About the research

About the research

In January 2005, my first port of call was to meet with Fay Pemberton, LJ’s second cousin and the oldest living relative in the Hooker family. I hadn’t seen Fay since I was a small child. Among other things, Fay told me that Tingyou had been the name of my grandfather’s mother, not father. This fact was a goldmine – it was contrary to any published information about LJ and became the first real step to finding his true story. It took listening to the recording I made of our conversation many times before I could begin to piece together the family tree.

I then met with Bruce Adams, who had worked for L.J. Hooker Ltd. for 50 years, and Jack Abeshouse. Bruce and Jack were so passionate about the company and their time with LJ. They also talked about other characters from the early years of the company, such as George Newell and Nancy McFadzean. At the time, these names were just a blur. Bruce gave me a 12-page company history that his uncle, Heck, had written in the 1960s. This document was a gem.

With the names Bruce gave me, I met with more former employees who knew my grandfather. Stafford Grimes, for example, told me things that I couldn’t imagine would turn out to be so useful. I also went to Brisbane to meet Noel Burns. He was almost 90 and had been very sick for many years, but he was thrilled to see me and talk about the Hooker days. When he talked about LJ he started to cry.

As many of the original company members had passed on, their children or other relatives became involved. Marianne and Margaret, Frank Bloore’s daughters, went through their father’s boxes to send me anything useful – including their father’s original auctioneer’s mallet. I met with Margaret in Sydney and joined her to visit their father’s grave. They said they considered themselves “Hooker girls” since their father had lived and breathed the company.

In 2007 I made contact with the then CEO of L.J. Hooker Ltd. to let him know I was writing to book. He granted me access to company archives and I spent a few days in the office scanning anything I thought might be helpful.

I had always thought the book would be mostly text, and it was Kevin Weldon (founder of Weldon Owen and other publishing houses) who suggested to me in 2008 that it should be illustrated. I loved the idea and started on a journey to retrieve family albums and request memorabilia from L.J. Hooker franchises. This visual information helped the story come alive.

Since I live in Europe, my time to spend in researching in Australia was limited, so in mid-2008 I hired a professional researcher, Dr Brian Wimborne, based in Canberra. He enthusiastically found a wealth of information at the National Library of Australia. The research so far had been a lonely process, but with Brian involved I had someone to share ideas with and celebrate new findings. By 2009 I felt I had the bulk of what I needed to start writing. But I was determined to write the book chronologically and I was still missing a vital part of the story about LJ’s Chinese heritage. The biggest mystery was LJ’s mother. We had not succeeded in finding any birth or death records of Nellie Tingyou.

I read Professor John Fitzgerald’s book, Big White Lie, about Chinese Australians in the White Australia era. His book hit the core of grandpa’s start to life. I made contact and John was very helpful. We eventually met in Beijing and I asked him how I go about finding more leads into the Chinese side of my family. He suggested I talk to Dr Kate Bagnall in Canberra. John described her as a “ferret” and said if there was something to be found she would find it.

True to John’s description, a few weeks later, within a few hours of research, Kate had found the “Harlet” children’s birth certificates – they were really the Tingyou children, of which LJ’s mother was one. I can’t even imagine how Kate found these. I was in awe. Her next major find was linking Nellie Tingyou (née Ellen Harlet) to a death certificate for Ellen Hookin. Bingo, she had found the connection to the man who married LJ’s mother, Howe Hook Yin.

I now had enough to put pen to paper, but I wanted to see Guangdong province before I started to write. I felt that I couldn’t do the story justice without visiting the place my forebears came from. I suggested to Kate that we meet in China and travel together. With some other research to do there, she readily obliged. I found our week in China fascinating.

At home again it was time to start writing. The family history was complicated and it took so much longer than I had anticipated to piece together the story in a way that would make sense to a reader. After over a month of 14-hour days, I finished the draft text for Part I. I sent it off for editing to Ken Eastwood, who had come highly recommended. I was nervous about what he would say. To my great relief he gave me the thumbs up and said, “Keep writing”.

I had birth certificates and a few photos to use for Part I, but good images were fairly scarce. The Creative Director of Weldon Owen suggested I use a photo researcher, Joanna Collard. She sourced beautiful photos from libraries across Australia to fill the book’s early pages. I then interviewed several book designers, and chose to work with the wonderful Melanie Feddersen.

I always knew that Part 3 would be big since it was about the company and the peak of LJ’s success. I’d collected so much material over the years, including wads of newspaper articles from the 1950s and ’60s from the Fairfax library. I read through the piles of clippings, highlighted the pertinent information and wrote chapter headings in an attempt to put the documentation into some order. LJ’s achievements went on and on – the salt industry, industrial sands, textiles, sheep and cattle stations, a record label, hotels and motels… I realized I had to increase the book size from 256 to 300 pages.

Finding out so much about my grandfather was intriguing and it was a great satisfaction to see it all come together. At the end of 2009 my brother, Janusz Hooker, purchased back the company and I wanted the book to be finished yesterday. I learned to live on 5 hours sleep a night and Part 3 was finished in early August 2010. Much to my relief, Part 4 was a relative breeze.

I went personally to the printer in China for press check in October 2010. Seeing the full-colour pages come off the press was a great feeling and about a month later the first finished copy was delivered to me.

Book in hand, I went for a walk to visit LJ’s first city office at 98 Pitt Street, Sydney. Unfortunately the ES&A building has since been demolished, but I then walked down to see number 175, the old “Hooker House”, on the corner of King Street. The building that LJ had conceived and constructed when he was 70 years old is still very much there and timeless – another great memorial to my grandfather.

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