The Chinese Question refuses to go away. It’s testing the inheritors of White Australia.
On 6 June 2020 the Sydney Morning Herald reported: Birmingham says China’s travel warning over racism has ‘no basis in fact’.
As Trade and Tourism Minister he would say that, of course. China has been the biggest single source of international tourists and students in Australia. Nor can he be seen singing off-tune to the recent Deputy Sheriff bugling of Morrison and Payne.
As a layman, I am surprised that Bermo could be so insensitive to the official statistics available to him from our Human Rights Commission, and to the numerous media reports on attacks upon the Chinese in public and at work. Surely his advisors would have briefed him on the latter, at least.
Looks like a furphy. He was not just “economical with the truth”, like using the word “riots” to cover up the atrocities of the well-planned Lambing Flat Attacks upon the Chinese in 1861, when it was sporting to cut off the 1200 scurrying Chinese gold-seekers’ pigtails, some with scalps attached. A number would be assembled later, a trophy, and paraded through the streets of Lambing Flat, a frontier town where our sacred rule of law was all but unenforceable.
Bermo did add that Australia was “the most successful multicultural and migrant society in the world”, and “The Chinese-Australian community is a significant and valued contributor to that success story.”
Unfortunately talking up Chinese contributions does inadvertently resurrect the thawing days of White Australia, after WWII, when the remaining Chinese had to be re-packaged as having done their hard yards in nation-building, albeit as dependable labourers, and therefore worthy of being accepted as Australian.
Back in July 11, 2013 the Brisbane Times headlined: The “father of Chinatown”, Eddie Liu, farewelled at Brisbane’s City Hall.
Philip Ruddock was there, a friend; the Premier, the Lord Mayor and local politicians of course; the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane (his wife is an Irish Catholic); but no mention of other dignitaries, like Police Commissioners, QCs, judges, or the ex-GG, feted by Eddie year in year out at his Chinese Club Chinese New Year receptions.
Hardly any Chinese attended his Town Hall send-off.
It was the end of an era.
So who was Eddie Liu?
Eddie was born in Hong Kong in 1922. Lived there with his Cantonese mother, whom his Melbourne herbalist father had married on a visit, until he was 15. The White Australia wall was impenetrable then. But the Rape of Nanking must have intervened. Eddie joined his father in 1937 and continued his schooling. In 1942, married with one daughter, he was deployed to Brisbane to act as interpreter for the 2000 Chinese seamen harbouring in Oz, now building landing barges for the US of A command at Bulimba on the Brisbane river.
After the War he started delivering vegetables and fruits to hospitals, hotels and ships from the Brisbane Markets. His family was growing.
In 1954 Eddie founded the Chinese Club, and led the small surviving Chinese community to build a club house on the site of an old Council tip. Eddie had got the land for free! It was a remarkable beginning, an enduring achievement. He would become the supremo of the Club for life.
When I moved to Brisbane in 1979, 25 years later, Eddie was regarded by the white VIPs he had got to know as the Chinese community leader. He had also earned the respect of a number of Hong Kong cooks for whom he had managed to get “special skills” visas. But by then many of his 1954 compatriots had parted with Eddie, and the Chinese community had just been numerically overwhelmed by the recent influx of Chinese from Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. These latter-day Chinese immigrants did not warm to Eddie, and vice versa. Eddie, in short, had become the Leader of a one-man band.
All the same he remained the quintessential Chinese entrepreneur favoured by the gate-keepers of White Australia.
In 2010 the Queensland Government named Eddie as one of five Queensland Greats. “Dr James Edward (Eddie) Liu OBE OAMwas a humanitarian and preservationist internationally recognised as a prominent Chinese community leader in Australia …”
It’s a citation that a practised Chinese hagiographer would be proud of.
His 2007 honourary doctorate: effectively a marketing coup by the University of Queensland to channel the river of gold that is the PRC students. The humanitarian effort: providing low-fee aged-care apartments was an integral part of a “multicultural/business” migration scheme. Internationally recognised! Perhaps, in Hong Kong, ever so briefly: he once showed me the front page of one Hong Kong broadsheet featuring his venerable and reflective self, bemoaning the antics of Pauline Hanson. But back in Brisbane his voice was absent in the public space.
I knew Eddie for 30 years. Life had dealt him a bad hand. His string of small business ventures did not seem to have turned into money trees. But he looked after his family well, and would have given his six children a solid sense of belonging as he steadily gained recognition amongst the VIPs in Brisbane. If he had been a tad entrepreneurial with his position as the “Chinese Community Leader”, as some have murmured, then this pales into insignificance when compared with the spectacle of our ex-Ministers and top public servants making themselves money-conglomerating compradors for Chinese, French, mining, pharmaceutical, and American war-mongering corporations.
All the same, mythologising entrepreneurs like Eddie Liu is regrettable. It makes it just about impossible for Chinese Aussies outside that confine to enter public life.
In 2012, Charlie Teo, in his Australia Day address in NSW, said that racism was still alive in Australia. The media went vicious. My online comment offering examples in support of Charlie’s view was quickly removed. Until then Charlie had been the intrepid brain surgeon, the cult hero feted by journalists focused on merchandisable news. Today his enviable status remains undiminished: the intrepid surgeon; training brain surgeons at Harvard; giving three months a year pro bono to developing countries.
Yet Charlie’s 2012 comeuppance is the fate awaiting every Chinese Aussie who does not conform to the image of the cosmeticised John Chinaman.
This probably explains why so many Chinese MPs were of the token variety. A number have self-combusted during State upper house sinecures. But unlike Charlie Teo, not one of them has shown the courage or integrity of Indigenous senator Neville Bonner, who stood as an independent after having been dis-endorsed by the Liberal Party for speaking up and crossing the floor to denounce his Party’s Aboriginal policies. Aye, he rebelled against his designated token-black role. (In passing, it is worth remembering that had Peter Beattie, then Secretary of ALP Queensland, honoured his “No worries, Nev!” pledge to direct ALP preferences to Bonner, Bonner would have been our first independent Aboriginal Senator, ever! As it was he missed out on a mere 0.06 of a quota. Beattie, as Premier later, named a government building after Bonner. In penance I hope.)
Compared with Charlie Teo, Billy Sing, our Gallipoli hero, fared worse. He died in a boarding house, in 1943, aged 57, with just a few shillings in his pocket. Where was the Returned Soldiers’ League? Born of a Shanghainese father (a dejected gold-seeker) and an English mother, he was not one of us. Yet in truth he was the quintessential Aussie knockabout of the bush, as mythologised in Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend. Had Billy been white, and gone to a private school, he might have won Gold for shooting clay pigeons, and gone on to build a celebrity career. The Chinese were not one of us: not straight after WWI anyway. Billy our Gallipoli Assassin: yes! Snipered up to 300 Turks! Billy our neglected Chinese war veteran? Forget it.
The current Covid-inspired racism against the Chinese is just another outbreak of the White Australia virus.
This time, unlike in 1996 when Pauline Hanson exploded on to the political stage, the pollies are not adding fuel to the fire. All the same, though, too many of them are flogging the line that there is no racism in Australia. Minister Allan Tudge twittered in April that “99.9% of Aussies would be appalled by racist attacks …” A statistic Bermo missed?
In the long term the only insurance against future anti-Chinese outbreaks is to vaccinate the population: a recalibrated and well-delivered curriculum for our school students; the greater presence of Chinese with demonstrably healthy character and competence in our Parliaments, for directorships on boards of GOCs, for prominent positions on Tribunals, for membership of University Councils, et cetera; and the greater inclusion of intellectually well-primed and socially acculturated Chinese Aussies in public discourse, on television, radio, and in newspapers.
Will we get there? Next time.
Below is a link to an ABC article containing a video showing the attack of two Chinese students in April.