A century of humiliation left profound legacies of trauma

Oct 3, 2022
Australian Chinese

Grenville Cross’s “Britain’s opium era strategy to deal with China” (Pearls and Irritation, 28/09/2022) touched a cord in many Chinese, regardless of where they come from. It explains why many of us described as “Overseas Chinese” feel the need to explain when we are affronted by unjust comments about China and the Chinese people.

This is a good place to indicate that Chinese Australians from Southeast Asia are very proud to be Australians and not any less loyal to this country than any other ethnic group. However, there is a part of us that defies understanding among those who do not have such complex histories and ethnicities. We are culturally divided between a Chinese cultural heritage and a British colonial heritage. For instance, my generation of Chinese Malaysian Australians were mostly brought up in the mid-1900’s under a very traditional Chinese culture while the communists in China were busy killing off traditional elements of their Chinese culture. While many of us are trilingual in English, Malay and Chinese, many of us speak and write English better than the other two because we were educated by the British under their colonial education system. The “Straits Born Chinese” for instance speak mainly Malay and English but practice very ancient Chinese traditions.

It is perhaps our connection with the British that brought many of us who were discriminated against in our countries of birth, often being labelled as “sojourners” (orang tumpangan), to Anglophone countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and even the UK. Our parents and grandparents worked closely with the British because they established an economic environment in countries like Malaya, the Borneo states (Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei) and Singapore that made it possible for people who were willing to work hard to thrive and prosper. There was a time when we were embarrassingly called “The King’s Chinese” in Malaya because the British did the governing and the Chinese did all the work to make it possible for them to govern. When the British left Malaysia, we felt betrayed because they left behind a law, Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution, that was subsequently abused to the point that made us practically second class citizens. Just as a personal example of the role we played in the building of the Malaysian nation, my wife’s grandfather, Lee Ah Chiang, built the Municipal Offices in Penang that is now a heritage building. An account of it can be found in: en.wikipedia.org  City Hall Penang. Wikipeadia states, “Tenders were called for the construction of the Municipal Offices in 1900. Lee Ah Chang, a local ethnic Chinese, won the contract with a bid amounting to $75,400 (Straits dollar). The Municipal Offices were built in the Edwardian Baroque and Palladian styles, which were popular at the time.”

When I was growing up, my father’s account of his experience of Japanese brutality to Chinese Malayans because the Chinese in China resisted them did not affect me as much as when I read for the first time about the rape of Nanking. I was horrified to the point of tears even though I was in my early adulthood. I have forgotten the name of the author but I remember that he was an American. Later, I was equally upset when I read Iris Chang’s book, “The Rape of Nanking”. Seven years after writing that book, at the age of 36, she died by suicide after suffering years of depression. She was not the first to suicide from the trauma of Nanking. Wilhelmina “Minnie” Vautrin (September 27, 1886 – May 14, 1941), the American missionary who protected thousands of Chinese refugees at the risk to her own life, also suicided; said to be due to extreme stress and trauma from the Nanking Massacre.

What I am attempting to say very simply is that our past and our heritage affect us in ways that we are not fully conscious of; and often do not expect. We are punished when the tide of history turns against the Chinese. Chinese Australians’ comments about China are not about taking a pro-Chinese stand against an Anglophone one. It is about the truth as we see it. It is about the pain of a cultural consciousness that we inherit as Chinese. It is about defending ourselves against constant harassment through no fault of ours just because we resemble the “enemy”. It is about worrying for our children and grandchildren who might find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Often, much against our sense of discretion, we speak up against unjust portrayal of the Chinese people. We know that the Chinese have human flaws and, like everyone else, can transgress moral codes. They can sometimes be rude and overbearingly wealthy. Sometimes in our ignorance we even find ourselves defending the indefensible. But one thing that underlies it all is that we are here, we believe in Australian democracy; and with it the right to be heard.

“Forget about the past, look towards the future”, “The Chinese behave the way they do because they claim that the western countries humiliated them in the past”, I was told a number of times. I often respond with, “If we forget our past, how would we know where we came from, where and what we are now, and how should we be moving towards the future?” It is necessary to learn from the past so that we can chart a better future for ourselves and those around us.

I am touched by the empathy shown by Professor Cross in his article. It revived in me the urge to share what I read a long time ago about Commissioner Lin Ze-xu’s letter to Queen Victoria. The following is a short excerpt of the document translated by Arthur Waley: 

I am told that in your own country opium smoking is forbidden under severe penalties. This means that you are aware of how harmful it is ….So long as you do not take it yourselves, but continue to make it and tempt the people of China to buy it, you will be showing yourselves careful of your own lives, but careless of the lives of other people, indifferent in your greed for gain to the harm you do to other: such conduct is repugnant to human feeling and at variance with the Way of Heaven…..

On receiving this Your Majesty will be so good as to report to me immediately on the steps that have been taken at each of your ports. 


What is poignant in the letter is not just the contents that reminds me that history seems to be repeating itself today. It is also the pomposity of Lin Ze-xu’s last sentence. They were the words of a dying empire. But the Chinese people refused to die. Their answer to such a dire situation is embedded in the first stanza of their national anthem:

Stand up! Those who refuse to be slaves!

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