By any other name

[Retrieved from ‘Family Life’ in June 2020]

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald published Nicolas Jose’s address at the NSW Premier’s History Awards. It’s an interesting address, worth reading in its entirety. My reason for blogging is that Jose begins with this:

When the landmark Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature appears next year, it will include, among many other things, an extract from an early Chinese Australian memoir, My Life and Work by Taam Sze Pui, first published in a bilingual edition in Innisfail in 1925.

Taam tells how he journeyed from southern China to North Queensland in the 1870s to search for gold. When he failed as a prospector, he opened a store to meet the daily needs of those in the far-flung district. Later a wife came from China to join him and their family grew with a business that was still flourishing in family hands a century later.

He goes on to describe the influence of Taam Sze Pui’s book on later artists, such as William Yang and Tony Ayres.

The work has been revalued retrospectively, given new meaning and life in a way that subtly reconfigures our understanding of Australian literary history. It forms a connective tissue between past and present that also points forward.

Innisfail exerts its powerful influence on the world of letters once again.

Taam Sze Pui’s name was not forgotten when I was a child in Innisfail, and his shop was still a significant landmark. As I remember it, he was known as Tom See Poy (which is how he’s named in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Version), and the shop was See Poy’s, the Grace Brothers of our town. The Macquarie PEN anthology is definitely on my list of books to be acquired.

5 responses to “By any other name

  1. I’m with you Jonathan – both on the Innisfail – small town Chinese mercantile emporium family – experience – because it was a kind of experience in small town Tamworth out of which I sprang – as it were. And because it changes – or can change – our perception of this land and its non-Indigenous culturally and ethnically diverse participants. I purchased Nick’s Macquarie PEN edited anthology – not long after my return from my many years in Japan (returned mid-2009) and was in contact with him – just after my return from Australia – for the inclusion of a wealth of First Nations writing also included. This re-posting is a corrective (one hopes) to the mostly malicious political demonising of China (and by innocent extension of Chinese/East Asian peoples in Australia) currently being generated by vested-interest perspectives. Ronald McKie’s The Mango Tree (based on the writer’s childhood in a disguised Bundaberg) has the following in Chapte r Three: “Through most of his schooldays, before he went to high school, Jamie sat between Chow Hing and Jack Hatch. Chow was a dark Cantonese whose father had a small general store in Chinatown. He had perfect teeth and hair as coarse as pig bristles. He was so strong that he could wrestle and master two boys of his own size at once…” My young widowed mother in our earliest days from Sydney in Tamworth was looked after by our Chinese emporium landlord and family – The Yee Family – the elderly parents of whom had arrived in New South Wales prior to Federation from Canton/Hong Kong – the wife of whom had tiny bound feet!


    • Thanks, Jim. I hadn’t even thought about this i the current anti-Chinese vileness, but I’m glad it swims against that tide. I met up a couple of years ago with a Chinese guy who was in my class in primary school. He said he didn’t remember the school as racist, for which I’m glad. He and I alternated coming first in the class for years.


  2. You know – in some ways, Jonathan, post WWII and anti-Japanese/assimilationist-Stolen Generation/Mission control of First Nations peoples (which is why I have avoided use of the combo Latin used to “name” them) sentiment excepted – there was a kind of otherwise innocence through the 1950s maybe into the 1960s? In a very broad brush kind of way no one really was better than another – people were not rudely ostentatious in display of material possessions and so forth – and so I can see the Yees of my childhood – your old classmate – Chow Hing in Ronald McKie’s disguised Bundaberg (even if 40 years earlier) just there – another element al=ong with the lass who wore her hair in plaits or the boy with the ginger hair and the other child already wearing spectacles – part of the array. When I read The Mango Tree to my Homebush Boys High Year 11 (ESL) class – all from south-east Asia – explaining that early Great War era Australia – religious divides – farmers and town folk – German-ancestry farmers, the old remittance man – the Professor – reminding Jamie of the absence of the original peoples – it released lots of my own stories of growing up – in order to explain this land to my students – thirsty to understand it – all so recently arrived out of escapes across pirate-patrolled seas, refugee island stay and so forth. Most though not from China of ethnic Chinese ancestry…

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    • Interesting thoughts/memories, Jim. Your first sentence with its almost-Proustian parenthesis, is a wonder. Maybe, though, what you’re describing is a child’s-eye view, rather than the broader reality. What is now called white privilege certainly existed then, just there wasn’t a lot of light being thrown on it for us white people..


  3. You are right Jonathan – white privilege certainly did exist – but with a kind of overlay through its ranked hierarchical structure – those on the hill – on that side of the tracks – as opposed to those of the working class levels such that the privilege of the latter group did not seem much at all – hard scrabble and hand-me-downs. It definitely was for me a child’s-eye view. We had at the start of the assimilationist-to-integrationist 1960s – Indigenous neighbours – just prior to my heading away to university in Sydney. Significant people to whom we were polite – their significance only becoming apparent as the decades passed. As is the way.

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