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Finding a voice

'The meek don't inherit the earth,' – Senator Tony Mulvihill, 7 July 1994

ON 10 JUNE 1994, a 65-year-old Chinese man sat waiting at Government House, Sydney. When his name was called, Keep Fong stepped forward to be invested as a Member of the Order of Australia. After WWII the Australian government had tried to expel Keep. And now it had given him one of its highest honours. Keep Fong had certainly come a long way since leaving his village in China in 1940.

Keep Fong is my father. His grandfather had arrived in1898 and worked with Keep's father in Sydney. Their wives and children remained in China. Dad was trained to follow this lifestyle but war changed that. He met and married my mother in Sydney. The immigration laws of the 1940s and '50s did not allow Dad nor his father to settle in Australia. Dad worked at jobs open to non-citizen Chinese – in the Fong clan's general store, at the produce markets and in Chinese cafes.

Dad did not complete high school but he loved books and learning. He would point to Sydney University, saying, 'You'll be going to this university after high school.'

Dad wanted us to see beyond jobs as waitresses or on the assembly line at the local jam factory where many of my school friends found work. When I was at Sydney University the White Australia Policy, which had restricted non-white immigration from 1901 to 1973, was dismantled. But the place of the Chinese in Australia remained uncertain and government welfare services for migrants were almost non-existent.

In 1973 tax agent Bill Ling spotted an advertisement about a National Population Inquiry being conducted by Professor WD Borrie for the federal government. Borrie was inviting submissions. Although Chinese had settled in Australia since the 1820s Borrie had not contacted any Chinese organisation. The official explanation was that no Chinese association represented the whole community. Bill Ling and friends, Jackson Lee, Arthur Locke Chang and William Liu, called a public meeting to form a Chinese committee to make a submission. They feared that Borrie's inquiry might recommend restricting the numbers of Chinese and that the dreaded White Australia Policy might be covertly returned. During subsequent meetings it became clear that the Chinese needed a representative organisation.

With our black hair and brown eyes we Chinese may have appeared homogenous, but we were by no means united – divided by politics, dialects, districts of origin, country of birth and class. Some of the newly arrived professionals looked down on the earlier arrivals, believing the White Australia Policy had only persisted because the earlier Chinese had lacked the intelligence and education to resist it.

Professor Borrie's inability to find an address for the Chinese community might mistakenly suggest that the Chinese were disorganised. In the 1970s several Chinese organisations served specific interests while also providing activities for the wider Chinese community. Some had run for decades, owning clubhouses in the city. Dad recalled, 'There were vigorous debates. Not everyone wanted an organisation to speak on behalf of the Chinese community. Some people thought we wanted to compete with other Chinese organisations or subsume them.'

 

AT THE MEETING to elect a committee to found the new association, a Mandarin speaking student from Taiwan argued passionately against it, because he suspected it would be Communist. Few people could debate the students as they only spoke Cantonese. Dad recalled, 'The student disrupted the meeting so badly that Chen Ya Huang (who had chaired most meetings and seemed destined to be president) resigned. The meeting was thrown into turmoil.'

Most people at the meeting must have concluded that the actual work of forming the association would be a waste of time. This was the third attempt by the Chinese community to form a representative association and it too seemed doomed to fail. Most people at the meeting declined nomination. A small team of unknowns was elected. Dad was elected chairman, his cousin, Andrew Hee secretary, Yong Sang Hoh treasurer and myself as public relations officer. The four of us used our own money to kick the project off.

We embarked on a membership drive. Chinese community leaders refused our requests for their mailing lists as we were untried. Dad was undaunted. He knew he had two great assets – determination and an extended family. We would compile a mailing list by pulling out all names in the telephone directory that sounded Chinese.

In the 1970s there were few government services to help migrants. The Good Neighbour Council, a non-government body funded by the Commonwealth Government, aimed to get community organisations to assist migrants settle and integrate. In 1974 the Council had representatives from many backgrounds, including Abyssinians, but requests by the Chinese to affiliate had been rejected on the grounds that we had no representative organisation.

The inaugural meeting was held on Sunday 7 July 1974. Nearly four hundred people attended along with reporters and a TV crew. Dad was elected president.

My interview for AM seemed to be going well enough until Kel Richards asked whether ACCA was allied to the Australia-China Friendship Society, which he claimed was linked to the Communist Party. I acknowledged the contribution that this society made to the cultural life of the community, adding that we were not linked as ACCA was non-political. In fact Chinese had asked about our political position (Communist, Nationalist or neutral) before joining and it was critical that ACCA not be branded as Communist. Kel Richards then followed up by asking why two representatives of the People's Republic of China had been invited to our launch. Stunned by what seemed a ridiculous question, I replied to the effect, 'The Australian Chinese Community Association recognises the Chinese government which the Australian government recognises.'

 

THIS EXCHANGE UNDERLINED suspicions of the Chinese held by many at the time – that we were different, alien, Communists, un-Australian. When Labor won government in 1972, it swiftly recognised the People's Republic of China as the legitimate government of China. Sydney's Chinese organisations had always invited the most senior diplomatic representative of China to its important events as the interim committee of ACCA had done on this occasion. (We also invited Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who sent Senator Tony Mulvihill as his representative.) During the 1970s, people in the west knew little about China. Many Australians must have been alarmed that Chinese in Australia were forming an association that might be linked to a country in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. In fact the founders of ACCA were unconcerned about China, our focus was on improving the lives of Chinese in Australia

In his address Senator Mulvihill acknowledged the potential of the new organisation to lobby government, even seeming to encourage us to do so, saying,' The meek don't inherit the earth. If you don't speak up, you don't get anything!'

Dad held this statement as a motto for a further three decades of voluntary work for the Chinese community. The first fifteen years were hard but also innocent, when many good-hearted people were motivated by a wish to be useful. They would see a need or problem and then move into the space using whatever talents they possessed to meet the need or solve the problem. By helping others, members built more meaningful lives for themselves. By the end of its first year ACCA had three hundred and fifty-one members. By 2010 itclaimed to have eighty staff to undertake its welfare work. The Good Neighbour Council had once not allowed the Chinese to affiliate, but political leaders such as Premier Neville Wran and Prime Minister Bob Hawke accepted invitations to be guests of honour to ACCA's annual ball.

As the Chinese community has grown it has become even more diversified. There are reportedly hundreds of Chinese organisations. ACCA no longer represents the whole Chinese community. Despite impressive names, no organisation has sufficient support to be able to claim this representative role. Chinese Australians now express their many voices through their organisations, the Chinese media, social media and through their increasing participation in English language media as journalists, writers, producers and commentators.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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