No Knife on my Silk Road


A pictorial presentation
by Helene Chung

Images by Helene Chung unless indicated otherwise
May 2019 unless indicated otherwise


Pronounced He-LANE Chung as in HUNG
Singing Sand Dunes, Gansu
(Chinese photographer)

China’s Silk Road from Xian (Changan) to Kashgar

Centre of Xian, capital of Shaanxi Province
Bell Tower Hotel, Bell Tower 

Population 9 m
Formerly called Changan
Xian = Western Peace
Capital of 13 dynasties
Including Qin (Chin), Han, Tang

Under Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
Changan a cosmopolitan
leading world city

Bell Tower

Welcome to foreigners at South Gate, September 2017

Red carpet entrance to South Gate, September 2017

Approach to South Gate, September 2017

Crossing the moat, September 2017

Video: Re-enactment Silk Road traders and camels on South Gate, Xian, September 2017

Hui Muslims at prayer at the Great Mosque, Xian, June 1984
Islam introduced to China by Arab traders in 7th c

Imam Ma Liangji with John Martin, Helene Chung and ABC interpreter Old Fan (sunglasses) watch a gongfu tournament at the end of Ramadan, Xian, 1 July 1984 (Willi Phua)

Muslim Street, Xian: Entrance, cakes, shish kebabs, pomegranates, September 2017

Big Wild Goose Pagoda for Buddhist scriptures brought back from India by 7th c monk Xuan Zang

Buddhist worshippers among temple visitors

Buddhism introduced 1st c AD
Mahayana Buddhism 
‘merely one reincarnation

in a vast series of Buddhas’

In 65 AD Emperor Han Mingdi dreamt of a divine being
Sent an envoy west 
He returned with Sanskrit texts

Translated at Louyang

(CP Fitzgerald, China)

First Emperor Qin (reign 221 BC – 207 BC)
His protective army of Entombed Warriors

Qin formerly spelt Chin
Defeated all rival kingdoms
United China named after him
Completed building Great Wall of China

Burial mound of Emperor Qin: vendors at the base, men under pomegranate tree, June 1984 (John Martin)

Terracotta army of soldiers and horses in pit 1
8 m visitors in 2018

Warrior with horse and middle ranking officer displayed behind glass

Archaeologists at work in pit 1
Estimated total 6,000 – 8,000 figures

Site of discovery by farming brothers
digging a well in 1974

Surviving farmer Yang Zhifa autographs a book
Sits for photograph with purchaseSeptember 2017 (Helene Chung, Chinese photographer)

Huaqing Palace site of XIAN INCIDENT, Christmas 1936
Nationalist Generalissimo CHIANG KAISHEK kidnapped by subordinates
Released when he agrees to cease fighting Communists and join ZHOU ENLAI in a United Front against Japan
Did Xian Incident change the course of history? Might Chiang Kaishek have defeated Mao Zedong?
(1984, John Martin)

Negotiations assisted by 

Australian William Henry Donald

(EA Selle, Donald of China 

Portrait by Time)

Chiang Kaishek in 1935        

(Jonathan D Spence, Search for Modern China)


Zhou Enlai at Yenan

(Jonathan D Spence, Search for Modern China)

Young Marshall Zhang Xueliang
(50 years house arrest before USA)
Yang Hucheng (executed)

Travel by fast train Xian to Lanzhou – 3 hours

Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province           

Gansu, narrow Hexi (West of Yellow River) Corridor to Xinjiang

Lanzhou population 4 m 
400,000 – 500,000 Muslims 

 White Pagoda Park with a mosque below

Iron Bridge across Yellow River Renamed Zhongshan Bridge after Sun Zhongsun (Sun Yatsen)

Roadside stop at fruit stall on 2.5 hour drive from Lanzhou to boat for Bingling Grottoes

Liujiaxia Reservoir, Bridge and Park enroute to Bingling Grottoes

Motor boat to cross Yellow River to Jishi Mountains where café manager presents
Eight treasures tea: date, lychee, longan, red berries, chrysanthemum, rose buds, sugar, green tea leaves
Guide Lydia shows how to drink from three-storeys cup 

Approach to Bingling Buddhist Caves is over a bridge with lotus pillars
Despite its muddy roots a blooming lotus represents purity and enlightenment

Also called Thousand Buddha Caves
Grottoes carved into 
60 m high cliff face 
of a gorge of Yellow River

Seated Buddha

Buddha in lotus posture

Stupa and background including apsaras (flying angels)

Apsaras (flying angels) in Grotto 10, Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)

Tang Dynasty crowned Bodhisattva
(holy person who has not yet reached or has delayed nirvana through compassion)

Artist painting outside cave         

View from doorway into cave 

A niche at Bingling Caves and details of niche

Grotto 134 Buddha with two Bodhisattvas, Northern Zhou Dynasty (557 – 581)

Seated Giant Buddha 27 m, the Maitreya (Future) Buddha of all encompassing love, Tang Dynasty (618 -907) 

Giant Buddha with niches and other caves in cliff wall, seen from opposite bank

Grotto 16 Sleeping Buddha 8.64 m, Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 557)
Sakyamuni in Nirvana

China’s Silk Road from Xian (Changan) to Kashgar

Labrang (Tibetan: Labuleng) Civil Aviation Hotel, Xiahe County, Gansu Province

Morning yak yoghurt offered outside Labrang Tibetan Monastery, Xiahe

Pilgrims and tourists outside Labrang Monastery (at far left edge)

Labrang Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, founded 18th c Formerly held up to 4000 monks

A young Tibetan asks for a family portrait 

Small Tibetan windows to preserve warmth
Inside the Yak Butter Temple
(only temple in which photographs may be taken)

Philosophical, Xiahe-born lama in Butter Temple

 What is being? What is I?
Is there a place for visitors to meditate?
What is meditation?
Do you see yourself as Tibetan or Chinese?
What is Tibetan?

The Dalai Lama visited this Labrang temple in 1941

His Holiness the Dalai Lama 
on his first visit to Australia 
interviewed by Helene Chung for ABC TV
Melbourne, 8 August 1982 (John Martin)

Stupa at Labrang Monastery

Tourists among boots shed by monks 
before they attend a lecture 

Tibetans in Labrang County

Oh, what shall I wear? How should I have it tailored?

Labrang Monastery as dusk descends

Tibetan prostration around Labrang Monastery

Turning the world’s largest corridor of prayer wheels, 3.5 k around the monastery

So, is the table booked?

5-hour fast train northwest from Gansu Province capital Lanzhou to Jiayuguan

Military re-enactment with canon at entrance to Jiayuguan Pass

Jiayuguan Pass at western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall (Judi Taylor)

East Gate against Heavenly Mountains

Visitors to Jiayuguan

Jiayuguan Museum: Multicultural society of peaceful coexistence 

From Jiayuguan along Gobi Desert to Dunhuang Hotel

 Dunhuang = Grandeur and Glory 

 View of Singing Sands from room

Entrance to Singing Sands, Gansu

Singing Sands (Judi Taylor)

Camel riding with sand boots

Camel trail (Chinese photographer)

Children of the dunes

Crescent Lake – in the midst of sand dunes
A wonder of the Gobi Desert

Ladies of the lake

Departure Singing Sands for a courtyard lunch

A short drive from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang

Dunhuang Grottoes Visitor Centre 

Unrenovated Mogao Caves as shown in Dunhuang Museum
The caves carved for Buddhist meditation and sometimes monks’ habitation

Mogao Caves: Caves of a Thousand Buddhas with 735 caves carved into cliff wall, May 2019
1st cave built in 366 by wandering monk who dreamt of thousand rays of light (Eastern Jin Dynasty)

Taoist priest Wang Yuanlu 
(Dunhuang Museum) 

Born Shanxi Province c 1848
Died Mogao Caves, Gansu, 1931

Credited with discovery of Mogao Caves
Became self-appointed guardian

In 1900 in Cave 16 he discovered a hidden door that led to another cave: Cave 17, the Library Cave crammed with perfectly preserved manuscripts

Hungarian-born naturalised British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862 – 1943)
Discovered Mogao Caves in 1907
Removed 24 cases of manuscripts and 4 cases of paintings and relics
including the Diamond Sutra
Knighted in 1912
(Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, Wikipedia)

As depicted in gallery of foreign exploiters of China
(Gaochang Museum)

Chinese Copy of the Diamond Sutra

Its teachings will ‘cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting’

Dated 868 (Tang Dynasty)

‘This copy of the Diamond Sutra is the world’s earliest complete and dated, printed book.’ (British Library)

Diamond Sutra made in 7 sections
Each printed from a single block
Stuck together to create
A scroll over 5 metres long

Paul Pelliot 1878 – 1945
A French Sinologist and linguist 

Unlike Stein, Pelliot’s expertise enabled him 
to recognise the most valuable documents
Wang Yuanlu agreed to Pelliot’s price of 500 taels 
(worth about AU$17,000 today)
Pelliot’s self-portrait in Library Cave 
in 1908

Dunhuang guide at entrance to Cave 16 and ‘Hidden Cave’ No 17 in May 2019
No photographs inside caves allowed

Entrance to Cave 257
Maitreya (Future) Buddha
(Dunhuang Academy website)

Ancestor portraits of Yin family

Walkway and stairs by Yin family portraits

Entrance to Cave 96: Big Buddha, 35.5 m high

Big Buddha is housed in a 9-storey pagoda

Section of Big Buddha, early Tang Dynasty 618-705 (David Tansey, Wikipedia)

Entrance to Cave 148: Nirvana (Sleeping) Buddha

Sleeping Buddha as shown on a Dunhuang Caves poster

Gobi Desert as seen from car driving from Dunhuang to Liuyuan train station

Wind power farm and Black Mountains (Heshan)

Liuyuan in the Gobi Desert

Helene Chung and Judi Taylor farewell Dunhuang driver Li and guide Spring over lunch

Liuyuan train station and entrance to Safety Check
Leads to confiscation of 12-year internationally-travelled Swiss Army knife (like this)
From checked-in airline case that has passed numerous checks on this trip

Confiscation of penknife
A reminder of request for fruit knife at Holiday Plaza Hotel Jiayuguan

Presented with flimsy plastic knife encased in cellophane
So now must continue with
No real knife on my Silk Road

Gansu Province borders the strategic and volatile Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region
Population 23 m – 13 main ethnic groups
60% Muslim: 9 m Uighurs

Xinjiang rich in oil, minerals and natural gas
Vital conduit of Belt and Road Initiative

On sensitive border of Russia, Mongolia and
former Soviet areas now independent states – the Stans
fuelling Uighur nationalism in Xinjiang

Also includes disputed area claimed by India
Over millennia controlled by many warlords, kingdoms and empires
Including Iranian, Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese 
(Anders Corr, 9-part series on Xinjiang,, March 2019)
Emperor Qianlong (reign 1736 – 1795)
Portrait by Guiseppe Castiglione
(Dragon Emperor
National Gallery of Victoria, 1988)

In 1759 Qing Emperor Qianlong conquers and incorporates
Western Regions into China, so doubling the size of China
‘Qianlong’s most important achievement’
Western Regions later renamed Xinjiang = New Territories
(Jonathan D Spence)

Qianlong’s Fragrant Concubine
Uighur Xiang Fei, buried in Kashgar
In 1793 Qianlong rebuffs
King George III’s Emissary, 
Lord Macartney:
‘We have no need 
for your country’s manufactures’
Portrait (New World Encyclopedia)
After decades of tension in Xinjiang
Uighurs explode onto world stage 
Suicide car crash in Tiananmen Square 
November 2013
Blamed on Muslim Uighur separatists who seek independence from China 
3 occupants of SUV 
and 2 bystanders killed
Uighurs claim:
Rather than jihadism, violence is driven by cultural repression, corruption and police abuses
(AFP, 11 December 2013)

Internment camps holding 1 million Uighurs

(China’s Hidden Camps, BBC, 24 October 2018)

Chinese Communist Party Secretary, Xinjiang
Chen Quanguo
Transferred from Tibet 2016
To Sinicise Xinjiang
Amnesty International  2 November 2018

China claims the camps are ‘vocational training centres’ 
This rejected by Amnesty International  2 November 2018

ABC Four Corners on how Australian Uighurs are caught in Xinjiang’s prison system
15 July 2019

Local Han Chinese repeat official policy
Even if only to protect themselves

‘Yes, some Uighurs are sent to classes
Maybe for up to a year

It’s educational
It’s to stop extremism – terrorism

We support the government policy

‘Cameras and surveillance are a nuisance but they make us safe’
But most usual response is:
‘This is a sensitive subject

We can’t talk about this’

Concourse outside Turpan train station, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

Need for passport and police check and to be photographed
No pictures of police or police centre allowed

Entrance to courtyard of Silk Road Lodges, run by Muslins in the centre of a Uighur village
Security from inside looking out (Judi Taylor)

Chinese flags denote patriotism – love of Motherland of China
Western books on shelf

The Taming of the Shrew – Are Uighurs being tamed?
The Statue of Liberty – Crushed in Tiananmen Massacre 

Goddess of Democracy
being built 
before crushed in Tiananmen Massacre June 1989

Breakfast in dining room – home with President Xi Yinping and the Chinese flag
Xi Jinping plate (Judi Taylor)

Four police checks within first hour of first full day in Xinjiang
Police check point at tourist Tuyu Uighur village car park

Model policeman a reminder of police presence at Tuyu Uighur village car park
Surveillance camera outside police centre and car park

Tuyuq Uighur Village: c 2013 – 65 households, 370 people but rather quiet today
Traditional painted double doors

German brewery heir and archaeologist Albert le Coq lived here
in Tuyuq Village while exploring Turpan

Plundered case loads of artefacts and carvings from Xinjiang
Some relics destroyed by British bombs in World War II
Portrait (Wikipedia)

Abandoned mosque opposite fruit and nut stall

Mosque and passer-by against Flaming Mountain

Mosque viewed from car park and police centre

Bread oven

Bed for sleeping outdoors during hot weather

Hanging gourds, sultanas and other dried fruit

Guide Wendy at basket stall

Muslim elder in skull cap, boy with dried plum, girl with bread

Police fly the flag

Forecourt Gaochang (Qocho) Museum
Xuan Zang 7th c
Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk
His travel from Xian to India for Buddhist scriptures part-funded by Qocho

Xuan Zang’s travels to 
28 cities took 17 years

This led to 
Wu Chengen’s novel
Journey to the West
Pagoda built to house the scriptures in Xian (Changan) 

Gaochang (Qocho) Museum

Video: Musician 

Uighur Manager

Gaochang District 30 km southeast of Turpan 

Gaochang (Khoko) City ‘the power centre of the central government to control the Western Regions’

Gallery of foreign rogues, Gaochang Museum
19th – 20th c Russian, German, English and Japanese explorers and exploiters
‘They ransacked the cultural relics violently … Qocho City suffered an unprecedented catastrophe’

Shuttle bus from Gaochang Museum to Gaochang Ancient City

(Judi Taylor}

Gaochang Ancient City Built 2nd c BC – 14th c AD

Tang Dynasty control 7th – 9th c Uighur Kharakhoja Kingdom 9th – 14th c

Multi-ethnic population c 30,000
Walls 11.5 m high and thick Square outer city 5.4 k long 9 city gates Rectangular inner city 3 k long

(Professor Robert D Fiala Concordia University Nebraska}

Gaochang the site of numerous temples and monasteries c 3,000 monks and priests
Travelling Buddhist monk Xuan Zang taught here enroute to India
Confucian college of classics Manichaeism (Christian+pagan) Islam
Much inter-religious destruction
(Professor Robert D Fiala)

Gaochang Ancient City Rammed earth temple of Manichaeism from Uighur Kingdom (12th – 13th c)

Café for a tasty shish kebab break on way to tombs of Astana

Stairs to Tang Dynasty tomb 73T

Astana Cemetery for the deceased Chinese of Gaochang 4th – 8th c 

Bodies placed in wooden coffins with food, money and models of objects such as garments and jewellery for the afterlife

Mummies preserved by extremely dry climate

Male and female mummies of a couple

Side view of encased male mummy

Flaming Mountain, Turfan, where temperature has reached 49.60 c

Car park at entrance to Bezeklik Caves – Thousand Buddha Caves

A windy day at Bezeklik Caves, in a gorge of Flaming Mountain

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
Bezeklik = Place of paintings in Uighur Art created 5th – 14th cen

Photographs inside Bezeklik Caves not allowed
These images are from Gaochang Museum
The jewels themselves were taken by foreigners
‘I had to go to Berlin’ laments Gaochang Museum manager

From reproductions in Le Coq catalogue of East Turkestan findings: originals destroyed in World War II (Wikipedia) 

Cave 9: Two Buddhist monks Central Asian monk with young East Asian monk?

Cave 20: Kneeling devotees pray before Buddha

Gaochang Museum

During the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, the people living in Turpan were always loyal to the central government, and many inspiring figures merged.

For example, Prince Emin Hoja supported the central government to resist the rebellion of Junggar (Dzungar) noble [Mongols] and safeguarded the unity of China, making prominent contributions.

In the 1750s Uighur Emin Khoja sought Qing protection from Dzungar Mongols
He supported the Qing in their victory over the Mongols and conquest of Xinjiang
His second son, Suleman honoured his father by building the Emin Minaret/Tower

Emin Tower also called Sugong Ta
Su = Suleman
Gong = duke
Ta = tower

Emin Minaret stands next to this near deserted Turpan mosque

Jiaohe Museum with Turpan guide Wendy

Zhang Qian (164 – 114 BC)
Han Dynasty explorer and diplomat
Early official Chinese contact between East and West
Early official Chinese on the Silk Road

Despatched by Emperor Wudi to Central Asia in 138 BC
Captured for 10+1 years by enemies, Xiongnu
Returned with 1 of 100 soldiers

First to provide reliable account of Central Asia to Chinese court

Led to introduction into China of superior horses ‘that sweat blood when they perspire’ and new plants including grapes and alfalfa
(CP Fitzgerald, Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Emperor Wudi farewells Zhang Qian as he set forth from Xian (Changan) to Central Asia
Mogao Cave 323 (Wikipedia)

Flying Horse of Gansu represents the ‘heavenly’ and ‘blood-sweating’ horses recommended by Zhang Qian as important in warfare
One hoof of the racing horse lightly touches a swallow that looks up amazed
(Gansu Provincial Museum, Lanzhou, image Wikipedia)

Jiaohe, a ruined earthen city


Administrative and military centre to control Western Regions
Tang Dynasty ruins 7th – 8th c
c 7000 population 

Stairs lead to Tang administration centre below ground

Karez is an underground water channel

Lin Zexu, whose destruction of illegal British opium in Canton in 1939 led to the Opium
Wars, was transferred to Turpan
He marvelled at the Karez and extended it throughout Xinjiang

A model on location by the Karez

Turpan Museum

All ethnic groups have left a legacy of their unique sites, cultures and creation
Today all our ethnic groups like Uighur, Han, Hui, Kazak … continue to promote great unity Let us inherit the great cultural heritage enhance the unity and harmonious relationships between different ethnic groups to achieve an even more beautiful future

Drive from Turpan across desert to Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, then flight to Kashgar

Kashgar Airport: in van with revolutionary red flags
5-star Chinese flag for Communist Party ruling workers, peasants, artisans, traders
Hammer and sickle, communist symbol of union between workers and peasants

Shish kebab lunch: restaurant and waiters
Lamb in butcher’s stall, Tajik guide Luik with driver Corban, Paris place mat

An entrance to Kashgar Market
Surveillance cameras
Rugs airing

Nuts and dried fruit


Junction of renovated Old Kashgar
Wide straight streets easy to navigate and locate people and places
Unlike narrow weaving paths with hidden private spots

Paintings of old times adorn Kashgar’s new housing blocks 

Remains of actual Old Kashgar in process of redevelopment, May 2019

Kashgar crafts and traders horseshoe maker earthenware pots amid flag spice trader with cumin

Family home-turned hotel

Faces of Kashgar: elegant elder, red beauty, smiling Buddha

Xinjiang region famous for fruit, especially melons

A hundred year-old tea house and regular patron

Inside the tea house

Tea and dancing on the verandah

Surveillance cameras operate as craftsmen work: coppersmith and bamboo basket-maker

Id kah the largest mosque in China: houses 10,000 on Fridays, can hold 20,000 
Built in 1442, incorporating sections from 996 
1933 Chinese Muslim General Ma Zhancang kills Uighur leader Timur Beg: his head displayed at mosque
1934 General Ma demands Uighur loyalty to Republic of China (Kuomingtang in Nanjing)
2014 Imam Jume Tahir is stabbed to death before morning prayers
(Wikipedia, edited 20 April 2019)

A quiet Friday at Id Kah, deserted interior and grounds, 24 May 2019
No call to prayer
Id Kah Square transformed into Xi Dada Square

President Xi Jinping offers hope

A good life enjoyed by the loyal

Video: Police on every corner – there for your protection, there to help you
 129-year old elm tree on site of former British Consulate
Now a restaurant rear of Qinibagh Hotel Kashgar
Inside former British Consulate in Xinjiang Reception and ornately panelled hall
A banquet with lamb off the bone
Qinibagh Royal Hotel
Qinibagh Hotel Room 2218 and view over city with minaret under construction 
Sickening odour from drains
After move to sister hotel, a compensation fruit platter
On request for knife to cut mango from market
‘You don’t need a knife. Enjoy this. It’s all cut for you.’
Fruit platter next morning
From Kashgar’s gleaming airport
Multiple security checks and pat-downs 
A 10-Yuan massage
And views of snow-capped Heavenly Mountains
Return to Xinjiang capital, Urumqi
Yilite Hotel, Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region
Hotel as portrayed on its website ‘24-hour front desk and a concierge service, along with free WiFi’
Not stated: this applies only to phones with Chinese sim cards
Hotel Manager: ‘Otherwise, we don’t know what you’re doing/searching for on your phone.
You can come to the foyer and use my sim card if you wish.’
Urumqi Grand Bazaar Largely new
Unlike Kashgar Bazaar

Video: Dancing at entrance to Urumqi Grand Bazaar
Invitation by young girl to join her

Flags fly in Urumqi

Faces of Urumqi on a Sunday

Urumqi Museum

Xi Dada foyer

Xinjiang’s dry saline environment has preserved human remains for thousands of years
One of the world’s largest collections of mummies

Different nationalities lived and mixed together, creating the splendour of different cultures

A solid foundation for multi-ethnic habitation, multi-religious co-existence cultural integration and plurality

Examples of mummies at Urumqi Museum: adult female, adult female, male with tattoos, infant

Tarim Basin is the site of ancient cemeteries with numerous preserved mummies

Loulan Beauty European/Caucasian

Parcel of wheat
Feathered hat Woven wool shroud
c 1800 BC

Artist’s Impression

Loulan Beauty: when first discovered in 1970s Uighurs considered her their ancestor
They believed this gave them priority to the region over Han Chinese who arrived about 2,000 years later
(Victor H Mair, ‘Ancient Mummies of the Tarim Basin’, Expedition Magazine 58.2_2016)

Unfortunately, the Uighurs themselves did not arrive in the Tarim Basin
until nearly a millennium after the Han Chinese
 (Victor H Mair)
Evidence of Han Chinese in Tarim Basin in 2nd c BC
(CP Fitzgerald, Anders Corr)
Uighurs resettled from Mongolia to the Tarim Basin in 840 
Loulan Beauty remains a mystery
Neither Sinitic-speaking Chinese nor Turkic-speaking Uyghur
What language did she speak?
Evidence suggests she may have spoken Tocharian,
the second oldest (after Hittite) Indo-European language
 (Victor H Mair)

Departure Urumqi Museum
Investigator clay figurine and painted clay tomb guardian Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
Unearthed from Astana cemetery, Turpan

End of Silk Road adventure
Flight Urumqi to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province

Overnight in Chengdu
Before return via Hong Kong to Melbourne
Panda province hosts Australian wine promotion

Fruit knife and fork in hotel room – normality

No Knife on my Silk Road

Yet a glimpse into China from Imperial to Communist era
First Emperor Qin to today’s President Xi Jinping


A pictorial presentation
by Helene Chung

Images by Helene Chung unless indicated otherwise
May 2019 unless indicated otherwise


Pronounced He-LANE Chung as in HUNG
Singing Sand Dunes, Gansu
 (Chinese photographer)

Death of Tasmania’s Chinese Elder

The Mercury, Wednesday 2 January 2019

Journalist Helene Chung remembers her late father, Tasmanian businessman Charles Chung

When, in his 99th year, my father Charles (Pak Koon) Chung died on Sunday 23 December, he ended the era of second-generation Chinese Tasmanian families dating from the 1880s.

The youngest of five, Charles was born in 1920 in what is now Xinhui City in a newly-built brick house that symbolised his father, Willi Chung Sing’s success. After arriving in Tasmania destitute in the 1880s, Willi could now regularly ply the Pacific, and afford both village and city abodes in one of the Four Counties, birthplace of early Chinese Australians.

At twelve Charles sailed with his father to join his brothers George and Sim in Hobart, where their father operated a market garden and was a partner in the fruit business Ah Ham & Co. Charles enrolled at St Virgil’s College.

In 1941 his third-generation Chinese friends Gordon and Lester Henry introduced Charles to their sister Dorothy. At 15 she had suddenly abandoned school, devastated by the death of her father who spoilt her. Bereft, with a mother who loved only her sons, Dorothy warmed to the charming, groomed, gentlemanly Charles. They sauntered along Kingston Beach and through the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, and had fun acting in films he directed.

They married in 1943, showered by Willi’s gift of Stuart crystal. Willi set them up in a new shop Chung Sing & Co. at 99 Liverpool Street. Alas, stressed by personality differences, building the business and rearing two babies under difficulty without even hot running water, my parents divorced in 1946; so, unlike my older sister Lehene (who died in 2001) I don’t remember living with my father.

In the 1950s I called into the family’s Golden Dragon restaurant with school bills and was impressed by his beautifully cut suits.

Charles Chung, premier Robert Cosgrove and other guests at the opening of Hobart’s first Chinese restaurant, the Golden Dragon. Picture SUPPLIED

Around 1960 Lehene and I held a party at his Howrah home and were amazed next morning to find he’d disappeared but only after cleaning up, ash trays emptied, cushions plumped, the house immaculate.

Only recently have I grown to know him a little. We shared our first meal together in 2012, at Melbourne’s Red Emperor, with three of my half-siblings. At his home in 2016 I photographed some of his paintings that draw on his art training and posted a video: Artist-in-Retirement: My Father, Charles Chung.


A self-portrait of the late Charles (Pak Koon) Chung of Hobart

I’m grateful for my last visit in May. Though frail, he chatted and asked after my mother, who lives close to me in Melbourne.

On news of his impending death, Dorothy wept. ‘I have to see him.’ But, nearing 94 she’s unfit to fly. My father now joins Lehene in Byron’s ‘silence of that dreamless sleep’.

Dynasty Head Dies At 98

The Mercury, Wednesday 26 December 2018

Charles Chung Death Notices

The Mercury, Monday 24 December 2018

Seeking My Chinese Roots

A Tasmanian Taishan Dream

Helene Chung at her maternal Dragon Field Village, March 2017 (Victoria Chen)

In 1984 fourth-generation Chinese Tasmanian Helene Chung failed in a three-pronged pursuit to find her Dragon Field Village. Three decades on, in March 2017 the Hobart-born former ABC China correspondent went hunting again.

My first Dragon Field search was thrust upon me by eager Chinese officials. From Beijing I negotiated with Guangdong Province in the south to film families in the Four Counties area, whose ancestors had ventured to Australia’s gold and tin mines and who retained links with relatives Down Under.

To ease my way into a region that then required an Aliens Permit, over the phone to Jian Lu of Canton (Guangzhou) Foreign Affairs, I mentioned that my family comes from Dragon Field Village. I had no idea of the trouble that name would cause.

Singapore cameraman Willi Phua and I met Lu in Canton and travelled in stifling heat by minibus over bumpy roads and ferries through the Pearl River Delta for most of a day to Taishan County.

Interpreter Chen burst with excitement: ‘We’ve found forty Dragon Field Villages in Taishan and fourteen with the clan name Chung. But so far none with any established links with Australia.’

‘Chung? Dragon Field Village?’ I repeated. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. When I mentioned that my family comes from Dragon Field Village I meant my mother’s family, the Gins who changed their name to Henry. I didn’t know you were looking for my ancestral village. I don’t know of any family links in China.’

‘Never mind,’ soothed crestfallen Chen. ‘We should have told you, but we wanted to surprise you. Anyway, one family of Chungs in the far south remember an elder going off to some foreign land long ago. They don’t know where but they’re expecting a visit.’

With no choice but to play the part, in the minivan we journeyed several hours to the impecunious south. The fine colonnaded architecture of Taishan centre gave way to rice paddies with peasants bent over or ploughing with the aid of a buffalo. Paved roads gave way to gravel, then dirt tracks.

At last halted in the mud, we saw 400 men, women and children lined up to greet us. As Mrs Chung junior helped me alight, I heard a collective gasp. In that era of Mao suits, when makeup was reserved for the stage and high heels unheard of, I wore casual western clothes, makeup and blow-waved shoulder-length hair, nail varnish peeping from the straps of my sandals. The villagers had never seen anything as exotic as me – not quite of the East, nor of the West. Neither had they seen a cameraman with his tripod and heavy gear.

Mrs Chung junior introduced me to 84-year-old Mrs Chung senior, steadied by her stick. With the crowd jostling from behind, we were forced up an alley into her begrimed home, seated on plastic chairs and served steaming hot tea.

As young Mrs Chung stood fanning me with a large palm frond, through interpreter Chen the matriarch recalled: ‘Long ago, before I was born, my father went off to the red-haired devil land.’

‘But which foreign land,’ I probed, ‘England, America, Australia?’

‘I don’t know,’ she pointed to the South China Sea. ‘All I know is he went off to the red-haired devil land.’

The fact that not even an electric fan whirred proved the absence of links overseas. By 1984 airport conveyor belts groaned with boxes of fans, television sets and other luxuries imported by overseas Chinese for their impoverished kin.

We nonetheless stood outside for a group photograph: not one of the eleven Chungs related to me though that wasn’t mentioned. I’d broken the daily monotony of this Dragon Field Village.

Helene Chung with the eleven members of the Chung family totally unrelated to her Dragon Field Village, Taishan, June 1984 (Willi Phua)

Determined to find my roots, Chen directed us further south to a Dragon Field Village occupied by Gins; then to yet a third village where pigsty merged seamlessly into straw-filled home. Only in the blackness of night did Chen admit defeat.

That experience made me reflect on my origins and back in Australia I learn that my mother’s village is in Three Ports (Sanbu) Town, now rezoned from Taishan into Kaiping, and that my father was born in adjoining Xinhui.

On Thursday 16 March 2017, more than three decades after my 1984 dragon chase, I resume the quest. I fly Melbourne to Hong Kong, ferry to China’s border city of Zhuhai and meet a Zhuhai Hobartian, Jinju Liao. She’s been introduced to me by Xinhui-born Hobart cousin Peter Chung via China’s online WeChat.

Jinju’s English is limited but her friend, Jenny Lai’s lack of any English proves no hindrance to her Peugeot purring for two hours along a freeway part-tunnelled through mountains to Taishan County (now called Taishan City).

I’m checking into the Taishan Jos – Room 1403 with panoramic views over a picturesque lake – when Jinju introduces me to new UTas graduate, Taishan Hobartian Victoria Chen, fluent in English and the local Four Counties dialect, Taishanese.

Armed with four photographs taken by my Hobart-born cousin Helen Henry in 2010, we hope to find the village and the keeper of the key. She appears in one of the photos. My smattering of mangled Mandarin to nonplussed non-English-speaking hotel clerks isn’t helping to pinpoint the village, when Jinju says, ‘We know where to go in Kaiping City.’

Cousin Helen Henry’s photographs (Clockwise from top left) Helen at door of No 9, front door’s intricate panelled windows, Helen with villagers on the roof terrace of Grandfather’s home, Helen and son Stefan outside the library, Dragon Field Village, Kaiping, 2010 (Helen Henry)

After forty minutes, aided by Jenny’s GPS, my expectant triad and I wander into Dragon Field Village. Yet no amount of head-scratching by eager villagers pawing over photos leads to my Gin home: ‘We don’t have house number plates like that’, says one. ‘Never seen such intricate door windows,’ pipes up another.

A high curved entrance arch topped by a sinuous golden dragon offers hope, but village two also proves a dud. Undeterred, we ask police for directions. Then, as the sun sets and traffic peaks, we manoeuvre along highways and bridges and past neon-lit streets until darkness delivers a charcoal-bricked arch with an ochre tiled roof. This Dragon Field Village has a weathered shrine to ancestors but, alas, its two gods seated behind incense sticks don’t beckon me.

It’s 7:30 Thursday night. Tired, cold and hungry, we take a break and drop into some place for a simple buffet. I’ve travelled 7,500 kilometres, for what? My heart tumbles to my heavy Timberland boots. Maybe next week, I console myself, when I join an Australian tour group in Hong Kong headed for the Four Counties, I’ll find my village. The leader said she could find it and that all our group could visit. But no mention of my village ever appears on the itinerary. And I can’t stay on after the tour due to commitments back home. Oh well, it was a long shot.

Then Jinju stands up from the table: ‘Let’s try another police station.’

It’s approaching 9pm when Tanjiang Police Superior Chaozan Lao asks staffers to inspect the images against computer records and, within minutes, jaws drop as policeman Huang reveals, ‘The library’s in the Lechong Village Group.’

‘We’ll drive you there but first we need to check a few things.’ Lao is efficient.

In the police van seated behind Lao and the driver, I’m incredulous as we pass through Kaiping’s flickering coloured lights into the village gloom. It takes about ten minutes

Map by Spencer Chung

‘That’s it.’ The police torch lets me match the library’s pink tiled wall with the picture.

With trepidation, under police torchlight I step down the narrow Lane 5 to the blue house plate No 9 against grey brick. Just as in the photograph. Left of the plate hang double-panelled wooden front doors: unlike the photo, with one window frame missing. The window’s absence lets me see between several removable but locked round wooden bars, which secure the house while admitting fresh air.

Doors to No 9 with one window frame missing, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

My heart sings. This is the dream home built by my maternal Grandfather Gin Chung Henry in 1931, after he’d left Tasmania’s tin mining town of Weldborough and his success as a fruit merchant in Hobart enabled him to make his fifth visit back to China with his wife and children, to live here for three years before returning via Brisbane to Hobart. This is the house where Grandmother Mary Lum Lee left silver jewellery hidden to enjoy in her retirement. This is the house Uncle Gordon fought to retrieve from the communists, what five of the siblings then signed over to Big Brother Fon and his wife, Big Girl, as they had both been born in China and stayed in the house when the rest of the family returned to Australia. Now I know what my mother meant when, as a child in Hobart, I heard her talk about ‘the village’ and ‘Taishan’. Even though it’s now in Kaiping.

Gin Henry Family c 1940, after joined in Hobart by Fon (Clockwise from top left) Lester (b Hobart, 1921-86); Fon (adopted, b Taishan, 1913-88); Gordon (b Hobart, 1919-95); Joyce (b Taishan, 1916-2008); Dorothy (b Hobart, 1925 – ); Grandmother (Ah Hool, 1891-1947); Grandfather (Ah Gong), 1885-1941); Marie (b Hobart, 1927 – ) (Chung Martin Collection)

Impatient to see inside, and aided by torchlight, I photograph the dilapidated entrance, the kitchen beyond and other rooms behind the bars. It’s approaching 10pm – almost 1am in Hobart – too late to disturb anyone to find the keeper of the key. As I gingerly retrace my steps down the lane, exhilaration overcomes exhaustion. I’d taken off at 00:50 hours AET. On day one I’ve found what I’m after. Police have caught my dragon. I feel Tasmania and Taishan as one.

The dilapidated interior seen with the aid of torch light and camera flash, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Next morning we drive with Lao through the high green-arched village gate beside the banyan tree to park between its buildings and the rectangular lake. An agile octogenarian tricyclist wonders what we’re about, while a young mother, child-in-hand, strolls by the library in the 80-member village.

Another elder recognises one of two locals in the photographs. ‘Ah, Mrs Zhen’s passed away. But she’s given the key to her son, Deliang.’

When he appears and unlocks the door of No 9, we swarm in. It’s substantial – some ten rooms over two floors – solidly built with finely-turned woodwork, striking religious relics and an atrium looking up to the shrine on the upper floor. All ravaged by neglect.

The entrance hall with Grandfather’s bedroom (right), atrium (centre) and kitchen (left), March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Floor Plan 1: Level 1 (Brian Thorpe)

I examine the kitchen’s disintegrating straw-fired stove and abandoned clay pots. My 92-year-old mother, Dorothy, remembers as a five-year-old a big rice urn, a water tank filled by bucket by a maid; her mother placing fish around a colander to steam, and preparing fresh pork sausages and salted duck eggs to cook over rice.

Part of the sad abandoned kitchen, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

She remembers her grandmother’s pride in her son’s achievement when he moved from their home in Dragon Stream Village to build his own dream home in the new nearby Dragon Field Village: ‘Now that I’ve lived to see your success, I can join your father in the afterlife.’

In Tasmania from the 1880s Great-grandfather Gin had failed to send any remittances back to the village. Toiling in Weldborough, his aching limbs, loneliness and longing drove him to seek comfort in the pipe. In 1901, his 16-year-old son – my grandfather – landed to find his father had become an opium addict. Grandfather Gin shunned the pipe. Even in the bitter winter when snow covered the ground, he rose in the darkness of night to switch on the taps essential to alluvial mining and so saved enough to send his father back to die in the motherland. Only in the motherland can a Chinese spirit rest in peace.

Dorothy remembers being afraid of the sight of her grandmother’s body laid out for the funeral. She remembers her parents trekking to the mountains to recover her grandmother’s bones. Traditionally, Chinese store ancestral bones in earthenware urns at home. The urns are like those that nowadays serve as stools or coffee tables.

She also recalls how her baby sister, Marie, became so ill that her parents followed the Chinese tradition and left her outside in the village courtyard ready for the afterlife. Fortunately, she survived and continues well to this day.

Floor Plan 2: Level 2 (Brian Thorpe)

Instead of the mahogany furniture stored in Dorothy‘s memory are indeterminate dusty tables and chairs and lonely wooden chests. Three sets of staircases lead to the spacious light-filled upper floor with remnants of the central shrine beneath a skylight. A balcony on three sides looks down to the ground floor. I envisage the family burning incense and pouring liquor into tiny vessels, fruit, roast pork and other treats offered to the ancestors.

Remnants of ancestral shrine on the upper level of maternal Grandfather Gin Chung Henry’s dream home, with a staircase (right) leading directly to the atrium, Dragon Field Village, Kaiping, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Key keeper Deliang Zhen, Helene Chung and village bureaucrat Qingwo Zhen at the base of twin stairs leading to the third level roof terrace, March 2017 (Jenny Lai)

Floor Plan 3: Roof top (Brian Thorpe)

Opposite the shrine, I mount a set of twin stairs to the roof terrace to wander around withered pot plants, tangled vines, mounds of leaves, garden debris and broken clay pots to survey views in all directions across ochre-tiled roofs and weathered brick walls overhung by lofty palms. Although some dwellings show fresh paint, are clearly well-maintained and newly renovated, many are unoccupied like ours. Like most of the unoccupied and abandoned homes of overseas Chinese, ours is a place of history, mystery and sadness. I feel it should be restored. Yet that would cost a fortune and to what avail? Who would live here? Who would sacrifice life in the West for this? The village has already diminished in size from 200 to only 80 today.

One of two doors onto the roof top, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

The opposite side of the three-sided terrace, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Even though the Four Counties (now renamed the Five Counties to include Heshan) belongs to the dynamic Pearl River Delta megacity – a cluster of nine cities centred around the capital, Canton – that is about half the size of Tasmania but, with 44 million people (according to CountryDigestOrgGuangzhou 23/11/16)) has almost 100 times Tasmania’s 518,000 population and is known as ‘the factory of the world’, the young of Taishan and Kaiping leave for opportunities in the more prosperous Special Economic Zones of Zhuhai and Shenzhen and elsewhere.

I’ve already been struck by scenes of desertion, like this street we passed on route to the police this morning.

Abandoned street of buildings possibly owned by overseas Chinese or others seeking to better themselves elsewhere, Kaiping, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Melbourne University Sinologist Professor Anne McLaren sends me a link to a nearby area once occupied by Gin clansmen that is now a ghost village vanishing into wilderness. 1 And while it would be unacceptable – disrespectful to forebears – to sell our ancestral Gin home, there’s no market anyway. I’m torn. Besides, I’m not the owner.

Outside Lane 5 again, we stand for a group photograph to mark my ancestral homecoming courtesy of Kaiping Police.

Long Tian Li (Dragon Field Village), Lechong Cun (Lechong Village Group), Sanbu (Three Ports) Town, Kaiping City, Jiangmen Prefecture, Guangdong Province (Kaiping Police)

By Saturday afternoon I’m in Xinhui City, where my 96-year-old father, Charles, was born in an elegant house built by his pioneering father, whose fortune as a fruiterer allowed him to ply the Pacific. He moved from his village of Undulating Land (Ping Gong) to the centre of Xinhui. Alas, I’m too late to see the house as it was demolished in the 2000s for a pedestrian apartment block. Four units were given in compensation to Hobart’s Chungs, including one to my father and one to Peter’s family.

Grandfather Willi Chung Sing’s Xinhui house (Chung Martin Collection)

Chung family units in Xinhui, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Through another of Peter Chung’s acquaintances, Xiaoyuan Lin, I meet her brother John and his wife, who live in one of the units. From my hotel we dodge cars and revving motorcyclists for three busy blocks, enter a lane alongside Love Salad bar, and mount flights of concrete stairs until we reach the unit preserved as a shrine for Grandfather Willi Chung Sing and his wife. A generous man who gave my parents a set of Stuart Crystal for their wedding, he comes to mind whenever I use the last surviving piece as a salad bowl.

Shrine to Grandfather Willi Chung Sing and his wife, Xinhui, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

In Guangdong’s bustling capital, Canton, where my uncles attended school, I use documents from my cousin Helen Henry to track down a two-storey Gin investment property. Helen’s mother, Big Brother Fon’s wife, Big Girl spent her later years here until being assisted back to Hobart for her final days.

Now sold, it’s a café where I lunch on a $2 bowl of steaming noddles and recreate 1930s Canton, when plagued by beggars, pickpockets and would-be kidnappers as Dorothy stayed here and went to kindergarten during her father’s business trips. In the street she held onto his hand tightly and in her pocket kept a piece of paper with her name, Clear Moon, and address written in Chinese characters, just in case.

Their overnight journey from Taishan took two days, conveyed partly by a barge worked by women; and partly seated in a sedan chair, borne at each end by a strong carrier. By contrast, I reached Canton from the Four Counties in a couple of hours in the air-conditioned comfort of a sleek modern sedan seated next to my driver whose girlfriend in the rear used a mobile phone to translate my English into Chinese.

Grandfather Gin’s former investment property is a now a café, Canton, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Outside in the street I think of the emaciated rickshaw carrier who mesmerised my mother as he ate his lunch: a bowl of rice and a single slice of sausage (lupcheong). Using chopsticks he shovelled rice into his mouth, popped the sausage onto his tongue to savour its flavour, removed the sausage, ate more rice, tasted the sausage again and repeated the process until he’d made that single slice of sausage last the whole bowl of rice.

I taxi to Sacred Heart Cathedral, where my Aunt Joyce, aged 16, was baptised before she had her siblings converted to Catholicism and baptised in St Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart. As her parents’ firstborn after they married in Taishan, she was rejected by her mother. Although loved by her father, Joyce always felt her mother’s resentment and suffered the lash of her tongue because she had been born a girl. What use was a girl? She would only marry and belong to someone else’s family; she couldn’t worship the ancestors; she couldn’t continue the family name (that Grandfather would himself change to Henry!) Joyce’s birth triggered Grandfather’s search to adopt a son, 3-year-old Fon.

In her search for love, Joyce found Christ and His love. I kneel beneath the twin towers that led to my thirteen years at Hobart’s St Mary’s College and contemplate the source of my lifelong sense of sin and guilt.

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Canton, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Off my knees and in the Friendship Store, I’m looking for silk knickers that I’ve bought over the years in Beijing’s Friendship Store. I’m out of luck. But while viewing silk lingerie I’m amazed. Suddenly, my assistant points to another counter: ‘That assistant over there says she knows you.’

Curious, I ask to meet her and a rather shy Liting Zhang is brought over. She repeats ‘I know you.’

‘How?‘ I ask. And she opens her phone to Guangdong News Online and scrolls down its pictorial report of police catching my dragon. Serendipity. I happen to be in the right spot on the right floor of a multilevel department store in a city of 13 million!

Guangdong News Online, Saturday 18 March 2017 (Helene Chung)

By Sunday 26 March I’ve been with the Australian tour group for five days and traipsed through numerous villages while on tender hooks as the tour leader prevaricates over mine. Finally, she agrees to include my Dragon Field at the end of the day. We linger in a grotty street over an unappetising outdoors yum cha, saved only by egg tarts, before we board our bus. From Tanjiang Bridge south we head eastwards along the embankment of Tanjiang East Road until turning right onto Zhongshan Road. After a few blocks and bridge rises we turn left and there, on the right stands the green arched gate of Dragon Field Village. We dismount just before darkness descends.

Google Maps

My ancestral home is a short distance not only from the Tanjiang Police Station but from the Pan Tower International where our group is staying.

Google Maps

As soon as we arrive word spreads and villagers abound, chattering loud with excitement. In the din I’m nudged by Sydney-sider Marie Chan: ‘This person says she’s related to you.’

Eighty-four-year-old Yajie Zhen turns out to be my mother’s cousin – my second cousin. She points to her late father’s house next door, No 11. This evokes my mother’s words, ‘Dad’s brother built a house next to ours.’

Newly-found second cousin Yajie Zhen welcomes Helene Chung in the atrium of Grandfather Gin Chung Henry’s home, against a painted wall image of the Heavenly God, March 2017 (Marie Chan)

Granduncle Gin also owed his fortune to Hobart, where he operated a laundry at 151 Elizabeth Street, next door to Grandfather Gin’s combined fruit and fancy goods store at 153 Elizabeth Street, where the family lived before their 1931 trip to China to build their dream home. Unlike Grandfather, Granduncle spent a comparatively short time Down Under. Another brother of Grandfather also went to Tasmania, took over the business at 153 Elizabeth Street and, later, built himself a new house in Taishan opposite Grandfather’s rear door in Lane 6.

That one of the brothers’ daughters still lives here and I’m linked by blood to Dragon Field Village is a revelation. I’m transported back to the kitchen over the fruit shop, Henry & Co., at 139 Liverpool Street, which Grandfather established after his return via Brisbane to Hobart in 1934, the kitchen that previously served as my grandparents’ bedroom and where Grandfather was baptised on his deathbed by purple-sashed Archbishop Simonds, the kitchen where I grew up amid the sound of the large-bladed chopper striking the round wooden block and the sizzle of stir-fry in the wok amid the hubbub of uncles and aunts speaking a mixture of English and Taishanese about life ‘back in the village’. Now I’m surrounded by villagers overwhelming me in full-throttle Taishanese.

With tour interpreter Stony Xiao as translator, Deliang Zhen tells me how the village elders still remember Grandfather and his generous nature, in particular how he helped others and gave them food, including dried provisions.

If my grandfather had stayed, would I be one of these villagers? Would I have been victim to all the political upheavals and deprivations they endured till only recent times? How privileged I am to have been born and raised with the amenities of modern Australia and its democratic system and rule of law.

Yajie opens the door to No 11. ‘It’s rented out,’ she says as I wish my grandfather’s home were in such a habitable state.

Then she whisks me 30 seconds along to another lane, opens the door and switches on the lights to show her own living room with new model kitchen and polished furniture. So, this is how plumbing and electricity update the old.

Second cousin Yajie Zhen in her home, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

Bilingual Stony Xiao helps solve a mystery. I’ve known of no family member living in Grandfather’s house since Big Girl fled to Hobart as civil war raged between Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1948. Next year Mao would raise the Red Flag.

Yajie corrects me: other clan members have lived here, though they’ve since moved to California. That explains why Deliang Zhen claims he’s keeping the key on behalf of Zhens in the US, and why Guangdong News Online refers to my ’relatives who moved to America’.

At the table in her home Yajie tells me that she’s the youngest of three sisters, and that one lives in Australia. As I keep hearing the surname ‘Zhen’, it dawns on me that Grandfather’s Tashanese name ‘Gin’, (sometimes Romanised as ‘Gen’), is not only the Cantonese ‘Yan’ (sometimes Romanised as ‘Yian’), but is the same as the Mandarin ‘Zhen’.

Taishanese Gin/Gen = Cantonese Yan/Yian = Mandarin Zhen. Our Gin Dragon Field Village in Taishan is now a Zhen Dragon Field Village in Kaiping.

Pearl River view from White Swan Hotel Room 2208, March 2017 (Helene Chung)

From my luxurious 60 square-metre room 2208 at Canton’s White Swan Hotel, I gaze upon the muddy Pearl River with its myriad watercraft and ponder that accident of history, which drove my paternal Grandfather Chung and both my maternal Great-grandfather and Grandfather Gin to venture way beyond their native land to risk the arduous and foul voyage by steerage to toil in the unknown of Tasmania

Respect for Grandfather Willi Chung Sing during a family visit to his grave in Xinhui, 2006 (Phillip Chung)

Both Great-grandfather Gin and Grandfather Chung died in their homeland. Unlike Grandfather Gin and his offspring, the Chungs have maintained links with Xinhui in some form with relatively minor interruption. My father and his two sons Christopher and Phillip paid tribute to Willi Chung Sing by travelling from Hobart to make offerings to his spirit in 2006. And cousin Peter returns regularly.

However, World War II and China’s Civil War made it impossible to repatriate Grandfather Gin’s body after he passed away in Hobart in 1941. My mother remembers helping her mother dress him in his best suit and place crisp pound notes into his pockets for him to be placed into a tin coffin that fitted into a mahogany coffin to be buried in Hobart. The family intended to disinter his body and return it for burial in China.

The Mercury, Wednesday 5 February 1941. Chung is his given name, not his surname

When Grandmother died in 1947 the prospect of communism and the Gin Henrys’ deepening roots in the Apple Isle kept the couple at Cornelian Bay where, as children my sister, Lehene, and I were often taken on visits.

Grandfather and Grandmother Gin Henry rest at Cornelian Bay Cemetery, New Town (Chung Martin Collection)

My venture to the unknown is tribute to all my ancestors but, in searching for Grandfather Gin’s dream home, particular homage to him and his wish to be returned to the motherland – a pilgrimage that also fulfils my own dream that was spurred by my dragon chase in 1984 but conceived in the Hobart of my childhood.

I hope I’ve taken his spirit to where he so wanted it to rest, and that I transmitted something of the spirit of Tasmania to my warm welcoming clansmen in Dragon Field Village.

© Helene Chung 31 July 2017

A series of videos, Seeking My Chinese Roots, is in production

1 For striking images for Dengbian Village邓边村, see below:
Note the images contain maps showing the location of the now derelict village.

Information on Dengbian Village in Chinese, said to be in the Three Ports (Sanbu) residential area


Village dream (tasweekend JULY 22-23, 2017)

My first search for my ancestral village was thrust upon me by eager Chinese officials in 1984 when I was working as a foreign correspondent. From Beijing I organised a trip to Guangdong Province in the south of China to film families in the Four Counties area whose ancestors ventured to Australia’s gold and tin mines in the late 1800s and who retained links with relatives Down Under.

To ease my way into a region that then required an Aliens Permit, I mentioned over the phone to Jian Lu of Canton Foreign Affairs that my family came from Dragon Field Village in the Four Counties area. I had no idea the trouble that name would cause.

I met Lu in Canton (now known as Guangzhou) with my cameraman and travelled in stifling heat by minibus over bumpy roads and ferries through the Pearl River Delta for most of a day to Taishan County in the Four Counties area. My interpreter, Chen, excitedly told me he had found 14 Dragon Field villages in Taishan with the clan name Chung. But it was actually my mother’s family, the Gins (who changed their name to Henry in Australia), whose village I was hoping to find.

“Never mind,” said a crestfallen Chen, who had organised a visit to a family of Chungs in the far south who remembered an elder going off to an undetermined foreign land long ago. And so we journeyed several hours to the poor south.

The fine colonnaded architecture of Taishan centre gave way to rice paddies with peasants bent over or ploughing with buffalo. Paved roads became gravel then dirt tracks.

As we halted in the mud, 400 men, women and children lined up to greet us. I heard a collective gasp. In that era of Mao suits, when make-up was reserved for the stage and high heels unheard of, I wore casual Western clothes, make-up and blow-waved shoulderlength hair with varnished toenails peeping from my sandals. The villagers had never seen anything as exotic as me – not quite of the East, nor of the West. Neither had they seen a cameraman with his tripod and heavy gear.

A Mrs Chung Jr introduced me to 84-year-old Mrs Chung Sr, who was steadied by her stick. With the crowd jostling behind, we were forced up an alley into her home, where we were seated on plastic chairs and served steaming tea. As the younger Mrs Chung stood fanning me with a large palm frond, Chen translated the matriarch’s words: “Long ago, before I was born, my father went off to the redhaired devil land.”

“But which foreign land,” I probed. “England, America, Australia?”

“I don’t know,” she said, pointing to the South China Sea. “All I know is he went off to the red-haired devil land.”

Determined to find my roots, Chen directed us farther south to a Dragon Field Village occupied by Gins; then to a third village where pigsty merged seamlessly into straw-filled home. Only in the blackness of night did Chen admit defeat.

Back in Tasmania, I learnt that my mother’s village was in Three Unities (Sanfu) Town, now rezoned from Taishan into Kaiping, and that my father was born in adjoining Xinhui.

In autumn this year, more than 30 years later, I resume the search. I fly to Hong Kong and ferry to China’s border city of Zhuhai, where I meet Zhuhai Hobartian Jinju Liao. We travel by car along a freeway part-tunnelled through mountains to Taishan, where she introduces me to Taishan Hobartian Victoria Chen.

Armed with four photographs taken by my Hobart-born cousin Helen Henry in 2010, we eventually find a Dragon Field Village in Kaiping. Yet no amount of head-scratching by eager villagers poring over photos leads to my Gin family home.

“We don’t have house number plates like that,” they say. “Never seen such intricate door windows.”

A high-curved entrance arch topped by a sinuous golden dragon offers hope, but the second village also proves a dud. I’ve travelled 7500km for what? My heart tumbles to my Timberland boots.

Later that night, in Sanfu, we show the photos to a Police Superior, Chaozan Lao, who asks staffers to inspect them. Soon my jaw drops as a policeman reveals: “The library’s in the Le Chong village group. We’ll drive you there, but first we need to check a few things.”

In the police van, I’m incredulous as we pass through Kaiping’s flickering coloured lights into the village gloom. “That’s it,” I say as I use a police torch to match the library’s pink-tiled wall with the photo. With trepidation, I step down a narrow lane to the blue house plate, No.9, set against grey brick. As in the photograph, left of the plate hang double-panelled wooden front doors.

My heart sings. This is what my grandfather built in 1931 after he’d left Tasmania’s tin-mining town of Weldborough in the North-East. His success as a fruit merchant in Hobart enabled him to make his fifth visit back to China with his wife and children, to live here for three years before returning to Hobart.

It’s the house where my grandmother left silver jewellery hidden to enjoy in her retirement. It’s the house Uncle Gordon fought to retrieve from the communists. Now I know what my mother meant when, as a child in Hobart, I heard her talk about the village and Taishan (even though it’s now in Kaiping).

Impatient to see inside, and aided by the torch, I photograph the entrance, the kitchen beyond and other rooms through a window. It’s almost 10pm, too late to disturb anyone to find the keeper of the key. As I gingerly retrace my steps down the lane, exhilaration overcomes exhaustion. After just one day, I’ve found it. I feel Tasmania and Taishan as one.

The next morning we drive with Lao through the high green-arched village gate to park between its buildings and the rectangular lake. An agile octogenarian tricyclist wonders what we’re up to, while a young mother, child-in-hand, strolls by the library in the 80-member village. Another elder recognises one of two locals in the photographs: “Ah, Mrs Zhen’s passed away. But she’s given the key to her son.”

Helene Chung with key keeper Deliang Zhen, left, and village bureaucrat Qingwo Zhen at the base of twin stairs leading to the roof of her family’s ancestral home.

When he appears and unlocks the door of No.9, we swarm in. It’s substantial – about six rooms on each of two floors – solidly built with finely turned woodwork and striking religious relics, but ravaged by neglect. I examine the kitchen’s disintegrating strawfired stove and abandoned clay pots. My 92-year-old mother Dorothy remembers as a five-year-old a big rice urn, a water barrel filled by bucket by a maid; her mother placing fish around a colander to steam, and preparing fresh pork sausages and salted duck eggs to cook over rice. Dorothy has entrusted me with the Taishan spatula her mother kept to use with her wok in Hobart. That and the Chinese shards I collected at Weldborough are my Tasmanian-Taishan treasures.

Instead of the mahogany furniture Dorothy recalls, though, are indeterminate dusty tables and chairs and lonely wooden chests. Staircases lead to a spacious light-filled upper floor with remnants of a shrine overlooking the atrium. I envisage the family burning incense and pouring liquor into tiny vessels, fruit and roast pork offered to the ancestors. Stairs lead to the three-sided roof garden. Like most of the unoccupied homes of overseas Chinese, this is a place of history, mystery and sadness. I feel it should be restored. Yet that would cost a fortune and to what avail?

Back in Guangzhou, I track down the two-storey Gin property. Now sold, it’s a cafe where I eat a $2 bowl of steaming noodles. I taxi to the Gothic twin towers of Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral, where my Aunt Joyce was baptised before she had the rest of the family converted to Catholicism back in Hobart. I kneel beneath the towers that led to my schooling at St Mary’s College on Harrington St and contemplate the source of my lifelong sense of sin and guilt.

A few days later, I return to Dragon Field Village. Darkness descends as word spreads and villagers abound, chattering with excitement. “This person says she related to you,” someone says.

Eighty-four-year-old Yajie Zhen turns out to be my mother’s cousin – my second cousin. She points to the house next door, No.11, and tells me it was the home of her late father, who also lived for a time in Hobart.

That I’m still linked by blood to Dragon Field Village is a revelation. I’m transported back to the kitchen over the fruit shop, Henry & Co, at 139 Liverpool St where I grew up, and the hubbub of uncles and aunts speaking a mixture of English and Taishanese about life “back in the village”. Now I’m surrounded by villagers overwhelming me in full-throttle Taishanese.

If my grandfather had stayed, would I be one of these villagers? Would I have had to suffer all the political turmoil and deprivations they have endured? How privileged I am to have been born and raised in the material comfort of Tasmania with its democracy and rule of law.

Later, I gaze upon the muddy Pearl River with its myriad watercraft and ponder the accident of history that drove my paternal grandfather Chung and both my maternal great-grandfather and grandfather Gin to venture way beyond their native land to toil in the unknown of Tasmania.

My journey is a tribute to all my ancestors but, in searching for my grandfather’s dream home, I’ve fulfilled a dream of my own that was conceived in the Hobart of my childhood

Dragon Field Village with Chinese Police (Guangdong News Online Sa 18.3.17)

Guangdong News Online, Saturday 18 March 2017 Stony Xiao translation edited by Helene Chung

72 岁的澳大利亚华裔女作家钟海莲,带着 20 多年前亲人在开平祖屋附近拍摄的照片,只 身一人回国寻根问祖。
Seventy-two-year-old author Helene Chung arrived in China with little more than her cousin’s photos taken seven years ago. Yet on 17 March 2017 Kaiping city police tracked down her ancestral village, the home of her grandparents and of relatives who moved to America.

3 月 17 日,在开平市公安局潭江派出所和新昌派出所民警的热心帮助下,钟女士终于 找到了自己外祖父曾居住的房屋以及在美国亲人的联系方式。

(From L) Policeman Xiaonuan Lao, Security officer with boss Xiaoyi Lao, Bureaucrat Qingwo Zhen, Helene Chung, Superior Chaozan Lao, Jenny Lai, Victoria Chen, Jinju Liao, Friday 17 March 2017

3 月 16 日晚 9 时,开平市公安局潭江派出所来了几位女士,其中 一位说英语的女士通 过翻译向值班教导员劳潮赞表达她的请求。

原来,这位说英语的女士叫钟海莲,她的外祖父在 1901 年举家迁往澳大利亚定居,到 她已是第三代人。1930 年,钟海莲的外祖父曾回到开平修建房屋,钟女士希望在有生之年 能回中国寻根问祖,寻找自己的亲人。
At 9pm on 16 March she stepped into the police station in Sanfu town and, through an interpreter, asked for help. In 1901 Helene Chung’s maternal grandfather, Gin/Zhen, following in his father’s footsteps – her great-grandfather – ventured as a tin miner to Tasmania, Australia. So she’s a fourth-generation Chinese Australian. In 1931 her grandfather returned to a part of Taishan that is now rezoned into Kaiping, and built a new home in Dragon Field Village.

钟女士手中拿有 2010 年其表妹在开平拍摄的祖屋门牌和村中环境照片。她告诉民警, 表妹不懂中文,当年来到开平后记下的地址都是译音与中文地名的表述有差别,前些天她们 在赤坎镇和水口镇等地叫“龙田里”的地方寻找过,均一无所获。她们在城区叫“龙田里” 的地方再次寻找无果后,通过 GPS 搜索到潭江派出所的地址,便上门寻求帮助。

Cousin Helen Henry by the house plate in 2010: No 9 Dragon Field Village (Long Tian Li), Lane 5 (Stefan Innerhofer)

Helen Henry and son Stefan at the village library, 2010 (Helen Henry)



Chance coincidence


On duty Auxiliary Police recognise place

得知钟女士的请求后,劳潮赞教导员召集所里的同志传看钟女士打印的图片,辅警小黄 接过图片看了看,高兴地告诉钟女士,他认识这个地方,是簕冲管区的龙田里。大家听到这 个消息都很激动,劳教导员立即安排车辆,让辅警小黄带路前往簕冲龙田里。
As there are numerous Dragon Field Villages and Ms Chung had limited information, that Thursday she had already pursued three false leads in Chikan and Shuikou towns. Then GPS led her to the Sanfu police station, where Superior Chaozan Lao asked his staff to examine the pictures. Fortunately, policeman Huang identified the village library: ‘It’s in the Le Chong group of villages’.

当一行人驱车来到簕冲龙田里时,尽管夜晚光线不足,钟女士还是一眼就认出了“龙田 书馆”的外貌和她表妹拍的图片完全吻合。钟女士激动不已,在村里逐间房屋寻找“龙田村 五巷 9 号”的门牌号。在大家的帮助下,钟女士很快找到了表妹照片上所拍的祖屋门牌号。 This caused great excitement among both police and Ms Chung and her three assistants. Superior Lao directed that they be driven to Dragon Field Village as soon as possible. There, even in the darkness Ms Chung recognised the library.

In Lane 5 by the Gin/Zhen home No 9 to left, Thursday night, 16 March 2017

由于夜深人静,祖屋的房门也上了锁,无法进入屋内观看。细心的民警告诉钟女士,祖 屋的门锁是新的,这间屋子应该有人看管,或许就是她的亲人,不如等明天一早再过来向村 民打听情况寻找亲人。钟女士也觉得太晚了不好打扰村民,一行人便先离开了龙田里。 That spurred her to search for her ancestral home. And, with everyone’s help number 9 was soon found. As it was night and the property locked, she couldn’t enter to look around. But the police noticed the lock was new. This confirmed Ms Chung’s belief that someone was taking care of the house. It being far too late to disturb the villagers, they left.

Looking up at the locked house, No 9, Thursday night, 16 March 2017


Inquire about


Enthusiastic villagers find love
3 月 17 日一早,钟女士就来到潭江派出所,请求民警再次带她到龙田里寻找亲人。民


Next morning, as scheduled by Superior Lao, he and his colleagues escorted Ms Chung and her assistants – two from Zhuhai, Jinju Liao and Jenny Lai, and one from Taishan, Victoria Chen – back to the village.

Examining the plaque’s list of donors who helped fund the arched gate of the village in 2000 Friday 17 March 2017

一下车,钟女士就兴奋地拿起手机拍了起来。社区民警也前来协助,在附近走访村民, 打听钟女士亲人下落。
No sooner out of the car than Ms Chung began taking pictures with her mobile phone. Local security police also joined the search for the holder of the key.

The first villager they meet is an agile octogenarian tricyclist, Friday 17 March 2017

Elders discuss one of the villagers in the photographs, the late Mrs Zhen, Friday 17 March 2017

这时,村中一位老婆婆认出了钟女士打印出来的图片中的一位老人。“这是村民阿亮的 母亲,不过已经去世了,阿亮应该知道情况。”老婆婆说道。

Another elder identified a villager in one of the photographs. ’She’s passed away,’ she said. ‘But she’s given the key to her son, Deliang Zhen.’

村民阿亮赶来后告诉钟女士,她家的祖屋是她居住在美国的亲戚托他看管的。随后,阿 亮找来祖屋钥匙,开门让钟女士进屋参观。新昌派出所社区民警随后也通知了村书记和治保 主任前来。他们告诉钟女士,她的亲人都去了美国定居,并向钟女士提供了她美国亲戚的联 系方式。

When Ah Deliang arrived he explained that, after Ms Chung’s aunt left the home for Tasmania in 1948, it was occupied for many years by other Zhen clan members. ‘Before they left for the United States, they entrusted my family with the key.’

The keeper of the key, Deliang Zhen (2nd from R), Friday 17 March 2017

Outside No 9 before the door is unlocked, Friday 17 March 2017

Amid excited onlookers, Ah Deliang then opened the door, slipped inside to switch on the lights and so enabled Ms Chung to cross the threshold into her family home for the first time.

Helene Chung photographs the straw-fired kitchen stove and pots in disrepair Friday 17 March 2017

多方努力下,钟女士终于圆了寻亲梦。参观完祖屋后,钟女士向民警和帮助她的人一一表达 谢意。钟女士说,回澳洲后她要把她寻亲的经历都写进书里,写上开平警察和村民如何热心 地帮助她这位素不相识的.

After a thorough examination of the property’s two floors, its staircases, its shrine to the ancestors and its roof garden, although saddened by the ravages of time to the property, Ms Chung thanked the police, security and village officials, the villagers themselves and her own assistants. ‘I could never have experienced this without all your help. I’ll return to Australia satisfied and share this moment with family and friends. I shall always remember this special visit to China.’

Helene Chung thanks Police Superior Chaozan Lao, Dragon Field Village bureaucrat Qingwo Zhen, happily returned today from Sydney, and policeman Xiaonuan Lao

Friday 17 March 2017

China Rising: Still Depressing

In the stifling summer of 1983, when I first landed in Peking’s Capital Airport, it was near empty and made stark by the absence of bourgeois advertising. ABC driver Little Li, like his multitude of blue Mao-suited comrades, aspired to the four things that go round: a bicycle, a watch, a fan and a sewing machine. By the end of my three-year posting he, like ABC interpreter Old Fan, dreamt of the four big things: a cassette-recorder, a television set, a washing machine and a refrigerator. Now, when I return, they and their families either lust for or boast of the four luxuries: their own apartment, a car, private education and travel – within China or abroad. Others even have a pet pooch and perhaps a concubine too.

Click image to enlarge

Old Fan and Little Li, 1983, Helene Chung

Old Fan and Little Li, 1983, Helene Chung

On my first drive along the airport’s straight tree-lined road we passed fields of elderly shepherds tending herds of sheep or goats, donkey carts trundling along with small loads and an occasional truck with its cargo of workmen standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Our four-week old bronze Toyota, still wearing plastic seat covers, was one of Peking’s rare private cars: most cars were either taxis or gleaming black Red Flag limousines that chauffeured political leaders behind lace curtains.

When we reached the eastern extension of the Boulevard of Heavenly Peace, at the centre of which lies Tiananmen Square, and the thousands of cyclists pedalling Flying Pigeons or other brands, Li failed to slow down either for cyclists or the mass of pedestrians attempting to cross the wide road on clearly striped black and white crossing points. Instead, he honked his horn through the throng. As outgoing correspondent Richard Thwaites explained, ‘If he stopped we’d be stuck. There’s a never-ending flow.’

I was delivered to Bamboo Gardens Hotel with its hanging red lanterns and traditional tiled and pillared walkways. Although an enjoyable Sichuan dinner in its garden restaurant lay ahead, my room proved poky and dirty with filthy rags littering the bed and dresser. I’d previously worked and travelled in Singapore, Hong Kong, London and Cairo over three years when my accommodation had not been five-star but had always been clean. Now, I walked barefoot to the bathroom only to see the soles of my feet had turned black. I daren’t remove any of my few carefully packed belongings from my suitcase.

That night I closed my eyes wondering what the future held. In my ears rang the warning of the ABC Sydney News chief, nervous over the decision to appoint a female correspondent for the first time, ‘There’s a lot riding on your appointment.’ I resolved not to let the hotel colour my experience. I would make my posting work.


Shouting from China, 1st ed. Penguin, 1988

Shouting from China, 1sted. Penguin, 1988

How different it was in January 2013, descending into a winter sunrise at Pudong Airport after taking off from snow-clad Charles de Gaulle. My amazing first ride on the Maglev or magnetic levitation train – effortless whishing past green pastures, bridges, power installations and high-rise housing blocks – ended in central Pudong within minutes.

Excitement must have lowered my guard as I was then fleeced by an illegal taxi driver, who sped off when the hotel doorman approached, and I checked into the former Cathay.

I had last stayed there in 2002 when, free from the strictures of an ABC budget, I treated myself to a room on the Bund facing Pudong – a treat made possible by Chinese superstition. When I enquired about a room on the Bund, the clerk hesitated, ‘Well, we do have one but on the fourth floor.’ As the number ‘four’ in Chinese, si, sounds like the word ‘death’, Chinese try to avoid any association with the number. So I scored an excellent – though musty – room for a reasonable sum.

Pudong from M on the Bund, 2013, (Helene Chung)

Pudong from M on the Bund, 2013, (Helene Chung)

Eleven years on, the newly renovated Fairmont Peace Hotel has eliminated all ‘fours’: there is no fourth floor and no room numbered ‘four’.

Even room 314 where Noel Coward wrote Private Lives has been renumbered. Not prepared to pay an exorbitant fee for a Bund-facing suite, I settled into spacious room 331 on Nanjing Road. The art deco carpet left no grime on my feet. Yet I was more shocked than reassured by the latest provision for guests’ comfort: two tinned gas masks encased in burgundy velvet pouches to protect against the ghastly smog that blankets Shanghai.

In the 1980s the two most commonly heard words were xiuxi meaning ‘rest’, and meiyou meaning ‘haven’t got’ or ‘there isn’t any’. Everyone had to rest, almost constantly, including the umpteen staff behind the post office counter who ignored queues of would-be customers, choosing to chat among themselves than serve. At times nothing seemed to be available, least of all tea or rice in restaurants – certainly never in the desired order. At the Peking Hotel a waitress told us, ‘The chef is sleeping’; while in Xian, city of eternally sleeping clay warriors, a waiter curled up on a trolley let us help ourselves at the bar.


Fairmont Peace Hotel and Bank of China, 2013, Helene Chung

Fairmont Peace Hotel and Bank of China, 2013, Helene Chung

Behind this inertia simmered China’s big pot of socialist egalitarianism that doled out the same meagre amount to everyone whether he worked or not. Also, poverty and food rations meant that many simply lacked energy. (In three years I saw only one overweight Chinese, in my ancestral county, Taishan, in Guangdong Province.) However, pragmatic strongman Deng Xiaoping determined to smash China’s iron rice bowl that fed all urbanites from the cradle to the grave. He declared: ‘It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.’

He presided over a grand military parade on National Day, 1 October, 1984 that marked China’s transition from old communism to new capitalism. He banned xiuxis and introduced a new incentive system to encourage hard work for higher pay. This followed his successful Special Economic Zones, most notably Shenzhen that bordered capitalist Hong Kong and whose motto proclaimed: ‘Time is money. Efficiency is life.’

Gas masks, 2013 Helene Chung

Gas masks, 2013 Helene Chung

My posting began with a massive anti-crime campaign: thirty criminals were executed after their parade through jeering crowds in the Workers’ Stadium. Posters naming criminals and their crimes appeared on billboards with blood-red tick marks suggesting ‘good work’ on the part of the Public Security Bureau. Then China launched the anti-spiritual pollution campaign designed to screen out ‘the flies and mosquitoes of western decadence’ that inevitably flew in through Deng’s open door.

China was so backward I couldn’t buy basics such as pantyhose, cling wrap or tampons and had to import from Hong Kong all the fixtures and fittings – from refrigerator, washing machine and air conditions to typewriter, carpet, batteries and telephones – to renovate the bureau that had fallen into disrepair since its founding by Paul Raffaele in 1973. The renovation fell to me as a new correspondent who had a brief window to avoid prohibitive import duties. Customs nonetheless fined me Y100 (A$50) for alleged pornography. The offensive texts, Tuppy Owen’s Love in the Open Air (from a radio interview I recorded in London) and The Joys of Sex (from a television interview on its Australian release), had been shipped with my effects.

As someone who had grown up feeling out of place in overwhelmingly white 1950s Hobart, I first arrived in China conscious of my heritage. Yet with every day that passed I felt less Chinese and more Australian. Housed in a foreign diplomatic compound, I was segregated from ordinary Chinese: should they dare try to visit me – and be polluted by my western ways – they faced a tough time registering with armed guards at the gate. Unlike locals and overseas Chinese, I was charged top foreigner prices in a three-tier price system that diminished any identity I may have felt for the home of my forebears. I felt an alien in the motherland.

Before Deng’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ transformed China into today’s powerhouse, the two locals I worked with were government employees assigned to the ABC. They received a pittance from the large sum exacted by the Diplomatic Services Bureau. They had to attend ideological sessions, make self-criticisms and report on my activities and associations. (The lift attendants always seemed to know where I’d been and where I was going.) So opaque was the system that both Li and Fan were forbidden to tell me where they lived or the telephone numbers of their apartment blocks. (Private phones didn’t exist, except in the homes of the elite.) To do so would have been to divulge a ‘state secret’, a crime that still keeps alleged dissidents behind bars. Despite the strain imposed on them, my staffers tried their upmost to please me within the official limits.

In May 1989 I flew from Melbourne to a Beijing that gripped the world’s attention with defiant students on hunger strike. It turned Tiananmen Square into squalor.

Tiananmen Square, May 1989, Helene Chung

Tiananmen Square, May 1989, Helene Chung

A scene of tents, fluttering red banners and debris greeted me as thousands protested against corruption and nepotism and demanded a more open and accountable system. In a peaceful, festive atmosphere, they ignored the official loudspeaker, ‘Students must leave the square’, to engage in animated debate, sit drinking fizzy orange juice or simply lie exhausted on their backs. Seeing my tape recorder and notebook, some rushed up to me. Unlike the docile Chinese who dared not challenge the government when I lived there, they clamoured ‘Write your name on my T-shirt. Tell our story to the world.’

By the time their story descended into massacre, I had been ordered back to Australia and was in Hong Kong when tanks smashed the Goddess of Democracy.

Goddess of Democracy, Helene Chung

Goddess of Democracy, Helene Chung

From the British colony I covered the horrified reaction of demonstrators who feared their fate when the territory would return to China in 1997.

On the thirteenth anniversary of the massacre, in 2002 I returned to Beijing and a Tiananmen Square eerily empty except for guards and a few tourists about to see the embalmed body of Mao in his mausoleum. Beijingers massed around the corner watching the World Cup on giant screens: China versus Costa Rica broadcast live from South Korea. Although individuals I approached proved far more receptive than in the early 1980s, and were prepared to discuss and, in some instances, show me their homes and how they lived, each stressed, ‘I’m not political.’

One exception, He Xitong, wife of then imprisoned co-founder of the China Democracy Party Xu Wenli, staged a lone hunger strike for her husband’s release. Its airing on CNN, though viewed only by foreigners and China’s elite, foreshadowed today’s much freer domestic press. He Xitong introduced me to Liu Xiaobo, whose demand for human rights and role as one of four intellectual hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square to witness the massacre had won him several prison terms. It was wonderful to see him relaxed, watching the World Cup in his modern book-lined apartment.

iu Xiaobo and He Xintong watching the World Cup, June 2002, Helene Chung

Liu Xiaobo and He Xintong watching the World Cup, June 2002, Helene Chung

Seven years later, on a visit during Beijing’s freezing Chinese New Year of the Ox, I experienced another form of tolerance. When I lived there, authorities denied the existence of homosexuality. By the beginning of the twenty-first century an area in Sanlitun showed a thriving gay community while an overseas Chinese friend of mine lived openly with his gay local Chinese partner. By 2009 they had married abroad and returned to Beijing, where they invited me to a gay dumpling-making party. Many of the young men who celebrated New Year with this piping hot feast were infected with HIV. Shunned by their families, they welcomed a blow-in from Down Under.

Although individuals are now free to live as they please, to speak their minds and even criticise the system, to travel and mix openly with non-Chinese, anyone who tries to form a group is still seen as a threat to China’s unelected leaders and remains subject to their rule by law. After his few years out of jail, Liu Xiaobo joined others to call for the human rights Charter 08, so landing himself a new, eleven-year sentence. Even when named Nobel Peace Laureate in 2010, he languished in prison where he still remains while his wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest, is believed to be suffering severe depression.

Forty years after the ABC opened its Peking bureau, such news is depressing.

Ten Questions for Helene Chung…

Nick Leys | The Australian

November 11, 2013 12:00AM


Former ABC China correspondent Helene Chung. Source: Supplied

THE ABC recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Beijing bureau. One of its former correspondents talks about the challenges of the posting.

You were the first female correspondent the ABC sent overseas when you were posted to Beijing in the 1980s. What did it mean to smash through that glass ceiling?

It was exhilarating and daunting. As I flew out of Sydney, the warning of the news chief (a man, of course) rang in my ears, “A lot’s riding on your appointment.” The ABC was taking a risk and I was determined that no matter how difficult Peking – then classified a “hardship” post – proved I would make it work. If I failed, it would be a long time before another female would be given a chance abroad.

How much opposition did you encounter from within the ABC?

In 30 years I not once waltzed through Aunty’s front door: I only slipped in through the side. I was rejected for every job I ever applied for. In 1983 I applied for Tokyo, learnt elementary Japanese and saked myself in Nippon politics only to be rejected. Then, suddenly, executive producer Damien Ryan said: “They want to send you to Peking, as soon as possible. Slap in an application. Quick!” So, unprepared, I landed by bullet train in Peking.

Gender aside, what did it mean to be sent to China, given the politics of the country at that time?

The opportunity to witness China’s transition from old communism to new capitalism. When I first arrived the Chinese aspired to the four things that go round: a bicycle, a watch, a fan and a sewing machine. When I left in 1986 they dreamt of the four big things: a cassetterecorder, a television, a refrigerator and a washing machine. Now, when I return (most recently to Shanghai in January) I see they lust for the four luxuries: their own apartment, a car, private education and overseas travel; and maybe a concubine and a pet pooch, too.

What was the greatest challenge for a Western correspondent?

Access to information. Everything was a “state secret”, even a telephone number, with no such thing as a telephone directory. The stock response at the weekly press briefing was, “We take note of your question.”

How heavy-handed were your “minders”?

As government appointees, they spied on me, reported to their superiors and also undertook regular self-confession sessions. But I got along with my interpreter, driver and cleaner as well as the system allowed.

How much freedom did you have to travel and meet people?

The only place I could drive to outside Peking was Tianjin, Melbourne’s sister-city. All travel had to be officially organised and I was discouraged from fraternising with Chinese. The rare local who risked entering my place had to record his or her name with the guards, just as I had to record mine on the rare occasion I entered a Chinese home.

And technological challenges? How did you file stories?

My first book is called Shouting from China because that’s how I filed, over a crackling telephone line that could take repeated attempts for up to five hours for Sydney to receive a 90-second report that wasn’t too scratchy to be broadcast. Shouting made me lose my voice.

What’s been the most surprising change for correspondents in China now compared to your time there?

The way Chinese can virtually do and say whatever they please, so long as they don’t form a group – such as Falun Gong – as any group is seen as a threat to Communist Party control.

What sort of stories was the ABC most interested in from China?

Drama, like Peking’s mass execution of criminals; revolution, like the opening of Cardin’s Maxim’s restaurant and the launch of KFC; Australia, like Hawke’s integration of SinoAustralian iron and steel; and history, like Thatcher’s Hong Kong agreement, the thaw in Sino-Soviet relations and anti-communist Reagan’s visit.

You’re a fourth-generation Tasmanian and grew up in 1950s Hobart. How did that affect your work?

In China I never felt more Australian and less Chinese. I was housed in a foreign diplomatic compound, treated as a foreigner, charged top foreigner prices and kept away from the locals. Most Chinese dressed in blue Mao suits, women wore short straight hair, no make-up and no heels. So I looked nothing like a Chinese. They stared at me: what is she, a rich overseas Chinese, a film star or the mistress of a high official? Just as a child I didn’t fit into Hobart, as an adult I was an alien in the motherland.

This (monolingual) life


OCTOBER 01, 2011 12:00AM

This (monolingual) life

This (monolingual) life

Click image to enlarge

IN my inner-Melbourne electorate, mail for last year’s election campaign began with a pamphlet in six languages, including Greek, Chinese, Somali, Vietnamese and Arabic, all of these double Dutch to me.

An Anglo-Celtic politician once sought my support in a letter printed entirely in Chinese characters except for my name and address. Where I live most passers-by speak English but occasionally I hear Mandarin, Cantonese and even my ancestral dialect, Toishanese.

On the tram or in the street white-faced strangers practise their Chinese on me: “Ni hao.” How different from when I grew up in 1950s Hobart.

Although I’m told I was fluent in Chinese until the age of three, when my Chinese-born grandmother died, after I began school Chinese proved a hindrance. “My mummy says I can’t play with you because you’re Chinese,” said a little five-year-old, shunning me on the playground.

The taunting my sister and I received didn’t last long, however, even though we were the only two Ching Chongs among 500 girls at our school. The Catholic nuns kept insults under control.

But if my mother broke into Chinese in front of my friends, I withered with embarrassment. Anyone heard speaking a language other than English aroused suspicion. People gaped as though watching monkeys at the circus.

When we lived over the family fruit shop my sister and I walked home for lunch, sometimes bringing a classmate. Our mother presented us each with two baby lamb chops, half a grilled tomato and fresh vegetables, all of which we ate with knives and forks. I dared not tell anyone that in the evening my family ate with strange implements called chopsticks and I shovelled rice from a small bowl straight into my mouth.

As the time came for me to leave school my mother’s partner, a New Zealand-born radio announcer with a rich golden voice, made a suggestion: “You’re Chinese. You should be able to speak Chinese. You could go to Canberra, learn Chinese and maybe join foreign affairs or the Chinese service of Radio Australia.” I was horrified. I couldn’t help my Chinese face. Everyone asked, “Where do you come from?” At least I could forestall the slowly enunciated, “And do you speak English?”, by opening by mouth. I had to assimilate. Being Chinese made me peculiar enough. Why learn to speak Chinese?

So today, when Australians of Chinese ancestry make up more than 3 per cent of the population, Chinese is the most spoken language after English in Australian homes, and the country only recently experienced three years under the Western world’s first Mandarin-speaking leader, I can’t say much more than “Wo bu hui shuo Zhongguo hua”: I can’t speak Chinese.

It’s just as well that electioneering bumph also appears in English. Or is it?