April of 1872 saw Joe working for Ah Lim; a cloth merchant in the Chinese Camp of Sebastopol. Since he and Aaron had started spending more time within the camp, Joe had begun to be employed by a few of the local Chinese traders, who found him to be polite and hardworking. It was only ever temporary employment, but employment nonetheless and Joe enjoyed being amongst their company. Under the instruction of Ah Lim, his tasks had been sorting stock, delivering messages to other shopkeepers around the camp and unloading the cart when a carrier arrived from Melbourne.
Joe works busily, sorting through the pile of fabric that covers the calico covered floor, separating the array of different sizes, patterns and colours so that there is adequate room for the new stock. At fifteen, he was one of the younger European’s to be employed by the Chinamen, and as a result Joe had become immune to the drunken taunts shouted at him from the rougher looking miners.
While Joe rearranges the stock, the air becomes thick with misplaced dust, mixing with the sweet aroma of incense that burns at the front of the shop. Covering his mouth, he sneezes loudly as the dust begins to drift up his nose.
“You no good with new incense, Ah Joe?” Ah Lim enquires from behind the dragon patterned partition.
Joe feels his cheeks redden.
“I move it, I move it.” Ah Lim apologises, poking his head around the curtain. “Not many English like the smell, too strong for nose.” He gestures, tapping his own.
“My family are from Ireland.” Joe corrects
“No, no, you all same. Really you all same. ” Ah Lim persists.
Joe smiles meekly and wipes his eyes, before turning back to sort the remaining cloth.
The clattering of wheels sound outside, followed by the Cantonese shouts of Ah Lim, as he greets the traveling merchant. “Néih hóu! Néih hóu!”
The two Chinamen begin to converse in their own native Cantonese tongue, with Joe straining to listen as he continues to work. His grasp of the language strong enough that he is able to catch the gist of what is being negotiated.
“Ah Joe!” Ah Lim calls suddenly from outside, “Time to unload wagon!”
Joe steps out into the muddy alley, his eyes falling on Ah Wah as he shuffles past the side of his butcher’s shop, a hen flapping wildly under his grasp. The stout Chinaman nods at Joe, his apron stained with a splattering of crimson.
“Néih hóu.” Joe greets him with a smile.
Ah Wah grins back at Joe, showing a collection of broken and lost teeth, “Hóunoih móuhgin.”
“Haih”, Joe replies, “I’ve been busy.”
The Chinaman laughs, spittle spraying from his lips, “Busy, busy, haih. Ah Lim keep you busy.”
Joe smiles politely and wipes the spit away with his sleeve, watching as the stout man disappears around the back of his shop.
Heading up along the small alleyway, Joe ducks under a collection of recently slaughtered birds that hang from a railing at the side of Ah Wah’s shop, their feathers not yet plucked.
Turning, he sees Ah Lim standing beside the cart, his ornate tunic glimmers in the autumn sunlight.
Flicking his long braided queue back behind himself, he gestures to the contents of cart. “You take new stock into shop.”
Joe nods and rolls up his frayed sleeves, his attention turning to the taller Chinaman who stands beside Ah Lim, his hair cut short, a large scar runs across his forehead, his dark eyes narrowed at Joe.
Ah Lim beckons the carrier into his shop, the rattle of chimes echoing as they pass through the doorway.
Unfurling the tarp cover, Joe’s eyes look over the selection of clothing and brightly coloured rolls of fabric. He lifts a bundle into his arms and walks towards the rear of the shop.
Collecting the last roll of fabric, Joe eyes Ah Lim watching from the doorway, a bowl of wonton soup in his hands. Joe had become used to the oddities of his employer, one of which was his fondness for greasy dumplings and soups, normally eaten while he watched the fifteen year old work. One morning, Joe had forgone breakfast in order to arrive on time, and after a couple of hours unloading carts and delivering messages up and down the Chinese Camp he had become tired with hunger. Seeing Ah Lim with a bowl of steamed rice and pork in his hands, he had asked whether he might have a little food. “No eat while Joe work. After work you eat.”
Picking up one of the dumplings with jade chopsticks, Ah Lim conveys it to his mouth before slurping some of the stock.
“Soup and chicken wonton ready for when you finish.” He says in between mouthfuls, wilted buk choy protruding from his mouth.
Unloading the last of the coloured bundles of fabric, Joe sits on the rickety stool and removes the handkerchief from his pocket. Ever since he had begun trying opium with Aaron and Ah Loy, Joe’s nose had been runnier than normal, with Margret snapping at him about the increased amount of handkerchiefs she was washing.
“Ah Joe”, he calls, “You finish unloading cart?”
Joe hastily wipes his reddened nose and stands, brushing away the tangles of thread that hang to his forearm.
“Haih”, Joe replies, moving through the partition that separates the front and back room of the shop. “I am finished.”
The Chinaman beside Ah Lim raises an eyebrow, “Neih sīkm̀hsīk góng gwóngdùngwá a? You speak Cantonese?”
“Ngóh sìk góng síusíu a.” Joe replies, “I speak a little.”
“It is good.” The Chinaman replies, “You show our language respect, is good.”
Joe tips his head, “Mhgoi.”
“This is Ah Pang.” Ah Lim gestures, “He is good carrier but charges too much.”
Ah Pang laughs and bows at Joe.
Joe’s eyes stray to the purple coloured scar on Ah Pang’s forehead.
The Chinaman runs his index finger along the scar. “This?”
Joe blushes and averts his eyes.
“Meiguanxi.” Ah Pang replies, “You are curious, it is good to be curious.”
Joe relaxes, “Haih.”
Ah Pang grasps one of the bamboo shoots from Ah Lim’s vase and strikes the air with it. “From bamboo. I was in fight with Ye How, he would not give me agreeable payment.”
“I understand”. Joe nods, remembering the many Chinese disagreements he and Aaron had witnessed, with bamboo nearly always being the weapon of choice.
Ah Lim hands Joe a terracotta bowl of soup, three swollen dumplings float in the steaming broth.
“Sihk faahn.” The Chinaman bows, “You deserve good meal for hard work.”
“Dojeh.” Joe replies.
Positioning the wooden chopsticks appropriately in his fingers, Joe lifts one of the roughly wrapped wontons to his lips and takes a bite, closing his eyes to savour the chicken and ginger filling.
“Is good?” Ah Pang enquires, pouring himself a cup of jasmine tea from the urn on the side table.
“Hou zeng.” Joe confirms, “Very good.”
From the corner of the shop, Ah Lim removes a length of red coloured crepe from the back of the chair and carries it over to Joe, beckoning him to sit,
“Dojeh.” Joe acknowledges, watching as the two Chinamen withdraw through the curtain, the voice of Ah Wah echoing as Ah Lim and Ah Pang greet him.
Tipping the bowl up, Joe swallows the remaining soup and places it onto the side table, dotted with China and stained glass lamps. A gong reverberates outside, signifying the coming of nightfall.
Ah Lim returns through the curtain with an envelope in his hand. “Ah Joe, day is finished, I have payment for you. You did good work, I will see you again tomorrow. Mhgoi, mhgoi.”
Joe takes the creased envelope from him, “Dojeh.”
Stepping out of the shop, Joe pulls his sack coat tighter around himself against the chill of autumn. Chinamen move about him, lighting the lamps that stand at the front of their shops.
Walking under the veranda of Lee How’s cookhouse, Joe eyes the young cook sorting through a crate of Chinese cabbage.
“Ah Joe! Néih hóu!” Lee How calls from the doorway, “You come work for me soon, Ah Lim said is okay.”
“Gie si?” Joe asks.
“Gie si? Haih, haih.” Lee How straightens, wiping his hands on his smock, “When finish with Ah Lim.”
“Mou man tai.” Joe nods in response.
“Mhgoi, mhgoi. You good boy.” The Chinaman smiles, picking up the crate. “I wish you good night, Ah Joe.”
“Maahn on.” Joe bows “Good evening.”
Continuing his way down the cluttered shopfronts, the trundle of wheels sound close behind him. Joe turns to see James Hume, a carrier, flourishing his cabbage tree hat as he slows his dappled bay Clydesdale to a walk.
“Young Byrne!” He hails, “What might ye be doing in these parts?”
“I have been working for Ah Lim.” Joe gestures back towards the cloth merchants shop.
James turns in his seat and looks to the direction of Joe’s outstretched hand, “Oh aye. I’ve been meaning to see yer Uncle John for a while now, but work takes up all me time.” The Scotsman shakes his head, “Still, least it puts bread on the table.”
Joe smiles, “Da used to say the same.”
The Clydesdale mare begins to stomp and scrape her hooves in the dirt, the rattle of the bridle sounding as she tosses her head.
“Ah, looks like the old girl’s getting restless.” The carrier acknowledges, taking up the reins, “I best be on me way. Let yer Uncle know I’ll be seeing him soon.”
Joe nods, watching as the Scotsman flicks the reins onto the mares back, the cart rattling as the horse breaks into a trot.
Passing the opium den of Ah Shing, several Chinamen, stooped by the weight of their shoulder yokes, weave around him.
Up ahead, a group form an arc around Ye On and Hung Young’s store, where angry shouts echo. Ah Lim had warned Joe not to loiter outside their shop, “They bad men, they no good.” He had told him after the two shopkeepers were seen publicly cutting the hair and clothes of a man who couldn’t repay his debts. “You keep far away from them, they have colour blue on hand. Colour of Hung brothers.”
Unable to ignore the scene, Joe stands beside the cluster of gawking and powerless onlookers. His eyes fall on Ah Suey who hangs, naked from the waist down, from the veranda post, his hands and feet bound and fastened to the post by a dog chain, his Queue braid snagged above his head to a meat hook.
“Gua mehng a!” The strung man cries, “Gua mehng a!”
“Sau seng!” Ye On shouts, kicking him hard in the shins.
Hung Young appears from the doorway of the shop and repeats Ye On’s order that the tied man silence his cries. “Haih, sau seng!” He snarls, striking Ah Suey’s throat. “Sau seng!”
Ah Suey splutters and twists against the constraints of the chain.
Joe stares in disbelief at the lamp lit scene before him, and without thinking, pushes through the crowd, watching while three roughly clad Chinamen search the clothing that has been torn from Ah Suey.
“Mhhóu gáau ngóh!” Ah Suey pleas, “Tìhng dài!”
Hung Young, whose face is a patchwork of scars, yells mockingly, asking if he wants the beating to stop. “Neih mihgmhmihng a? Neih mihgmhmihng a?”
A Chinaman who Joe had frequently seen outside Ah Wah’s butchers shop, walks toward Ah Suey and reaches a hand toward the chain but Hung Young shoves him backwards.
Ye On, the stouter of the two shopkeepers begins to prowl along the length of veranda, his heavy miners boots stomping against the earth. The flickering lamplight casting grim shadows in the mud, as the torture continues.
“Ngoh sauh jo seung.” Ah Suey groans, looking for mercy, his face distorted in pain and fear.
Joe swallows and straightens his shoulders, “Ni zai gan shenme na?” He asks.
Hung Young glares at Joe, his top lip curling into a snarl.
One of the men who had been engaged in looking through Ah Suey’s pockets looks in Joe’s direction. “He mean to kill himself. We not let him.”
Joe eyes the blue mark on his hand, matching the one worn by the two storekeepers, in his mind the warning of Ah Lim lingers, “They have colour blue on hand. Colour of Hung brothers.”
Not wishing to show any doubt to what he has been told, Joe withdraws to the back of the group.
The cries of Ah Suey grow louder as both storekeepers kick him violently with the solid miner’s boots they are wearing. Joe squeezes his eyes shut, unable to watch anymore.
“Gua mehng a!” Ah Suey begins to howl, “Tìhng dài! Tìhng dài!” The dog chain rattling loudly as he tries desperately to escape their torment…
Storm clouds hang low overhead as Joe walks along the road that leads to the Chinese camp, each step bringing him closer to Ye On and Hung Young’s store. He rubs tiredly at his eyes; the haunted vision of Ah Suey had kept Joe awake for most of the night.
Fearful of what he might see, Joe keeps his head bowed as the shopfront comes into sight, his eyes settling on a fresh trail of blood that weaves from the veranda to the other side of the street. Deep gouges in the dirt mark where Ah Suey had been dragged to and from his hanging place.
Joe stops walking and looks slowly across.
Ah Suey is slumped against the coil of the dog chain, his hands tied in front of him, tears trickling down his swollen and bruised cheeks while Ah Seong works to free him from the post. Ye On and Hung Young stand, framed in the doorway, their eyes fixed firmly on the man they have broken.
“Hak se wui.” Ah Lim had cautioned, “Hak se wui.”
Frozen with fear, Joe waits, watching as Ah Seong guides the crying man back across the road.
Within moments, the storekeepers emerge, following in the direction of Ah Seong and Ah Suey, leather straps swishing from their blue marked hands…
One thought on “Ah Suey”
This is an interesting addition to your collection of stories Georgina, I don’t think anyone has really looked at Joe’s interaction with the Chinese before. There is a relatively recent book about the Beechworth Chinese camps, ‘Beechworth’s Little Canton’ by Vivienne McWaters, that is an interesting read for those who want to find out a bit more about the Chinese in the area.