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Edition 61

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Essay

Only connect

Chunder Loo, Monga Khan and Australia’s fugitive South Asians

Dedicated to the memory of Michael Gordon (1955–2018)

 

THE PEOPLES OF the Indian subcontinent have a significant presence in contemporary Australian culture: as the second-largest non-European cohort of the population (after Chinese-born Australians) and the fourth-largest immigrant ethnic group; as Sri Lankan refugees languishing in offshore immigration detention; and as Melbourne taxi-drivers demonstrating against physical assault. More positively and more individually, we recognise the persons of test cricketers Usman Khawaja and Lisa Sthalekar; author, journalist and former SBS newsreader Indira Naidoo; comedian Nazeem Hussain; Melbourne artist Textaqueen; and Sydney rapper L-FRESH the LION – not to mention that other Lion, the Oscar-nominated movie starring Dev Patel in the character of adopted Australian boy Saroo Brierley. We are also regularly reminded of contemporary Indian Australians by the familiar image of Bengali hawker Monga Khan, one of the so-called ‘Afghan cameleers’ who sought exemption from the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, and whose striking profile features in Peter Drew’s ongoing multiculturalist ‘Aussie’ street poster campaign.

Yet historically, Indians are all but invisible. As is well known, the so-called White Australia policy effectively prohibited the entry of coloured people to Australia throughout the twentieth century, until its aggregate laws and procedures began to be dismantled by the Holt Liberal government in the late 1960s, and were finally eliminated by the Whitlam Labor government’s Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

It is therefore somewhat surprising to find an Indian character who made a substantial imprint on popular culture in the second decade of the twentieth century. Even more remarkable is that he should make his appearance in The Bulletin, a magazine that, until Donald Horne took up the editorship in 1961, proudly proclaimed on its masthead: ‘Australia for the White Man’. The un-white man in question is the central figure in an advertising campaign that ran for more than a decade. Chunder (presumably from Chandra) Loo of Akim Foo is a dark-skinned, variously shaven-headed, turbaned and western-hatted, hook-nosed, bewhiskered and broadly smiling fictional South Asian character, invented presumably because of biogeographical resonance with the name of the product he promoted: ‘Cobra’ boot polish, manufactured by Blyth & Platt Ltd. Founded in Altringham, Cheshire, in 1894 by George W Rowe, the firm evidently prospered, expanding to a factory in Watford in 1905. A number of Rowe’s children moved to Australia: Samuel, a designer of Arts and Crafts furniture and textiles, migrated in 1899, and his brothers Ernest and Herbert followed some years later. With the parent company having been unable to penetrate the high tariff walls of the newly federated Australian states, around 1908 Ernest and Herbert established and managed a local Blyth & Platt factory in Waterloo, Sydney.

The punitive tariffs that prompted the Rowe family to set up their company in New South Wales – the excise barriers to ‘cheap foreign manufactures’ – were matched by barriers to ‘cheap foreign labour’, particularly that of Chinese, Indian and Pacific Islander people. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 provided for the exclusion and/or deportation of such workers, an outcome often achieved through the imposition of the notorious Dictation Test, in which prospective immigrants were required to transcribe opaque fifty-word passages such as:

The tiger is sleeker, and so lithe and graceful that he does not show to the same appalling advantage as his cousin, the lion, with the roar that shakes the earth. Both are cats, cousins of our amiable purring friend of the hearthrug, but the tiger is king of the family.

It should, however, be noted that in order to accommodate necessary exceptions – for long-term residents, itinerants, specialist tradesmen and reuniting families – non-Europeans could apply for a Certificate of Exemption from the Dictation Test (CEDT). The photograph used in Peter Drew’s ‘Aussie’ poster campaign is in fact the profile mugshot from Monga Khan’s CEDT.

The central dramatis personae of the advertising series – Chunder Loo himself, a Bunyip Bluegum-type koala and a fox terrier – were determined by the duo of Ernest O’Ferrall and Norman Lindsay. O’Ferrall, a journalist and short story writer (a kind of antipodean O Henry), was responsible for the doggerel verse that accompanied each illustration, and Lindsay was by 1909 (the year the campaign began) already well established as a black-and-white artist. Lindsay was an ardent Anglo-Australian nationalist, and the visual configuration of Chunder Loo and his two companions combines two typical Lindsay devices: casually racist caricature, and charmingly anthropomorphised animals (often native). However, less than a year into the campaign, Lindsay and his brother-in-law Will Dyson set off for London in search of fame and fortune, or at least some steady work, and from March 1910 Chunder was drawn by Lindsay’s rather less graphically fluent but equally xenophobic older brother, Lionel.

 

AS THE URBANISATION of the eastern seaboard intensified and the late-nineteenth-century bush myth receded, or at least atrophied, the iconography of White Australian manhood had begun to incorporate that now-perennial favourite, sport – a transition famously visualised in an early Great War recruiting poster bearing the text ‘Enlist in the Sportsmen’s Thousand’. Accordingly, in the advertising campaign of 1912, one of the Cobra advertisements shows Chunder as a boxer. The ‘Galveston Giant’, Jack Johnson, had beaten Tommy Burns to become the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world in a match held in Sydney some four years previously, and in this image Chunder appears as a subaltern version of James Jeffries, a kind of ‘Great Brown Hope’.

This initial sportsman image was followed in fairly short order by our hero playing billiards, rugby, golf, cricket and tennis – and then, as the Spring Racing Carnival began to preoccupy the public mind, as an habitué of the turf: as a racehorse owner, a trainer, a punter and finally dreaming of a win in the Melbourne Cup. Whether or not sport was the clincher, the campaign was evidently so successful that towards the end of 1912 the Cobra advertisements began to appear in The Bulletin weekly rather than fortnightly, and they would retain this frequency for the next four years.

Historians of commercial communication may have something to say about the way in which, in their first few years, the advertisements oscillate between brand reinforcement through simple repetition, creative variation within a theme and occasional reflection of current affairs. In the Cobra campaign there are references to (inter alia) the federal elections of March 1910, the passage of Halley’s Comet in April 1910 and the coronation of George V in June 1911, not to mention Chunder dressed as Father Christmas in December 1912 and as a Scotsman celebrating Hogmanay on 2 January 1913. That new year of 1913 also heralded the prospect of a new government, and on 23 January we encounter the bizarre spectacle of Chunder as a political candidate, spruiking the White Australia policy.

O’Ferrall’s caption for this advertisement is in the common mode of the series, from opening couplet to overall metric structure and concluding sloganising sales pitch. It reads:

Chunder Loo
Of Akim Foo
Stands for Parliament.
Hurroo!
Chunder at his

First big meeting
Sends Australia
This brave greeting:
‘You are
Absolutely right

‘When you keep Australia White!
But remember,
Ev’ry man,
All your footwear’s

‘Black or tan!
Keep it sound
And shiny! See!
COBRA is
Your policy!’

It may be that this curious piece of subcontinental Uncle Tommery also has something to do with the contemporary case of Lieutenant-Colonel S Dantra MD DPH, a Eurasian officer in the Indian Army. Hoping to retire from Rangoon to Tasmania, Lieutenant-Colonel Dantra had made enquiries of the Tasmanian Tourist Association late in 1912, only to be told that Commonwealth law precluded him and his Anglo wife settling in Australia. Atlee Hunt, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, declared: ‘It is the policy of the Commonwealth government to keep out coloured people, and although Lt-Col Dantra is said to move in the best social circles, no distinction can be made between his case and that of any other Eurasian. To do that would set up a very inconvenient precedent.’[i]

In the Cobra advertisement, candidate Chunder is as accommodating, as self-deprecating, as Lieutenant-Colonel Dantra, whose letter in response to the ban reads in part: ‘It is anything but fair that I, a British subject, a devoted, faithful, and loyal servant of His Majesty the King-Emperor, and holding His Majesty’s commission in His Majesty’s army, should be debarred from spending the rest of my days in one of His Majesty’s dominions, and a foreigner, with no other qualifications but only a white skin, be allowed to settle down in any part of the Commonwealth…’ Nevertheless, he continues: ‘However, when such has been the ruling of the State, I will have to abide by it. Apologising for the trouble I have given you…’[ii]

 

IN 1913, THERE is a short-lived copywriter and art director’s conceit in a sequence showing Chunder as successively Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man and Thief, but the great innovation in the brand narrative comes at the start of the following year, with an extended series of advertisements headed, ‘Chunder takes a trip home’. ‘Home’, of course, was Britain, and over the next eight months we follow our hero and his friends as they undergo that conventional rite of colonial passage, the shipboard return to the mother country. Departing from Circular Quay, Chunder’s vessel travels to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth before heading north across the equator (the trio subjected to the obligatory line-crossing ceremony) to what was then Ceylon, and its capital Colombo. Here, in a series of three episodes, we learn of Chunder’s Sri Lankan origins, an identification that would seem to be at odds with his north-Indian-style turban. Indeed, it can be noted that when Chunder later dons military dress, his striped pagri and red-and-yellow jacket closely resemble those of the Bengal Infantry.

Ethnographic solecisms notwithstanding, the passage continues, evidently recalling Lionel Lindsay’s own journey to Europe in 1902: through the Suez Canal from Aden to Port Said and through the Mediterranean from Italy to Spain, with Chunder and his friends finally arriving in England in May 1914. There they are met by the partners of the Cobra parent company in Watford, before undertaking a series of London tourist excursions and appearing in another topical scene, in which a hatchet-wielding harridan slashes Chunder’s portrait. For art historians, this image is particularly intriguing. That year, painting attacks had been adopted as a deliberate strategy by Britain’s suffragettes, and Lindsay’s drawing indirectly references a range of such incidents, from the smashing of picture glass in the Manchester Art Gallery Outrage, to Mary Richardson’s famous axing of Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery and Mary Woods’ slashing of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Henry James at the Royal Academy. In all, fourteen works were damaged and nine women arrested between March and July 1914. In the Cobra cartoon the adjacent portrait, of former Australian prime minister and then High Commissioner in London George Reid, is seen to be holding up its hands in horror at the iconoclasm. That same year, Lindsay’s friend George Lambert had been commissioned to paint Reid for the Historic Memorials Committee, ancestor of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board and the National Gallery of Australia.

But like the suffragist campaign, Chunder’s sentimental-imperial journey was to be interrupted by the march of history. In August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.

Over the next four years, Chunder and his little ‘band of brothers’ would appear in no fewer than 175 cartoons up to the armistice of November 1918, with a further twenty-six military-themed mopping-up, victory-marching, diplomatic and demobbing subjects, until a welcome-home parade in Sydney in November 1919. After the Western Front drawings of Will Dyson and the Palestinian sketches of George Lambert, Lionel Lindsay’s Cobra advertisements constitute the longest and most consistent record of Australian action in the Great War, even if they were made largely from the imagination and twelve thousand miles from the front line.

Chunder, Bear and Foxie are certainly the longest-serving, longest-surviving, most flexible and most successful Australian military unit of the entire conflict. They appear everywhere, from Egypt and Palestine to the Western Front, the Italian Alps and the Atlantic Ocean. They are even shown storming the beaches at that legendary landmark of Australian nationalism, Gallipoli. We see them in the army, the navy and the air force. Chunder’s roles include sentry, radio operator, sapper, stoker, stretcher-bearer, submariner, despatch-rider, cook, recruiter and censor. He and his friends are seen marching, in the trenches, manning an observation post, dropping bombs, clearing mines, developing new weapons, manufacturing shells, in camouflage, advising Generals French and Joffre on strategy, feeding hungry Belgian civilians and comforting orphaned children, entertaining the troops, selling war bonds and (in conformity with The Bulletin’s editorial policy) advocating a ‘Yes’ vote in the Australian conscription referendum. Chunder is wounded by an exploding shell, stretchered off the battlefield and visited in hospital by the King. After a brave attack on a machine-gun post, all three of the team are awarded the Victoria Cross. The popularity of the trio boomed, both among serving troops and on the home front, and it comes as no surprise to find a selection of the advertisements being published in book form in 1916, a volume that subsequent advertisements show being enjoyed both by enemy Turks and by little boys in Chunder shoe-polish blackface.

 

THE ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN itself concluded a couple of years after the war, in September 1920. Its final year provides us with the most unlikely spectacle of Chunder selecting land and building a soldier-settler house, periodic returns to the sporting theme (this time including surfing and Davis Cup tennis) and a passing reference to Ross and Keith Smith’s pioneering flight from Britain to Australia in 1919. Perhaps appropriately, the coda was an extended series of scenes involving the Prince of Wales (the future King-Emperor Edward VIII), whose visit to Australia from 2 April to 19 August 1920 was the occasion for a massive media outpouring of pro-British sentiment. In this sequence of ten advertisements, the old Bulletin bush myth of the 1890s reasserts itself, with Chunder shown cracking a stock-whip, presenting His Royal Highness with a gold nugget, riding buck-jumpers and shearing the rams. In a number of them, Chunder’s national and racial identity is oddly, even surrealistically, conflated with local indigeneity. One shows him as a Maori performing a ‘canoe song’ for the Prince, while in the stock-whip picture not only does the dark figure wielding a whip summon generations of black workers in the pastoral industry, but Bear is shown demonstrating boomerang-throwing, wearing an Aboriginal breastplate inscribed ‘King Billy’.

And yet despite such compelling imagery, despite the instructive bizarrerie of its national and racial assumptions – indeed, despite the sheer scale and longevity of the campaign – it is a curious fact that Lionel Lindsay and Ernest O’Ferrall’s advertisements of 1909–20 have received little attention from cultural historians and commentators. It is certainly true that Chunder’s contemporary fame was such that he achieved a kind of immortality in Australian demotic speech, the verb ‘to chunder’, meaning to vomit, deriving from his name through the mechanism of rhyming slang: Chunder Loo – ‘spew’. (Beyond simple assonance, we can also posit a metaphorical dimension here: the violent rejection and ejection of food has a clear parallel in the immigration policies of this period.)

Yet apart from this etymological curiosity, apart from the occasional appearance of Lindsay’s original drawings at auction and of the anthology on the rare-book market, and apart from the publication of one chapter in a recent academic study of World War I humour,[iii] Chunder is, a hundred years after his heyday, almost entirely forgotten. Just like Monga Khan.

That is, after all, our special gift as settler Australians – our birthright, even: historical, socio-political and racial amnesia. Nevertheless (and with apologies to Ernest O’Ferrall):

Chunder Loo
Of Akim Foo
Frets about
Detention, too.

Calls on PM
Turnbull to
Close down Manus
And Nauru

Like the Afghans
With their camels
Chunder calls
‘Remember Tamils!’

Home in Oz
Or overseas
COBRA shines
For refugees!

 

References

[i] The Mercury (Hobart), 24 November 1913, p. 5

[ii] The Examiner (Launceston), 22 November 1913, p. 7

[iii] Crawford R. (2015) ‘Chunder Goes Forth: Humor, Advertising, and the Australian Nation in The Bulletin during World War I’, in Tholas-Disset C. and Ritzenhoff K.A. (eds) Humor, Entertainment, and Popular Culture during World War I. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

 

Note: The online version of this piece has been amended following its publication in the print version of Griffith Review 61 to remove a quote erroneously attributed to Peter Dutton.


From Griffith Review Edition 61: Who We Are © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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