Chinese Whispers: Visiting a Chinese Camp

Visiting a Chinese Camp part 1

Continuing our exploration of life on the goldfields for the Chinese, today our collaborators Les and Maisie Wong take us on a trip into the Chinese Camps of the past…

** note that in this tale Les and Maisie have transliterated directly from spoken Chinese, in which there are no linking words, plurals, past or present tenses! When translated, this gives the effect of broken English being spoken – this was another one of the factors that contributed to the discrimination against the Chinese on the goldfields…**

There are no living, working Chinese camps in the goldfields today but don’t let that deter us. They still exist in folklore and there are stories to tell. To tell the essence of those stories, we must call on the spirits of those bygone souls, to relive their experiences as we follow them on their journey…

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There are customs to follow and as we travel by stagecoach from our home comforts to this untamed frontier. It is not simply a case of dropping in and having a look around, when Chinese make the first visit, a gift to the host is a customary right-of-passage. We have chosen to bring both fresh raw ginger and a jar of ginger preserved in a vinegar and sugar syrup.

We arrive at this far-off outpost to be met by a group of frontiers people – early European settlers. “End of the line,” we are told, “Chinatown one mile that way! Follow the river,” a local resident points angrily. We gather up what little we have and walk. The track was stony and littered with boulders that had been worked-over looking for that elusive gold. We hear noises, Cantonese voices, laughter and yelling amongst the piles of rocks…and then we see a low stone wall and a well trodden path leading into a collection of wooden and stone shelters. It felt eerie like being watched by a thousand eyes.

Miners often made their livings working over river gravels. This image shows miner Wing Chung on the banks of the Clutha River (Chinese gold miner, Wing Chung, with cradle on the banks of the Clutha River. Les Wong has been granted free education use of this image by Presbyterian Archives for education and historical purposes)

As we stood there in awe, an elderly Chinese man and his large dog came to meet us. “Where you come from?” he asks. We discussed our ancestral village origins but he was still not at ease. He said his name was Ah Yow and he had been living there for twenty years. Using both our hands we gifted him the ginger we had brought with us. He grasped our hands and after an exchange of ‘Nei Hou’ (greetings, hello) we were like long lost friends.

“You must be thirsty and hungry, come to cook shop, meet Ah Bok, very good cook you will like.” With a smile, he added, “Ah Bok cooks everything, feeds the camp, nothing is wasted. Ah Bok is a kind man, superstitious and can get moody, try not to offend him.” Ah Yow advised.

Ah Yow guides us down the windy path. We stopped and looked into the entrance of an empty hut that had no furniture but a pile of round rocks and old sacks. We asked Ah Yow, “Who lives in there?”. “Three miners sleep in there, they are at the river working on their cradles all day” he said, “At night they warm the rocks by the fire, wrap them in sacks and take them to bed. They are father, brother and nephew, and cannot find enough gold to pay their debts and go home.”

The Chinese Camp. Picture from the Cromwell Museum, permission for use granted to Les Wong by Director Edith McKay.

We walk on towards the aroma of spices and the food cooking, carefully dodging the broken drums, empty bottles and fragments of smashed bowls. There are also old abandoned mining tools that may have already yielded untold fortunes for some lucky miners.

Tools of the mining trade from the Chinese Museum in Melbourne. Picture: Les Wong.

Ah Yow leads us into this dark and unsavoury looking hut and excitedly waves his arm in the air. “Ah Bok, Ah Bok!” he calls and Ah Bok summons us into the kitchen. He is cooking congee (rice soup with dried vegetables and chicken bones), steamed dried fish with vegetables and sliced ginger, roast and boiled chicken and other delicacies. “No pork this week” Ah Bok said. We sat in the dining area on some old wooden crates drinking a bowl of aromatic tea. There was a long wait and to our surprise a European lady brought out bowls of congee and bowls of delicacies. Stunned, we asked her what she was doing in a Chinese camp. She said, “I look after Ah Bok, he treats me very well, I came from Ireland but the settlers treat all us Irish girls very badly. Here I feel safe, I get a few grains of gold if the miners have a good day. There is no trouble here, you see.” She continued, “It can get very busy when the miners come in at sunset but Ah Bok throws the trouble makers out.”

European women often found safety in the Chinese camps, and marriages were relatively common (from the Otago Daily Times, Issue 3123, 9th February 1872, accessed via Papers Past)

Ah Yow said, “You pay Missy one shilling after you finish meal and feed bones to dog.” He cautioned us, “You not to trouble Missy or else Ah Bok get very angry.” We enjoyed the meal paid Missy one shilling and when we sat down Ah Yow had gone. Now, we are indeed in trouble. We called Missy and asked, “Where is Ah Yow?”. “Oh, he is the laundryman and will be down at the river washing clothes. He is too old to do anything else” she replied. The observant Ah Bok could see our predicament; the sun was beginning to set and Missy was busy lighting the oil lanterns. Miners were beginning to drift in. He invited us to sleep in the loft as his guest, but we will need to climb up a ladder and sleep on the bales of straw. Ah Bok says, “Tomorrow is a special day in the Chinese calendar, I cook special banquet, farewell my old friend, he returning to China, he want to ‘hear the ocean’. He’s going home a rich man, I like you to meet him tomorrow.”

Join us next time as Les and Maisie continue their story!

Les and Maisie Wong, 29th November 2019

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