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Lost in the Whitewash: Aboriginal-Asian Encounters in Australia, 1901-2001.

Lost in the whitewash: Aboriginal-Asian encounters in Australia, 1901-2001

Penny Edwards and Shen Yuanfang (eds)

Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, 2003, viii + 167 pp, ISBN 0731533488

This timely collection proposes nothing less than a reconfiguration of Australian history. It draws on work that has been going on quietly for some 20 years in life writing, fiction, the visual arts, theatre, music, and oral, and family and community histories. In many ways, this has provided the impetus and energy for new understandings of identity and history. Academic analyses draw these together and provide theoretical frameworks. The book aims to remove 'the Anglo-Celtic from the centrefold of Australian historiography' to see Australian stories as 'horizontal ties, spiritual exchanges, spatial journeys, human transactions and cultural traffic which cut across and interlink Australia's many non-White peoples' (p. 2). Instead of the 'colonial triangulation' of white, black and immigrant populations, it suggests a cross-cultural, convergent approach. Australians in the book come from many backgrounds, including Chinese, Japanese, Afghan, Kanaka, Indian, Filipino and Malay.

The aims quoted are from the book's overview introduction, a fruitful collaboration between editors Shen Yuanfang and Penny Edwards. I'd like to think that such interlinking also now extends to those of us of 'white settler' background who have no interest in dominating centrefolds. Contributors to the collection include John Ah Kit, Member for Arnhem in the Northern Territory, Lucy Dann, Broome-based writer and teacher of Aboriginal and Japanese descent, and Jennifer Martiniello of Arrernte, Chinese and Anglo-Celtic origin. Their words range widely, as do their lives: between China and Darwin, Broome and Japan, Singapore and Perth, 'through Irrawanyirri, Nyungar, Arrernte and Yolngu space and time' (p. 11). They describe from the inside what it's like to experience many-cultured lives. There are also illuminating contributions from scholars who have spent years listening, learning and thinking about our history, and what it means to be Australian. They include Peter Read, Ann McGrath and Regina Ganter.

The book grew out of a colloquium held at the Australian National University in December 2000. This provided ample space for work beyond the academy. Speakers noted how everyday transactions such as food and sport brought people together across officially designated boundaries. Shen and Edwards are right to note that the gradual reconfiguration of our national story 'has eluded much of Australian mainstream media and political debate' (p. 9). Instead, this often seems locked into black-white dichotomies, with little reference to Asian or other influences.

Anyone who wants to move on would do well to start with Peta Stephenson's overview chapter on Aboriginal-Asian art and literature, where she draws attention to such ground-breaking work as Jimmy Chi's exuberant musical Bran nue dae, Gary Lee's play keep him my heart: a Larrakia-Filipino love story, artists Zhou Xiaoping and Jimmy Pike's visual exchanges, and Rachel Perkins' film Radiance. She quotes Marcia Langton: 'let's forget about this psychotic debate we keep having with White Australia and let's start talking to Asians and people from Eastern Europe and Africa ... we could bring our experiences as human beings together' (p. 144). Minoru Hokari's chapter, 'Anti-minorities history', taking up this theme, proposes studying the 'web of connections' (p. 95) between people from around the world, connecting local with global. He looks to places such as Broome as sites of convergence between different cultures and nations (p. 90).

Regina Ganter's elegant contribution forcefully expresses what is implicit in many of the others. Documented Australian history, including Macassan and Torres Strait Island trade, starts well before what she calls 'the moment of Anglo-Celtic dominance'. Southern Australia 'defined itself defensively' against the poly-ethnic populations which outnumbered others in the north: 'This siege mentality has become a core feature of national consciousness'. Mixed families defied the legislation of White Australia to include both Asian and Aboriginal members, and 'have become an integral part of indigenous identity', embracing creoleness. Today, the fastest-growing section of the Australian population is of mixed parentage. Histories relevant to the future will need to 'pin themselves on the crossroads of culture contact', she says (pp. 81-2).

The contributors are right to look to the future. While fully acknowledging the violence and ugliness of past relationships, we all now need to move forward together. This book abounds in strategies: a shift of historical consciousness from top-down pronouncements and master narratives to creating meeting places for exchanges; listening to those from mixed backgrounds who exemplify and understand our cross-cultural past and present; respecting and valuing difference and welcoming commonalities; and engaging creatively with the Asia-Pacific region of which Australia has long been part.

In the towns, cities and outstations of Australia are living national treasures whose stories can enrich us all. In our libraries, museums, archives and households are documents, artefacts and thousands of hours of oral histories recorded with these people and others now dead. They would amply repay further exploration. (1) All round the country family and local historians and storytellers are fuelled by a burning need to find out who they are and where they come from. Their voices are increasingly heard in the national conversation. If academic historians can tap into these resources in the same way as this collection does, we can all move forward with confidence and pride.


(1.) See, for example, my National Library of Australia interviews with Zhou Xiaoping (TRC 3491); Eddie Quong (TRC 3005); Carol Tang Wei (TRC 4829); Leslie Yuen (TRC 3451) (joint interviewers Daryl Chin and Des Yuen); Charles Tsang See-Kee (TRC 2905); Lady Jessie Kearney (TRC 3539); Ray Chin (TRC 3542); Dr Richard Lim (TRC 3503); Dr David Lo (TRC 3216); Ernie Chin (TRC 3007); Joe Sarib (TRC 3665) (joint interviewer Daryl Chin); Dr Chan Lui-Lee (TRC 3664); Guat Sim Hayward (TRC 3628); Hong Lim (TRC 3502), and others. Summaries available at <>; tapes and transcripts can be ordered through any library.

Diana Giese, independent historian <>
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Author:Giese, Diana
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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