Not everything in the “good old days” is good

I think I have mentioned before that at 77 I am totally into nostalgia at times — hence the last two posts, and this next one which again reaches back to 1955, my first year at Sydney Boys High, the year I turned 12, and incidentally the year my brother Ian married. This is Ian (right) on his wedding day:

The marriage lasted around ten years, four children ensuing. Interestingly, after 50+ years I have renewed contact with Aileen, the woman he married in 1955, who kindly sent me this painting a few months back. She is quite an artist.

I belong to several nostalgia groups on Facebook, the most active lately being Memory Lane – Growing up in Australia with currently 17.5K members. Mostly it is lovely stuff, and I have submitted a few things myself. But at the same time I have noted some there for whom the following quote from Carolyn Gold Heilbrun — an interesting person — is I suspect true.

Thereby can emerge what we may call “Hansonism” in Australia, but even worse and nastier things — and it is disturbing that hints of such dangers do emerge from time to time. Generally the administrators and bulk of group members crack down on such things. The majority of posts are just personal and loving memories, or quirkish bits of trivia, and so on. Many are excellent, really valuable social history.

Today in my trip down Memory Lane I am deliberately taking this path because while it is part of the zeitgeist of 1955, it is something I am now deeply ashamed of. Billy Ling, my old classmate, if you are out there I am very, very sorry!

Woodwork and Tech Drawing were taught in our day only in First Year at Sydney High, and to do them we had to cross Moore Park into what was then deepest Surry Hills to what was then Bourke Street Junior Tech. We were always warned never to go there alone, but always in pairs. The warning was serious! Today of course is very different.

Bourke Street Public School
A Woodwork Class at Hurstville Boys High in 1930, but Bourke Street 1955 was identical.

I was hopeless at Woodwork and messy at Tech Drawing, a bit embarrassing given my father and brother and grandfather Whitfield were all carpenters and builders.

But the memory that shames me concerns one afternoon when we were lined up waiting for Woodwork class.

Billy Ling was the only Chinese person in our entire year — Australian-born of course. I was not normally a bully — I lacked the physique or the inclination. But this day for some reason I got stuck into Billy Ling. Perhaps he had provoked me — I don’t recall. But I did make a totally obscene reference to his skin colour, in the racism scale beyond the usual Ching Chong Chinaman stuff. Yes I was 11 or 12, but I really did set out to hurt him, and looking back am not only ashamed, but realise that a great deal about the “good old days” is not good at all, that our journey towards a multicultural inclusive Australia has been the right journey to make and is a journey that we must never look back from.

1955 — after all it was still White Australia. By 1958-9 it was beginning to break down. In our senior classes at Sydney High we had some new students thanks to the Colombo Plan — with names like Oon Tat Goh. And one of my circle of best friends 1957-8 — before he went off to London and St Paul’s School — was Ashok Hegde. His mother made the best curries I had ever tasted — not hard given Oz curries then were made with Keen’s Curry Powder! His father was, I think, an Indian Trade Commissioner in Sydney.

Mind you the journey has not been evenly progressive. James Flowers recalls that in his time at Sydney High in the 1970s he was subjected to racist taunts — “yellow tongue” for example. He is now a Research Fellow at Kyung Hee University, Korea, in Traditional Chinese Medicine. He was born in Singapore. In the early 2000s he was Secretary of the Sydney High School Old Boys Union. His school experience appears in my book From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt (Longman 1995).

I have never forgotten Billy Ling, and am not even sure what happened to him. I think he may have left at age 15.