History

An Ordinary Australian Family

Lee Sam, dead on Friday, was buried on a fine Monday in August just days before the Great War began. I notice the event wandering through the pages of the Melbourne Argus looking for shadows of my family story, in a handful of days that marked our history. The eighty-eight-year-old Grand Master of Gee Hing, a Chinese Masonic Society, had lived over fifty years in Australia. More than a thousand people gathered outside the Lonsdale Street headquarters of the society, which was also his home, on the day of his funeral, and groups gathered along the way to watch as the funeral procession made its way to Kew Cemetery. At the head of the cortege a band playing the “Dead March” was followed by 150 of the society’s country members marching ahead of a long procession of a hundred cabs carrying more society members. At the graveside, with five or six hundred mourners gathered about, the religious ceremony was performed by two Methodist ministers. Selina, my grandmother, brought the story of the Chinese in Australia into our family history, or vice versa.

Earlier in the century she had given birth to two Chinese children—an uncle and aunt I never knew. Though the girl, Kathleen, was Selina’s first legitimate child, the new baby’s racial characteristics must have surprised her husband, Michael Joseph Connor: they had married in a rather shonky matrimonial agency only weeks before the birth. Selina was already used to these surprises.

My father’s younger siblings, who he may not have remembered, were adopted by Chinese families in Bendigo when they were very young. While they both attended the small Golden Square State School at the same time they would not have realised they were brother and sister. Very likely their way into new families was aided by contacts between members of Chinese clan associations and societies, like Gee Hing, which linked the Chinese community living and working in the Lonsdale Street area of the city and their country members. This unofficial process of helping families and saving illegitimate children of mixed descent may have been more common than is realised.

A 1910 series on the slums published by the Argus suggests our family reality:

Authorities agree that the girl or young woman who takes up her abode with the Chinese has gone very far astray before reaching there. The friendships of the “push”—that unpleasant development of city life in Australia—are often the beginning. Girls already enslaved by evil ways come into contact with older women, who tempt them with stories of good treatment they will receive from the Chinese. They do receive, as the available evidence shows, that good treatment (from their point of view) that is promised.

How my country-girl grandmother went “astray” is a story we will probably never know.

Michael Connor: The Last Weekend
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Two nights after Lee Sam’s impressive funeral there were cries of “Murder” and “Police” from Chinese shopkeepers when a wild, threatening, window-breaking mob cascaded through Little Bourke Street leaving the footpaths littered with window glass along the entire block between Exhibition and Russell streets. In the city of boisterous patriotism that night the police were unable to maintain order when groups of larrikins inflamed the war-drunk crowds—having run out of Germans to molest they turned against the Chinese. When Her Majesty’s Theatre was auctioned on Thursday the narrow street beside the theatre was still being cleaned up. For some of Melbourne’s Chinese, broken shards of glass would be their souvenir of the night the Great War began.

Selina was living in interesting times but may have had other things on her mind. Just a few months later she was mentioned in the Police Gazette, again. My father was eleven years old when the Fitzroy Bench issued three warrants of commitment against her, for “breaches of the Education Act”. Because Selina was named and not her husband it may be that she was a deserted wife. This event may have ended in my father’s presence in a Catholic orphanage—our family memories are vague.

The Police Gazette description of my grandmother is concise: “About 40 years old [actually 36], 5 foot 7 inches, medium build, fair complexion and hair: dresses shabbily and is addicted to drink.” God knows what the country girl had been through to arrive in this state. Selina is not the grandmother I expected to find when I started my family searches.

The week, as seen through the Argus, began with dramatic events in Europe and the uncertainty of what decision Great Britain was about to make. A young German sales representative for a Berlin firm arrived in Melbourne on Saturday, and immediately booked a ticket to depart on a Europe-bound steamer scheduled to depart on Wednesday. In Newcastle several German steamers, only partially loaded with coal, suddenly sailed from the port, and the mail steamship Seydlitz unexpectedly left Circular Quay heading for an unknown destination. The federal government, fighting a double-dissolution election, gathered in Melbourne. On Monday, as Lee Sam’s funeral was taking place, the Sydney express brought the Governor-General and cabinet ministers back to the city. The Defence Minister, F.D. Millen, stepped onto the railway platform prepared for war and Melbourne’s winter weather in “a heavy motor-coat and boxer hat, with a white muffler at his throat. He looked serious but betrayed no signs of excitement.”        

On the last day of peace, the front page of the Argus featured a prominent advertisement for Imperial German Mail Steamers offering regular sailings from August 14 until April 10, 1915. Armies were moving in Europe as ordinary life continued, or not. In Broken Hill, for a joke, a man was force-fed wine with a pump. He died; another man was arrested and charged with his murder. There was a photo of the Czar and another of the crowd waiting for news outside the Argus office in Collins Street. The estimated 12,000 Germans in Australia were defended by the newspaper as “very fine colonists, honorable, frugal and hard working”. That night the Turn Verein, a German gymnastic club in East Melbourne, was attacked by an excited mob and the newspaper criticised this “display of unmitigated larrikinism—an assault not upon enemies but upon peaceful citizens of Australia”.

A newspaper letter from “New Chum” of Digby in the Western District, and the reply, could be the wordy text for a contemporary political cartoon:

“How do you take a snake’s fang out, and when you do are they quite harmless?”

“The fang is drawn in the same way a dentist draws a tooth, but as soon as one fang is removed the smaller teeth in reserve grow rapidly. Don’t try the experiment.”

The week belonged to the newsboys who were on hand when the cry on the street was “What’s the news? Tell us the news.” The boys didn’t always have such good headlines to sell their papers. Not long before, one of them was fined one pound, or seven days imprisonment, for selling fake news. He was caught late one night near Flinders Street Station loudly spruiking a non-existent news story to sell his last copies: “Herald, final edition, full account of the Ferntree Gully railway accident.”

Selling newspapers could be a means of escaping families like mine, for it allowed boys to support themselves—though in often condemned and decrepit lodging houses in the cracks of Marvellous Melbourne: rotten places they may have been but an improvement on the dirt, drink and dangers of lives with their parent or parents. In July the lady mayoress had presided at the City Newsboys Ball at the Town Hall, an annual charitable event whose profits were directed towards helping the boys and keeping them out of contact with the criminal pushes.

Outside The Argus upon the declaration of war.

A photograph from just inside the Argus sales office shows a crowd of people struggling to get inside to buy papers with several helmeted policemen in the doorway to control the pushing and shoving. In the very front are some of the more nimble paperboys eager to place their orders and get their copies. I wonder if my father was ever one of these cloth-capped sellers of news? In Bendigo, when the special war announcement edition of the Argus arrived at the station, some of the waiting crowd tore copies from the hands of the kids without paying.

French sailors—the German invasion made them popular—were in port. As they wandered about the city their presence was an invitation to massacre the Marseillaise, loudly. Patriotic songs broke out spontaneously. At the Vienna Cafe at lunch times the band played “Rule Britannia” and the national anthem—everyone knew the words—and there were usually three cheers for the British Navy. After knocking off, city workers lingered on street corners before going home, and knowledgeable amateur experts were usually at hand to explain the international situation. Crowds also hung around outside the newspaper offices, and where there were crowds there were cheers for Britain, groans for Germany. At the end of lectures, Melbourne University students broke into “God Save the King”. Local Germans around the state held meetings to assert their allegiance to Britain, and the Argus noted that four Germans and a Russian had just obtained naturalisation certificates.

At Mischa Elman’s concert, Herr Edward Goll played the piano. In the coming war years he would suffer discrimination for being German. A court judge was surprised to learn that a Labor politician had voted in parliament without knowing what the vote was about. The Argus opined that such practices became normal “as soon as a pledge-bound, caucus-governed party became a power in the New South Wales Parliament”.

In Dandenong Town Hall there was applause for a speaker who said, “Australia’s sons, who were Britain’s grandsons, would instantly respond to the blood call.” In Horsham, John Hillman, who had been present at Eureka, died. In Bunyip, the Bunyip Debating Society discussed “Preference to Unionists”. In the city, at the Athenaeum, the Fireflies promised a patriotic program: “Rousing, Stirring Strains of Loyal Songs Tonight”. And hidden in the pages of advertisements in the Argus was an anguished personal announcement: “Stella. Called Monday fortnight; nothing. Again today; ditto. Please play the fool with somebody else. Grieved.”

GREAT BRITAIN AT WAR. BELGIAN INDEPENDENCE VIOLATED. On Wednesday night war became a reality and the gathered crowds, inflamed with emotion, filled Swanston and Collins streets. That morning the German steamer Pfalz was turned back at the Heads and brought back to Port Melbourne, where it was placed under armed guard. During a concert at St Paul’s Cathedral’s Chapter House there was a breath-holding moment of peace during Brahms’s Wiegenlied. But the lullaby was heard by only a small audience, and everyone else seemed to be in the streets. Perhaps including my grandmother, and father.

Struggling to control the enthusiasm and maintain some order, the police were generally successful until about 10 p.m. when a youthful mob of several hundred larrikins arrived in Collins Street—the Argus put their ages between fifteen and twenty years old. There was violence. A police horse was viciously stabbed with a penknife, its rider thrown into the crowd. Cabs were rushed, and the drivers’ whips were seized and used against the police, whose strength in the city was moderate because officers had been sent to protect the German club which was attacked the previous night. They were recalled and raced back into the city in cabs. The several hundred larrikins magnetised the crowd, which grew into a two or three thousand-strong herd. The police, some of whom had been protecting a Chinese cafe, acted to split and disperse the crowd, and as they did so one of the groups descended with window-breaking fury from Exhibition Street into Little Bourke Street. Our first night of war was a long Melbourne night.

Immediately war was announced shipping advertisements offered voyages “under neutral flag to America and London”. The now unfashionably German-sounding Wertheim company advertised that they made Australian pianos, “manufactured completely at our factory in Bendigo Street, Richmond”—in 1956 their disused factory would become the GTV9 television studios. An electroplating and enamelling company in Knox Place, where my family had lived and operated an unsuccessful business enterprise (closed by the police), fixed a new line to their advertisements: “England Expects That Every Man This Day Will Do His Duty”.

Other businesses advertised as usual. A dentist offering painless treatments made an attractive offer to prospective clients: “Come and see it done.” There is a vacancy for a “LADY, assistant for city toilet-rooms, competent all branches; replies confidential.” The Australian College of Dentistry advertised their courses for the following March: “Arrangements have been made for women students to be apprenticed to the College on the same terms as men students.”

By week’s end one advertiser, a furniture manufacturer, had adapted its advertisements to wartime with enthusiasm:

Deluge of blood in Europe. Titanic Struggle Certain. With millions of men in armed collision, the battlefields will be deluged with blood … Cox’s—Where Quality Prevails.

Europe is a huge battlefield. All European Powers are involved in the greatest war in the world’s history. For over a quarter of a century there has been competition to get ahead of us in MANTELPIECE building and designing, but we have held our own against all competition. You will see something different at our showrooms. COX’S—Where Quality Prevails.

Selina’s story was taking place as this world war began and it would end on the last day of another. She died in hospital on the day the Japanese Emperor broadcast Japan’s surrender. As she was dying, although she did not know it, one of her sons, my father, was with the Australian Army in New Guinea; one son was in Macao—arrested by the Japanese after the fall of Hong Kong, he escaped and managed to get his wife and young family to wartime safety in the Portuguese colony; a married daughter was at home in Bendigo; another son, who had briefly been a German prisoner in the Middle East, was a Japanese prisoner of war in Siam; and somewhere there was a lost daughter we have not yet been able to trace—my father gave her name, Margaret, to my sister.

When Selina’s grave was located—she had died under a different than expected surname—a memorial marker was placed above the bare site, paid for by Australian Chinese grandchildren she never knew existed.

1 comment
  • Ian MacDougall

    A most moving story.

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