Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox, T.A.G. Hungerford

Hungerford Wong Chu 2

TAG (Tom) Hungerford (1915-2011) was born in Perth, WA, fell into journalism, served in the 2nd AIF in the Pacific in WWII, and eventually, around retirement age, became a full time writer. His four novels include Sowers in the Wind (1954) which won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but “was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces.” (wiki)

Lisa at ANZLitLovers recently reviewed, and loved, his collection of autobiographical stories, Stories From Suburban Road (1983) (here) and that inspired me to see what I had on my own shelves – I have purchased a lot of pre-loved Oz Lit in bulk over the past few years and so have only a vague idea of what I own – coming up with Hungerford’s first collection of short fiction, Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox (1977) published by our own marvellous Fremantle Arts Centre Press (on which more here).

In 1990 the Fremantle Arts Centre Press (now just Fremantle Press) established the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for unpublished Western Australian writers. Previous winners include fellow blogger Nathan Hobby with The Fur (review) and Robert Edeson with The Weaver Fish (review). I see I also have the 1990 winner, Brenda Walker’s Crush so I’d better review that too.

The first story, the title story of this collection sets the tone (the period is the 1920s when Hungerford was around 10 years old) –

You mightn’t think there’d be a very strong connection between an old Chinese market gardener and a pillarbox owned by the Queen of England – but there was: a long and intimate, and in many ways a romantic one too.

Both the pillarbox and the Chinaman first knew South Perth as a rushy riverside retreat of cow paddocks and market gardens and bush, where the settlers along the river bank had their own jetties, and flat bottomed boats for travelling to and from Perth, and horses leaned thoughtfully over every second front fence along the one main road through the suburb.

South Perth is now an upmarket suburb of apartment buildings and big houses facing across Perth Water to the CBD, though there are still 1930s brick houses in the less favoured streets. I live just a few kilometres upstream in a riverside flat in a formerly working class suburb of uniform fibro boxes on sandy, quarter acre lots. But what I love most of all is the connections to my own past – to the employer who ran cows on the South Perth foreshore before the War, to the Chinese market gardeners keeping to themselves on the highway in Stawell (Vic) when I lived there in the seventies, to the horses still drawing milk floats when I was at high school in Melbourne, and my great aunt’s lovely house, a refuge for all her country rellos, with stables out the back, in Surrey Hills (Melbourne).

Eventually the pillarbox with its “VR, 1857” is gone and the market gardens, and the Chinamen too, all called “Charlie”, living in tin sheds on their lots, and Suburban Rd, now Mill Point Road, is no longer a “ribbon of red gravel” through “a double line of the loveliest trees”, though the trees are still there, where the road passes the zoo and drops down towards the freeway.

The next story is of a woman, pregnant, drinking and smoking with a neighbour, unable to understand her young daughter and particularly her determination to watch what sounds like Playschool on TV. My parents weren’t drinkers but I have plenty of mates who’d identify with these Saturday nights –

“What do you do with …?” The friend nodded in the direction of the doorway. “When you go to the club I mean?”

“Oh … wrap her up, and put her in the back seat. Duck out a couple of times, to look. She sleeps OK.”

And Sunday sessions. I remember Sunday sessions! (The Lady in the Box)

Some of the stories are straight out of the Australian Legend playbook, the mainstay of Oz Lit for a century, the lone Aussie guy in the outback with and without his mates. With variations of course. A Lithuanian reffo makes his way outback and is finally accepted into the brotherhood when he solves a problem for his tough, station foreman (The Talisman); a tough alpha male in his forties, a fishing boat skipper in a North West hamlet, is on the way down and his ‘mate’ is looking for greener pastures – or as the title implies, wishes to attach himself to another shark (Remora)

Because this is Western Australia, Aboriginals play an important part. Of course Hungerford is old fashioned, about feminism too which clearly bemuses him, but not unsympathetic. In Perth, in these stories, the Indigenous locals are in the background – ‘scarecrow “blackies” and their stick-insect children, whose tangled black hair and blazing eyes I can still see, all these long years after they have gone to their dreaming … [trudging] through the streets of the quiet riverside suburb which they used to own’ – or servant women, probably brought down from up north, who ‘would hang their heads so that their curly brown hair made a curtain before their faces.’ But in ‘The Only One who Forgot’ an Aboriginal boy is front and centre. An orphan just coming into adolescence, he befriends a little blonde girl and his (white) foster mother, out of fear of his coming sexual awareness, beats him –

She swung her open hand across his mouth, hard. The blood ran from his lips and he stood still, his fingers creeping along his jaw toward it. The woman’s eyes blazed.

“Nigger!” she cried, shrill with fear. “Damn black nigger!”

We get on to love and marriage, or sex and marriage not working out more often, but the story I enjoyed most takes a diversion to Hong Kong, after the war, when the narrator runs into the daughter of the big house on the hill above the South Perth foreshore, whom he had met when he was a ten year old accompanying his piano tuner father, and she gives him some surprising explanations for things which he had then only dimly perceived (Green Grow the Rushes).

An excellent collection, in many ways evocative of a time not quite past, not in our imaginations anyway, and to which we continue to cling.

 

T.A.G. Hungerford, Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1977. Cover image and ‘text collages’ by Robert Birch.

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