The Other Way Round

Dragon Seed

Book cover of Dragon Seed in the Antipodes by Shen Yuanfang

In her research of Chinese immigrants’ experience in Australia, Shen Yuanfang, author of Dragon Seed in the Antipodes: Chinese Australian Autobiographies, uncovered a tragic case of Jong Ah Sing, a Chinese gold-mining labourer who reached the promised land in the South during the gold rush in mid-19th century and was later condemned to a lunatic asylum for injuring two of his fellow Chinese folks out of insanity, and argued that Ah Sing might have been wrongly charged and convicted.  Besides, Shen questioned if Ah Sing was crazy at all and believed that he had been physically and psychologically abused based on what Ah Sing wrote in his diary, which he regarded as his “case book” and had previously been hard to access owing to the barely intelligible language Ah Sing rendered.

19th-century gold mining, Australia

19th-century gold mining, Australia.  Artwork of Chinese workers excavating and washing gold ores at a gold mine in Australia. The worker in the foreground is using a device called a cradle (“Iberceau”) to wash ores containing gold. The rocks, sands and gravel from the excavations are placed in the upper box, which has a perforated base. Water is poured over the rocks to carry the lighter rocks and specks of gold to the lower level. This lower level is an inclined plane, covered in a blanket. The device is rocked using the lever, and the lighter waste gravel exits at right, while the gold collects at the other end of the device. Artwork from “Mines and Miners” (L. Simonin, 1868). (Source: All Posters Images)

The case struck Shen as interesting and worth investigating since Ah Sing’s diary was not only the earliest autobiographical literature of Chinese migrants to Australia that Shen could find, the “case book” also represented the voice of the suppressed under the segregation policy being executed in an era when Chinese was treated as an inferior class of humans, if they could be considered humans of all.  Ah Sing’s account even revealed the intricate antagonism and mistrust embedded among different ethnic groups of Chinese overseas when he grudgingly complained his interpreter, a mandarin-speaking Chinese who failed to understand Ah Sing’s dialect and was poor in English as well even though he was recruited by the local authority, of misinterpreting his story at best and conspiring to mitigate him at worse.

In his self-defense, Ah Sing blurted out how the two alleged victims in the case stole his fowls which he had bought with his hard-earned money and attacked him in the first place; how he defended himself with a knife and a tomahawk being picked up casually in one of the tents where the victim was taking abode instead of bearing weapons of his own while confronting the victims; how he was framed by the victim-turned witnesses, the police, and a physician who then examined him with a prognosis of an unsound mind for which Ah Sing ended up in an asylum; how he was frustrated of no one believing his sanity; how he suffered the ordeal of inhumane confinement as if a caged animal; and how he was swindled by the police who tempted him with a girl for the rest of his saving before the girl, an old hag in precise, showed up to humiliate Ah Sing for one of his testicles being cut out…


Is Ah Sing’s entire account to be believed, we may have come up with another epic story that matches Victor Hugo’s Les Misérable.  Nonetheless, the facts concerning the case remain obscure without much evidence other than Ah Sing’s diary and the scant volume of official registers left.  Perhaps the crux does not lie in how reliable Ah Sing recalls what really happened, but in what he believes to have happened, as Shen suggests.

Instead of being interested in the reasonable doubts that fails Ah Sing, I am more particularly fascinated by what Ah Sing wrote in his memoir in literal sense.  The main reason that the text is hard to understand is because Ah Sing was doing “literal translation” all along in his writing by translating what he thought in Chinese to English verbatim.  For example, he wrote “[M]y 1 road crawl go up tent my body 1 road stream blood”, in Chinese literally meaning “我一路爬回我的帳篷,我一路淌血”, when he was trying to say that he kept bleeding when he was crawling back to his tent.  Since “一路(literally “one road” in English)…. 一路(“one road”)…” is a commonly used pair of conjunctions which means doing two things at a time or two events happen simultaneously, it makes perfect sense to Chinese speaking readers, like myself, or those who are literate in Chinese but perhaps incomprehensible to others.  All verbs were also rendered without attention to tenses because Chinese denotes the sense of time with temporal denominators, like “the other day”, “yesterday”, “tomorrow”, “next time”, etc., instead of conjugating the verbs.  Another example “[S]heteen kill fowl that knife my last day my take go bush sleep bush” which Shen translated as “Sheteen [one of the victims] killed my fowl with the knife the previous day I had taken into the bush” is equally baffling since Ah Sing, as any other Chinese, does not distinguish subjects or objects with different forms of pronouns.

Imagine that a text written as such lasts for dozens of pages, it is not hard to guess what a Herculean Labour Shen Yuanfang has performed in translation and informed us of the world where Jong Ah Sing was inhabiting.  Despite the tragic fate befallen upon Ah Sing, many of his contemporaries and other immigrants coming after him were not so unfortunate but able to immerse themselves in local communities with the command of the foreign language which increasingly gave them edges to thrive eventually.

Perhaps Ah Sing’s English is worth digging up since I believe it will offer Western readers or anyone who would like to learn Chinese under the auspices of globalization an unconventional yet helpful tool the other way round for not merely grasping Chinese grammatical rules, but also unlocking the mentality and the way how Chinese-speaking people thinks within the frame of their language.


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