50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Alison Wong
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.
Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.
As the Earth Turns Silver by Alison Wong (Penguin Books) | New Zealand Post Book Award 2010
Alison Wong writes:
In January 1996 I returned to Napier to celebrate the centenary of my paternal great grandfather’s arrival in Aotearoa/New Zealand. We were sitting together in the dining room, where throughout my childhood we ate our evening meals, when my father looked at me, paused, then said, ‘You know he was murdered, don’t you?’
All my life my parents had been so busy working, whether in the family fruit and vegetable shops then supermarkets or for many community groups, that there’d been little time for family stories. And my father was a quiet man rarely given to words, apart from when giving formal speeches or discussing business. My mother once told me that my father didn’t say much, but when he did I should listen carefully.
I listened. And asked questions.
The case was never solved. Perhaps the police didn’t try very hard, at least that was how the family felt. After all in those days there was a lot of racism. And it was during the First World War. In all likelihood the murderer went off to war.
What did the family know about great granddad? Very little. He had not returned home to China before his death but had saved enough to educate and bring his son, my father’s father, to join him in Wellington. There were no photographs. We knew nothing about his appearance except that he was tall.
A few days later my cousin told me his father had been walking past a Chinese shop during the next World War when he realised the people inside were talking about him. His grandfather had had an affair with a white woman, they were saying.
When I asked my uncle, he looked at me wide-eyed. He didn’t know what I was talking about. I asked my father. He didn’t know anything about it, but he understood that it would have been a very lonely life. Because of the poll tax and other discriminatory legislation directed exclusively towards Chinese, very few Chinese women and children came to New Zealand. It would be understandable if some Chinese men developed other relationships.
Whether my great grandfather had a relationship with a Pakeha woman or not, whether he was murdered because of this or not, I recognised this as fertile ground for a novel. But it was hard enough trying to write a first novel, let alone a historical transcultural one. I knew nothing about the time period or the social customs and histories, Chinese or Pakeha. And I was already writing a contemporary novel, even if I’d only written a few thousand words.
A couple of months later I was due to take up a two-month Reader’s Digest New Zealand Society of Authors residency at the Stout Research Centre. Just beforehand I realised I did not want to continue writing the contemporary novel. I needed to come up with another novel quickly.
And so with trepidation, I started on As the Earth Turns Silver.
I used my own ancestral villages in Zengcheng/Jungseng county, Guangdong, so that I could at the same time research my own family history, but I did not try to write the true story of my great grandfather. In fact, I deliberately changed many known facts. But the true story anchored the novel in a particular setting and time period. I set the novel in the fruit and vegetable shop near the Basin Reserve where my great grandfather lived, worked and died. It no longer exists but many of the buildings close by still do and I found the plans for the shop, 100 Adelaide Road, in the Wellington City Council archives. I haunted the streets of Wellington examining the old buildings and reimagining those that were gone.
I found my great grandfather’s police file at Archives New Zealand. I changed the date when he was murdered by a couple of years from September 1914 to mid-1916 so that I could explore various aspects of Chinese and New Zealand history. And I changed the way in which he was murdered. The actual murder was shockingly brutal and deliberate: he was looking down when he was bludgeoned seven times over the head with a heavy metal object. His skull was crushed. I didn’t want such brutality or intention.
Literature and journalism in English of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries generally depicted Chinese in a racist, derogatory, patronising or exoticised way. Chinese were not portrayed as people like you and me with our individual personalities and circumstances. And so I chose to tell the story through multiple voices, Chinese and Pakeha, male and female. I wanted to depict differing perspectives and I wanted to give voice to the voiceless, to people like my grandparents and great grandparents.
The main characters of the novel are fictional though aspects of many real lives have been reconfigured into the characters of the novel and their stories. The work raising money in New Zealand for Dr Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, for instance, is based on the work of my mother’s mother’s father, Huang Guomin/Wong Kwok-min, and aspects of the life of Yung’s wife in China are based on details recounted to me by elderly interviewees.
Many historical figures and events are depicted and integrated into the fictional story, eg, Dr Truby King, Dr Agnes Bennett, Lionel Terry, Joe Kum-yung, Dr Sun Yat-sen, Yuan Shih-k’ai and Consul Kwei. Lionel Terry would be an unbelievable caricature were he not real, his words and deeds based published accounts, the only fiction being his interactions with the fictional main characters.
Sometime after As the Earth Turns Silver was published, I received a phone call from an elderly woman. The story of Yung and Katherine was, in many ways, the story of her grandfather and grandmother. A kind Chinese man who rescued a poverty-stricken Pakeha widow. Except that they married and moved away from Wellington to small town New Zealand. Where their relationship was better accepted and they happily raised their children.
Is it easier to accept the other, the stranger when they are few, when they are just your neighbour, when you realise they are human like you and me?
Selected Extracts from As the Earth Turns Silver (Penguin Books)
Wong Chung-shun, 1896
It is a lonely place where the Jesus-ghosts preach. They preach about love, about a god who died of love, yet in the street the people sneer and call out and spit, then on Sundays sing in the Jesus-house.
Their god is a white ghost. You see the pictures. He has pale skin and a big nose and a glow of moonlight round his long brown hair. He has many names, just as we Tongyan have many names. We have a milk name, an adult name, perhaps a scholar or chosen name. The Jesus-ghosts call their god Holy Ghost. Even they know he is a ghost. People are like their gods, just as they are like their animals. They even call him Father. We do not need to name them, these gweilo. Even they know they are ghosts.
Yung says, We do not need to recognise their words; we do not need to interpret the raised syllable. It is there in a flicker of the eyes, the slight curl of a lip, in the muscles of the face, the way they set against us. He says, The body has its own language, as fluid as poetry, as coarse as polemic.
Yung has a way with words. He says the language of the body can be used as a weapon.
Now that Yung is here, I do not have to pay a clansman. One of us can go to the market while the other keeps shop; one can sort bananas while the other trims vegetables. Now that he is here, I can save to bring out a wife. I can save the fare and the poll tax. It will take a good many years.
When Yung first arrived we did not recognise each other. We had not seen each other for over ten years. He is eighteen now, and books have affected his brain. He dreams big, impossible dreams. He does not understand life, and he does not understand this land. He is full of too many feelings like wild animals caught and caged in a zoo. He likes to talk, and his words are quick, quicker than his understanding. He is very young – fifteen years younger. My brother is like a son, an only, foolish son.
Kwangtung, China to Wellington
Yung rose early. He could not keep still. He felt as if he had boundless energy. He walked to the markets composing short poems in his head, reciting them to himself, whistling old love ballads. His body no longer belonged to himself; it seemed so light, he felt like he could run up walls, perform miraculous feats of endurance.
Bidding hadn’t started yet. He walked through the cavernous buildings, past the auctioneers with their clipboards; through the throng of other buyers; past the huge concrete pillars and the timber painted signs nailed to the walls or hanging from the ceiling – Sandy Pope, George Thomas, Leary, Thompson Bros, Townsend & Paul, D. Bowie, Market Gardeners; past the lines of produce, here a line of cauliflowers, there a line of cabbages, here lettuces, there apples or pears; past the stacks of wooden cases and jute super-sacks with the name of the grower written on paper tags. He hummed as he walked, only after some time realising what he was humming – a bawdy folksong about a bridegroom waiting with his friends for the bride. He laughed and kept humming, hunting out the produce from the best growers, calling out to his fellow clansmen, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ then smiling, ‘Yes, yes, I have eaten,’ even though he had eaten nothing since the night before; his shoes sounding out on the damp wooden floorboards, somewhere just above the hum of excited conversation, the yelling, the banging of wooden boxes, the clip-clop of horses on the road outside. Jonquils. He stood in Market Gardeners, smelling jonquils. He laughed. Today he would buy flowers.
Better Than a Dog
‘How long have you been working for me, Katherine? I’ve never seen you looking so good.
‘Do you remember what you were like? A lost puppy. You were! And now look at you. Mr Newman was saying to me the other day, “That Katherine McKechnie, she’s lost ten years off that pretty face of hers.” He says I’ve done you a world of good.’
Mrs Newman laughed. She put her pen down and clasped her hands in front of her. ‘So who is he, Katherine?
‘Come on, Katherine, I know that look – you’re like a blushing bride. I swear if I didn’t know better, you’d break into song as you typed my letters. You’re in love, Katherine. Who is he?
‘No, I haven’t heard any rumours. You’ve obviously been careful, but you used to be so punctual. No, I’m not concerned if now and then you’re five or ten minutes late. Though love can be injurious to one’s health if one doesn’t get enough sleep . . .
‘I’m not going to tell anyone, Katherine, not even Mr Newman. I understand the life of a widow with children is hardly conducive to romantic entanglements. What man wants a used chalice, as they say, let alone another man’s children?
‘Is he married? No?
‘Well, you certainly are full of surprises.’
Mrs Newman picked up her pen, wrote a few words. Crossed them out.
‘You should be careful . . .
‘Katherine. I have nothing against the Chinese. They’re a hardworking race, they keep pretty much to themselves, and they don’t deserve the vilification granted them in the newspapers. But—
‘Katherine, listen. What does your fellow Briton see, the one who struggles to put bread and dripping on the table? The Chinamen undercut us with prices that would put a decent working man in the poorhouse. They take work away from impoverished laundrywomen. They suck the country dry and then return to the Flowery Land with everything that is rightfully ours. That’s what people say, and you know it.
‘Katherine, don’t look at me like that, I’m only trying to open your eyes. At least you should be careful of your reputation.
‘Yes, I realise you’re being careful. Otherwise I’m sure I would have heard about this a long time ago . . .
‘But Katherine, make sure you’re doubly careful. You may be a widow, but your husband was a respected member of the community . . .’
Mrs Newman burst into donkey-like laughter. She convulsed, ending in a loud snort. ‘Oh, Katherine you are a party! Of course I know women aren’t just appendages of their husbands! But, seriously Katherine, you must realise that it’s only the lowest class of women who consort with Chinamen. Those who have nothing to lose.
‘All right, so there might be a few respectable women who marry Chinamen. Ladies who play the piano at church and fall in love while working for the Lord among the heathen. These are the kind of women who answer the call of God to the darkest heart of Africa or China and die in childbirth or of some unspeakable tropical disease.
‘Katherine, listen to me. Did you know that if you marry an alien, you lose your British citizenship? No, I didn’t think so. A woman gets married and she might as well be an infant or a lunatic or an idiot. I wish I was joking. You marry a Chinaman and you lose the right to vote, you won’t get the old-age pension, Katherine, you lose everything. And if you’re thinking of living in sin, God forbid, you must have heard of the cases that have gone through the court? Doesn’t Truth love to report such cases? Low-class women living with Chinamen. I’ve heard it said that they’re better treated by the John than their drunken husbands, but Katherine, the police have picked up women from Haining Street and charged them with vagrancy and being without means of support. They’ve taken British children away from their mothers – despite the mothers protesting that the children are well cared for – because the house was frequented by Chinamen!
‘He doesn’t live in Haining Street? Katherine, it’s a matter of appearances. He’s a Chinaman. That makes him worse than a Jew and maybe a little better than a dog. Maybe. Do you think they’d pick up a woman who was living with a white man, even a drunkard, and charge her with vagrancy? Do you think they’d take away her children?
‘Katherine, I’m telling you this for your own good. Everything you do or don’t do has its consequences. Just make sure you are prepared for them.’
As the Earth Turns Silver
What was it? He wanted to know why she held back. Why she did not respond to his kisses.
She did not know what to say. She could hear Mrs Newman’s words but could not tell him. ‘The children know I come out at night,’ she said.
For a moment there was silence. Then he drew her to him, kissed her hair. ‘Come,’ he said, taking her by the hand, leading her out from the cover of trees, back through the College grounds, down to the city.
It was a clear night. A full moon. She was afraid with such bright moonlight even at ghost hour, as he called it, when the living slept and only the dead walked the streets. What if someone saw them?
But he was wearing a hat, he said. If someone came, he would look down or away. She could do the talking. No one would see he was Chinese.
She asked where they were going. She was anxious about leaving the children for too long. And what about the police? Didn’t they patrol the streets at night? What if a constable stopped them? Buthe put his finger to her lips and led her down the promenade – the path through gardens and trees – between Cambridge and Kent Terraces. They walked through stillness, through shadow and moonlit brightness, the statue of Queen Victoria looming ever closer before them. Katherine stopped and placed her hand on the granite pedestal, looked up at the great bronze figure. She looked old, hard, and yet she’d loved her Albert.
‘Come,’ he said again, and they walked past the Zealandia Hotel, past the City Destructor chimneys, to the silent boats, the empty baths, the sweep of the harbour along Oriental Parade.
He laughed at the name; told her this was his street, not Adelaide Road, not Haining Street, not Frederick or Taranaki or Tory. He told her to look at the moon and street lights reflected in black water. Had she ever seen it like this at night? The most beautiful street in Wellington. This Chinese street where no Chinese lived.
He came from behind and held her in his arms, told her to look again at earth and sky and water. Could she see how the world turned silver? People died, he told her, because they were afraid. They did not go out at night on dangerous water. They did not see the earth as it turned overnight to silver.
She gazed at the ripples of light on blackness. But people died in dangerous water. She turned to face him, told him it didn’t even have to be dangerous. Her husband fell drunk into the harbour one night. They pulled him out in the morning.
He was silent for a while. Then he told her there were two ways to die. One was . . . he looked at her, uncertain how to express it in English.
‘Inevitable?’ she said. ‘It comes to everyone?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes’. The corners of his mouth lifted. But then he looked at her intently. The other way, he said, this inside death, was not . . . inevitable. People took it in their hands, they held it and would not let go. Some people did this and did not know. Some people knew what they were doing.
He kissed her eyelid. Told her they were born for dangerous water. She looked up at him. Shivered.
‘You’re cold,’ he said. He put his coat over her shoulders, and they turned and walked back along the harbour, past the bereft boats, back towards the city and home.
© Alison Wong, 2009, published in As the Earth Turns Silver, Penguin.