Words by Edward See Yuen Wong
The museum was silent, and the halls were empty save for a nonchalant young man and an overly dressed elderly gentleman, who strode past each exhibit with tenacious pride. An aura of uncomfortable silence united these two men, who seemed to share a brief tenuous comradery that soon forced its way into precarious over-politeness.
They shared similar features but were different enough to spark insensitive conversation with regards to their relations. The old man’s nose was a flatter version of the young man’s one whose skin was a fairer version of the imperial yellow coat skin that clothed his fragile oriental companion. Time seemed static at that moment, when both men reflected on the sheer irony of their meeting place. After all, meeting in a Chinese Museum in Melbourne’s Lonsdale Street, hardly seemed the best way to reacquaint a rebellious grandson with his conservative grandfather.
It’d been 10 years since James Wong saw Wong Ah Loy, a decade’s anniversary since he first set foot in Australia. In what seemed like multiple lifetimes, James the “halfie”, James the “milky”, James the “Gwei Loh”, the “Ang Moh”- all these reincarnations of his soul worked through multiple odd jobs and wandered around purposefully before becoming an established writer.
His book the The Last Dragon Maker was an astounding success, and detailed a semi-autobiographical account of a Eurasian boy who fulfils his dying grandfather’s wish to take over his lantern making business. They say every writer scatters glimpses of his personal life in his stories and that fiction can be more real than reality itself. His grandfather wasn’t dead nor was he dying, instead he was still irritatingly persistent in a loveable way for his age, and James was well aware of his grandfather’s love for Chinese history and culture. He had a few days before his book tour would continue in Sydney, so it seemed the perfect moment to atone for running away all those years ago to Australia.
So there stood two men, fighting a desperate battle to reconcile the essence of East and West between them in their own time, in their own ways.
Incense pervaded the air, with scents that reminded James of his hometown in Kuala Lumpur. A simple catalyst that was sufficient to precipitate memories of a troubled past where the Welsh blood in him would forever condemn him to be a stranger in his own home. It was a terribly confusing time for a young boy who was too “white” to be Asian and too “Ching Chong” to be White. A photograph of the old Sai Yep Society and Xin Jin Shan Chinese cultural schools loomed over and caught James’ attention, reminding him of when he used to be in a pin-drop silent classroom of 50 primary school students during his Chinese school days in Malaysia.
To break the silence, the young man pointed over towards a massive 200-foot-long Dragon lantern. The glorious beast slept peacefully, graced with nostalgic eyes that yearned to roar again. The old man squinted his eyes and hesitantly revealed an awkward smile complemented with subtle grunts that seemed to conceal buried thoughts. Whether these were grunts of approval or another impulsive, irrational sound one makes when you’re 80 years old – will forever remain a mystery.
“Gwei Loh” “Ang Moh” “Rojak” … Gwei Loh was Cantonese for foreign devil. Ang Moh when directly translated from Hokkien, meant Rosy Tomato which referred to the verbose colour that illuminated the faces of drunk merry Caucasian ‘macho’ white males down at your local pub. Rojak was a Malay delicacy made from mixing as many fruits you could find into a peanut, caramel concoction and was the term to describe mixed blooded Eurasians like James. Such colourful terms that truly reflected Malaysia’s multiculturalism.
It was a double-edged sword being a Eurasian in Malaysia. The very first thing people looked out for was your surname. It was a cruel tug of war to see which ethnicity was the victor. James Wong meant that his Chinese father was a ‘hero’ who managed to ‘conquer’ the heart of a white woman, but had he been born James Blake, the locals would gossip on how promiscuity must have been responsible for such a reckless decision made by a Chinese woman to marry a “Gwei Loh”. In that sense, the abiding, soft-spoken stereotypical submissive Asian woman would be the conquest of the “Ang Moh”.
That song “Bui Doi” in the musical “Miss Saigon” summarises the whole conundrum really well.
“Their secret they can’t hide….It’s printed on their faces…I never once thought, I’d plead for half breeds from a land that’s torn, but then I saw a camp for children whose crime was being born…They’re called Bui Doi…”
These once derogatory terms seemed anachronistically endearing when heard in a different context. Dust dissipated in the air whilst a tender warm light revealed salient, nostalgic pictures that immortalised the plight of Chinese-Malaysian immigrants in Australia. Ah Loy smiled again, and uttered confidently in perfect English to his grandson, “Back in my Ballarat school of mines days I used to dress just like that!”, as he gestured enthusiastically towards a black and white photograph of clean cut, shaved Asian men that donned Western suits as they made their way to a local dance.
“That’s how I met your grandmother!” It was an astonishing sight indeed, looking at the ‘Kongsi’ — ‘The King’s Chinese’ in Australia dancing merrily with their European university classmates during the ‘50s, back when Malaysia was still called Malaya, and was part of an Empire where the sun never set.
The Wong family had strong roots with the British Empire in Malaya. As part of the Kongsi, also known as the King’s Chinese due to their loyalty to the crown; many of them like Ah Loy studied in Australia before returning to Malaya to start their careers in law, medicine or engineering under fully paid scholarships funded by the Crown.
This represented the genesis of what would be three generations of love, opportunity and renaissance in Australia for the Wongs. James’ father studied Law at the University of Melbourne where he met his mother Chloe, who was an Australian caucasian woman of Welsh origin. Where all the Wongs returned home to Malaysia, James forged his own path to become a first generation Chinese-Malaysian immigrant in his family to call Australia home.
They walked over to the dragon lantern exhibit. It dwarfed the other exhibits both in scale and significance and was truly a remarkable sight. James wondered how the Welsh Cymru Red Dragon fared in comparison to this magnificent, majestic creature that had the threads of thousands of years of culture woven into its colourful scales.
“You know Yeh Yeh, they used to fly this dragon during the Chinese New Year Festivals here in China Town down at Bourke Street,” said James pensively in a tone that revealed slight catharsis.
“I love dragons.”, the old man said boyishly. “People have forgotten to make them properly now. There used to be such skill, such dedication and patience involved. But, not anymore,” he said regretfully.
“I have a present for you grandfather…”, replied James, trying his best to salvage what rare moments he had left with his grandfather, whom he shared a complicated love-hate relationship with. He knew what the dragon meant to his grandfather, what it meant for the Chinese that danced an eternal battle with the Welsh within him, and how it defined his malleable sense of identity and belonging. It was akin to a sultry dance that toyed with other states of consciousness, until all that remained was clarity of purpose.
“What is it? You know I hate presents.”, grumbled the old man again in that same harsh, stark tone. James handed his grandfather a copy of his semi-autobiographical novel, “The Last Dragon Maker”. Ah Loy didn’t need his grandson to explain who the lantern maker and his hesitant Eurasian grandson were in his tale. It was clear enough.
It was now clear that the Melbourne Dai Loong “Big Dragon” Association would never die. It would live on through the strong arms, legs and spirits of able-bodied young Chinese-Australians that would dance on parading the grandeur of their culture amidst this plural city of love, bliss and acceptance. It would live on through Moomba, it would live on in Federation Square, and when all the dragon makers have withered away into the annals of history, it would live on in the pages of James’ novel.
“Thank you, James.”, said Ah Loy as his frail fingers glided through the smooth contours of the hardback copy of his grandson’s bestselling novel. James returned a smile, all was well as he watched the last dragon maker, his last dragon maker, waltz away, strutting once again with utmost pride across the empty hallway…