I heard you have been successful overseas

Underpinning the sojourning enterprise was the sending of remittances and with each remittance went a letter (see No.29). Relatively few of these letters have survived and even fewer of those from the recipients back to those who were away earning money.[1] Translated here is an all too typical letter asking for money. It is one of many letters awaiting translation that are part of the wonderful Tet Fong collection. Originally from Tingha the letters are now in the UNE Archives, Armidale.

Lau Gai Cheong to Tsun Kei, no date. Brother-in-law. 

I heard you have been successful overseas. I am very comforted by that and I remember you in the past, from time to time you sent us some money to maintain us. We used the money to look after our old mother and for going to school, for marriage and for doing business. Now I have one son and one daughter and they have to depend on me. Unfortunately recently I have arthritis and every time I go to the doctor, there’s no cure. So now I am working as a pedlar. The amount I receive is little but a lot of people depend on me (too many mouths to feed). This is not enough for my own mother, or to look after my wife, and I don’t want to live and don’t want to die either. Plus these disaster years we couldn’t get any loans. Within the last two or three years I’ve given you two letters telling you about my unfortunate situation and asking you to give me one or two hundred dollars. It’s just to cover some of our expenses. 

Unfortunately I sent the letter like a bird flew away or a fish that swam away. One letter was returned to me and one has no received no reply. I have been waiting for a long, long time and this is a very sad situation. Now I wish to ask you for a little over a hundred dollars and send it to Heavenly Station so I can do my small business again. I may be able to make a bit of money and what I’m asking you is only a small fraction from what you have – ‘just one piece of hair, you won’t miss it much’. So I could at least know where my next meals come from and you will be blessed in your next life. 

(There is a year but difficult to work out.) 

Doris Yau-Chong Jones translator, from Janis Wilton’s Golden Threads, UNE Archives

The letter speaks for itself. The early 20th century was one of great hardship in China even before the Japanese invasion and numerous such letters were sent to those living and working around the diaspora. Tet Fong himself worked as a herbalist in Tingha, NSW. He had four sons who ended up further south in Uralla. It is they who handed these letters to Janis Wilton when their sister, Tet Fong’s daughter Victoria died – they were in the Tingha house a block over from Wing Hing Long, now the Tingha Museum.

[1] For a comprehensive and fascinating account of the remittance system see: Gregor Benton and Hong Liu, Dear China: Emigrant Letters and Remittances, 1820–1980 (University of California Press, 2018).