I have been wanting to write something for Women’s History Month. The Australian theme for 2013 is Finding Founding Mothers—looking at women involved in shaping the new nation in the fields of political, social, medical and educational reform. The women at the heart of my research don’t obviously fit with this theme—so instead of profiling an ‘important’ figure in the struggle for women’s rights from Federation, I’d like to tell the story of a woman whose life and death are an example of why those reforms, particularly those around health care and reproductive rights, have been so important.
Louisa Elizabeth Nichols was 32 years old when, on 24 July 1901, she took her husband’s revolver, walked outside her family’s home at Tarlo, near Goulburn, and shot herself in the head. Watching was her 11-year-old daughter, Lily, together with her other six children: Ruby (10), Ronald (9), Hilton (6), Elsie (4), Louisa (2) and baby Edith. That morning, Louisa had been up early feeding four-week-old Edith. When Lily got up, she helped her mother get her other siblings washed and dressed and ready for school. Louisa then asked Lily to take out a piece of paper to write something down, but Lily refused—her mother already had hold of the revolver and Lily knew what she was intending to do with it. Louisa kissed the children, then went out into the yard and killed herself. Young Lily called out to her father, who was sick in bed, and then ran to her neighbour for help. On hearing the shots, Charlie Ah Chong got out of bed, finding his wife dead and the children crying. When the neighbours arrived ten minutes later, there was nothing to be done.
Louisa and Charlie had been together for thirteen years, living first on Charlie’s garden in Goulburn itself and then, from about 1894, at Tarlo, just north of the town, where there were significant market gardens run by Chinese. Around the time of their move Louisa had ‘complained of her head’ and then two years before her death she had ‘taken bad again’—this timing perhaps coinciding with the birth of daughter Louisa in 1899. Louisa used to talk strangely and seemed to believe that people hung about the place. Neighbour James Willis described her as eccentric, saying he believed that ‘she was wrong in her head’. He also often heard Louisa say that ‘she thought she would go mad on account of the way she was living’. Although the only person Charlie had spoken to about her condition was the local police, Louisa and Charlie seem to have been an amiable couple, never quarelling, even though they lived in hard conditions.
The coronial inquiry into Louisa’s death concluded that it was the result of a wound self-inflicted while temporarily insane. Reporting the case the Goulburn Herald noted that ‘There is nothing to show why the deed was committed’, but in retrospect it seems very likely that Louisa was suffering, and had previously suffered, from post-natal depression, or from some other form of mental illness. From the age of 21, Louisa’s life would have been almost completely consumed with child-bearing and mothering. Giving birth to seven children over 11 years, she would have been in a constant cycle of pregnancy and nursing, pregnancy and nursing, until she could cope no more.
There is one final, heart-breaking part of the story of Louisa’s death, which tells of how important Louisa was to her young family. For without her, they weren’t permitted to remain a family:
A pathetic scene, in connection with the recent suicide at Tarlo, was enacted in Sloane-street [Goulburn] this morning. Mrs Chong, the victim of this domestic tragedy, left behind her a family of seven young children, the eldest being a girl of 11 years, and the authorities deemed it wise on the ground of morality to place the children under State protection. They were brought into town to-day and despatched to Sydney by the 11.20 train. Quite a touching scene was witnessed on their removal from the police station to the railway station. The children, who are all very small, did not appear to realize why they were being taken away from their home, and their infantile struggles with two stalwart policemen attracted quite a number of people to the spot. The sight of the little ones holding on to their father’s coat and legs while the constables endeavoured with the greatest gentleness to disengage them was pathetic in the extreme. The distressed father showed a deep affection for his children, and was visibly affected. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 10 August 1901)
NSW birth registrations: 14112/1890, 14459/1891, 14848/1893, 22459/1895, 21813/1897, 21084/1899, 22239/1901 (Note: the children’s births were registered under the surnames Nichols, Nicholls and Nicholson)
All in all we know very little about Australia’s very earliest Chinese residents.
Best known is Mak Sai Ying, or John Shying, who arrived in Sydney as a free settler in 1818, working first as a carpenter with John Blaxland before establishing himself in business at Parramatta, marrying twice to white women and fathering four sons. Family history research papers about Shying and his descendents are held in Sydney’s Mitchell Library.
Histories by Eric Rolls, Shirley Fitzgerald, Janis Wilton and Ian Jack have sketched the arrival of a small number of other Chinese men who arrived in Sydney in the three decades after Shying—sailors, other carpenters and labourers brought out on contract to work primarily in agriculture.
In the 1820s there is record of John Dunmore Lang—Sydney’s first Presbyterian minister who himself only arrived in 1823—employing Chinese carpenters named Queng and Tchiou in 1827, and of two Chinese men (a cook and a carpenter) being among the multicultural labour force employed by the Macarthurs at Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta. The NSW Colonial Secretary’s correspondence shows that three Chinese carpenters—Ahehew, Ahoun and Awage—requested to remain permanently in the colony before 1825. Another man, Achin, was admitted to the general hospital in 1824. And the 1828 census recorded Ahchun, Ahfoo and Ahlong in the employ of a T.G. Pitman in Sydney.
In 1830, there was the remarkable arrival of Ah Nee and three countrymen who landed in Sydney after seven months at sea in a small sailing vessel. As noted by Ian Jack, they were employed as stockmen by Andrew Brown on his substantial grazing properties on the Castlereagh River. (Perhaps even more remarkable is that Ah Nee spent the next 75 years living in central-western New South Wales, where he worked as an agricultural labourer, before he died aged 117 in 1915.)
The colonial shipping news also records the comings and goings of Chinese men—such as the arrival of an unnamed Chinese carpenter on the Nimrod in December 1827; the departure of Yan, Hang and Nee for Mauritius on the Bee in June 1832; and the arrival of four unnamed Chinese labourers on the Regia from Singapore in September 1838.
In my PhD study of Chinese-European marriages in colonial New South Wales, John Shying’s two marriages were the only Chinese marriages I found before the early 1850s. But I now have evidence of at least two or three more (thanks to Trove). One of these was between a Chinese man named James Tame, a Catholic catechist converted by the Portuguese (presumably in or near Macau), and Englishwoman Mary Rapsey, who seems to have been an assigned convict at the time of their marriage in 1839. A family of ‘four Chinese children’ and their parents were reported as living at Goulburn in March 1842 (I’m pretty certain these would be mixed-race children, as I haven’t identified a Chinese mother in the colony before the 1860s). The other early mixed marriage I have come across involved a previously unknown contemporary of John Shying named Man Sue Bach.
The oldest Chinese colonist?
When he died in 1862, Man Sue Bach was 72 years old and had been living in New South Wales for 42 years, suggesting he had arrived in the colony in around 1820. On reporting his death, the Empire newspaper stated that Man Sue Bach was the ‘oldest Chinese colonist’, as he was considered the oldest member of the Chinese race in the colony and had been the longest resident.
(What about John Shying, you might ask. Why wasn’t he the oldest? Hadn’t he arrived earlier, wasn’t he about the same age? Shying was born in 1796, but there is no record of his death in New South Wales. He may have returned to China after the death of his second wife in the 1840s, or there is also the possibility that he married for a third time and died under the name John Sheen in 1880. Does the Empire’s claim to Man Sue Bach’s status as ‘oldest Chinese colonist’ in 1862 debunk the John Shying/Sheen story? Maybe, maybe not. But as John Shying’s son was an undertaker at Man Sue Bach’s burial, it seems likely that if John Shying/Sheen was living in or around Sydney the claim about Man Sue Bach probably wouldn’t have been made.)
Being something of a curiosity, both the Empire and Sydney Morning Herald reported on Man Sue Bach’s passing in some detail, and their reports were reprinted in papers such as the Maitland Mercury and Launceston’s Cornwall Chronicle. My account of Man Sue Bach’s life and death is based on these press accounts and on the details provided on his death certificates. I haven’t been able to locate other records, but that’s not to say he won’t pop up somewhere else—versions of his name I’ve found are Man Sue Bach, Mum Shou Pac, John Ah Shue Bach, John A. Sue Bach, John Ah Sue and John a Shue. There may well be formal records of his baptism, his marriage and the birth of his children, but I haven’t yet managed to track them down.
A brief sketch of life …
Man Sue Bach was born around 1790 and he was said to have been a ‘native of Hongkong’. Although he could have been born in Hong Kong itself, it is equally possible that his native place was inland from Hong Kong in Guangdong province, as his birth and later departure for overseas ports took place well before the ceding of Hong Kong to the British in 1842 after the first Opium War.
He arrived in Sydney around 1820 from Saint Helena, the tiny British outpost in the mid-Atlantic most famous as Napoleon Bonaparte’s place of exile. Controlled by the British East India Company, Saint Helena was an important stop on the sea route between Britain and India, where ships restocked with supplies, and the majority of its population were African slaves. After Britain abolished the Atlantic slave trade, however, the East India Company looked to China to provide a source of labour. From 1810 Chinese workers began arriving on the island, with the population peaking at over 600 men in 1817. Most worked as agricultural labourers and were indentured for contracts of three to five years.
After he arrived in New South Wales, Man Sue Bach travelled inland and eventually settled in the New England region, where he was said to have married and had a family of at least two sons. He also converted to Catholicism. In more recent years he had moved to Sydney where he kept a lodging house on Lower George Street, which was then the city’s fledgling Chinatown. He also made the arrangements for provisioning of ships leaving for China. Between these two enterprises he supported himself, even at his advanced age. The press accounts contain no more detail about his earlier life in the colony.
… and death
Man Sue Bach died on 4 June 1862, at about half past nine in the evening. He had been lying on his bed in his home at 169 Lower George Street when, at about 8.30 pm, he started and cried out in Chinese that he was dying. Dr Wright of Hunter Street was called for, but Man Sue Bach died soon after his arrival. When the news of his death spread, the Chinese storekeepers in Lower George Street and other parts of the city closed their shops in mourning.
In the press reports there is no mention of Man Sue Bach’s wife being present, so it seems probable that she had predeceased him and perhaps even that he had little contact with his adult sons. No details about a marriage or children were given when his death was registered, suggesting that the details were not known to those around him, although the press reported that his sons were still in New England and he had a brother at Lambing Flat.
The Sydney Morning Herald said that Man Sue Bach had been a ‘valued counsellor and friend’ to his countrymen in Sydney and, according to the Empire, they called him by the name ‘Governor’. Having lived in the colony for more than forty years, Man Sue Bach spoke English perfectly and understood how colonial life worked, meaning that many Chinese had sought his advice on ‘their personal welfare or business undertakings’. He also helped them financially, being ‘very ready … to assist them with loans of small sums of money when in distress’. He was honoured and respected by his fellow Chinese colonists, too, because of his old age, and the Empire declared that he would be ‘much missed’.
A notice of Man Sue Bach’s death was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 June (and reprinted on 21 June), and the City Coroner held an inquest at the Prince of Wales Hotel in George Street North the following day. Although he had enjoyed good health during his long life, during the previous few months Man Sue Bach had been ailing, complaining of a pain in the back. Based on the diagnosis of Dr Wright, who attended Man Sue Bach in his last minutes, the coroner found that death was due to an apoplectic fit.
Man Sue Bach was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery. The funeral cortege that left from his Lower George Street home at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of Friday, 6 June, comprised ‘a long string of carriages’, numbering forty-one in total and including four mourning coaches. The funeral was attended by many Chinese, but also by white ‘diggers and others’, who, the Empire noted, ‘seemed to participate in their regret’. The death was registered twice, first by the coroner on 30 June 1862 and then, on 30 August 1862, by the undertaker, Eliza Hanslow. Witnesses to his burial were Thomas Hanslow and John Shying (son of our original John Shying), who was a foreman with the Hanslow family’s firm of undertakers. Several years later John Shying junior set up business as an undertaker with his brother George in George Street South.
Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1997.
Winsome Doyle, ‘Research papers relating to John Shying, a Chinese settler in New South Wales (believed to have arrived in New South Wales in 1818), and his descendants, 198-?-ca. 1992’, MLMSS 5857, State Library of New South Wales.
On 10 May, I will be speaking at the Lilith Conference: ‘Women without men: Spinsters, widows and deserted wives in the nineteenth century and beyond’, at the ANU. It sounds like such a great conference, and I’m excited to be a part of it. Here’s what I’m going to be talking about.
Title: Returning home alone: marital breakdown and the voluntary repatriation of Australian wives from south China
Abstract: Between the 1860s and 1930s dozens of white wives of Chinese men travelled with their husbands and children from Australia and New Zealand to southern China. This paper will examine the decision made by a number of these women to subsequently leave their husbands and marriages, and sometimes also their children, to return to Australia. One of the main reasons they did so was the discovery that their husband had a Chinese wife. British and Australian commentators made much of the ‘cruel treatment’ white wives received from their Chinese families, with newspapers publishing periodic warnings of the dangers of a return to China. This paper will refigure such narratives of cruelty and abandonment to consider the deliberate and courageous decisions white wives made—first in leaving their Australian homes for new lives in China and second in choosing to return home alone, as ‘abandoned’ wives and mothers. It will explore the circumstances in which white wives left China, the physical and emotional journeys they made, and the sometimes devastating consequences these had upon their lives.
Here’s a story about a remarkable old white woman and her friendship with a Chinese man. In June 1901, a reporter from Melbourne’s Argus newspaper accompanied Castlemaine’s most senior policeman, Sergeant CW Armstrong, and the reverend from the local Christ Church, Mr G Pennicot, on a tour of Castlemaine to investigate the situation of old-age pensioners in the town. Among their travels they met the unnamed woman and her companion. This is the account about them published in the Argus on 3 June 1901:
In a hut of rock and clay was found a woman, aged 63, who received 7/ per week. A strong, wiry, loquacious, rather pleasant old lady, she has had a chequered experience. For years and years she has lived with Chinamen, and, in the early days she is said to have donned male attire, and worked in the mines with her Chinese friends. She has been living in this hut for 20 years, surrounded by other Chinese huts. The hut has an earthen floor, and the place generally is comfortable enough for the old lady. She said she could manage fairly well, but, for the past five years, she has been supporting a sick Chinaman, whom she said, ‘I used to work on the reefs with.’ On being asked to show us where the Chinaman was, she led the way to the back, where another smaller hut was built, close to the back door. Inside this hut was a queer sight. It measured about 8ft. long by 6ft wide, and barely 6ft. high, with a deep hole in the floor, covered with planks, and a hole in the wall for ventilation. In a bunk lay the sick Chinaman. He has been lying there for fully 18 months, and was suffering from bedsores. His bed clothes were dirty and of miscellaneous description. He looked very ill, and on a box at his bedside was a pannikin of cold tea. In this 8ft. long room, on the opposite side of the bunk, were fowl roosts, where over a dozen fowls roosted every night, and the old lady, who could see nothing out of the way in this, laughingly said that, when the Chinaman is eating his rice or other food, the fowls generally hop on to the bed and box, and eat out of the same dish. The old lady seemed very anxious about the sick man, and said she had spent 9/ out of her last pension for medicine for him. The man will never get better where he is, and the authorities should see to his removal. (Argus, 3 June 1901, page 5)
I love this story for what it tells us about colonial life and about the kinds of personal relationships that occurred between Chinese men and white women. There’s the woman who dressed as a man and worked on the diggings. And how she had lived happily in a ‘Chinese community’ for decades. And the enduring friendship, which had perhaps once been something more, she shared with a Chinese man.
Yesterday I spoke at Visible Immigrants Seven, a small conference organised by Flinders University and the Migration Museum in Adelaide. The conference aimed to explore the idea of migrant mobility before and after the major act of migration. Most of the papers focused on nineteenth-century migrants from Ireland, Scotland and England, including convicts. My paper looked at the return migration of Chinese men and their Australian families.
A known but little-discussed part of the history of Chinese Australians is the entry of people on false papers or using assumed identities. Both those within the community and those of us researching the history know examples of families where this happened, but it’s only in rare cases that it is discusssed openly.
It came up during one of the sessions at the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide earlier this year and these discussions started me thinking—particularly after having just been to North America where the history of ‘paper sons’ is a well-acknowledged part of the story. In contrast to Australia, the USA and Canada addressed the issue in the 1960s by offering amnesty periods that allowed paper sons and daughters to legitimate their entry without fear of deportation or criminal charges.
So then, what is the legal situation today of Chinese people who entered Australia on false papers in the first half of the 20th century? If their stories were told, would the authorities take action against them?
In July 2012, I wrote to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, to find out.
Here is part of the response I received from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship:
Australia’s citizenship and migration legislation has been amended numerous times since federation, as immigration policies, immigrant source countries, settlement philosophies and notions of national identity have changed. These amendments have been enacted to remove past anomalies and discrimination.
It is difficult to comment about the legal position of people entering Australia using assumed identities before 1950 and their descendents as each person’s situation/circumstance can differ. Despite this, it is likely that these people are either Australian citizens or permanent residents under ‘absorbed persons’ provisions in the Migration Act 1958. As it has been more than 60 years since these events and given the likelihood that these people are Australian citizens or permanent residents, it would not appear to be in the public interest to actively pursue these people regarding their immigration status.
Should any members of the community require specific immigration advice, I encourage them to seek the services of a registered migration agent … If they consider that they may be an Australian citizen and wish to seek confirmation, they may apply for evidence of citizenship.
Here are copies of my letter and the department’s response:
This panel offers three approaches to representing the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who were affected by the racially-based immigration policies of late 19th and early 20th-century Australia. To administer the Immigration Restriction Act and its colonial predecessors, government officials implemented an increasingly complex and structured system of tracking and documenting the movements of non-white people as they travelled in and out of the country. This surveillance left an extraordinary body of records containing information about people who, according to the national myth of a ‘White Australia’, were not Australian at all.
The first paper will examine a unique set of almost 300 identification photographs of Chinese Australians taken in Victoria in the late 1890s, considering what these photographs reveal of the lives of their subjects. The second paper will demonstrate how, through a close reading of the records, fragments of biographical information can be built into a portrait of the life of a Chinese woman living in Australia on exemption from 1910 to 1913. The final paper will consider the possibilities of digital history for reconstructing marginalised lives and reflect on the challenges of representing biographical data from the White Australia records in a form that respects its origins and meanings.
Identifying whom?: reading identification photography by Sophie Couchman
In 1900 William Nean posed proudly on his bicycle in full racing attire for the popular photographic company Yeoman & Co. in Bourke Street, Melbourne. He used this photograph as an identification portrait and it is now preserved in the National Archives of Australia amongst 268 other photographic portraits of Chinese resident in Victoria that were created under the administration of the 1890 Chinese Act between 1899 and 1901. The Act aimed to limit and control Chinese immigration in the colony of Victoria and, from the late 1890s, identification portraits of long-term Chinese residents were used as part of documentation to allow them to re-enter Victoria free from the restrictions of the Act.
William Nean’s portrait immediately raises the questions of who he was and why such an unusual photograph was used as an identification portrait. The rest of the paperwork associated with this series of photographs no longer survives—all that remains are annotated identification portraits. This paper will place these photographs in the history of identification photography and, through close readings of them, tease out what can be learnt about the lives of the men, women and children represented in them.
Shifting the lens: uncovering the story of Mrs Poon Gooey by Kate Bagnall
This paper revisits the Poon Gooey deportation case, marking two significant anniversaries. In 1913, it will be a hundred years since Ham Hop, the wife of fruit merchant Poon Gooey, was deported from Australia with their two young daughters. After Ham Hop’s arrival in Australia on a temporary permit in 1910, Poon Gooey—a fluent English-speaker, Christian and member of the Chinese Empire Reform League—mounted a determined campaign to gain permission for her to remain more permanently. The campaign, while ultimately unsuccessful, found widespread support and was an ongoing embarrassment to the federal Labor government.
Fifty years later, historian AT Yarwood wrote on the Poon Gooey case as an example of early problems in the administration of the White Australia Policy. Yarwood based his study on the very substantial Department of External Affairs file, which documents the Poon Gooey story from 1910 to 1913. Greater access to records in the intervening decades, however, means that is now possible to uncover more of the context of Poon Gooey’s actions at this time and, more generally, of the two decades he spent in Australia—evidence that calls into question some of Yarwood’s conclusions about Poon Gooey’s actions and his motivations.
This paper shifts the lens even further, however, to focus on the life of Ham Hop, rather than on that of her husband. Although significant moments in her life—her marriage, periods of physical separation from her husband, travel to Australia, pregnancies, births of her children, medical problems, and finally the deportation of herself and her children—are recorded in the official case files, Ham Hop herself remains silent. Through a close reading of these records and the extensive press coverage of the case, this paper seeks to reveal what can be known of her story and to suggest possibilities for uncovering the lives of women and children who were marginalised and excluded by the White Australia Policy in the early years of the 20th century.
The responsibilities of data: reconstructing lives from the records of the White Australia Policy by Tim Sherratt
The sheer volume of records created by the White Australia Policy is overwhelming. Amidst this vast and disturbing legacy are thousands upon thousands of certificates documenting the movements of non-white residents. These biographical fragments, often including photographs and handprints, are visually and emotionally compelling. We cannot avoid the gaze of those whose lives were monitored, we cannot deny the people behind the policy.
But these records are also a source of data. Increasing numbers of these records have been digitised. As we develop the tools and techniques of digital history, we open up the possibility of extracting this data from the digitised records, of aggregating the biographical fragments, of tracing lives and mapping families. We can tame the overwhelming abundance of records and create a rich, new resource for exploration and analysis.
But how do we avoid imprisoning these newly-liberated lives in yet another system? How do we ensure that the challenging gaze of individuals is not lost in the transformation to data? This paper will look at some of the possibilities for extracting information from these records and reflect on the challenges of representing that data in a form that respects its origins and meanings.
The Chinese Heritage Association of Australia is presenting an interesting series of talks at the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Darling Harbour, Sydney, in August 2012. The talks will be held each Sunday afternoon in August from 2–3pm. Talks are free, but there is an admission fee to enter the garden.
5 August: Marilyn Dooley on ‘My family’s Chinese and Irish connections’
Marilyn will talk about her research into her fascinating family history, starting from the 1860s in Central Queensland.
12 August: Cheryl Cumines on ‘The Life of a Chinese Australian family living in The Rocks’
The Cumines family history in Australia dates back 135 years. For many years they played a significant role in the life of The Rocks.
19 August: Brad Powe on ‘From gold-seeker Gwok Ah Poo to market gardener George Harper’
Brad’s Chinese ancestors arrived in NSW 150 years ago. The family has retained a comprehensive collection of photographs and documents.
26 August: Sally Pang Rippingale on ‘My father’s passion – penjing’
Sally Pang’s family operated one of the early Chinatown Chinese restaurants, the Modern China Café. Sally inherited her father’s penjing (miniature trees and landscapes) collection.
Today’s Canberra Times features an article by David Marr about Australian novelist Patrick White’s forgotten first book, Happy Valley, ‘the thylacine of Australian literature’. It was written while White was working as a jackaroo at Bolaro (or Bolero) in southern NSW. He took horses to be shod in nearby Adaminaby and there encountered the Anglo-Chinese Yens, who formed the basis for the novel’s Quong family. A review in the Adelaide Mail wrote:
Mr. White has set his novel in an Australian town — but what a town! In the winter it is snowed in; in the summer it is burning hot. Its inhabitants are the mixed lot you find in any town — but what a lot! The sanest and most decent people there seem to be the family of half Chinese, two of whom conduct the general store … (The Mail, 22 February 1941)
The Yens (or Yans) were not the only Anglo-Chinese family who had made Adaminaby their home. For a long time Adaminaby was also home to the Booshang (later Booshand) family, among others, but they had moved on by the time White arrived in the town:
Twin sisters Anastasia and Jane Thomas married John Booshang and Charles Chun Yin, later known as Yen, within a few years of each other at Cooma in the early 1880s. Anastasia and Jane, born in 1864, were the daughters of Cooma residents Thomas Thomas and Johanna Shanahan who had married in the town in 1858. Anastasia and John, who married in 1881, had three children and Jane and Charles had two, before both families moved to Adaminaby in around 1888. Here they settled themselves, opening a store and Jane and Anastasia having four and five more children respectively.
Both families became established members of the Adaminaby community. John Booshang lived there until his death in 1923, at which point Anastasia moved to Sydney to be with her children, dying there in 1934. The Yen family maintained their businesses in the town and were compulsorily moved in the early 1950s when the old Adaminaby township was flooded as part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. (Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, p.131)
Happy Valley was published in 1939 and won the Australian Society of Literature’s gold medal in 1941. Despite this acclaim, White never allowed the novel to be reprinted in English. According to David Marr, this was because:
White could never shake the fear that … [the Yens] … could sue for what he did to them in the pages of Happy Valley. He could not be reassured about this. White went to his grave fearing the revenge of the Yens.
A century after White’s birth and more than seventy years after Happy Valley first appeared, the novel is now being republished, with its release due in August this year. Apparently printed copies of the original version are rare and valuable, but if you can’t wait until August to read Happy Valley, a digitised version is available in the Haithi Trust Digital Library.
The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age both published the same article by Marr about Happy Valley. The Herald received a response from a Yen descendent named Laurann Yen, which it published on 30 May 2012. She wrote:
In Happy Valley White does indeed steal my grandparents and report them spitefully: they are without humour, without grace, without respite from the bleak town and their bleak relationship; two dry peas in a miserable pod. But there is wonderful White as well – a sense of place, where every tree, every verandah, every small comforting pretension gets into your bones. I know, more from White than from memory, every person.
The letters page of the Herald on 2 June 2012 also includes a postscript which talks a bit about Marr’s unsuccessful attempts to track down members of the Yen family:
After all these years comes this generous response: acknowledging that White looked on their grandparents with a cold and unforgiving eye but nevertheless wrote a fine book,’ he says. ‘Such forgiveness is rare.’