White Australia in the Asian Century (Melbourne in 5 days: Day 2)

…continued from Melbourne in 5 Days: Day 1

So here I am, tired and happy in the worn-out way of a traveler, sitting at a table on Grattan Street, which runs thru the southern edge of the University of Melbourne.  I’m at Rakuzen, eating Japanese curry and sitting near a group of Chinese students.  I’ve been away from Tokyo for less than two days and somehow I miss “home”.  I feel as alien as the Chinese students. Will they ever feel at home in this country?

 I. White Australia and the morality of exclusion

Immigration is amoral. You wouldn’t chastise a caveman for being upset if someone moves into his cave.  Which is why I stand almost idly by when people debate the morality of immigration. Should a country be obligated to open its doors to outsiders?  Even if the answer is yes, how many do you let in?

As in other immigrant nations, the immigration story in Australia is messy and subject.  For the majority of the 20th century Australia enforced policies to intentionally restrict the immigration of non-whites.  A gold rush starting in 1851 caused immigrants to flood Australia, including thousands of Chinese.  The next 10 years would see tension between Anglo/Irish and Chinese, sometime boiling into riots, and culminating in restrictions over Chinese. (1)  When Australia became a Federation in 1901 it quickly went to work restricting immigration, including the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 and the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901. (2)

The British Government, concerned about offending non-white subjects and allies, influenced Australia to enact exclusionary tactics that did not explicitly exclude a particular race.  Such diplomacy resulted in the bizarre dictation test/language test, which could be administered to a potential immigrant in any European language.  A German could be tested in Portuguese, and Czech could be tested in French.   In practice, the test was administered to non-whites or other “undesirable” applicants.  Between 1902 and 1903, forty-six people passed the test out of 805 to whom it was administered. Between 1904 and 1909, only six of 554 passed. No one passed the dictation test between 1909 and its repealment in 1958.

In a well known case, a Czech political activist, Egon Erwin Kisch, was exiled from Germany in 1934 only to face Australia’s absurd diction test. Fluent in several European languages, Kisch passed the test in multiple languages only to fail when tested in Scottish Gaelic. We can look back and scoff at the dictation test, but what’s the point?  It was never meant to be fair.  It was the arguably necessary result of diplomatic considerations – racism in fact without racism in policy. Was it morally right for the British and Australians to keep Australia white?  Was it morally right for Britain to colonize half the globe?  Under most ethical belief systems the answer is no, but what’s the point? You’re not going to win friends and influence people crying over spilled history.

II. Bygones are never by or gone

In addition to learning the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Three-Fifths Compromise, the study of U.S. history teaches American children that Americans used to be bad because they owned slaves, but they fought a war, and now they are good. The teaching of history is about what happened, but it is also about who we want to be.

On day 2 in Melbourne I visited the Immigration Museum (Victoria Museums) (map), housed in the Old Customs House.  Sheltered from the heavy rain I lingered in the museum, learning quite a bit about Australian history, and even more about how Australia markets itself; your AUD $10 admission fee gives you the privilege of letting the Australian Government convince you that Australia has always been open to immigrants.  That’s not entirely fair; the museum is honest about some of Australia’s past racist immigration policies, but in its tone it projects the notion that despite a few racists missteps Australia has always been open to all comers. A visit to this museum was informative but left me feeling cynical about Australia’s multicultural agenda.

The Chinese Museum, Melbourne (map), in contrast, left a far different impression; less top down and more bottom-up, the Chinese Museum was built by and for the Chinese community, not as the result of a state government mandate, or so I imagine. Upon entering the museum I was welcomed by a friendly young woman who offered suggestions about what else to see during my trip; this was the longest conversation I’d had in two days.

Melbourne’s Chinatown…

The first floor hosts a small free exhibit dedicated to the history of Chinatown. For AUD $7.50 you can tour the rest of the museum, which is a celebration of Chinese-Australian history. The Chinese in Australia don’t seem to be central to the narrative of Australia, yet they played an important part in the development of the country. Starting in the basement you enter a recreation of the boat journey from Canton (Guangzhou 广州) to Melbourne, complete with rocking floor to simulate waves. Moving upstairs you pass the Melbourne Dai Loong Association’s Millennium Dragon, the world’s largest  processional Chinese Dragon (3).  Other exhibits explore Chinese culture and identity, and their place within Australia. An exhibit also provides an overview of other Asian cultures.

III. How to become Asian

Growing up in the 1980s and mid-1990s I don’t recall ever hearing Australia described as an Asian country; the first time I read such a description it was like hearing Antarctica described as part of South America. This has slowly changed, and there seems to be a coordinated effort to re-write Australia’s narrative. Now Australia seems quite forward about calling itself an “Asian” country or at least positioning itself as an integral part of the Asian community – this coming from a country that into the 1970s had a viable White Australia party (4). The government published a high-profile 300-page white paper in 2012, “Australia in the Asia Century,” (PDF) outlining Australia’s strategic framework to navigation the so-called “Asian Century”; such a report would have been unheard of in, say, 1990, including such statements as,

“Our reputation in Asia remains strongly linked to our landscape and lifestyle, and does not fully reflect the intellectual, creative and commercial credentials of Australia today. Promoting a modern, innovative and multicultural image of Australia in Asia is a public diplomacy priority.” (5).

The Immigration Museum, which only opened in 1998, is part of this effort. How effective the effort will be is anyone’s guess. During my visit to the museum I overheard a teacher lecture her students on the Victorian mindset that encouraged Australia’s racism, “Darwin’s theory of evolution…that whites were superior…”  Perhaps not the best wording. But what is the didactic purpose of this field trip? That Australian history had some bad bits but things are all better now? Is Australia out of the racist woods?  Does the average white Australian see non-whites as Australians or as unwanted (or mildly tolerated) guests?

Opposition to the idea of Australia as an Asian country is not difficult to find on the internet. Ironbark Resources provides, in their words, “educational resource to promote Australia’s national identity and culture, and to offer criticism of mass immigration, multiculturalism, Asianisation and Islamification as major threats to our environment, our people, and our way of life. This educational resource was established in March 1998 as a service to the people of Australia.”

A document on their website, titled “Australia’s Peril”, is described:

“This document exposes how our country’s Establishment has committed itself – both in ideological and practical terms – to the Asianisation of our nation. It shows how the process of Asianisation began with the widening and liberalisation of Australia’s mass immigration programmes; was strengthened by the policy of Multiculturalism (which is only a stepping stone to the “Asian future” planned for our country); and is being facilitated by politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats eager to enmesh Australia with the so-called “economic power-house” of Asia. ” (6).

Whether or not you are in favor Australia becoming more integrated with Asia, it can be hard to swallow rhetoric that says Australia already is an Asian country. It’s like calling America a post-racial country just because Obama became president. Open up the op-ed page in the newspaper and 1/3 of the editorials discuss news from the UK; Australia’s efforts to transform its image may be difficult with a public that largely seems content being white and British…a public that is likely more comfortable seeing images like the one I came across in the newspaper during my trip:

Australia’s Olympic opening ceremony uniform launch (7)

white Australian Olympians.

During my visit I read an op-ed by Greg Sheridan, foreign editor for The Weekend Australian, Asian century will pass us by before this government acts. Sheridan is skeptical that Australia will be able to embrace the Asian century, citing evidence of Australia’s decline in literacy about other cultures. Quoting Melbourne University’s Tim Lindsey, he writes:

“[in 1972], ”when the White Australia Policy was still in place and our population less by a third, 1190 students did Indonesian language at Year 12. Just 1100 did so in 2010.’”

If this is any evidence of Australia’s collective interest in Asia, then Australia in the Asian Century may indeed be reduced to a slogan.

Update, October, 2014: More recent reports indicate that Australia’s “Asian century” is perhaps just a dream:  What happened to the Asian Century? – The disappearance of debate about Australia’s role in the Asian Century reeks of complacency. (The Sydney Morning Herald, October 1, 2014)

IV. Drink it off

It’s not my intention to be unfairly negative about Australia. I’m sharing some of the observations from my trip. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the idea of Australia as an Asian country.

To make amends for any potential offense, my next post will be about Melbourne’s terrific beer scene.




  1. Australia battles with its image as being racist all the time. In 2009 there was violence against Indian students and they left (about 30,000). People still argue whether the attacks on Indians were racist or just ordinary attacks. And they’ll argue whether the Indians left because of other issues such as the rising value of the AUD rather than the attacks. This year, there have been several incidents of violence against Koreans and the media in Korea rose up in much the same way. In typical Australian fashion, the media/police have given the message that the attacks are not targeted to Koreans and are just things that happen in cities after a certain hour. Now PM Julia Gillard wants Asia to be ‘pivotal in Australia’s next chapter’, and she is right to want to get involved beyond messy immigration from misplaced Malaysians.

    I would like to say that Australia is moving in the right direction, especially with the heavy influx of Chinese (and subsequent promotion of this movement) in the recent years. But that doesn’t make it anymore tolerant, or make history look more pleasant. Being in a White and desirable country (like the US), people will want you to stay out and will be afraid of change. I personally went through immigration in America only a few years ago and trust me, officers are still less than polite to the growing Asian and Spanish-speaking constituency. Does that reflect on the US population as a whole? Not in my experience, but I couldn’t say.

    Demographics around the world are changing faster than White populations probably want. I don’t know what the attitude in London is but since reading articles like (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2260067/White-Britons-minority-Leicester-Luton-Slough-Birmingham-set-follow-end-decade.html) somebody must be upset!

    I wonder if the question “who belongs here?” and “is immigration moral?” is going to be outdated in our lifetime due to globalization and other factors moving people around at a pace faster than governments can handle.

    Maybe its time to learn Esperanto and Ethics in high schools.

    In any case, really good blog comparing Australian museums. It’s funny because I would have considered Melbourne to be the “more tolerant” than Sydney. I find it hard to believe you didn’t strike up a conversation in Australia over two days though! God Aussies love to talk.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. A few things come to mind that perhaps should be clarified:

      Like any country, there is no such things as a common opinion among millions of people. I certainly don’t think that “all” or even “the average” Australian is racist. I think what I was picking up on was that the effort to integrate with the rest of Asia will be extremely difficult when people are still reading about the UK in the daily paper. I suspect following UK gossip must seem irrelevant to many Australians of Asian background, and even more irrelevant to recent immigrants. Two divergent views of Australia may be hard to reconcile: a outpost of British civilization vs. an “Asian” country.

      Second, Australia is probably doing what it should be doing regarding its relationship with Asia. I believe Australia is far more open to immigrants than the country I’m living in.

      The picture in the article you linked is hilarious. People in burkas and some fat people (plus a scowling older white man). It’s a lot easier to be negative about immigrants when they are physically unappealing.

      Regarding Melbourne – don’t get me wrong…there was nothing I found there that was “intolerant”…I thought Melbourne was amazing, and quite diverse. My observations are mostly based on the museums, the media, and what I learned about the suburbanization of Australia. I didn’t venture to more than one suburb, but from what I read I sense a similar mindset that we have in America – suburbs as sanctuaries from the hustle and bustle…and diversity…of the city. There was an ongoing battle between highway funding and public transit funding when I was there. I will probably write more about this later.

      • Totally. And interestingly enough, I’ve felt more like I’m in a US colony outpost rather than British. Almost all the international news, if it isn’t in SE Asia, always seems to be from America.

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