closed and there was little to indicate a Chinese presence, except for evidence of Chinese burials in the cemetery, where the most noticeable feature was the rather ostentatious concrete and granite chip Chintock family plot. Here several of the children of Chin Mon Tock were interred, including his daughter Charlotte Mary Chintock, better known as Lottie. Emboldened by Professor Wu's enthusiasm, I seized the occasion to explain how Lottie Chintock was the most famous person on the Trail of the Tin Dragon. This much I knew.

 

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Lottie Chintock nearly thirty years ago when I was on the verge of returning to Tasmania. At my farewell party in Melbourne a friend told me how he was once a young doctor in the remote northeast corner of the island and that one of his patients was the mother of the film star Merle Oberon. Now, you may not remember Merle, who died in 1979, but in her day she was huge. You have probably seen her playing Cathy opposite Laurence Olivier's Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. When I was a child in Tasmania the beautiful Merle Oberon was always a touchstone for me because she, too, was born in Tasmania, at least that is what it said on the Fantales wrapper. However, this comforting belief was shattered by the biography of Merle Oberon published in 1983, which revealed she was born in India, the illegitimate daughter of a part Singalese woman named Constance Selby and an Englishman named Arthur Terrance O'Brien Thompson. The story about her birth in Tasmania was concocted by the British movie mogul Alexander Korda, who cast lovely young bit player Queenie Thompson as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and then went on to marry his emerging star.

It was Korda's genius to turn Queenie Thompson into Merle Oberon, providing her with elocution lessons to remove her accent and an entirely fictional biography to remove any hint of miscegenation. She was said to be the daughter of an English army officer and his English wife, born in the furthest outpost of the British empire, Tasmania. What could be more English than a temperate antipodean island where everyone was white; a place so inconsequential and so far away that no one was likely to travel there to verify the story. That racially cleansed biography served Merle well when she divorced Korda and moved to Hollywood to become one of the biggest stars of her generation.

Stories have a wonderful way of remaking themselves and this cynical fiction took on a life of its own in the Tasmanian imaginary. Of course Tasmanians were never going to dispute the Merle Oberon story because they wanted to own this gorgeous creature with the dark limpid eyes who lit up their movie screens. It merely remained to create the home-grown biography for her. Her famous eyes, described by a Hobart newspaper as 'slightly oriental', provided the clue. How could a girl from Tasmania have oriental eyes? Tasmanians wondered, stirring faint memories of the Chinese who came briefly to the island decades ago. Then someone remembered that family that remained in the Blue Tier, the Chintocks. As the story took shape it was said that young Lottie Chintock, who 'wasn't a bad looking sheila,' was working as a hotel maid at the coastal town of St Helens when she fell pregnant to the hotelier John Willis Thompson, so Merle was born in dubious circumstances, Thompson being already a married man. This pretty child continued to live at the hotel with her mother and was a delight for the guests, who were often retired army officers and their wives from India. She proved irresistible for one couple named O'Brien who adopted Merle and took her away to…well, that bit is pretty hazy. In the Tasmanian telling the fiction created to obscure Merle Oberon's dubious origins actually returned her to the illegitimacy and mixed racial heritage that her creators sought to erase.

It is far from clear how the link was first established between a Hollywood megastar and an obscure, impoverished and racially suspect woman from remote Weldborough. There is no record of any birth to Lottie Chintock, yet she did have a son named Ron Chintock, father unknown, so it is possible that she was known to have had an illegitimate girl child relinquished to adoption. It is easy to imagine Lottie, suffused with loss and longing, endlessly searching faces for her relinquished daughter, gazing at those huge dark eyes on the flickering screen in the St Helen's community hall and thinking: that's her; my little girl.

Certainly Lottie Chintock was happy to promote her famous connection by the 1940s, when my friend was her doctor, and 'everyone knew she was Merle Oberon's mother'. Yet there has never been any shortage of Tasmanians keen to collude with Lottie and enhance the story, adding their own memories of Merle as part of an oral history project undertaken by the St Helen's History Room. The source for most of the stories was the supposed half-brother of Merle, Ron Chintock, who refused to speak to me, but has been proud to report to other people that he took Merle to Weldborough to put flowers on Lottie's grave when the film star made a visit to Tasmania just before she died.

 

IT IS TRUE that Merle Oberon did come to Tasmania in 1978 when she visited Australia to present some TV awards. However she could not have visited Weldborough, because she refused to leave her Hobart hotel room, according to her bewildered young husband who had encouraged her to come. Merle shut herself in the bedroom and cried, Robert Wolders later recalled, leaving him to field phone calls from people who claimed to have gone to school with her. At a civic reception in her honour she made only a brief appearance to acknowledge that she was not born in Tasmania, before quitting the room in tears. There is now the irrefutable evidence of her birth certificate being found in India, and an interview with her real half-brother, Hugh Selby. Yet to this day, many people in Tasmania will die in a ditch before they will surrender the story of Lottie's little girl.

My Chinese companions were highly entertained by this story, but even though they were educated in England or America, Merle Oberon was not a celebrity they recognised. They knew about cricket, however, and they all knew the name of Tasmania's most famous son, Ricky Ponting. How pleased they were to be told that as Merle Oberon's star has faded, the long-serving cricket captain has taken her place in the Tasmania imaginary and the story of his Chinese heritage is rapidly gaining credence in the international world of sport. On hearing this, Professor Wu opened his iPad and googled Ricky Ponting + Chinese and immediately pulled up the Guardian newspaper report dated 10 July, 2009, which described the Australian captain as having 'half Chinese eyes and heritage'. In a Daily Telegraph report from 2008, Professor Wu read that 'Ricky Pon Ting did his Chinese heritage proud'. According to this sportswriter 'The Pon Tings have been mining tin in the northeast of Tasmania for over a century and I'm certain they would have celebrated the achievement of one of their own with traditional oriental dignity'. I couldn't explain how this fiction began, but the story of Ricky Ponting's Chinese heritage has been around for at least a decade. I first heard about it in India in 2002. In the Indian telling, the story remakes itself to come full circle.

When the cricket correspondent for the Hindu Sportstar was booking his tickets to a Test Match in Tasmania, the airline booking agent told him that 'about one hundred years ago a Tasmanian woman gave birth to a girl who was adopted by a soldier who took her to India'. That girl, of course, was Merle Oberon. The story continued that the relinquishing mother had then married a Tasmanian man and one of their children was the father of Ricky Ponting. The Indian journalist felt sure Ponting did not know the movie star was his great aunt, but the import of the story would not be lost on Indian readers, who fiercely celebrate Merle Oberon as their own. It could only mean one thing: the awesome captain of the Australian cricket team was also one of theirs.

 

ALL THIS INTANGIBLE Chinese heritage was a gift to Professor Wu, who conferred excitedly in Chinese with his two colleagues as the minibus left the Blue Tier and descended to the coastal village of St Helens, where I was to leave the group to go hiking in the magnificent Freycinet National Park. A week later I was delighted to receive an email inviting me to come to Zhejiang University to present a paper on how the Chinese have been imagined and fabricated in Tasmanian memory. As the morning temperature was nudging zero, this seemed like a very good idea. A quick browse on Google informed me that in autumn Hangzhou is dry, with temperatures around 23 degrees, and there is a high speed train to Beijing and Shanghai. I immediately accepted for September, and turned my mind to developing a research program to keep me in Southern China for a few weeks. Once the travel details were squared away – an excellent deal that permitted a side trip to Hong Kong – I could anticipate the surge of pure satisfaction I will feel on my return to the pristine air and dramatic, empty vistas of Tasmania.

Arriving here is what I am destined for, over and over and over again.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.