Chinese Whispers: The Chinese store and Joss house

Visiting a Chinese Camp (part 3)

Today Les and Maisie Wong continue their trip back in time with the Chinese on the goldfields. Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 of their story, and then join us as we explore the store and the Joss house in the camp…

After ‘Charlie’ had departed we offered to clear up the mess in Ah Bok’s dining area to show our gratitude for his hospitality. He stood there and thought for a moment and said. “All my years here, few have wanted to help. They come, they eat, they go. Missy always clean – Missy now busy wash bowl and wok.” He showed us the brooms and instructed us never to point the broom or to sweep towards anybody as that is disrespectful and offensive.

Our sweeping had just been completed when a strong looking man came in with a pole over his shoulder carrying two full baskets. He headed for the kitchen and was engrossed in a conversation with Ah Bok. We listened, they seemed to be arguing, there were clicking noises and words like, “Five pounds, six pence, seven pound ten shillings,” came drifting through the air.

We watched the baskets being emptied and they were chatting and laughing again. We quickly looked away as the man came towards us. In near perfect English he said, “You’re new here, I saw you celebrating earlier.” We replied, “We’re just visiting and will be gone in a day or so.” He said, “I am called Yon, the storekeeper. You must visit the Joss House, I can take you now, but first come to my store.”

Yon sounded educated and we followed him. On the way, we asked him, “Did you have an argument with Ah Bok?” He said, “No, we were discussing the prices of the items in the baskets. I calculated the costs on my abacus. Chinese always haggle over prices these days. Once we agree, the deal is done.”

In the store were bags of rice, sauces, packets of dried salted plums, dried and salted fish and seafood, pork sausages preserved with a blend of wine and spices, crusty preserved eggs called ‘hundred year old eggs’ and to our surprise we noticed some bread. “Is that damper bread?” we asked, “Sure is!” he said and added, “I learned to make it in Bendigo. It’s easy to make with flour, salt and my secret spices. I have Chinese and European customers.”

Reconstruction of a Chinese store on the goldfields (Melbourne Chinese Museum, Photo and display arrangement: Les Wong)

The store had more than we imagined, stocking not just Chinese foods, fruit and vegetables, but also many tools and clothes that miners would need. Yon said, “Most of my imported foods come wrapped in Chinese newspapers. I read them and tell the news to my customers.”

We asked; “what is that room with bars on the window?” He replied, “Oh, that’s my office and strongroom, I do gold and money transfers in there. I also write and read letters for the miners to and from China and translate English letters, and interpret Warden’s Court rulings.”

Yon gave us a bundle of incense and fruit to take to the Joss House, and took a bowl of cooked rice himself and we headed to the building displaying two large Chinese panels around the doorway. The panels said, “All waters flow East; South Star shines North.” We were told that the Joss House is a temple for everyone, not just those living in the camp. It is a meeting house where miners come to worship. Sometimes it is also used as a place to settle disputes using Chinese rules where both sides are allowed an honourable defeat.

Yon said, “You put the fruit in the bowl on the altar and burn the incense in the pot. The panels at the altar remind us that ‘We are the same creed; Happiness and good fortune come to friends’. Kneel for a moment to honour our ancestral spirits, and bow with the palms of your hands together.”

The restored Joss House in the Lawrence Chinese camp. Photo: Les Wong.

“Nod politely to other worshipers. If there is somebody who is very unwell and lying on a bed, show your respect and offer to help him drink some tea, make sure he is comfortable. If there is a caretaker tending to him, bow and quietly leave. Let him die peacefully.”

He said, “A young man died here about one month ago, he didn’t belong in this camp and was brought in by cart – a very sick man. He is buried beyond the trees where only Chinese are buried.” “When I viewed his hut there was little except the bowl he ate from. I punched a hole in the bottom of it to release the ‘spirit’ so nobody else could use it. Pieces of wood and metal were given away to the other miners and the clothing was burnt. Chinese would not occupy a hut after the owner has died.”

Partial newspaper account of the sick being brought to the Lawrence Chinese Camp Joss House.
Tuapeka Times, Volume XVI, Issue 917, 3 March 1883 (accessed via PapersPast)

We quietly exited, but Yon was still carrying the bowl of rice. We watched him walk to an old barrel and tip the rice on the top. He explained, “Rice is for the birds, when birds come here they may have been sent by the spirits to visit us; the rice is but a small sacrifice, don’t you think?”

As we departed, Yon said, “Enjoy your meal with Ah Bok, when it is very dark I will show you some nightlife.”

Les and Maisie Wong, 31st January 2020

The fourth and final instalment of the Chinese Camp story will follow soon…

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