I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe. A gold rush story set on the Palmer River in Queensland (an area I did not realise even had a gold rush!) through the eyes of Chinese settlers, sounded intriguing. However, I struggle with blokey books about blokey men doing blokey stuff in the wild – which gold rush/pioneer books can often be – so I tempered my intrigue.
In a number of interviews, Riwoe mentions that she writes of things that move her.
Naturally, they end up moving her readers too. In fact, her characters get under your skin and become a part of your daily life. You feel like you have inhabited their world. You think about them between reading sessions. You fear for their safety and sanity. You feel their pain and trepidation. You feel their disconnection and isolation.
Far North Queensland becomes a character too. You could feel the heat, the humidity, the dust and dirt, the unrelenting nature of nature.
During Riwoe’s research for this novel, she discovered that Cooktown and the Palmer River area, during the goldrush era, actually had a population that was significantly more Chinese than Anglo. Yet our settler narrative only ever talks about white people exploring and moving into the area. This was the trigger for her story.
The initial inspiration for my work is probably to do with what is of personal interest to me – being Eurasian, I like to write of those who are culturally hybridized or marginalized, and I also like to write of women and feminist issues. AsiaLink: University of Melbourne
From there it was only natural to weave in a story about a brother and a sister fleeing poverty in China, to find their fortunes in the goldrush of Australia. The sister could not safely stay on the goldfields as a woman, so she disguised herself as a boy. The only other women in Maytown were prostitutes or the wives of merchants. (Incidentally, Maytown is also the setting for Thea Astley’s story It’s Raining in Mango).
Some of the scenes are tough to read, especially the treatment of the Indigenous population by both the whites and the Chinese characters. The women don’t always fair much better. The pecking order is clearly described and belies our belief that Australia is a classless society. The British and Chinese early settlers, all brought their own prejudices to bear on their new country; prejudices we are still trying to live down.
Many of the Chinese came to Australia with the sole intention of plundering the gold, making their fortune, then returning home as soon as possible. Getting to know Australia, or fitting in, was not part of the plan. When making a fortune didn’t pan out as expected, staying in Australia became caught up in a sense of failure and exile. Australia was not a welcoming place, neither did it feel like home. That sense of disconnect and alienation became a daily lived experience. The isolation could send you mad or into the seedy rooms of the local opium den. The Australian landscape and society never lived up to their memories of China. Yet, as one of the characters made their way home again at the end, they realised how much personal freedom they were giving up by doing so.
Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, was in the back of mind as I read Riwoe’s goldrush story. Both stories reveal the harshness of this way of life, the sense of discrimination and displacement, the degradation of character and environment, regardless of your country of origin. The dream of striking it rich and the sense of adventure that started such a journey, inevitably ended in heartache and madness. The gold fields were an unforgiving place, full of broken dreams.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain first came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Award earlier in the year. I’m glad I tracked it down. It was a fascinating peek into another point of view of early Australia colonialism complete with ghosts, hardship and lawlessness. The violence and injustice was tempered by the tenderness of friendship in unexpected places. Riwoe is an elegant storyteller and she takes you on an unforgettable journey.
- To search for gold was like trying to catch the moon at the bottom of the sea. Taam Sze Pui
- Taam Sze Pui (or Tom See Poy) was a Chinese Australian shopkeeper in Innisfail, Queensland. He spent five (unsuccessful) years panning for gold on the Palmer River goldfields, before working in market gardens and banana plantations, eventually setting up a shop in 1883.
- 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 of two generations. Jan Chin from a letter to his father in Shanghai, The SMH, 1858
- Ying dreams of her little brother, Lai Cheng.
- Winner 2020 Queensland Literary Award – Fiction Book Award
- Winner of the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize 2020.