Australian Biography

Lily Ah Toy - full interview transcript

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It sounds like you were having a very healthy diet, and a very healthy life. What happened if you got sick?

Well, we use all Chinese medicine. My mother always careful that we don't eat too many of the hot stuff, you know, the blood heating stuff. So we have cooling stuff, watermelons or cooling soup. And, other pine-melon soup which we hated. And sugarcane water which we loved. The sugarcane, we buy it from the gardeners. They cut into pieces and split and put it into a saucepan of water and simmer it for hours. And then we had to drink that and also chew the sugarcane but by then it was pretty tasteless. All the sugar gone into the, gone into the liquid.

And these were supposed to cool the blood?

Your blood, yes. And for fever they have a special, the bitter melon vine, they boil that, and bathe us in it. Just warm bathing and all this sort of cooling stuff.

What was, what was considered heating? What did you avoid?

Fried stuff. Any fried stuff or any curries or any bake. Generally speaking it's the fried stuff that they avoid as much as possible. And for cakes and stuff you see of course they never eat anything straight out of the oven. We didn't have an oven, only an ordinary little oven that my brother made. But they must - fresh bread out of the oven, you wait to cool. Everything must be cooled first. And don't use too much pepper. Whenever your system or blood is heated or too hot, as we call it, a person gets sick.

And what did you do about the Chinese medicine? Did you get that from your mother or was there a special Chinese doctor?

My uncle, my uncle, he was a herbalist and he had a shop in Darwin. Everybody goes to him. He's got medical books that he reads up, they tell him all the symptoms and they prescribe some evil tasting stuff. We get it and boil it for at least, half or three-quarters an hour, and we must take it last thing at night. You take now, for instance, if they have measles or chickenpox, special medicine to counteract all of that. And also we mustn't eat any kind of food if we have measles. We have to have special mincemeat all chopped up finely, and sprinkled with sliced up ginger, and this cucumber, which is a sweet one, a pickled cucumber, sprinkled on top. And another Chinese cabbage called Chong choy, they cut, a little bit finely cut, to make it tastier they steam it. And that's all we're allowed to eat. Eat that and rice.

Was malaria a problem in the area?

No. I haven't come across anybody with malaria. Only I heard my parents say that the old people used to die from it. But eventually - I really haven't heard of anyone that I know of who had malaria.

Did you use the quinine trees at all?

Yes, the leaves. The leaves, grandma used to get the leaves, and dry, and make pillows because it's cooling, pillows for the children. And the quinine berry, well you have to wait until it's matured. And they pick it, hammer it to split it, and grandma would sprinkle salt lightly on it and dry it. And she used to make tea with it. That's cooling. Actually it taste quite nice. In fact, the quinine fruit itself, we used to pickle it. Pick holes on it and salt, and then soak it in salt and water. And it's, I suppose, like an olive. Only that it's harder. It's not bad.

It sounds like a lot of work.

Well naturally all those things are, take time, but what can you do? You're just so used to all that sort of stuff and you do it.

So you're mother worked very hard at taking care of the family?

Yes. And we helped whenever we can. We had a fruit tree, it's a sort of a lime, and yet it's not, it's not the English lime. And this one's the size of a mandarin and when it's matured and ripe and it has a lovely orangey colour, it's a bit sour, but it's edible enough that we can eat it like a, you know, like a mandarin, a sour mandarin. And we have a lot of that and we make squash out of it. So there you are, that's more cooling stuff. And to preserve that lime, mother used to get it and dry it, no, steam it first. Steam it in a wok and of course it goes all soft, and then put it out in the sun in one of those cane trays, and dry it to certain stage, and then she sugar it with liquorice and make a sort of preserve, rich, preserve, plum. Preserve lemon peel. You can buy the lemon peel now, it's exactly the same. I used to do that in Pine Creek when I had time. Lot of work but it was very nice.

Was there any difficulty getting Chinese utensils and ingredients here, to be able to do?

No. The Chinese store, there's quite a few Chinese stores, they carry everything.

In those days.

Yes, yes. You can buy anything at all. Like for New Year for instance now, they get all the ingredients out from Singapore I think.

So there was a lot of trade coming to Darwin?

Always. Yes. Now, Burns Philp used to run ships from Sydney, Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane-Mount, not Mount Isa, Thursday Island to Darwin. Right. And then from Darwin they go to Singapore. This is a sort of monthly turn out ... and all that sort of thing. From Singapore they come back to Darwin again. Now, the ships return from Singapore would bring all sorts of stuff that would be forbidden by the quarantine now.

So in fact you had better supplies of the Chinese things than you do now?

Yes. They did bring out basketfull of lychee, and salty duck eggs, and the hundred-year-old egg, and tins of preserved duck, which is very expensive but very tasty. Chinese sausage; of course you can buy the sausage now in Melbourne. They make them in Melbourne and Sydney. But in those days you see it's all got to come from overseas. And they bring out bags of rice from Siam. In those mat sort-of, yeah mat bags. After they use the rice they use the mat for the baby to sleep on, or, it's a floor for them to play on. It's very, very useful. [INTERRUPTION]

How old were you when you went to school?


And you spoke no English at that point in time?

Hardly. Hardly. Because we speak Chinese at home.

So did you feel a little bit nervous going off to school?

Yes, but, all I think about going to school was to play with the other children. I didn't mind. My sister, Mabel, she rebelled against it. She didn't want to go. I can remember Mother force her, to take her to the convent school, which is the nearest, and oh, she play up like anything. So of course her education was only up to third grade I think. She just didn't like school. She refused to go.

Did you go to the convent school too?

No, public.

What was the public school like?

It was quite good, a mixed school. They have all sorts of children there. There was the main building have a three bedroom, not three bedroom, three room, three schoolrooms, two in the back and one in the front. The two back ones, they have a great big dividing folding wall. The one in the front, nearest to the Cavanagh Street, that one have 4th and 5th. And 2 and 3 in one of the other rooms in the back, and 6 and 7 in another one. Now the younger children in the primary - not the primary - in the infants, they [are] in another building where they have a singer, same room for sing[ing] and teaching eurythmics, which I hated. And also a library, a school library, in a completely separate building. The water supply come from a windmill and it was looked after by a Greek chap called Con Parker. He always come and look after the windmill and see that everything's working all right.

So you were really looking forward to playing with the other children, what sort of things did you play?

Marbles. Rounders. Hopscotch, mostly hopscotch.

Were you a popular child at school with the other children?

Oh, I don't know, I just tag along as you call it and just play. It didn't really matter.

And what about the school work, how did you get on with it?

Just managed.

Do you think you were handicapped by not having had English at home?

We didn't realise it at the time. We didn't really realise that, but we just manage all right. And it wasn't until I was in the 6th and 7th grade that it suddenly dawned on me that I've got to really work hard.

And you did?

Well I tried to. But another thing that I detest was sewing. Miss Parker taught me, Miss Bell first, and then Miss Parker. I'm forever having knots on thread and the stitches were absolutely terrible.

That doesn't conform to the idea of the good little Chinese girl sitting doing her sewing does it?

Absolutely not. At home I'd rather go out and play with my brothers or with the other children, running around the bush playing football and picking wild plums. In the wet season there's all sorts of plums. First thing in the morning we would go out and see what we could pick off the ground, this milky plum, cherry plums, all sorts of eatable plums. The Aboriginal [people] taught us all what to eat and thinking back now, I think we did, all our vitamin C and all that nourishment from those plums too. There's one there, a cheeky plum they call it. But why they call it cheeky, because the tree had a lot of prickles, oh, so many prickles on it. But the fruit is just like a little tiny apple and it's really nice. There are trees growing just up round near the corner there near the old hospital, or the university.

You mean native fruit trees?

All native; native fruit.

You learnt a bit about bush tucker then?

Well yes. We used to eat all these plum, billygoat plums which I discovered in, a few years ago, it has the highest vitamin C content. When the army discovered it, I had to laugh. I said, 'Oh, we been eating it for years'.

Did anybody ever get really sick?

You mean viruses?

In the family?

Not that I know of. Occasional fever or cold. Like I said they got all these herbal medicines.

Now at school, were there people from all different backgrounds and different races in the primary school at that time?

Yes. yes.

So you didn't feel special or different because you were Chinese.

No. No. There's lots of Chinese children.

As a child did you encounter any discrimination against the Chinese at all in Darwin?

Well not as far as I'm concerned. But there were discrimination, but it's typical of children. The children from the rich family used to look down upon us poor children. Well for instance now, they [are] dressed up in lovely ironed shirts and shorts and socks and leather shoes, and we just go barefooted and I only owned two dresses. So they used to come along and stand on, stood on our toes. Well that wasn't very nice.

Because you had bare feet and they had shoes.

Yeah we all had bare feet. Well we can't afford to.

But these were rich Chinese children?

Yeah. Rich Chinese children.

What did you wear? You had just two dresses you say, what kind of dresses were they?

Ordinary cotton dresses that only cost six pence a yard. Plain dresses. Nothing elaborate.

Were they made up in Chinese or European style?

No, no. Dresses. No we had to wear dresses. And as soon as we come home we had to change them. Mother would rinse them and hang them out and next day we wear them again, alternately.

And what would you put on while she was doing that?

Chinese clothes. The jacket and the pants like this.

Which was more comfortable?

Oh, definitely. Because you had the jacket and pants and you can run.

So you much preferred to be in the Chinese clothes?

Yes. Yes. It's really comfortable.

And what did you wear on your feet?

Bare feet.


Yes. For occasions like Empire Day, or special things like that, we have a pair of sandshoes. We didn't mind.

Did you wear any Chinese shoes, clogs or anything?

Oh yes, at home. I don't know whether you've ever seen the kerosene cases that holds 2 four gallon tins of kerosene in the old days, well the end pieces of timber, well they must be about an inch thick, and they're very valuable, so we get those, the thick pieces, and we make them into clogs. Put our foot on them and just draw the pattern and then sawed and chiselled it, and to make it, they put a heel on it. And for the strap, again mother get the off-cuts from the tailor shop, khaki, stitch them together and put, you put your foot through it and then they just nail it on. That's it. And for Chinese New Year, because it's New Year, they paint the clogs red. Ordinarily they don't bother to paint it. [INTERRUPTION]

So what happened at Chinese New Year?

We each ...

Could you say, for Chinese New Year ...

For Chinese ... [INTERRUPTION]

For Chinese New Year we have a new suit of clothes, always, new pair of clogs, made out of the wood and painted red. Also, they made all sorts of cakes and special foods, weeks ahead really. They buy the glutinous rice, and soak it, and then we have a grinder. I don't know whether you've ever seen one, it's made out of very hard granite stone and it's imported from China. The base is bigger than the top and it's got a sort of a, what they call it now, serrated. And the top piece is smaller and it's also serrated, and in the middle there's a square piece of steel, like a thick nut, that sit one on top of the other and you push it around, like that. To grind the rice.

So it's like a little hand-mill?

Yes, but it's a big one. Not a hand one. You use a long stick and you've got to push it around like that. I used to do that, help my mother do that. The rice is all in liquid form in the water. They put that into a flour bag and drain it and dry it again in those cane trays. And when the time come to make Chinese cakes for New Year, they crush that because it's all in lumps. And they make Chinese cakes. But now you buy the glutinous rice flour in packets in the shops.

So no matter how poor you were as children, when it came to Chinese New Year, there was a feast and there were new clothes?

Absolutely. We have chicken and pork and crackers. And we upheld all the ritual, religious ritual Which is very important. And the house, well, the house had to be cleaned from top to bottom. You clean all the ... [INTERRUPTION]

Was your family religious?

Yes. You can call them Buddhists or Taoist because they go to the temple and pay their respects to the different deities.

Was there a temple in Darwin?

Yes. It's still there.

And what was it like?

Oh, quite good. The war, the war damaged it so that they have to refurnish it. And then the cyclone flatten it and they rebuild, this is a new rebuilt version.

So as long as you remember, there's been a Chinese temple there?

Yes. And I can remember, when we were living in Cavanagh Street, mother used to go on certain days to the temple, you know, taking the offerings, and I always used to go with her to help her. And there was a little old man there, we called him Mah Buk, he's the caretaker and he always, the one that goes around, you know, light the can ... the incense and the candles and knelt and say the prayers and burn the papers. Old Mah Buk was a very, very old bent up man and a very highly educated one.

How often did you go to the temple?

Only on festival days, special days.

So it wasn't a regular thing?

At home, regularly, at home they have their own ancestor altar. All your ancestors, their names or their photos there were on one table or bench. And my mother - we have the goddess of mercy. And then we have Gung Goong, that's two that every family has because the goddess of mercy protect the children and the home and the other one is also a very good protector.

So it was really like a little home altar or shrine?

Shrine. Yes. Yes. Home shrine.

And how often did you have to perform rituals there.

Every morning, it was my job to ... every morning when we get up we clean up and the tea was already made, and I had to collect the little cups with tea in it and clean it, and light the incense and pour out the tea and go around to all the different altars to pay my respect. Every morning and every night.

How important were the festivals? Were there many of them?

Yes. There's quite a few, in different days. There's one, apart from the New Year, there's one where we have, where we have special cake made for this particular one. In Hong Kong they run their boat race on it. We made this jeung, special glutinous rice with stuff in the middle and wrapped in leaves and boiled for hours. That is a very special occasion. And of course at home mother used to cook the chicken and the pork and the piece of cuttle fish. Or if there's none, a piece of, a root of shallot and we'll pay our respects that way. [INTERRUPTION]

The festivals were important in giving you an opportunity to have some special food?

Yes. We children looked forward to it because it was such a treat. And then mother would make some peanut toffee and some other special eats to go with it. Cakes and things like that. Chinese cakes.

What's the most important festival of the year?

Actually the most important one is the New Year?

And what happens on Chinese New Year?

Mother would prepare and shop very early. The shops already have all the stuff from Hong Kong or Singapore. And, the preparation goes on for days and weeks. And on New Year's Eve there's the usual, and the chicken and the pork and stuff for the religious ceremonies, and everything must be washed clean, it mustn't have any meat or stuff on it. Oil. And in the middle of the night, before that mother would cook this special dry vegetable stuff we call chai. It's a dried vegetable deep fried, and cakes that we made earlier. And on the stroke of midnight she'd open the front door and there's a table there already and with all stuff on it, and then we start this religious ceremony. We joss, light the incense and the rest and throw out the crackers. It's funny to hear cracker here, cracker there and everybody doing the same thing. And that is left all for seven days, that table, and every morning we have to burn incense and the usual rigmarole. But that day, New Year day, we fast. We don't eat anything, from living, like chicken and stuff. We eat just this dry vegetable dish. Some people, they have the meals straight after the midnight ceremony. But the Haka, we do, it's as a mark of respect to our ancestor, we fast for the whole day. Of course, children, being children, we get very hungry, couldn't last. But we had to. Mother would give us the Chinese cakes. Until next day, then we can eat. And the second day of New Year, that's another, more chicken, see it's another ceremony. We call it Hoi Yuen. That is the proper day. And we look forward to that too. and we have all sorts of fruit with it, locally grown. That goes on until the fourth day. The fourth day the married daughters come home to visit the parents and they bring all sorts of goodies, eatables, and pay the respect and they must stay for the meal. That's the fourth day. And on the seventh day of the New Year, that's the day for the world people's birthday. And that's something that only the Chinese celebrate. They call it Nyit.

The birthday for all the people?

People of the world. People birthday. So, of course there's more religious offerings and that. And the next one is the 15th of the month. You see the 15th, the 1st and the 15th, a lot of people fast on those days, different ones, for religious purposes. And on the 16th it's another festival date, Chin Lau Gong birth date. Now Chin Lau Gong, now this is a story. He was man, a very kind man in China. He rides a white horse and [has] a dog. And he was a very kind man. Finally through jealousy he was killed and the people hadn't forgotten him so they set him up as a saint. And some of the villagers saw him, they said they saw him riding his white horse with the dog following, and that's how that started.

So the whole family takes part in these ceremonies?

Oh, we were made to. We had to go and kow-tow and joss like that.

And the children stay up till midnight on the first night?

Well some of them wake up, or some of them stay. The young ones not.

You say your mother took care of putting everything out. Were the religious ceremonies mainly the role of the women, or did the men have a role as well?

Well the men, sometimes they come, they don't, they don't work towards it but they come and pay their respect and that's it.

They come and enjoy it. The women do the work?

Yes. Yes. But nowadays most people don't have these family altars, they go to the temple. So, also, they adopted the Christian way of going to the temple on Sundays.

Which you never did as a child?

No. We just go on ...

How many times in a year would you go to the temple for special festivals as a child?

Oh, I couldn't tell you unless we work it out.

But would it be half a dozen?

Oh, more than that.


Yes. Yes.

There were plenty of festivals to keep you interested?

Besides that, alongside the temple there was a little hut and where they stored all the remains of the Chinese people who died, and it's customary after three years they dug the bones out and they put them in earthenware jug and store them in that hut. And when they have enough, the relatives would ask for a ship to call into Darwin and then they, some relative would take those bones back to the village. Take the remains back to the village.

In China?

Yeah. To be buried in the different villages where they come from.

So these old people wanted their bones to go back to China.

Their remains, yes. But of course it's all gone with the war. My father and my younger brother's remains are in China. My brother took them back there, the eldest boy.

What do you think of that?

Well it's a custom they upheld. But now, it's, it's sort of a loss with the war and at least we still have them here in Australia. So we pay our respect to the graves and all that.

With all these ceremonies and religious observance that you went through, what was the spiritual significance of it?

Just because we were brought up into it and we believe in it.

Was it more a social thing that you did or did it have some meaning to it for you about spiritual things?

Yes. Of course now I'm older, it's slightly different and I've more or less been to Christian churches and partaken in services and all that. So, it broadens my mind, but I still respect the ancestor worship.

So the heart of the religion was really ancestor worship? It was to show a real respect for those who'd gone before?

Yes. Yes. But I don't forget the Chinese religion we were brought up in. I still respect that too.

What were some of the elements of it besides respecting ancestors, in terms of, not just what you had to observe and do, but what you believed?

Well they drilled it into us that we never ever do any unkind things. Always be kind and helpful and forgiving. And also, help, like I said, old people. Anybody old or destitute, always help them.

So there was great respect for the aged?

Yes. Yes. Yes. You see, the Chinese never dumped their old people into homes or anything. They kept them at home all the time until, of course, they can't care for them, I mean physically or medically.

Were there Christian missionaries, or Christian churches, trying to persuade the Chinese people that what they believed in was wrong and that they should become Christian?

In China, yes.

But here in Darwin?

No, nobody attempted, trying.

That's interesting because there were people up here, weren't there, with their Christian churches trying to persuade Aborigines and so on to believe?

Oh, yes, yes. They, the Aborigines really have all sorts of different religions trying to convert them. But no one tried to convert the Chinese. But then later on towards, in 1940, in the 40s, we had Pastor Low. He's still alive. He's a pastor for the Uniting Church. And he started to, he wouldn't dare to convert them, but [they] please themselves whether they like to listen to him or not. And he used to teach us as school. But I don't ... [INTERRUPTION]

Why do you think that the Christian religions left you alone and didn't try to convert the Chinese people?

I think, because they could see how strong it is. How strong the Chinese attended temple and upheld all the different festivals. Or more or less so, what shall I say, in one mind. Every family do it, they can't change it.

Now when you were at school, did they have religious instruction at school.

Yes. But I never go to it.

So the Chinese children were just exempt from it.

They didn't force us.

And how long did you stay at school?

Until I was 14, I couldn't leave school quick enough, as soon as I was 14; up to seven grade.

You had to stay by law until you were 14?

Oh, yes. But then of course I couldn't go any further. There's no high school in Darwin. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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