I have just finished writing my historical novel, Stone of Heaven and Earth. This story is largely based on the real lives of my grandparents in China, and spans the years 1914 to 1929. I never met my Grandfather, but remember being told their story as a child. Their life together was one of the highest of highs, and abysmal tragedy.
I was able to draw on two memoirs written by my mother and my aunt. I also had a couple of letters, but the actual details were lost over the years.
Before I could start writing, I needed to know some details so that I could bring to life the characters of my story. It took me many, many hours, but I remember a rush of warmth flowing through me when I found my Grandmother and her sister’s name in the passenger list in the Brisbane Courier dated 22 June 1914. No one in the family knew the name of the ship they left Brisbane on. I felt like I had dug up a long forgotten treasure chest when I discovered the ship was the Tasman from the KMP Line, captained by Captain Lucardie. From that moment on, I felt like I was holding my Grandmother’s hand and she was leading me along the journey.
I went with her in my mind. I heard her voice, saw her eyes and her smile. Shed tears with her, and fell in love with my Grandfather with her.
A month spent in China retracing, as best I could, their footsteps, helped me to understand why they loved China, a very exotic land, especially a hundred years ago.
As I walked along the Bund in Shanghai, I knew that my Grandfather had walked there too, on his way to work at the Customs House which still stands proud on the Bund. In my story, I have both my Grandmother and Grandfather walking along that very place, talking to each other, falling in love.
|My Grandfather, Oliver Clark, holding my mother aged nearly two|
|Jack and Annie, Oliver and Darl about 1915|
At one stage of the writing process, I felt that the research was distracting me from the job at hand, but I know that I now have an intimate knowledge of the lives and times of these special people. The internet pointed me in the direction of Professor Robert Bickers at the Bristol University in England. He has done a major study of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, my Grandfather’s employer. He sent me the service record of my Grandfather, and even searched for his tombstone, but alas it does not now exist.
Research has given me back my Grandparents, who I am sure are both very happy with my story, as I can feel them with me, and they are smiling.
|Passenger list for Misses Houston, KPM Line 'Tasman' 20th June 1914|
|Dining Room of the Astor House Hotel|
|The Shanghai Bund, circa 1915. The Customs House is centre of picture, with a clock tower and flag flying|
|Map showing the foreign concessions in Shanghai|