Growing up, all I knew about my great-grandfather was that he had come to Australia as a young man to find gold. Now that I'm older, I've become more curious about him. When I turned to my dad and aunts to learn more about his life recently, and how he shaped our family's history, the story that unfolded both surprised and humbled me.
Herng Chong Eng was born in Taishan in China's south in the 1860s, by which time the Gold Rush was in full swing. When Herng was 20, he set off to joining his two older brothers in a country they called 'New Gold Mountain'.
Herng's journey was - as the local diggers would have said - hard yakka. Having travelled from his village to Hong Kong on a tiny boat, he would have waited in a shanty town until he could board a ship for the three-month voyage. The 12-weeks he spent at sea was only part of the journey. Many Chinese miners were 'dropped off' in South Australia to avoid a £10 tax in Victoria. Those men (few women came) often walked between 500-800 kilometres to get to Victoria. My great-grandfather was likely one of a long line of Chinese men, making their way across the Australian landscape to Ballarat.
When Herng arrived in Victoria, the Gold Rush had already peaked. Joining his brothers in the tight-knit Chinese community, he would have found market gardens with Chinese vegetables and people who spoke Cantonese. He would've played mahjong and gone to concerts, although Chinese entertainers (including seven-foot-eight Chang the Chinese Giant) had mostly stopped coming by the 1880s.
Herng worked in Ballarat, Maryborough and Bendigo. The reality of his daily life was likely one of exhaustion and hostility from the locals. I hope that his personality, which my aunt described as that of "a very nice man, easy-going, a real gentlemen", helped him to make friends, and even integrate into Australian life. We know that he mingled with the locals, enough to learn English and speak it well. Apparently, if you closed your eyes and heard him speak, you would have thought he was a western man.
Herng never found gold, but he worked as a carpenter and sent money back home to his family. Dad believes that Herng made the boat trip back to China six times, including to get married. He was in his 50s when he married Toy Yeung Chu, who was 25 years his junior. I've heard that my great-grandmother was quite tough and it's no wonder: she would have barely seen her SISO husband (Ship In Ship Out), and managing the household with her bound feet would have been challenging.
When Dad told me that Herng had a child (my grandfather) in his 60s, I was confused. Was there another wife? An Australian girlfriend? Fertility issues? I found out that Herng and Toy had lost children very early on - a boy and a girl. After this, they adopted a son and then had my grandfather late in life.
Like many Chinese men at the time, Herng worked as a furniture maker. He worked just four kilometres from where I now live, in Melbourne's city centre. There's a building there that belonged to Herng's brother. "Go to 242 Exhibition Street," Dad told me. "And look up." The name Peter Hong Nam 1910 is still branded on the building.
After 48 years working in Australia, Herng packed up his tools and went home to China. He'd made enough money to live comfortably and he ran the local temple, reading people's fortunes on flat bamboo fortune sticks. Herng didn't foresee his own fate. One day, rumours reached him that the bank in which he'd deposited his savings from Australia had collapsed. Rushing there to see if the news was true and finding that it was, he had a heart attack on the spot. He never really recovered and died in the early 1940s.
Herng's son, my grandfather, would've heard stories of Australia, and in the 1950s he packed his recipe books and flew to Melbourne, working in Chinese restaurants and making dim sims. My Dad followed a few years later.
I feel privileged to be able to piece together Herng Chong Eng's story, to preserve the fragments of our history that might've disappeared. But I have so many more questions. What were the goldfields like? What kept him going when things were tough? Did the Australian flies drive him crazy?
Maybe my kids, his great-great-grandchildren, will one day marvel at how his story is interwoven with this country and draw strength from knowing that Herng Chong Eng was an intrepid, adaptable man - and an excellent long-distance walker.
New Gold Mountain airs over two big weeks premiering Wednesday 13 October at 9.30pm and continuing on Thursday 14 October, Wednesday 20 October, and Thursday 21 October at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. Subtitles in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese and Korean are available to stream on SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Teachers: head to GOLD, an SBS Learn website unearthing diverse experiences of the gold rush.
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