Australian Biography

Lily Ah Toy - full interview transcript

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You hadn't been long at Pine Creek before war broke out?

I first went there in 1936 and war broke out in 1939 but we didn't evacuate till 1942. So that's six years.

What lead to you being evacuated? What caused them to decided that was necessary?

After the bombing of Katherine, Pine Creek was absolutely crowded with evacuees from Darwin. I had all the people to put me down as next of kin. Aunts and relatives and that. And when they come they just live anywhere. When finally Darwin was bombed it was a great concern because the men folk were all up in Darwin.

How badly was Darwin bombed?

Oh, very bad. They don't tell you much over the news because of the Japanese propaganda, but we knew the news by word of mouth with the evacuees' trains. How many people died, the damages, and the ships in the harbour and all that. We knew it was bad. But we couldn't do anything except to help the evacuees coming through on the train going south. It was funny, we had some army in Pine Creek, of course it didn't dawn on us that these people may get a bit wild because they suffered so much. The army put men with machine guns to guard our shops because they think if they swamp the shop for food and stuff the town people would starve. We were the only shop there at the time. But nothing happened like that.

So they were afraid the Australian army might raid the shop?

No, the evacuees or the refugees. No they were refugees then.

Oh, right. So they wanted to guard it from the refugees?


Do you think that was necessary?

Well, I don't know. But I don't think they would have done it because they were so upset they wouldn't deprive the little town with all the children and women and the rest of the population. But some of the men relatives, like older uncles and all that, they did come to our place and they have a bath and shower and we fed them. And the town people took tins of tea and stuff and sandwiches to the station to feed whoever wants it.

Did most of your own relatives come to stay with you?

Not actually with me, but in the building next door. Any empty buildings at all, they take. Even a shed which, oh, you think wouldn't be fit for occupation, but they managed to clean it out and sleep in one end and cook outside. It was really pathetic.

What was the population at Pine Creek at that time?

Oh, I couldn't tell you, hundreds. Every shelter of any kind there were people in it.

But how many people were actual Pine Creek residents when war broke out? Was it a little town?

Yes. Only a hundred-odd. And then this big influx. So it's rather, rather grim really.

Were you worried about your family back in Darwin?

Yes, my brothers.

Was your mother there?

No, my mother was in Pine Creek. Yes, she came with my sister; my other sister with her family; Aunt with her big family; and some friends with their very large families.

And your father?

My father?


Well he died in 1926.

He died when you were a small child?

Yes. When I was nine.

Could you tell me about that?

He was working hard as a wood merchant, very hard, with a family of six, seven children at the time - oh, six because my younger sister wasn't born. But he took ill and nothing could be done and he died. He died at 62. He went to the doctor. I think his heart must have gave out.

And you were nine years old?


How did you feel?

Of course we all felt terrible. Father died, he died in the house. And the Chinese custom of having the body lie in state with feet facing the front door and all that sort of thing. And then we've got to go through all the religious ceremony and wearing mourning gowns. It was very, very difficult, very, very hard.

Do you think those rituals help grief though?

It's just a tradition and a custom, but I don't think children should be put through it. For adults all right, if it's a tradition and a custom, well they carry it out. When my daughter-in-law, her father died and my grandchildren, they were only babies, they were put through the ritual. And it was terrible, one of them just cried at night. They should never be put through the ritual of all that. It's too much to, to understand for them, the little ones.

What ritual did you have to go through as a child?

Well we have to view the body lying in state there. And we had to bow and [we] cried. All this, it's very very hard. And then we have to have, when you go into mourning you have to wear white and more crying and more kneeling. And burning incense. It's very very complicated too. Haka would have a different ritual to the ... people. You see it's hard to understand, you do it one way and somebody say, 'No, you should do it the other way'. When it all comes to this, it is still just mourning for the dead.

So how did your mother manage, after your father died, financially?

Well the two boys they go out and work and they earn one pound a week as waiters. And of course I do all the work at home, chopping wood, winding for water and go walking into town every day to do shopping. Carrying a flour bag with the groceries. I used to walk up the street, past the convent school and at the corner there they have a lot of Aboriginal men playing cards. And I was scared. Barefooted and I used to run from the time I hit the corner, and cut straight across, run as far as I can to the next street to go to the butcher shop. We go to the butcher every day. No refrigeration so we get fresh meat every day. And sometimes I go into Cavanagh Street to the grocers and get, buy groceries. And then get all, put all in the flour bag. The calico flour bag. And then sling it across my shoulder and walk on with it. It's a daily ritual going to the butcher shop. [INTERRUPTION]

Let's go back to wartime Pine Creek, now. Forward in time. How did you hear about the bombing in Darwin?

People rang the station master. That's the only - the police station and the station master have phones so everything's got to go through them. And that's how we knew that Darwin was bombed. Of course the radio, short-wave, we have a Crammon wireless set: 'king of the air', that's the name of the thing, the set. And it's a battery, we used, my husband used to charge the battery with the motorcar. You turn the motor on to charge the battery and that powers then the wireless.

Were you afraid that you'd be bombed?

No. Oh, Pine Creek is so far away, they wouldn't come down here, nobody. You know everybody was quite happy until they bombed Katherine in fact. We watched the planes fly over in formation of trees. And my brother-in-law who was in Darwin, he was only a schoolboy, he came down and he called me 'Soldie', which means sister-in-law in Chinese. 'Soldie they are Japanese planes, look, look.' I said, 'Don't be silly, how can they come in here. We're so far in.' He said, 'No. They Japanese planes. I saw them in Darwin.' Nobody would believe him. But the police rang and said, 'Look out, Katherine's been bombed and the planes are heading back towards Pine Creek.' Of course we scutter.

Where did you go?

We all hop into whatever vehicles or trucks available and drove up the hill to the Enterprise Mine tunnel. We sat in this tunnel. Fortunately that tunnel had an added ... or shaft way back so that there's a circulation of air going through and it's quite cool. We sat there till somebody said, 'Oh well, that's all right now. They gone. They didn't come to Pine Creek.' And we came back again. It happened several times and we also dug air-raid shelter in the back yard. L-Shaped. And it's so hot in this. We go in there too. Until we dug the shelter, once we into China Town. We all go at night and sat at the temple, the Chinese temple. Waited there until they said, 'It was all right. All gone.'

Would the temple have offered you any protection?

Thinking it over now, I think we were, we were rather optimistic. But at the time, that poor little temple was packed with different ones. About four families with their children, all at the temple.

It wouldn't have given you any physical protection. You hoped it might have given you a little bit of a religious protection?

Yes, I think that's what it is. Oh, particularly the older ones. The older ones, my mother and all the other older ladies, they said, 'Let's go to the temple , we get protection there.' It's what they believe you see. Of course, I didn't doubt it, but Jim did, he stayed home and my young sister-in-law she stayed home. Thinking it over afterwards, we should have stayed with the children too. But it didn't happen. But the notice come to evacuate: 'All women and children must leave, 48 hours notice.' And you only allowed to take 38 pounds in weight.' You'd think we were going on a plane, but it wasn't, it was an old train. So when the time come, it was night time, I think because it was cooler to travel at night or maybe because the Japanese come again. So we all go down to the railway station, I pack what I can and all the children and the in-laws and my, all the, the whole town, all the women and children left on that train. We were in a goods carriage. No chair, no seat, no nothing. We just sat on the floor with our swag. We were told to take the swag, which was necessary, and the trip down, and we sneak in a bit of food for the children. So away we go. And I was absolutely broken-hearted because thinking back you know, the others had already left the home in Darwin. They settle in Pine Creek for a few weeks and now they off again. So, they all comforted me and try to tell to try and bear it because they already been through it once, now this was their second time.

So how many children actually travelled with you that you were responsible for at that stage?

Well there's five in-laws, and four of my own, that's nine. The five, the three of them are older so they are quite helpful, the three bigger ones - just the two younger ones - they were quite helpful, I didn't mind. It's better to have the help of the older ones to look after the younger ones because my four were really small.

How old were they?

Grace was still a baby.

And so, how old was the eldest?

Edward? '42, five-year old.

So you have four children under five of your own? And then these other children, your husband's sisters and brothers that you took with you?


And how long did that take on the train?

Well we travelled all night and arrived at Birdum, they might have stopped at Katherine, we don't remember. They arrived at Birdum daylight. And that's where we all told to get off. And I've got a photo there showing the railway line and the one old Chinese chap sitting alongside his worldly possessions. The army came to give us breakfast. The army trucks they brought oranges and stuff like that. A convoy. And then we were all allocated each truck. They said there's only ten persons allowed to one truck. And these are five-tonne trucks, well maybe 3-tonne, I don't know, but all I know is that it's terribly shaky and bumpy. Our family all stay in the one truck so it was good and we had our swags. We weren't separated, I was very thankful for that. We all stayed and away we go again. The next place was Elliot. Now that's a staging camp and we stopped there for lunch. They look after us very well at Elliot. And the next stop was at Barrow Creek where we stayed the night. Well we really welcomed the showers, they had all the showers and stuff rigged up. And tents for us to sleep in. That's where our swags come in handy. Well our swags come in handy too on the railway truck. Spread them out and children lie down and go to sleep while we sit. That's what we sat on. After Barrow Creek, oh, during the night at Barrow Creek there was some disruption. Because with a lot of women and children, you know, going into an army camp, there's bound to be disruption. I can remember that a lot of activities and finally it all quietened down.

What were the activities?

People rushing around and talking and all that.

These were because there were women there and everybody got a bit excited because the men hadn't been used to having women around?

And some of the women sort of gone into the men's camp and they had to be hunted out and all the rest of it. Typical behaviour.

What did you think of it all at the time, Lily?

At the time we didn't take any notice. We were so tired with the children we said, 'Oh well.'

But some of the women weren't too tired?

Well apparently the single ones. [You] would have all sorts of people on the train, the evacuation train.

Not just coming from Pine Creek?

No, no. From all the way down Katherine, they pick up a lot of women and children. And Mr Tambling, E. A. Tambling, the teacher, he was in charge of our, of the train. He had a tough job.

So when did you arrive in Adelaide?

Long time yet because we - from Barrow Creek we travelled to Alice Springs. So that's a fair distance. We arrive in Alice Springs towards the evening one day, and we were off-loaded and they sorted out all the different ones, where they got to go, again the army convoy take us. And for the Chinese in Pine Creek, they tell us to go to the east, to the racecourse. So they took us to the racecourse and left us there and tell us to wait there. I look around, it was rather difficult with a lot of children and women and the lot at the racecourse. But luckily for us, a Chinese family in Alice Springs, the Sings, Mr and Mrs Fan Wong Sing, they Hakas, they come to hear about this group of Chinese being left at the racecourse, so they got their neighbour, a Mr Don Thomas - now Mr Thomas has a second-hand shop next door and he very kindly drove his ute out to the racecourse and told us that the Sings invited us to go and stay with them. So, off we go. He took us into Sings and unloaded everything. And we were really made welcome and we did a lot of washing. The air in Alice Springs was rather dry, dry air, so we wash all night. We didn't get to bed till one o'clock. I don't know why we were so fussy in washing all the time.

You had little children I suppose?

Yes. But they gave us a lovely meal. Chinese meal instead of army food. Mind you I'm not complaining about army food, it was a lovely change. And the next day, round about lunchtime, wait a minute, Mr Tambling I think or someone else said, 'Now you people have to come, you're not our responsibility to get you on the train.' And Don Thomas said, 'Don't worry, I'll look after them.' So, the next day when it's time to go to the train again, he took us all to the railway station. And we were all put into the train in different carriages but my family all stayed together in one carriage. And my sister and my mother did too, we shared the one carriage.

And that train took you to Adelaide?

To Alice, yeah, to Adelaide.

A long haul?

It was. It was long and we ate, again had army biscuits and bully beef. Again, we forever washing. At night-time I heard, see we stop in the place and I heard the men talking up on the roof, 'I don't know why this carriage use so much water'. We never think to conserve water. So we wash again and we wash. We got to Toraree I think, our first stop. The people were very kind there. It was night time. And they came and they took us, took the children. I didn't go because someone had to mind our belongings. I stayed behind but the, but the in-laws, the five of them, and two of my children, the two boys, they were taken to the Town Hall and they were feed, bathed and given warm clothing. We didn't have any warm clothing, only the tropical stuff.

What month was it?

March. For people from the Territory, it's still cold. It was very good, they came back all nice and clean, well fed and warm clothes on. And they also brought some food back for me.

So how long were you in Adelaide?

Three and a half years. We take, we were taken to the railway station and tell us to leave all our stuff there and go and have breakfast. So they march us, or walk us to this railway restaurant. All these lines of women and children walk into this restaurant. And the waitresses were all there waiting at different tables, tell us to sit down, but we couldn't eat. To look at this beautiful set table, with all the crockery and cutlery and all these girls, they were standing there so kind and offer food, but the children had a little bit but I just couldn't eat.


I don't know, I was too overcome. They said, You must eat because you going on another train. So, after breakfast they took us on another train and away we go to Eden Hills. You know Adelaide? Up to Eden Hills we stop at the railway station and then we walked, well it was really a hill. Well we troop up the hill to this old hospital. It's an empty hospital, I think it used to be the special hospital for the inebriate people. We were allocated, now there were so many of us so we have this big room and every different ones, you know, find their own room. And we load, unload our swag. Our belongings were brought up by a cart, one of those draught horses with this flat top thing with all our stuff stuck on it. Well from there we start, and then the Red Cross lady come. They were very good, they come every day. They were worried they were going to find us beds. And I said, 'It's no good giving us beds, how can we put enough beds into this one big room for so many of us.' And it was freezing cold, we'd rather sleep on the floor on our swag and cuddle up.

Did anybody try to separate you as a family?

They did. Well, so they allocated different ones to go to different places. There was Mrs Fong ... [INTERRUPTION]

Did anybody try to separate you as a family?

Yes, after they tried to place us. Because there's nine of us, and myself, so that's ten, and I said, 'No, no, we stay together even if we stay here because I will not let the older,' they wanted to put the older ones on some farm. They would have got jobs in farm or whatever. I said, 'No. We stayed together.' And we were practically the last one, up there, in that group. We were there for quite a while, until they said the people who look after the refugees, Mr Ashton, he was the Bureau, Tourist Bureau head. So he said, 'Well right. We better send for your husband. Let him come down and be responsible for you.' They did, you see, the men weren't allowed to leave. So the army release him, 'Go down and look after your family.' He came and he found a house, that Tempt Street house, the photos I got there. And we all move into it. And then he got a job at the munitions factory at Salisbury doing cordite. He was there for years. I often wonder whether, 'Was that the reason he got cancer later in life, working with cordite?' When the war, towards there when the war nearly finished, they closed the factory and he worked with the canvas making army stuff. Canvas with the Flavels in Adelaide. But we, he bought this big house, it was quite cheap then, big house on two block, and again we come on the train to Millswood. From Eden Hill to Millswood, we got off the train there and walked from Millswood Station to 18 Tempt Street, Clarence Park. Talk about a stream of women and children, trailing along, walking along. And our baggage and stuff, again, a car picked it up and took it to 18 Tempt Street. But the people along the street, I think we were a novelty to them. Particularly the children. They'd never seen so many Chinese before.

And how did they react?

Quite friendly. Mind you they stare, but they never made any nasty remarks or anything like that. In fact, the grown ups, the adults they were very sympathetic. We receive all the help we can. Boxes of fruit, you see it's March and there's still a lot of fruit around. Adelaide's a good place for fruit, so we have fruit, vegetables given to us, and bags of warm clothing because we all dressed up in the little cotton, you know our cotton stuff with a little cardigan or something like that. It was a great, great help and I always remember the Adelaide people how kind they [are and] of course the Red Cross, the church; and the children go to the Westbourne Park Primary school. And they were very kind too, everybody was very kind to us.

Did you have your mother and close relatives with you?

Yes. My mother and my sister in one room. My other sister with her four children in another big room. Mrs Fong and her four, and later on five children, in another room. My in-laws, the three girls, they were in one room. And the two boys slept in the place which normally is a lounge. We had only one kitchen, one laundry and one toilet. But we managed. But with the children of course, the old potty comes in handy. And a wood, a wood-chip heater. Well we never have a wood-chip heater before, we didn't know how to use it even. So we were taught how to use a chip heater for hot water. The good thing about it, you can pick up twigs and leaves and stuff outside. We had to buy wood. And the stove was wood too. The wood, you wouldn't believe it, the roots, mallee roots. Can you imagine? Up here we have lovely stringy bark and wood with straight grain and then we get onto these lumps of wood. Course there's a special way to split it, but we didn't know how to until we were shown. Talk about axe handles being crushed. It was, it was funny now thinking about it but in those days it wasn't. Having to put up with the sort of wood.

But neighbours helped?

Yes, they offer. And they also offer to help Jim to go and buy second-hand stuff to put up a chook house so again we have chooks. The yard is so big there are fruit trees there, almond trees. Out in the front fence there is a nectarine tree. And there's peach trees, fig trees. Oh, the almond tree, that's real fascination the almond trees. And when it was in blossom, absolutely beautiful, first time I ever seen almond blossoms, so beautiful and the peach trees and the nectarine trees. And along one front fence there's some crystal grapes, all along there. But apart from that the neighbours they, they, you know, passed stuff over the fence. We had a neighbour on the right-hand side and he works for the baker. They have one little girl and they are very good, they say, 'Do you mind if we give you some cake that was yesterday's cake. Or bread that is yesterday's?'. Of course we don't mind, coming from a place like Pine Creek we welcome it.

You were used to things a week old?

That's right. So they passed it over the back fence and we really welcome all the extra food. Fortunately meat was very cheap and the markets, we would go to the markets and you can get a half a side of lamb or mutton for 1 and 6 I think. It was really cheap. The brother-in-law used to go in and catch the tram and go in and wait until towards closing time when they want to get rid of it - everything goes cheap.

So you lived quite well?

Oh, in a sense, yes. And rabbit was 1 and 6 pence each. The Greek man sells fish. He comes to the back gate. Of course the house is a sort of a street, at the back a street and the front. And he used to come in and sell fish, mullet, for 6 pence a pound.

How had you felt back then when you had to leave Pine Creek? When you had to leave Pine Creek, how did you feel about leaving your husband?

I was upset leaving him, but then the children come first because with all this flying up to the hill, or going up to the hill, or going to Chinatown, going into the air raid shelter, sweltering in there, towards the end there they were screaming with fright. They were frightened. 'Come on, we go.' And then they cry you see 'cause they don't know what's the matter. And when we got to Adelaide we dug an air raid shelter too. And [there was] practice, every Thursday morning. Well as soon as they heard that they just scream too. So I was pleased to leave all that behind until we explained to them that Adelaide was only practice, because the Japanese would never come to Adelaide because it was so far away.

What, why was it that Jimmy wasn't sent to fight?

Because he had the business and he was making, at the baker shop there, making bread for the army.

So it was essential services?


And then coming down to look after his family, that was seen as an essential service too?

Well, and then he work, he got a job in the munitions. That's war effort. When the munitions finished he work at the factory, Flavel factory, making army tents and all the bags, all canvas stuff. So that's essential service too.

Can you remember how you felt when you saw him arriving?

I had a sigh of relief. Somebody else to take all the responsibilities. The first year in Adelaide, we were all sick with measles. First time - it was really terrible.

And you got measles too?

No I had measles when I was a child, but all the children did.

Well that can be quite serious, can't it, measles, if it goes wrong? Were they all okay?

Yes. No trouble at all. The doctor came and no trouble. And my mother was there. They drank a lot of cooling stuff to counteract it and go on this diet. So there was no complication. None whatsoever.

Were there any other illnesses while you were in Adelaide?

One. My sister was expecting a baby so she had a child at the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital. She came back, and not long after that the child was unwell so they took her to the, oh, just check up at the hospital and they found that she had diphtheria. This new-born baby with diphtheria. So of course she was, she and the baby were sent to the Northfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. The Unley Council was notified and the doctors and that swooped down. Here in this household there were 26 people living in it and a case of diphtheria.

Had your children been immunised?

I don't remember. I think they must have. But that child, the baby picked the diphtheria germ up at the hospital. So the health authority came and of course because we so used to the tropics and we have, even though it was cold, we had all our windows wide open and plenty of fresh air and kids running around out in the yard, and Jim had all this garden full of lovely fresh vegetables and all the fruit. They come and examine every one of us, quarantine the whole house full. Nobody allowed to go to college or school or anything. Or to work. After so long, no more new cases. So everything declared clean.

So nobody caught it, you're all too healthy?

Nobody caught it, but I can remember Lawrence, green almonds. Any children who go and eat the almonds, it was still jelly state. That was really poison and he was sick with that. And when the doctor looked, and of course I was worried, and when the doctor looked at him, 'What has he been eating?' 'Green almonds.' No trouble at all.

So, what had you done with all your things in Pine Creek if you were only allowed to take so little with you?

Left it behind and it's all disappeared.

How was that?

Just people. We, we left everything there, actually I had some very nice artefacts. See I'd been collecting them for a long time.

What kind of artefacts?

Chinese stuff, and the lanterns and all sorts of things like that. Wooden stuff. And this old man was supposed to look after it. But he couldn't though, he couldn't. Well this big man come along and he just took, even the sewing machine, he just took everything.

So it was looted?

Yes. Looted by a bushman.

Did you know who it was?

Yes we did, but there was no, no proof, and then Jim said, 'Oh, never mind let it go.' Didn't do anything about it, what is gone is gone. You see, we were so pleased to get away with our lives, and our children, everybody's well, it doesn't matter.

What year did you come back?


Do you remember what it was like to come back to the store after all those years away?

Well again we caught the train. This time we left the five orphans behind because they were going to school and going to colleges and the girls are working. So we left them behind. And the youngest one, I would have brought her but she, taking up, she was under a dentist. She had very bad teeth. They sort of grow inward, and she was, what do you call those metal things around?


Yes, that's right. She had to stay behind for that and there was no doctor in Pine Creek. So she stayed behind and her older brothers insisted. No, we'll. . . Because the older one was 17 then. He said, 'Oh we'll look after her.'

And they did.

They did, yes. So we came back to Alice Springs and, again, you see, so many kind people. Kurt Johannsen, he's a German, a very big tall local Alice Springs man, a German, owns a garage. And Jim was looking for a vehicle to come. So he went to Kurt, and Kurt said, 'Look Jimmy, the army disposal truck, I'll help you.' So he went along and found, you know, go through all this and found this great big maple leaf. You need a big truck. And he took it back to his garage or workshop and go through the whole thing. 'Now you can drive safely back to Pine Creek with this vehicle.' Which we did.

And he did that for you without charge?

Yes. Very kind.

[end of tape]

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