On the trail of Australia's melting pot pioneers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 9:50am

As our camper van trundled across the arid landscape of Australia's Northern Territory, the relentless sun continued to beat down. It was time for an ice cream, so we pulled off the main road and headed into the sleepy town of Pine Creek. We found refreshment at a shop called Ah Toy's Store - but also something more.

Behind the counter stood the owner, Edward Ah Toy, whose grandfather was born in a village near Hong Kong and emigrated to Australia more than a century ago.

After living in Beijing for more than seven years, my family and I are on a five-month trip before heading back to Britain to start new lives. We may have left China behind, but we are finding that its people - and immigrants from many other countries - have helped shape the young nation of Australia. The shop owner's grandfather, Jimmy Ah You, arrived in Darwin from Guangdong in 1880, drawn by the promise of gold, which had just been discovered in the region.

He settled in Pine Creek, where there were 750 Chinese people living with a few dozen Europeans. The road sign that welcomes visitors to the town today recognises this heritage; it shows a picture of a Chinese worker carrying two baskets tied to a pole slung over his shoulder. In the years after his arrival, Jimmy's family prospered. There were 10 children, with the final one born when Jimmy was about 80 years old.

Edward Ah Toy is just one of many descendants of that first immigrant. Edward's father bought the store in 1935, and Edward has been working there since 1955. He said he intends to live in Pine Creek for the rest of his life. His Chinese features and a few broken words in his grandfather's language are now his only links to China.

On our journey - to Bali, Australia and next to New Zealand - we've been home-schooling our children, eight-year-old Sam and Tilly, five. After living in China, where civilisation dates back at least 5,000 years, the kids have been learning Down Under about building a country from scratch - and the kind of people who did it.

Since then we have met many foreigners who are forging new lives in Australia - a train conductor from Dover, Britain; a taxi driver from Punjab, India; and a young family who fled from Zimbabwe. A few days ago, our children also had the opportunity to learn about the man whose voyage of discovery began the flood of immigration to Australia - James Cook, the British captain who charted the east coast of the vast island continent in 1770 and claimed it for his king, George III. The Dutch had discovered Australia 150 years earlier, but they did not try to colonise it. The British did, turning it into a penal settlement for thousands of convicts.

Sam and Tilly learned the story of Cook in Melbourne on a tour of his parents' cottage, which had been moved from Yorkshire, brick by brick, in 1934. The children enjoyed dressing up in clothes of Cook's day.

Australians are interested in finding out about their roots. The man who took our money at the entrance to the cottage was dressed as an 18th-century Englishman and talked about his ancestors from Wales. Like Mr Ah Toy's grandfather, they were lured by the promise of finding gold. They found it, then lost it again in a bad investment.

Every family has a story about how their ancestors arrived. They all built Australia into what it is today.