Australian Biography

Lily Ah Toy - full interview transcript

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When the shop was doing so well in Pine Creek, did you ever think of expanding and perhaps starting a chain of stores?

Well not a chain, but my husband said, 'We got to educate the children in Darwin therefore we have to have something in Darwin'. And fortunately for him, this man, Albert Fong, they had this shop which was opened after the war and he offered to sell it to Jim ... So we bought it.

What year was that?

Ah ...

Was it long after the war?

Oh, yes, yes. Because - when our children are going to high school. And, of course, he got into trouble with his own relatives. 'Why did you sell it to him and not to us?' But we work with my brother. My husband offered it to my brother to become a shareholder so he could help him. And at the time Bill was in Alice Springs but he came and they run it. And another brother helped to run it.

Was it very similar to the store in Pine Creek.

Well no, because Pine Creek sells everything. Hardware, saddlery and all that. But Darwin shop only mainly all groceries, groceries, medicine. They did sell a bit of footwear.

And was that a successful shop?


Is it still there?

Well, no. Because the cyclone destroyed it. So we had to rebuild and lease the building out.

Is it still there?

The building? Yes. It's run by Murray Oakley now. It's under Murray Oakley but a man from Mount Isa bought, lease it. They sell electrical stuff like fridges and all that sort of thing, stoves.

So your shop was destroyed in Cyclone Tracy?

Well only the roof. It's a Sydney William building. The roof was timber. That went and we just recover it again and away she goes.

So what made you decide to sell it? The shop, why did you sell the shop?

The Darwin shop?

The Darwin shop.

No, we haven't sold it, we lease the building, even to this day it is being leased out.

So you still own that?


And, today, what's happened to the store in Pine Creek?

Well my son runs it, elder son Edward. He runs a small supermarket. We had to change, don't have so many staff and people go around and help themselves. It's all changed over.

How do you feel when you go and see it now, looking so different from the days when you ran it?

Oh, no different. I go in there to, I don't do any work or help at all because I don't know the prices, but I go there to see the people coming in, people that I know and have a good talk. You know the men and people I know.

Are they all thrilled to see you when you visit your son?

Yes. Yes. we have a good talk and, 'How are you? How long you staying?' and all the rest of it. Very very happy. Even the Aborigines. They would say, 'Hullo missus, when you be come back'. Old friends we keep, that are always friends.

Once your children were educated, why didn't you go back to Pine Creek?

Why didn't I go back to Pine Creek? I did.

You did?

Yes I was living in Pine Creek for a long time, until this house was built and we move into here. This is a sort of a transit house, you know husband come up and down. Any family come up and down. And I was living in Pine Creek at the time.

So your children completed their education in Darwin, and you just went back to the store and resumed your life there.


How long did that last?

Years. Years, until the Cyclone Tracy, when Jim sent me back to Darwin. He said, 'You go back and do some salvaging'. And I've been here ever since.

And why was that? Why didn't you go back to Pine Creek then?

I still go back, not all together, but he said, 'I better stay here'. At the time buildings are scarce and there are squatters. Somebody got to be here.

So you ended up in a way not choosing to live in Darwin, but feeling that you should?

I had to. And of course being so active in Pine Creek, I was bored stiff. So, my daughter Joyce said, 'Mum, go to the Adult Education and learn something' - you know, hobby thing. I said, "All right. I've collected a lot of agate and stuff in all the years going round the bush. I'll go and learn lapidary'." Polish stones and all that. But they didn't have a day class, only night class which is no good for me. And she said, 'Well what's wrong with pottery?' I said, 'Alright we take on pottery'. That's how I started doing ceramics. As a hobby class, one day a week on a Wednesday for three hours. And then the lecturer said, 'Seeing you're so keen why don't you join the fine arts group?' So I joined that and do the associate diploma course. That's how it all started, from being bored and living in Darwin. But mind you, I go to all the - when the children were going to High School - school committee and church and work hard in them and Red Cross.

So you hate to be idle?

Because I suppose I'm so used to moving around. Keep myself active.

Before we go on with any of that, I'd like to go back right to the beginning, to ask you about your family and your origins, like we did on the first day but I'd like to go over that.

Who was your father?

My father was Wong Yu. He comes from China in a village called Limchun, and the nearest town was Tai Po Market.

What region was that in China?

Southern China. It's actually in the New Territory governed by the British.

And what kind of Chinese background was he? What was he called? What kind of Chinese?

Haka. All that area in Southern China are all Hakas. They are guest people.

Why were they called guest people?

Because originally they all come from the north. And the north was so dry and arid and living was hard so they walk from the north down to the south to the lovely green area of southern China and they settled there. The local people called them the guest people, the Haka.

So the journey to Australia wasn't the first time that your husband's family migrated?

No, no. All the Haka people come from the north, even my maternal grandfather's people, they all come from the north.

So both your mother and father spoke Haka?


And, were they different from the other Chinese people of southern China?

Well, you mean in the language or the looks, language?

Anything. All their customs.

No, the customs are all the same and the language is Haka.

Were any of their customs different from the local people?

Yes. Because they walk all the way from the north, they don't have bound feet like the northern people. Well they so poor they have to work. And they farm and work hard to rear the family, even to this day. They, they have big feet, we all got big feet.

And the women weren't bound?

No. It's only the women who have bound feet of the other ... the other people. Even to this day you still see some in China, they have bound feet, but not the Haka people. They all have big good solid feet to walk on and work on.

And your mother, what was her background?

Well she was born in Darwin, the third child, that's right, the third child of Moo Yet Fah and Wong See. She, being the eldest girl had to help her parents, or her mother, in the household duties and she wasn't allowed to go to school. So she can't read or write English. But she persevered and she trained herself to read Chinese, which was very clever I think because I tried to learn Chinese once and I couldn't.

To read Chinese?


But she, how was her English?

Her English, she understands but she doesn't speak it which is a pity.

So you grew up in a household where your parents spoke Haka to each other?

Yes. We, yes, with the grandparents too, we all speak Haka. At home we all speak Haka, even the children. And we only learn English when we got to school which was rather hard at times. When we first - of course, like all children, as soon as they start learning they pick it up fairly quickly.

What was your father's English like?

A bit rough you know, not clear.

Very simple?

Yes, very simple. He understand, he understood what you say to him and all that, but he can't write it.

Was that a big handicap to the Chinese people living here then?

Oh, yes, because they have to beg people to do all the letter writing and attend to matters, any certificates or papers. They even have to beg people to go and register their children's birth.

Did that ever lead to any problems?

Yes. Because the surname of the father is different to the surname of the child. The people who go to register leave out the surname of the father.

So your surname, Lily Ah Toy, is that a ...

That's my married name you see. My surname was all right because I was in the younger generation. I was registered, well I actually wasn't registered, but Lily Wong. But my husband was registered as Jimmy Ah Toy and miss out the Chong.

And Chong was his surname?

Surname, yes.

So your surname, your married surname, really should be Chong?

Yeah. Lily Chong Ah Toy.

And what's Ah Toy then?

That's my husband's Chinese Christian name.

Or first name, I mean his given name?

In a sense it's not his Chinese Christian name, it's Yuen Toy. They say Ah Toy.

Have you been back to China?

Yes. Fortunately. My husband and I always wanted to go back to China. I do too because after listening to the grandparents talk and my brother's been back. So we went in 1967, that was the first trip.

And what was that like?

Well it was an experience. No wait a minute, we didn't actually go into China in 1967, it was 1977 after two years of trying to get a visa we got into China.

In 1977?


And where did you go?

The usual city, Canton, Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou.

Did you go back to the village your ancestors had come from?

No. No, we couldn't find it in that first trip. We didn't find it until 1984.

And when you went there in 1984, were you able to speak to them in Haka?

Yes. We spoke to them in Haka, and they were really amazed. They said, 'You Australian and you can speak Haka'. We had to tell them, you know, our parents are speaking Haka at home.

What struck you most about the way they lived?

Because we heard of the terrible times that they have, and when we walk in on them, we literally - well not walk, [we] had a car - we stopped and here were these people were washing vegetables in the creek. And they were all well dressed, they looked well fed, all had shoes on. We were told they were in such terrible state. But I was amazed, or so was my husband. And we were taken to meet a lot of other relatives.

Did they look like you?

Well there are so many generations gone. But I can't tell the difference.

How did you feel inside yourself being back there? Did you feel a sense of belonging or did you feel different?

Yes. No, I feel a sense of belonging because your roots. See that's important isn't it, to come to your roots, find them that way. They ... [INTERRUPTION]

How did you feel going back, did you feel a sense of belonging?

Yes, after listening to so much talk about China and about our roots and finally we got there to meet them, it makes me feel at last, I come home. And yet my home is in Australia. But they were very good. The first time we went they called the other villagers around to introduce us and they cook a meal and we had a meal with them.

Did it set you thinking about what would have happened if your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents hadn't come here?

Yes, I, I thought now if they didn't come, well I don't know whether we'd still be stuck here in the village, working in the rice paddies perhaps. That's what they do. Just working in the farming, in the rice paddies.

So did you feel pleased on the whole that you were an Australian after all?

Of course, everywhere we go, so please to say that we come from Autolia, which is Mandarin [for] Australia - Autolia. We caused a lot of interest because they look at us and I pointed to my hair and I pointed to my skin. Chinese, come from Autolia. We can't speak Mandarin you see. But the relatives were good, in Haka. Even my husband's people we found them in 1984, just through friends in Hong Kong. We go to the Chinese, overseas Chinese place to get the permit. And they said, 'Who are you looking for?' Of course I have these letters from my husband's people. One chap's name - of course he's dead and gone long ago - so we submit that name and explain that he would be dead. And the officials said, 'Oh, well his descendants would be there', which was quite true, we did find the descendants. And it was really great.

Was it very emotional?

Yes, they were. They look and they all come around and they couldn't believe it. To see these Australians, very, very happy.

Did they feel envious of you?

Well they didn't show it. Unfortunately you see, we can't, both Jim and I we can't write so I wrote to them in English once, but a long time before we got a reply in English, but we didn't correspond much at all.

Would you like to go again?

Not now. Not without Jim. We been three times. Or to the relatives we've been twice. And Jim decided that he'd take his sister and his brother to China and his brother's wife, and she's an Australian woman. So in 1987 we did another trip and we visited the rellies again. And they had a good time. Of course Jim was the only one who could talk to them in Haka. His brother couldn't, he lost it.

Did you feel, looking at how they lived in China now, that there'd been quite a lot of adaptation of the customs for life in Australia? In other words to what extent has the Chinese way of life that you were taught by your mother and father been adapted for Australian conditions?

Very very moderately. Slightly adapted. They, they are still very religious. In fact, they took us to the forebears' monuments, and of course, we burnt incense and all the rest of it.

So in China you saw them still practising the old ways?


But here in Australia, in your life-time you've moved yourself from a family that was very strict and practised the old Chinese ways, to how you live today. Has there been a huge change in Chinese practice here?

Yes, absolutely. Actually the change was during the war years, the evacuation, it changed all that during those years.

What changed?

From the old traditional Chinese, very strict, oh, you can ... some of them were superstitious practices to now, more modern.

And what is that difference? What did you change to make it more modern?

Well for one thing, a lot of the superstitions are more or less waived. But I still keep up the tradition of having these special festival days and respect for your elders and all that sort of things. And I still pay my dues when they have these ceremonies at the old cemetery, which they do. And at the old hut at the temple, there's a place there we call Memorial Hall, for the dead. I still go to those two.

So you go to the temple for these things?


And what about ... you have no shrine in your house any more?


Do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing?

Well that whole lot that come about that we didn't have it was again the war, the evacuation. But before that, my father-in-law said, after his wife died and I was practising the ritual and all the rest of it, and he said to me one day, he said, 'When I die don't do that. You don't have to do it. You look after me now when I'm alive because all that traditions and ritual is only for the people who's alive to say that, "oh, you doing the right thing."' More or less to show that I'm doing the right thing. So he told me not to do it and that's ... I've taken his word and both my husband and I more or less drop it.

So do you feel that in dealing with the two cultures, the Australian culture and your Chinese heritage, you picked the best of both worlds?

Now wait a minute, I'm not picking the best of any world. So, I still practise some of the Chinese heritage.


Because it's been brought up in me. And, the western world, while it's more, what should I say, more lenient, more modern outlook, I try to teach my children. I don't want to force them to believe this or do that because they got their own life to live, that's the best I can do.

I suppose I'm really trying to ask you, to think about in the course of your long life, about the interaction between the Chinese ways and the local ways here.

And the western ways.

And how you've dealt with that in your own mind.

Quite easily.

And I wonder if you could just talk a bit about the sort of practices that you might have been slow to give up and other ones that you cling to because you think they're really valuable.

Well for instance, the traditions that were drilled into us, I more or less modified a bit, not so strict. And then to change over to the western way, which is quite easy, you've got to balance it, not overdo it all together. And somehow, in my mind, I feel I'm doing the correct things and I don't worry about it.

So you work it out for yourself?

Yes. And nobody try to correct me. I haven't had anybody who's chastised me, 'Why don't you do this and that'.

And what about your husband, how did you get on with working these sorts of things out with him? Did you find you had any conflict over anything?

No, no. He's quite, what do I say, modern outlook. You see, I go to church but he doesn't. So he goes to the temple when he can. Or when he, when there's any special occasion. We don't argue over religion. And the tradition, we do keep up sometimes, the Chinese tradition, the New Year and different festivals and like that, festivities.

And what about your children? How do they feel about it?

The children are different. They go to church and they never go to the temple or the Chinese religion because they said [they] don't understand it, because they can't speak Chinese. Which is quite true. And the grandson, young Mark, well the parents used to take him to church and he was only 4-year old at the time, and he asked all sort of questions and my daughter asked the minister, this is the Uniting Church, and he said, 'You better leave him alone'.

So none of your children have taken on western religion?

Grace. Well in sense, Grace, Joyce and Laurie, they were baptised in Adelaide when they were going to school. Those two were, but they don't practise that. Oh, Lawrence do[es], I beg your pardon. Lawrence and his family and three children are very supportive of ... they go to church every Sunday and they support everything that the church asks of them.

That's Uniting Church?

No. Church of England. This is out at Palmerston.

Pine Creek?

No Palmerston, yes.

So they go to, Lawrence goes to ...

Yes. And Edward does at Pine Creek. He supports the Uniting Church. The minister comes from Katherine for Pine Creek service.

So how do you feel about your children going over to Christian religion?

Quite all right. Mother used to say to me, 'There's only one God in heaven'.

So how do you feel about your children taking on Western religion?

I feel quite happy at least they have some faith. It's better they have some faith than none at all. Which is much, much, how a person should live. Much better. But the grandchildren are a different thing altogether, except Lawrence's children. These others, none of them go to church.

And how do you think a person should live?

Live an honest, upright life. Help people where you can, or when you can. And, always remember God. I do.

Which God?

There's only one God in heaven. You can worship God in the Chinese way, the Aboriginal way, or in any way, but there's only one God in heaven. That's what my mother said, even in her old strict thing. Only one God in heaven.

So she was very devoted to her way, but she respected the ways of others?

Yes. Yes. I do too. Each one has their own beliefs and respect.

And what do you think's going to happen when you die?

I don't think of that.

You don't think of death at all?


You've never been near death?

Oh, yes, when I was so sick in Sydney, I thought I'd die several times. In fact, at one stage there, they wished that I would die instead of having to lie there.

What happened?

I had my gall bladder taken out and everything went wrong. Because my anatomy inside is different. There was something missing.

So you had complications?

Yes all sorts of complications, blockage. I had five operations. I was in hospital for seven months.

How old were you when this happened?

19 ... when I was 36.

Oh, so you still had young children?

Yes. They were all in Darwin, no Pine Creek and Darwin and my mother looked after some]. And Jim looked after them, the two younger ones. Until he had to come down to me because I was so desperately ill.

So did they think you were going to die?

Well, everybody did.

And what did you think?

I just wouldn't give up. The matron in the hospital said, 'You're a good solider. We ought to put you in the front line if there's a war. You never give up'.

You're a real survivor?

Well why should I? It's not very good lying there with a leaking tummy. But finally they found the trouble and they fixed it.

And you've been all right every since?

Thank God, yes.

At that time, did you think about dying at all, or did you just put it out of your head?

Put it out of my head because that would be too morbid to think about dying?

And now that you're getting older, do you ever think about it?


And so you don't want to think about an afterlife because you only want to live in this life? Is that what you're telling me?

Only live everyday as it comes. Don't think about dying. It doesn't matter what happens when you die.

Has life always been sweet to you?

Oh, we have our ups and downs.

What's the worst time of your life?

The worst time was when Jim was taken so ill. Before that of course it was just my brother killed in an accident. And that was a blow. He stayed with me for three years and he was very good to me and he got killed so I was really upset about that, couldn't do a thing. And then when Jim got sick with cancer, and he had to be flown backwards and forwards to Adelaide.

1991, he died four years ago.

When did Jim die?

1991. In May, the 4th.

What happened to him?

He died of cancer.

What kind of cancer?

He had it in his - he had a tumour in his oesophagus and we had to fly him down to Adelaide to have it expanded so he can swallow food in or he would starve to death otherwise. Later on he refused [the] operation and he had chemo and radiotherapy and that got rid of it so we were very happy. So then it started on his neck, in the gland on one side, and then an operation, and then it started on the other side and finally went into his spine. And that was very painful and he had to have an epidural injection pump. You've got to wear that all the time to put the morphine in.

How many years had you been together before he died?

Fifty-five; we had a very big 50th wedding, golden, 50th wedding anniversary.

And how did you feel when he died?

Well to be quite honest, to see him suffer like that, I was relieved that he doesn't suffer any more. But of course it's a terrible thing to lose someone like that.

What is it that you miss most about him?

His companionship. We used to talk, discuss things. Of course we used to argue too, things when he was well. It's only in normal living life you argue. I'm not a yes person. But his companionship and his kindness - when he goes, comes from Pine Creek or goes anywhere, he always brings me back little things that I like. [You] wouldn't think he remember but he does. Brings back, from Pine Creek or to the station, you know, nice things for me to eat and all that sort or thing.

So how did you adjust after you lost him?

Took me years. I stayed here by myself and the family wanted me to come, wanted me to go and stay with them, and I said, 'No'. Or they come here. I feel that I should be here because this is his home.

Do you still miss him?

Yes. There's no one to talk to, to discuss a problem. We'd been with one another for so long there's always something cropped up and it's good to have someone to talk to. Right thing to do or not.

Did other people recognise in him the sort of things you really liked in him? Was he someone who was very valued by the community?

Oh, yes. Particularly the Pine Creek community. Well, he even helped the Chung Wa society in Darwin. He was one of the original trustees.

Of the?

The Chung Wa Society.

What's that?

The Chung Wa owns the land with the temple and all that. He was one of the trustees. And in Pine Creek of course, he'd done so much good work that he was awarded the MBE.

What year was that?


He got the MBE for his community work in Pine Creek?

Yes. Yes.

Was that a great proud moment for him?

Well it was absolutely astounding. I tell you why. He was the first Australian-born Chinese to be awarded the MBE. And we had letters, telegrams from all over Australia. From West, right round Australia. People who read it send copies of the newspaper and it was absolutely outstanding. Hundreds of telegrams and letters. [You'd] never think that he would get such recognition. Of course, we're all very proud. I still got the medal here.

What was the worst argument you ever had with him?

Oh, I couldn't say which was the worse one, but we had lots. But we always make up.

What sort of things did you argue about?

Well sometimes business. Mostly I think sometimes business. Or sometimes children.

Was he softer on them than you were?

He never lay a finger on them. All he had to do was to talk to them and they obey him. Just one look from him and they are real little goodie goodies.

Not always like that with you?

No. Sometimes they disobey me and I have to sort of threaten them. Typical of children you know. I don't know why because he never even, he doesn't even have to raise his voice. They obey him. Just give them, he just give them one look and they all ... [laughs]

And so it was a very good marriage that you had?

Oh, yes, yes. Yes. No complaints. And when we travelled, see, at first, before we go to China we travelled away for three months in 1967, right through South-east Asia - Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan - and back again, Philippines and then back to Australia so we had a really good holiday. Three months.

Your ...

And we been to Australia, in 1962 we been around Australian, down to Tasmania and all those places; it was great.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 7