While in Hong Kong I’ve been reading, and really enjoying, Huifeng Shen’s book China’s Left-Behind Wives (NUS Press, Singapore, 2012). The book tells the story of women who stayed in China while their husbands migrated from Fujian province to Southeast Asia between the 1930s and 1950s.
Shen interviewed a number of these left-behind wives, all in their 80s or older, and their oral history testimonies provide a poignant insight into some of the most intimate aspects of their lives — the sorts of things that I struggle to uncover in my own research. Although the women in Shen’s book are from Fujian not Guangdong, and their husbands migrated to Southeast Asia not Australia, her work rings very true with what I know of the lives of wives of Chinese men in Australia. One of the most fascinating things for me, who approaches the subject from an Australian perspective, is seeing the Chinese side of story, particularly where it comes to the question of first and second marriages.
My research has uncovered the unhappiness that many Australian wives felt on discovering that their Chinese husbands had wives, and sometimes children, in China, and the difficulties Australian wives faced when they travelled to China with their husbands. Shen’s research shows that overseas marriages and overseas families created unhappiness, and hardships, for Chinese wives too. Shen notes that — as the result of often long-term separation from their husbands and feelings of fear, jealousy, hurt and betrayal — ‘many fankeshen [left-behind wives] hated the second wives of their husbands, especially the fanpo [‘barbarian’ foreign women], even if they never met them’ (Shen 2012, p. 100).
Some years ago, when I was in a ‘Cuban’ village in southwest Taishan, I was told a story about foreign wives. The story went that foreign wives of Chinese men would give their husbands a dose of poison before they made a return visit to China, a poison that could be reversed only if the man returned overseas to his foreign wife for the antidote within a particular time. My informant stated that this was the cause of the death of his uncle, who had been a laundryman in Cuba in the 1920s and was known to have had a Cuban wife.
I was very interested then to read in China’s Left-Behind Wives that the emigrant communities of Quanzhou, Fujian, also ‘believed that fanpo sometimes … cast spells or hexes on the male migrants who married them’ (Shen 2012, p. 101 n. 58). Furthermore:
Wives who visited their husbands overseas were very careful when they met an overseas wife, believing that the woman might cast spells that would make them sick or insane, or cause them to die. Wives were particularly wary of food and drink provided by an overseas wife, suspecting something harmful might have been added. Hong Q [a left-behind wife interviewed by Shen] said she experienced stomach pain after eating with her husband when she visited him in the Philippines. She did not eat any food prepared by the overseas wife, but she believed that the woman put a spell on her by touching her hand three times (Shen 2012, pp. 100-101).
I came across China’s Left-Behind Wives by accident in the bookshop here in Tsim Sha Tsui, but I’d suggest you seek it out a bit more proactively. As Shen notes in her conclusion, ‘the story of the left-behind wives is not merely an appendix to male migration history but a subject worthy of study in its own right, and an integral part of the history of women, the history of migration, and the history of China’ (Shen 2012, p. 216). Here, here.
For the first ten years of her married life, Ham Hop lived the life of a gum saan po (金山婆 jinshanpo), a Gold Mountain wife. Soon after they had married in Hong Kong in 1900, Ham Hop’s husband returned to Australia where he was a produce merchant in Victoria. Exactly where and how Ham Hop spent the years between 1900 and 1910 is not clear, but in June 1910 her husband returned with permission to bring her to live with him in Australia for six months.
When they arrived in Melbourne in November 1910, Ham Hop was already about two months pregnant and so with the birth of her daughter falling at around the time she was meant to leave Australia, permission was granted for her to remain further, but just temporarily. Over the next two years, her exemption certificate was extended a total of five times (including because of a second pregnancy and the birth of another daughter), until she finally left Australia for good in May 1913.
Ham Hop’s case is one of the most-cited examples of the injustice and unfairness of the White Australia Policy in the early decades of the twentieth century — except mostly Ham Hop’s name doesn’t appear in such discussions. If she is referred to directly, it’s mostly as Mrs Poon Gooey or Poon Gooey’s wife, and her story is known as the Poon Gooey case. Yet this case is framed around some of the most personal and intimate of moments in a woman’s life — her betrothal and marriage, her reunion with her migrant husband, her pregnancies, the births of her daughters, her post-natal health, breastfeeding and the health of her newborn daughters. In the article I’m writing about the case I want to make her the centre of the story, not her husband, not the bureaucrats, not the law, not public opinion.
Records in Australia tell us only so much about the lives of Chinese who lived in Australia. In the case of Ham Hop, they tell us quite a lot about the three years that she was in Victoria, but what of the years before, when as a young woman she lived far apart from her husband, and of the years after. Snippets about Poon Gooey in Australian newspapers suggest that the family did go back to the village for a time at least, even though he seems to have been working in Shanghai in the mid-1920s. Ever-hopeful of research miracles, I decided to see what, if anything, I could find out in China. And so here I am.
Regular readers will know that I’ve been thinking about Ham Hop and Poon Gooey for quite some time now. Having first identified a name that I’m satisfied to call her, other than Mrs Poon Gooey, and establishing that her husband was from Kaiping, the next thing was to identify his home village.
Why his, I hear you ask, and not hers? Because it will be near impossible to identify where Ham Hop was from and even if I did, the likelihood of anyone there knowing anything about a woman who married out of their village more than a century ago is less than zero. In Australian records she is Ham Hop or Ham See or Hop Poon Gooey or Hope Poon Gooey. My best guess is that she was from Kaiping or maybe Taishan or Heshan, that her surname was Tan (譚) and her given name He (合), pronounced hup in Kaiping dialect.
There was more to go on to identify Poon Gooey’s origins — a passenger list that listed Poon Gooey’s origins as ‘Hoiping’, other Poons in Victoria from Kaiping, and student passports of Poon boys (held in the National Archives) that named the villages they came from — and using the various village databases I narrowed it down to a few particular villages. The villages are in Kaiping city, Yueshan town, Qiaotou village (開平市月山鎮橋頭村). I thought possibly, just possibly, someone in one of them might know something about what happened to Poon Gooey and his family after they returned to China one hundred and two years ago.
In Kaiping I’m staying at an organic farm, Jiayiyuan (嘉頤圓), and Selia Tan and her husband joined me here for breakfast (congee, roasted sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, choy sum, a type of steamed cake called faat tay and fresh hot soy milk) before we set out for the villages. It was a good thing breakfast was so sustaining because it was afternoon tea time before we stopped for a break.
We hadn’t made any contact with the villages before turning up, so after turning off the main road we just drove until we spotted the gate of one of the villages I’d identified from the village databases, Zhongheli (中和里).
Just turning up like this isn’t the most effective use of time if you have a really strict schedule and definitely want to contact relatives or see a particular family home while you’re in a village, but I think it’s more enjoyable to be able to wander at will, at least for a first visit. Getting the officials from the local Overseas Chinese Bureau involved takes away a lot of one’s freedom (my visit yesterday to Shiquli in Xinhui is a delightful but exhausting case in point — more on that in another blog post).
Many of the houses in Zhongheli village looked like huaqiao houses, and most of them weren’t being lived in. We spoke to one lady who said that she’d married into the village more than 40 years ago and had never seen anyone return to visit these houses.
Another man said that he’d be able to help us see a copy of the Poon genealogy and eventually we ended up in house of a very lovely older lady inspecting the copy of the genealogy her father-in-law had written out by hand many years ago. Unfortunately it was a copy of their direct branch only, and we didn’t find Poon Gooey’s name. From the dates of others listed in the genealogy, Poon Gooey is likely to have been of the 18th or 19th generation.
It turns out that there are eleven little villages (里 li) in the larger village (村 cun) of Qiaotou, all home to people of the surname Poon/Pan (潘). As people returned from overseas, they would find a new bit of land and build a new huaqiao village. Then as those villages became abandoned again when people moved to Hong Kong or went back overseas, more new villages would be built by those people remaining in the area when they needed more housing.
So, armed with directions for another of the Australian Poon villages I’d identified, we set off again. From the records I’d seen in Australia, I reckoned that this village, Zhaolongli (肇龍里), was most likely to be where Poon Gooey was from (or perhaps where he built a house on returning from Australia in the 1910s). The layout and architecture in the village marks it very clearly as a huaqiao village and from the village entrance we could see a diaolou (碉樓) and the roofs of several yanglou (洋樓) poking out above the roofs of the other houses.
We spoke to three gorgeous old men (with fantastic gold false teeth!) who told us that many, many people from Zhaolongli were Australian, but that their houses now mostly sat empty. In fact, they said, their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had all been in Australia, but they had no idea when they went or where they went to. They also told us that the village’s ancestral hall had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and all that remained was one of the front pillars.
The village is set out very neatly, facing onto a pond, with front and back gates (門 men) on either side. The houses are lined up in a grid pattern, with a lane way between each two houses, for light and air and for circulation. Huaqiao villages like this, built in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, were usually built in a very orderly pattern, with a building code that regulated the size of the houses and their layout.
At the very back of Zhaolongli, backing onto the hill, are four yanglou. While most of the other houses are single storey, the yanglou are much taller — three or four storeys. The yanglou are all abandoned and already fallen into disrepair, but once they would have been truly beautiful. And sitting high on the hill, the view from the upper floors and roof would have been lovely. One of the houses is in particularly bad repair, as trees (figs, maybe) are growing in the walls and the roots are creating large cracks separating the front wall from the side walls. The Zhaolongli diaolou sits outside the back gate of the village. Its door was firmly shut so we didn’t go in.
The third village I had identified was Nanjiangli (南江里), which is situated right next to Zhaolongli, although the road into the village comes in from a different direction. Nanjiangli, as the name suggests, is on the banks of a small and rather pretty river. It is smaller than Zhaolongli, but laid out on a similar grid pattern (although there is a lane way between each house, not every two houses as in Zhaolongli). Many of the houses in Nanjiangli, those towards the back of the village, have two storeys. At the back of the village is one smallish yanglou (three storeys).
Few of the houses in Nanjiangli are lived in — we counted about half a dozen — but there were some people around, including two elderly men cutting bamboo for firewood. They each had a radio, one playing Cantonese opera and the other playing a story. They didn’t know of any particular connection the village had to Australia, saying that people had gone to Hong Kong — but it’s likely that they were thinking of later generations, from the 1930s and after, and it’s possible that earlier generations had been in Australia (actually, I know they were from the student passport records).
Nanjiangli’s dialou is located outside the village gates, on a small hill. As we were clambering about through the bushes to take photographs, a man told us that it was open and that we should climb up to have a look. So we did. The stairs inside are concrete, narrow but sturdy. The diaolou, like many, is being used now for storing firewood and hay. We had hoped to be able to see over the roofs of Nanjiangli village from the top of the diaolou, but the view over the houses themselves was obscured by a beautiful grove of bamboo.
No one in these Poon villages could tell me anything directly about Poon Gooey and his family, but the visit was definitely worthwhile. I’m confident now to say that Poon Gooey was from Qiaotou village, Yueshan town in Kaiping, and I think my initial feeling about Zhaolongli was probably right.
Putting the pieces together, I suspect that their life after leaving Australia went something like this. In 1913, they probably went back to Kaiping, perhaps built a house, then lost all the money they had brought back from Australia after a bandit attack (from their appearance, Selia Tan thought the two diaolou we saw would have been built in the 1920s, so they perhaps weren’t there when the bandits attacked Poon Gooey). Poon Gooey then returned to Australia to set the family’s finances back on track, coming and going between Victoria and China between 1914 and 1918, when he left Australia for the last time. In 1925, Poon Gooey was definitely in Shanghai, so it seems likely that the family were among the many Cantonese who moved to Shanghai around this time. From there, who knows.
Another satisfying thing about the visit is that I’ve worked out Poon Gooey’s name. In an early immigration document, his name is written as 潘如, while the Tung Wah Times wrote it as 潘巍. From the Cantonese and Mandarin the family name makes some sense being transliterated as Poon (pun in Cantonese, pan in Mandarin) and other common spelling variations I’ve seen in Australian records include Pon and Pong. In Kaiping dialect it is pronounced more like pwun, where the vowel sounds is like the ‘oo’ in book.
But the characters for Poon Gooey’s given name were either 如, which is pronounced yuh in Cantonese and ru in Mandarin, or 巍, pronounced ngaih in Cantonese and wei in Mandarin. Neither of these sounds much like Gooey. But, when pronounced in Kaiping dialect, the two characters sound more alike — 如 is pronounced nguey and 巍 pronounced ngai.
I think the proper characters for his name are therefore 潘如 (Pwun Nguey), since it sounds most similar to Poon Gooey and is the name written on a document Poon Gooey himself used when travelling to Australia in around 1900.
To finish off our visit to Yueshan, we went to the market town where there is a Christian church. Poon Gooey was a Christian, and fluent in English when he went to Australia in the 1890s. Other Poons in Australia were also Christian. I wonder whether the Poon Gooey family worshipped in this congregation sometimes?
This morning I visited Chaolian (潮连), an island in the West River (西江) in the north-east of Jiangmen, to have a look at the many ancestral halls that can be found there. Selia Tan was my wonderfully knowledgeable guide and companion.
Once there were over 100 ancestral halls on Chaolian, but now about 50 remain. The oldest date from the Ming Dynasty, while the newest is still under construction. Although they are situated in the middle of a big city, the villages where the halls are located have been protected from large development because they are on an island and it has only been in more recent times that a bridge has been built.
Fang Yue Ancestral Hall Recreation Centre
Beginning in Jiaxing Road (嘉兴路) in Tanbian village (坦边村), we first visited the Fang Yue Ancestral Hall Recreation Centre (方岳家庙康乐中心). The hall is for members of the Ou (區) clan.
The original ancestral hall on this site dated from the Ming Dynasty, but was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. There are only a few stone artefacts from the original building remaining, including the stone lions that sit at the halls entrance.
Fang Yue Ancestral Hall was one of the earliest ancestral halls to be rebuilt on the island, with construction taking place in the early 1980s. Because the villagers were still wary of the possible political implications of rebuilding their ancestral hall, the new hall’s design is not very traditional and they decided to call it a ‘recreation centre’.
Along Lu Bian Hai Tian Street
From there we walked along Lu Bian Hai Tian Street (盧邊海田街), past ancestral hall after ancestral hall. I hadn’t quite believed Selia when she said there were so many, because most villages I have been to only have one ancestral hall. But there they were, all lined up one after another, sometimes interspersed with other buildings, or with buildings that didn’t necessarily look like ancestral halls.
During the middle of the 20th century, many halls were used for other purposes, including as factories, and not all have been restored or had additions removed. The street level has also been raised, and the lowest of the steps up to many of the halls have been swallowed up by concrete.
Minghuan Ancestral Shrine
The Minghuan (‘distinguished official’) Ancestral Shrine (名宦家廟) has been heritage listed because of the importance of the person it was dedicated to — a high-ranking official who became teacher to the emperor.
The shrine hasn’t been restored and here the destruction of the Cultural Revolution is very clear. The plasterwork and frescoes have suffered a lot of damage or been removed, and all the heads of the carved timber figures above the entrance have been knocked off.
Yang Zhai Lu Ancestral Temple
Many of the ancestral halls were not open since we were there around lunchtime, but as we were walking back along Lu Bian Hai Tian Street they started to open their doors again. We went into the Yang Zhai Lu Ancestral Temple (養齋盧公祠) to have a look.
As we walked through the gates Selia told me that this ancestral hall has a very lovely story attached to it.
Like many of the other halls, this one had fallen into disrepair and in around 2012 the clan members decided to raise money to repair and restore the hall. But as they weren’t as well off as some of the other villagers, all they could raise was the money to buy the materials for the renovation. Since they could not afford to hire tradesmen to undertake the work, people decided to volunteer their labour. Just inside the big front door is a display of photographs documenting the progress of their work.
As we were looking around, one of the caretakers came back from lunch and we started chatting to him. He was clearly very proud of the work that they had done and, while the quality of the work and the fittings might not be as lovely as in some of the other ancestral halls we saw in Chaolian, Mr Lu’s enthusiasm for the restoration project and his obvious love of the place made it seem all the more beautiful. And as a bonus, he showed us the two dragons tucked away in a storeroom!
Here’s a first post about what I’ve been doing on this long-awaited research trip to China. I’m spending a week in Jiangmen, a weekend in Xinhui and Kaiping, a few days in Zhuhai, a weekend in Panyu and a week in Hong Kong. The trip has been funded by an Australian Academy of the Humanities Travelling Fellowship.
After a day’s travelling from Canberra and a night in Hong Kong on Saturday, I caught the ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Jiangmen on Sunday morning. The trip lasts for a bit under three hours and takes you past Macau to Doumen, where the ferry stops briefly, before heading up the river to Jiangmen. I like the ferry — it reminds me of how important water transportation was a century ago and of how my Australian families travelled back to the qiaoxiang, in a series of boats that got smaller and smaller as they got closer to their villages.
The ferry port is some way out of the centre of Jiangmen and with only one taxi on offer (everyone else on the ferry seemed to be met by family or friends), I had a lively exchange with the taxi driver, whose meter was broken and who wanted to charge me a pretty extortionate amount for the half-hour trip. He claimed he wasn’t cheating me, I reckoned he was, but with no other option I hopped in and spent the trip answering his many and varied questions about Australia and why I could speak Chinese. After settling myself into my hotel, on Sunday night I had dinner with Selia Tan from Wuyi University and her university-student daughter. Although it was Sunday, for the university (and everyone else) it had been a work day to make up for the New Year holiday they had been given on Friday.
My main reason for coming to Jiangmen is to visit two villages, one in Xinhui and one in Kaiping, which I will do this coming weekend. But while I’m here I’ve also taken the opportunity to have a look at the Wuyi University Guangdong Qiaoxiang Culture Research Centre library. I’ve spent two happy mornings there, on Monday and Wednesday, muddling through material on Kaiping and Xinhui. It’s a small library, but has collections that focus on each of the Wuyi qiaoxiang districts, as well as more general material on Guangdong. The research centre also publishes material itself, including a new book by Selia Tan on the ornamentation and decoration of qiaoxiang buildings. I am very grateful to Selia for her help in making arrangements for my visit to the research centre.
They have some copies of qiaokan from the 1930s and 1940s, and a more extensive collection starting from the 1980s — but to do serious research into the qiaokan would need lots of time and an improvement in my reading skills, as well as visiting the local library/archives in Xinhui and Kaiping, which is where a fuller collection of qiaokan are kept. The library also contains a range of interesting books on qiaoxiang history and heritage, and in them I’ve found a few leads on Australian things, although nothing directly related to my two villages. I found a book on Chens from Xinhui who went to Australia — and while they weren’t my Chens from Xinhui, they are connected to a family I know someone else at home is researching.
Tuesday morning I visited the Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of Overseas Chinese. The museum tells the history of emigration from Wuyi, starting with nineteenth-century material and progressing through to the current day. Some of the highlights for me were:
contracts for borrowing money to pay for emigration
a shipping notice for ships travelling to Australia
coaching books and papers
seeing dear old Quong Tart, and William Liu, among the notable Chinese pioneers (but what of the likes of other Sze Yup notables like Yee Wing or Lowe Kong Meng?)
a photograph of a bus in 1929, and a life-size version of said bus that you can climb into!
The museum gives a nice overview of the history and is definitely worth a visit. The text panels and item labels are all bilingual. The museum guards on duty were a very jovial lot and I was just about the only visitor there.
On Tuesday afternoon I gave a talk at the research centre on Australian Chinatowns and the Chinese heritage of southern Australia. After walking to the uni in good time to set up my slides and whatnot, I realised that I’d left my handwritten notes behind in the hotel. Luckily my lovingly prepared 100+ slides saved the day! Selia Tan translated as I spoke, and we finished up after more than two hours of talking. It wasn’t a huge group, about 25 in all, made up of staff and students from the research centre, other students who were just interested to come along and hear, and a group from Xinhui who are interested in my work on Shiquli village (more on that in another post, I think). Also in attendance was a local journalist and to my surprise the front page of Wednesday’s newspaper featured my talk, with a small article inside. After the talk I went to dinner with Dorry Chen, also from Shiquli village, who is going to take me there on the weekend. She is a teacher in an international kindergarten here in Jiangmen.
The next couple of days are going to be a bit quieter, with just a short visit to a village here in Jiangmen today and some time to read and work on my DECRA application.