The first of October 1991 is a date I will always remember, because it’s the day that life, as I’d known it, changed forever. This sounds as dramatic as only a teenager can imagine, but I was a 14 year old from the tropics and landed in a place where my skin reacted to the dry air by turning into a papery surface filled with diamond lines. I don’t remember going through customs or the trip from the airport. I do remember, though, being put up in my auntie’s house in Glen Waverley with her husband and two toddler sons. My brother and I were in one spare room and my parents in another. The house was spacious, but it still felt stuffy, like there wasn’t enough air. I wasn’t used to being in spaces where the windows could be shut airtight.
Two months before I arrived in Melbourne, I’d celebrated my last birthday in Malaysia. The celebrations for this non-memorable event were minimal to compensate for my family cramming in as many visits as possible to relatives in preparation for our grand departure. An indelible memory: my childhood home – a capacious bungalow surrounded by two gardens of flowers and fruit trees, always alive with people and familiar objects, slowly emptying out before my eyes. Every time my parents sold or gave away a plant or a piece of furniture, I felt as if they were selling my home’s organs, leaving behind a massive shell. How did I process this grief of leaving? I didn’t cry when we bade our last goodbye to my grandparents, the relatives I felt closest to. The tears only came after the RSPCA worker locked away my two beloved mongrels into cages on the back of his truck. Even now, I have ghostly memories of their wide, scared eyes and their pitiful whining. Everything familiar around me changed. Since before I was born, my Peranakan Chinese family had seen Australia as our future, our salvation from a country that favoured the Malays over the Chinese, Indians and other ethnic minorities. We were finally leaving, and the leaving was irreversible. The continuity of change was the only constant, and I was trying to catch up with the emotional turmoil simmering underneath.
Not long after arriving, my family placed me into a high school in Glen Waverley, conveniently located opposite our new home. Glen Waverley in 1991 wasn’t like Glen Waverley in 2014. In 2012, the Age featured a story about the growing Chinese population in Glen Waverley supporting a booming real estate market: the houses becoming dearer closer to coveted high schools. According to the report, Glen Waverley has ‘one of Melbourne’s greatest concentrations of people with Chinese ancestry’ with figures around 10,500, or 22.4 per cent of the suburb’s population.
Back in 1991, Glen Waverley was predominantly white middle class. From experiencing public primary schooling in Malaysia and being placed in ‘special’ moral classes as a non-Muslim minority during religious classes, here in Australia I was placed in a ‘special’ English as a Second Language (ESL) class, despite my fluency in speaking and writing English. This was my first and only experience of Victoria’s education and administrative system’s inability to accommodate individual capacities. I was later able to enrol in the Literature class, a more ‘advanced’ type of English subject, while still completing the ESL classes all the way into VCE Year 11 and 12. (With some sweet irony, I finished high school with top marks in ESL, sharing equal place with another classmate for top marks in Literature. Needless to say, I was the only Asian kid in Literature while the majority of the Asian kids in my year level were in my ESL classes.)
My Year 9 homeroom teacher, Mrs Naidoo, was also our history teacher. I learnt about Australia’s Aboriginal people for the first time in her class. I read that Aboriginal people were hunters and gatherers. My classmates, walking between classes, whispered behind cupped hands speculating about Mrs Naidoo’s heritage: ‘Was she Aboriginal?’ From my Malaysian frame of reference, I thought Mrs Naidoo was Indian, because to me Naidoo was an Indian name. No one dared to ask her in person, though, or dared to bring it up in class.
In 1992, because of Eddie Mabo, Australia’s history was changed forever when the Australian High Court overturned the concept of terra nullius as a legal doctrine. Terra nullius is the Latin expression for ‘land belonging to no one’, which denied the existence of Indigenous Australians, thus justifying the British invasion of Australia. The 1992 Mabo judgment was a monumental turning point in Australia’s concept as a nation. It was the year I turned 15 and entered Year 10. I was still missing home, in Kuala Lumpur, even if that physical home was no longer. I don’t recall a teacher or classmate discussing this incredibly profound turning point in Australian history. The importance of this event not being discussed or remembered by me despite my being in Australia, and despite being in the education system, is disturbing upon reflection.
In December of that year, Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered the Redfern Park Speech, the speech seen as one of the most important speeches an Australian prime minister has ever made. The speech was voted third best in a 2007 ABC Radio National ‘Unforgettable Speeches’ competition, behind only Martin Luther King and Jesus. Commentators like Robert Manne have remarked upon the power of Keating’s speech, encapsulating the ‘destruction of Indigenous society with a plainness not seen either before or since’.
In 1996, a red-headed lady with a very broad Aussie accent and bright red lipstick won a seat as an independent MP in the Australian parliament. Pauline Hanson, who made her maiden parliamentary speech asserting that Australia was ‘in danger of being swamped by Asians’ and that ‘Aboriginals received more benefits than non-Aboriginals’. I listened for Prime Minister John Howard to rebuke her racism, but he said nothing. For a really long time.
In Mandy Thomas’s book Dreams in the Shadows: Vietnamese-Australian Lives in Transition, Thomas explicates the migrant bodies’ spatial inscription of an imagined ‘homeland’, thus exploring the place the ‘Asian’ body invokes. While her work is a study of Vietnamese-Australians, her reference to an ‘Asian’ body is what I would like to highlight below:
A sense of being unwelcome members of Australian society is thus expressed through the experience Vietnamese people have of their bodies. Apart from any cultural similarities, it is the feeling of physical similarity to other Asian-born people that is the most remarked-on affinity that Vietnamese people have with another group of Australians. Here the body creates the associations with another place, and is a constant reminder that people are from another place.
This memory of the past through the body is reinforced by interactions with non-Asian people, who will often comment on or question a person’s ethnic identity.
Being constantly aware of my racial and cultural difference from the image of a white Australian national, and combined with a populist MP’s rhetoric that Australia was being ‘swamped by Asians’, contributed to an unease and melancholy in my burgeoning Australian identity that my belonging was elsewhere, never here. Bureaucratically, I was an Australian permanent resident, which still gave me the opportunity of returning to my ‘real home’ in Malaysia. After all, in 1996 I wasn’t yet an Australian citizen, so how could Australia really be home?
In 2005, Japanese-Australian photographer and performance maker Mayu Kanamori worked for De Quincey Company, a Sydney-based performance company, photographing a site-specific dance performance over a one-kilometre stretch along the dry Todd River in Alice Springs. She observed police officers telling groups of Aboriginal people to move away from the Todd riverbed several times a day, not far from a sign which stated ‘Crown Land – No Littering, No Drinking, No Motorbikes, No Fires, No Camping’. These groups of Aboriginal people were from surrounding remote communities, visiting Alice Springs for medical, educational or business reasons. However, as some of the Aboriginal community settlements banned alcohol consumption, there was a view that the Aboriginal campers were there to consume alcohol. At the time of the publication of Kanamori’s essay, the Alice Springs Town Council proposed a draft by-law that disallowed camping beside the Todd River between 9pm and 6am. This by-law was supported by the Central Arrente people, the traditional owners of the area, who according to Kanamori were ‘frustrated by Aboriginal campers in the Todd River sleeping on their sacred sites and defecating in public’. In her 2010 essay in Amerasia Journal, ‘Would You Mind If I Settled Here?’, Kanamori reflected on her observations while working by the Todd River:
I wonder what we could do on which bit of land and with whose permission. Whose land was this anyway? Can I photograph this land? Who gives me permission? And all the black fella and white fella politics are often all about the land – they have been unable to resolve it in two hundred years, what hope does a first generation yella fella have in this country?
Kanamori further contemplated the spiritual and cultural relationship of traditional owners and custodians in Australia and the meaning of sacred sites and spaces for non-Indigenous Australians and Japanese people. These questions led her to creating a work, ‘In Repose’, in collaboration with contemporary dancer Wakako Asano and koto virtuoso Satsuki Odamura, both Japanese-born Australian migrants. Together with sound designer Vic McEwan they created performances and exhibitions at old Japanese cemeteries and gravesites in various parts of Australia, including Townsville, Broome and Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.
As a first generation migrant in Australia, creating In Repose was my attempt to connect to the Australian land. It was an exploration of the Japanese concept Hone o uzumeru kakugo (translated as ‘a determination or preparedness to bury one’s bones’), which means to stay put in one place until we die. That is, to stay in Australia and not return to Japan. Through burial and decomposition, the Japanese migrant predecessors in Australia had become part of the Australian landscape and insofar as it was a burial site, it had become a part of someone’s sacred site. But at this stage, I still did not know whose sacred site it was.
Kanamori’s contemplation on the Japanese concept of Hone o uzumeru kakugo resonates profoundly for me, as it is a call for connection to Australia as a first generation migrant, non-Indigenous Australian in a respectful and honourable way.
On 25 March 2014, the Liberal Government Party Room approved reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. These changes, according to Attorney-General for Australia George Brandis’s media release, ‘will strengthen the Act’s protections against racism, while at the same time removing provisions which unreasonably limit freedom of speech’. The Government allowed just over a month for community consultations. Alarmingly, the Government refused to make any of the submissions publicly available. In April, ABC news reported that Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane said that ‘no major report or inquiry was provided by the Government prior to the release of the draft amendments’. It is well documented that the main reason for the proposed amendments was the 2011 court case surrounding Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt and his claim for freedom of speech. Bolt was taken to court by nine prominent Indigenous Australians, including artist Bindi Cole, author Dr Anita Heiss and former ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark, for articles that he wrote claiming that their identification as Aboriginal was for personal gain. The Federal Court found Bolt guilty of contravening section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Dr Heiss and author Alice Pung compiled a submission to the Exposure Draft of The Attorney-General’s Proposed Amendments to the Act. At the time, as Editor-in-Chief of Asian-Australian online arts and culture magazine Peril, I represented the editors and board members in being a signatory together with 175 Australian authors, journalists, editors, publishers, directors, artists, filmmakers, academics and supporters opposing the proposed amendments. I, together with Peril editors and writers, also supported Brunswick-based Indigenous-run arts space Blak Dot Gallery with their 18C exhibition, co-curated by Jacob Tolo (co-founder and co-director of Blak Dot Gallery together with Kimba Thompson) and Torika Bolatagici (exhibiting artist and photography lecturer at Deakin University). 18C was the most radical thing an art gallery could do considering the Government’s refusal to make submissions public. The gallery deliberately invited a public and participatory display of protest against the Government’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act and held their doors open, despite the Easter break, up until a few days prior to the closing date for submissions.
In early August 2014, after widespread community outcry, Prime Minister Tony Abbott backed down from the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, faced with 76 per cent of the 4100 submissions opposing the proposal. The Government, however, is never far from controversy when it comes to Australia’s history and national identity. A few days before NAIDOC week in early July, at a keynote address for the Australian-Melbourne Institute conference, Abbott again caused anger when he described Australia as ‘unsettled’ prior to British colonisation, preferring to describe the occupation of Australia as ‘foreign investment’. Recently, at the opening of a history exhibition at the National Museum in Canberra, Abbott asserted that the ‘arrival of the First Fleet was the defining moment in Australian history’, which was rebuked by Indigenous leaders.
‘It was the moment this continent became part of the modern world. It determined our language, our law and our fundamental values. Yes, it did dispossess and for a long time marginalise Indigenous people,’ Mr Abbott said.
Compare this with the following statement also from Tony Abbott as leader of the Opposition last year when Julia Gillard’s government introduced a preparatory constitutional recognition bill:
We have never fully made peace with the first Australians. This is the stain on our soul that Prime Minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago.
We have to acknowledge that pre-1788, this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now and until we have acknowledged that, we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people.
We only have to look across the Tasman to see how it all could have been done so much better. Thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand two peoples became one nation.
So, our challenge is to do now in these times what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago: to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our country’s foundation document.
Robert Manne observed at the time in a 2013 article for the Guardian titled ‘The Sorry History of Australia’s Apology’ that ‘[i]n the Australian discourse over the dispossession, these words, spoken by the deeply conservative leader of the Liberal party, ought to have represented a moment of true significance in the moral history of the nation…Yet rather disconcerting, at least to me, was the fact that when that moment arrived, so thin had the moral atmosphere concerning the meaning of the dispossession become that hardly anyone seemed to notice.’
In the Heiss and Pung submission to the Exposure Draft, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Chairperson of First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN), wrote:
In this country other cultures are allowed to be Chinese-Australian, Irish-Australian etc. Their cultural and religious details are collected, acknowledged and respected. I find that in this country – our country – that respect and honour is not given to Aboriginal people and due to government laws and media portrayals, we are the ‘Other’. The ‘Other’ who are devalued and disregarded continually by those who now call this country home. With the proposed amendments to this Act, Aboriginal people will become a bigger target for others to vilify.
The statement above, while a textual encounter, resonates deeply as Reed-Gilbert writes potently of the continual devaluation and disregard of Aboriginal people by new migrant settler communities, new Australians. However, I take heart from the knowledge that the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act were abandoned due to outrage from all over the country. With the force of media publicity discussing the Act and freedom of speech in this country, I have hope for a new public awareness that comprehends the gross injustice of when the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended in order for the Howard Government to implement its Northern Territory ‘Emergency Response’ intervention in 2007; that the suspension was legal because Aboriginal and Torre Straits Islander people were and are, at the time of writing this essay, still not recognised in the Australian Constitution.
On the ninth of November 2004, I became an Australian citizen. At the conclusion of the citizenship ceremony, everyone was asked to stand and sing the Australian national anthem. In following decorum, I obediently rose from my chair, but I didn’t join in with the singing. I didn’t sing because after thirteen years of living in this country, having been part of the Australian nation when the doctrine of terra nullius was declared a legal fiction, I knew that the lyrics in the anthem ‘for we are young and free’ are also part of that still legal fiction that Australian history only began in 1788. In her original introduction to the collection Growing Up Asian in Australia, Alice Pung, as editor, wrote, ‘So what was it like for a yellow or brown person growing up in a country where “Advance Australia Fair” was taken literally to mean “advance, pale-faced patriots”, while those of a different colour should be effaced?’ Pung’s cheeky yet pointed commentary on the shortcomings of the Australian national anthem and racial oppression in the country is still cause for reflection. While my high school history classes are long gone, what I’ll not forget is the absence of conversation when it came to learning the complete truth about Australian history, which I realise is always ongoing, and connecting with that truth in a respectful and honourable way is what I’ll strive for.