No 1: My Chinese by Margaret Egerton

My Chinese by Margaret Egerton

This fictionalised account of a European Australian woman’s interactions with a group of Chinese Australians in the late 19th century was one my first discoveries as I began researching Chinese Australian history in the late 20th century.[1] The strong likelihood of its autobiographical nature was later confirmed by another long-term researcher in the field Kate Bagnall when she recognised that the names of the children of the fictional “Rev Ah Sing” were in fact the same as the children of the real life Rev Young Wai.[2]

Margaret Egerton was thus one of those long and continuing line of Christian helpers in churches who provide English lessons to new arrivals in Australia in hope that they will also convert to Christianity.[3] The article is however thankfully not much concerned with religion but rather with her observations of her English students and general remarks on Chinese people in late 19th century Australia. The writer is fully aware of the embedded sense of class, superiority of civilisation, and no doubt ‘race’ of her readers. The result is a subtle poking of fun at these pretensions, though by no means a rejection of the stereotyping of Chinese people in Australia upon which much of the essay rests. Nevertheless, My Chinese is worth reading for its many astute observations and mild ironies, even if the ending is perhaps a little too cliched. 

Having first read My Chinese some 25 years ago I am aware of how much my perceptions have broadened since. As a young researcher I was looking for fodder for my work and mostly saw this article in terms of its hints of relationships, levels of English and other such specifics. Re-reading it now I am much more aware of the subtle digs the writer is making at her own class and ‘race’, albeit while utilising a stereotypical view of her Chinese characters to do so. Margaret Egerton was writing for the amusement not education of her white audience after all. 

The article tells us therefore – as many of these European observer articles do – more about the writers prejudices and attitudes than it does about the Chinese people being discussed. These European prejudices and attitudes are a significant element of Chinese Australian history, and one such significant element with which the article begins is the ‘missionary’. It is the narrators friend who wishes to learn Chinese so she can travel to China and convert people to her brand of Christianity.[4] And it is from a convert to Christianity, now a minister in a Christian church, that they strive to learn Chinese in exchange for teaching English to a class of Chinese market gardeners.

Before the lady can proceed to her class her husband presents us with some of the commonplace prejudices of his class and race regarding Chinese people and culture, including that it is ‘impossible of accomplishment’ for anyone to learn 40,000 characters. But his most fundamental objection is that they are ‘a dirty race’, and the would-be student/teacher is only allowed to proceed on a promise of taking all proper ‘sanitary precautions’. These precautions seem to be mostly of a perfumery nature and it is the subversion of these precautions that provides the story’s climax. 

While her husband demonstrates the cruder prejudices, it is the narrators more subtle ones that are also challenged. Amazingly the first of these is the idea that Chinese people are ‘unemotional’. This is a prejudice that apparently began with missionaries in China who it seems found the locals insufficiently moved by what they had to say and put this down to a lack of emotional capacity. While this prejudice is easily disposed of by the obvious family emotions on display as they enter the Ministers home, another regarding music is left in place or even re-enforced. Though that the unmusicality could lie on the other side is hinted at.[5]

As an aside, we are given a dig at mansplaining to remind us that some things never change, before the origins of the writers sympathy for Chinese people in Australia are hinted at. The first is a vague objection to the poll tax – or perhaps that it is working class people demanding this – that leads to an exchange of presents with her regular vegetable hawker. And the second is witnessing her father’s defence of a Chinese person from a group of larrikins.[6] Here the writer appears at her most naively unselfconscious as the account reeks of paternalism.

It is in her descriptions of her English students that we learn more as the individuals are introduced. The moonstruck Cum Lee and the student of medicine Paul Fee Lee, among others. All remain well within the stereotype of the humble, friendly market gardener and vegetable hawkers – no hint of the real Rev Young Wai students who become multinational businessmen – that most European Australians would have been familiar with.[7] The difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is clear while the discovery of the tones necessary for adequate understanding in speaking comes rather late in her lessons. 

The somewhat cliched climax of My Chinese is the miraculous cure of the narrators neuralgia by a medical concoction she is too polite to refuse, despite her horror at the unhygienic way it is prepared. Overall, My Chinese is a reminder of the limits of mere politeness and toleration. The Chinese subjects of the story remain foils to allow the author to make subtle digs at her own class and Egerton is as disinclined (incapable?) of seeing past her own paternalism and prejudice as her readers. Not a stone throwing larrikin but a woman of her times just the same. Nevertheless, careful reading of such material can be of value, even if only in informing us better of the community mainstream from which much of our evidence for Chinese Australian history, at least in the 19th century, is forced to rely.

Margaret Egerton, “My Chinese”, The Cosmos Magazine, Part I, 19 September 1896, pp.124-128, Part II, 19 October, pp.138-141, Part III, 19 November 1896, pp.192-196.[8] 

[1] This would have been for Sojourn Your Native Land, M.Litt, 1998.

[2] K. Bagnall, Golden shadows on a white land, p.84.

[3] For a more robust form of Christian dealings with ‘pagans’ see, Object No 2: Torn poster of a Chinese God

[4] See Chinese Christian Churches and Object No.82 for Australian missionary connections with China.

[5] Attitudes to music were largely determined by Chinese Opera, common in Australia at the time. See Smoking opium, puffing cigars, and drinking gingerbeer: Chinese Opera in Australia where emotion is also discussed.

[6] Larrikins at this time being gangs of youths happy to beat people up and destroy property rather than the lovable rouges of modern imagining. One of the English students is often pelted with stones by larrikins.

[7] See Object No.79: Big Four and more in Shanghai. Also Object No.36 & Object No.39.

[8] The Cosmos Magazine only ran from 1894 to 1899, though it did survive the arrest for fraud in 1896 of its originator Armand Jerome. Copies can be found in the NSW State Library among others. Apologies for the poor image quality – the issues are bound in volumes and the pages will not lie flat. If anyone cares to do a transcript, I am happy to host it here.