Henrys story presented here is based on documented historical events. Henry Ah Ping and his family lived and worked near Branxholm. He invites you to read his story then walk in his footsteps, “If you put yourself in someone else’s position, your wisdom reveals”.
Leaving China for Australia (1877)
This is my story: Henrys story.
I was born in the small coastal rural village of Ping Gang located in the Taishan county of Sze Yap area of Guangdong, China in 1859. My Chinese name is Mui Chuang Ping and my village is located a few hours walk from Zhapo Gang (Bay). I am the second son of Mui Ji Wei. My father, my brother, my mother and sister and I all work in the gardens of village land-owners. Our food mainly comes from the gardens. Sometimes my brother and I catch fish in the bay and we eat the dried fish. We live strictly according to our kinship obligations and do not have many dealings with other clansmen.
These are harsh times for poor families like ours. We are fearful of corrupt village officials who have much power over us. In my 18 years great floods and drought too have left us hungry and I have seen many die of fever disease. Some of our villagers have come back from the big ports where they have worked and have been sick with opium addiction. When I was a small child some of the men from our village left to fight with the Taipings against our corrupt imperial leaders. There is pressure by some that I should train with rebels to fight increasing oppression. My brother wishes to marry soon, but I am too poor to marry.
New Gold Mountain
Last year my cousin returned after many years mining the gold fields in Australia. He has £100 savings for his family! Along with other countrymen, he has been working on the goldfields but he says that it is getting too hard there now and many are leaving. This is because new arrivals must pay a large tax to the ship’s Master to gain entry. But he says that a New Gold Mountain has been found and the entry to this new land is free.
Our countrymen in Australia can arrange passage for men to work in the New Gold Mountain. My cousin tells me many stories. I am excited to go! So I become determined to make our family’s fortune. Then I will send money home. When I have saved £100 I could return a proud man and would be able to marry, build a family home and buy a small business. I would be able to help care for my parents. My cousin says some have made such a fortune in only a few years. I am young and skilled –I can write and I will work very hard!
Travel to Launceston
At 18 years-of-age, I leave the village for the New Gold Mountain with my cousin and four others with the same family name from other villages around. I carry all my belongings tied-up on a single bamboo pole. It is February 1877. In the morning we walk to the coast to where we can catch a ferry across the Bay to the Island (Hailing Dao). After walking across the Island the next day we arrive in Zhapo where we say good bye to my cousin.
We take a boat from Zhapo to Macao, and then a steam-ship to Hong Kong. That night we stay in the Hexing Hotel. We arrive at Sydney port in March, but are not permitted to leave the ship, because it would cost each passenger a £10 poll tax. After another two nights we change to another steamer-ship and sail to Melbourne. Here we stay at a countrymen’s lodgings (Lowe Kong Meng & Co) and meet up with another group of Chinese who had been working the gold fields near Ballarat and Bendigo. Most come from villages in my area (Taishan). Several days later we board the Mangana for Launceston. There are 12 of us. My cousins and I have been travelling for about 40 days when we finally arrive in Launceston.
Paying My Credit Ticket
That first night we stay at the business premises of Peters, Barnard & Co in Elizabeth St. At last, I am able to place an offering in the Joss House for the health of my family and our good fortune.
My life in Launceston
Tom Sing, an educated man who speaks English and works with Mr Peters, arranges for us to work in gardens owned by our countrymen for the next six months. We work without cash payment, only board and lodgings. These are the conditions of our Credit Ticket. Because we have borrowed our fares from our countrymen in Launceston and must repay our debt.
I have very little money but I need to spend most of it to buy a warm jacket, leather shoes, trousers and blanket. The cold nights are harsh and am pleased when the weather finally starts to warm a little.
Launceston Chinese community
I live quietly with my countrymen and have little contact with the Westerners. There is a small community of Chinese in Launceston – about 100. More than half come from Taishan county where my village is. We meet at the Elisabeth St Premises to play games of Mah Jong.—a game which I learnt only recently. Some play other games such as Fan Tan and lose their money unwisely.
Integrating with a new community
Although I have seen one or two Westerners at home I am still getting used to them. They are much taller and wear strange clothing. In the street they mostly avoid me, but often greet me politely with a smile, too. I am trying to learn some English words. While I am working I practice and memorise the words. Mr Tom Sing is highly respected by his business associates and is very successful. I will try to be successful, too – I will learn to speak English. It is the custom here for Chinese to take on a new ‘English’ name. I have chosen to be called Henry. Some Western officials have started calling me Mr Henry Ah Ping and this becomes my new English name. I write home that I am well and will send some money home, soon.
We are tributors
As part of our debt we must also work a two-year contract period for a tin mine owner in an area North East of Launceston. We will work as tributors for about 5 shillings per day (40/- to 45/- per cwt tin). My countrymen who have been working here tell me this payment is much less than the earnings of European workers who would expect to get around 8 shillings per day.
Recently there has been a sudden drop in the price of tin and the mine owner is pleased to have us work for him. I am disappointed.
There are many stories. I have heard that the Western tin miners resent the Chinese and there has been some trouble. In Melbourne and Sydney Chinese are restricted from entry and Chinese miners have been attacked and robbed. But my cousin says that if I work hard I will make money here. Then I can return home.
Travel to Branxholm
In September we take the steamer Avon from Launceston down the Tamar River to Bridport. One of our countrymen I have seen on many occasions at the Elizabeth St Premises accompanies our group. The steamer lets us off at a newly built jetty.
The countryman accompanying us is met by a Western man. His name is Mr Samuel Hawkes and he will take us to the mines where we are to be employed. After our countryman leaves we have some difficulty understanding what we are to do – we only have a few English words between us. We make camp for the night not far from the jetty. It is very cold out in the open.
The next day we set out on foot. Mr Hawkes is riding and there are several pack horses carrying supplies. Before nightfall we set up camp outside another small settlement, called Scottsdale. We keep to ourselves, but some children come to say hello.
Why does the man carry a timber plank?
On the following day the going is harder.
The track is in very bad condition with many deep ruts and holes filled with deep sticky mud. Today it is sunny and warm, but this track must be impassable when it is raining. Wherever possible we walk alongside the track through the bush rather than on the track. We are passed by a heavily laden wagon being dragged by a bullock team. The team was struggling along the uneven track but is making a reasonable pace. I guess they will make it to Branxholm by afternoon.
At one point a man leading a pack horse passes us from the other direction. He calls out cheerfully to ‘Sammy’. He appears to be carrying a long timber plank. We think this is a strange custom. (I learn later that the man carries the plank to save himself if he should fall into a very deep mud hole!)
The camp at Tulendeena
Our group reaches The Camp at Tulendeena situated at the base of a steep windy stretch called the Billy Cock. This is a well-used camp site and there appears to be several small teams of pack horses and another wagon here for the night. There is a newly built hotel which looks bright and warm inside.
However, we stay outside and just on dark as we are settling into our camp a small group Western men come out of the hotel yelling at us – most likely obscenities but I don’t recognise any of the words. A few men pick up stones and throw them in our direction. Mr Hawkes intervenes and the men return inside, with raised voices continuing well into the night. I learn later, that Mr Hawkes who owns the claims which we will work is also the manager of the largest tin mine and is the largest employer in the area. Apparently the men thought it best not to put Mr Hawkes off-side.
The bridge incident
Next morning we set out in a swirling dense cold fog. After a hard trudge uphill over muddy slippery tracks we come out of the fog onto the crest of a hill overlooking a densely forested plain. Distant mountains are blanketed in cloud. It is a fine spring day. After several hours of easier walking we approach the settlement of Branxholm.
Branxholm at this time has about five small cottages located in the valley across from the Ringarooma River.
A small crowd of noisy men is forming at the bridge getting noisier and louder as we approach. Some have sticks and others have mining picks. After the stone throwing of the previous night I feel afraid! We refuse to go any further and start to walk back to the top of the hill and sit down.
Mr Hawkes is very angry. He confronts the crowd. Is that a pistol in his raised hand? Nearly all the noisy mob quickly walk off into the nearby Retreat Hotel. One man remains but after some words with Mr Hawkes he too walks away. A young Chinese man brings us some preserved fruits and we share some tea. After some time Mr Hawkes returns.
We return to Scottsdale where we stay for nearly one week. Here our camp is on the north east side of the town near a garden owned by a Chinese man. Garden work is exchanged for food.
Settling in to Ruby Flat
After the upheaval of the previous week, two members of the Territorial Police Force and another man who works with Mr Hawkes accompany us back to Branxholm. This time there is no trouble and the Branxholm settlement is quiet. After crossing the bridge on the Ringarooma River we continue about one mile along a small track to Ruby Flat. Along the way there are small clearings in the bush, some canvas tents and a few timber huts – with some more being built.
At the cottage owned by Mr Hawkes there is a single room filled to over-flowing with mining supplies, including building materials. We can purchase supplies to make our camp including blankets and canvas and a few cooking utensils, some tinned foods, rice, teas and flour. Afterwards Mr Hawkes issues us with some basic mining tools and two of our countrymen who are very experienced with mining take charge. I spend all my money and go further into debt. So it will be hard to get ahead.
Life becomes a routine of hard work
Over the next two years my life consists of a routine of hard work. It takes me about six months before I finally save a little money. The Chinese men here are close-knit and we look after each other. We share meals and some relaxation by playing Mah Jong. After the tin prices improve and we are extracting larger amount of tin ore it is easy for me to send a small amount of money home — £3 by the end of my first year! One of our countrymen, who knows Tom Sing can arrange for letters and money to be sent to our families in China.
Working for Ah Moy
In 1879 the price of tin drops badly and when news reaches Branxholm of a gold strike in the mountains to the West (Mt Arthur) many European claim owners are in a hurry to leave. Some of my countrymen are able to buy the unwanted claims for little cost. I am lucky, because I am able to work as a tributor for my recently arrived countryman, William Ah Hong Moy. After a few years of good tin prices William Ah Moy opens a store on Ruby Flat and employs more countrymen in his mines. As well as mining for tin ore I sometimes help out in the store. William Ah Moy is a good man to work for and I am able to send money home regularly. The store is very busy now that Mr Sam Hawkes has moved away to Scottsdale and his store has closed.
Starting My Own Business
There are a few hundred miners—mostly Chinese—in the area. I see that there are opportunities for me to become a businessman, too. I start a small garden on ruby Flat road and sell my vegetables, eggs and chickens through the Ah Moy store. William Ah Moy leases his land from Tom Sing and sublets the garden to me. Ah Moy also travels to Garibaldi and Weldborough with a team of horses to supply Chinese communities with groceries and to buy pigs. He is a very successful businessman. He decides to make this new land his home and gains the citizenship of his new country only five years after his arrival, in 1883. In 1888 my employer and friend brings his wife, Lee Chee, out from China.
There is no mining without water
Some claims near where I live, which look promising, have not been worked. In August 1889 I purchase two of these 20 Acre claims (98/87M, 1690M). There is no mining without water. So I come to an arrangement to access water from a race above my claims (41693W) which is owned by Mr Edward Gaunt. This race takes its water from Pearces’ Cascade Creek (now called Guiding Star). I become an employer! I employ three men on claim 98/87M and advertise the other claim for tribute. Now I am really busy. One of my employees also helps out with the garden and a team of experienced Chinese tributors take on claim 1690M (You can walk through this old lease at Tin Dragon Cottages)
In the following year I purchase a water right (218W) in partnership with Foon Hock to extract water from Pearces’ Cascade Creek and I employ a team of men for six months to dig a small water race to service Foon Hock’s mining claim. In turn Foon Hock pays me for the use of this water. Over the next three years of working my claims tin prices in London are not high but do remain steady. The heavy bags of tin ore are sold to William Ah Moy, who has the ore transported on the rail from Scottsdale to Launceston for processing and then onto London. He offers a fair price and over the three years I make a reasonable profit. With my earnings from the water race and market garden I am able to save £120 over three years.
Tragedy on Ruby Flat
In 1893 there is an awful event. Foon Hock and several of his tributors are killed while drying gelignite near a fire. We hold a funeral procession in their honour and place Loc Suey and roasted pig at the grave.
It’s a lonely life
I hear that my brother has married and their first son has been born! Although I am working hard and enjoying the company of my countrymen here, I feel very lonely away from my family. Our Chinese community here has grown and I enjoy laughing with the children. In 1889 a daughter, Ah Tue, is born to my friend Ah Moy. I too would like to have a wife and family. Finally I make the decision to follow my friend’s example—to make this country my home. I will save enough money to return to China for a wife. Citizenship will grant me a re-entry so I can return with my wife easily and without the need to pay the £10 poll tax. So I apply to become a Tasmanian citizen. Tasmania now imposes restrictions on the number of Chinese immigrants which could delay or prevent my return otherwise.
My plans do not eventuate. I hear that other countrymen have great difficulty returning from China even with naturalisation and re-entry visas. The time passes quickly while I am so busy. By 1891 there 12 Chinese clan stores operating in our region of North East Tasmania.
Tasmania is My Home
My English has improved greatly because I am working and mixing with local western resident everyday. I become a close friend of the Fletcher family in Ringarooma. However, my great joy is my friendship with the widow, Louisa Jane Seelin (nee Fletcher). Tuesday second of June 1891 is the happiest day of my life, because this is the day I marry Louisa! Then in August (27th August 1891) our daughter, Mary Louisa is born.
Family life – Henrys story of great joy and sadness
The following year becomes one of great sadness. After gaining my Tasmanian citizenship in 1892, Louisa becomes gravely ill. Then my beautiful Louisa dies march 3rd 1892. She was 33 years old. So now it is difficult to manage on my own with a young daughter. Friends say I should remarry.
In 1893 I am blessed when through my commerce I meet Mary Hughes. Mary travels with some family members to Welborough at the time when the famous Chinese Opera company is performing there. This event was a great celebration enjoyed by both the Chinese and European communities. I spend the time in the company of the Hughes family and Mary consents to become my wife. We have a Christian wedding early in the following year. I am now 35 years old.
We live modestly. With some help from my friend, we build a small timber house just outside Branxholm close to the dwellings of my countrymen. This is a happy time. Ah Moy is a good business partner. With help from Mary and Ah Sue we extend our market garden. I am still sending small amounts of money home to my family in China. One day I will return – perhaps when my family have grown and I am very old. Although sad that I do not have a son, I enjoy (and spoil!) my four daughters, including twins, who are born over the first five years of our marriage. My oldest daughter, Mary Louisa marries a Tasmanian man, George Salter, in 1909.
We continue to live in the North East—buying more property at Moorina and Beauty Point and moving to Ringarooma just before the Great War.
My Final Years
By 1930 my daughters have married and moved away. Mary and I moved to Launceston after the War. Here I ran my business as a mining agent. I also represented my Chinese community when they needed to deal with the European bureaucracy. For example, I was very pleased to assist Charlie Ah Noon’s brother when he wished to exhume Charley’s body to return his body to China.
Henry dies in 1938, aged 79 years. At this time he and Mary were living in a cottage in Hobart. This was Henrys story.
One of Henry and Mary’s great-grand daughters lives in Launceston (2012). Descendants of Louisa’s first marriage (Seelin) still live in Northern Tasmania.
(Copyright CK Booth 2020)