Reviewed: Mirandi Riwoe, Stone Sky Gold Mountain, UQP.
Australian nationalism often promotes a history in which the colonisation of Aboriginal lands was somehow complete before the white patriot turned his attentions outwards to the threat of the non-white foreigner. It’s a deliberate trick.
Certainly, the histories I was taught in school advanced this chronology: first the British arrived and took over this country, and then they wanted to keep everyone else out. Gradually, in the years after World War II, they began to relent, and now here we are.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned that there was no such turn. Mass Chinese migration to Australia came at a time when white settlers’ hold on these lands was still tenuous. Non-white settlers’ labour—in mining, agriculture, construction and other industries—helped to secure colonial occupation and expansion. The White Australia policy wasn’t about preserving a white nation that already existed: it was about creating one. Colonisation and xenophobia are simultaneous, entwined and ongoing.
Mirandi Riwoe’s novel, Stone Sky Gold Mountain, lands right in the middle of this uncomfortable reality, complicating the before-and-after with its striking picture of how Chinese settlers have been complicit in colonial violence and dispossession.
The story is set in Far North Queensland, on the Palmer River, and it shifts between three perspectives: Ying, a Chinese girl who has disguised herself as a boy to work on the goldfields; her brother, Lai Yue, who is wracked by guilt, shame and responsibility; and Meriem, a young white woman who is the maid for an Irish sex worker, Sophie.
The plot unfolds slowly. I struggled with the opening, which seemed to stumble through a lot of needless exotic imagery, as though the author was unable to find an entry point into the perspectives of the Chinese characters without relying on worn-out chinoiserie.
The first page has Ying dreaming of her little brother, his scalp ‘the colour of a boiled duck egg’ and his birthmark shaped like ‘a stork in flight’. I don’t know if you’ve boiled many duck eggs, but I have, and they’re the same colour as chicken eggs. Ying’s stomach is ‘as empty as a hollowed gourd’ and her breasts ‘no bigger than shrimp dumplings’. A bird’s breast is ‘as yellow as the Qing porcelain bowl her father once prized’. The year is 1877—the Qing dynasty has been in power for more than 200 years at this point. Presumably, every bowl in Ying’s family home would have been a Qing bowl. It would be like me describing my socks as post–Industrial Revolution socks.
There are a few other points where it feels like the novel is slipping into a self-orientalising mode. Lai Yue seldom strays too far from familiar tropes for Chinese Australians in this era: gambling, opium, mining, filial piety, anti-Chinese violence, and the impact of poverty and famine in southern China following the Opium Wars.
But as the plot picks up Ying starts to come into her own, developing an inner life that feels richer and more dynamic than her brother’s. Australia mutates in her perception from a temporary inconvenience to a site of trouble and possibility. She finds pleasure in her work at Jimmy’s store in Maytown, in her furtive relationship with Meriem and in the material novelties that this country presents; but there’s a central ambivalence to her character that keeps her interesting, as though she’s always on the cusp of something.
Meriem complements Ying as a mirror for her longing, curiosity and indignation, while also offering a window into the white experience of womanhood at this time. Through Meriem, Ying and Sophie, we see how the fragility of the colonial project leaves its mark on gendered relations in different ways. White women’s bodies are the prized vessels through which the new nation hopes to fill its stolen land, yet motherhood is permitted only within narrow confines. The colonial mindset has a way of making peopled spaces empty, whether it’s the land or the body, and laying claim. Riwoe draws a clear parallel here between these different modes of violent conquest and, even though you can see it coming, it still stings.
Lai Yue’s storyline, on the other hand, never quite seems to take flesh. Fearful, feverish and haunted by ghosts, Lai Yue also hovers at a spectral register. The only parts of his story that really cut through are the graphic scenes of violence, particularly his brutal attack on an Aboriginal man who has already been shot in the shoulder by the whites that Lai Yue works for. Even then, the paranoid voices in Lai Yue’s head render the situation surreal.
It doesn’t help that none of the Aboriginal figures in the novel are characters in their own right. They’re seen only in glimpses through the eyes of others, through a lens of fear, contempt, curiosity and guilt. These fleeting interactions don’t entirely ring true in an area where families of mixed Aboriginal and Chinese descent were quite common. Lai Yue’s scenes have the feeling of a hot and blurry Western: guns blazing, bodies piling up, terse men talking with their hands.
But what’s missing from the story also serves to make explicit the culpability that white and Chinese settlers share. Even as the three protagonists ruminate on their own victimhood within the harsh and lawless settler society of Maytown, there is much they don’t see. They’re aware of their own foreignness—even Australian-born Meriem is repeatedly asked by Sophie when her family arrived and what ship they came on—and of the wailing, newborn vulnerability of their settlement, but they never name the sovereign people whose land they’ve occupied. Instead, there’s an assumed analogy by which the violence of colonial dispossession is expressed through white resentment at Chinese presence.
In an epigraph at the novel’s opening, Jan Chin writes to his father in Shanghai in 1858: ‘I wish to inform you that they are only strangers in this land themselves. Many of them have only been here a few moons, and none for more than one or two generations.’
The palpably unsaid part of this quote remains unspoken through the novel, burning holes between the lines. In 1877 there were reportedly 17,000 Chinese settlers on the Palmer, but the population quickly dwindled as the gold ran out. By 1886, Maytown’s population was 154 Europeans and 450 Chinese. Today, it’s a ghost town. But the Kuku Yalanji people remain.
Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer living in the Kulin nations. Ey has written on resistance, desire and the Chinese diaspora for publications including Overland, the Sydney Morning Herald, Cordite and Sixth Tone.