Australian Biography

Lily Ah Toy - full interview transcript

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What was it like to come back to Pine Creek after all those years away?

We had a rather rough trip back so when we arrived in Pine Creek I was really pleased and happy, at last we come home. But when we look around the yard, it was, you know, rubbish everywhere, grass right up to the window. So we unloaded everything into the middle of the empty shop building and Mrs Robinson across the road invited us out, over there, to have the evening meal. And that night when I set up the beds for the children, and there was this big snake crawling along the window, and I don't like snakes, so I was upset. I wish I could pack up and go back to Adelaide where there's no snakes. Which was rather silly. It took us some time to settle back and reopen the shop. Because we brought back some clothing and stuff. We had lots of coupons and then we went to this firm and they gave us a whole lot of stuff to resell, to open the shop in Pine Creek.

The coupons ... [INTERRUPTION]]

The coupons were to do with wartime rationing were they?

That's right. And it was still rationed and the European war finished but the Japanese war was still on. And they gave us, the coupon people who are in charge of all that, they gave us lots of coupons to start the shop. And we had a lot ourselves too, because with so many children we don't use it all. It was very handy and we just bought what we can on credit, brought it back and set up shop with what we found, found left, and away we go.

Had you left all the stores in the shop when you left?

I don't know what happened to them because we left first and then Jim was behind. I think it was all taken over. Normally the army do, they take over everything.

And the man who'd looted the house, had he taken all your furniture and all your possessions as well?

For what we had, yes. Even my sewing machine.

So you were starting from scratch?

Yes. Starting from scratch.

Did you get any insurance for that?

Ah, the war damage commission. Course you never recover the full amount but we did get paid something.

So life had to start all over again in Pine Creek?

That's right. And the building, because it was neglected, the white ants got in. You see the timber was sapling, cypress pine sapling, and the white ants loved to eat the outside and therefore it wasn't safe.

So what did you do about that?

Well we just put up with it until the first stormy windy wet season. Up goes the roof. And the people at the post office saw it. They were watching and they came down to help Jim to put a tarp over it. That's when I put the children under the bed.

Because the roof had blown off?

Yes, and I thought, you see, the whole lot would blow off. You know how it is, if there's a break and the wind just go under and lift, just like this house here during the Cyclone Tracy. A roof break and the wind goes under and the whole lot goes.

So you put the children under the bed ...

For safety, yes.

And was this during the daytime or at night?

Daytime because it was in the afternoon.

So a tarp went over temporarily, but what was the solution to the problem in the end?

Well they repaired it, and then later on when the disposal come up we bought the Sydney William building and I was really glad, at last we have something that is strong.

The Sydney William building?


What was that?

It was angle-ironed, steel frame, and the sheets of iron are all screwed down. Well not actually screwed down, they have four inch roofing nail and they bent over like a hook.

So you essentially rebuilt the house?

Rebuilt the whole thing. That and the store room.

In a much stronger form that would withstand the weather?

Absolutely yes. Absolutely yes. It was good. Somebody said, 'It's only still an iron, galvanised iron building'. But I said, 'Yes, but it is strong. It doesn't matter'. Later on we had a ... we seal it, make it look better. But it was very hot before that.

And what was the community like now after the war?

After the war the community was still very friendly because we knew everybody. The school started and we support the teacher. It was very good. We had all sorts of things, games and all that.

All the same people came back?

Yes, and some other.

What were the other people?

Well the, for instance, now they can't go back to Darwin and Pine Creek was the only civilian town at the time so they all come to Pine Creek, again. And we had the army store there, they still around, the army, so we buy our stuff from the army to resell, like groceries.

Could you describe to me the community at Pine Creek, what kind of a town it was, what sort of climate you had and how the people related to each other, and the different groups of people in the town? I'll ask you a question about that. What was Pine Creek like as a place to live?

Really good place. The climate is healthy because I think it is so, 700-odd feet above sea level. And in the hot weather it gets very hot, a dry heat, and as soon as the sun goes down it cools off. And it's - in the dry season the cool weather - absolutely suitable for growing all kind of vegetable, which my husband grow a lot of.

What kind of vegetables did he dry, buy, sorry. What kind of vegetables did he grow in the dry?

In the dry he can grow cabbages, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, oh, lots of tomatoes, no celery, shallot, Chinese vegetables, the Chinese snow peas, they do well the snow peas in Pine Creek, up on the trellis. And in the wet season, long beans, cucumbers, spinach, pumpkin, watermelon. We never tried rockmelon, but, sufficient for everybody.

And the community, the people around you, what were they like?

They friendly and they all strive to do their best too with their children. Some of them have several children, five or six of them, they all go to school. And community spirit, they help wherever they can, whenever there's any charitable organisation want to raise funds. And for entertainment we have this old hall and they go and have card evening, maybe a dance every fortnight. Even though we didn't have any power, or electricity laid on, we haven't got water laid on, they made the best of it.

Were there many other Chinese people there?

No. We the only one. Oh, the Fongs of course, out in the garden, this is only a few miles out.

There were some market gardeners?

The Fongs, yes.

But you had a Chinese temple?

The temple was built when the town was booming in the mining days. Now that was completely demolished during the war years. When we come back to Pine Creek there was no temple there. The army removed the temple, or flattened it, and took the sheets of iron to build elsewhere. I don't know what happened to all the figures and stuff inside, the furnishings.

What did you think of that?

I think it's terrible. It's a sacrilege. After all the temple is a church. Why didn't they leave it alone? Why that few sheets of iron?

Was there a church in town?

Yes, there was a Church of England.

Did they demolish that?

No, later on they did move it away to somewhere else.

But why do you think the army felt the Chinese temple could be demolished?

I don't know. That's something we never understand. Why did they pick on that temple? In fact the temple at Box Creek was treated the same way. All the thing souvenired and the iron used for rebuilding army camps. Maybe they think it's a wartime first class priority any sheets of iron come in handy.

What had brought the people of Pine Creek to the town? Who, how did they work while they were there, the families with children and so on? What sort of work did they do?

On the railways. Mines, work in any mines, or some of them go out and do some work out stations. Anything they can get.

Were you and your husband involved publicly in community affairs?

Yes. Yes. Jim does a lot of public work. Always in the school committee, progress association, and whatever going, he's in it.

Did he belong to any other community groups?

What in Pine Creek?


In Pine Creek there's only the progress association and the school. No those the two main, most important ones.

So he became a mason later in his life?

That was when we moved to Darwin, or when I moved to Darwin to educate the children. And we had this big house in Circe Street where ...

We'll come to that later then.


So he was very important in the town of Pine Creek?

Yes, he was the one who come to Darwin to see the different officials, demanding this, that and that Be done, like better conveniences, and medical, health-wise, water, electricity. school. But one of the men of the saying, 'Jimmy, if you don't come and annoy us and tell us what you want in Pine Creek, how do we know in Darwin'. Which is quite true, you've got to tell them.

You mentioned that when you came back that there was a snake in the house, were you bothered much by snakes and what did you do about it?

Every snake season, this is round about March or thereabout, I think it's because we've got chooks, I don't know. We always have snakes come into the store and there's a special corner there I call the snake corner. And then in the backyard of course, they eat the chooks, or the pigeons that we have. And at the time we have a, we had a, you know the outbuilding, the loo, right at the back, we had right at the back. The children used to go out there at night time, the whole five of them, with a hurricane lamp and they sit there, and of course I didn't know they were smoking the spear grass, you see that's got a hollow. It's harmless. They used to think it was fun to smoke the spear grass. And they take turns to use the toilet. The loo. And they used to come in and say, 'Oh Mum, there's a goanna up there'. And I'd say, 'Oh, a goanna won't hurt you'. This went on for some time and then suddenly it dawned on me, Lawrence said, 'Mum, it's a big goanna there'. I said, 'Has it got legs?' and he said, 'no, mum'. And well, I rush up the back and nowhere to be seen. And they say, 'Oh, it's up on the roof'. I got a stick and I hit the iron and you can hear this rustling. I tell them to all get back to the shop and I rang Kevin Wilson the technician. He came down with a rifle and we rattle and hit the iron and a great big six-foot brown snake come down and he shot it.

Were all these snakes venomous? Would they have killed the children if they'd bitten them?

If the children were to take a stick and poke the snake, I think he would have attacked them. but the ones in the store room I didn't stop to ask, some of them are, some of them are not. But mostly they are. But we also have the quiet one too, the blue tongue lizard. They come into the store, so that's all right.

Were you a very strict mother?

Well I try to be, not over-strict, so, but bring them up properly. They obey and they do their chores which they all do. And they work at school. They did very well at school. And they help wherever I wanted them to help in the shop. Well you take Joyce now, she was only young, and in the afternoon she goes and lights the kitchen fire, the wood stove, and we have kerosene tin there for hot water and she fills it up dipper by dipper from the tap. Filled this tin up so that later on they all have warm water for baths. It's all help.

Did you put a lot of emphasis on education?

Yes. Absolutely yes.

Did Jimmy share this view?

Yes. Yes. We both do. That is why when they go to high school, of course, the first son and the second son came up to stay with my mother. You see my brother was in partnership with my husband in a Darwin shop. And later on he said, 'Well we cannot keep on sending them up to your mother', so he bought a block of land and built this house.

And that was for their high school education?

Yes. And I came up.

They couldn't go to high school in Pine Creek?

No. No high school in Pine Creek. No high school anywhere, only in Darwin. So I came up then to look after them while they go to high school.

And Jimmy stayed in the store?

Yes. And he travelled up and down. We had people working for us so that was all right.

So, but you didn't see very much of him then?

Only every fortnight. He'd come up for a few days and go home again.

Did you mind that?

Well what could I do? We had to educate the kids, educate the children. There was nowhere to send them. Finally when they finished high school, Edward said he didn't want to go south, so he go back and help his father and then when Lawrence said, 'Look I can go down and learn to be an accountant so I can help Dad too'. So he comes to Adelaide.

Had the store flourished and got bigger?

Ah, yes, through the mining boom, yes. So we renovated it several times and it got bigger. It's a funny place Pine Creek, we have one mine works for so long and then it closes down. And somewhere else another one pop up. It's up and down.

And the store's fortunes depend on the mines really.

That's right. When we had the buffalo shooting that was good and the price of cattle, when it was high, that was good too. It all helps. But now of course they have big, big wholesalers. So we lost a bit of trade, we lost a lot of trade through that.

The wholesalers supplying the cattle stations?

Direct, yes.

How important were the cattle stations to you as a store in its heyday?301"

Very, because our main, our big customers were the cattle station owners. They'd come in and get hundreds of dollars worth of stuff.

And you knew them all personally?

Oh, yes. Sometimes they camp on our back yard, or they have meals, they always have meals with us, or teas, you know, morning or afternoon teas. And it's a break for them to stay for two or three days.

Jimmy, your husband, was greatly respected in the district?


Why do you think that was?

Well because they trust him and he trusted them. We trusted people, or men, to go out and look for minerals, stake them for buffalo shooting, and cattle stations, everyone. And, some of them for the tourists.

Do you mean you'd supply them on credit?

On credit yes.

Wasn't that dangerous? Wasn't there a chance you'd lose out?

Well in those days you trust people, and they, whenever they can they always come and pay. Even though maybe six weeks after, or sometimes even two months or longer. But they always come and pay up.

So you never regretted giving credit?

No, we helping them, and they appreciate it. And of course if there's any letter writing, or authorities to see, they ask him for help too.

So people very much depended on you in that area?

On us, yes, our shop. It was actually the centre where they all come and met and talk and do business.

When you came to Darwin to make sure that the children were educated, did you miss the life of the store?

Yes, I did. Because I like the country and we used to go out, go bush, you know. It was good fun to go bush hopping in the ute and away we go picnicking. You could leave the place. Nobody would do anything. We sleep at night with the window open, you can just step over it. It's quite safe. Not like now where you've got to bar everything, security screens.

You didn't feel safe in Darwin in those days?

Yes we do too, in the early days. Darwin was safe. You leave things overnight or under the house and it never get pinched. Clothing and anything.

In putting so much emphasis on educating your children, what were you hoping for them? What did you want for them?

So that they can have a better life.

And what did you think would be a better life?

Well they wouldn't have to work as hard as we did, my husband and I did. Working 16 hours a day for years and years and years.

You didn't want that for them?

No. Like all mother, you want your children to have a better life than you. Which they did have. You know they were all educated.

And what sort of work did they do?

So your mother had stuck up for you as a girl when you were born, did you stick up for your girls as well? Did you treat them any differently from the boys?

No, they were all the same. Grace, Grace was keen on a nursing career. But finally she, her feet, she didn't pass her medical. And Elaine wanted to become a primary school teacher, to go to Brisbane and train. But she changed her mind. There you are. They all got their Leaving Certificates and their quite happy with what they're doing. In fact, both Grace and Elaine spent some years in Adelaide working down there. Grace become the secretary to [an] engineer.

Did you want them to marry people of Chinese background?

Well not, well I would [have] preferred it but it didn't matter you see. As time goes on if they liked the chap, they loved him, well that's all right.

So who did they marry?

Grace married Bill Fintella. He is now the manager of the Gas Fire Power Station in Darwin. And Elaine married Neil Prosser, he is with the Northern Territory Administration, or he was with the lands - I don't know what he is.

So neither of them are of Chinese background?

No, no. And even my son Lawrence, he married an Australian girl and they have three beautiful children. We accepted it, so that was all right.

What kind of ceremony did they have when they got married?

Christian. Church. Western. Joyce when she got married, she married a Chinese and because she's old, she's married first before Eddie and Lawrence, so, there the tradition again. We had to get Kevin, her husband-to-be, to buy two pairs of pants to stretch over the front door of our place so that when Grace, Joyce walked out as a bride she walked under these two pairs of trousers.

What is the significance of that?

Well, because she married before her two brothers married. See, it's ..

So the two trousers represented her brothers?

Well, yes. I don't know exactly the true meaning, but at the time I thought gee, this is strange. But the people insisted upon it, you must get them to buy two pairs. Well actually they were pyjama pants. Put them through a stick and hang them up the front door, you know, on top of the door. And Joyce got to walk out under those two pairs of trousers.

And did she mind doing that?

No. No. We conform. Because her people know, her future in-law, they all know.

So it's slightly easier with these traditions and so on if you do marry people who come from a similar background because they then understand it?

Yes. It's drilled into them by the parents.

But, the girls who married Australians wanted to be married Western style?

Yes, in churches.

Why do you think that was? They didn't feel very close to the Chinese traditions?

No. No. It's just because they fall in love with the guy. Well Neil, for instance, he was working in Adelaide and he came all the way up to Pine Creek to ask Jim's permission. And the poor bloke, thinking about it now, he was really shaking in his shoes. Would Jim permit him to, you know, to marry his daughter, and that sort of thing. I thought that was really lovely. Rather old fashioned isn't it to ask a father for permission to marry the daughter.

Would that happen in Chinese?

No, not actually.

They don't ask for permission to marry, they do it through a matchmaker?

No, they didn't. They didn't have a matchmaker because Kevin and Joyce, they were friends for years. And they were of age and that's it.

But in the Chinese tradition would the boy ask ...

Yes the boy would told his, would tell his parents and his parents would get someone to go and tell the girl's parents, and, you know, there's a sort of a negotiation.

It would be done through the parents?

Yes. And then they've got to choose a good day and etc. etc.

Going back now to the house at Pine Creek, after you built it of steel, did that last then without any problems?

It's still there. Absolutely last, well will last longer than me.

And there wasn't ever any difficulty? I'm thinking about the well. Yes.

Oh, that's ...

Ok, so let me ask a question. After you reconstructed the house at Pine Creek, did that last well? Was there any problems with it?

Yes. You see Jim knew this building was so much bigger so that the old well at the side of the house, he knew that this building would go over it. So he, luckily, he reinforced that with arch-mesh, sheets of arch-mesh before they pour the concrete. And during one wet season, it was a very heavy wet season and the water was flowing into this well. And Jim thought - oh, well we better fill it up. So he cleared some of it and there was this well and he got loads of stuff and he put it in and lever it and he ram it. That was a big mistake by ramming it. He loosened everything underneath. Of course when he finished it the thing was nice and level, you know, right up to the top. But at night, one, the same night, we often have late night shoppers that come through the back, and this chappie ... hop off his bicycle and put his foot through the ground. He said, 'Missus, you come and look. There's a big hole in your front door'. Go out there with a torch and I nearly died. Here was this, where he broke through there was this putrid black water underneath. And when I shine down to look, the site around it, I could see all this great big hole. And of course I rang the work's foreman and he came down. Of course we all laughed because it's so funny to have a big hole right in your front door. We pushed the rest of the thing in and we could see more. So this man backed his truck, must be a five-tonne truck, tip-truck load of gravel and stuff that he used from road building, poured it all in.

And did that fix it?

Well, it fixed it, it filled it right up nice and level, but it was wobbly. And he said, Be careful now." So in the middle of the night, somewhere round about 2 o'clock, whoosh, bang, the whole lot went.

Into a huge black hole?

Yes, the whole lot just went down. We had, I had to shift all the furniture there, in that part, thought maybe the concrete would go too, but luckily it didn't. But one of the support of the building was hanging up in mid-air. You see, we barricaded it all and the next morning this old chap next door, old Kev Davis, he came and said, What is all the excitement?" We told him. 'Oh, missus quick'. He took charge and he got a big four-inch pipe to lay it straight, right across the opening on solid ground and got a chain to support that pole that's hanging mid-air. Otherwise your house would collapse. So we sent our truck out to the, to the ... up in mines and brought out great big boulders and filled it up. But old Ted had some bags of bismuth which a poor man mined way out bush, long way, his grandson took him out and brought him back, but there was no price. The thing was dirt cheap, not worth it. He said, 'Missus', threw all this down. I said, 'No. No. The price might rise'. He said, 'No, it's no good.' So he himself lifted every bag and threw it down too.

So it took a lot of filling, that well?

Yes it caused a lot, the whole town was astir. Old Ted said, 'I heard this fall'. You see he's been a miner too and if you lie down on a bed you can feel this falling and he didn't know what it was.

It reminded him of the mine.


And that was right under your house?

Yes, right under the front door. Right at the front door. Even to this day now we watch it so sometime we have a look to see if there's, it's still going down so we still fill it up.

So you've lived through a few disasters, were you here in Darwin for Cyclone Tracy?

No. Luckily it was Christmas, otherwise I would have been. We go home to Pine Creek for Christmas because the family down there they can't leave the place. And, that's when it happened. My son said, Lawrence said, 'Mum I'm not coming down'. Normally we all come down for Christmas eve. He said, 'I'm not coming down because Darwin's expecting a cyclone. There might be a few sheets of iron blow off so I'll stay'. And he stayed. Of course he lost his shop and this whole house collapse on him. He and his friend were in the kitchen.

Was he all right?

Yes. Yes.

Not hurt?

No. We were very fortunate. My bother and his daughter were there and all the other relatives, not one of them w[as] hurt.

And what happened to your house?

The one in Darwin?

The one in Darwin that you'd left? That you'd been living in with the children?

Some of the roof went off.

And that was all?

That was all. See it was built with cypress pine. They said cypress pine is a very brittle timber. So because of that they built the timber stronger by putting it closer and we only just lost a few sheets of iron in one corner. But it cause a lot, you know, water damage. That's when I lost my painting by Namatjira. It's, it's a watercolour. Of course all that water on it and it gone all mouldy, [I] threw it out.

So what faced you when you came back after Christmas from Pine Creek? What was Darwin like?

Well it's just so, a mess that's all. Just a mess.

And how did you feel about that?

We accepted it. Our Darwin shop is gone and, in fact, Jim and I helped to clear some of the rubbish.

You had a shop in Darwin?

Yes. Yes. In ... Street where Murray Oakley is now.

Had you opened that up when you came up to Darwin with the children?

No, my brother and my husband did. My husband came up to open the Pine Creek shop, oh, they bought it in 1947. And he said to me, 'You look after this'.

The Darwin shop?

The Darwin shop. He bought it from another Chinese family. He said, 'Will you look after the Pine Creek shop'. I said, 'Yes alright, for a few months'. He end up five years. So I was down there five years with the children and he travelled up and down. This time it would be worse, before he was travelling from Pine Creek, this time he travelling from Darwin.

So when you came up with the children for them to go to high school, did you look after the Darwin shop?

No. My brother did. Occasionally I go and help them, if anyone go on holiday then I just go and give them a hand.

Was the Darwin shop as big as the Pine Creek shop.

Oh, as a grocery store it's bigger, they have a bigger clientele. They very busy.

[end of tape]

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