On Being an ABC (Australian Born Chinese)

At Interhall Trivia, much controversy was generated over the question “which Australian Prime Minister was the first to visit China and when?”. Answer: Gough Whitlam. not so much. You may wonder why I ponder this several weeks later. While many people know about Gough Whitlam’s trip, not many are aware of how Chinese people in Australia have been part of the cultural fabric since before Federation. As someone who is of half Chinese descent, the answer I will give may surprise you.

Although many people are aware of the existence of the “White Australia Policy”, not many are aware of the racism, characterised by anti-Chinese feeling, that lead to its conception. When I discuss my cultural background it is always assumed my mother must have moved here, with much emphasis on the supposed exotic nature of my heritage. It is only when I reveal that my mother was indeed born here, as was my grandfather and great-grandfather, that people notice.

The story of Chinese migration can be demonstrated through my family history. In 1877, my ancestor Lo King Nam, a boy of only sixteen, arrived in Australia on the SS Brisbane. He arrived intending to continue on to the goldfields, but a severe drought curtailed that ambition. Instead of seeking gold he went on to become a shopkeeper.

By the time he was naturalised in 1882, Lo King Nam had become Young Cumines. There is no written documentation to support the name change; family lore suggests two possibilities. The first is the Anglicisation of King Nam and the second is that he worked for a family named Cumines, possibly of Scottish origin.

After holding a number of different jobs Young Cumines opened his grocery shop, King Nam Jang, in 1913. The shop is heritage-listed along with several other businesses – together they form the Unwin Stores located at 77-85 George Street the Rocks. Another aspect of the business was the boarding house that allowed my family to branch out and befriend many of the Chinese community who were transhipping from China to destinations across the Pacific. The Cumines family also provided translating and interpreting services for Customs and Immigration based in Sydney.

Growing up Chinese, especially post-Federation, was difficult for my family. Somebody accused Messrs King, Nam and Jang of being opium smugglers based on a stamp on a package addressed to the shop. It is obvious that the accuser did not realise that the name of the business did not equate to three different people. The actuality was, in fact, a situation where one policeman was attempting to frame another. It seems that the racism present in this instance was to follow my family for generations to come. For example, my great-grandparents had documents to prove they were exempt from the dictation test and were permitted re-entry to Australia, in keeping with the White Australia Policy. My great uncles, to prove their identity as Australians, had to have front and profile headshots and be fingerprinted, even though their birth certificates showed they had been born here. My aunt was once teaching a class on the Lambing Flat anti-Chinese riots when she was accused of making the event up. In my own experience I once wore a cheongsam, a gift my mother received for her twenty first birthday, to an event at college where someone came up to me and said “why do you have to bring race into everything?”. As my story shows, for that unfortunate person I do not have to “bring up race”, I wear my Chinese Australian cultural identity with pride.

Despite this, Young Cumines and his descendents have continued to involve themselves in the Chinese Australian community to this day. These include descendants ranging from my aunt Cheryl Cumines, who was a founding member and now president of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, my great uncle Henry Cumines who started a business trading in the South Pacific, and my great uncle Albert Cumines who started the first Chinese language school in Sydney. It is by some miracle that Young Cumines was able to come to Australia and make a home for a hundred and fifteen descendants and counting.

I am proud of my long Chinese heritage, although it has taken many years to accept my biracial identity. As a very young child I identified heavily with Disney’s Mulan and my first Barbie doll was a Chinese ballerina. In the present day I have found myself binge-watching shows such as Maximum Choppage and Fresh off the Boat, both of which are centred on Chinese characters. During the interim between these periods I found that there was not much media that represented who I was. I am extremely thankful I have discovered my family history as it has truly affirmed who I am.