Shiqi in the Zhong Shan region of Guangdong province, southern China.
Hong Kong on 1 July 1990
Sydney on 1 July 1990
Qantas, my husband’s employer, provided units in Bexley, St George area, southern Sydney. We stayed there for 2-3 weeks.
We rented in Bexley before buying a home nearby in the Sutherland Shire of Sydney.
Health care interpreter, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Newtown, Sydney.
Multicultural women’s health worker at Hurstville Community Centre and St. George’s Hospital; Hurstville smoke-free homes project and health promotion officer for local health services in Kogarah and Dolls Point, respectively, in the St George area.
I was born in the 1950s in Shiqi in Zhong Shan, Guangdong, the southern part of China. My Chinese name is Siu Hung translated as ‘Little Red’. My mother is not very literate. When she has got a baby girl she doesn’t know how to name her. She is saying, “Maybe I name you ‘Butterfly’?” But when I was in kindergarten I told my mum I find it hard to write ‘butterfly’ in Chinese. Mum said, “If it is that hard why don’t you [be] called ‘Little Red’”? ‘Little’ in Chinese is not having many strokes and ‘Little Red’ was a popular name.
When I was a young girl, China was taken over by the Communists. Life was starting to go downhill. There was famine. We don’t have enough food and my parents worried about my upbringing.
I was not from a wealthy family. Dad has his small farm growing chickens and eggs. My mum’s family was pretty poor, from a Shiqi fishing village, running a prawns business. [She] was from a family of six. Being the biggest daughter from a poor family, she has never been given proper education. She can write a few numbers [but] cannot write her name. She is quite separate from the world because she cannot read.
When the Communists had taken over, my maternal grandfather stopped fishing. In the late ‘50s there [were few] jobs. My father earned the single income to support the family, [including] two wives. It makes life pretty difficult [as] my mother [is] the second wife.
My sister married a Macau businessman in 1957. She wanted me to have a better future so around 1958 she asked my stepbrother to bring me to Macau. It is only about two to three hours drive [and] was a colony of Portugal. It is not Communist.
I was about six when I left my family so I haven’t got a very good attachment with my dad but understand [he] kept writing letters to my sister and me in Macau. So Dad was literate but he hasn’t got great education [either]. My sister has an education up to Year Six (aged 11) and my mother thought she has plenty. They had expectation that after I finish my primary school I could work.
My sister was like a mother figure to me but I felt I was in a strange environment because [her] husband has married before [and] he had two sons in the same household. Shop assistants to run the business also lived [there]. You were exposed to so many people. My strict brother-in-law disliked me listening to the radio, a new inventive in the late ‘50s. He didn’t approve it; he would turn it off.
Being a little child you don’t want to be heavily disciplined, you want to be loved. I had some nightmares but being a little child you have no say. Like a one-way ticket, I could never go back. I [was] a little tourist to Macau [and] illegal to stay. My mum worried I would be starving to death in China or put to a labour camp to be re-educated. My mother said it was for my wellbeing to stay in Macau.
[I had] two or three years [of primary school] in Macau. Then my brother-in-law lost his business opportunity [and] my sister was heavily pregnant. [They] had Hong Kong residence but I haven’t got it. My sister even [asked] would I like to stay in Macau with my schoolfriend. At that time I was about eight years old.
At the end, my sister loved me, she didn’t want to leave me behind. She had a family duty. Including me it would [be] five children, including her two [baby] daughters. So [I was] an illegal immigrant in Hong Kong but as they don’t check strictly for children I could get residency.
Hong Kong was a colony ruled by Britain. When we arrived [around] 1960 we [struggled] to find accommodation for seven of us. My brother-in-law had to work as a delivery man. My sister continuously had quarrels due to financial reasons.
All [she] could afford is a night school for me to study Years Three and Four. I was about ten. Eventually I told my sister I like to study in normal school, with normal children. Very reluctantly my sister sent me to a primary school to study Years Five and Six. I had very good results so I could have enrolled to a day high school but couldn’t due to financial reasons. I skipped high school for one year but in 1966 I told my sister that if I want a better future I need to continue high school. But because of the financial reason I enrolled to evening school [for] five years.
By then my mother had arrived in Macau thinking we were still there. Hong Kong had closed the door to Macau so she couldn’t travel freely. She could come for a two week visit only. I could see her now and then.
I did see my father [when] I was about 12 years old. I travelled back to China to visit him. I remember my first time I got very scared. The Cultural Revolution had started. You see Red Guards and posters everywhere. In Hong Kong you would never see a big rally. I disconnected with my father until he come to Hong Kong in 1973. At that time I was an adult.
Because Hong Kong was a British colony, we needed to attend English class. People in my primary school called me “Siu Hung” or “Hung” [which] means ‘Red’. So this is my name until I went to night school. One day we had a Welsh teacher. We got about 20-25 people in class. She said, “Maybe for me to better remember all your names, either you choose your own English name or I will give you [one]”. By then we were teenagers. We were growing up [with] the Beatles, Cliff Richard, popular culture in society. Having an English name [was] so cool, like lifting your status. So I chose one that sounds not so common. I picked ‘Brenda’. It sounds easy to remember. But my family still call me “Siu Hung”.
By 1973 I finished high school. I started to look for white-collar work. I like the tourism business [so] I stud[ied] tourism [and became] an operator in a five star hotel. [My] boss was from England [so] I used my English name. After one year [I was] recruited as an airline telephone operator. I got promoted as a personal assistant and I need to start writing English letter but my writing was not fantastic. I purchased a dictionary in the ‘70s. A lot of words [managers] said in English is new to me. That dictionary would help me find out the meanings and understand [them] better. That dictionary really helped me.
My mother had moved to Hong Kong with the help of my father. Chinese family are conservative. When I reached around 25 and I haven’t got married, my mother got very worried. She pre-arranged my [future] husband to visit our home. I know he is a good man but I don’t know whether our character would get along!
The Chinese marriage tradition in Hong Kong [is] relatives and friends sign the tablecloth to show you have been a guest of that wedding reception. We buy that tablecloth for our guests’ signatures and memory of our wedding.
We have two children. The boy was born in 1982 and the girl in 1986. By then Hong Kong started to get very unstable. Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister of Britain, visit[ed] the leader of Communist China, Mr Deng Xiaoping, in 1982. She hoping Hong Kong’s lease to Britain could be extended beyond 1997 but the talk hadn’t finished in good notes. The majority of Hong Kong people were very worried. We did not want to go back to the Communist pattern. I have got friends leaving the colony, migrating to Canada, America, Australia. My husband was not too worried but I was panicking particularly after June the 4th, 1989 after the [Tiananmen Square student] massacre in China. We have a young family. I don’t want my family to be under Communist rule. Because of Communist China I was separated from my family for over 15 years.
We tried to apply to Canada. My husband was an engineer for a company attached to Cathay Pacific but his qualifications haven’t been recognised. Some of his colleagues had been interviewed by Qantas in Hong Kong; Qantas would like 100 people [in] Australia as engineering staff. Luckily he was successful [but] needed to make up his mind because he would leave his mother behind; [her] application was unsuccessful because of health reasons.
I was too worried, too unsettled and wanted to go. Every day I was nagging, “I would like to take my children to Australia”, but in fact I had never visited this land. I don’t know what Australia is like. Thinking back, I was a bit ignorant. But my husband is a good man and he loved his family. He wanted his children to grow up in a better environment. In the end he abandoned his job in Hong Kong and took up the offer from Qantas.
We bring a few memorable items from Hong Kong. When I buy this jacket I know I will migrate to a new country. By wearing that jacket [it] will give me the sense of Chinese identify, so I bought it. And that cup was given to me as a gift to [mark] a British Airways’ inaugural first class flight.
I came here with just our family of four. [We] moved here on the 1st of July, 1990. At the airport I was crying. Not only was I leaving my mother-in-law behind, I was also leaving my mother. [She] was pretty old and has not much life skill and saving; my dad has already passed away.
I promised after we settled we could come back to Hong Kong [as] Australian citizens. I think I was naïve. My husband could never get back the same job and by then he was able to immigrate his mother here. Although this is not a highly paid job, he said it [would be] hassle [to] move around and better [to] continue work and grow up our children together here.
Because I had worked in an airline, I have travelled to Canada, the US and Britain. Australia is Western but long-term it is different. I did think positively of Sydney. We have fresh air here we can never enjoy in Hong Kong. The school system is easy-going and my children could learn English to the benefit of their future. I don’t have much language problem because I already worked with foreign, English-speaking people.
Not so good emotionally; I have mixed feelings. I was isolated at home which I have never experienced before. I was always a working wife and mother in Hong Kong. Here I have no family support. I have to look after my children, send them to school. Most challenging is that I need to drive again because my husband works shift duties and we live not near school. The bus is not nearby.
The first few weeks in Australia I don’t have a very good feeling. I live in units provided by Qantas in Bexley [in the St George area of Sydney’s southern suburbs] but after a couple of nights our unit had been broken into. We lost almost all of our valuable belongings, like gold. I was really scared with my children. I don’t want to go out of home and my husband needed to work shift[s]. I wanted to go back.
The unit was provided two to three weeks so we looked for other accommodation. My husband’s Hong Kong colleagues looked for houses or units to buy. We want to be close to them. I must say everything we do is like a foreign group. We don’t have much individual decision. Buying a house is not a bad idea because we sold our property in Hong Kong. We started looking for housing in the St. George and Sutherland area. [In] 1991 we bought this house.
From the beginning of 1990s we begin our attachment to Hurstville. We need access to Hurstville almost every day. Hurstville is very central for transportation. I don’t have a train station where I live. I usually get off from Hurstville and take a bus. [We] shop [there] for Chinese grocery shopping rather than travelling to Chinatown in the city. To me Hurstville is like an Asian city. Everything from Asia you can buy here, particularly Chinese but even for Japanese, Korean and Indian food.
My mother-in-law and husband got this little fridge before I married [in]to the family in the mid-‘70s. It is very long-lasting. We still use it daily [and] store our herbs and more valuable Chinese food there. It has a special place in our heart.
Hurstville has got a big shopping centre as well. It is a very friendly suburb. I go there [now] because of my work, Chinese food and daily living. I will visit there at least three times a week.
I heard from the community they want their children to get better education and Hurstville Public School offer[s] opportunity class. All Chinese parents look up to education highly. With education you can almost achieve anything. Of the Chinese value, education is always placed first. Without education you end up as a labourer. This may differ from Western value but nevertheless it has stayed with us for thousands of years.
I could not rely on one income whilst I need to support my mum and mother-in-law in Hong Kong. After a year I need to look for work but what kind of work, I am not sure. The best opportunity is to be retrained [and] my ambition has always been to go to university. A friend told me she was enrolling to a course called ‘Women for Work’ to prepare women going back to the workforce. It is an 18 week course for migrant women at St. George TAFE, [a further education college]. [The course was] not necessarily Chinese, but in the early 1990s there was a lot of women from Hong Kong here. Others were Korean, Egyptian.
In Hong Kong I worked as promotion, PR, advertising person, so after TAFE I would like to do a communication course [at] university as a mature-aged student. [It] is hard to compete so I got successful [at] a new University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) social science course attached to the communication department. I was so thrilled. I eventually got a chance to go to university! Three year course is not easy because I have been away from school for a long time. My husband is supportive of me to retrain. He said he would share looking after the children while I study.
I [was also a] health care interpreter. I’ve got native Cantonese but luckily I can also speak Mandarin, both highly needed. Without taking any exam they enroll me. Later on I was test[ed]. They always put me to work in Hurstville. At that time Hurstville Early Childhood Centre had got a lot of Chinese-speaking mothers.
After my graduation from UTS in 1995 I would like to diversify my career. I spotted a job as a multicultural women’s health worker by Hurstville Community Centre on the Chinese newspaper. There was quite a high number of Chinese women who came to this country without their partners. [They] stayed behind to run their businesses. A Chinese-speaking health worker made [the] women more comfortable. For example they need to upgrade their parenting [and] psycho-social skills, their understanding of the health system, the education system. I am like the bridge between the health system and the women. Like a social worker.
I had been doing the multicultural job for about five years and [was] moved to St. George’s Hospital. My coordinator wants this Hurstville smoke-free homes project in the community. The issue is Chinese women’s smoking rates are very low but Chinese men’s rate is high: about 22-23% in 2000. Because of the language barrier, they miss the quit smoking, passive smoking message.
We ran campaign in the Chinese media and developed resources like this Chinese booklet. We borrowed the Jackie Chan tobacco image from Taiwan. The first one was developed in 2005. We don’t want to be targeting men telling them, “You quit”. Instead we tell them having a smoke-free home will be giving harmony to your family. The rate has certainly come down [since] our survey in 2001.
I have my ups and downs in Australia. I have got more respect from the wider community now but I remember when Pauline Hanson was very popular. I got yelled at, “Go home, go back to own country”. We will make Australia, Sydney our home so we will have to overcome this hard feeling.
Lately I really feel at home and settled. I don’t think Hong Kong is really my home although I still have my mother and sister there. It would be hard to go back because I would look at things with an Australian angle. Maybe they feel that you are Aussie, you are Westernised. Of course sometime I miss Hong Kong. That language is familiar to me. Sometimes I really miss the home food cooked by my mother and friends. I don’t have a big bunch of friends and relatives like I have in Hong Kong. That part I miss but I have got my family here [and] a lot of colleagues. That is my mixed feeling.
I still haven’t found my real identity. I would cheer for Australian team but White Australian, will they see me as Aussie? They will see me as migrant. Sometimes I am lost but I have got satisfaction through my job and my children have grown up and have good opportunities here.
My husband is still working for Qantas, a very good company to him. We try to maintain our social gathering with my husband’s Hong Kong colleagues and their wives. A few of them, we still get together. Last year we [celebrated our] 21st anniversary in a Hurstville restaurant.
SIU HUNG BRENDA LEUNG was interviewed on 19 July 2012.
Interview, research, text edit, photography and film production by Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
Film editing by Jessica Tyrrell
Web layout by Annette Loudon, NSW Migration Heritage Centre