“We kept trying for a boy but after our sixth girl we decided that was enough,” says Norma. “Alec used to boast he had enough for a girls’ basketball team.”
The couple were both born in Darwin but met in Sydney through their families. “He asked my mum and dad for permission to marry me. He proposed to me at the movies. “After our honeymoon we moved back home to Darwin – Alec’s business was up here and his family. “Mum was worried because she thought I would get bad prickly heat, but I didn’t.
It was pretty hot, though – in those days we didn’t have fans or air conditioning. “When I arrived in Darwin, I had a nylon frock on as well as stockings and a hat – and we arrived in December. The heat just blasted through me. I soon learned what clothes to wear.”
Alec was elected Lord Mayor in 1984 and died shortly after retiring because of ill health in 1990. “He was a wonderful husband – very caring and loving and supportive.” Norma’s maternal grandfather was one of the first cooks in Government House in Darwin. Her father Chin Pon See, was born in Darwin, but moved to China as a child and didn’t return until he was 11. “He couldn’t speak much English. He didn’t have much education and he knew only how to write his own name.” He was 27 when he married her mother, who was 16 and had been born on Thursday Island.
Norma and her sister Irene were born in the old Chinatown in Cavenagh Street. “Dad was a keen photographer and took a lot of photos of Darwin in those days. Mum and Dad saw Amy Johnson arrive in Australia and he took a photo of it but I’m not sure where that photo is.” The family moved to Thursday Island when Norma was about three and then Sydney, where they owned a fish and chip shop. “I worked in the shop for many years – after school and then full-time.
It was hard work, but we just did it. Everyone loved our fish and chips. Australia was less enlightened in those days. “I was called Ching Chong Chinaman by some other kids, but it wasn’t bad. “Mum and Dad were a hard-working couple and very Australian but there were times when people would call you ‘yellow horde’ and all that. “They still bought our fish and chips, though.” Norma says there was a divide between Chinese Australians and Chinese immigrants. “When we used to go to dances, we were called ABCs – Australian-born Chinese – and they were CBCs – Chinese-born Chinese.
“They were snobby about it and segregated themselves, which was wrong – not like in Darwin, where everyone mixes with everyone whether they are born here or not. “As Alec used to say, we are cosmopolitan more than multicultural because all our cultures are here, and we all appreciate each other’s and get involved with each other’s culture. We don’t have particular suburbs that ‘belong’ to a culture. “We all mingle, we all live together. That’s important.” Norma had a happy childhood. “We weren’t rich or anything, but Mum and Dad worked very hard to make sure we had food and clothes and a home.”
After returning to Darwin as a married woman, Norma worked in the family store, Lorna Lim and Sons, and Alec and his brothers ran the Victoria Hotel. “The Vic was very popular in those days – everyone used to go there to catch up. I know the boys had the occasional troublemaker, but I wasn’t worried because they were respected too and had the support of the locals. “Darwin and the Top End were really good in those days and still are in a lot of ways. “It’s still a great place to bring up your family. I should know – I had a big one.
The community was smaller back then, but it was also closer, and we all learned from each other and lived with each other. I know it’s easy to make it sound all rosy, but it really was a very special place at a special time. “That’s not to say there weren’t troubles – no place is perfect. But we had a good life and I was very lucky to be part of a family and community that looked out for each other.
“Norma says her mother-in-law; Lorna Lim was a “wonderful person”. “She taught me to cook many of the traditional Chinese dishes. She was patient and kind and a beautiful soul. She was also a great cook, so I learned from one of the best.” Alec was respected as a businessman and good community member long before he became lord mayor.
“In the days when I was bringing up six children, I didn’t think of much else but bringing up six kids. “But it was really great being with Alec. I loved and enjoyed being his wife. I was never one to want to go out very much but when he was Lord Mayor there was a lot of that. “I wanted to be supportive and I knew how much Alec loved Darwin and worked very hard to promote the city. He always stopped and wanted to chat to everyone.
He always made time for people. He wanted to ensure everyone who lived here loved living here. “I was always very proud of him – he was wonderful and I’m glad so many people got to see that and to know that. I never looked at another man – never have and never will. He was the best.” Norma is proud of her girls. Dallas is a public servant, Michele the director of quality at a pharmaceuticals company, Tanya a Local Court judge, Katrina general manager of Variety NT, Camille regional manager of SRA Information Technology and Lorelei a public servant.
Katrina followed in her dad’s footsteps and became Lord Mayor of Darwin from 2012-17. “They all get on and when they are together it’s hard to get a word in – they enjoy each other’s company which, for a mother, is really lovely.”
Norma, who is 91, says her greatest joy in life has been her family – marrying a good man, bringing up six daughters and now having grandchildren to spoil. Any regrets? “Yes, not teaching my girls to speak Chinese.” TQ