Ballarat, the Encampment
Pederick took to his task with delight. The ink barely dry on the statute gave him the opportunity to stand between the saved and the pagan, to assert her Britannic Majesty’s will far from the seat of her power. Stumbling over the mullock heaps to the rick rack shanties arrayed by the creek it was clear to him that there would be trouble. He’d heard the rumblings of the miner’s and though of the same stock he stood apart. Not for him the swilling and carousing of the harsh tents and canvas. The air was burnt with the flamed dampers cooking and the strange orientalness of crackling pork. Too soon it would be dark and the stillness, though quietening, would also hide the mal-intent of mumblings erupting through out the camp.
Pederick could see figures within the tent silhouetted on the sides, dancing with the stains on the canvas, as he approached. Ah Toy’s tent stood at a slight angle to the pavement but there was about the structure purpose and strength. As the designated leader of the community Ah Toy’s strength was leading by consent after it had become clear that there was no other way to determine leadership. The clans had meet for months trying to sort out the precedence, but none was available in this new land. Facing an unknown threat the men of the central kingdom could not frame their response. None of them could have stood in the halls of the Imperial Palace and argued with finesse Confucian thought logic. For there was a more immediate threat, the threat of loss of livelihood. The certain knowledge that they were here, with no way out, hated by those around them. The scent of the eucalypts brought no comfort to their senses. Rather it heightened their anxiety. Many had succumbed to the cold and disease that year. Mr Tong Way’s remedies were popular and spoke to them in a language they understood. Energy which they transferred to the hard flinty shale of the barren creek bed seemed renewed by the potent lotions and insect bits crushed for their healing in the pedestal and mortar Tong Way always had at his disposal.
Though not the oldest his wizened face showed sageness beyond its years. Years spent toiling so far from home. It was his ability to sense the ebb and flow of humanity’s’ fickleness which was valued by others in him. In this tough dog eat dog world of the gold panning under class, there were none lower than the Chinese. Not even the Irish
They had come to this place so far from the softened paddies of the Canton River delta. Lush paddies manured with human excrement fed a population so far in excess of its natural ability that for seven to ten generations the soil yielded bounty way beyond its capacity. And when the typhoons came with the devastation of a wind acting as a plough, the villages and their fields were reduced to nothing. An exodus from the devastation dispersed those who could afford it to far flung places, such as this flinty outcrop in a strange land.
Pederick stopped at the tent entrance. He could sense that things were about to change, and that these people whom he had come to respect would in a moment have their respect of him shattered.
‘Ah Toy, ne hey bin seer?’ he offered in a voice which though raised was meant simultaneously to be respectful. He had picked up a smattering of Chinese in his dealing’s with the diggers as the Camp’s Protectorate Warden, and for this he was held in high regard amongst them.
And he shuffled on his feet as he felt the movement of a gathering behind him. At this time of the evening, Europeans were never seen in this part of the camp. For even in full daylight hours only the occasional tinker or other tradesman was wont to ply his trade here.
The tent flaps unfolded in a flurry of arms. The conversation, animated but muted had ceased before Ah Toy emerged to stand before his caller.
They looked one at the other. Pederick stood head and shoulders above the stooped figure. However there was respect. Whilst a handshake may have seemed inevitable the jostling crowd made such a gesture impossible. No contact. These were the unwritten rules of the camp. Such rules when broken were dealt with severely. All parties knew the rules, if not the reason for them.
‘So good to see you, Pederick Shing sarn’ Ah Toy responded in a tone of greeting, establishing his place as the spokesman for the assembling throng.
Pederick was pleased at the ‘Shing sarn honorific’ for it was in his official capacity that he had come to see his counterpart.
‘I have the latest Government gazette as I promised; there are matters on which we must converse.’
Ah Toy nodded assent though his eyes stayed directly focussed on the document in Pederick’s right hand. It was clearly important for the seal and tapes were the vermilion of the Governor and the seal as yet unbroken.
‘I deliver to you this proclamation Ah Toy, as the Chinese delegate on these diggings’ Pederick’s voice then peeled out to bring the official proceeding to an end,
‘You are charged with the responsibility to have all Chinamen hereabouts abide by the proclamation’s decree, from midnight at the first day of the next month. God Save the Queen’
And with that he raised his plumed hat with his right hand, the feathers arcing forward and then back as the hat was raised over his right shoulder in salute.
Ah Toy, smiled and accepted the offered document. He felt the weight of the occasion, but not the document, for in his mind he sensed that from this day forth his relationship with Pederick had altered, forever.
Ah Toy shuffled backwards, the dust of the pathway offering little resistance to his slippers. His eyes maintained a dipping focus on Pederick who from his height looked down on his Chinese friend. As he reached his tent opening his right hand took the flap, he bowed lower and then disappeared inside. Pederick watched Ah Toy’s bowed head slip into the tent, studied the shaking flaps for a moment then turned on his way.
Ah Toy was greeted with silence. The silence deepened as he took his seat at the head of the table. He placed the decree with reverence on the slats, having first carefully made a space amongst the mah-jong pieces.
For a moment not a word was spoken the men’s eyes were fixed on the document and its crimson tie.
None had seen such a document in this land and for those who had seen such in the motherland; t had always been from afar. Documents promulgated by the Manchu mandarins would never have found a place in their humble abodes. They looked on.
Ting Wah’s face, older than its years stared into and beyond the document. He had heard though not understood Pederick’s words outside the tent and he was fearful. He knew as the longest occupant of the fields that this could be nothing but bad.
Goong Chee wondered. He trusted Ah Toy having come under his protection from the Irish mobs the past St Patrick’s Day
Fuk Geung also wondered. His distrust of Ah Toy had not yet surfaced in public, but his dislike of this man who was somehow their leader was deep in his chest.
The others miners milled around in the background, not seated but peering over the shoulders of those lucky enough by age or status to be awarded a seat.
Ah Toy looked at each of them. Goong Chee’s thread bare jacket caught his eye. With the approaching winter he knew that unless the precious gold favoured him he would be feeling the chill of these harsh surroundings as he had seem many other suffer and die over past winters.
Ting Wah’s eyes could not be read. His eyes shifted from the bare dirt floor to the document and back again. His cycling gaze was barely broken by the slow mosquito like buzz which began to fill the tent.
‘Open it’ came a voice from the rear of the tent.
‘What does it mean?’ came another.
‘Is there any hope for us now, or do the white scum continue to abuse us with their laws as they have ever since we came to this forbidden land?’ mumbled Fuk Geung.
And with this the buzz lessened. All eyes went to Fuk Geung’s face, though none to his eyes. He had come to the fields from a place none of them had heard of. He was a mystery to them and though he spoke their tongue he was not of them. Some thought he might have been a spy from the motherland, though he voiced dissent at all times. His way of thinking was perceptibly different in a place where thoughts were only of gold and home. To have higher thoughts as he did was none of their experience and never in one so young. In short he did not have their respect. And of all characteristics, respect and honour were paramount.
Ah Toy held these in abundance. He waited till the sound of the distant creek could be heard tinkling like bells in the temple court yards.
Leaning forward he reached out for the document. Though his hands were trembling he stilled their shaking. Such display of leadership set him apart from those surrounding. These moments were what set apart leaders from followers, and this he knew.
Carefully he slipped his fingers around the tape. The band held the document rolled tightly and he untied the bow. The parchment crinkled slightly as he unfurled the page. A single page from which minutes before Pederick had read the accursed proclamation. He read it again in faltering English, with nowhere near the magisterial booming voice Pederick had summoned for the task. His translation into his countrymen’s tongue though in the same voice carried with it the full import of the miner’s creeping dread.
When he had finished the silence was intense. One by one those nearest the tent flaps shuffled off. Those closer the light stared fixedly at the parchment laying there in the slowly rewinding itself into a coil.
Ah Toy was motionless, his eyes did not betray his heart. No words were spoken as more departed until he was left to ponder alone what was about to befall them all.