Coming Home

The following short story is a tribute to the life of Alice Wong (nee Kum Jew) who was born in Gundagai, NSW in 1908. As a young woman, Alice moved to Sydney where she worked as a seamstress. She lived in Surry Hills and earned a living by doing piece-work in her home, which she shared with two sisters, Dorrie and Maud.

After she married, Alice lived in a number of towns in NSW including Quirindi, Bingara, Tingha and finally Inverell. In each of these towns, Alice and her husband Ernest owned a variety of small mixed businesses. Alice died in Inverell, in 1996, at the age of 87. The direct descendants who survive her include three children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, all of whom live on the east coast of Australia, except for one family which lives in Germany. She is also survived by the step-family of her eldest son.

The author, Kristal Yee, is Alice's grand daughter.

by Kristal Yee
copyright Kristal Yee 2003

Alice Wong in about 1940
Alice Wong, about 1940.

It had been a shock to Pearl in many ways, moving to the crop-raising plains of northern New South Wales. On the journey north her sense of remoteness had increased with each additional town they passed. Along the way she noted the dusty streets, the poor condition of horses pulling carts and working in the fields, the downcast gestures of those who still struggled to find work. And she became aware there were fewer of her own kind than she was used to seeing. That awareness became acute when she realised there were no other Chinese in the little town that was to be her home. She began to realise how much her family had shielded her from the slights and adversities of the Depression. Though she would never voice it to Les, she wanted to return to her life and family in Victoria even before she reached her destination.

The first summer sapped her energy so completely that she felt tired from the moment she rose till the moment she and her husband closed the mosquito net around their bed. Evenings closeted in the kitchen with the combustion stove preparing dinner were the worst. Unwelcome bubbles of perspiration collected on the tip of her nose and along her hairline. They seemed, to her, to emphasise a new vulgarity she had not previously associated with her own appearance. Pearl felt more foreign in the north and this convinced her that she was disagreeable in the eyes of her new community.

For some people in the town, the presence of Pearl and her family was a novelty, for others it was an affront. After two and a half years, there were loyal customers who complimented her husband on running a good business, and thanked him for the credit he extended to those who really needed it. But there were others who swore they'd never darken the doorstep of the Hong Quan establishment to buy their groceries. Even if the only other store in town ran out of rations. Pearl's exposure to the latter prompted her to keep a close watch on her children and protect them from the ill will of strangers.

Robert was seven when she felt compelled to intervene on his behalf. It was not her preference, but the teachers at the public school were too offhand about his encounters with his classmates. So she arranged for him to attend the Catholic school where she hoped he would be happier. On that first morning, Pearl stood by her young son and resisted the urge to help him ease his satchel over his shoulders. Then she walked to the front gate with him, saying she knew the nuns would be kind, and watched as he headed up the hill. He dawdled with his head down, occasionally kicking red stones from the side of the road, and Pearl wondered if she had done the right thing. She also wondered what the teachers would think, him turning up with dusty shoes.

When he didn't turn at the corner to wave, Pearl made a note to cook his favourite dried fish and bean curd dishes that night. Instead of turning back to the house and her two younger children, she held Robert in sight until he was completely obscured by the line of oaks further up the road. He had begged his mother not to accompany him to school, and not to meet him when it finished. He was, he reminded her, in second class and he didn't want anyone to think he was a sissy. She knew he wasn't a sissy, and only hoped that when her son returned in the afternoon there would be no trail of tormentors behind him.

Ruby Tanner, who lived in a town thirty miles away, had assured Pearl the nuns would look after him. Her cousin was one of them. Unlike Robert's school peers, Ruby, a lover of dance and one-time choreographer herself, had been charmed by him from the moment she saw him on stage. She had bowled up to Pearl and Les as soon as the concert finished. Your son is adorable, she said, he looks like a professional. She admired his striped jacket, his top hat and cane. You're new in town, she said. You must come to tea with my cousin and me, Sunday at two.

At tea, Ruby did not hold back. Your little Robert taps so well. So talented for a boy of five. I do believe he's a Chinese Fred Astaire. You mustn't keep him a secret.

So with Pearl and Les's agreement, Ruby took Robert to Sydney and he danced at the Tivoli. By the time Robert put his shoes away at the age of six and announced he wanted to be a clown, the two women were close, despite the distance between their towns.

Pearl could only hope Ruby was right about the nuns. Her friend seemed to know about religions, and declared this school would be better. While Pearl didn't know about gods, she was prepared to see if they raised school boys who were better behaved. The public boys had chorused Ching Chong Chinamen to Robert regularly. That wasn't so bad. In fact, it was to be expected. But in his last week at the public school, the boys chased Robert home and brandished sticks and threw stones. Pearl encouraged Robert to ignore the nastiness till he came home with a bruise on his side and said he'd been hit by a stone. She didn't accuse him of lying, though she knew the difference between the mark of a stone and the shape of a boot. After a week, the bruise on Robert's rib had faded, but his mother wasn't sure about the ones inside. So she talked with the nuns and bought a new uniform.

With Robert off to school, there was little to do but get on with her day. The stairs to the residence above the store seemed steeper that morning, the laundry and breakfast dishes less pressing. But the younger children needed attention. Pearl washed their hands, wiped toast crumbs from their face and stayed with them until Mary arrived to mind them and help with the housework. With Mary to listen to little Sylvia's picture book stories and Philip banging his spoon, Pearl was free to start her own work.

She sorted through her bamboo basket and took out the mending she'd promised Mrs Dawson for the next day, hand-sewing which she could take to the verandah. With the garments draped over one arm, Pearl moved her free hand over the table and hand-wheel of her treadle machine. The blonde wood was warm and familiar, and smelled of its weekly coat of wax. Knowing how his wife loved to sew, Les had simply presented the machine to her last spring. It was her only material pride and joy, and a boost to her family's livelihood.

Settled under the shade of the bullnose, Pearl plied her needle and thread through layers of swiss cotton with the same precision and ease she applied to cutting and machining garments she designed herself. Dressmaking was a pleasure for her and much preferable to working in the store. Though she packed orders daily as well, the mornings belonged to Pearl.

When she glanced away from her work to rest her eyes, she assessed the mood of the distant blue ranges. They made a mockery of the parched brown hills closer to town. The farming men told Les the Gwydir was too low these days, its banks over-exposed by drought. On occasion, the river flooded and sent torrents of vengeful water downstream, flooding the main street as it went, flipping the town from one disaster to another. But that didn't appear likely this season.

Normally Pearl absorbed herself in a pattern of work without concern for the children or her duties in the store. She would check the street to see who had gathered to chat outside the post office and who was smoking on the bench outside The Café. But on Robert's first day at his new school, she didn't even notice that the flies were quiet, or that she wasn't the bubbly person Ruby always complimented her on being. Apart from Ruby, who she saw on the odd weekend, Pearl had no one else to talk to. She didn't want to burden Les with problems about the children, and she hadn't become familiar with anyone else, beyond working as their seamstress.

When the clock struck ten and Mrs Dawson's mending was finished, the sun had moved to the north, and the verandah was growing in to a heat trap. Pearl inspected the collars and cuffs of the Griffins' Sunday shirts and decided they could wait until the evening. She dropped them back in the basket and turned her attention to Sylvia and Philip. After two stories, she exchanged places with Mary, who was filling the copper with just enough water to do the washing. All day Pearl shifted from one chore to another, not staying with any one job from start to finish.

By home time, she found herself pulling dandelion and bindii from the front garden, looking frequently along the path Robert would return home by. She'd know immediately how his day had been. As Ruby said, he had an expressive little body.

Several groups of mothers and children passed before Pearl's instinct, more than her senses, alerted her to Robert's approach. She checked herself when his group emerged on the near side of the oaks. She hadn't expected him to be in the company of others. But there he was with two other children, one boy and one girl, and a woman who Pearl assumed was their mother. Robert and the boy played tag around the girl while she squealed and ducked for cover. They were so occupied with their game, they were almost at the gate before Robert noticed his own mother waiting.

'This is Billy and his Mum,' he said, coming to a stand still.

Pearl opened the gate for Robert, staying on her own side of the fence. Unused to casual acquaintance, she took longer than might be considered polite to acknowledge the stranger and her children.

'Hello, I'm Marion Connors and this is Elly,' said the woman touching her daughter on the shoulder.

'Pleased to meet you, I'm Pearl Kwan. You've met Robert I see.'

'Indeed,' Mrs Connors smiled and waved a fly from Robert's face. 'He tells me you're quite a tennis player.'

'Well, yes, I love it, but I haven't played for some time.'

'That doesn't matter, our group is mostly social. We meet at the courts by the river on Saturday afternoons. Will you join us?