Die Gum Sarn, Big Gold Mountain

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Category: Chinese, immigration, goldfields, history, fiction

Leaving home

Ah Toy stood for several minutes at the entrance to his tent. His companions were going about the business of settling for the evening.
“This has been a momentous day” he thought to himself.
He looked beyond the encampment to where the thinning line of trees were silhouetted against the evening sky. He watched green grey turn to black in the leaves and trunks, then black against washed out grey white as the moon rose in it’s third quarter. He’d seen this scene maybe forty times from here, being observant of the lunar cycle somewhat as mariners were, but certainly not the non Chinese miners on the field.
“Ah” he said to himself,” This hasn’t gone the way I had expected.” In fact nothing had. No gold, no house, no woman, no respect, simply nothing.
Like hundreds, in fact thousands of his countrymen he had been lured by the prospect of a better life, or at least the chance of one. He smiled to himself as he recalled his skepticism at the tales he had been told in his village of the big gold mountain. He had visualised this many many times while deciding to stay or go.
“Go my son, take this chance and our money to bring our ancestors blessing on our family. Go with our prayers, you will bring us great honour” his father had said in front of his brothers and sisters after an earlier than usual evening meal.
That was five years ago now, and his memory recalled selectively the sadness of departure with the hope of the future. It was not an especially excessive meal in the shack called home in the delta. The day’s work had been shortened to allow him to say his farewells before starting the walk in daylight to the head village further down the river. He could still feel the worn notes in his hand which his father had handed him. His hands instinctively flexed while thinking. It was all of the family savings, and borrowings from other village members. Being the eldest he had some right to an inheritance. Gaining more than his share earlier than all the the others, in fact their shares too, was a burden he accepted he could carry. This was not for fame, more for fortune, the good fortune of his family.
The breeze from the treeline caught a chill from the shadowed creek. It reminded him of the wafting breezes crossing the river delta as he walked through the paddies in the falling evening so long ago. The lights of the head village guided his path as he threaded his way across his neighbours bunded rice enclosures, filled with water waiting for nature to sprout the rice. As he looked behind the roof of his family home merged into the surrounding houses and soon it was just a distant blob on the horizon. He knew where he was going, and on reaching he knew his way down the lane ways. They smelt of the wood burning for cooking fires and evening meals. The river embankment was crowded with the village fishing fleet, preparations being made for the night’s fishing. He feared the sea, the width of the delta here was sea enough for him. And here he was to make a sea change.

Pederick and Johnson

The Reverend Pederick’s mission in the foothills around the Victorian goldfields initially hadn’t extended beyond the reaches of the Irish, and only with great forbearance had he set foot in the lonely Chinese encampments.
In his protectorate role he had at first, found the company of the poorest Chinese distasteful. However, in their adversity, the humble humility with which they went about their daily grind echoed perseverance to him, in a way he had learnt at his mother’s knee.
He recalled the proclamation he had read to the chinamen two weeks earlier and his mind now raced as he faced the Govenor’s representative, who was now here to take an accounting of the miners grievances back to Melbourne.
“So Pederick, what is the essence of the claims made by our loyal subjects against the heathen,” Johnson intoned.
Pederick shifted uncomfortably in the chaise as he thought back to his meetings on the fields.
This bureaucrat, had never faced less than a squatter in his dealings with the hoipolloi and his tone was, well dismissive.
Johnston had heard the stories of Pederick’s mission work and whilst on Sunday’s Johnson fervently agreed and look as askance as the next Christian at any sense of superiority over other races, he knew in his heart that Chinese were heathen and Satan grasped those who deviated from such obvious certainty.
Pederick moved forward as he spoke. It was clear that there would be no argument here, rank and position determined the outcome of these conversations as clearly as did morning followed evening.
“Mr Johnston, I do feel that there are issues the Chinese have on the fields which are not properly addressed by the troopers and less so by the mining officials”
Johnston looked up and with an eyebrow called forth Pederick’s support case.
“ Well if I may continue, the proclamation made two weeks ago has been observed to the letter by the Chinese and their leaders have the proof..
Johnston’s lip curled in a sneer. Pederick took little heed before continuing,
“Its not a contention that the rum swillers have rampaged through the Chinese quarters and that there has been, to say the least, inaction on the part of the troopers”
Johnston’s face showed not a glimmer of knowledge, as he knew that from the troopers commander that rallying the men in protection of Chinese was nigh impossible.
Johnston interjected, “And so Pederick in your role as Protector what are you suggesting the Crown should do, exactly”. He didn’t stress the ‘exactly’ but the words not said and the silence before so saying left Pederick in no ambiguity as to the import of his response. Johnston only took his report as he was required to do and it was clear the interview was ending.
“Sir” he stated in a manner which like Johnston’s ‘exactly’ portended his strength of resolve.
“Sir” he began again, “ Its intolerable that the Crown allows the flaunting of parliament’s express wishes”
Johnston thought he knew what was coming next.
“The Chinese continue to have the protection under the law afford all her Majesty’s subject, in spite of the proclamation. As their assigned Protector it falls to me to seek your intervention to ensure the upholding of these laws. God save the Queen”

The words resonated between them. Differently though to when he had sought the Lord’s blessing on her Majesty when he read the anti Chinese proclamation to the yellow hordes two weeks earlier. Between such men these terms and form were well known and then again showed that the desecularisation of the State had some way to progress. A useful ploy when all else fails Johnston had often thought. For Pederick though it was a matter of faith and his whole being was wishing God’s infinite mercy down on her regal Majesty.

Johnston knew that Pederick, in appealing to the Crown to uphold parliament’s laws, was taking a further step in the campaign which many of the evangelical churches had embarked upon, to further their social justice crusade. Shame enough that these churches had taken the side of the working classes against the might of the squatocracy, then slavery and so called industrial issues.

“So your report is that the the Crown should protect these heathen. Sir is that your report?” Johnson scoffed.
Pederick was not dissuaded,
“Yes, Excellency, as the appointed Protector I advise thus.”
“Then I shall take your report in writing to the Council and advise in due course” Johnson replied, “For the time being that is where the matter rests. Thank you and goodbye”
Both stood simultaneously, Pederick in no doubt that his days as Protector were numbered?
“Good day to you, sir, and may God bless” Pederick replied.
And with that he stepped backwards two steps, turned and left through the mahogany doors into the outer office.
For the rest of the day the matters weighed on Pedrick’s conscience. Not so Johnson’s.

Arrowtown – the rain

It was relentless, relentless, relentless. The rain pounded the tinned roof wave after wave. Thunder rolled then cracked both high and low from out in the west, then continued to crush the sky without reason, squeezing yet more rain from the clouds. Lying there, all Fuk Geung could do was draw his rags around him and feel the chill of his bones permeate his inner self.
The soil was saturated, the run off sheeting away from the front of his hut. The iron above the entrance directed the downpour flow away from the crude door of undressed timbers he had scrounged from the scrub.
The water poured off the hillside and sluiced its way onto his roof, though deeper inside his grotto there was some slight warmth. In all the years since leaving Ballarat, he’d never had to move his abode. In the hill above his hand hewn cave the was a layer of impervious rock which kept his home safe from the seeping ground water above.
But the rain drove on, the clouds didn’t move. They stayed stationary above the valley and dumped everything they could into the creek.
Slowly at first the flow increased. The rounded stones at the bank edge sat like closing eyes as the water rose to submerge each in turn.
The rolling thunder followed by the occasional deep crack of lightning tearing the sky was ceaseless. He huddled on his bed, a low affair of hessian sacking stitched at the edges with string to a cross legged bracing for support over the earthen floor. At least it was dry.
Pools of water now formed in front of the doorway, the edges flowing down the slope to the creek from which he eked his living.
The garden beds were mostly higher than the usual flooding levels, he had lost just one crop to the raging torrents which almost inevitably followed such deluges.
Fuk Geung could hear the rain subsiding, and caught a glimpse of the sky lighting itself though faint at first. On not many days had he been able to see the sun at this time from his bed. He would have been more usually in the dark soil plots for perhaps four hours by now, to make the best of the time and the coming day’s warmth before nights cold shroud descended. He wondered when the rain might ease. The wind picked up from the west and blowing a little harder tried to force rain through the doorway. The planking he had propped at the entrance bore the brunt.
“How different this is” he had thought to himself many times since being expelled from the diggings at Ballarat The shame of returning to his home village empty handed was too great, and he had opted for a passage to the wilds of New Zealand, and then Arrowtown, where rumour was there was more gold than in the Big Gold Mountain. He didn’t care to think how many years ago that was, knowing only that had to be at least ten years, for his body told him so.
The gold he came for was long gone, the easy pickings taken, the carpet baggers and authorities talking up the prospects for profit and tax reasons.
He longed for the rain to cease, but realised that this enforced stop work would do his aching body some good. He had been feeling the years of solitude and hopelessness. He knew that one day he would be part of the soil on which he was now living, but then consumed by it.
From all the times he had seen, the hopes he had brought with him, none remained. A life without children and a land without friends were his lot.
The breaking thunder rolled on and he counted the seconds of its impact. Could that really have been nine seconds he wondered? He had estimates earlier that the time was five seconds, and now it seemed softer in tone, without doubt it rolling away and on and on.
His mind wandered and the smoke from his pipe found its way to the door, then swirled back into the tiny space he called home. He lay looking out over his feet at the doorway. There was no risk of a visitor. The sheet and his few clothes piled high on the bed were his only blankets for warmth.
Then as fast as it had come, the puddles in front of the entrance were sucked into the soil. The rain eased and moved east, the thunder rolls became more distant. Small birds resumed their calling, finding out who was still here and not drowned or driven away by the storm’s cacophony. He knew he needed to rise now and start this day’s labours
The garden patch was slightly upstream from his cave home, and he had achieved the land through a summer of cutting digging and banking. This work for his home village would have been a mammoth task, but for one man, this was an achievement of heroism. He had known others who had failed. He knew that he must keep the soil from disappearing year after year, as fertility was a blessing of each crop if successfully rotated.
He set about the day’s work.

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.
‘Ah Toy?’
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.