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Centre for Stories

Eileen Tay

"In Fremantle, there are so many people to know and to talk to. Some of them are grumpy, some of them are cheerful, and some of them are fussy."

Generations of migrants have shaped the face of Fremantle, especially post Second World War when many Italians made their home in Australia. But as times change so too do populations and now a new wave of migrants are making their presence felt in the port city.Eileen Tay owns and manages the Fremantle Mini Mart, a popular Asian supermarket located in the middle of Fremantle. After migrating from Singapore, Eileen set out to help her family in any way possible. Six years ago Eileen and her husband, Benjamin, took over the family business and have since made it their own.

Before migrating to Australia, I was working as an Assistant Kindergarten Teacher. I enjoyed the work very much as I love children, but after four years there, I left Singapore to come to Australia. We came here mainly because of my parents; they were the ones who decided to migrate. It took us a long time and we applied three times before being accepted. I think mainly my parents were thinking of their younger children, they wanted them to have a better education, and also of course the space here in Australia, the fresh air, away from the stress. Singapore is so small and people live in cramped flats, like pigeon holes. My parents wanted something better for the next generation.

A woman smiling behind the counter of her mini mart in Fremantle.

We didn’t come straight to Fremantle as my dad began a business in Spearwood at first. But because of complications in the business—he got cheated by the share-owners—he decided to opt out, and with what he got from that business, he set up the shop in Fremantle. Before choosing this shop, my dad sat here for one whole day to see what business was like in Fremantle. It wasn’t much of a business at first, it was just a small shop owned by a Chinaman and all he sold was a few vegetables and fruit, there were no groceries. So my father built the business up with the help of all the family. I have three sisters and one brother and we were all expected to help in the shop which we did without any complaints because we knew how much mum and dad struggled.

So we all chipped in, with strength we helped them. So we were all happy, even though we were poor.

Compared to Singapore the working day in Australia is not considered long hours. In Singapore my dad used to work from 6 o’clock in the morning to 12 o’clock at night, and of course it affected his health. He developed a cough which wouldn’t go away which was another reason to move to Australia. So when my parents first bought the Fremantle shop they opened from 8am to 6pm. This was not long hours for them and they were very happy to work those hours. At that time, my brother was in primary school and two of my sisters were in high school. So myself and my second sister came down and helped mum and dad. Even after we finished working in the shop we still had to help mum make curry puffs. Lots of the customers still remember my mum’s curry puffs. She doesn’t make them anymore. She had a serious accident and shattered all the bones in her hand. Now she’s got rheumatoid arthritis in it, so after that incident we told her “Mum, don’t do them any more.”

Eileen and her husband, Benjamin, took over the family business after her father’s health declined. She reflected on the many colourful and unique characters she has met throughout her time working at the Fremantle Mini Mart.

My husband and I owned a factory in Bibra Lake—a picture framing business. My husband’s a very good picture-framer, he’s very skilled with his hands. I was helping out with mum and dad in the shop but also looking after the factory with my husband. Then dad had a heart attack, and then soon after, a stroke. I just found it impossible to work in two places—one day in the shop, one day in the framing business—so we sold the factory and took over the shop. That was six years ago.

In Fremantle there are so many people to know and to talk to. Some of them are grumpy, some of them are cheerful, and some of them are fussy.

If you work in hospitality and grocery shops you know lots of people with different characters; colourful characters. Never mind how fussy people are, or how bad their characters are, I try my best to get on with them. This is my philosophy, maybe it’s because of the culture I come from. Also, I accept that people are different, that we are individuals and should try to understand one another. I’ll tell you of one incident, there was this one occasion when I didn’t give discount to a lady from—better I don’t say which country she was from—anyway she was not quite happy with me. She told me that I was being discriminatory. So I said “Excuse me, I treat everybody the same, no matter whether you’re white, black, yellow, or whatever nationality you are. We respect one another because I come from Singapore and we always, you know, from young, are taught to respect different nationalities, different characters, and respect the elderly especially.” I think then she realised that I was not discriminating against her and that shops in Australia don’t barter, they have fixed prices.

The shop front of the Fremantle Mini Mart.

It’s important to speak English so you can communicate and also translate for people who are unable to understand. But, saying that, there have been two occasions in the shop when someone has told me to speak English when I was speaking Chinese to my husband. I didn’t argue with them but told them that people have the freedom to speak different languages. I encourage my children to learn different languages and different cultures. That’s how we learn to live together and not have conflict.

My priority is to live in harmony and to respect one another and I think that Australia has a lot to learn about that. We have to learn to respect other cultures, because no matter who you are or what colour you are, we are all still human.

So, if you hear people speaking in their own language to one another, don’t tell them to speak English. Just respect that they are allowed to speak whatever language they want, there are no restrictions in languages. That is what is good about Australia—you have that freedom.

We don’t go back to Singapore very often although the shopping is fantastic there. We went back last year and I noticed that many people seemed quite stressed and unhappy. If you are a tourist you don’t see it, you have to work there, know the place, and then you can feel the pressure. The cost of living is going higher and higher and there’s more housing, more cars. It’s very congested. I don’t have many family left there to visit, just one aunty and an elderly uncle. I have more cousins here in Australia. My cousin Wendy is an oncologist and another cousin is an accountant. They came here for the sake of their children, I think that is the main reason that people come here from Singapore—for their children’s education and for the space.Copyright © 2019 Eileen Tay

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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