Chinese Puzzle in Seven Pieces

Lesley Synge

 

Although without name or form

Tao nurtures and makes all whole.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching[i]

 

1 By mid-morning the hire-truck, loaded with supplies and yesterday’s wet things, is gunning along the Tasman Highway. Tea Cosy, a bald man who likes to wear rainbow-coloured beanies, is driving. He and his offsider talk forests while I lean against the glass of the passenger window, dulled by the ache in my legs. In this sparsely populated corner of Northeast Tasmania, we pass only logging trucks.

I fantasise about taxis. One to take me to where my car is parked, over two days’ walk away.

Tea Cosy bemoans the terrain we’re driving through. “It’s like a slaughterhouse. All that’s left are stumps. Bleeding stumps.” In the cabin I move my legs slightly, testing for function. This time tomorrow the route will be uphill again, up to the Blue Tier. If I can continue.

“Forestry Tasmania’s responsible for this desecration,” says the offsider, a Hobart man. “The native forest around here is destined for woodchip.”

Tea Cosy steers off the bitumen highway at a sign: Maa Mon Chin Picnic Area.

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We jolt along a dirt track. On one side, plantation pines tower darkly over a brown mat of needles; on the other, grass surrounds a lone wooden picnic table. He cuts the engine a few metres from an expansive body of water. Tonight’s campsite. The men jump out, intent on setting up. The instability of Tasmanian weather means that while the sun’s out, there’s no time to waste.

I bundle out from the cabin like a sack of potatoes. Trekkers who opt out of walking are expected to pitch in, so I gather armfuls of our wet belongings and sling them over a makeshift clothesline between two pines. Leaving the sodden socks and jumpers to steam-dry, I limp over to the support crew who are expecting me to help erect the kitchen tarp.

“Can’t do any more,” I apologise tearfully. “Have to lie flat.”

Tea Cosy asks, “What about your tent? Can you put it up?”

I shake my head pathetically.

“Then we’ll do it. Later. Rest up.”

I hobble to my duffel bag, rummage in its pockets, and extract a plastic poncho and a square of canvas. At the water’s edge, I spread out my groundsheet and lie down flat on my back. Prop my legs – my poor aching legs – up against a tree trunk. Elevate or amputate.

An hour of the tree’s support and I feel a faint ebbing of the pain. Only now do I notice that I’m being sheltered by a Myrtle Beech, the species that dominated yesterday’s wet journey through old growth forest. This young-un is some three metres tall with tiny dark-green leaves and lovely twisted limbs.

What a place, I register with sudden awareness. So still. So peaceful. The sky above is a clean powder blue with white clouds flying in intriguing shapes. The hours pass while the men work – Tea Cosy’s also the cook and he’s focussing on feeding the twenty ravenous people who’ll troop in later. At times grey clouds invade and rain falls, but not heavily. When it does, I shrug into my plastic poncho and sit up until the squall passes. Then lie back down. I wonder if this is how dying feels: this sensation of being spent.

It’s two weeks since I left my home in Brisbane to drive almost 2000 kilometres to Melbourne. A week since I loaded my car into the belly of the Spirit of Tasmania. I remember standing on a deck of the huge vehicular ferry, gazing at the pastel hues of sunset over Port Melbourne. Flying to the island state would have been easier and cheaper but I’d wanted to experience the distance.

As the ferry ploughed across Bass Strait, I reflected on how little I knew of Tasmania. Of the Northeast Highlands – where my Buddhist bushwalking club was heading – I knew nothing at all. With bushwalks, I tended to go with the flow, leaving it to the organisers to chart the route.

At midnight when almost everyone on board was asleep, I threw on a jacket and slid open one of the heavy doors to the outside deck. The ferry was vanquishing the most gigantic waves I’d ever seen, and in the blackest of nights. Salty spray and cold winds slapped my face and I grinned like a child. Night on Bass Strait! Bound for Tasmania! After the ship had berthed, I’d actually driven off, crowing inwardly, I like wild; I like tough.

I spent several days playing the tourist in Launceston, the third oldest city in Australia after Sydney and Hobart. There in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, I came across a 19th century Chinese joss house. The exotic, colourful Guan Di Temple seemed incongruous in such a very English city. Information panels explained that it came from Weldborough in Northeast Tasmania, a tin-mining town that had thrived from the 1870s until mined out in the 1930s. The thousands-strong Chinese community of Weldborough had carefully preserved their place of worship and now the joss house is one of Launceston’s greatest treasures. On the wall opposite was a photograph of a dignified Chinese man dressed in an English suit: Maa Mon Chin, the community leader associated with the joss house. Then I thought no more about the Chinese tin miners of the Northeast. I’d come to bushwalk, not to delve into Australian mining history. It was time for the poetry of the Tao Teh Ching and the body on the move, not information panels.

Have done with learning

Then your troubles are over.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

 

2 I recall how the trek began. The rendezvous was at a community hall in a valley of dairy cows. Pyengana. Population: 120. Famous for cheese. We trekkers sat in a circle on the floor of the hall and introduced ourselves. There were three main groups: the tiny support crew from the mainland; trekkers from the mainland; and Zen Buddhists from Hobart. Our guest of honour was Aunty Gloria Andrews, a highly respected Aboriginal elder from St Helens, a seaside town on the east coast about 30 kilometres away. She’d come to give a “welcome to country”. There was also a Northeast Highlands local who would lead our troop on some less-travelled trails, a woman around my age but far fitter. When she’d been approached by our unconventional club to be our guide, she hadn’t been fazed to learn that we would walk in silence to help us to connect with the landscape.

Turning her warm brown eyes on us, Aunty Gloria said, “Haven’t been to the Tier in a while myself. But it’s lovely up there. Special. You’ll enjoy it when you reach it. And as you go, everywhere you look, you’ll see Aboriginal stories in the landscape. Let the land talk to you. There are secret places that only the Palawa, the indigenous people of Tasmania, know about,” she said, “but you won’t be going near them so you’ll be safe.”

Aunty Gloria’s dark hair framed a strong yet friendly face. As she continued to speak about the indigenous connection to landscape, I recalled similar conversations with my friend Herb Wharton, a Murri drover-turned-writer from Cunnamulla, west of Brisbane. “The landscape’s very important,” Uncle Herb often declared in his wise, no-nonsense way. “True history is written on the land. The true stories are in the tracks humans leave behind.”

After Aunty Gloria had welcomed us to her traditional lands, we ate the first of Tea Cosy’s vegetarian dinners. Collectively, our temporary tribe of twenty had connections with many landscapes: urban, rural, and on the wild side. We are aware that many Australians feel so guilt-ridden about the toll of colonialism on Indigenous people that they believe that non-Aboriginal Australians cannot walk the land in any state except profound alienation. But Aunty Gloria didn’t want us to do this. She wanted us to enjoy connecting with country.

Aunty Gloria then left with our guide for St Helens. They smiled and waved goodbye – two women who loved the northern forests so much they’d initiated a struggle to stop the logging of the old growth forests a decade ago, and they’d been arrested. We bedded down, serene with anticipation, ready to walk a roughly circular route of 200 kilometres.

On our first day on the move, our troop hiked through the Mount Victoria Forest Reserve. (The name “Victoria” – after Queen Victoria – is popular in Tasmania. Clearly, the Tasmanian colonial establishment loved to name places to honour British royals – from museums to mountains.) We set up camp at a picnic shelter near Ralph Falls, a drop of 90 metres on sheer rock face. Any fall of water is a wondrous sight but Ralph had style. Its long ribbon of white was highlighted by a deep gash down one side – black, instead of the usual weathered elephant-hide dolomite. White milk and dark crevice – yin and yang.  On the following day, we struck north, passing through a Gondwana remnant. Here, the dominant tree species was not the Eucalyptus but the Myrtle Beech. Pelts of moss and sprouting ferns covered their spreading boughs.

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The rain set in, in earnest. The downpour made it tough. There was no path as such; we often bush-bashed through bracken towards tree trunks that our guide – some weeks before – had tied with ribbons of coloured plastic.

As my knees twisted this way and that, my confidence ebbed. When I squatted in bracken to pee, leeches climbed on board, revealing their bloody presence at the next pee stop. For the first time in years of hiking, I felt close to hysteria. In horror-movie style, a leech latched onto a trekker’s eyeball and he had to kneel like a small child to let our guide pluck the glossy black trespasser off with tweezers. I was the last in the line all the way; barely made it out. Felt gutted to find the “campsite” was nothing more than the communal tarp on a slope of jagged gravel, the verge of a forestry road.

We erected our personal tents in thundering rain then huddled around a fire under the tarp, and ate. Our bodies wove awkwardly around the poles; wet garments draped above our heads sent water dripping down our backs. Later, alone in my small damp tent, I took stock: energy levels at zero; aching legs at 100%; the wet everything. But in the morning, I vowed, in the morning, I’ll lace up my boots …

In the morning I hobbled through the rain over to where last night’s fire  smouldered to find my socks were sopping wet and the innards of my boots buckled from being pushed too close to the flames. After only two days on the move, I faced defeat. What would a sage say?

Know your limits

Save yourself from harm.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

 

3 Here at Maa Mon Chin Lake under the young Myrtle Beech, finches, wrens and robins come and go, especially in the reeds and bulrushes at the water’s edge. On the opposite side of the lake is a native forest, made into a mandala by reflection.

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The lake ripples with puzzling underwater creatures. Two ripplings come close enough for identification: platypus. The clear water slides easily off their sleek, densely-furred bodies. Usually too shy to show themselves, here they exult in their safe habitat.

As the hours drift, I muse on the phrase: brought down to earth. It has a malicious, serve-ya-right edge, but down here with the crawling insects (chief of which are ants), down here with the roots of trees, I appreciate earth as never before. I consider reviving the Flat Earth Society to convince others about the restorative effects of lying flat on dirt for a day.

I focus on the profound stillness of the lake. Time seems to be flowing in another dimension. The thinking process becomes almost non-existent. It’s possible to follow the trajectory of an individual rain drop; see it fall, see it hit and enter the body of the lake; see a circle form; see that circle expand and intersect with other circles from other raindrops. See the mind perceiving it all. Defeat transcended.

As the aromas of turmeric, cumin and cauliflower waft over the clearing, the others arrive, the local guide in the lead. How self-sufficient she is; how at one with the forests.

Tents proliferate; talk sets in; some Tasmanians swim in the cold lake; the sun dances west. The group assembles to rehash the day. With the improved weather, the mood is upbeat and talkative. Someone says how much they like the lake.

“Isn’t a lake,” our guide states. “It’s not natural. It’s the dam of a Chinese bloke called Maa Mon Chin, a tin miner. It’s man-made,” she says.

“Maa Mon Chin!” I exclaim as I link the joss house photograph in Launceston with where we are now. The fallen sign I’d seen from the truck at the entrance to the picnic area earlier hadn’t quite done it.

“Chinese tin miners worked the ground all around here and up on the Blue Tier from the 1870s to the 1930s,” says one of the men from Hobart. “Europeans too, but mostly Chinese.”

“Tomorrow we’ll pass some of their discarded machinery,” our guide confirms.

“I’ve read about Maa Mon Chin,” I clarify to explain my outburst. “At the museum in Launceston. The Chinese miners practised a blend of Taoism and Buddhism.”

“Miners don’t practise anything!” someone near me mutters. “Except rip-offs.”

“The joss house in Launceston proves they did,” I persist, ever the lapsed history teacher.

“The Queen Vic! Worth a visit,” the same Hobart man adds for the benefit of the mainlanders.

“It’s no accident that it is so beautiful here,” I continue. “A Chinese miner could see the forces of nature around him. He could see that nature would reclaim the landscape after mining and make it whole again.” It’s not purely self-interest which makes me add, “There’s good reason to stay here for two nights.” The others haven’t had the opportunity to take in our surrounds that my day of lying on my back let me do; they can’t yet know the special calm of it. Even if it is landscape altered by human activity.

“Mining,” someone else interjects, “is never good for the environment”.

“The Chinese tin miners were the first to bring a Buddhist sensibility to Tasmania,” I point out. “We’re Johnny-come-latelies. This place is magic. It’s Maa Mon Chin’s legacy, his gift to future generations. Why rush away?”

The conversation around the circle ebbs and flows until it’s time to break for sleep. In my tent on a grassy bank, I drift off contemplating the power of water. Harnessing fast-flowing mountain water to extract tin, as the miners did here, had to be less intrusive than, say, using cyanide to win gold. The dams held the water that drove the waterwheels that drove the stampers which crushed the granite and released the tin ore. Mining by water – the reason for the present health of this landscape.

I wake with the bell, the summons to yoga. I’m still weak but know that the others aren’t; they’re itching to be off. I join the circle near the kitchen tarp, inwardly rehearsing my bulletin: Potato Woman Calls it Quits. Taxi needed for travel from Maa Mon Chin Lake to Pyengana. But the organisers intervene: today will be a rest day. There’s always one on a Buddhist bushwalk, they’re bringing it forward.

I’m thrilled. We can all be in step with the Tao now.

All day, the lake is a magnet. By its side, with crossed legs and closed eyes, we meditate, travelling into the landscapes of our minds. A Tasmanian with botanical training, caught between keeping the silence and the urge to share his knowledge, indicates the Beech we’re sheltering under. “Nothofagus cunninghamii. Living fossil, relic of Gondwana, yields a nice pinkish timber.” Lets his lids close again.

To get to know even one tree – in this island of billions – is, I feel, a joy. At dawn, noon and dusk as I sit meditating – travelling to places in the mind that words struggle to define – the young Beech again protects me. And when I limp to dinner and the evening circle, there it stays – a many-limbed creature at the mercy of her playmate the wind. Wind makes her leaves shiver and dance like a goddess.

I sleep well and in the morning, wriggle out of my sleeping bag and stand upright, healed. I’m ready to leave and ascend to the Blue Tier. What does the sage say?

Be like the water – simply by flowing along

Much is accomplished.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

 

4 On the way up to the Blue Tier where the hardiest tin miners flocked in the 1870s, we pass through the village of Weldborough (population 20). The district was originally called Thomas Plains, after the first surveyor, a name that changed to honour Weld, an early Tasmanian governor, who visited the district to see the booming powerhouse of the colonial economy for himself. In Victorian times, the Chinese – who lived in the Chinese Camp, separate from Europeans – were notable for their pigtails and their habit of walking single file. They were known by a variety of names, ranging from the romantic “Natives of the Flowery Land” and “The Celestials” through to the less sensitive or outright derogatory: “almond-eyed Mongolians”; “John Chinaman”; “Chinkeys”; “chows”.

As we forest pilgrims file through Weldborough – conjuring up ghosts despite our lack of pigtails – the sight of our wordless traverse prompts the folk in the pub to crowd the front doorway. Pots of amber in hand although it’s only ten in the morning, they gawk and comment with amusement. Except for one.  A young woman – Thai I guess by her golden skin – stares with recognition. Next to her is a burly bloke who is probably her husband. She sees what no-one else does – that we’re on a spiritual journey of some sort, something that recalls the monks in her homeland going on alms round. She lets her child slide down from her petite hip to cling instead to her ankles and brings her hands together as a sign of respect. My blue eyes catch her dark eyes; we smile.

It’s a steep, ten kilometre hike up through the Blue Tier Forest Reserve to the plateau. We pass through regenerating rainforest and see rusty machinery and the remains of the numerous “water races” that removed tin the alluvial way. On the plateau, grass is absent but there’s green mossy stuff and white spongy stuff which a boardwalk protects from our feet. The same boardwalk allows wheelchair access to visitors who arrive in cars via the road to the plateau. GOBLIN FOREST WALK reads a sign and sure enough, the stunted trees are decorated with beards of lichen.

Rather than goblins, I sense the ghosts of old miners. It’s spooky, claustrophobic, cold and desolate. “This can’t be summer,” we mainlanders whisper. “Imagine winter – punishing.”

The vista from the tumbled rocks of nearby Mount Michael is, by contrast with the stunted forest we’ll camp in, expansive. The wild wind shakes Tasmania out before us in four directions: a light-drenched, shadow-shifting, blue-green-gold glorious land. The troop beams. Are humans happiest when diminished to the size of ants? Yes. Only when diminished can we properly salute the beauty of Earth.

My body doesn’t falter today, or on the next, or the next.

The days pass, tramping, tramping; sighting natural joys too many to catalogue. When we return to Pyengana, I’m not alone in feeling reborn. Energised. Balanced. Connected.

At the final evening circle one trekker sums it up. “Aunty Gloria told us, ‘Let the country talk to you.’ Well – the country sure did. And we sang back!”

I drive out of the valley to see more of the island. For ten more days I let Tasmania talk to me: Bay of Fires; St Helens; Freycinet Peninsula; Hartz mountains; Lake St Clair; Franklin and Gordon Rivers; Cradle Mountain. Eventually, after the return voyage across Bass Strait and after the long dry 2000 kays of highway home, sub-tropical Brisbane reclaims me. I’m too late for its opulent summer scents of fallen mangoes and frangipani. It doesn’t matter – every part of this country is worthy of respect.

The world is a sacred vessel

which must not be tampered with or grabbed after.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

 

5 For the next year and a half, Maa Mon Chin Lake was often in my mind. When sitting in meditation I deliberately recalled it. In the practice of meditation, the “meditation object” is usually the breath, but I switched from its rise and fall to the picture of Maa Mon Chin Lake as the rain fell – slow and delicate – into its body, and the boundless calm of its realm. Whenever my concentration wandered, I brought it back to this. Not surprisingly, my reverence for Maa Mon Chin as a Taoist sage and a visionary increased. The more I meditated in this way, the more my reverence grew. I reacquainted myself with the Tao Teh Ching.

I arrange a second trip to Northeast Tasmania. This time I arrive in spring (the equivalent of a bitterly cold Brisbane mid-winter), and this time I fly into Launceston. There are notebooks in my cabin luggage instead of camping gear in my car. I will be writer-in-residence in the Kings Bridge caretaker’s cottage located in the Cataract Gorge Nature Reserve, and not far from the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. Except for the reserve’s walking tracks, it will be a working holiday, a desk-bound one.

Launceston is at its loveliest. The spring wildflowers of the trails in the nearby nature reserve are blooming; closer to the city are camellias, daffodils and snowdrops. On one lovely temperate day, I decide to pay my respects to Maa Mon Chin by revisiting the joss house he’d once worshipped in. Because Launceston is a small city where visitors are embraced, I’ve learned the local language quickly and describe my intention to the young woman serving my morning coffee – “Yes, I’m off to the Queen Vic.”

I cross the lawn of Kings Park (for goodness sake: Kings Bridge, Kings Park!) to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. The joss house is every bit as colourful and intriguing as I’d found it on my last visit. Again I stare at the photograph of Maa Mon Chin. (Sage! Visionary!) At the council library, I enquire about the local history collection.

I can soon recite the basic facts about Maa Mon Chin: born around 1845 in a village near Canton (now Guangzhou), came to Australia with his father to mine gold. In the 1870s, because the preservation of food in “tins” became a boom industry, the mining of the miraculous metal of tin (dubbed grey gold) became more lucrative than yellow gold. Father and son sailed from the colony of Victoria to the colony of Tasmania. As well as developing tin mines, the young man established the Chin Chinese Store in Weldborough to cater to the frontier population.

Maa Mon Chin lived in the Chinese Camp at top end of the settlement in the best house. He was a boss man and called “the mandarin”, a man of prestige who even British governors called upon when they toured the colony. The Weldborough Hotel that we’d passed on the way to the Blue Tier stands where the All Nations Hotel once stood. Then the Chinese community was the largest of the multi-cultural, or “all nations”, scene. The miners felled timber willy-nilly, their settlements making small clearings in the Tasmanian Blue Gum forests. They built the sluices and races needed for their plants and, in time, cottages, fences, businesses, schools and churches.

Mining and trading made Maa Mon Chin wealthy. Within a decade, he requested a quality bride from his native Canton. They had eleven children. In 1920, when the ore-body was mined out and when he was seventy-five or thereabouts, he closed the store, finalised his affairs and retired to central Melbourne where he died not long afterwards. Maa Mon Chin had therefore resided in the Northeast Highlands for nearly five decades whereas I’d spent only two handfuls of days there.

At this point I put my library reading aside. By focussing only on the facts I was losing my connection with earth and water, and with the sound of the country talking.

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A voice in my head said, Let the woman in.

It was Loola Kow You.

Infinitely creative, inexhaustible, barely knowable –

The Doorway of the Mysterious Feminine.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

 

6 In 1887, Loola Kow You, a young and innocent girl with the bound feet indicative of a genteel background, sailed to George’s Bay (now St Helens where Aunty Gloria lives) with a dowry of silk clothing and an attendant.

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Maa Mon Chin, her husband-to-be, met her. The port and the landscape must have made a powerful impression on Loola. The bay is still a place where black swans arch their strong necks, sea eagles make forays for fish from their eyries in tall trees, and great flocks of migratory birds settle on nearby marshes. Mr Chin, as he signed himself, would’ve further received tea, ginger, bamboo shoots, clothing, furniture, crockery, rice and rice wine for his store and, last but not least, human cargo – labourers. Some of these he would employ directly; some he would hire out to European mine owners via a tribute system. As solace for the loneliness they’d soon know in the country that was 41 S 148 E, opium, as thick and black as treacle, was especially imported for them. It was then legal.

Mr Chin’s team of pack horses were loaded and the party headed to Thomas Plains (proclaimed “Weldborough” two years later, in 1889) some 25 miles (30 kilometres) away. The poor horses that carried the supplies from the port to the miners inland frequently broke their ankles on the terrifying mountain track. They often slipped and tumbled into one of the deep valleys below. One slip of a hoof, the bride-to-be would have realised, and death would claim her. But Maa Mon Chin knew the track; he’d made this trip on business many times. Perhaps he did feel a certain anxiety on her behalf. Ten years prior, the colony’s white settlers marked the death of “the last full-blooded Aborigine, Queen Truganini”, and fear has a habit of lingering. As well, there was a specifically Chinese wariness about the prospect of hostilities from Europeans. In the 1870s when father and son arrived from Victoria, anti-Chinese sentiment was rife. Within the year, Maa Mon Chin’s own father had been robbed then murdered not far from the All Nations pub.

The journey must have astonished Loola. A newspaper correspondent at the time described it with great admiration. “The road winds, loops … to the low level plains of Weldborough … the views are alpine in outline … with vast expanses of forest, enormous deep gorges, rippling streams, and beautiful … fern glades … some … 12-14 feet high.” It was … “the grandest of mountain scenery”.[ii] (Today it’s still breathtaking – the ferns are so huge they are known as “man ferns”.) The sight of the All Nations Hotel must have been equally astonishing. Crowds of men, Chinese and Europeans alike, were waiting in front of it to catch a glimpse of her, cheering as she passed. Her husband’s home overlooked the joss house. Its caretaker would have immediately ushered his countrywoman inside to pray for good fortune. There, amidst incense smoke, he’d tell her that Europeans labelled the temple “heathen” but nevertheless visited in droves.

Chinese New Year celebrations were especially popular with nineteenth century Europeans and they came from near and far to enjoy them. Pigs from Pyengana were slaughtered and cooked in big stone ovens. In front of the Chin store, rice wine, Mi Kee Loo (now written as Muigui Lu), flowed freely and the miners of the region – hard men, generally without the comfort of women – liked the exotic drink. Cymbals clashed and drums and gongs beat out rhythms for the dragon dances. Above the throng, the great forests loomed and fireworks lit the nights for weeks at a time.

For the next four decades, Loola lived beneath the Blue Tier. Her bound feet were not meant for trekking – in China, only peasant women ventured out into the forests – so she could know precious little of the outdoors. Loola lived a cloistered life, demonstrating a keen interest in the latest fashion and in hosting afternoon teas. (This does not imply superficiality on her part – they were different times.) The refinement of her dress and behaviour both fascinated and impressed her contemporaries, perhaps suggesting possibilities they’d never before considered. The eleven children she brought into the world must have kept her busy. When photographed in 1903, surrounded by the first eight of them, her demeanour conveys a serene woman whose features are delicate and symmetrical, her clothing traditional and rich. She was the embodiment of all that could be admired in a Chinese woman of her social standing.

Her fourth son Frank[iii] who lived from 1897-1985 is pictured standing in front of his father. He was eighty-eight when interviewed by the Chinese Museum in Melbourne and recalled his mother as “the most photographed woman in Tasmania in her young days … she was the most beautiful Chinese woman you ever saw”.

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The Chin family seem to have escaped the natural and man-made disasters that defined so much of the community life of Weldborough: bushfires, drownings, dray accidents, axe accidents, horse accidents, gunshot accidents, mining and sawmilling accidents, and fights. They were untouched by storms so fierce that giant Blue Gums, as if they were no more than joss sticks telling fortunes, crashed onto cottages and roads. Still, there were winters so cold that ice lay around in sheets for months. There was the influenza epidemic after the Great War.

In 1920 Mr Chin decided – enough! The oldest sons were already settled across Bass Strait in Melbourne and the Tasmanian Chins would join them. This was the juncture – I surmised during my Buddhist walkabout – at which Maa Mon Chin, influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, gifted his dam for the benefit of future generations.

I imagine them at the Kings Wharf in Launceston (yes, another place named for a British king!) booking a passenger steamer, and enjoying the company of Chinese friends who ran import-export businesses nearby. Before the voyage up the Tamar River to Bass Strait, the Chin family had the opportunity to stroll along the concrete paths of the Cataract Gorge – the paths I walked daily during my residency. At the Victorian-style pavilion where peacocks strutted around, did Loola and her husband feel pangs of longing for the famous peacocks of Canton? How did they regard the sophistication of Launceston, a city of fine architecture and an abundance of churches? In 1920, even the caretaker’s cottage at the mouth of the Cataract Gorge was architect-designed; the council employees who lived there could banish the dark of night with an electric light and turn on taps for water – unlike the rough ways of the Northeast. It must have primed the family for “marvellous Melbourne”.

What thoughts did the members of the family have as they left? The Tamar is not actually a river but an estuary laced with wetlands. Did the introduced willows on the banks rekindle memories for the Chinese-born couple? They would have seen black swans and cormorants as well as big Pacific gulls and pelicans overhead. On the Kwei River in China, the cormorants were domesticated, with ties on their necks to stop them swallowing the fish they caught – in Australia they were free. After the melaleuca forests came the tame lands: orchards where apples grew, pastures where sheep grazed, and gleaming wheatfields. Slicing through the glassy surface of the estuary, they would have passed brick mansions built by prosperous farmers. The waves of the strait would toss them about fearfully before the steamer could berth in Port Melbourne. In Little Bourke Street, later known as Chinatown, a large residence awaited – a former hotel, with many rooms.

Do what’s right

Then stop!

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

 

7 My mission feels complete. It’s as if, in early 2013, I had walked the Northeast for Loola Kow Yu as well as for me – she was not a woman who could have walked it for herself.

Before packing up my library books, I flicked back through the most helpful source, Tin Mountain by Garry Richardson, a Northeast Highlands forestry-worker turned local-historian, and a very knowledgeable man. In the course of his research, Richardson discovered a cache of poems by a bush poet from Weldborough named Bill Butt. The poems evoked the mining history of the district so poignantly that Richardson embellished his history with them.

When I reread Bill Butt’s “The Laffer Dam”, my eyes pop at this couplet because they throw my neat views of Maa Mon Chin as the giver of wise gifts into the disarray of a Chinese puzzle, “Remember this dam is the Laffer, Bill Dickenson put it in / Nothing in any way to do with that Chinaman, Maa Mon Chin.”[iv]

Nothing to do with Maa Mon Chin? The lake that restored me to life is misnamed? Impossible. I turn to other material in Tin Mountain; it corroborates the bush poet’s belief (and that of the historian) that the Laffer Company, funded by capital from Britain and an all-European operation, built the dam as part of their mining operations. Apparently Forestry Tasmania chose the name without consulting the locals.

So, I reason, if the “lake” we camped by was not one of Mr Chin’s concerns, it follows that the Taoist-Buddhist values I “saw” were only projections.

I continue to flick through Tin Mountain, pausing to revisit the photograph of the state’s “North Eastern Pioneers”, originally published in the Weekly Courier in 1910. Except for Mr Chin, the twenty of them are European. As a “pioneer” – he’s surely entitled to at least one place name. And for all we can tell now, when fresh from the Victorian goldfields he could have worked the area before the Laffer Company bought in. Given the immense contribution of the Chinese workers to the Northeast, something is better than nothing. Maa Mon Chin Lake it should remain!

Then another revelation unsettles me. The Chinese Museum in Melbourne spells the name Chin as Chinn but, in any case, Chinn could not have been the original surname of the family, even though the store was known as The Chin Chinese Store. The surname is Maa, or more accurately – Ma. The place that means so much to me should, in fact, be called the Ma Dam! Too much!

I fantasise a total name spill in the Northeast Highlands. (If all names are up for grabs, how about dumping Weldborough for Maborough? Or embrace the feminine and call it Loola Kow Yu.)

The mix-up(s) illustrate something important about the passage of time and the vagaries of history. Australians, infamous for their anti-Chinese sentiment in colonial times, have honoured a Chinese man; and a mining operation, in this instance, has inflicted little harm. Despite the destruction inherent in land uses imported from other cultures, in this small pocket of the world in Northeast Tasmania, nature and society have found a new balance, however imperfectly.

I’ve learnt something. In my reading of tracks on landscape, there’s a strange integrity at work; a Taoist truth. I’m going to let Uncle Herb out in Cunnamulla know: Herb, you old cattle duffer you, it’s true – the true stories are in the tracks humans leave behind. Some places are spiritual places. Some are physical. Sometimes the two are intertwined and there’s no pulling them apart.

Tao is always nameless …

Aren’t there enough names in the world already?

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

 

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Notes

[i] All references to the Tao Teh Ching are my own interpretations. For two thousand years this classic, famous for its refusal to put humans central to its philosophy, has contained advice for sages, rulers and ordinary denizens alike.

[ii] Quoted from The Examiner by Garry Richardson in Tin Mountain. Hobart: Forty South Publishing, 2013.

[iii] Frank Chinn interviewed by Constant Wong for the Chinese Museum, Melbourne, 1983. The photo is called Members of the Chinn Family c 1903, Chinese Museum Collection. Other photos are by the author and the bushwalkers of 2013, used with permission.

[iv] “The Laffer Dam” by Bill Butt, in Tin Mountain. Hobart: Forty South Publishing, 2013, 270.

 

A version of this essay will also appear in Hecate.

 

Lesley Synge lives in Brisbane. Her poetic film, Mountains Belong to the People Who Love Them, premiered at the Queensland Poetry Festival. She is assembling her nature writing into a collection to be called Over the Gullies and Far Away. Her e-novel Cry Ma Ma to the Moon, illustrated by Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox, is available on Amazon. Her most recent work is the biography Wharfie.

Lesley acknowledges the Launceston City Council for an arts residency in the Kings Bridge Cottage in 2014.

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