I live at the edge of a small town, overlooking an immaculate beach. Every morning, before my 10-year-old son wakes, I swim in the sea. At dawn, the untouched sand glistens pink. As I enter the water, the rising sun casts little blue-green jewels through the waves. My studio is attached to my house, and this routine has become an essential function of my creative practice: a conceptual transition from home to work.
But then, one morning last week, I was caught in a rip.
The realisation came not violently, but by degrees: I couldn’t return to the water’s edge. Pulled out to sea, my rational mind scattered with rising dread. At the crest of each wave, I scanned the familiar expanse of shoreline. It was, as always, empty. Enclosed by trees, a beautiful landscape, mockingly serene.
I spent half an hour in deep water, fighting the thump and suck of each successive wave. In the long, final minutes, having decided that I was going to die, my efforts to reach the shore were of wild animal desperation.
And so, inevitably, I’ve been thinking about the sea.
My Great Grandfather, Phillip Jo Chun, crossed this same ocean, reaching Australia in 1900. The most direct and compelling account of his escape from China are the words he spoke to his daughter, Violet, which she recorded for posterity on the back page of a family cookbook:
“Daddy came on an old woman who told him his photo was pasted all over the town. It was unsafe to go through. If he only waited until night, he could pass as one of her boys, who used to go fishing.
He got safely past that place then, and after other narrow escapes, he came to the River Yangtze. A man dressed as a Chinese came to him and said, “is this your photo?”. His heart went down into his boots, thinking he had been caught. He answered yes.
Then the man, seeing Daddy shaking with fear, said that he had come to save him. The man was English, and had brought his boat up the river flying the Chinese flag. Otherwise, he would never have been allowed up the river.
So that’s how Daddy got out. Finally, some years later, he reached Australia.”
Apart from a bout of illness in New Guinea, little more is known about my Great Grandfather’s journey. In Australia, he was granted asylum as a political refugee. The name ‘Phillip Jo Chun’ was an alias he adopted upon arrival to conceal himself; to obscure the fact of his passage from the bloody disarray of the Boxer Uprising to Sydney’s Chinatown.
From the moment he set foot in Australia, he never revealed his original name. Not to Emily Griffin – the young woman he would court at the Sydney Seaman’s Mission and eventually marry – nor to any of their six children. Cyril and Violet, Jo Chun’s eldest children, spent their later years trying unsuccessfully to discover his true identity. My own Grandfather, Malcolm Chun, a formidable boxer and preacher, inherited his father’s square features, severe cheekbones, and wiry, muscular physique. I remember Malcolm’s brown forearms, as he neared his hundredth birthday in the early 2000s, with veins as thick as rope.
Clouded, as it was, by the man’s own secrecy, Jo Chun’s story has been further obscured by the myth-making and anti-intellectualism of his conservative Christian descendants. As a lens, religious fundamentalism bends the mind towards the simplest and most redemptive narrative. It flattens complexity, carving a blunt moral binary from even the messiest of human stories.
In truth, Jo Chun’s tale was neither simple nor redemptive. Australia was not safe harbour. While that expanse of the North Pacific separating my Great Grandfather from his old life in China afforded him a measure of protection, it seems he remained consumed by an unrelenting terror. According to Malcolm, Jo Chun would hide his six children in a cupboard before answering any knock at the door. The Empress Dowager Cixi, my Great Grandfather warned, would be just as happy to murder his eldest son.
Jo Chun’s paranoia seems not to have been without cause. He was, at least once, kidnapped by Chinese operatives in Australia. Presumably, this was an attempt to return him forcibly to the homeland – to what fate we can only speculate. Drugged, and dragged as far as the dockyards, he was rescued from his abductors by a friend named ‘Byer'.
Later, my Great Grandfather was known to carry a revolver. He also kept the company of a bodyguard, a mysterious figure known to the family only as ‘Mr Cook’. According to family lore, Jo Chun’s life ended by pistol shot on the streets of Chinatown.
Like the notion of safe harbour, Jo Chun’s supposed adjacency to whiteness was little more than illusory. To the British Empire, in its violent plundering and attempted colonisation of China, my Great Grandfather’s rescue from the Yangtze would have been a mere political expedience. In 1881, prior to his arrival, the New South Wales’ colonial Parliament had passed the ‘Influx of Chinese Restriction Act’. Newspaper editorials, articles and cartoons caricatured Chinese people as untrustworthy, immoral, disease-ridden and squalid. While Chinese women were fetishised under the British settler’s gaze, Chinese men were seen as conduits to the underworld of the opium den – a constant threat to the virtue of white women.
Within a year of Jo Chun’s arrival, the racial apartheid of White Australia Policy – inseparable from the act of Federation – was being formally imposed on stolen land. The Policy was a brutal program of state-run eugenics and state-sanctioned violence, aimed at preserving the purity of the white British ‘race’. Not officially dismantled until the 1970s, this policy continues – under the guise of ‘border security’ – to the present day. Another enduring horror of White Australia Policy, the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, was still occurring into the 1980s, and continues today through police and carceral racism.
Indeed, Jo Chun’s country of refuge, no less than China, had been in a state of occupation – a state of war – since 1788. The Frontier Wars, however, would be carefully and deliberately excluded from Australia’s history books, memorials and public rituals.
To white Australia, the sea remains a membrane of fiction and anxiety. In the mythology of the settler, it is an essential narrative device: an impossible expanse of water conquered; an uninhabited continent discovered; a shoreline penetrated. Once claimed and colonised, the continent’s border becomes a fundamental idea. Girt, as it were, by this conceptual barrier, the settler fancies himself distinct from Asia and entirely separate from the Pacific: a satellite European nation.
From this flimsy and nonsensical vantage, the settler’s new ocean boundary calcifies; is weaponised. Who, now, is allowed to arrive by sea? Whose ancient maritime trade routes are outlawed? Whose stolen bones are trafficked? Who is brought to this shore by force; abducted and enslaved? Who is forced to leave; deported or turned back? Who, while fleeing the settler’s new wars of imperialism, is imprisoned indefinitely, tortured offshore? And who, by force or negligence, is left to drown?
Exceptional amongst my wider family is my mother’s cousin Robyn, daughter of Jo and Emily’s eldest son, Cyril. Aunty Robyn has maintained a comparatively academic interest in the life of Jo Chun for over 35 years, having his letters translated from their original dialect, and collecting the oral histories of his children. Despite her best efforts, the details of my Great Grandfather’s early life in China – and his precise role during the Boxer Uprising – remain unclear. However, from Aunty Robyn’s research we can mention a few compelling details:
The man who would become Phillip Jo Chun spent his childhood in a home surrounded by water: a moat and drawbridge. He owned a white horse which he learned to ride as a boy. He was a skilled swordsman and a scholar. He spoke 18 dialects.
Jo Chun became a member of the Baohuang Hui, The Chinese Empire Reform Association (or, in its literal translation, the ‘Society to Protect the Emperor’) which, at the time of his escape, was attempting to engineer an armed uprising against the Empress Dowager Cixi. The Baohuang Hui aimed to return power to the Guangxu Emperor, deposed by Cixi in a coup d'etat in 1898. Preemptively, the Empress purged her political enemies. Many were beheaded, imprisoned or driven into exile. Aunty Robyn believes that Jo Chun’s brother was one of the so-called Six Gentlemen of Wuxu, a group of Chinese intellectuals who were arrested and executed by Cixi for their attempts to implement the Hundred Days' Reform.
In other stories, my Great Grandfather witnessed, participated in, or led atrocities. Family elders speak of razed villages, of massacres. Aunty Cheryl, one of my Mother’s four sisters, lowers her voice and purses her lips as she describes infants skewered on spears and held aloft to terrorise survivors. China in the late 1800s was a site of widespread brutality and relentless horror; exacerbated by drought, internal political upheaval, emerging regional warlords and, of course, the intrusion of European imperialism. In Australian Government documentation it is noted that Jo Chun’s forehead bore a significant scar.
Less ambiguous is the familial pattern of mental illness, etched through generations; a glaring seam of trauma leading backwards to the figure of my Great Grandfather. And beyond? We cannot know them, but nor can we shake their influence: this ocean’s depth of invisible ancestors, an endless fractal recursion, tumbling into prehistory, indelibly scarring our very DNA.
If the figure of Jo Chun appears indistinct, various artefacts spread amongst the remaining elders provide some tangible form to my family’s mysterious patriarch. This scattered archive of my Great Grandfather’s belongings includes:
His disembodied queue (a good metre-and-a-half of black, plaited hair), severed upon arrival in Australia.
A metal pendant of the Baohuang Hui.
Opium scales, old Chinese coins, letters.
The changshan tunic and vest he wore on his journey to Australia, now brittle with age (I imagine it still holds some imperceptible fragrance, the remnant spice of his homeland and the salt of his ocean passage).
In Australia, Jo Chun wrote for the Tung Wah Times (published from 1901 to 1936), a politically ideological mouthpiece of the Baohuang Hui. In Chinatown, he would frequent an ‘upstairs room’ on Dixon Street and an herbalist on Eddy Avenue. He learnt the trade of cabinet making, and worked for the furniture manufacturer Loo Lee & Co. My family still possesses a cabinet made by Jo Chun, with hidden drawers. Inside the cabinet, a simple four-letter name has been inscribed: the aforementioned ‘Byer’.
In 1938, in a type-written response to my family’s enquiries, the Commonwealth Investigations Services (a precursor to ASIO) claimed to have found ‘no trace’ of Mr Cook. They did confirm, however, that Jo Chun was ‘in the habit of being taken’ to visit the Treasuries of both state and federal Australian governments.
As the First World War began, Jo Chun lost his job with Loo Lee & Co. In October 1916, he was registered under the ‘War Precautions (Alien Registration) Regulation’, a mechanism of White Australia Policy. My Great Grandfather’s tattered ‘Alien Registration Card’, too, remains in my family’s possession.
During pandemic lockdown, my sister Mell organised a large group video meeting, inviting the older members of our wider family to compare notes on our shared history. Mell hoped that some solid truths could be collectively discerned from the remaining puzzle pieces: half-remembered, anecdotal, legendary, apocryphal.
At some point during this meeting, someone casually suggested that, by show of hands, we might indicate who amongst us is ‘still walking with the Lord’ (and who, by omission, is not). In the pixelated thumbnail, I try to catch my sister’s eye. Amongst a wider family of invariably devout fundamentalists, our anti-religiosity is unique.
Much like our godlessness, our relentless criticism of the Australian state is seen as a distinct ingratitude. “I’m afraid I can’t share your sentiments”, scolds an aunt, “If Australia had not granted asylum to Grandfather Chun, he wouldn't have survived to be our progenitor. We therefore would not have existed”.
Herein lies an essential problem of Australian nationalism: it can never be more than the celebration of one’s personal fortune. It requires that we wilfully ignore the dispossession and exclusion of others; the suffering from which a measure of benefit has been extracted. It requires our complicity.
For a migrant family enjoying the small, arbitrary privileges of a historical moment, this can be a difficult moral calculation. Difficult, that is, until the full context – the historic and ongoing atrocity of the Australian state – is understood.
Over the years, considering the scarcity of evidence and the conflicting narratives, I’ve repeatedly postponed the writing of my Great Grandfather’s story. I’ve been reluctant, for these same reasons, to produce artwork on that theme. Perhaps my recent, visceral reckoning with the sea – and with my own mortality – has created a greater sense of urgency. Perhaps too, at a certain point, a family’s lore becomes no less material than its truths.
And perhaps, in telling our own histories, we can never truly be historians. To write objectively of one’s own family is to figuratively (and sometimes literally) leave a religious order. It is to step outward from the shadows of one chapel or another, upon an arbitrary moment, across a certain dusty threshold and into blinding daylight. It is then to squint back over one’s own shoulder, to discern, through fog of distance, those strange rites, inscrutable objects and skewed chronologies; at once familiar and utterly incomprehensible, even as they fade from view.
Of course, you wish you had spoken frankly with those who kept a handful of secrets before they died. But who can blame you? You were only a child. And, in any case, they may easily have lied.
Eventually, somewhat miraculously, I reached the shore and collapsed on the wet sand in a paralysis of exhaustion. I remained there in heaving spasms of residual panic, the ocean’s edge slapping rhythmically at my feet, until my body recovered the strength to vomit seawater.
Half-crawling through the narrow stretch of wetlands, I reached home only moments before a scheduled video meeting between National Museum Australia and a New York-based design firm, at which I was to discuss my collaboration on a new project. I quickly washed the salt, sand and vomit from my face, threw on a shirt, hugged my sleepy son tightly, opened my laptop and said “good morning”.
Since then, I might have expected to feel a survivor’s relief. Yet, even now, the experience remains dormant in my limbs and lungs, a corporeal fear that jerks open, crashing upwards unexpectedly into consciousness – especially when trying to sleep.
And so, rather than resist it, I’ve been thinking about the sea – this shifting, permeable edge – and about the boundaries it delineates, both real and imagined.
Editor's Note: For this article, Matt Chun recorded the video and soundscape footage opposite his home and studio on unceded Yuin land, August 2021. Click the play button at the top of this page to activate the sound. Chun features in 4A Papers Issue#10 as a follow-up to his participation in 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art's 2019 Emerging Writers Program.
About the contributor
Matt Chun is an artist and writer based on Yuin land, also dividing his time between Narrm Melbourne and Taipei Taiwan.