Willy Ah Foo [by P. R. Stephensen]

[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]

Willy Ah Foo

We lads thought it particularly noble to steal peanuts from Willy Ah Foo, for the peanuts of Willy Ah Foo were not only remarkably tasty in themselves, but they were grown by a Chinaman, a Chink, a Chow, a Pong, and they were most legitimate plunder for small White boys.

Willy Ah Foo was the last Celestial left in our district when I was a youngster. Before that there had been dozens of them. In the earliest days, before closer “settlement” came, there were Chinese shepherds tending flocks on the rich blue flats of Mitchell grass. One of these, Tay Wah, had been speared by blacks, together with his sheep, the blacks naturally enough regarding both the Chinamen and the sheep as fair game. There was a punitive expedition against the blacks, who took to the hills under the leadership of Koongarah, and it was practically six months before the whole tribe was shot down; even then Koongarah escaped the White Man’s retribution. The last of his tribe, he was pursued for weeks on end amongst the mountains, and was finally cornered upon the crest of a mighty rock. His last spear transfixed a Trooper in the neck before Koongarah, yelling to death, sprang over the sheer edge of the rock, a three hundred feet drop, to be self-impaled upon the pine trees in the chasm. Those pine trees still gleam in the midday sun at the foot of Koongarah Rock; and Tay Wah’s grave, a mound of earth, lies by Tawah Creek — empty, because later he was taken on a bone-ship to be interred with his ancestors by the Yang-Tse-Kiang.

But the early sheep-raising days departed, and with them the Chinese shepherds, when that strange herb, speargrass, crept into the district. The little spear-seeds worked their way through the fat wool of the sheep, into their livers, killing them. So the sheep went, and tough-hided cattle came, and Chinese are no good with cattle; so the Chinese went, and the earliest historical days went, too, about eighty years ago . . .

Then gold was struck, suddenly and everywhere, in creeks and hills and on the rich alluvial flats where sheep had grazed, and the district flared into rowdy life. Cities of a thousand tents sprang up in a week at Paradise, and at Mount Shamrock, and at Quart Pot Creek, and these cities, where once life bustled and roared, while the diggers washed gold from the clean earth, are to-day silent and deserted no-man’s-land, the earth pock-marked and smothered in prickly pear, the virgin deflowered and abandoned. With the diggers more Chinks came, amongst them Willy Ah Foo, so many Chinks that they built a Joss-House, and walloped the Joss when the claims began to peter out, as a warning to Heaven that human tolerance only extends to propitiatory divine behaviour.

The Chinks did not booze their nuggets. They hoarded and went back to China when the gold petered out, opulent, to achieve a felicity more native to them than boozing in pubs. Only Willy Ah Foo remained, a derelict, the last Celestial left in our district, an industrious market-gardener, raising remarkable peanuts, and cabbages, and carrots, and parsnips, and eschalots, and lettuce, and turnips, and everything green and edible which industry closely applied to an half-acre of ground, can produce. It was said of Ah Foo that he would approach, quite innocently, the mistress of a house, at the back door, showing his baskets of vegetables, with the following vendor’s chant:

“Missee, av a pea,
Turneeyup, and lettucee?”

But this is probably apocryphal.

Now I think back, it must have seemed strange, where nature was so prodigal and men were so carelessly making free with nature’s resources, burning, chopping down, clearing thousands of acres of the bush for “settlement” — this queer little chinkie intensively cultivating one half-acre of the sprawling empty continent: applying to it, in fact, the agrarian technique of his age-old overfull land, not at all adapting himself to the task of plundering the land, like his neighbours the free-booting Europeans.

What if the Chinese had colonised Australia? Would they have wasted it as we did? Useless question, the Chinese did not in fact colonise Australia. We did. It lay at their door for centuries, but we came all the way round the earth and settled it. It was Englishmen and Irishmen and Scotchmen and Danes and Germans, hard-adventuring men, who opened the Continent like a bully-beef tin, and gobbled the contents. Sheep-stealers, poachers, agitators against the game-laws and the enclosure of Commons and the death of liberty, malcontents, idealists, the strongest blood in Europe and the most reckless, black sheep of the family, came or were sent, transported themselves or were transported to the farthest spot on the earth from Civilisation; freed from Europe’s restraints, freemen and freebooters, they took whatever came to hand lightly with a laugh and a curse, and with no thought for the future, no confidence in the past. These, sirs, are the Australians, and the best of them were killed in your stinking war to end war recently, and their like will not again be seen on the earth.

These were the roaring boys who chased the Chinese out of the continent: the Chinese who could not unlearn frugality; who hoarded, instead of boozing, their nuggets; who lived on rice and drank rice-water — and worked for a living wage. White Australia began in a drinking-song bellowed in pubs on the gold-fields and in townships

Rule, Britannia,
Britannia rule the Waves
No more Chinamen allowed
In New South Wales,

and we youngsters thought, therefore, that it was more than legitimate to steal the peanuts of Willy Ah Foo, because they were the peanuts of a Pong.

We were a mob, just like our elders. The Bulletin and the Worker used to come out in those days with front-page cartoons indicating the Yellow Peril peering over the Great Wall at Young Australia, with horrible, sly grimaces. Or the Great Wall would be a dam holding back the Yellow River from bursting on Young Australia, and always the Great Wall was labelled:


and the Labour Party came to maturity in Australia years ahead of anything similar in Europe, because White Australia was a great mob idea.

And so, as Willy Ah Foo was the only Yellow Peril left in our district, pressure was put upon him to clear out. The bushwhackers once forced him to get drunk in the township; then they tied him on an old grey horse, facing its tail, to trot up and down the street — a side-splitting sight, which, however, Willy Ah Foo enjoyed as much as anybody, being drunk for the first time in his life, and knowing nothing whatever about politics. And so we young lads, inspired by the example of our elders, formed a gang to operate against the Yellow Peril, by raiding Willy Ah Foo’s garden, at night, to secure his remarkable peanuts.

Young Bill O’Leary, son of Sergeant O’Leary, officer commanding the local Police Force, which consisted entirely of himself, was the leader of our gang. At least twice a week, o’ nights, we would crawl upon our bellies into the garden of Willy Ah Foo, to uproot his remarkable peanuts. Then, at last, Willy Ah Foo was moved to wrath, and one night, moonlight it was, when we crawled upon our raid, we saw Willy sitting immobile in the middle of his peanuts, watching. So we crawled back on a long detour and came silently into his garden behind his back, to steal what we could, breathing hardly at all lest he should turn from his immobility.

A twig cracked, and he sprang into the air like a jumping jack toy on a string, his pig-tail flying in the air, and — horror — a double-barrelled shot-gun in his hands. Perhaps he had been dozing, certainly he was more frightened than we were when the gun went off twice bang bang in the moonlight, and we scurried away like bandicoots into the bush.

But we were thoroughly frightened enough. Nobody was hurt, though the faces of all of us were chalky in the moonlight as we crept deviously to our sundry beds, escaping parental observation.

As for Willy Ah Foo, man of peace, unnerved by his vigil, frightened by the report of the shot-gun, more frightened still by our yells as we fled, just frightened of Australia, perhaps, that night, the Yellow Peril, he knocked trembling and incoherent at the police station just before dawn, and gabbled to a somnolent Sergeant O’Leary:

“Me shootee some feller my place!” So Sergeant O’Leary put Willy Ah Foo in the lockup, took charge of the incriminating gun which Ah Foo had brought for proof, and went to investigate. The whole township was aroused at dawn to form a search-party to look for the body, for Ah Foo, re-interrogated, could only repeat in a gabble of terror:

“Me shootee some feller, stealem my peanuts.”

No body was found, though several witnesses had heard the double report from Ah Foo’s direction early in the night, and there was the gun, obviously powder-blackened.

Things became serious. There was talk of lynching Ah Foo. Sergeant O’Leary was afraid to leave the lockup to organise a further search party in the Bush for the corpse. He called for special constables to guard the prisoner, but nobody reliable volunteered, only the leaders of the Lynch-the-Pong Movement; and Sergeant O’Leary, rifle in hand, back to the cell-door, stood ready to guard the law’s prey, saying simply:

“I’ll plug the first bastard of ye that makes a move.”

It was not until noon that Mrs. O’Leary intervened dramatically, screaming from the bedroom window of the Police Station across the police yard over the heads of the mob, to her husband at bay:

“Terence! Terence! It’s nothing at all at all!”

Heads turned upwards to scowl at her.

“It’s nothing at all at all, I’m tellin’ ye, ye pack o’ fools! It’s only the boys has been up to monkey tricks sthealin’ the peanuts frum the Chinkymon; and none of them’s hurt. Young Bill here’s just told me all about it, and a gr-r-reat hidin’ I’ll give the young scallawag for sthealin’ out of his bed by noight!”

Her head withdrew into the black recesses of the room while these meaningful words were penetrating the intelligence of the bushwhackers in the yard; and soon tragedy had dissolved into a roaring farce as the first methodical whack whack whack of a strap across young Bill’s bottom resounded in the heated air. Already on the outskirts of the crowd, six other youngsters, pale with a newer tangible fear, were beginning to run, tails between legs, for figurative kennels.

The mob began to move pub-wards as Sergeant O’Leary, swinging open the cell-door, shook the quite speechless Pong to his feet, delivered an Irish kick to a yellow posterior, and said, violently:


Next day Willy Ah Foo got. He left our township never to return again, never realising what had happened; actually, it seems, grateful to Sergeant O’Leary for saving him from the retribution of justice, because, years later, a teak box from Shanghai came addressed by post to Sergeant O’Leary. The box contained a gift of the rarest silk, but there was no letter accompanying it, and no indication of the sender, and most probably Willy Ah Foo sent it, we all agreed.

P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, [1929], pp. 36-50

Editor’s notes:
somnolent = drowsy, sleepy

the war to end war = a phrase that refers to World War One (also rendered as “the war to end all wars”)

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