Australian Biography

Lily Ah Toy - full interview transcript

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Your family had come from China seeking material good fortune, money, material things, a better life for their children in that sense.


What importance have material things played in your life? Is it very important to you to get money behind you?

That is really important, to have money behind you so you can live reasonably well, comfortably and not have the hardships that I went through when I was a child, when we didn't have money. As for material things, it gradually just grow on you to get extra stuff for your own comfort. It's a necessity of life.

How important is money to you now?

Not, as long as I have three meals a day and a bed to sleep in and a roof over my head, I don't worry about it.

So that's a difference isn't it?


What do you think has caused that difference?

Perhaps more soli ... Because I'm older, accepted it. Particularly after Jim died. With all the money, you work hard, and it didn't do him any good, except of course for medical help. But then they didn't do anything, they couldn't do anything.

Did you end up making yourselves very comfortable financially with all that hard work?

Well as you can see just live ordinary life. I don't, I don't go in for a very elaborate home or lifestyle. I was often told, 'Why don't you do this or do that or go here or go there?' I said, 'I'm quite happy. It's all right. Leave me alone'.

But was it a relief to you having started out poor to be in a situation where you could afford things?

Yes. Absolutely, because we work hard all these years and we have the result, the reward.

Could we put that all together. I'd like to ask you a question about that again and you can describe about how you developed financial things and how you changed, attitude changed a bit as you became more secure and [it] became less important to you. Just to put together a bit about material goods which we all think about and wonder how important they are? I think they're probably important that you don't have them.

Mmm. I'll ask that question again. Your parents had come as immigrants to Australia, grandparents, seeking their fortune, how do you feel about material goods? What part has money and financial gain played in your life?

Well money is important for living, everyday living. That is why we work so hard towards it. And also, should occasion arrive where you have to have money, for instance for health or medical treatment you have it there, and that's a relief, you don't have to worry. And that is why I never squander money so I can put my hand on it whenever I need it in an urgent case, through emergency, health or otherwise.

You've worked very hard for the money that you've got?

Yes, years and years. 50 odd years that you can say.

Do you think it was all worth it, that really hard work?

Well to have the security in the end and no further worries. [INTERRUPTION]

Do you feel all the hard work in your life, because you've worked very hard in your life, do you think it was all worth it?

Absolutely yes. Yes to have the comfort and ease of mind at this stage of my life.

Do you sometimes think that the children that you worked so hard to get a better life for, have it a little bit too easy for their own good?

Well not actually because they had to do their share too and they are now working hard towards their own good. They realise that it is not easy money. But they have the security too of their own life by working hard, everyone of them. They own their own home, which is important. A home is the most important thing. All Chinese stress upon them, you must own your own home. You've got a roof over your head.

What's been the most important thing in your life?

In what way?

Well some people hold family as the most important, some people hold money, some people hold religion. Let me ask that question again. What's been the most important thing in your life?

My family.

And why is that?

Because without my family I'd be lost. They are affectionate, loving and I have all the consideration from them and they respect me, care for me when I need [it]. And of course I'm quite independent, because of my good health. I'm very fortunate.

Do you think your family is very important also because of ... [INTERRUPTION]

Do you think your family has also been important to you because that's part of the Chinese tradition that family is central to everything?

It must be the upbringing, yes, when you ask me that. Yes. Definitely. Been brought up to value your family life.

What's been the best thing about it for you, having your family around you?

Well to see them grow up, educated, grow up, married, have families of their own. And we're quite happy. Actually tonight we're going to a family party.

And all those years that you were pioneering out there in Pine Creek, opening up that area and working so hard as a sort of hub of the community there, did you realise that what you were doing was really pioneering work?

Not really because I just accepted it. I liked Pine Creek. I liked the bush because we used to live down in Darwin here, in the bush too. So, I always liked the bush to go out. Even now when I go to Pine Creek I like to go out somewhere and have a picnic. We used to go out fishing in the creek. Go out in the morning and catch a fish and have it for breakfast, with a group of friends. So it's quite a happy time. Pine Creek's been very happy for us, for my husband and I.

What does it mean to you to be an Australian?

Well to be born an Australian, a great deal. When I compare the life of these people trying to come out now I think how lucky I am to be born in Australia and live in this lovely country.

What is it that you value most about being an Australian?

The freedom, the freedom and the way of living. This working hard doesn't matter.

What do you think about this new wave of Asian migrants? How do you feel about that?

Actually I don't feel against them because I can't blame them for wanting to come out to better themselves, after all my grandparents, they all come out. Only they were asked to come out, they didn't come out on an evacuee's boat or like some of them smuggle out, which is wrong. But it is very hard for them to try and better themselves and come out here and then have to stay. It's difficult decision for them, very hard.

But you feel that we should welcome them?

Well it would be good if we could welcome them, but we are going to get a flood of them so what you going to do? The whole Asia will be here. Not only, the whole of South-east Asia, they will all [be] wanting to come. We just couldn't do it. There isn't enough work or anything to occupy them. At the moment a lot of them are now on social security. We just can't afford, Australian just can't afford to.

We'll wait a minute.

That's the helicopter coming back with another load. [Interruption/break in filming]

In the course of your long life as Chinese in Australia and the Northern Territory, have you ever experienced any racism?

No, not recently. I mean not for years because we live here so long and we're so well known really. Only when we were young, that's all.

What happened when you were young?

Well when we were children going to school and the children of the rich Chinese used to ... well that's not racism because they're still Chinese. But no not, I never remember anybody showing us any prejudice.

So the only children who were unkind to you at school were other Chinese children?

Yeah. The rich children of the Chinese. But then thinking it over now you understand that children do do things like that. Even now they pity and something, so it doesn't really matter.

So no one ever sang songs to you or called you names?

That's another part of the childhood thing, they all used to used to say, Ching-Chong Chinaman. Well we called them, the Greeks we called them Dagos. It's part of childhood. One must ...

You never felt it was serious?

No. What children say you can't take them serious, so long as it didn't come from the adults. From the grown-ups.

Did you see other people suffering from the fact that they came from different backgrounds, or did you only experience tolerance in Australia?

Well that's all, tolerance.

And you didn't ever see any discrimination?

Not when we were, not even when I was growing up.

What about against Aborigines?

Well, it's a different matter altogether because those poor people are completely mild. And they should have been kinder. We had Aborigines, or I've been associating with Aborigines for years. And you have to have patience, tolerance. We had them working for us in Pine Creek and they used to fight like mad. They live in the shed at the back, we had a hut for them at the back, they used to fight and make a lot of noise. It's part of their nature to belt one another on the head, particularly the men, they hit the women. One night we had a couple there and they were fighting and making a lot of noise. So I walked out with a torch and my children were terrified. They said, 'Don't go. Can't you hear, see them fighting?' I said, 'That's all right, I'll walk out with a torch shining on me', so they can see me. And they stopped fighting, cause I didn't see the weapon at the time, 'Oh, missus come'. Walked right up to them and one, husband, had a crowbar. I took it off him and said, 'What you silly so and so, fight for?', they look sheepish, 'now go to bed and stop fighting and don't be so stupid'. Well my family couldn't get over that. They never forgotten I walk up the back. But I shined the torch on me first to let them know it was me. When they see the torch coming, before I got near them, they said, 'Somebody come'.

The main impression we get of your life in Pine Creek was that you and your husband attracted enormous respect from the whole district. How do you think you earned that respect?

Unconsciously, I suppose, because we just help people. Through the shop. Through when they have sickness. Or through giving them hospitality with meals and cups and tea and stuff like that. And Jim always helped them with the travelling if they stuck on the road somewhere, you know, he goes out and brings them in. All little things. Little things you just do because they needed help.

What's your best hope for your grandchildren, now your great-grandchildren, what do you hope most for them?

Well the great-grandchildren are entirely their parents', their own parents' responsibility.

But what would you like to see happen to them in the course of their lives?

That they live up to as adults and have a good life that's all. But I can't say what will they, what will become of them or how they will go because at the present time the people are different. But I hope that they will live a decent life too.

And what about you, do you still go looking for adventure?

No. Too old for that.

I heard about an adventure on an ultra-light aeroplane.

Oh, that was a dare. Well it wasn't a dare, you see ...

Ok, let me ask you that again. Now at your age now, you're seventy ...


... Seventy seven. Do you still look for a little bit of adventure in life, Lily?


You like some excitement? Hate boredom?

My, my son-in-law has an ultra-light plane, a Sky Fox. They call it ultra-light because it's so, a small light plane. And he always say, 'Mum come for a ride'. And I say, 'Oh, no. You won't get me into that little thing'. So one day they have this, the ultra-light club, have a big picnic, a sort of social thing way out in Wyman River. That's a beautiful place. So I go. And we had to stay the night, book in. There were 60-odd people there, you know wives and all the rest of them. And in the morning they said, 'We have to fly early because it's nice and cool'. And Bill said, 'Are you coming for a flight?' I said, 'Oh, no thanks'. Then I thought you know, why am I such a wimp? Frightened to go on display. And I made up my mind - yes, I will. So I go into this little plane and he strapped me in and away we go. It was beautiful. He took me over the Opium Creek cattle station with all these beautiful Brahman cattle. And the Opium Creek was there, the cattle on both sides. And right round to the Mary River and then to this place near Wyman River there, we saw all the crocodiles on the bank of the river. I said, 'Goodness me, don't drop down here'. And we landed. It was a beautiful flight, I really enjoyed it. That was ...

Would you like to go again?

Oh, yes. One day I go again on this ultra-light. In fact, when Pine Creek, the Gulf Air opened a strip in Pine Creek, of course, that was a much bigger plane and as an honoured guest I was the one to open it. I had the first ticket and they took [me] up for a ride to all over Pine Creek, the mines and everywhere. It was lovely. You see these little light planes, a lot of people wouldn't go up. Some of the people there wouldn't go up. They just too scared to. I accepted the thing that if anything happened to me, what will be will be. The good Lord will look after me, I have good trips, and I come back safely.

So you believe in fate?


You think when your day has come that will be it?

It will happen, it will happen.

That's part of the Chinese belief isn't it?

Yes. Yes. What they call Jing-Chin in Haka. What will be will be. Same as whether your life is going to be a hard life, or whether you are going to have money or you're going to be sick, or what. It's all part of your life. The moment you're born, you cry, that's it, your life is destined. All is destiny.

And you believe that?

Yes. Absolutely. All the hardships and stuff were meant to try us, whether we can handle it, overcome it. So I proved that with my illness and all the different difficulties.

You've also told me that you hate boredom. What do you do to overcome that?

I read. I read a lot. And also I listen to good music. I like classical music. I've got a lot of records and tapes. And watch the news, follow that; and watch any other documentary. I follow different ones of interest. And descriptions of animals in the Arctic and all the places and that's all interesting too. It's all knowledge too.

What's the best advice that you could offer young people?

To young teenagers nowadays? Take care of your health and do the right thing. Never mind what the peer pressure say. Don't copy other people because they run amuck or they take drugs or go on the grog. Just be your own self, be firm. Don't be swayed.

Now, tell me, when your children got married, what happened about their weddings?

Well it depends on whether they Chinese wedding or they Christian wedding, Western wedding.

Did you have both in your family?

Yes, my ...

Who pays for the weddings?

Well the Chinese pay for the son's wedding, everything.

Not the daughter's?

No. Because if they married Chinese the groom's side pay for everything. But in my case, my two daughters married Australians so we pay again.

So you paid for your daughters' weddings because they married Westerners and you expected to pay?

Yes. Yes.

And what happened with your sons?

The one that married the Western/Australian girl, well her parents paid.

And the other son married a Chinese?

Chinese, so we paid for everything. It was a huge wedding, 450 guests.

450 guests at the wedding?

Yes. Because she's an only daughter and her family had a lot of Chinese hospitality and likewise I do too. We did. So we have to repay, always.

And that wedding was held here in Darwin?

Yes. We had the church - at the Uniting Church - wedding and the reception at the Town Hall. Of course that's all gone now. The hall part is for dancing and the party outside with hessian all around. It was, like Darwin, you could have a party outside, really good.

In Chinese customs it's very important to repay your obligation?

To what?

Repay in ...

Oh, yes. Yes.

Could you explain to me about how Chinese obligation works?

Well you receive a lot of hospitality. So whenever you have a chance and you can, you must repay it you see. For instance, now, we've been to lots of birthday parties in the '70s or whatever. And when it's my turn or Jim's turn we throw a party too and invite people who extended their hospitality to us. And beside our friends, both Australian and Chinese, it's all important, very important. 'Course if you can't afford it, it doesn't matter, they understand.

Now can we go back, and I'd like you to give me a very simple, shorter account of the trip when you evacuated from Pine Creek, of that long trip down to Adelaide. If you could sum it up by saying how many days it took you to Adelaide, the sort of transport you had to use at each stage, and the way in which you were given hospitality along the way, and what sort of food you ended up eating. Could you? I'll ask you a question about that, again, and I'd like to sort of give it ...

Abridge it.

Summary. Yes.

Shorten it.

That's right. What was the journey from Pine Creek to Adelaide like when you were evacuated?

It was pretty rough. We were put on a train, a goods train to Birdum, this is at night. And, then the next morning on the army convoy truck to Elliot for our meals, and then to Barrow Creek, we stayed the night there and the next day on the convoy again to Alice Springs. And at Alice Springs we arrive at evening. And we were put down at the racecourse and were told to wait but our friends heard of it and they send a chap along, another friend along with a ute and they took us to this home with the Chinese family. We stayed the night there and had a decent meal because on the other way we had army food.

What was army food?

You know, stews and rice. Just typical army food, cooked in a great big copper. But, I shouldn't complain, it was food and we were well looked after. There was always oranges for the children. And on the train we had bully beef and a hard army biscuits until we got to Terowie. And at night there the people were very kind, they took everybody, except me - I stayed with my younger children - to the Town Hall and they were fed, a hot meal, bath and warm clothes. From there on to another place where we bought pasties. That was the first time in my life I bought, I ate pasties. They were selling them on the, on the road, the station. And then we were on to Adelaide, to Adelaide railway station. At Adelaide railway station we were told to unload everything and pile our stuff on the platform and we were taken to breakfast, to the railway restaurant. But I was overcome to look at this beautiful restaurant and those kind girls all standing there ready to serve us; I couldn't eat.

You'd had too much pastries.

Pasties. That's for, that was breakfast, but pastie was early. It was lovely. I had never tasted pastie the same. After that they took us on another train to Eden Hills and then we walk up the hill to this old hospital. And we were there for, oh, quite a while until they send for Jim to come down and look after us. We were practically the last family to leave the place because I refused to let the older children be separated. And so there were nine of us and myself. And when Jim came down he bought this house in Clarence Park and so we caught the train again. To Millswood station. And from there we got off and walked to 18 Tempt Street. A whole line of refugees or evacuees. The people were very kind, I think, when they saw us walking along, a ragged looking and all in tropical clothes and it was getting cold. So they were very kind to giving us warm clothes and a lot of fresh fruit. It was great. I've never forgotten the South Australian people. I, I remember the Red Cross up at Eden Hill, they come every day to check. Rice was rationed then, because we were evacuees they gave us a ration of rice and it was the unpolished rice. Of course we used to eating the white rice, but then because there's no rice we welcome the brown rice too. It was really great. Highly rationed rice. Food was cheap and our neighbour next door was good because he works in the baker he asked if we mind if he gives us yesterday's bread, and yesterday's cake. Of course we don't mind, we welcome. It's extra food.

Now Frank would also like you - if I can ask you another question - if you could sum up life in the store, at Pine Creek. What you sold and what it was like. I'll ask you that question again. What was it like everyday life in the store at Pine Creek?

Every day the store in Pine Creek, it's different. You never know who's going to come in from the bush because we get all sorts of travellers and also the outback people, they come in for supplies. We sell the ordinary, everyday groceries, medicine, patent medicine, because there's no chemist near so we can sell chemist line. Some stuff - hardware, saddlery, sides of leather, and bridle leather, harness leather, bag leather and also rolls - collar check and saddle serge for the saddle - horseshoes and horseshoe nails, pots and pans, women's clothing, all sorts, from dresses and underwear and all, and shoes - mostly men's shoes - menswear, shirt and trousers and underwear. Hats, of course we sell a lot of fur felt hats for the cowboys and then cotton hats and the women we sell straw hats, the ordinary straw hats.

Were you also a bit of a trading post?

Oh, yes. We receive bags of mineral, like wolfram or tin. We give them credit and they go out and find these bags of minerals and we send it to the Mines Department or we send it direct to O. T. L'Empriere in Sydney. I don't know whether they're still going or not. O. T. L'Empriere. You'll go and check. In time the returns would come and people would pay their bills and take whatever balance they had. Also buffalo hides. Well buffalo hides was a real boom. The price was good and so many buffalo shooters go out. Of course they've got to have licence and they shoot the hides and they salt them and dry them and bring them in. And I would weigh them. Before I weighed them I get a stick and knock them. If it has a hollow sound it means the hide is dry. If it's got a dull sound it still wet. Because everything is being sold by weight. Well after all that, I wire, send a telegram to Collier Watson in Sydney and we got so many pounds of hide etc. and they send the money, wire the money to the bank. And that's how they get, our customers get paid, and I pay them. And we continue that way. The other thing is the dingo scalp. There's a bounty charge to all the station people. I don't know how much, but each dingo scalp the government would pay 2 pounds. So they bring in the dingo scalp to trade for food and stuff, the same thing we give them credit. Now one of the most occasion, most important people that I remember was old William Alderson. He was a Yorkshire man from England, Yorkshire man. He lives up there and he lives with an Aboriginal woman. And he brings in dingo scalp to trade for tobacco, sugar. He lives at Spring Peak and grows a lot of stuff. He comes in on pack horses. There was no road through then, it was only a track. Comes in, would also bring me in pumpkin, sweet potato, and banana. He brings his scalp and we take it. And the mango season is on, I used to watch him fascinated. He'd stand outside the shop there and eat a dozen mangoes at the one time.

Did you have plenty of mangoes?

Yes. Yes, we have mangoes. And he chewed tobacco and of course chewing tobacco you got to spit. He's quite a clever man, he can really spit a long way with it. He's descendants now, he had one son, Yorkie Bill, the father taught him how to read and write. And then his descendants are now the traditional owners of Kakadu, all that area there. They and a whole group of them. It's really fascinating with the family because Yorkie Billy one day - of course, the old man died - and he didn't have much luck. So he was very sad because the dingo bounty was gone and I applied for the old age pension for him and I got it too. I used to do all sorts of things like that. Thinking back now you know, I don't know how I come to have the nerve to do it, write to the VCA permission for people to fly on the Constellation because that's an overseas line, you've got to fly local. Get permission for a man to fly on the Constellation direct to Sydney. And, getting old-age pension for one chappie. He was, he can't remember his birthday. He was old. And he used to make his cigarette, look it was more paper than tobacco. And I felt sorry for him, so I battled and I got him his old-age pension. And he, he was really very grateful even until the day he died.

So you were like an unpaid community or social worker?

Well, my part I think was to help people. When the pensioner gets sick, well I go down or send my man down. Same thing when that man was lost out at Umbawarra. He was tin scratching out there and he didn't come in. Send the truck out and they found him crawling around in circles. He could have died if we didn't go out and fetch him in to the hospital. It's all part of community life in Pine Creek. [INTERRUPTION]

How important, how important is it to Chinese people that they earn the respect of those around them?

It's very important because a person must be honest, helpful, and have no guilty secrets. Therefore you be careful what you do, help one another, and in turn you will receive all the respect you can get.

How would you have felt if you'd lost the respect of those around you?

Well I would be upset. It's important in life to have respect of your family and friends. Very important is what's stressed into us when we were children.

And what for you is the most important thing to make a good life?

To help people. To be honest. And like I said before, honest, helpful and have no guilty secrets. Okay. [INTERRUPTION]

And for you, what is a good life?

To be honest, helpful, and have no guilty secrets. OK [Interruption]

And Lily, have you got any guilty secrets?


Never, ever any?

Nothing of importance.

[end of interview]