Australian Biography

Lily Ah Toy - full interview transcript

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Lily tell me about your mother, who was she?

She was Lily Oy Moo. Her father [was] Moo Yet Fah and her mother [was] Wong See.

And was she born in Australia?

She was born in Darwin.

Where had her parents come from?


And what were they doing in Darwin?

Well, her father came out to start a new life in Australia, in Darwin, and he was a carpenter. So he went and worked on the timber boats to get timber from Port Essington. He was out here for a long time before he sent for his wife.

Was that very common for Chinese men to come out and establish a bit of a life and then send back for wives?

Oh, yes. Because otherwise they don't know what they [were] coming into. They have to have a home or something.

What was it that made your grandfather think of coming to Australia?

Opportunity to go to the new gold mines in Australia, a new gold land. California was the old one. So, when they go to China to look for labourers to build the railways, they all jumped at the opportunity to come to this new land.

With the idea of making their fortune?

Of course. Yes.

When they came did they expect to stay do you think?

I don't think so because they all said that they're going to make their fortune and go back to China again. But they all stayed.

And what kind of a person was your mother.

She was a lovely person. Very kind-hearted, hardworking, and she wasn't educated because being a girl she had to stay home to help look after her younger brothers and sisters. And, yet she managed to teach herself, or taught herself, Chinese. But her English she doesn't know.

What made your grandfather decide to stay in Australia with his family?

Well he could see the opportunities with the gold mining.

With the gold mining?


What year would this have been?

In 18 ... late 1870s or the early 1880s.

And was he very lucky with the gold?

No, not really. It ... he started a baker shop at one of the mining towns, Box Creek.

This was your mother's father?

Mmm. They came to Darwin and then they moved to Box Creek where the mining boom is. That's where my father was too, was there.

So, tell me now about your father? What, where was he born?

My father was born in China, in Limchun, just in from Tai Po markets. It's a village under the British control in the New Territories.

Was that in the south of China.

Yes. Yes.

Is that where your mother had come from too?

No, my mother was born in Darwin.

No, but was that where your mother's family had come from?

From a different village.

But from the same general area?


Was it in the south of China too?

Yes, yes. South of China.

So how did your parents meet?

Well he was in Box Creek. He was on the railway line. And they make him a foreman or ganger. And when that finished he joined the mining. And my mother was in Darwin when she was a girl, but in those days they have people, you know, matchmakers: 'Oh, yes, somebody has a daughter. Are looking for a wife?' That's how it goes on.

How big was the Chinese community here at the time that your parents met each other? Was there a lot of Chinese in Darwin?

Yes. Yes. They all came up to work on the mining so there was quite a lot of them. A lot of them are single men.

Your father came out here to work on the railways, or was he also thinking he'd like to try his hand at gold mining?

Yes he came to work on the railways and he was made a foreman, or ganger. And when the railway finished, he go onto the gold mining and he become quite successful there.

How did he do that? What was the story of a Chinese person wanting to work on the gold mines in those days?

Because there's a lot of Chinese with the same surname, Wong - he's a Wong - and they grouped together and they decided to work together. So, they have manpower to work on the shows. But in those days they're not allowed to hold leases in their names so, in Box Creek there's a station owner, W. J. Burns, he was very kind to my father. And he said, 'Look, I take up the leases in my name, and you people work it for yourselves'. And that's how it is.

And they trusted him to do that?

Of course. The whole thing is, you see, all he wanted, all he'd do is to take the leases out in his name and they do all the work and they keep all the proceeds from the gold.

Why weren't they allowed to have a lease.

Because they Asians. They come from overseas. They don't belong to Australia. They not born here.

But if you weren't born here and you came from England you were allowed to have a lease?

Well I wouldn't know. I suppose they would I think.

How successful were they with their gold mining?

Different ones, well, my father's group, they were very successful. Mother, this was after he married mother, mother said they had a big chest in the house and, it's like one of those sailor's chests with a dome shape and a heavy brass padlock. The men keep the chest locked, and every day when the day's work's done they would bring the, ore-bearing gold back there and put it into this chest and they lock it up. When they have enough they put a crushing through. I often asked, I often asked my mother in those days, I said, 'What happened if some bushranger or somebody come along? What can you do? You can't protect that chest?' , 'No. There's never anybody like that.' So it was quite peaceful.

With the big chest full of gold in the house, weren't your parents afraid that it would be stolen?

Well I did ask my mother that. And she said, 'No. People who know about that chest of gold- bearing ore, ' it's not just pure gold, 'are the partners.' See they know, I don't think any outsider do. They don't seem to be afraid that someone might come and rob them.

So your father, in a way, made the fortune he'd come to seek?

Well, yes.

Did that make you rich then for the rest of your lives?

No. This ... when they moved from there he had a big brick of gold and he took it to Darwin, and gradually he had to chop it up to buy himself horses. Two horses and a cart to go into the wood merchant business. And he had to buy material to build A house. And then he spent it in ordinary everyday living.

So he actually used it as capital to set up in a business?

Yes, yes.

Now why didn't he go back to China?

Because he's married and he's have children already. You see it takes a lot to take a family to go to China. And not only that, my mother refused to go. She said she's an Australian, her parents are here and she wants her children to be living in Australia. In Darwin. So she wouldn't go.

They met through a matchmaker ...

Yes. Like an arranged marriage.

And were they happy?

Oh, yes. Like all couples they had their tiffs. But they, they got on alright because my father was a very considerate man. But I must tell you this though, when they first married they lived at Great Norton. And, in a tin shed, dirt floor, and their bed now. It's made out of fork, pieces of fork from a tree to cut, to sink into the ground, they dig a hole to sink that in. And then they put more support and then planks, that's the wedding bed. When mother told me that I was horrified. But she said, 'What can you do? You live out in the bush, there's nothing there where you can buy beds or anything. So he made his own. You're lucky to have boards.' And they used mats, cane mats. You can buy cane mats. And that's how they first started. And the fire place, it's just a fire place with two bars, open fire, and a few saucepans. And they sit on boxes, table made out of bush timber. They managed.

How many children did they have?

While they were there they had my sister, she was born there. And then when they moved to Box Creek they have, they have two brothers. And when they moved to Darwin, I was born in Darwin. And then the younger ones in Darwin.

Making how many children in the family?

Well, three girls, and four boys. But one of the boys, after me, he died as a lad.

So that left them with six children?


And what year were you born in Darwin?


Would you tell me that?

I was born in 1917, the war was still on. And father said, 'Well, the war's on and another girl.' He didn't even bother to register my birth. And also there was a Chinese lady in Darwin who had six sons and no daughter. She wanted to adopt me. But my mother said, 'No.' One more daughter. My mother just refused. So I was very lucky.

Your father was disgusted to have another girl?

I don't know about disgusted, but in those days, you see, girls are immaterial. And somebody else dying to have a daughter, well, why not. And later on when I grew up, this lady still said, 'You should have been my daughter'. And she, she often asked me to call in to see her, Mrs Lan Fong Mao, and give me little bits of stuff, you know, as though I'm still her daughter. And also, when she go and visit Mrs Tai, the nurse, Granny Tai, she always call into my place and she said, 'Come with me. We go and visit Mrs Tai.' And I used to do that.

Who brought you into the world?

Grandma. They don't go to ... the Chinese women have babies, they don't go to hospital. They, they either have family elders and they manage somehow. Thinking back now, the risk they take. But still they manage. Well father, even though he come out as a coolie to work on the railways, he was educated. And he had these Chinese books and he used to read to mother to explain that birth is a natural thing. You don't have to worry. It seemed that he was right.

She didn't want to part with anyone, even a daughter. It was years and years later when I was in my teens when the Chinese consul come to Darwin to visit and my mother was concerned because I didn't have a birth certificate. So she went to the consul and asked, and he did a lot of research and asked different ones in Darwin who know the family, and also the score for references that I was there at school at a certain age, finally I received a certificate from Canberra.

And what was your birth date?

The 24th of October. Actually the 24th of the tenth month in Chinese. And when they reported my birth they, they, at the school, what time I was born, so they put that down. The 24th of the tenth month. And of course I knew that that wasn't the true date in English date. It was years later that when we were in Hong Kong in 1967, I asked this old friend and he said, 'Oh, easy. You go to a shop and get a book.' And he showed a 100 years of the English and the Chinese dates. And my true birthday is on December the 8th.

So which one do you celebrate now?

Oh, I have to stick to the 24th of October. We can't change it, otherwise they think I'm, I'm an illegal.

What did your mother call you?

In Chinese, Wu Lin.

And where did Lily come from?

Well when I started school, my aunty took me to school, Aunty Essie, and What's her name? and because my Chinese name is a Wui Lin, Lin is a Lily. So they said, 'Oh, Lily.'

Even though your father hadn't really wanted a girl, was he a good father to you?

Oh, yes. He accepted that, he was alright.

So how did the family live in Darwin after you were born?

Well mother told me that they just, father worked hard as wood merch ... wood selling. And they grow lots of vegetables. That's how it is and things were cheap. They managed.

What sort of a house did you live in?

It was a corrugated iron, second-hand, and bush timber that father cut from the bush. Mostly stringy bark because they strong and it's a hard wood. And he brings it back. And we children, and anyone who can help, helped to take the bark off with this instrument. It was, it was more fun than anything, but we managed. It come off quite easily. And then, for the floor, it's just ant bed, that's another thing that we enjoy doing, because he bring the ant bed home and we would help to stamp on it. He would put it in a tub with water and as kids, we play mud pie, we tramp on it. You put it in water [to] soak out all the seeds, the grass seeds and all the rubbish. And then you drain the water off and we stamp on it. I suppose it's just like making pottery, the clay. You see the more you knead a wedge of clay, the tougher it gets.

So why was ant bed good? What was ...

Because when it harden, it have a hard surface and no dust. Not loose like sand.

Because the ants had worked it over?

Yes. And it's a clay. You see they bring the clay up from under the ground.

And that made the floor?

Yes, beautiful floor. They laid, straighten it, smooth it and let it dry. And when we sweep the floor we have to be careful to just sprinkle water lightly on it and then lightly sweep it. Don't go hard, otherwise you sweep the thing away.

And do you remember the building of the house?

Oh, yes, yes yes. The windows, of course, are all the push-up type, galvanised iron push-up type. And my father put a long piece of sapling right down from the top to the bottom so nobody could climb in. And it always open, day and night, unless it rained. So it was quite safe. And the floor - the wall doesn't go right down the floor - he leaves about two or three inches, and the air circulates. But in the wet season the splashing come in a bit, but then, it'd never flood because he had drain dug all round. It's quite, quite adequate.

What was the roof made of?

Galvanised iron, second-hand. And, he bought the second-hand iron from Vesty's meat works. Of course it had a lot of holes in it. And with the holes my mother get the pieces of off-cuts of khaki from the tailor shop in Darwin and stick it on with tar. Well that caused quite a rumpus with our neighbour. She said ... we didn't know at first, but we noticed she put all sorts of ... you see, they are wood merchants too, next door.

Chinese wood merchants?

Yes. And she put these long pieces of saplings pointing at our place. We said, 'Why the heck, she wants to put all this over our fence, pointing to our house.' And one day she had a row with my mother and she accused my mother of being wicked. Having these black eyes staring at her bringing her bad luck. Poor mum, she said, 'Only because we so poor we can't afford new iron like you do. So we have these second hand iron, leaky iron, and we patch it up. It's not meant to be black eyes looking at you to bring you bad luck.' But you can't convince her, she was so superstitious. It's rather tough, actually it made mother cry. See, because we're poor. And their house next door was built with all new iron.

By this time the gold brick had gone had it?

Oh, long, long gone, yes.

Did you get on well with all your Chinese neighbours, generally though, apart from the woman next door?

Apart from that, yes. We didn't have any Chinese neighbours in the place where we lived, when we were wood merchants. We had part-coloured people, they were alright. And then we had Greeks, which was further away. We got on very well. And then we had the Chinese market gardeners down the gully. They, they were very kind, but they were very hardworking men too. They would grow their vegies in the wet season. They would grow all the - like cucumbers and watermelon and pumpkins and all that sort of stuff. And in the dry they can grow Chinese cabbage, shallots, carrots, lettuce, anything at all. And they worked so hard that they go through every bed and every plant to pick out the grubs. They don't know insecticide. And for fertiliser they used to get the, the bullock blood, from the butcher, bring it home, ask the butcher shop chap can they have it, bring it home, and stand it in a drum and, of course, you can imagine the smell, later on they mix it with water and fertilise the ground. Apart from that, the water, you see down in the gully there they dug these deep billabongs, it's narrow and just straight down and down at the end they have a sort of a well. And because it's slippery clay they put stones or wood steps all the way down. And that's how they walked down, filled their two kerosene tins and carried it on the yoke on the shoulders, and up again, and that's how they water the gardens. In the wet seasons those billabongs would be full of water. And, full of waterlilies. It's - in a sense you know, they quite happy. They live there, they look after themselves, and they always make a fuss of us children, like when we visit to go and buy vegies, or sometimes just to visit, buy sugarcane. And if there are any ripe bananas, see they all have bananas, and sugarcane, and they said now go out to the banana patch and see if there are any ripe bananas on the bunches, because bananas have ripe odd ones. The whole bunch don't ripen at once. So we would go and help ourselves to that.

So as a family, what was your daily diet? What things did you eat? Was it Chinese food?

Oh, always. Always rice and meat and vegies. And we have chooks, but the chooks - occasionally we have an egg. Or, we make a pot of soup, or mother would make a pot of soup and break a couple of eggs into it. So everybody have a bit of egg.

I'll ask you that question again because of the car. What did you eat as a family together?

Chinese food, rice, meat and vegetables. And occasionally we have an egg, specially if it's our birthday. That's a big treat to have a boiled egg for breakfast.

Did you keep your own chickens?

Yes. Yes.


And the vegetables that you ate, did you grow them yourself, or did you get them from the market growers?

Well we grow a certain amount. And sometimes, what we haven't grown, or what we haven't got, we just go and buy it. It's so cheap, threepence a bunch of cabbage. You know the Chinese cabbage. So we always have pumpkin growing in the wet season, cucumber, Chinese bitter melon, I don't know whether you've eaten that. It's just really bitter.

Is it good for you?

Very good. You can buy them in the market now.

So you actually had a very healthy diet?

Plain, simple diet, yes.

What did you do for water in the house?

In the well. Father dug a well, I think it must be 40-odd feet deep in this solid - all stones - but the water was beautiful. He built, with timber he built a thing all around it, like a shoulder, I don't know what you call it. And that's all, the whole well is built up so that there's no water can flow into it. You know what I mean, mount up. And then he put this windlass, wooden windlass and steel wire. That's how we draw our water. I was, I was pretty good at that, drawing the water up.

Was that your job?

Oh, yes. You see the boys go and work outside.

So all the children had to help with the work?

Yes, the little ones do something else. We all had our jobs to do.

What language did you speak at home?

Our own dialect, Haka.


Yeah. H-a-k-a. Haka.

Not Cantonese?

No. Cantonese only come from people who speaks in Hong Kong and Canton. But we, our father's dialect and my mother, Haka. And mother dialect is Haka too.

And that was what was spoken in the region of China that they came from?

Yes. Yes. Some of them have a different tone, and it's slightly different even though it is Haka.

Do you still speak Haka?

Yes, I can if I have anyone to talk to. Unfortunately I wasn't strict enough with our children and they lost it. Living in Pine Creek it's rather difficult with the children because we are the only Chinese family there and if we speak Chinese in front of our Australian customers and friends, we feel awful and they didn't like it too because they think we maybe talking about them. And that's how we lost it.

But you remember it all? It hasn't gone rusty?

No. No. It was funny when we, when my husband and I visited China, to the villages, and we spoke to them in Haka and they were amazed. They said, 'You can still speak Haka?' We said, 'Why not?' 'Oh, you born in Australia, we thought you can't speak a word.'

So when did you learn English?

When I go to school. That's when we first learnt English. It was only half a day's school at first, and then a day.

Now Darwin at that stage, from what you described, was already a fairly multicultural society. There were a lot of different groups of people here?

Yes. Mostly Chinese. There was a few Japanese and a few Malays. A few Koepang and there's quite a few Greeks. There was a special camp called the Greek camp and they came out and they were very poor too.

Did you have much to do with the Aboriginal people?

Oh, yes. They, we got on very well, even back in the days in Box Creek when my parents were there. They were very kind too. They weren't abusive or anything like that. They used to come and bring them fish, you see. They catch it from the billabong and bring it around to them, which is a good change. And mother used to say they cooked it with black bean and garlic, it's very nice. It's like a cod. Also they bring pork. You see there plenty of wild pig so they bring some pork. But father wasn't too keen on eating the wild pig so the only thing they wanted off the Aboriginal, of the pigs, were trotters. So they make soup with that. Trotters, green ginger and vinegar. You wouldn't think the soup would be much, much flavour or value would you? But it's very nourishing. Particularly for pregnant women or after the baby['s] born. They put the vinegar in the soup and it brings out the calcium in the bone. That's something that we learnt.

After you were born and you were in Darwin, did you have any regular contact with Aboriginal people in daily life?

Well father had this boy working for us called Charlie. I don't know where he learnt English from, but he speaks perfect English and a very hardworking boy. You don't have to tell him to do this and do that. You know how some of them just go and sit down under the shady tree. But Charlie wasn't, he was very good. And we had other ones too.

[end of tape]

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