Scenes from a Chinese milk bar

Milk barThe milk bar man is going back to China. His wife is frail and, says Peter, needs traditional Chinese medicine. More than she can get here in Australia. She needs a carer too, he explains to me in halting English while I pay for three two-litre bottles of milk. 

The Chinese couple had kept the shop going for ten years at a time when milk bars, like public telephones, were disappearing off the map. In my two decades in this suburb about eight corner shops have closed. And in the past three years Peter's milk bar, like his wife, was just hanging on.

Mary was down to skin and bone underneath her sagging cardigan and plain pants. She wore a poorly fitted black wig. She would shuffle to the counter, her slippers hardly lifting from the lino floor. Her eyes, behind large spectacles, barely acknowledged you. Her thin lips remained impassive. A customer needed to be patient.

I would say hello and thank you but never expected Mary to return the compliments. It was enough for her hands to be able to take my coins and place them beside the cash register before she shuffled away.

The business appeared to be winding down. But there were still milk and newspapers. Ice creams. Smokes. A few magazines covered in cleavage, the women's eyes shining, their botox lips open wide.

Sometimes I bought my milk elsewhere, rather than just pop 300 m around the corner. From the green-grocer near the supermarket. From the 'convenience store' near the train station. From one of the other four milk bars in the suburb, all of them about a kilometre away.

But it was always a guilty purchase. One day, I thought, Peter and Mary might just shut up shop, like the milk bars in Wilkins St and Yarra St and Albert St. In Douglas Parade. Along the Esplanade. In Osborne St.

When Peter told me he and Mary were going back to China I presumed the milk bar would be closing. No, he said, a younger person is taking over.

'I am almost old enough to retire,' he said as I placed my milk in my back pack. 'But I think I will get some part-time work.' He had been a ball-bearing engineer.

Peter explained that in China the government will be able to provide a part-time carer for Mary. And there will be extended family too. His daughter, his only immediate family, has decided to return to the United States to work in IT.

I only had a few more weeks of Peter's company. We had not built a close friendship over the ten years but we had a rapport, a shared understanding within the simple act of buying and selling milk.

My first memory of meeting Peter was witnessing a moment of selfish opportunism, possibly based on racism. Peter had just taken over and the previous owner, Andy, was showing him the ropes.

I placed my milk on the counter and stood beside a man looking furtively at the milk bar copy of the Melway. Seeing Peter and Andy distracted, the man began to tear a page from the street directory. I placed my hand on the page, met the man's eyes and asked him what street he was trying to find. I gave him some basic directions, told him where to go, so to speak, and the man left.

Andy introduced me to Peter, whose optimism contrasted with Andy's world-weariness.

Mary was not always frail but she was never overtly cheerful like Peter. I could talk to Peter — or attempt to, through our language barriers — but I could only make a milk and coin transaction with Mary.

I wanted to ask Peter about China but having never travelled I didn't know where to start. My only real reference point was a favourite children's book called Digging to China, by Australian illustrator Donna Rawlins.

In the 30-page picture book a girl called Alexis fulfils a dream of her neighbour Marj to visit China. Alexis simply starts digging underneath her fig tree until she gets to the other side of the world. No maps, no street directories. Just a spade and a torch and a trail of ribbons tying Alexis to the fig tree.

There is no mention of milk bars in this charming book but it is easy to imagine Alexis and Marj walking to the corner together to buy ice-creams on a hot day.

On Peter's last day of business I gave him a present which he tried not to accept. 'No, no, no!' he said, smiling and shaking his head. He held his hands aloft but I held out the gift-wrapped book until he took it. Then he placed it under the counter and introduced me to Jasmine, a young Chinese woman.

I shook hands with the new owner, paid her for my milk and said farewell to Peter.

The book was not the Donna Rawlins book but a small collection of illustrated stories and anecdotes about our suburb, including a story about two of its milk bars. It was, it could be said, a street directory of sorts.

Jasmine is sprucing up the shop. More ice-creams. More sweets. More magazines. Tradies are hammering and sawing, and pulling up the lino. One night, just before closing time, two men were jack-hammering inside the shop. Jasmine smiled amid the noise. I didn't ask why the two men were drilling into the concrete but heading back down the street I imagined they were digging, digging to China, all the way to Peter and Mary's new home.

Postscript: Peter, Jasmine told me recently, found work in China. Mary died a month after returning home.

Vin MaskellVin Maskell has written for The Age, The Big Issue, Best Australian Essays (2008) and now Eureka Street. He published a collection of his short narratives, Jacaranda Avenue, in 2003.


Topic tags: Vin Maskell, chinese milk bar, peter, mary



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Thankyou Vin, for a story which I found deeply touching. I experience affection with my Chinese-Australian friends in ways that Vin describes; and those local corner heritage milkbars!

Neilt Tolliday | 31 March 2010  

Your story spoke to my heart, Vin, and, as my local milkbar is still up and running by Jenny and her husband, the Chinese proprietors, I identified strongly with your experience. Thankfully both Jenny and her husband seem in good health.

Patricia Taylor | 31 March 2010  

Thank you, Vin, for touching the humanity in all of us.

Erik H | 31 March 2010  

What a tender and touching tale Vin Maskell. Thank you.
I wept all the way through. And the second time too.

Why the tears I wondered? Who could say for certain. Certainly not I.
Perhaps this narrative's flavour of impermanence;
or for the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of human life ; or for the deep interconnectedness and interdependence of all human and other forms of life.

Perhaps a grieving for times past when there seemed hope for the world and its children:before we became the rarely questioning supporters of the many wars of aggression and occupation,
cruelly and relentlessly waged by our 'good friends', the Freedom Loving U.S.A. and Apartheid Israel.

Perhaps a sadness for disappeared shopping centres and fading communities that will neither return or be experienced by our younger generations. A time when the necessary transactions of survival involved human contactfullness, authenticity and warmth.

I was gladdened to read that Peter has found work in China and , we may assume, Mary experienced Chinese communist government support and care , reconnected with her extended family and is now permanently at rest in her homeland.

DAVID A HICKS | 31 March 2010  

What a lovely, touching story. Its generous appreciation of people's background and lives is heartening and its postscript deeply moving.

Joe Castley | 31 March 2010  

Profoundly moving and thank you Vin

Sometimes I find its the tiny vignettes of life that makes it all worthwhile...... makes our treatment of refugees and others seem so lacking in compassion and care.........we seem to have lost at government level the empathy expressed in this tale of pleasure in each other

GAJ | 31 March 2010  

A very Aussie story, how many of us could this have happened to? Let us Aussies reach out more to other Nationalities, they too have something to share.

Elaine Goffin | 01 April 2010  

About 20 years ago when I lived in Carlton (in Sydney) my flatmate and I had a similar relationship with the local corner shop keeper - he was "southern european". Your story brought back lots of memories and I, too, was touched by it.

Paul Cutler | 03 April 2010  

Hello and thank you Vin! Your story was lovely.And thank you so much for your kind words about Digging to China. You'll be amazed to hear that my husband, Simon French, and I have finally managed to dig to China (with a teaspoon) and, after a five year wait, have our dear little son, Quinn Wentian. His name (ironically not given by us) means Heavenly literature and Heavenly art. Simon is a writer too. (!) Best love, Donna

Donna Rawlins | 10 October 2010  

Thank you so much for this, had a tear in my eye as I read, I can picture the whole scenario, its a sad day that we lose such small businesses and the great people who run them. as I was once the operator of such a business I know the toll it can take on you but I do not regret 1 second of it. Thank you :)

Donna | 05 March 2011  

Hello Vin. Just wondering if the image of the old blue milkbar specifically relates to your story, or is a picture you found to illustrate it? Cheers

Rebecca | 12 May 2018  

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