A DOG runs up to my husband on a windswept beach on Sunday morning. Tess is a Jack Russell cross, caramel and white and a question mark white fluffy tail, an RSPCA-rescued dog, now eager to please. 'Not a bad place to live, this,' the tall man with a blue beanie opens the conversation as he gestures to the wide bay at the mouth of the Inglis River, protected by the imposing Table Cape. 'It's better than being at Bondi. Just imagine, the beach'd be full of people.'
I laughed. Just seconds before, my husband had said, 'Wouldn't you rather be in Shanghai, pushing your way down Shanxi Nan Lu?' We tease ourselves with imagining ourselves elsewhere, happy to be home, here. Home. After thirty years of gypsy wanderings. Home is this place that Phillip Adams described as 'agonisingly beautiful' in the introduction to his James Martineau Memorial Lecture 'An atheist defends religion' at the Cradle Coast campus of the University of Tasmania in 2010.
When I announced to colleagues that we were moving from China to Wynyard, the response was 'Where? Why?' 'Does it have a golf course?' asked my Scottish boss at my university college in Shanghai. 'Not one, but two, and they both front the sea. You can walk to the airport. The mountains and wilderness are at my back door; the sea is at my front door; the agricultural land is very rich, there is a university campus just down the road. There are no McDonald's, KFCs or Pizza Huts.'
I had been dreaming of sea and mountains and wilderness for some time. It hit me in the heart of Shanghai where I was teaching. In the Shanghai Foreign Languages Bookstore, there are several floors and thousands of books. The most peculiar thing is that you will only find one, or just a few editions of any one English language book. So, exploring the piles of books, how happy was I to come across In Tasmania by Nicholas Shakespeare (Vintage Books, 2005). It jumped off the shelf, the only visible copy; it had intrinsic 'buy me' appeal, an omen, a tugging at the heart.
BORN IN THE north of Tasmania, living in a house high on a hill overlooking lush farmlands, a river and out to Bass Strait, maybe this is where the yearning began. Deep inside me resided the image of light dancing on water, splintering into a million shards of liquid crystal, beckoning to come away.
At an early age, my family packed up and moved to go farming on inherited land on the East Tamar. Home was also near the water and we camped, Mum, Dad and five kids, on the river's edge for three months while our house was being built. I fed the seagulls with vegetable scraps. Possums and bandicoots were regular night prowlers. When the rains started and Mum got fed up with constant wet washing, the smoking chimney of the small hut, and five whining kids, we moved into the half-finished house with the butterfly winged roof, designed by Dad's best mate.
Barefoot in summer, avoiding dive-bombing plovers, picking roadside blackberries and low-hanging green plums, stopping for snakes as they slithered across the dusty road, collecting tadpoles and watching small brown froglets evolve, oozing mud between toes in battered Dunlop sneakers, feeling slime of fat eels as they wriggled out of our hands, wading out to the homemade fish trap – a fence erected across the entrance to a natural rock pool – armed with home made spears fashioned by belting nine-inch nails into the end of sticks, catching easy buckets of flounder, flathead, garfish, mullet, an occasional gummy shark.
'Get out of the house,' Mum would say at the weekend. My brothers and I didn't need further encouragement. With the two households of neighbourhood kids, we roamed wild and free across paddocks as cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, making cubbies in trees, big wood stacks, amongst the packing cases in orchard sheds off-season, and in the cosy confines of square hay bales, snug and warm in barns, kicking footballs, playing cricket in the front paddock, careering downhill in home-made apple case billycarts, or empty water tanks, and not coming home until dusk.
BLAME IT ON Arthur Mee's The Children's Encyclopedia (1910-1964). The brown and green toned pictures of faraway places beckoned. Stories in French, the art of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, the glories of Greece and Rome, and the exotic ports of North Africa shimmered from between its pages, more so than the Britishness with which our teachers tried to immerse us in the geography of coalfields, shipbuilding and lacemaking, the history of the British Empire spanning the entire globe, The Wind in the Willows and the literature of Dickens, Shakespeare and Elizabethan poetry.
My thirst for knowledge grew. Mum turned a blind eye when I would wake feeling 'sick' on those days when I knew the travelling library van would come. We would both feel an edge of excitement as we hurried out to the gate at the sight of a dust-cloud heralding the van's approach. As we stepped into the book-lined van, the driver and his assistant never hurried us. They chatted and made suggestions and allowed us to look at as many books as we liked before making our choices. Mine always seemed to be about people in places elsewhere; Mum's seemed to be about historical romances and Australiana.
We didn't talk much about my family's own history. There were no convicts, nothing really strange. Our ancestors were English, Scottish and Irish. Dad was born in New Zealand, and his parents returned to Tasmania after their farm was flooded. His parents died of tuberculosis when he was eight. He then lived with two elderly, strict aunts, but moved in with his best mate's family after an argument. He finished school at the age of fourteen. Mum was one of ten children; her father was a country school-teacher in New South Wales. He encouraged higher education for the six boys in the family. The four girls were bright, but did not receive university education. Mum trained to be a nurse, but had to give that up when she married Dad in 1942.
My family was just an ordinary family, struggling on the land, growing fat lambs, paddocks of tomatoes and pumpkins. It was Dad's pride to say to visitors that the food on the table was all 'off the farm'. Mum had a green thumb, just poking a stick in the ground, she could get anything to grow without expensive chemical additives and potting mixes. Growing food and plants is deeply ingrained in my being.
As Australia's bicentenary approached, more about my family's past began to unravel, thanks to the curiosity of my mother's younger sister. She started to investigate, like many others, the archives and old newspapers in state and national libraries. If I tried to talk to Mum about it, she would mutter softly, 'we were an unhappy family.'
'What? Why?' And my sudden interest would cause a shutdown like venetian blinds snapping shut.
Richard Flanagan's The Death of a River Guide (McPhee Gribble, 1994) captured the sentiment: 'No one spoke. No one spoke. For a century nothing was heard. Even the writers and poets were mute to their own world.'
'You don't speak about bad things,' Mum said.
But my aunt was not one to be silent. She started the conversation and would not let up, as tenacious as any terrier. She delved into the archives of the National Library, wrote mountains of letters and passed on her findings to her scattered siblings. She even took Mum and their older sister on a journey to all the places of their family history in NSW and Victoria. Reluctant at first, they became infected with her genealogical enthusiasm. The layers of the past began to peel away.
AS A CHILD in Tasmania in the 1950s and '60s, our British heritage was the focus of our education. We were told very little about Aboriginal history, as noted by Henry Reynolds in Why Weren't We Told? (Viking, 1999), nor about where we came from. 'There are no convicts in our family. They arrived with a ticket-of-leave,' Dad asserted. We did not discuss our family history at the dining table. The silent, blank spots in our family history simultaneously sought to protect a chasm of vulnerability and to show a veneer of resilience.
There is a convict among my ancestors, contrary to Dad's denial. John Cruse was transported for life for larceny in a dwelling house and arrived in Hobart on 2 March, 1835. He was twenty-three years old, over six feet tall, with black hair, blue eyes, fair skinned and freckled. After one year assigned to 'Public Works' he worked for the Reverend Mr Davis of Norfolk Plains in Longford and obtained a ticket-of-leave after seven years. The said employer had no reason to complain against him, noted Judy Slogget, family history researcher in 1985. John married Martha Frampton, who arrived in Launceston on 4 April, 1843, with another forty-five single females on the Brankenmoor from London via Cork. John and Martha's daughter, Thirza, is my father's maternal grandmother.
Cork registers another family arrival in Tasmania in 1841. William Duke, a carpenter and painter, arrived with his dressmaker wife, Lucy, and infant son on the Lady MacNaughton. William was employed as a painter at Hobart's Theatre Royal. He also was a talented painter of whaling, landscapes and sketches of early Hobart, with his work displayed in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Being familiar with copies of these works, I recognised instantly the small print of Whaling at Lady Bay on an interpretation board on a walk east of the caravan park at Adventure Bay on Bruny Island. The day was bright and the sea deep green and clean, kelp brushing against red-lichened rocks, and it was hard to imagine this was once a bloody killing ground for whales.
A daughter, Susannah, was born to William and Lucy in Hobart in 1844. Back in Melbourne, William died of heart disease, maybe lead poisoning, at the young age of thirty-six, leaving Lucy with six children. Lucy remarried, and our family history took a peculiar turn. While still teenagers, Susannah and her younger sister, Lucy, known as Lily, were married to Chinese men in Harrietville, Victoria. Lily had been sold for £50, and when asked how this had happened, she replied that her mother had always told her to obey her parents, and mother knew best.[i] Susannah's husband, William Ah You (Yew), a storekeeper, had arrived in Australia in 1853. One of their children was a daughter, Lucina.
Coincidentally in the same year, 1853, James Amoy (Qi Ya Mei) arrived in Melbourne from Xiamen (then the island of Amoy, China) via Hong Kong on the ship Jin Shen.[ii] James struck gold in the 'New Gold Mountain'. Known as the King of Haddon, with a tin mine, he later owned a hotel, the British Queen, and lost money through not one, but two hotel fires. In the first fire, started in the Chinese camp with an overturned candle, sixty-two buildings were destroyed in an hour and a half. It seems the second fire was deliberately lit; by persons unknown.
In 1862, James married Bridget Ryan, from Tipperary near Limerick in Ireland. Bridget was literate, and rumoured to be convent raised after her parents' death during the Potato Famine. Her name is very common in Ireland, and there are conflicting clues about her history; another mystery still to be solved. Bridget became a teacher. The first of their sons, George, ran a grocery store, and was later an auctioneer, and married Lucina, daughter of Susannah and William, ona warm New Year's Day in 1889.
They must have been a handsome couple. Lucina 'was tastefully attired in a dress of white liberty silk, richly embroidered on skirt and bodice with pearls and trimmed with honeycomb and lace, with long train, long tulle veil, and wreath of orange blossoms'. She was attended by four bridesmaids, who wore dove grey shot silk, long veils and wreaths of lily-of-the-valley. Lucina's mother, Susannah, with her red hair, was exquisite in a 'skirt of moss green silk velvet, with a bodice of electric grey liberty silk, biscuit coloured bonnet, trimmed with green and pink tips'.
George and Lucina are my mother's paternal grandparents. Both were half Chinese, half Irish. Despite their refined wedding, aristocratic looks and changing their family name from Amoy to Moye, they kept their heads down, quietly trying to 'fit in', as the White Australia Policy took hold. The anti-Chinese sentiment did not go away. My mother grew up knowing the discrimination of being both poor and of mixed blood. 'Ching Chong Chinaman go home.' Her father, a country school teacher, was a strange mix of strict brilliance as a teacher, gifted in Hebrew and Greek, an evangelistic Christian, a poet, a pugilist and a pacifist. He instilled in his children a strong work ethic and a thirst for knowledge in order to transcend the shame of poverty and an alien race.
My mother, in her one act of rebellion, defied her father's desire for her to study 'home economics' and headed for Sydney to become a nurse.
Then she met my father in Martin Place while she was flirting with American sailors on shore leave during World War II. Tall and handsome in his navy uniform, he cheekily made a date to meet under the Sydney General Post Office Clock at midday the next day. Mum kept the date; they went on the ferry to Taronga Zoo.
Whenever I retrace those steps and ride the familiar yellow and green harbour ferries, I remember the beginning of this particular story. Mum had to give up nursing when she married Dad. He took her on another ferry, the Rosny, to Tasmania during a brief weekend leave. In case 'anything happened' to him in the Navy, he wanted his brunette with the sparkling deep brown eyes to meet his relatives and friends, to know this safe place…if everything else fell apart. In one moment, Dad was both deeply vulnerable, and resilient.
NEARLY SEVENTY YEARS later, I have brought my second husband here, to this safe place, this place of my imagining, of my dreams, of my heart.
We have sojourned in China on and off for ten years. I have rejoiced in stepping on the soil of my ancestors' motherland, visiting Hong Kong and Xiamen (formerly Amoy) with my aunt, shedding tears at the Overseas Chinese Museum, as we stood on a floor tile stamped '1853'. I have imagined the life of James Amoy in the most intricate detail I can, stitching the ragged archival pieces together to recreate the story, as beautiful and as intact as his daughter-in-law's one-off exquisite silk embroidery of birds of paradise. A reproduction created by the Nantong Museum embroidery guild in China has pride of place on my wall.
I have tracked my Irish forebears back to Cork, to St Anne's on the hill where William Duke was christened. I rang the bells for him on Easter Sunday, when another baby, of Nigerian parents, was christened. The font is dated 1629; so many children, so many journeys. I walked ten miles in thin green Chinese slippers on that cool wet and windy day, to Glanmire, to the little stone church overlooking the river, where William married his cousin Lucy. I walked back to Cork again, somehow missing the elusive Bus Eirann. The next day I bussed to Limerick and Tipperary as a pilgrim to St John's Graveyard of the Great Famine at the edge of town. The wind blew strong and cold, as I reflected on the faultline of resilience and vulnerability buried underneath the weathered headstones. Were Bridget's parents in this graveyard? What was her life like?
I have sojourned in England and Germany, at first excited and agog at the art marvels in every corner, the architecture and grandness of this European civilisation. Accompanied by Robert Dessaix's Night Letters (Picador Books, 1996) in Venice, I also soon became 'saturated' with so much Europeanness and art at every corner, and had 'quite decided to move on'.
From three islands – Ireland, Britain and Amoy – with at least one convict, refugees of the Potato Famine, and Chinese men forging their futures in the new Gold Mountain, mixing it up in my genetic and emotional makeup, converging to one island, this island home of Tasmania, after a three decade absence, I am home. I craved for this home: I am connected deeply, yet feel a sense of unease.
There is a sense of resilience, mixed up with a vulnerable fragility, resonant in the tall, moss-covered trees of the rainforest juxtaposed with delicate fungi and tiny ferns on the forest floor. There are dramatic changes in forestry, closures of peak industries and threats from mining in large tracts of wilderness; loud mouths speak of 'war', yet niche dairy products are making a resurgence; agriculture flourishes on red volcanic soil; there is a sense of a vibrant resurgence in literary, visual and performing arts. There is something remarkable going on here at the Edge of the World. We of, and from, Tasmania have a fierce independence, and a pride in our islandness. We are scarred by our collective and individual histories, but taunts of 'show us your scar, love' raise no anger in me these days. They are received as endearments.
'IF YOU LEAVE you can never be free,' taunts Richard Flanagan's character in Death of a River Guide (Random House, 1994).
I left, I continued to dream, and in dreaming, I wandered, and now I have returned, by choice, I am free. My octogenarian Mum is no longer here, so the choice to return is mine, made freely. Yes, my heart is here. It always was. This I have learned. On the edge, here on this beach, looking out over Bass Strait, the view is clearer, fresher, purer. In order to attempt to reconcile my own 'fault-lines of vulnerability and resilience', I breathe…slowly, deeply, as I open my mouth to speak, to ask the next question.
[i]Brian Lloyd, Gold at Harrietville, Shoestring Press, 1982
[ii]Memorial of naturalisation, National Library, Folio D5346 25 May 1885