Australian Biography

Lily Ah Toy - full interview transcript

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When you were at school, what did you imagine you would do when you left?

Oh, I have no idea, at the time.

You didn't dream of leaving school and being a nurse or a teacher?

No, no. We haven't had the thing - education - to go training as a nurse or teacher.

So what, you said you couldn't wait to leave school at 14, what did you imagine you'd do?

Stay home and help mother. Because I'd always been helping her since I was nine year old doing all sorts of things.

And so you were looking forward to that?


So what in fact did you do when you left school?

Well I got a job as a housemaid. Start at half past seven in the morning and finish after lunch. After I wash up after lunch. Seven and six a week. They give me breakfast and I help the lady to do the washing and hanging out and wash up, the chores. Routine: Monday wash, Tuesday iron, Wednesday clean the house, Thursday polish the silver. That sort of thing. Saturday morning clean the stove.

Who were they that you worked for?

Lyle and Mrs Tivendale. He was a health inspector and he was the stock inspector too.

How did you get the job?

I don't quite remember, they were looking for somebody. And I applied.

Did you look after children for them?

No, no. They haven't got any children. Actually it was quite easy, just do housework. And she always work with me, like the washing. Well I had to do the ironing myself.

So you just helped her?

Yes. Yes.

How did your family feel about you getting this job?

Well they didn't mind, this is during the Depression years. A lot of other girls go out and work house, housework.

How many years were you there in that house?

From 14 until, 3 years I was there.

And why did you leave?

Well, my husband was courting me and we become engaged at 18. And we got married at 19 - when I was 19 and he was 21.

So how did you meet your husband?

He was hawking vegetables. Now wait a minute, a cousin of mine married his older brother. And we used to go and visit. They had this market garden out at the two and half mile or the Parap we call it now. And we often go out and visit the cousin and go through the garden because they have five-corner tree growing in the paddock. And we used to go and raid it, which was very, very naughty. And also he sells, like I say, hawking vegetables around and he come around and he always go to my sister and then he goes to where I work and would stay there. That's how we met. And gradually know one another better. I used to laugh. When I was at home he used to be at my sister then. He would give my sister's children bunches of grapes and all sorts of stuff when they [are] in season. He never come over to offer me any. But gradually he came around and asked me to marry him.

And were you immediately drawn to him? Did you like the look of him?

Well it's not a matter of looks so much, but he always have the lovely smile and very friendly.

And did he notice you straight away?

Well apparently, because when we go and visit him and his brother at the market garden he used to follow us to where the ... tree was.

And do you really think it was you he was following?

Well there were other cousins too. But then when he showed interest at the place where I work and then visiting my sister all the time, so my sister knew straight away that he was keen on seeing me and be better acquainted.

Was there any suggestion in your family that you might go to a matchmaker?

No. No. My oldest brother, Chu, he said to my mother, he said, 'You know he's courting Lily and he's good you know. He's good'. He thoroughly approved. Hardworking young fellow. Jim was only 21.

Were any of your family married through the matchmaker, or had that practice died out by your generation?

No, no. My sister, older sister [and] Charlie. Charlie was working at Mataranka Station as a cook and he had his eye on my sister for a long time. So he asked someone to come and arrange it. It's really funny, actually, there's several other young men in Darwin wanted to marry her, three or four of them. They sent matchmakers along but my sister wouldn't have any of them. Ended up marrying Charlie, Charlie Hee. [INTERRUPTION]

Did the practice of matchmaking die out?

With the war.

With the war. Changed a lot?

Evacuation changed everything. In a way it was quite good you know.

So your, your husband was drawn to you. What do you think it was that he liked about you?

Well I don't really know because he was living in Pine Creek looking after the shop that his parents just bought for him and he came, he drove, borrowed a truck and drove all the way from Pine Creek to Darwin to ask me to marry him. And it was, it was an all-day trip in those days, just a track.

So he must have wanted you?


Had he taken you out, or how had he courted you?

We not allowed to go out until after we got engaged. And then he took me out to the pictures.

Had you seen him alone at all before he asked you to marry him?

No. No. That's not allowed. Very strict the Chinese. But after we got engaged he asked permission to take me to the pictures one night. And then Grandma, Grandma Moo, she went off the roof. She said, 'Why do you allow your daughter to go out even though they engaged? It's not the done thing', and all the rest of it. Poor Mum copped it again.

So she was a bit more relaxed because she was in Australia?

Yes. And then my brother approve, he said, 'That's all right'.

What did you like about your husband, what was it that drew you to him?

Well he's always been a very hardworking young man. Absolutely. And he's a very honest man. Somehow -and he's always got a smile and he get on well with all my brothers and sisters - somehow we just like one another.

You were very young?


Do you think that was old enough?

Well in those days, I suppose I am. Because we were engaged at 18 and married at 19.

What was the marriage ceremony like?

Chinese. We had to get up early in the morning at certain hour. They choose a day. They have to choose a day which is suitable, you know, everything, the star is right. There's a book there that they go through. And in the morning, on my side, I would get up very early and they have a table, an altar set up at the front door and I would be there. And this aunty of mine would come and she must have a husband alive and she must have boys and girls, you know, good luck. And she comb my hair. Comb my hair and then put it up into a bun. That's what they call in Chinese Zhong Chu. All religious ceremony, quite serious. After that, certain time, they got to pick what time. And they dress me and I have to wear all the usual clothes, new clothes and shoes. Actually I did have the shoes somewhere in a cupboard and a veil, silk veil. My mother got all this from Hong Kong. The shoes and the veil. And the clothes, I had a jacket and a skirt.

What colour?

Pink. Must be pink or red. Mine was pink, a deep pink. And I had jewellery on. This pair of earrings was a wedding present.

You were given presents?

Yes. All the relatives give me presents. They give personal stuff like bangle, a ring or earrings. Things like that.

Not things for your house?

No. No. That's the groom's responsibility to provide for the house. Not like now. And certain time, certain hour, after more religious ceremony another lady who has a husband alive and has children, and she came and she lead me. I have to wear this mirror hanging around my neck as a sort of a necklace, and this mirror must face outwards, as I go out, because that would dazzle the evil spirits. And then they must throw rice. There's a devil rooster, so they throw rice to distract him. You know all that sort of thing. Until we got to the groom's house and then the lady who lead me turn the mirror round face that side, shiny side face towards my body. And then she lead me in through the house. And there won't be anybody there in the house. They be all around the back 'cause it's unlucky to face a new bride coming into a house. This lady take me straight into the bridal chamber, bridal room.

And the mirror had to be turned inwards?

Inwards. Going into the groom's house.

So you didn't want to frighten him off, just the rooster?

No, no, no. You don't bring bad luck into the house. That mirror you wear to go out of your parent's house is to ward off the evil spirits. Its all traditional stuff.

And what happens in the ceremony itself, in the bridal chamber?

Well they have another altar set up there with a light burning and burn incense and candles and all the rest of it. We do that and then later on they take me outside and that's when the real ceremony of paying respect to the ancestors [takes place] in the lounge. That's when everybody's there and we go through the ceremony again before anything of a party. It's important all that religious stuff. It's binding. Both of you knelt down and the people who conducted it saying all sorts of good words and all that sort of stuff. I don't actually know, I can't remember what it says now.

So was your marriage happy from the beginning?

Yes. Except when my mother-in-law died, that was a bit of a shock.

When was that?

Two years after we were married. She had meningitis. This was at Pine Creek. And then she left two young girls, daughters. One was only a little over two years old and the other is five.

Your husband's young sisters?

Young sisters. So I look after them and then there's two boys going to school in Darwin. Altogether there were five of them. But my father-in-law was very, very upset over that, so I had him to look after too until he died. And then [came] the war.

So you essentially raised extra children.

Extra five.

An extra five children. And they were with you through your whole married life until they grew up?

Until, yeah, until the youngest one was about fifteen.

So you went to live in Pine Creek straight after you were married.

Yes, that's right.

What was that like?

It was - the mine had only just closed down, the Enterprise Mine - in a sense it was a bit quiet but there are still a lot of other miners, prospectors, around.

What did they mine for at Pine Creek?

Gold. It's always been gold. And there's other people looking for tin, single people. They were mining tin. Getting an odd bag and bringing it into the shop. And some other people would go for copper, but copper is, the price was very low. And other people would go for silver ... And when the Korean War was on, because Korea used to provide wolfram to the world's market I think, they used wolfram for ...


Yeah, wolfram. It's a tungsten for hardening for steel to make guns. So when the Korean War was on wolfram was a very high price. And a wolfram mine opened out at Wolfram Hill. In fact, we used to scour, everybody go scouring the old mining dumps to pick up wolfram to sell it. It was worth a pound in money, that's two dollars, for a pound in weight.

So you came as a new bride to Pine Creek, what was your husband doing? He was still involved with hawking vegetables?

No. He was, he had the shop. His mother, his parents bought him the shop, Wing Chong, and he run the shop. At the same time helping his parents to run the - they had a little shop too, a baker shop, a bakery. So he was helping his parents with that. And then at the back they had a very big garden so they used to grow a lot of stuff to sell and send it to Darwin on the train for the older brother to sell.

So once he married you he gave up going in to hawk vegetables?

Oh, that was in Darwin, this is at Pine Creek.

So he moved to Pine Creek after he was married?

Before. Yes, before he was married he moved to Pine Creek. They bought this firm and asked him to go back and manage it.

When you married your husband was he still living in Darwin?

No, he was living in Pine Creek.

Where is Pine Creek?

Pine Creek is 156 miles south on the railway line, or now it is 220 kilometres.

And why did he go and live in Pine Creek?

Because his parents were living there, and also they just bought this business and they want him to go down and run it. That was in 1935. We got married in 1936.

What kind of a business was it?

Oh, just a little country shop, you know, groceries and bits, odd bits and stuff.

And what were they doing there?

What the in-laws?

The parents?

Well they had a baker shop and also a bit of grocery. They had the baker shop, oh, for years. And during the mining boom they used to sell bottled hop beer and other stuff like that. And to cool it they just put wet bags over them and put it in the breezeway. Because the thirsty miners loved their hop beer. It's a cheap sort of beer.

What jobs did you have as a new bride to help the family?

The usual household chore. Washing and the cooking and then they taught me how to make bread. I couldn't even knead a loaf of bread, but I learnt how to knead bread. They had very [much] patience, you know, teach me how to do it.

This was for the bakery?

Yes. Well we have all our meals with the old people, with the in-laws. Jim and I only sleep down at the shop. So I spent most of the day up there and when I finished I would go back to the shop that afternoon, go back to the other place again to cook the evening meal. And, the water, of course I'm used to getting water from the well so it was no trouble for me to get water again from the well, to wind it up. And, pour it into a square thing and it runs into the garden for the, for the garden. And for the kitchen there's another well and we carry that, I carry that on my shoulder with two tins and a yoke for the house. For firewood, they have this great big stack of timber for the bakery, for the baker oven. And for the kitchen, I used to chop it for the kitchen too. So I'm used to chopping wood - axe.

What was the house like that you first went to live in?

In Pine Creek? Well it was a very old house but Jim had built a new room. So we had that, live in the new room. The house was too old and he put an extension at the back with cypress pine and iron and was quite strong. Actually, after, when the children came and we had the unusual wind storm, I take the five children and tuck them underneath the double bed. They sure, if the roof come down they won't be hurt. But it was all right, the roof stayed on and they were quite safe on the mattress under the bed.

What was it all made of?

The house? Cypress pine. See Pine Creek has a lot of cypress pine growing all over the place. And in those days you don't need to have a licence or whatever you call it to go and cut it. You just go and cut your own cypress pine. The chappie who built it is a Mr Williams. He was a professional carpenter, he built that. All sawn cypress pine. It was quite, you know, adequate in those time. One door, one door going out into the main building, one door going out to the yard, and the windows with bars, iron bars. That, all that building, all the windows have iron bars on them.

How soon after you were married did the children start to come?

Well Edward, eleven months after, the first year.

And so did you come home to your mother to have Edward?

No. No. I didn't. I stayed in Pine Creek and as it happened it was the Moon Festival. And I was helping my mother-in-law to bake a moon cake, you know, for the religious ceremony. We get on very well she and I. And of course the labour started and so I went over to the hospital and it happened to be a day the doctor, Clyde Fenton, comes.

The famous Doctor Clyde Fenton who was the Flying Doctor.

That's right. He came and he stayed to deliver Edward, Doctor Fenton. And to think that I had never been to see a doctor or a nurse or anything before. But I, like I said I was a strong healthy girl and I work hard all the time so it was quite alright.

It was a straightforward delivery?

Straightforward. No trouble. But poor old Doctor Fenton, the next day he flew back to Katherine and then he flew onto somewhere and he got lost. I can remember we were all so upset. And I said, 'The poor man. To think that he delivered my son and now we don't know where he's got to'. But he was all right. They found him. He was a really tough man and a very clever man with his plane. He was found and everybody heaved a sigh of relief. The sister there in charge of the hospital, she used to ring up Katherine to get, you know, more news.

How many children did you have by the time your mother-in-law died and you had to take care of hers?

Only Edward.

So from having one child you went to having six.

Well the others were bigger, you see, 14 years. But the two little ones were the ones that I really looked after.

And how old were they?

Two and five. The two year old was really, really sad because she wasn't weaned. She was looking up for the mummy. And of course I had Edward and I had plenty of milk and I felt sorry for her, so I fed her. Let her have my breast milk. And one day my father-in-law walked in and saw me with the, like one at each breast, and he hit the roof. He really hit the roof. He said, 'She is old enough to eat rice and broth and stuff, save the milk for my grandson'. But I said 'I have plenty to spare.' 'No.' And we gradually weaned her off, of course, we had to hide then, never let her see me feeding Frances. It was so, you know, to see this poor little girl wandering around looking for mummy and for a drink of milk.

So she really was your baby too?

Yes. Yes. During the evacuations, the evacuation to Adelaide, she stayed, we all stayed in the house and then, until we had to come back after the war.

We'll get to that. So you were very young to be given all this responsibility?

19, 21.

Did you miss your mother a lot?

Well naturally, we all, I always missed my mother. And, she came to Pine Creek to deliver Joyce. I had Edward, Lawrence in Darwin, when I was expecting Lawrence. But she did come to Pine Creek and stayed to deliver Joyce. And later on she came to Pine Creek again to deliver Grace.

How long did it take on the train?

All day. You leave Darwin in the morning, round about 8 o'clock I think, or half past seven. Because there are so many stops on the way, all the fettlers' camps and little towns. The train would stop and drop off the supplies. That is the only life-line for the food. So it takes all day from Darwin to Pine Creek. We arrive there at about half past four, round about if it was on time. Stay the night and the next morning, off the train and go to Katherine. On the way back from Katherine it's the same, stay the night and then go on to Darwin.

So how long did you stay, how ... sorry. How often did you go to Darwin to visit your parents?

All together only about three times.

In the whole, how many years?

From '36 until '42, the evacuation. Six years. I visit Mother when I was expecting Lawrence, and a couple of times after that.

How did your husband take the death of his mother?

Oh, very hard. They were very close. It was so sudden. She was perfectly well the night before. She was outside talking to friends. You see they sit outside in the cool, friends call in and they sit down and have a talk. And it was early in the morning when Bessie the daughter came rushing down and said, 'Quick, quick, Mum's sick'. So we rush up there and she was unconscious. She, we called the sister. The sister came around and took her to the hospital and then got onto the doctor but she died in the afternoon. She was unconscious all the time. But before she was taken to the hospital I was in the bedroom with her and trying to call her up, you know. And I call her and she opened her eyes and she said, 'What's the matter?' I said, 'You sick.' And then she just close her eyes. That's the last word she spoke, was to me. 'What's the matter?' So they took her to the hospital and my husband and his younger brother, they stayed with her until she died.

Now how many children did you have of your own? Altogether.


So you had a lot of children to look after. How did that fit in with running the store? Did you help much in the store?

Yes. Yes. I do as much as I can. But Pine Creek is still a very healthy town. I don't know whether because the town is so high above sea level and also because we grow so much fresh stuff and particularly watermelon, we have a lot of watermelon to eat. But the children were very healthy. We don't get much sickness at all. And therefore they are no, when they are not sick well there is no problem. It's just feed them three meals a day, or whatever. They used to play cricket out in the street.


Yes. With boxes you know. And their friends. Because there's no traffic then. And I call them and call them [to] come in and shower because we have tea later on. They ignored me and then I got mad. And I walked out through the front door and somebody said, 'Here she comes'. And they duck round through the side and into this narrow passageway, they squeezed through that and into the house and into the bathroom.

So they respected you?

Well they knew I meant business because I did call them several times. Pine Creek was a happy place for children, even though after the war the town people used to come around and play with our children. And their, their parents used to say, 'You don't do this or don't behave or whatever - you not allowed to go to Ah Toy's on a Friday night.' And it works. That is why even now you ask some of the former residents, they say the happiest childhood times they had were at Pine Creek.

What happened on a Friday night?

They all come down and play games. I would be doing my bookwork, and they play outside, I put the light on, you see we have a 32-watt power plant, I put the light on in the front and they play outside until nine o'clock and then they all go home.

You really ran the store very much as a partner with your husband then. How did you divide up the work?

I just helped wherever I can. I just help to unpack and serve and to clean and all the rest of it. There's no, 'You do this, and I do that.' Of course he do all the ordering and the book work. But mind you, I had aboriginal women to help me do the washing and the house work.

And that was the whole time you were there, you had that help.

Yes, they were very good. We had very good girls who helped us work.

What were their names?

We had Kitty, now we call Judy. We have Mabel, she, Mabel was a treasure. She was only very - I think she was probably about four-foot tall. Speak perfect English. She's been taken to Sydney with John W. Lyons the solicitor and very clean. And her husband was a Deacon. He is also very well spoken in English and a very ... you don't have to tell them to do a thing, come and light the fire. And morning and afternoon tea, she would come and set the table and put the cloth down and the cups and saucers out and make a pot of tea. 'Come out to the shop, Missus, tea ready' , And anybody who visited Pine Creek at the time, we all sit down and have cups of tea. Because our house was always open house to anybody from the bush. They come there to eat and to feed the children and to even bath them. It's in the country, you've got to be friendly.

Could you describe the life in the store, day to day, what your work was, who came in, what sort of things they were doing? It sounds as if it was more like a community centre than a store.

It was. We had a form outside, and the oldies, the old men, they sit out there and they gossip or talk. And they come in and shop and we have buffalo shooters come in. Cattle station people come in. They don't, they only come in once perhaps, in two or three weeks, and they stock up. And they go again. And some of them come in and they stay the night. They would camp in our backyard or under the Mango tree or in the shed. And they have their meals with us. And they would bring in beef. They would make sure they always bring in fresh beef or corned beef. And one particular young chap, he was a dead shot with a gun and he used to bring me in pigeons, Torres Strait Island pigeons shot through the head. And another old chap would bring me in bananas, bunches of bananas and sweet potatoes, pumpkin, things like that. They all, they all very friendly and therefore I extend hospitality to them too. They have meals with us. Even some of the old ones, they camp in the house. One old chappie he was very old and we had a cyclone bed and make it up and he used to sleep in the lounge and he was there sometimes for a whole week.

A cyclone bed?


What was that?

The army style. They call it a cyclone bed. I suppose, I don't think you would have had them. The men might have seen what the army used to sleep in. Every time you move it creaks. What the soldier used to sleep on. Yes. You can, you can pick them up anywhere where the army's been. So it's quite handy. Also it's quite handy to store your stuff on if you're out in the bush, off the ground.

Did they ever turn to you in emergencies?

Oh, yes. If they sick they used to come in and ask for me to get in touch with the health people. And on one occasion a buffalo shooter send a note in and written on the back of a mirror, and to this day I'm very sorry I didn't keep that, they took the back of the mirror off, and you know that red colouring, and they used, or he used a 303 bullet to write a message, he's out of food waiting at the East Alligator River for the boat to call in to pick up the hides. Could I please ring so and so, a man called Fitzgerald in Darwin, and tell him to come urgently.'

Because the boat hadn't arrived?

No. Right behind schedule they were stranded down the bank of the river. So I did, I rang Darwin and got in touch with Ted Fitzgerald I think. He come through Pine Creek in his big ... truck full of stuff and went out and rescued them. But that message was brought in from the East Alligator to my shop by an Aboriginal man on foot. He walked in.

How far was that?

Oh, over a 160 miles I think.

With a message scratched on the back of a mirror with a bullet?



Yes. And, sickness, they used to get me to ring up the doctor to see what, you know, what to give and all that. The shop has always been the hub. For instance, an Aboriginal boy was sick, a child, and this Aboriginal medicine man, he works as a linesman for the PMG and he was carrying this child and he rushed up to the shop, 'Misses, Misses, quick, quick. Baby sick.' And the child was in a fit, convulsion fit. And in our shop there we had a nursing sister so both of us just rush inside the bathroom, filled the bath with warm water, we had the hot water system on, and dunked the child in and he came too. But it was funny, a witch doctor, medicine man, rushed to us for help.

He knew you'd know how to help?

No. The sister that was working for us. We had many, many calls. The sister work for us, but she do a lot of first aid for the outside people.

She was actually working with you as a shop assistant?

Yes. Yes.

What did the shop sell?

All groceries, drapery, we sell a lot of drapery: men's, children's wear, footwear. We sell hardware. We sell saddlery. We sell medicine. It's, it's a bush shop that you cater for everybody, the man on the land.

Did you sell any Chinese medicine?

No. Because with that you have to import it, you see. We didn't. It's only all English medicine. We sell chlordane, Epsom salts, and cough mixture. Terrible cod liver oil and all that. Clement's tonic.

Did you keep some Chinese medicine for yourself?

Yes. We never used them though, not much.

Because no one got sick?

That we needed, no. Yes, we were very lucky that way.

Were you also a bit of a trading post?

Yes, in so much that we received buffalo hides. Well first of all, we stake the buffalo shooter with food and everything. They go out and they shoot the buffalo and obtain the hides, salt them, dry them and bring them in. And the hide must be dry. So I used to knock them with a stick and if there's a hollow sound the hide was dry. We had a big set of scales in the shed there, we weigh them. And our buyer in Sydney was Collier Watson, I don't know whether they still exist or not. But I would send them a telegram to say I have so many pounds of hide, at the rate, it used to be 2 and 6 pence a pound. And they would send the money to our bank. They'd tell me how much and I'd credit the buffalo shooter and any change left over they would take it. That's how we, we keep going. And another thing we do take in, dingo scalps. The doggers they go out and poison the dingo, and the government pay a bounty of 2 pound a hide, a skin. And when we have enough we tell the policeman and there's a magistrate or JP going through they come and witness we burnt them and we get a cheque from the government. But they cut all that out in the end.

[end of tape]

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