The Chinese language has many proverbs, called chengyu. A favourite chengyu is “Sai-weng shi ma” (“Sai-weng lost his horse”). To cut a long story short, it means that when one door closes, another door opens. This could well sum up the Chinese experience in Australia.
The 1963 edition of
The Golden Shanty.
The Chinese are an optimistic, adaptable and cheerful people. They don’t worry much about the past or the future; they live in the eternal Now. The Chinese have been continuously resident in Australia at least since the 1840s.
The experience of being Chinese in Australia has largely depended on adapting to the macro political and economic environments, both in China and Australia. Another chengyu goes: “A foreign moon is always rounder”; similar in meaning to the saying: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” The Chinese have always been adventurous. Most have been, until recently, sojourners, temporary residents. They came to make a fortune, and having made it, returned to their home village.
Most Chinese – around 80 per cent – came until recently from the Four Counties (Sze Yap) and the Three Counties (Sam Yap) around the city of Canton, now known as Guangzhou. Most prominent among these sources of migration is Taishan, a county-level city in southern Guangdong Province. These immigrants are usually called Cantonese, due to their Chinese dialect, leading to the impression that half of China speaks Cantonese. This is not true, though until recently the most widely spoken language in the world’s Chinatowns has been Cantonese. Cantonese, in China, is spoken almost exclusively in Guangdong Province.
Along with the Cantonese came the Hakka, a close-knit migratory people who have produced many famous Chinese leaders, including Sun Yat-sen and Deng Xiaoping.
In America, the Chinese are known as the “model minority”. Their entrepreneurial spirit, pursuit of scholarship and their propensity towards acting within the law make them, in the eyes of Anglo-Americans, an ethnic group to be admired. How about in Australia?
The Golden Shanty by Edward Dyson (Angus and Robertson, 1963) dates from the late 19th century. This short story typifies life on the Victorian Goldfields in the 1850s, after the easy alluvial gold had run out. The Chinese settlement in the story is said to be “a cluster of frail, ramshackle huts, compiled of slabs of matting, zinc, and gunny-bag. These were the habitations of a colony of squalid, gibbering Chinese fossickers, who herded together like hogs in a crowded pen, as if they had been restricted to that spot on pain of death, or its equivalent, a washing.”
Later, the Chinese are described as “haythen furriners”. Now, this may be the impression Anglo-Australians had of the Chinese, but it is not entirely correct. What is true is that the Chinese were, and remain, a very industrious people. The Chinese work diligently. In Spanish, “trabajo de chino”, literally “to work like a Chinese”, means colloquially “to work hard”.
The impression that the Chinese are new arrivals in Australia persists. Yet the first large-scale Chinese migration was to New South Wales, after transportation of convicts was halted in the 1840s. Even long before that, merchants, freebooters and other adventurers are known to have tried their luck in Australia.
Then, in 1851, the Great Australian Gold Rush drew thousands of Chinese fortune hunters to Australia. It was known in Chinese as “New Gold Mountain”. “Old Gold Mountain” was San Francisco, or California in general. In the context of the times, the numbers of Chinese were substantial, even though the colonial authorities tried to stem the flow of Chinese immigration. The Chinese were usually the second largest ethnic group on the diggings. The number of Chinese in Australia topped out at 39,000 in the late 1850s, according to colonial census data. This should be compared with a total Australian population in 1881 of 2,281,894.
Those Chinese diggers who worked diligently – the Chinese usually worked in syndicates – or struck it lucky returned to China. Only around one in 100 immigrants was female. The Chinese population of Australia did not decline due to the White Australia Policy. The men – and nearly all were men – returned to their home villages as they had always intended to do. By the 1920s, the Chinese population had declined to 12,000.
However, as described in Unlocking the History of the Australian Kuo Min Tang 1911–2013 (by Mei-Fen Kuo and Judith Brett, Australian Scholarly Press, 2013) there were ways of getting around the Australian government’s restrictions on immigration, with help from sympathetic politicians such as Arthur Calwell (ALP, Melbourne). So, from 12,000 in the 1920s, the Chinese population actually rose to around 29,000 in the years just after World War II.
From October 1945 until September 1964, the number of permanent and long-term arrivals to Australia was 2,170,350. Of these, Chinese accounted for 10,954, more than the number of arrivals from France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland or Ukraine. If the White Australia Policy was designed to keep Chinese out of Australia, it didn’t work very efficiently.
By the 1960s, the process of assimilation was well under way. The Chinese quasi-Masonic Societies, which had their origins in secret societies whose slogan was “Depose the Ching, restore the Ming”, were losing their raison d’etre. Chinatowns are actually called in Chinese “Tang Ren Jie” (“Street of the Men of Tang”) or “Han Ren Jie” (“Street of the Han People”) derived from the Tang and Han dynasties, the two greatest Chinese dynasties.
By this time, most Chinese people had moved to the suburbs, like other Australians. Intermarriage was frowned on and could result in ostracism from both community and family. Most Chinese were no longer employed as market gardeners or other traditional occupations and had become small business owners or professionals.
It is redundant to say that the White Australia Policy was abolished, as there was never any such piece of legislation. By 1966, Harold Holt, as Prime Minister, had removed most remaining restrictions on non-European migration.
Arthur Huck, writing in the late 1960s, said of the increase in Chinese immigration and assimilation of the Chinese in Australia: “The increases in recent years have not been accompanied by any social frictions and have indeed attracted very little attention. The process of assimilation continues, on the whole smoothly and uneventfully” (The Assimilation of the Chinese in Australia, ANU Press, 1970).
Since the end of the remaining restrictive immigration policies in the late 1960s, almost 50 years of steady immigration has raised the number of people in Australia claiming Chinese ancestry to 865,000, according to 2011 Census data, or 4 per cent of the Australian population. These New Australians, to use Arthur Calwell’s term, came from many lands, not only China. In addition to mainland China, many Chinese have migrated from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), Macao SAR, the Republic of China on Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and other South-East Asian countries.
China, needless to say, is important to Australia. The “yang guizi” (“foreign devils”) have come to appreciate that the Chinese place great value on education. Education is now the state of Victoria’s largest export earner. Not only do students pay for education, their families often pay for the tiny apartments that have sprung up to take advantage of the demand for inner city apartments suitable only for students. The influx of new blood has given the Chinatowns a new lease on life. The apartments and the flourishing restaurant trade have rescued the long-suffering students from the clutches of the eccentric landladies who were the bane of overseas students.
A new visa for primary school students means that young children from the age of six, with a guardian, can be admitted to Australian schools, regardless of their citizenship. High-achiever schools such as Balwyn High School in Melbourne are popular with Chinese parents. These schools have defined catchment areas, one consequence of which has been that residential property values have been inflated by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
By quick observation, the student bodies of selective entry schools such as Melbourne High School are around one-third Chinese, though the schools do not comment on such matters. Chinese students usually say they were born here like everyone else. And, if they study harder, so what?
Arthur Huck writes: “There is very little basis for the widespread belief that some special characteristic of the Chinese makes them less capable than others of attaching themselves to a new country.”
Yet the Chinese do maintain a sense of ethnic identity over generations. It is true that Asians stick together. In some places, “da bidz” (big noses) are not welcome. Many Chinese young people attend Saturday School to learn Mandarin. They usually say that Saturday School is boring and a waste of time, that they do it for their parents’ sake. Nevertheless language maintenance is one of the most effective methods of maintaining ethnic cohesion.
Older immigrants rarely achieve more than basic proficiency in English. That they live in a neighbourhood where their dialect is understood is an important consideration for their care givers. Older members of the Australian Chinese community say that they can remember hostility in the streets; this has now vanished.
First-generation Chinese rarely engage in open debate on current matters of controversy. It is true that in recent years Beijing has sought to influence Australian foreign policy by mobilising local Chinese to demonstrate again Australian policies. These are often accompanied by barely veiled threats to Australia’s wellbeing and are obviously organised demonstrations, intended to give the impression that Beijing’s policy stances have widespread support within the local Chinese community. This is unlikely to be the case, although the various Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes and other policy bodies are no more than mouthpieces for the Beijing regime.
Chinese people value scholarship and material success. Chinese students are rarely found in courses such as Arts because, as any Arts graduate will readily tell you, the two main employers of Arts graduates are the Education Department and the public service, neither of which pay very well. It is understandable that newcomers wish their children to establish themselves in professions that are respected and lucrative, such as medicine, engineering and dentistry.
“Yu-gong, yi shan” – which translates as “the idiotic old man who moved a mountain” – celebrates the fact that as in the contest between the hare and the tortoise, the slow and steady tortoise wins the race.