More than a Chinese Teacher
Written by Christopher Cheng
Since the emergence of local born Chinese (ABCs) in Australia, one of the biggest concerns of their parents was how to pass on the ancestral language and culture to the next generation. Where possible, children were brought back to China for education. But when this was not possible, opening a Chinese school in Australia was considered a viable option. Again, securing qualified teachers was another challenge. Given these obstacles, I must admit I was lucky to have grown up in Cairns in the 1990s, where there was a Chinese community school, and more importantly, we had a dedicated teacher named Mr. Chee Hong Loh, or Luó lǎoshī (羅老師) in Mandarin.
During the week, Mr. Loh taught at a public school. His work however didn’t end on the weekends. On Sundays, he taught children in the Cairns community, many of whom were of Chinese descent. Although I may not have appreciated it much at the time (waking up extra early on Sunday mornings), Mr. Loh’s classes did not only introduce us to the intricacies of Chinese characters, but also opened our eyes to an appreciation of an ancient, exotic culture far from a largely western society in Cairns. Mind you, this was something my parents couldn’t do, even if they wanted to: They simply didn’t have the time, patience, or qualifications to do it. So, it took a university-educated educator, originally from Malaysia, speaking English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, to fill this key role.
After language class, Mr. Loh also held lion dance workshops. A small group of boys, including Mickey Kehoe, Hugh Hayward, and myself, watched videos of competitions, often in Malaysia, then we went on to practise basic kung fu stances. Throughout the year, Mr. Loh and his wife Jenny accompanied us, watching, and performing at various multicultural events around Cairns. Often Mr. Loh served as our driver and was also the drummer. If it wasn’t for these performances, I would probably never have visited as many places in Cairns as I had as a child. With my mother often working overtime, this exposure helped me to know my hometown as well as to gain an appreciation of my ethnic heritage. Much later, the destination of my first solo holiday to China would be to none other than Fat-san (佛山), Guangdong. This was the home of martial arts, and where lion dance remains a defining part of the local culture. My fascination with my cultural heritage obviously never went away, even after I first learned pinyin and how to write characters in Sunday school. The time spent with Mr. Loh in Cairns during my formative years would have a profound impact on my young adult life as well as my chosen career.
As we mourn his passing, I am still coming to terms with Mr. Loh’s larger-than-life influence on my life. Little did I know that when I first started Chinese and lion dancing lessons as a primary school kid decades ago, Mr. Loh’s appreciation for our heritage would one day rub off onto me, and this curiosity would sow seeds for my future travel in south China and a research career that revolved around documenting cultural heritage. Outside of teaching, Mr. Loh devoted his attention to community radio, instigating the Cantonese and Mandarin programme, where he broadcasted a variety of popular and classic songs. In fact, as I write this reflection, Mr. Loh’s distinctive chatty, Malaysian-accented English is already being missed. What is also clear is that Mr. Loh was much more than a Chinese teacher, he played an irreplaceable role in fostering cultural appreciation for the Chinese in Cairns, including among the ABCs.
4 July 2022
Cairns Victory Celebrations, June 1946. Photographer: Neil Brearley Mitchell
Cairns & District Chinese
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