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Christopher W. Cheng,

New Gold Mountain / The Diary of Shu Cheong / Lambing Flat, NSW, 1860-1861
Scholastic Australia, 2005.

 Ages 10+

Lambing Flat, New South Wales, Australia: the focus of a gold-rush in the 1860s; the focus of whole families', whole villages' hopes and aspirations for the future, from all over the world, including China.  Shu Cheong had set off on the arduous journey with his father and uncle hoping to bring back wealth for their village - but they had both died and along with enduring the hardships of daily life, Shu Cheong now carries the burden of guilt that he was not able to send his father's body home. By adhering stoically to his duty, he seals his own fate: he cannot return home without his father's body, therefore he will never return home.  And so it is understood that he will stay in Australia and be a forefather of today's Australians, who can now read his story as part of this (factional) book series My Australian Story.  Shu Cheong is placed under the guardianship of a new 'uncle' who teaches him to write, both in Chinese and in English.  The diary begins as an exercise of rather stilted self-expression and ends as a vent for Shu Cheong's reactions against the events unfolding around him.  For on the goldfields, he is caught up in a horror-story of escalating racial hatred.

Relations between the 'Big-Nose'  European miners and the Chinese are strained from the start. Then, as more people come flooding in and space gets tighter, the tensions break into violent outbursts against the Chinese, who live in constant fear of being attacked.  Cheng deftly weaves historical events into Shu Cheong's story.  He uses the diary genre convincingly so that banal statements about the weather or his daily rountine, which nevertheless vividly convey the daily grind of camp life, are set alongside the concerns and questions of a young boy caught up in these events outside his control. 

This is not a read for the faint-hearted - there is no letting up in the horrors of the situation and the only redeeming feature is that certain individual figures do emerge from the racist throng - but only a few.  The message of hope comes at the end when Shu Cheong finds out that his 'secret' friendship with Jeremy, the son of a European miner, was not so secret after all.  As always, it is up to the next generation to learn from the mistakes of their ancestors and in this story, both Shu Cheong himself and young Jeremy move on without hatred in their hearts: a model for readers today who look around them and can see examples of racial intolerance - and of those who fight it.

Marjorie Coughlan
November 2006

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