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Yong
 

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Yong


  Table of Contents

  Cover

  Blurb

  Walker Books Australia Logo

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  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Other Books by Janeen Brian

  “Yong,” my father said one night as I sat on the earthen floor, stroking my pet cricket and determined to save it from being eaten. “You will come with me to Australia.”

  Yong doesn’t want to leave Guangdong to travel to the goldfields of Ballarat. But as the firstborn son, he has no choice. On the long and treacherous journey, Yong strives to be an honourable son, while he and his father face many hardships and dangers. But in his heart he knows the shameful truth – that his honour is a lie.

  Can a journey change lives?

  Has Yong the courage to face what lies ahead?

  1

  I never wanted to come.

  And now I’m probably going to die. Before this trip I had never been out of my village in Guangdong. Never walked past the banks of the rice fields or smelled the air beyond the dark hills.

  Yet, here I am, aged thirteen, in a sailing ship that’s being hurled about in seas as tall as mountains, heading for some strange shore across the other side of the world.

  “Yong,” my father said one night as I sat on the earthen floor, stroking my pet cricket and determined to save it from being eaten. “You will come with me to Australia.”

  I frowned and closed my palm. Australia? I didn’t even know what it was.

  “It is a country a long way across the sea.”

  That was all my father said. No reason was given. Nor did my father tell me how long we’d be gone. I searched my grandmother’s face for some clue, but she quickly lowered her eyes and clasped her gnarled hands in her lap.

  In that instant I felt my world disappear. I also felt a kernel of something hard and tight lodge in my belly. I didn’t have a name for it then, but later I came to know it well.

  I had to go. I was my father’s firstborn son and I had a filial duty. However that meant leaving my beloved crippled grandmother on her own, with my two younger brothers and my baby sister to look after. I would’ve been more use left behind.

  On the dreaded day, my best friend, Chen, stood facing me, arms by his sides. I handed him my pet cricket. A moment later, he nodded.

  Neither of us knew what to say.

  I was the only boy to leave my village and I could hardly look my father in the eye. Instead, I concentrated on keeping out of the other villagers’ way, shouldering the heavy bundles I was expected to carry and willing my legs to move.

  The journey had started: from our village to the river, down the river and then to the seaport.

  Many days later I joined hundreds of other Chinese who’d also left their villages and were heading to Australia. Like ants, we disappeared below deck of a British ship harboured in Hong Kong.

  “We will sleep here, Yong.” My father pointed to a narrow wooden shelf, one of dozens set up in the large space. But it wasn’t a shelf. It was a bed, with a straw mattress. And it wasn’t mine.

  “We need to share,” said Father.

  There was little to occupy my time aboard the ship. The men from our village played cards or board games or, together with my father, who was the Headman, discussed plans of what we’d do once we arrived in Australia.

  Of course, they spoke of the goldfields, because that was where we were heading. The shock of discovering our destination had long since worn off. The word goldfields had been passed back and forth in all sorts of conversations, such that it should’ve shone. The truth was, though, that no one in our village had ever been to a goldfield, and they knew little of it. Not even my father. How could he be so sure that leaving our farms in China and digging for gold in Australia would change our fortunes for the better?

  Days dragged. It was worse on the hot, still days when we didn’t move, when the ship sat sulkily in the water, its sails empty of wind. Men lolled, eyes blank, mouths open like gaping fish. I leaned back on the bed, scratching at my legs that were itchy from straw and insects, feeling the throb of heat in my temples and wishing I were running through the wide fields with Chen.

  When the door to our quarters was opened and we were allowed up on deck to take in the air, wash or simply stretch, I stepped into such fierce brightness that my eyes watered. Blinking, I wiped them hurriedly in case I appeared to be crying.

  If I was lucky, I could edge my way up to the railing. After being cramped down below for so long, it was good to gulp fresh salty air, listen to the slap of waves as they hit the side of the ship or watch seabirds dive and glide.

  As long as I didn’t spend too long staring at the horizon. If I did, something tight took hold of my throat and it became hard to breathe.

  Sometimes, when we emerged from our quarters, rough-looking sailors made comments or rude sounds or held their noses. Others stood alongside a large cannon.

  “What are they doing?” I asked Father.

  “Guarding the ship.”

  I looked around. Nothing had changed. There was still only water, sky and seabirds.

  My father didn’t trouble to explain and so I was left to draw my own conclusion: that the sailors thought we could possibly take over the ship and were preparing to fire in case we did. That was frightening. And ridiculous. Even if my father was a clever man and could speak English, I shuddered at the thought of him trying to steer a ship. Let alone navigate his way to this place called Australia.

  Three full moons came and went and we were still at sea. Daylight made little difference below deck, but when I saw moonlight sparkling on the waves it filled me with fear. Surely we’d travelled so far from China the ship would soon drop off the edge of the world.

  Instead it sailed into a wild storm. And here I am today, stricken with panic. My toes curl at the thought that this stinking vessel could be the last place I’ll ever see.

  Beneath battering rain, lightning flashes and thunder cracks, the ship bucks and heaves. Far below, hundreds of us jostle and topple, trying to steady ourselves and our goods. Someone shouts in a gruff, urgent voice to snuff all candles and lanterns. From somewhere else comes the smashing sound of crockery. I scramble onto the bed and curl up tight, like a fist.

  Even with my hands rammed against my ears I can still hear the wind. It’s a mournful howl. It shrieks louder than the rain and lashes at the sails. Although the masts creak in protest, it’s no use. The wind is king of the skies.

  Mr Feng leans over and is sick. The stuff makes a mess on the already damp, slippery floor. The smell fills my nostrils and squeezes my guts so that I almost retch.

  Yet, at this moment, I only have one thought. And that is, if I die now, I will have died as a dutiful son. I will have honoured the wishes of my father and that will please our ancestors.

  But can the ancestors see inside my skin? Would they know that I never wanted to come on this journey? That my heart and my soul wanted to defy my father?

  That my honour was a lie?

  2

  “Yong!”

  My father’s voice startles me and I take my hands from my ears. There’s a wildness thumping in my chest because I wonder if he’s somehow been able to read my thoug
hts.

  Then, with an ear-splitting shudder, the ship heaves to one side causing my father to lose balance. With a cry, he falls onto the bed and his head collides with a wooden post.

  “Oh!” he says, scrambling onto the bed and rubbing his forehead.

  I can’t see his expression clearly so I don’t know if he’s scared or not. Perhaps he’s concerned for me. Perhaps he knows I’m terrified.

  “Yong,” he says. “We must keep a sharp watch over our belongings. My job as Headman is to help organise the men from our village. It is a great responsibility and I cannot have eyes everywhere. With this storm, and with so many men from so many villages, be sure you keep a sharp lookout. Always.”

  “Yes, Father,” I say obediently. I am foolish to have hoped for words of comfort.

  “Oh, and Yong.” He leans closer, his elbow dipping the straw mattress.

  “Yes?”

  “Do not forget your promise.”

  I pause momentarily, trying to recall. My mind is spinning. “I won’t forget, Father.”

  There’s a crack of thunder that almost splits my head apart. “I hope the storm is over soon,” I say, trying to keep the terror from my voice.

  My father goes to stand, gripping a post as he does. “The storm is bad, Yong, and the journey ahead will be long, but do not weaken. Our ancestors are with us.”

  Though doubts creep unbidden into my mind, I don’t have time to dwell on them because Mr Feng retches again. My stomach turns and I quickly start to breathe through my mouth, so I won’t gag. Throughout the voyage, the men from our village have kept close company. Right now, however, I wish Mr Feng would disappear.

  While I am thinking these unkind thoughts, a stranger staggers up, puts his hand on Mr Feng’s back and offers him water. “Drink this, Feng,” he says. I’ve seen the man before, from a distance. Because of his height, he stands out among the rest.

  Mr Feng accepts the offered bowl, swishes his mouth and spits.

  I wonder how these two know each other, because they obviously do. They keep whispering and eyeing my father. The stranger continually shakes his head but Mr Feng seems even more determined. Grabbing the other man’s arm, he turns him round. I gape, shocked. The man stares out, unblinking, with one eye. The other eye socket is empty, except for a film of skin.

  Mr Feng approaches my father. The other man hangs back, as if preferring to remain a shadow.

  “Ning.” Mr Feng frowns and calls for the stranger to approach. “This is my cousin, Chung.”

  “Chung,” says my father in polite greeting.

  “Chung has struck trouble,” Mr Feng continues. “He has already had much misfortune on this journey and now finds himself heading alone to the goldfields.”

  “Ah,” says my father, but his expression is blank.

  I ease myself to the end of the bed, so better to hear what’s going on.

  “My cousin is humble and does not wish me to ask,” Mr Feng rushes on. “I told him you were our esteemed Headman and would be willing to listen. You see, Ning, Chung was travelling with men from his village, but many stayed in the opium dens in Canton and Hong Kong. And the other two died on board. The second was sent into the sea only yesterday. So my cousin has no one now. Except me.”

  I feel sorry for the tall man having Mr Feng as a relative.

  My father rises unsteadily to his feet and faces the pair. If he understands what Mr Feng is asking, he does not let on. Mr Chung averts his gaze, swaying like a tall mast in the storm.

  “Our family and ancestors would be grateful if you’d allow Chung to become a part of our group.” Mr Feng’s voice has taken on a slimy, singsong tone.

  I blink. I wonder what is going on in my father’s mind. Will he agree or object to having another person join the group? No one except the schoolteacher has ever come to live in our village, and it reminds me of the time when our neighbour offered us a chicken as a gift. It was before the famine struck, when even the poorest of us kept a chicken or two. Grateful, my mother put the new chicken in with our other three, but they turned on the latecomer, pecking it into a corner until it bled to death. My grandmother tutted sadly as she plucked the bird and tossed it into the cooking pot.

  My father says nothing. As Headman, it’s his job to consider all matters with great care, yet just as his lengthy silence becomes uncomfortable, Mr Feng steps up with a bold air. I wonder if my father can smell the stench from the villager’s mouth. Then, in that moment, something happens. The ship seems to rise – as if it will launch itself into the sky on the tip of a gigantic wave. Then it drops with a resounding thud. Like a wounded animal, it gives a great shudder. My eyes are wide. A cry lies trapped in my throat.

  “Ning?” Mr Feng continues, as if nothing has happened. “My cousin …?”

  Even as he speaks, the men from our village shuffle closer, calling to my father with a sense of urgency, as if he has the power to settle the ship and calm the storm.

  “Feng,” my father snaps. “Another time!”

  “But–”

  At once, the stranger steps out from the shadows. “Please, do not trouble yourself,” he says. “I will make my own way. It was good of you to listen.”

  Pale-faced, he goes to move off, when my father says, “Very well, Feng. Your cousin can join us. Now, leave me to attend to other matters.”

  “Thank you.” Mr Feng’s voice is shrill and triumphant.

  Mr Chung attempts to bow in gratitude, but is sent toppling with the movement of the ship.

  “Ning,” calls Mr Chee. “What is happening? Is the ship safe? Can you speak to the captain?”

  “Are we going to die?” Mr Li moans, his weathered face crumpled with despair.

  My fingers clutch the hard edges of the bed, Mr Li’s plaintive words echoing my thoughts.

  “Get everything!” my father shouts. “Everything. Keep together and hang onto your belongings. Yong, off the bed! Take everything we own to the steps.”

  “Are you going to see the captain, Ning?” Mr Chee repeats, dragging a basket through the small, crowded space. While I grab handfuls of our goods, I am reminded of my promise to my father. As far as the men know, my father is the only person in the village who understands the foreigners’ language. Hence he should speak to the captain. They don’t know that for months my father’s been teaching me English words in secret.

  “But you must never use them within earshot of the men, Yong,” he’d said at the start of our journey. “You understand?”

  I’d nodded obediently. Fathers believe you if you nod.

  I was quick to learn the words and I liked learning the language. Maybe I take after my father in that way. He learned fast from the foreigners when he worked on the British ships that docked in Canton. It was during a terrible drought; the villagers called it a famine because we struggled to find anything to eat. We were hunting rats for food, but once they’d chewed the last of the rice stalks, they disappeared. My father left our farm to look for work and was away for so long, my younger brothers forgot what he looked like.

  Trembling now, I squat by the steps, every part of me alert, waiting for what I think is inevitable: the crack and splinter of the ship breaking up.

  And then I hear a roar. A blast of cold air slaps me on the neck. I leap to my feet and look up.

  A large sailor has opened the door to our quarters. In his hairy hand he holds a lantern. It flickers silvery patches over his dark, wet clothes and casts shadows over his bearded face.

  “Hurry!” someone cries and, in an instant, men bundle up their goods and surge nearer the steps.

  “No! Get back!” The sailor’s eyes narrow. He juts his jaw and thrusts out one palm.

  My father jostles his way through to the front. “Keep back, please,” he shouts in Chinese. “Everyone, please, do not rush yet. We need to know what to do.” He takes one step up and speaks to the sailor. “They scared,” he says in careful English, pointing to the men behind him. “What is happening? I am Headm
an of one of the villages. I like to talk to captain, please.”

  The sailor raises the lantern, squinting at my father as if surprised at his English.

  “Can’t talk to Cap’n.”

  “Why?”

  “He died a week ago.”

  I almost choke.

  My father reels as if he’s been struck. “But … what happen to ship? Where are we?”

  “Feel that?” The sailor shifts his hands jerkily from side to side. “The ship’s stuck! We’re beached in Guichen Bay. You gotta get off.”

  “Where are we?” My father’s voice rises.

  “Guichen Bay. South Australia.”

  “No. That not right,” cries my father. “We pay tax money so we land Port Phillip Bay. Victoria. Close to goldfields.”

  “No. That not right,” mimics the sailor. “You got legs. You walk to the goldfields from Guichen Bay. We weren’t never sailing to Port Phillip Bay.”

  My father’s face is ashen. He turns to our group and raises his chin. “We must get off the ship now.”

  “Have we arrived in the Bay?” asks Mr Chee.

  “No,” replies my father in a clipped manner. “I don’t think the captain–”

  He never finishes his sentence.

  There is a noise as loud as thunder and the ship groans and tilts.

  “Out!” barks the sailor.

  3

  I shut my eyes, as if that will drive away the terror. When I open them seconds later, all I can see is a confusion of men, staggering upwards with a jumble of bamboo poles, wicker baskets, spades and other mining equipment.

  My father has vanished from sight. I struggle through the doorway, my arms aching under the weight of all that I’m carrying. Once I tentatively offload that on deck, I dash back to get the rest.

  Sailors rush here and there, shouting at everyone, tossing goods overboard and ignoring the horrified cries of the owners. Some Chinese jump into the sea to save their belongings.

  “Father, where are you?” I mutter to myself. Frantically, I blink away raindrops, although the rain has eased to a drizzle. I start to jiggle, confused, anxious, and wanting to pee.

 
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