The so-called “Chinese Australian community” is a myth. It is a much less homogeneous group than widely assumed in public debate. Recognising differences within the group would not deny their commonality but instead, serve the ultimate purposes of multiculturalism and social cohesion.
I was invited to a Yusheng lunch with a group of Asian friends during the Lunar New Year. It was great fun, mixing shredded vegetables and salmon and lifting them high up with chopsticks for blessings for the New Year. My Singaporean friend joked, “We should definitely take this to China. The Chinese love everything about good fortune”.
I told him that, in fact, Yusheng had been one of the best known local dishes in Guangdong (Canton) Province since the late Qing Dynasty, with the city of Shunde long hailed as the best place. Instead of salmon, the local freshwater fish is used and it is served, less as a westernised salad, but more in a sashimi way, with a dozen ingredients like ginger, garlic, sesame, oil, etc..
What struck me at that moment was though we would both identify ourselves as of Chinese heritage, we don’t know about each other. I don’t know about how Yusheng has been localised in Malaysia and Singapore, while my Malaysian and Singaporean friends don’t know about its Chinese origin.
Though terms like “China” and “Chinese Australian” have long been readily adopted in public debate, what “China” or “Chinese” are we really referring to?
For decades, “Chinese” has been defined in Australia’s public debate as people of the Chinese heritage, a loose term emphasising, and perhaps over-emphasising, on common cultural and traditional roots. It may work well in the earlier phases of Chinese immigration but increasingly less so when the landscape and makeup started to shift, especially after the turn of the century.
As compilation based on Australia’s most recent census (2016) indicates, migrants from Mainland China had long been dwarfed by those from Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore by the 1980s (This is not, however, to assume that all those registered having been born in Malaysia and Singapore are of Chinese heritage. But this may be the closest we can get to answer that question with the census statistics currently available).
This partly explains why later immigrants from Mainland China have always been shocked and confused with the “Chinese” food they found in Australia, e.g. Mongolian beef. Many of them are localised dishes by earlier immigrants from Malaysia or Singapore and will never be found at a restaurant in Guangzhou or Shanghai.
Migrants from Mainland China to Australia is indeed a more recent story. Our compilation, again allowing for limitations, would reveal that they would only account for about half of Australia’s total intake of “Chinese” migrants between 1980 and 2000. Those Australian residents who report to have been born in Mainland China doubled during 2001-2005, again between 2006 and 2010 and again in the six years leading up to the 2016 census.
It is exactly since then that China-related topics have grown controversial: Chinese investment, Chinese students, “Chinese influence”, just to name a few. But clearly neither “China” nor “Chinese” is broadly defined here.
There is certainly limitations to the above analysis, as only first-generation immigrants are counted and not all Malaysian and Singaporean migrants are of Chinese heritage. But it does paint a vivid picture of how diverse the so-called “Chinese Australian community” is. To start with, they can be from as many as a dozen economies overseas, with starkly different experiences of education, society and government, though they may share a common language (but commonly in different dialects) and a limited number of cultural and festive practices.
It is, therefore, problematic to assume this 5% of the Australian population (as suggested by the 2016 census) are homogeneous, as many of our current studies and debates have.
The recently released “Being Chinese in Australia” poll by Lowy Institute’s Multiculturalism, Identity, and Influence Project, funded by the Australian Department of Home Affairs, for example, seems to have been designed and conducted on two conflicting assumptions.
On the one hand, it readily assumes and concludes, with evidence from the survey, that the “more than 1.2 million people of Chinese heritage [, with] experiences … as diverse as their views … were born in Australia [or] have migrated more recently from [Mainland] China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia”.
On the other, by clinging to the “catch-all” phrase of “Chinese Australians”, the poll is assuming that the cohort, though from a variety of home lands, shares the same opinion on everything.
Running a parallel survey with non-Chinese Australians (average “other” Australians) and compare their responses with those from Chinese Australians is further evidence of that.
Thus the poll seems to be a serious effort to prove something quite self-evident already, which has been repeatedly suggested by researchers but unfortunately under-publicised.
As Professor Sun Wanning remarked in a recent panel discussion at the Australia-China Relations Institute of UTS, “there is no such thing as a Chinese-Australian community”. The Chinese Studies Association of Australia, in its 2019 submission on the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, noted too that:
“By routinely referring to Chinese-Australians as a single group, Australian leaders have failed to recognise the political, linguistic, cultural, and religious differences among the people who ‘look Chinese’….Treating Chinese-Australians as one group is as ineffectual as regarding all European-Australians as one group.”
Two years ago, amid protest from the Vietnamese and other Asian communities, the City of Sydney council decided to change the official name of its annual “Chinese New Year Festival” into “Lunar New Year Festival” to “embrace all communities and cultures”. Lunar New Year has long been celebrated beyond China and there are multiple variations of customs and practices. For example, year 2023 would be the Year of Rabbit according to the Chinese zodiac, but Year of Cat, with the Vietnamese zodiac.
This incident is a perfect example of how insufficient the term “Chinese” can be. While it may be a convenient term for people of other cultural traditions to describe the cohort, it can be quite frustrating for the diverse groups of people in the so-called “Chinese Australian community”. Clarifying the term will not deny their commonality but instead serve the ultimate purposes of multiculturalism and social cohesion.