Mavis Yen was born in Perth in 1916, the daughter of a Chinese father and an Australian mother. She lived in both countries and understood what it meant to navigate two worlds, to live through war and revolution and to experience racial discrimination. In the 1980s she began interviewing elderly Chinese Australians, recording hours of conversations. Her intimate understanding of their languages and life experiences encouraged them to share their stories. Richard Horsburgh and Siaomen Yen edited these transcripts and created the book South Flows the Pearl, published in February this year by Sydney University Press.
What is your connection to Mavis Yen?
Siaoman: Mavis is my mother. She was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1916 to a Chinese father and European Australian mother. She was 9 years old when her parents took her and her brother and two sisters to live in Shanghai in 1925. While her siblings came back to Australia to live in the 1930s, my mother lived most of her adult life in China. She married my father Jeffrey Yen in Beijing in 1950 and never lived permanently in Australia until 1981 when she was 65 and brought me with her. It was only in 1987 when she was 71 that she began the research for South Flows the Pearl.
How did you come across her transcripts, or have you always known of them?
Richard: We always knew that Mavis was conducting her oral history interviews with elderly Chinese Australians in preparation for writing the book. She started the interviews when she was living in Canberra; she moved to Sydney not long after our son was born. We were working and had a young child, so we were busy. We didn’t have any involvement with the book. Mavis wrote the book completely by herself without any academic support while she lived on the aged pension and in government subsidised housing.
Did you need to translate the transcripts from Chinese or were they written in English?
Siaoman: All the transcripts were in English. Ten of the 12 interviews for the book were conducted in English and two in Cantonese. My mother spoke Cantonese and Mandarin, but English is her only written language. After she completed her last interview, she created the finished manuscript by merging all the interviewees’ answers into first person narratives. So when you read the book, it is just like the people are speaking directly to you and you don’t see my mother’s hand in this at all.
What gave you the inspiration to publish a book?
Siaoman: My mother tried to find a publisher for the book in the 1990s but there wasn’t the interest in Chinese Australian history and oral history that there is today. Her health declined in the early 2000s and she passed away in 2008 without ever seeing the book in print. Richard and I decided to get the book published to honour all the hard work she put into it. It is also such valuable research and it would have been a tragedy if it had been for nothing. All her interviewees except one have also passed away so it’s not something you could replicate today and the stories of a whole generation would have been lost forever.
What made you decide to include the 12 families in the book, is there a connection between them?
Richard: It was Mavis’ decision to include 12 families. While most of the interviews were conducted in Sydney, the 12 interviewee’s families came from all over Australia – every state except South Australia and Tasmania. So this gives the book a huge Australia-wide canvas which is one of the unique features of the book. Because most of the interviewees lived in Sydney when their stories were recorded, some of them did know each other. Some were known to Mavis’ family from long ago and others she met when she joined the Australia-China Friendship Society. Some of the interviewees introduced her to others. Nothing was planned and much of it was a happy accident. The best thing was that each family had a unique and fascinating history.
What did you find surprising during your research, is there something that stands out?
Siaoman: For me, the critical thing was that none of the interviewees were rich or famous. They were all just ordinary Australians and none had the opportunity to go to university or anything like that. Most left school when they were about 14. So the book is about the contribution that hard working Chinese made to the development of Australia. I think my mother wanted to do justice to that generation and celebrate their lives – often lived in the face of discrimination and marginalisation. I think the book is very Australian and Chinese at the same time.
Richard: The lives of all the women in the book are fascinating, whether they were interviewees themselves, or were their mothers, grandmothers or sisters. Very few Chinese women came to Australia prior to WWII and the Australian-born daughters were often tightly protected. The mother of one interviewee did come to Australia in 1903 and had bound feet and she led a lonely existence. Some fathers wanted to arrange marriages for their daughters here but met fierce resistance from their Australian-born daughters who had a more enlightened view of marriage.
What was most interesting?
Richard: Nine of the interviewees were born in Australia and three in China and so it was interesting to see how the two cultures intersected. Some Australian-born people learned Chinese and some of the culture and others were really ignorant about China and only spoke English. Some were taken to China as children so got immersed in the culture at an early age and others only made their first visit to China after they retired. But China generally loomed large in their lives.
What did you decide to leave out of the book?
Siaoman: We didn’t leave anything out really. All the stories are just as my mother wrote them. She wrote short background pieces before each chapter and we did modify those a bit. The book is very true to what my mother intended and we are pleased about that. In fact we put more into the book – maps, photographs, Chinese characters and footnotes, so if anything we enhanced it.
What made you decide to split up each person’s story across more than one chapter?
Richard: That was how Mavis set the book out. She wanted the reader to jump between stories and get a sense of the variety of experiences that each family had. There is a very loose narrative arc in that the earlier stories look back more the 1800s, the middle group have people describing their lives under the White Australia policy up to WWII and the latter group focussing more on post-war Australia and the end of the immigration restrictions.
What message do you think the book conveys and what do you hope readers will take away from it?
Siaoman: That is a hard question as the book has so many lessons to share. For myself and for my mother in particular, I believe that understanding each other is the best way to achieve peace and prevent conflict. That can be on a person-to-person basis or between nations. If we don’t understand each, other it’s easy to become distrustful and suspicious. My mother didn’t want the Chinese in Australia to be seen as outsiders. They made their lives here, they were Australian. This is Australian history, although from a Chinese perspective, and I think that was certainly my mother’s view.
Is there anything that you would have done differently?
Richard: Nothing really, as everything turned out beyond our expectations. If we had known how accommodating SUP has been with two novice book editors we may have asked for more photographs to go in the book! We collected so many wonderful old pictures from all the families that it was a hard decision to cull many of them.
South Flows the Pearl has been well received in the community, how do you think Mavis would have felt about this?
Siaoman: My mother would have been so proud. She was a very humble person and not at all materialistic. She lived a very simple and disciplined life. However, I believe she always harboured a secret desire to be a writer and while she would have been very flattered about all the positive attention the book has received, I think that deep down she would have been so proud of what she has achieved. She has given the country a great gift.
South Flows the Pearl is part of the China and the West in the Modern World series published by Sydney University Press. The focus of this series is how ideas, beliefs and cultural practices in China and Western nations are understood – or sometimes misunderstood by both parties. Other books in this series are Made in Chinatown and the Poison of Polygamy.