Showing posts with label Mook Fruit Shop Hamilton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mook Fruit Shop Hamilton. Show all posts

Friday, 30 August 2013

Hamilton Chinese - the Mook Family

'I could wrap you up in newspaper and there wouldn’t be a gap anywhere!'

This somewhat startling skill comes from working in Mook’s Fruit Shop after school in 1960s Hamilton. Along with wielding an alarming knife to slice up the tough Queensland Blue pumpkins, it is one of the many skills of Teresa Purnell.

'So who are the other Chinese who came to Hamilton in the earliest days?' I ask Teresa.

'We are the Hamilton Chinese', is the rapid reply.

Talk to anyone interested in Hamilton’s multicultural and commercial past, and the name of Phyllis Mook comes up.

Phyllis is mother to Teresa Purnell and Stephen Lee. With her brother Aubrey, she was an integral part of the family’s businesses. Famously though, she was perhaps Newcastle’s best known Jitterbug star. She danced this frenetic precursor of “the jive” at the Palais Royale dance hall in Newcastle, where she was also a championship roller skater.

Phyllis Mook as  young woman, dancing the Jitterbug
Photograph from the personal collection of Teresa Purnell

Demolished in 2008 (read more here)  this iconic building was the place to be in the 1950s – 'the size was overwhelming, and no other venue in Newcastle could match its grandeur,' writes Brooke Bannister for ABC Newcastle.[1]

It is Phyllis’s daughter Teresa whom I first meet to learn about this family that everyone seems to know. Later, Teresa’s cousin Michael Mook, Aubrey’s son, contacts me to fill in some gaps.

'Phyllis was a human dynamo', Teresa tells me. 'She ran everywhere!'

And wherever Phyllis danced, the crowds came.

A couple of years before she died (in 2009, aged 82), Phyllis participated in consultations led by Newcastle Museum curator Julie Baird. They were held to capture the memories and stories of Hamilton for what is now a fascinating Museum exhibition on the history of Beaumont Street. A performer to the end, Phyllis stood and began to speak to the group. After a few minutes, she stopped, and queried, “Is this interesting....?” The reply was in the entranced faces of her listeners. “Go on! Go on!”

Siblings Teresa Purnell and Stephen Lee at the Newcastle Museum.
The panel is part of an exhibition on Beaumont Street. It shows Stephen as a young boy and describes some of the Mook family's story.
Photograph from the personal collection of Teresa Purnell

It is tempting to get carried away with tales about Phyllis, and I am going to resist, at least for now.

This story of the Mook family starts in Darwin, in the late 1800s. Phyllis’s parents were George and Mary.

Mary Mook’s father was Jen Pen Chin Chong, who migrated to Darwin from the New Territories, Hong Kong. His family were believed to be business people, with a background in shops and finance. Jen Pen Chin Chong’s wife, Florence Fan Gow, had arrived in Australia when she was only 15 years old.

Mary was born in Darwin in 1899. Years later, her family moved from Darwin to Sydney, where she met and married George Mook.  George’s family was believed to have come from the south of mainland China. George and Mary had a tobacco plantation – and a car! - at Quirindi. Son, Aubrey, was born in 1921 and daughter Phyllis was born in 1926.

It was a chance holiday in Newcastle that changed the course of the Mook’s life. They loved it, and decided to stay.

George must have felt there would be a better future for his family if he tried something different. The first Mook family fruit and vegetable shop was opened in 1928 at 37 Beaumont Street, Hamilton. The young family lived behind the shop.

Gourmet Goose deli, on the site of the first Mook fruit shop (2014)
37 Beaumont Street, Hamilton
Photograph Craig Smith

This was the eve of the Great Depression, which began in 1929. Though they were just starting out themselves, the Mook family was generous to those customers who were struggling. People in need would always receive something extra slipped into their bag.

George Mook could also turn his hand to cooking. This hints at the multi-skilled person he was to become.A  willingness to work at very different jobs, to seize opportunities wherever they presented, and to take a risk, would prove critical for George. He prospered.

In 1935, the Depression over, George opened another fruit and vegetable shop at 93 Beaumont Street.

The Mook Fruit Shop at 93 Beaumont Street (1946)
Photograph courtesy of the Newcastle Museum

Redeveloped shops at 91-95 Beaumont Street in 2014
The date 1946 is on the building
Photograph by Craig Smith

In the 1940s George Mook continued to expand, buying and remodelling the shops at 91, 93 and 95 Beaumont Street. The fruit shop at 93a was a family affair, with everyone contributing. Aubrey gradually took on the management, putting in 12 hour days going early to the markets, arranging deliveries, managing wages and accounts.

Interior of Steel Street fruit and vegetable markets, Newcastle (1972) 
Photograph by K G Edwards, courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

Aubrey and his wife Jean had two sons, Michael (born 1951), and Sonny, from Jean’s previous marriage. Jean, a keen reader with a good knowledge of contemporary literature, opened a bookshop at 91 Beaumont Street.

Aubrey and Jean Mook

Photograph from the personal collection of Zita Devlin

It was here that Teresa remembers growing up, in the two flats above the shop – one
occupied by her grandparents, the other where Teresa, her mother and brother lived. Her grandparents George and Mary had a large part to play in Teresa’s and Stephen’s upbringing, as their father had left the family when Teresa was 5 years old. 

Phyllis was a single mother.

One of her favourite sayings was “While ever you’ve got a brain and two hands, you can survive!”

Like many children of migrant extended families, Teresa learned early about helping out in the family business, and hard work.

Most of the fruit and vegetables sold in the shop came from the Steel Street markets in Newcastle. Wooden boxes were levered open with the corner of a tomahawk, and used again and again. Flax plants were grown on the family owned farms at Sandgate and Dora Creek, to tie up bunches of greens such as spinach and shallots. Everything was recycled. Donations of newspapers were left on the footpath outside the shop, to be used for wrapping customer purchases.

The cool room out the back was a haven for young Teresa and Stephen in Newcastle’s humid summers. Teresa remembers inhaling the pungent aromas of mangoes and peaches, perhaps lingering there longer than she was supposed to.

While potatoes, pumpkins, bananas, pineapples and tomatoes continue as our staples today, the marrows and hubbard squash sold by the Mooks have disappeared. Avocados and Asian greens were still to come.

Staff in Mook's Fruit Shop (n.d.)
Photograph from the personal collection of Teresa Purnell

Although there were men in her life from time to time, Phyllis's father George was always 'the one'. He was a complex and intriguing character, a man of many parts.

Respected in the community, he nevertheless engaged in some practices that today might be seen as 'on the edge.'

Racing and betting were part of the family. An illegal 'starting price' betting ring was run by Mary in the large concrete yard behind the shop. As a small girl, Phyllis had the job of 'cockatoo' or lookout for police. The Newcastle Museum Exhibition on Beaumont Street documents the time she was distracted by her new puppy, and accidentally opened the door to the police. Her mother was fined as a result.

A selection from the Beaumont Street Exhibition
at the Newcastle Museum
Photograph from the personal collection of Teresa Purnell

Teresa remembers a weekly phone call, at which her grandfather George would disappear to Sydney on the train. A bet would be placed, and he would return with his jacket pockets 'stuffed with cash'. Arrangements would be made for the police to meet him and accompany him safely home.

George was urbane, always well groomed. Teresa recalls a softly spoken man, silver grey hair perfectly combed; smooth unblemished skin, with the lilac-and-honeysuckle scent of California Poppy hair oil about him.

'He knew things,' Teresa tells me, 'like a shaman. He was diabetic. He boiled up corn silk – those silky threads clinging to the cob – they were supposed to be good for blood sugar. He called me “Ahmoy” – Little One. "You are Number One", he would say'.

George Mook (1928)
A keen racegoer, George looked dapper in banker’s tweed or pinstripe
The corrugated iron behind is the back of the Roxy Theatre, now demolished
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum

Grandson Michael Mook remembers George’s wife Mary as ‘a firebrand’, someone who never hesitated to express herself if she saw something that was wrong and displeased her.

When she raised her voice, the place trembled!’ Michael writes. ‘Yet underneath there was kindness and a generous spirit…it was an unusual marriage, as Mary and George were emotional opposites’.

With his expertise as a cook, George Mook opened the Chung Hing Cafe, opposite the Palais Royale in Hunter Street. Its predecessor, the Oriental Cafe, had been the first Chinese restaurant in Newcastle. Before the advent of take away containers, customers brought their own pots. At times the queue outside the Chung Hing extended down Hunter Street, as people lined up for take way Chinese food. It must have been good!

Here, Aubrey was the hands-on manager, buying produce and doing the books. Michael Mook spent many hours sitting behind the counter as a young child, and says of his father:

Aubrey was well known and respected in the Hamilton community. He was what you would call ‘a man’s man’ and never displayed fear. This I feel he got from my grandfather. As a trained boxer, Aubrey was adept at dispatching drunks and trouble makers who entered the café intoxicated from the pub a few doors down’.

The Chung Hing wound up sometime in the mid 1950s, and the family focused on the fruit and vegetable businesses.

Teresa remembers as a tiny two year old, struggling to wield a broom, sweeping the pavement outside the Chung Hing café. In this environment of determination, focus and hard work, Teresa absorbed strong family values. Her list goes like this:

A strong work ethic

Do a good day’s work

Honesty – never lie

Get a good education

The ‘Golden Rule’ – do unto others....

The home that Teresa grew up in was very different from that of her well to do friends at Newcastle Girls High.

 ‘We used newspaper for a tablecloth, because Chinese food is messy’, she explains. ‘That’s where business talk happened, around the table, and the news was always there in front of us’

When Teresa's school friends visited the small flats above the fruit and vegetable shop, salted fish might be seen hanging on the washing lines to dry. Or George might be making Chinese sausages in the backyard with whiskey and saltpetre. “It’s like something out of West Side Story!” her friends would exclaim.

I ask Teresa what was it like, growing up Chinese in Hamilton in the 1950s. Apart from the occasional taunt in primary school, she recalls little racism. 'Everyone was from somewhere else, anyway,' she says.

'A party in the cemetery!' Teresa’s friends would marvel, when she described family visits to the graves of relatives. Bearing a small roast suckling pig, bread rolls, cordial, sweets and fruit, the Mook family would settle in around a makeshift altar  in the cemetery rotunda, burning joss sticks, setting off firecrackers, and of course, feasting.

Joss sticks
Photograph courtesy of

'We were taught to look after our ancestors, and they will look after us,' says Teresa. 'And that has proven true,' she adds, 'especially since Mum died.'

Like many migrants, George Mook wanted be closer to his homeland late in life. Thus, with Mary, he left Hamilton around 1960 for Hong Kong, dying there in 1969. Afterwards, Mary did not stay on, but rejoined her family in Hamilton.
Michael remembers his father Aubrey having to make arrangements for the funeral. George Mook wanted to be buried in his ancestral homeland. China was under Communist rule at the time. Michael still doesn’t know how Aubrey managed to get past ‘the red tape’ but he ‘made the flight’. He was able to sit all night by the body of his father before the burial ceremony, in accord with Chinese custom.

The fruit shop was eventually closed down because of what Michael describes as ‘a out-of-the-blue’ event.

Aubrey, Jean and Michael had become accomplished ten pin bowlers, as the American craze was sweeping Australia. Aubrey took to it ‘like a duck to water’, says Michael. He won many competitions and appeared on television in a major event.

By this time, Aubrey was becoming tired of being a fruiterer, and wondered if there was something else he was destined for’, writes Michael.

His answer came with an offer to manage a ten pin bowling centre in Melbourne.

Phyllis was already on her way to a career change. At the age of 40, she put her favourite motto into action once more:

'If you want to try something – get out and do it. If you fall... get up and try again.'

She decided she wanted to become a hairdresser. 'She took herself off to hairdressing school,' explains Teresa, 'and in 1968, opened The Chinchilla Hair Salon, at 91 Beaumont Street. She worked there, into her seventies.

Phyllis Mook in her hair salon (n.d.)
Photograph from the personal collection of Teresa Purnell

Eventually, keeping the business in the family, the Salon was bought by Phyllis’s granddaughter, Teresa’s daughter Monica . It was named SoHo Hairdressers.

'Mum was very, very generous,' Teresa tells me. 'She did everything to excess. She was a firecracker! She loved Hong Kong, went back there 20-30 times. She was born in the Year of the Tiger. A very courageous woman.'

Phyllis became part of Newcastle’s documented history in 2010 when Greg and Sylvia Ray published Newcastle: The Missing Years with the support of the Newcastle Herald.[2] In the section on Victory in the Pacific Day, a photograph showed a couple’s dancing attracting the attention of a celebrating crowd. In the heart of the crowd, a small Chinese woman is clearly visible.

A couple’s  spontaneous dancing attract the attention of a large crowd celebrating Victory in the Pacific Day in Newcastle. Phyllis Mook (striped top) is on the right, 15 August 1945. 
Photograph courtesy Greg and Sylvia Ray

The photograph was spotted by Teresa who contacted the authors. The companion volume, Recovered Memories, Newcastle and the Hunter [3] published in 2011, included a small collection of stories of people who had recognised themselves in photos in the previous volume. One of these stories was a full page feature headed, “Phyllis Mook, Newcastle’s jitterbugging dynamo.” [4]

Greg Ray captures her life story. He wrote this about what happened the day news of the Japanese surrender came, 15 August, 1945:

The famous photograph ... of Phyllis jitterbugging on VP Day, August 15, 1945, shows something of her show-stopping, crowd-pulling ability. Mrs Purnell said her mother often recalled the day, describing how she was at work at the family’s Swansea fruit shop when the much-anticipated news of the war’s end broke.

They drove the table-top truck into Newcastle, with Phyllis standing on the back waving the Chinese flag.

VP Day was probably the greatest spontaneous celebration day in Newcastle’s history. [5]

In an interview with Chris Watson of the Newcastle Herald Teresa adds:

'The town went mad, and Mum danced all afternoon.' [6]

Phyllis’ daughter Teresa has absorbed all the values her mother and grandparents sought to imbue in her, for a good and successful life. Not only has Teresa raised three children - Kristy, Monica and  Daniel -  with her husband Mark, pursued careers as a commercial cookery teacher and natural history illustrator, illustrated a children’s book, won a University of Newcastle Medal for Natural History Illustration [7] and is now completing her PhD - but she is also a cake decorator, wildlife rescuer, and...a snake catcher!

Teresa Purnell demonstrating the art and science of snake catching
Photograph from the personal collection of Teresa Purnell

Teresa Purnell, too, is one flexible, multi skilled woman! George Mook lives on.

Suddenly, wrapping me up in newspaper without a gap doesn’t seem so startling, after all.

By the end of his life, George Mook must have known he had achieved his goals - establishing viable businesses, setting an example to his children and grandchildren, and equipping them with education and skills. Grandson Stephen Lee has run a number of businesses from the family premises and his home was  built by Phyllis Mook when she was in her sixties.

Most of all, George Mook has left his descendants with pride in their Chinese–Australian heritage, respect for their ancestors, and memories to cherish.

Phyllis Mook (1926 - 2009)
Photograph from the personal collection of Teresa Purnell


Thank you to Teresa Purnell and Michael Mook for sharing their family story, and photographs.
This post was updated 30 April and 3 June 2014, and 8 June 2018.

[2] Ray, Greg & Sylvia: Newcastle, The Missing Years: photographs of Newcastle in the 1930s and 1940s. Published Greg and Sylvia Ray, with the support of the Newcastle Herald (2010).
[3]  Ray, Greg & Sylvia: Recovered Memories, Newcastle and the Hunter. Published Greg and Sylvia Ray, with the support of the Newcastle Herald (2011).
[4] Ray, Greg & Sylvia: Recovered Memories, Newcastle and the Hunter. Published Greg and Sylvia Ray, with the support of the Newcastle Herald (2011) p. 191.
[5] Ray, Greg & Sylvia: Recovered Memories, Newcastle and the Hunter. Published Greg and Sylvia Ray, with the support of the Newcastle Herald (2011) p. 191.
[6] “Dancing in the streets World War 11 is over: August 1945 by Chris Watson, 21/06/2012. Newcastle Herald Supplement, Page 6.
[7] University of Newcastle Medal awarded in the Faculty of Education and Arts, 2012.