With an influx of new flights from China to Cairns, it's time to not only welcome new Chinese tourists and the value they will have for the Cairns economy, but also to take a look back on the history of the Chinese people in Cairns, who have made the tropics their home.
For local Chinese herbalist Ken Wong, Cairns has been his home for more than 50 years, and he welcomed the city that joins rainforest and Reef from the start.
“Ever since I arrived, Cairns has been the only place for me because of the people, the climate, and because it is so close to the sea and to the mountains,” Ken says.
“Feng Shui is very important to us.”
Ken moved to Cairns from Hong Kong to join his father, also a Chinese herbalist, from whom he learned his business.
He married Christine and the couple have three children, a grandson and another grandchild on the way this Christmas.
“In Hong Kong, we used to be neighbours,” Ken says. “I was on the third floor. She was on the second.
“When you are young you don’t talk to girls.”
Ken says his parents were very strict and it was expected that he marry a Chinese girl.
“You have to be traditional or you won’t get the good tucker you want,” Ken says, laughing.
“Most of my relatives are restaurateurs and my wife says, ‘how come all your brothers can cook and you don’t’.”
Times have changed, though, and Ken says his family has adapted to life in Australia.
“Here it’s an open country, so it’s up to my children who they marry,” he says. “It’s more multicultural.”
Some traditions, however, never change. Ken, who studied with his father, and began by helping him mix herbs, has a Chinese herbalist shop in Manoora, which he runs with the help of his wife.
Upon entering the foyer, one sees a small hatch through which Chinese medicine is dispensed, and even while closed, the aroma of fresh herbs wafts on the air, seemingly through walls.
Ken has an office where he sees customers.
Sometimes they come with specific ailments and he diagnoses a cure. Other times they might not know what is wrong and rely on Ken’s expert eye.
He can understand a variety of maladies by some quick diagnostic techniques; by taking the pulse or looking at a person’s tongue to examine its colour and coating.
Behind the office door sits a room filled with bags of herbs. Angelica, liquorice, rhubarb, crocus and hawthorn jostle for space in bags and rows with herbs that are named in Chinese and have no English equivalent.
Behind a table are drawers of herbs described in Chinese on their fronts. Ken still writes his scripts in Chinese for his Chinese patients, although the majority of his customers are of Australian or European descent.
The herbs are measured, ground with a mortar and pestle, in mysterious concoctions to the uninitiated.
“Some of the seeds you crush to make them better and bring out the goodness,” Ken explains. “People cook them and drink them.
“There is a set formula (for different ailments) and then you add and subtract.
“You learn what to add and subtract.”
This time of year, Ken says people come to him suffering from heat problems, with arthritis and gastric reflux, and with problems of the stomach or liver.
“Some people want their body cleaned out before Christmas and want help with herbs,” he says.
He says Chinese herbal medicine has become increasingly popular through his years of practise, particularly in the past 15 years.
“People are looking for more natural therapy,” Ken says.
Keeping Chinese traditions alive is not only important to Ken as a family man but also in his role as president of The Cairns and District Chinese Association.
“Especially Chinese New Year,’’ Ken says. “We do the cleaning before New Year’s Day and give the lai see (red packets that contain money) to the younger ones.”
Cleaning the family home is meant to clear away any ill fortune and make way for new luck in the New Year.
The association is extending its Chinese New Year celebrations, which feature lion dancing, to create a street festival.
Ken estimates there are about 2000 local Chinese families in the region.
“The population goes up and down a lot as the younger generation go to university down south and don’t come back,” Ken explains.
“We still speak Chinese at home.
“I am teaching my grandson Cantonese.”
Another festival that is being kept alive by the Chinese community is the Mid Autumn Moon Festival.
“It is celebrated a lot at restaurants,” Ken says. “We have mooncakes and a party.”
Mooncakes consist of lotus seed with egg yolk.
“We got a big one this year with eight yolks,” Ken says.
It’s not the type of food that could be eaten all year round. Ken says his family doesn’t stick to traditional fare in everyday life but eats “everything and anything”.
“We try Italian and have traditional Australian food,” he says.
Ken and Christine have family back in China and have welcomed the new flights from China Eastern that began on Wednesday that will allow them to return to their old country more often.
“We go back every year or every two years but we want to see our family more because they are getting older,” Ken says. “The new flights will help.”
It also will keep Ken and his family more in touch with their cultural heritage.
“We can venture into more of China because there is a lot to see,” Ken says. “We have been to Shanghai and Beijing, but you can’t go often because you have to change flights.
“Now there are direct flights, it makes it a lot easier.”
Recently Ken visited the Great Wall of China and it had a huge impact on him.
“We walked the Great Wall and went to The Forbidden City,” Ken says. “You could sense the real history of China.
“You feel like an emperor when you walk the Great Wall.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.’’
For more information on The Chinese Community in Cairns and upcoming cultural events, visit www.cadcai.com.au.
More flights, from China Southern, will commence on December 18.
Ken Wong’s herbalist shop is at 11/146-156 Anderson St, Manoora, ph: 4032 3688.
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Chinese herbalist Ken Wong, who has lived in Cairns for more than 50 years, with his wife Christine. photo // anna rogers