Along with their mother, Joyce Lee and Ruby Young arrived in Sydney in 1946 from Hong Kong to join their father who had lived in Pyrmont since 1938. The family intended to join their father much earlier, however the advent of WW2 prevented that. Joyce and Ruby were 8 and 10 years old when they arrived and went into 5th grade at Pyrmont Public School and later to Riverside High School. Both recalled settling into life in Sydney, not speaking English and travelling from Harris Street to Gladesville each day for school.
Their father had established a grocery store in Pyrmont soon after he had arrived and was well known in the community as ‘Charlie the Grocer’. The family lived above the store and worked hard in the shop from early in the morning to later in the evening. Joyce talks about being called on to work in the store when she was still at school. She had no time to play and had to study on weekends to get through her schoolwork. Her time in the shop increased when her father became ill.
The sisters also talk about the local community reflecting on how people were very friendly and community minded and ‘everyone knew everyone’. In the early days of owning the grocery store almost every customer either worked on the wharves or the local CSR sugar mills. There was only a small Chinese community living in Pyrmont at that time.
Mum’s name, Margaret, and dad, he’s known as Charlie the Grocer and they all know him as Charlie along Harris Street. If you say “Where’s Charlie’s shop?”, that’s where it is.
We arrived in 1946, I can remember, in February on an aircraft carrier called Basla [sounds like] and we settled in Pyrmont. Our father got a grocery store there and we spent the first ten years there when we were kids. From Pyrmont we used to have to walk all the way down to Ultimo to go to the school and we didn’t even know ABC then when we first come out.
I had to leave school when I was sixteen. I passed my Intermediate and was going in for my Higher School Certificate when you find out that he couldn’t even move, so I have to leave school and look after the business.
I used to work like a minion in that grocery store. I weighed all the sugar, flour, everything by hand in the bag. Everything used to be in bulk. You used to weight it and put it in bags. Everything by hand, bulk and I used to do the whole lot in the shop …and coupon too. Used to cut all the coupon for tea and butter and sugar – I still remember.
Those days when we were there, they were very like a village. Everybody knows everybody and we seemed to know the whole street, knows everybody and it was not like now. It’s all mixed now, people moving in now. And those days it was very safe: there’s no robbery, you can sleep with your door wide open.
We know a lot of wharf labourers up there; every house there’s a wharf labourer living up that way. And all our customers, either they’re wharf labourers or work in the factory nearby sort of thing, up the sugar house, the CSR, all those factories round there. People come in to work from other suburbs but mostly it’s locals that we know.