Just locks of hair

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  • Published 20141104
  • ISBN: 9781922182432 
  • Extent: Extent: 296 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

Response on reading ‘Former glory’, the novella by Cate Kennedy published in Griffith Review 46: Forgotten Stories – The Novella Project.

IN THE QUIET of the late afternoon, before hunger sets in again for the evening meal, I open my small but elaborately carved sandalwood box. It is a treasure in itself, given to me by my once-idolised elder brother. In it I keep special mementoes: the imitation diamond and amethyst flower-spray brooch with the broken clasp that my father had given my mother; the sparkling green-and-gold crystal on a gold chain, now tainted – a present from another brother; my copper peace symbol from the days when I was a barefoot, long-haired hippy student in denim jeans with hand-sewn flower patches over the knees; a set of pre-decimal coins; the remnant of a ring my father had made as a sailor during World War II, which had to be filed off my finger following a bite from a belligerent bull ant. Broken but unique, it is made from a shilling piece and a sixpence that forms the clasp for a small piece of blue Bakelite taken from a toothbrush.

There is also a small, curled lock of moonshine-silver hair, soft as thistledown, in a small envelope. I touch it tenderly, remembering my firstborn son, with his clear blue eyes questioning, laughing, daring to be himself, becoming a boy, a man and a father. I smile with the sweet, home-baked bread warmth of nostalgia.

‘…will you just put those fucking things away?… They’re absolutely repulsive.’

This is how a character in ‘Former glory’ refers to three locks of hair, kept hidden in a small box. Trophies from another era, kept buried, along with the memories. The stories of pride degenerate into ragged fragments of silent shame, buried in a ‘black hole, full of stowed secrets’.

Why is it that I feel like someone has me in a breathless stranglehold when I read these words? They are just words on a page of fiction…move on. However, they are also strong emotions expressed on finding the ‘things’ wrapped in brittle, dusty red silk in an old cigar box, buried in a dank corner of the disused cellar of a derelict hotel. The building is being restored to ‘former glory’ by cashed-up out-of-towners, in a country town in north-eastern Victoria. The new owners of the hotel don’t want to display their find to the public; they want to forget about what might have happened in this country town, dug up and fucked over by miners so many years ago, and now struggling to survive and create new meanings. They hurriedly shut the lid on the past.

Let’s just accept the sanitised, rigid curriculum served up like stale white bread sandwiches in schools. Let’s get our kicks from the quiz shows, the cheap thrills of reality TV. Who will be shamed or embarrassed, or walk away with a huge financial gain? We’ll post selfies of ourselves getting drunk or in some provocative sexual pose on Facebook, alongside pictures of cute baby animals. We’ll try to outdo others with the most outrageous tweets in Twitter-land. This is what is important. The next small electronic thrill that shows we are connected in a modern world. The past doesn’t matter. Who cares? Who is listening? Even university professors get caught in the act. There is no privacy in our connected world, which tries so hard to disconnect from the past.

‘They’re pigtails of human hair,’ says Jean, a patron of the local historical society, ‘hacked off the heads of Chinese gold diggers. People used them as switches for horsewhips, or just kept them. Like scalps. Something to boast about.’ But no-one wants anything to do with these ‘artefacts’ – reminders of the brutality of the Buckland riots in 1857. They are not for display and public discussion. Let’s just put them away and quietly forget.

My response is a deep mix of anger and grief, welling up over more than a hundred years of sordid lies and half-truths. Instead of forcing this down like dry toast, I let the tears flow long and loud, as if I am at the funeral of someone very close and dear to me. I unravel. My husband holds me close. He has not read this story, but he knows of my story, and has shared part of the journey.


IN EARLY OCTOBER of 2012, I went to Harrietville in north-east Victoria with my husband and octogenarian aunt to attend a weekend-long Chinese ancestry community festival. More than four hundred people attended the event, one quarter of whom were descended from Chinese who had lived in the area. My aunt and I were two of those descendants.

My maternal great-grandmother, Lucina, was born here on 2 August 1862, to William Ah Yew and Susannah nee Duke. Susannah’s widowed Irish mother, struggling with six mouths to feed, arranged for teenage Susannah and her younger sister Lucy (known as Lily) to be married to Chinese men. In one of the scant references to Chinese in Brian Lloyd’s Gold at Harrietville (Shoestring Press, 1982), it is noted that Lily was sold for £50. When asked how this had happened, she replied that her mother had always told her to obey her parents, and ‘mother knew best’. Susannah’s husband William, a storekeeper, had arrived in Australia in 1853. It is likely that both he and Lily’s husband, Ah Hing, had arrived in Harrietville in 1857, escaping from the Buckland River riots.

Harrietville is a pretty alpine village at the gateway to Mt Hotham. As we drove into town, cheerful red Chinese lanterns greeted us for more than a kilometre. The Chinese ancestry celebration weekend was brilliantly organised by the local historical society, with events held between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. There were re-enactments of the Chinese arriving from the Buckland River diggings; a play by Sydney-based Chinese actors, organised by the Australian Chinese Heritage Association; competitions for children; family history displays and talks at the local cemetery; Chinese settlement and gold diggings on the Ovens River; and an exuberant lion dance procession. Two films depicting the plight of the Chinese on the Victorian goldfields were shown. One of them, by local filmmaker Andrew Swift, concentrated on the goldfields of the Ovens Valley and the tragedy of the Buckland Riots, which led to the arrival of more than one hundred desperate, starving Chinese miners in Harrietville.

This weekend symbolises a growing awareness and belated acknowledgement of the contributions of the Chinese to earlier communities. For those of us with Chinese ancestors, we quietly rejoice. Several years ago when my aunt made a family history tour with her older sisters, no-one seemed interested, or cared. In small towns like Harrietville, gravestones with Chinese writing and other artefacts were used as doorsteps or pot-plant stands. They were merely curios of a past era, which no-one wanted to experience up close.

It is the same in some other small Australian towns. In Haddon, near Ballarat, there is no memorabilia and few buildings remain. History has been erased, as if it never happened, or was of little consequence. Lucina was married here to another ‘half-caste’, also the son of a Chinese father and an Irish mother. But there is no trace. Even the railway track has been removed and replaced with a walking trail. Only a newspaper report remains as evidence the wedding was held here. It seems that the day was happy, but dark clouds loomed. Lucina ended her life on 25 October 1933, according to various newspaper reports, by ‘jumping off’ or ‘falling from’ the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She was the thirty-third person to do so, and had travelled by train from Wagga Wagga after hearing her grandson flippantly remark that the Bridge was the favoured spot for suicide these days. The reasons for this last act, beyond the few newspaper lines, remain a mystery.

BUT WAIT, THERE is something more. I do not have a lock of Lucina’s hair. However, I have a photograph of something that she created. It is an exquisite, large embroidery of birds of paradise on a dark-brown silk backing. The framed original hangs on the living room wall of another great granddaughter. From the photograph, I had the embroidery reproduced by the Nantong China Embroidery Museum guild workers. The reproduction, resplendent on a pale green silk background and framed in gold, hangs on my living room wall in Australia. Into the original threads Lucina sewed the mystery of her life, spinning from her Irish–Chinese roots. And to honour her, to disallow forgetting, my task now is to unravel and reassemble the threads of her story, with one foot in Ireland and one in China. It is my one quiet act of honoring the past, even if no-one is listening and no-one else cares. It will be part of my broken, but special, treasures in a box. One day, you may lift the lid, my son, and wonder.

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