Book Review: “Yong: The Journey of an Unworthy Son” by Janeen Brian (#AWW2017 @JaneenBrian @WalkerBooksAus)



Historical records show that before gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851, European colonists had already introduced about 3,000 Chinese labourers to work in Australia. By 1855, tens of thousands of Chinese peasants had joined other fortune-seekers from all corners of the globe to dig for gold in the Great Southern Land. The number of Chinese miners in Victoria alone increased from approximately 11,000 in 1855 to 35,000 in 1857. This caused grave concern to European miners and the Anglo-Celtic mainstream society in general.

In the late 1850s, a series of large-scale anti-Chinese riots took place in goldfields across the Grampians, such as Bendigo, Daylesford, Castlemaine, Ararat, Ballarat and the Buckland Valley. Meanwhile, Victoria’s restrictions on Chinese entry, including a landing tax of £10 per person (more than the cost of their voyage from China to Australia), prompted more than 16,000 Chinese diggers to land in Robe, South Australia, and then walk more than 320 kilometres overland to Ballarat and Bendigo. New South Wales also felt the impact of Chinese arrival. Violent demonstrations occurred in goldfields across the Burrangong region between 1857 and 1861, including the notorious Lambing Flat Riots, in which up to 2,000 European miners attacked their Chinese counterparts, destroying their tents and looting their possessions.

By the time the population in Victoria reached approximately 538,630 in 1861 (from 77,000 only a decade before), there were just about 13,000 Chinese left in that state. This accounted for 43 percent of the total Chinese population in Australia, which was approximately 30,000 in that year. Many of them worked as market-gardeners and provided agricultural produce to cities and towns. Others set up grocery stores, restaurants, laundries, butcheries and furniture shops, while still others worked as domestic servants, tailors, herbalists, labourers, street hawkers and even night soil collectors. As a result of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, the Chinese population in Australia further reduced to only about 9,000 by 1947. Among them, 3,700 were born and raised locally and made a considerable contribution to the development of Australia as a new nation.

These background details are useful in one’s attempt to understand why a thirteen-year-old Chinese youth named Yong feels obliged to travel to Australia with his father in Janeen Brian’s refreshing young adult fiction Yong: The Journey of an Unworthy Son (Walker Books Australia, 2016). As a boy, Yong loves nothing more than flying kites and playing cricket-fighting with his best friend. However, as a son – and the oldest son in his family – Yong has to do as his father commands as the latter leads a group of villagers to the other side of the world.

“The truth was, though, that no one in our village had ever been to a goldfield, and they knew little of it. Not even my father. How could he be so sure that leaving our farms in China and digging for gold in Australia would change our fortunes for the better?” (p.10)

This question haunts Yong during the weeks it takes him to walk from his home village in China’s Guangdong Province to the seaport, leaving behind his frail grandmother and younger brothers and sister. It lingers throughout the following months he spends on a British ship that sails from Hong Kong to Australia, crowded with hundreds of seasick men in a dark, humid and ill-smelling cabin like agitated ants buried alive. It continues to trouble him as he embarks on the long journey by foot to Ballarat from the South Australian coastal town of Robe, risking being arrested by soldiers, attacked by wild animals, robbed by the so-called guide and/or discriminated against by the local White People. His unlikely salvation: “At this moment, I only have one thought. And that is, if I die now, I will have died as a dutiful son. I will have honoured the wishes of my father and that will please our ancestors.” (p.13)

As author, Brian does a brilliant job portraying a teenager troubled by an uncertain future full of conflicting mental and emotional challenges. While Yong desperately wants to win his father’s approval by being capable and brave, he constantly fears his unworthiness, as he cannot easily comprehend the reasons behind some of the things that adults say and do. Tossed onto a foreign land where nothing is familiar and all behavioural and moral norms appear to have lost, he is forced to become a man overnight, but still sees things black and white from a child’s perspective. Such constant inner battle is universal as all teenagers have to experience the struggle between their desire to conform and a fierce need to break free.

While it is unlikely that a farming household in mid-19th century rural China would send their oldest son – who is expected to continue the precious family line – on a treacherous overseas journey such as the one depicted in Yong: The Journey of an Unworthy Son, this somehow helps readers to comprehend the sense of urgent responsibility that Yong acutely feels as a young man. Particularly after the tragedy that Yong encounters near the end of the book, how he survives in the Australian goldfields while supporting his family back in China becomes critical. It remains this reviewer’s hope that the author will provide some satisfying answers in a sequel.

More information about Janeen Brian’s Yong: The Journey of an Unworthy Son can be found here (author website) and here (publisher website).


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Childrens and Young Adults: Round Up Four – 2017 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

Leave a Reply, Please

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: