In 1912, Henry Lawson published a short story titled ‘Ah Soon: A Chinese-Australian Story‘ in the Sydney magazine The Lone Hand. In ‘Ah Soon’, the (white) narrator tells a story of reciprocal kindness across two families and two generations.
The first kindness is from the narrator’s parents to Ah Soon, a Chinese gardener, when they lived at Lawson’s Creek near Mudgee many years earlier. They helped Ah Soon to hospital when his cart tipped over near their home, crushing him under its heavy load.
The second kindness is from Ah Soon’s son, Ah See, a vegetable hawker, to the narrator himself. It came in the form of a red envelope (with £6 inside), given quietly when the narrator had fallen on hard times as a writer in Sydney.
The narrator was initially unaware of the connection between him and Ah See, but:
Then it dawned on me—and I saw: [he] was Ah See, the son of old Ah Soon, and I was the son of my father and mother; and my father and mother had been good to Ah Soon, the father of Ah See; and Ah See had remembered. Besides, I had used to teach him … to write in those dim, half-forgotten days.
To me one of the most interesting parts of the story is its beginning, where the narrator articulates what seems to have been a not-uncommon attitude of white Australians towards their Chinese neighbours. He says:
I don’t know whether a story about a Chinaman would be popular or acceptable here and now; and, for the matter of that, I don’t care. I am anti-Chinese as far as Australia is concerned; in fact, I am all for a White Australia. But one may dislike, or even hate, a nation without hating or disliking an individual of that nation. One may be on friendly terms; even pals in a way.
In writing about Chinese Australians and the White Australia policy (and its antecedents), I sometimes wonder how to make sense of the complexities and contradictions. Few white Australians openly argued against the principle of a ‘White Australia’ – and it was certainly ever-present in the lives of Chinese Australians – yet there are many examples in the archives that suggest that maintaining ‘White Australia’ was not always the most important principle or ideology in the interactions of white Australians and Chinese.
Lawson’s narrative of Ah Soon and Ah See is just one story, and a fictional one at that, but as Amanda Rasmussen has suggested, examining small stories or particular episodes in history can show ‘that there was not always an automatic transference of the racial prejudice dominant in the national public discourse into people’s everyday exchanges’.
As a historian, I continue to be challenged in my efforts to write nuanced histories of Chinese Australia that recognise this dual history of exclusion and inclusion. Histories that aren’t just 血淚史 (histories of blood and tears). Histories that can acknowledge the moments of kindness and connection in amongst the discourses and systems of racism and discrimination.
‘Ah Soon: A Chinese-Australian Story‘, The Lone Hand, vol. 11, no. 64 (1 August 1912), pp. 324–28.
Amanda Rasmussen, ‘The Rise of Labor: A Chinese Australian Participates in Bendigo Local Politics at a Formative Moment, 1904–1905’, in Sophie Couchman and Kate Bagnall (eds), Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, Brill, Leiden, 2015, pp. 174–202, here p. 177.
Ouyang Yu, ‘Lawson, Gunn and the “White Chinaman”: A Look at How Chinese are Made White in Henry Lawson and Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s Writings‘, LINQ (Literature in North Queensland), vol. 30, no. 2 (2003), pp. 10–23.