An Asian Beat Rumbles Across Australia

Australia debates a future increasingly shaped by a vibrant and growing Asian community. Part 2 of a two-part series.

TALK to Henry Tsang, Sydney's deputy lord mayor, and sense Australia's ambivalence toward its emerging multiethnic identity.

A native of China whose family retreated to Hong Kong after the Communist victory in 1949, the ambitious emigre has built a prominent architecture firm and political profile as a bridge between the city's white majority and its burgeoning Asian populations. As one of the few Asians in politics and an aspirant to be mayor and national legislator, Mr. Tsang boasts that he can cut across ethnic lines with more acceptance than most.

But he also gets caught up in the darker side of ethnic change: Recently in his Town Hall office, a Chinese student appealed for redress -- a second time -- against alleged police beating.

''In Australia, the Chinese community has been playing second fiddle for a long time. It's time we took over some of the leadership,'' Tsang says. ''My strength and my weakness are my Asian background. Due to being Asian, I will capture the ethnic vote. It's also my weakness because due to my ethnic background, the white Anglos don't know me, and ... probably won't vote for me.''

Tentatively and amid much debate, Australia mulls a future shaped increasingly by Asian immigrants. Once a white fortress guarding its British heritage, the country has refashioned itself during the last half century with a wave of immigration that may be unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

From a homogenous post-World War II society barricaded behind a ''White Australia'' immigration policy, Australia's population has almost doubled and become an ethnic tapestry of nearly 18 million with 4 out of 10 a migrant or child of migrants and 1 in 4 from a non-English-speaking background. Six percent are Asian.

Compared with a world rent by ethnic warfare and tensions, Australians congratulate themselves on creating an ethnically diverse population that works. Enthusiastically showcasing this cultural pluralism, the government last month offered Australia as a model in hosting the Global Cultural Diversity Conference.

''In our multicultural policies, in our diverse cultural practices, Australia leads the world. This is something we should be selling to the world and selling hard,'' writes Bill Cope, a researcher on Australia's cultural diversity.

''You can be very successful here because Australia promotes multiculturalism,'' says Tsang, the Sydney official, who once fled to the United States to escape discrimination here before opting to return to broadening economic opportunities. ''You can retain your culture as long as you regard yourself Australian.''

Just as labor needs for industrial expansion broke down racist immigration policies by the 1960s, so too are new economic compulsions propelling Australia to open its doors further to Asian migrants. Boasting the world's most dynamic economies, Asia is the target for Australia's initiative to broaden trade ties to the region, attract new capital, and lure highly trained and motivated workers.

Asians now account for more than one-quarter of the almost 70,000 new immigrants arriving in 1993 and '94, according to government figures. In Sydney where most new arrivals gravitate, 1 in 8 residents are either Asian-born or part-Asian. That's projected to increase to 1 in 5 residents during the next 10 years.

Buffered by prosperity and a sense of common purpose, Australians are only beginning to feel and adapt to the degree of social change under way, observers say. Spearheaded by the government's push to ''enmesh'' with Asia, federal education officials have launched a network of ''magnet'' schools geared to bring Asian languages and culture into the classroom.

Like some government bureaucracies and the police, the media are slowly catching up with the ethnic shift. Little in its Western popular culture has dealt with the Asian experience, and industry observers say filmmakers are just beginning to explore Asian themes.

''There's a growing awareness that [Australia] is one of the best-kept secrets.... We are mercifully free of a lot of problems that seem to be dragging other societies down,'' says Peter Thompson, a filmmaker in Sydney. ''We've had economic prosperity, and when you have immigration in the context of economic prosperity, it is relatively painless.''

Still, some Australians are concerned that trouble may be down the road as they watch the emergence of Asian urban pockets, which bustle with immigrant enterprise but some churn with outbreaks of crime and violence.

For many, the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta symbolizes what's wrong with the new immigration. With over half of its population of 71,000 born overseas, Cabramatta is regarded as an Asian, predominantly Vietnamese, enclave of disadvantage and unemployment, reeling from a drug-fueled surge in crime and gang violence. More than one-quarter of high-school-age youths drop out, and unemployment is almost 30 percent, according to government numbers.

The unsolved assassination of a local politician last year shocked the country and created an uproar over Asian crime and gang violence, although police maintain there was no evidence to support theories that the murder was gang-related.

John Newman, the murdered politician, had warned only months before of a ''rising tide of Asian gangs, which monopolize the streets of Cabramatta.'' Federal officials have cautioned that immigration is opening the door to Chinese mafia and Vietnamese gangs, raising fears of ethnic tensions akin to those in the US and Britain, which are regarded by many here as racial tinderboxes.

''The politicians invite these people in and expect them to adapt.... Well, that just doesn't happen. People don't change their habits just because they cross the border,'' says a white shopkeeper in Cabramatta. ''Just look at New York. We're headed down the same track. Look at the newspa-pers and the names of the people who get arrested. They're not Smith and Jones, I assure you.''

''There are some people involved in crime,'' says John Atkinson, a social worker working with Chinese refugees. ''But the majority are working hard to establish themselves.''

Some population experts argue the influx has overwhelmed labor needs and is outstripping the ability of Sydney and Melbourne, where two-thirds of immigrants live, to cope. Low employment and family-chain migration among unskilled migrants is stirring resentment, they say.

''Out of that, we are getting some real problems, especially in Cabramatta, where we're seeing a lot of negative stereotyping and tensions between the Vietnamese and the rest of the community,'' says Robert Birrell, head of the Center for Population and Urban Research at Monash University in Melbourne. ''Australians are relatively ... ethnocentric, and adding in large numbers of people of different backgrounds is a challenge to any community.''

This conservatism, even racism, has made immigration a long-standing political football in Australia. Earlier this year, Immigration Minister Nick Bolkus blocked some critics of the government from attending a federal immigration conference in what his detractors said was a move to silence debate. Mr. Bolkus said he was not available to be interviewed.

John Howard, the well-regarded opposition chief, is expected to present a strong challenge to Prime Minister Paul Keating in upcoming national elections. Yet, despite an apology and his courting the emerging Asian vote, Mr. Howard is still haunted by his 1988 remark that Asian immigration should be slowed ''in the interests of social cohesion.''

Political analysts say such attitudes are rooted in anti-Asian sentiment from World War II and convictions that immigrants should be grateful for their new life, speak English, and assimilate. Unlike in the US, white Australians in cities have only recently had to face integration with large numbers of nonwhite minorities and lack understanding of the complex racial dynamics at work. Like many Americans, though, white Australians are seen as ignorant of diverse Asian cultures and tend to speak of Asians as a homogenous whole. Slurs that cropped up to describe Greeks, Italians in the 1950s and 1960s are creeping in again.

''To many Australians, the multiculturalism term seems to be saying our cultural identity will be fragmented,'' says Hugh McKay, a political pollster working on a study of changing cultural attitudes. ''Essentially, the Caucasian population is having trouble coming to grips with ... [the] Asian influx.''

Proponents of open immigration point to Chatswood near Sydney as the successful cutting edge of ethnic change. There, lured by the promise of cheap real estate compared with soaring Asian property prices, well-to-do Asian migrants invest in mansions, stylish shopping malls, and elite clubs. Such affluent suburbs have become polyglot reflections of social shifts: As a sign of the times, one Chatswood bank advertised that its staff spoke Armenian, French, Malay, Japanese, and several Chinese dialects.

YET, while the government welcomes Asia's nouveau riche, both Asians and longtime residents have doubts about their neighbors. An Asian buying spree has boosted Chatswood property prices, and, as ostentatious new homes crop up alongside modest bungalows and a can-do Asian work ethic permeates the suburban quiet, residents wonder what is happening to their laid-back lifestyle.

''Asians do not come to buy property on the open market. They wait until the seller becomes desperate and then buy at rock-bottom rates.... Asians [tradesmen] do substandard work but charge low prices,'' says Stuart Clancy, an electrician working in Chatswood. ''The average Australian doesn't care about money. All he cares about is the lifestyle,'' he continues. ''These guys have bought out half of Australia. As an Australian, I feel like we have sort of lost our seats.''

On the other hand, Asians feel the cultural gap that money can't bridge. ''People are nice here, but it's hard to do business. They shake your hand and hit you in the stomach at the same time,'' says Sam Zhou, a native of Beijing who now operates a doughnut shop in Chatswood.

But slowly, Asian enterprise and a penchant for education are making their mark. ''They are the best workers I've ever had. They are survivors,'' observes Stewart Hanshaw, a supervisor at the doughnut shop. ''I wouldn't mind having more Chinese here. So long as we don't get the ones in the leaky boats, it's all right.''

Of late, though, boatloads of illegal Chinese have appeared on Australian shores, tapping deep prejudices and fears of being swamped by the ''yellow horde.'' Since 1989, when Australia gave asylum to thousands of Chinese students after the military suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, more than 1,700 boat people have landed from Asia, principally from Vietnam and China.

Anxious to avoid encouraging further immigration, Australian authorities have sent the illegal immigrants to isolated detention at Port Hedland on the western coast pending applications to stay and have tightened immigration laws. Recently, under an agreement with China to return 700 recent arrivals, the first 53 boat people were repatriated.

Among those most opposed to the new arrivals are Chinese whose ancestors arrived here in the 19th century. Such resistance within the Chinese community is rooted in fears that a wave of boat people will prompt an anti-Asian backlash.

Edward Quong, a restaurant owner and third-generation Chinese living in Darwin, recalls growing up in Australia during a time when he was barred from speaking Chinese in public and prohibited from owning land. In a desperate need to assimilate, he stopped speaking Chinese and surrendered many customs, boasting today that his proudest memory is lunching with Britain's Queen Elizabeth. ''I'm one of the whites now,'' he says with pride. On the other hand, he says he has little sympathy for boat people who are just trying to ''jump the gun and look for handouts.

''Where do we stop? ... Do we turn the country over to them?'' he asks. ''If we allow all of them to come in, we'll have another America on our hands.''

* Part 1 of the series ran last week.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to An Asian Beat Rumbles Across Australia
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today