"Like Heaven": Oral History of Joseph Chia


CHEFOO TO WOOLLOOMOOLOO: A companion resource to the oral history of Joseph Francis Chia, (born 1941, Yantai, China.)

Chefoo, 1909. (postcard from author's own collection)

The following information is designed to support your learning before you watch Joseph Chia's account of escaping the second Sino-Japanese War, narrowly avoiding the first rumblings of China's Cultural Revolution.

In the words of my grandmother, moving to Australia is "like heaven" for people who have had to escape conflict.

Between 1937-1945, harmony gradually gave way to confusion and violence as war with the Japanese gradually crippled China. Chefoo - now called Yantai - had been opened to foreign trade in 1858 and has remained a major gold mining region for generations. By the early 1900s it was a busy port because of its ideal access for trade, military operations and holidaying visitors, even from the United States (seen in the case of an American woman's 1909 postcard, above, from author's own collection).

The Chia family had a property in Yantai, growing crops including corn, sweet potato and millet. They also kept ducks and chickens, and this setup was typical for families in the region. Yantai was a place where the women would wander down to the river to wash the clothes and gossip together, the children ran about freely, and boats would come and go with their bounties of fresh seafood.

Sweet potato was considered a very important crop in the area because it was a staple through winter, being stored in an underground storage chamber on the property, away from the house. The Japanese soldiers would later raid family homes of the village with the aim of stealing their food, but would not discover the season's worth of sustenance kept below ground by each family. This covert food storage is the reason many families survived famine due to raids by the Japanese during the conflict. These underground human burrows were purpose-built to keep the harvest edible through winter, but this practical food storage method eventually served to save Chinese lives as a secret bunker.

The name "Yantai" translates to "smokestack", after the large woodpiles which were kept on standby at certain vantage points and then lit as a signal when danger was near. The ever-so-resourceful Chinese ensured they were always well-fed but this made their vulnerable in their seaside town to Japanese pirates.

Today, Yantai doesn't need any smokestacks or suffer from attacks from hungry Japanese pirates. It is a cosmopolitan city of more than 6 million people; a holiday destination with beachside skyscrapers, hip restaurants and hotels.

Show Chen Lee and Chien Tang Chia. Brought together by a matchmaker, but a happy marriage and a team for life.

My grandfather, Chien Tang Chia (left, with my grandmother, Show Chen) held a high social status, holding a traditional title as the Chinese equivalent of the village magistrate, passed down from his grandfather. He was a skilled businessman, braving the harsh journey between Yantai and Calcutta many times to make his fortune selling manchester and fine linen items. He set out to make as much money as possible in a short time, having seen the escalating nature of the Japanese activities in the area. This trade began from selling my grandmother's fine embroidery and expanded into a profitable enough business to fund the Chia family's immigration. It is thought that Chien Tang denied himself most comforts for the six years that he worked in and out of Calcutta, scraping together the funds to get himself and others out of China. His business trips over the mountains were not easy; he traversed narrow trails along rocky mountain ledges, carrying pack donkeys and basic supplies to get to his destination. This willingness to make the perilous journey across the mountains into Tibet and India became the reason he was able to build his wealth so effectively; others were simply not willing to take such risks. As a result, he enjoyed either near or total monopoly in his business.

Despite being six and a half feet tall and a formidable physical presence, he was known as an affable man. He could negotiate deals with anyone and in their own language. He spoke Mandarin, three Indian dialects and a very "Oxford" sort of English. He was able to negotiate with anyone, often advocating for others who had trouble getting their goods off the ships and onto Indian soil. His negotiation in such impressive English would ensure the cargo would be unloaded safely into the hands of his distressed counterparts. As a result, he was a pretty popular guy.

My grandparents and their two young boys escaped China as the Japanese mounted their brutal assault. These once friendly neighbours had slowly infiltrated and then attacked, murdering Chinese civilians and disrupting peace, arguably forever. In 1949 while despairing Chinese picked up the pieces of their fractured society, an opportunistic Mao Zedong stepped into power, sold lies about a fake utopian society and declared China subject to communist rule. Desperate and weary Chinese put their hope in this narcissistic dude with terrible hair who promised them a land of prosperity, but the truth is that the utter horror of an even greater threat loomed; the Cultural Revolution.

People like my grandfather saw straight through it, though. They got their stuff together (or didn't, in the case of my grandparents, who had literally nothing with them), and they got out. In the first sweaty months of 1950, the freshly-Australian Chias set foot upon Australian soil (well... the Woolloomooloo wharf, actually) for the very first time.

The Changte, a vessel charged with the responsibility of carrying thousands of Chinese from Hong Kong to Australia. My family arrived on the Changte, like so many others.

If you'd like to read more on the Cultural Revolution, try reading one of my favourite family stories on the topic, "Son of the Revolution", by LIang Heng and Judith Shapiro.

Being Chinese in Australia comes with its own challenges; racism by white Australians against Chinese has existed since the 1800s, when racist sentiment built among the people, leading to racist policy being shoved onto the Chinese miners in the form of unfair mining licenses and segregation. The Chinese in Australia have a long and rich history, and I encourage you to learn more about it. Today, Chinese Australia is an enormous and influential community in every imaginable sense.

The Chia family went on to settle in Wentworthville and then in Roseville. Each Chia son had four children each, and they have had their children too. We live mostly around Sydney and the Central Coast. George, the eldest son, passed away several years ago, and that makes Joseph Chia the only remaining one of the original family unit to have been born in China.

Dad with the family car, circa 1952

Chien Tang passed away at 66 years old, following complications from stroke, During his final days, he was unable to speak or use his right hand. He was receiving care in a residential facility when he was physically assaulted by a worker in that home who was supposed to be giving him a shave. After the extraordinary life he led, a racist support worker beat him about the face with a shaving brush while he was immobilised and mute from stroke. We know this because my father caught this nasty individual in the very act, and moved his father immediately to a better hospice. We will never know what else this man did to Chien Tang during the time he spent in that facility.

My grandmother was not far behind, passing away in 1969. She had found her utopia not in Mao Zedong's now-destitute China, but in the warm soil of her urban Sydney backyard and the sight of her well-fed, healthy, supremely intelligent sons skipping off to a good Australian school. Still, the heartbreak of her lifelong ordeal - as well as the loss of her only daughter to pneumonia - had already taken its toll on her body. Her life of hard labour in China was also carried out entirely on deformed, bound feet. When I was around 6, I asked my father about a pair of delicate black leather shoes that I had found in the cupboard, and had been wearing about the house. "Why, they're your grandmother's shoes! She wore those around the house too!"

"No they're not! They're too small!"

At this, my father's face fell, and his voice became grave. "No Roz. Her feet were bound."

I grew out of those shoes by the time I was 7. I wish I had kept them. I was too young to understand how much I might come to cherish those tiny shoes.

My grandmother's words are what I hang onto when I feel I need to comfort myself about whether she was happy about her life. She didn't speak English, but she said to my dad in Mandarin: "Jiafu, living in Australia is like heaven."

My reading has focused mainly upon the Cultural Revolution, but I still think a lot about the second Japanese war and of China, once a thriving egalitarian society; now destroyed forever by a disregard for the agency and human rights of the people. I'm under no illlusions that Imperial China was by any means a perfect society, but it had its well-established ways of doing things and problemsolving.

Australia is so many things that could be captured in happy cliches, and instead of saying trite things like "the land of opportunity" or "lucky country", I shall just let my dad illustrate the contrast himself, with the story of his life.

If you're a school student, history and sociology are amazing. Get into it.

By sharing my dad's remarkable family history I hope to lead the way and hear many more stories from all of you. Do get in touch.

Roz Chia.

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