Chinese Heritage and Writing
Cheng, Christopher, Practically Primary
Currently, I have three Chinese historical fiction titles published and each of these has been crafted in different ways. Two titles are in the My Australian Story series (MAS), New Gold Mountain and The Melting Pot, and also one for the Making Tracks series (National Museum of Australia), Seams of Gold. Initially it wasn't my idea to write the first of my Chinese themed historical fiction titles. At that stage I had written mostly non-fiction titles but I certainly knew a little about the history and the impact of the Chinese migration to Australia--mostly from the studies in school, and not from stories told through the family. My father was an immigrant of the 1950s. I knew how important the Chinese people and their practices were to the development of modern day Australia but I didn't have a crushing desire to tell these stories initially.
Thankfully for me I was asked to write the story that became New Gold Mountain. And at the completion of that book I knew that there was another Chinese themed story that had to be told--the beginning of the White Australia Policy or as it was official known, the Immigration Restriction Act. The story of the first, New Gold Mountain, led to the creation of the second. It was suggested that the books not be a sequel, but the characters are very closely related--it had to be that way because in reality the riots at Lambing Flat (New Gold Mountain) were the beginning of the Immigration Restriction Act (The Melting Pot). And these are stories that must be told because they are stories that contribute to our Australian identity.
I started with a smattering of knowledge about the Lambing Flat Riots (Lambing Flat is now known as Young). I knew general information about the Chinese on the gold fields and the mining practices they used but I wanted more. I needed to immerse myself in everything and anything to do with the riots. To enable that I started searching online for any references to the Lambing Flat riots. That unearthed a number of pieces written in the newspapers of the day, especially the Sydney Morning Herald and the Lambing Flat Gazette. I pored over every detail and then constructed a very detailed spreadsheet that created a timeline of the events as they occurred, including the discovery of gold, the arrival of the various mining communities, the marching bands, the arrival of commissioners, the riots and so much more. And as I uncovered the information the story began to tell itself.
The books are fiction, but when writing historical fiction titles like those in MAS I try to stick closely to the facts that I am able to unearth or that I know, as is the case with New Gold Mountain. The riots did really happen, the military did march from Victoria Barracks in Sydney, there were three smaller riots prior to the main riot (many people know of the main riot but not the preceding ones) and the flag. The Lambing Flat banner does exist and to see it right in front of me with the words 'NO MORE CHINESE, ROLL UP' boldly displayed on the banner at the Lambing Flat Museum in Young, a beautiful volunteer-run historical museum, sent shivers down my spine and made me tingle and weep a little too!
Initially my thoughts for New Gold Mountain contained some incorrect information. I based that on some rapid and incomplete research. But once I knew that I was empowered to tell the story I spent three months digging deeper and deeper through the State Library of New South Wales and in the National Archives, unfolding papers that had not been touched for decades, reading personal letters, and I must mention how wonderful the librarians were. After a few weeks of seeing me arriving at the Mitchell Library circulation desk with a list of the documents that I wanted to examine, the librarians started asking me, 'Have you seen this. ...' and soon handing me items to look at.
But I wanted more, if I could get it, so my wife and I drove down to Young and stood on the fields where the town first began, where the mines were dug, where the Chinese miners were displaced. …