It’s 1877 and we’re in far north Queensland, on the gold fields of the Palmer River inland of Cooktown. 17-year-old Ying and her older brother Lai Yue have come to make their fortune. They’ve come to Queensland after their father, a silk farmer, got heavily into debt, so much so that their mother had to sell their two younger siblings. To work as a gold panner, Ying has had to disguise herself as a boy. The culture and climate shock is intense: it’s hot and humid, a far cry from the cold wet winter they left behind, there are strange birds and trees everywhere. The people are unfamiliar and threatening, both black and white, and the white people treat the Chinese migrants like dogs, which is better than they treat the Indigenous people.
Ying and Lai Yue do not last long on the gold fields, soon packing up and moving to Maytown, a booming settlement nearby. There Lai Yue falls into poverty, debt and opium, living in the crowded shanties by the river. He makes a number of poor choices, although you have to wonder whether they are really choices. Meanwhile lucky Ying gets work in the local grocer. She meets Meriem, a young woman from Queanbeyan who works as a maid for sex worker Sophie. She’s fleeing a child out of wedlock that has brought disrepute upon her family. Through kindness, Ying and Meriem overcome some of their prejudices, and open themselves to possibilities that hadn’t even considered, some of them romantic.
Each of these three characters, through which Stone Sky Gold Moutain is told, are alienated, from home, from family. They long to return to familiar places and people. Some of them will, but not all, and not all happily. It’s a matter-of-fact story, and Riwoe’s writing is similarly to the point, but often lovely when it comes to the strange new environment her characters find themselves in. Quite a few things happen – murders, affairs, gossip – but they are not particularly surprising. The frontier is as brutal, violent and racist as you would expect. But there is also the possibility of starting anew. Lai Yue is haunted by Shan, his betrothed who died in a mudslide back in China, and his responsibility as the eldest son. Yue was bound by her gender until she arrived on the new continent. Meriem feels unloveable, her eyesight failing, her stomach too soft and pudgy.
What this novel offers, and here I’m thinking of white Australians, is a rearranging of history (as Mandy Gill writes for the Sydney Review of Books). Our history books, our classrooms, are so focussed on the First Fleet that we forget that other settlers were also here – Chinese people, Afghan cameleers – and they didn’t come in chains. Although that doesn’t mean they are free from their birthlands: the Chinese miners are bound to tong, the syndicates that provide administrative assistance and some degree of security, but also tie them up in debt. The racism the Chinese characters face is disturbingly similar to today: they eat weird things, they weren’t born here, they’re just want to mine the wealth of the land and take it back to China. Have we progressed very far from the gold rush and the frontier? It doesn’t seem like it.
Gay rating: 3/5 for at least one central queer character, gender-bending and other minor queer characters