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  Issue No 85 Official Organ of LaborNet 23 February 2001  

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Review

Beyond a White Australia

Ien Ang Extracted from Alter/Asians - (Pluto Press, 2001)

As we ponder the One Nation renaissance, a new book challenges the current debates around xenophobia and the perceived threat of danger from Asia.

 
 

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'Asians in Australia', 'Australians in Asia', the so-called 'Asianisation of Australia': these are controversial topics in contemporary Australia. Pauline Hanson was only the latest public figure - after Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard in the 1980s and many before them - to make a political mark by voicing an explicit antagonism against 'too many Asians' in this country. But who has the authority to determine how much is 'too many'?

During the White Australia policy years, the very presence of Asians was considered a blemish on the ideal image of the white island continent, and as a nation Australia defined itself explicitly away from its regional Asian context, clinging desperately to its uneasy status as a far-flung outpost of Europe. On the brink of the 21st century, however, this quaint idea seems to have been replaced by the notion that Australia's location and destiny is, willy nilly, 'in Asia'. What are the cultural implication of this shift? And how does the idea of 'Australia in Asia' relate to the increasing visibility of 'Asians in Australia'?

Since the abolition of the White Australia policy in the early 1970s, when a 'non-discriminatory' immigration policy was put in place, the number of migrants from diverse Asian backgrounds has steadily increased. By the mid-1990s, statistical estimates suggest that about 5 percent of the population is of 'Asian' extraction. Pauline Hanson's popularity, while short-lived, is a clear indication that many Australians think this is already far too high a number.

Others who want to counter Hanson's anti-Asian racism struggle hard to deny this. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, for example, reassures us that 5 percent is hardly a case of being 'swamped'. At the same time, however, when (mostly Asian or other non-European) refugees arrive on Australian shores, the deep-seated fears around the violability of the nation's borders in the Asian region are brought to the surface, with Ruddock responding to the often near-hysterical mainstream public opinion by emphasising the criminality of their entry and increasing border surveillance.

The very controversy over percentages and coastal vigilance betrays a persistent underlying anxiety about Australia's 'Asianised' future. Five percent may not be 'too many', but what about 10, 25 or 50 percent? 'Too many' for whom? This hypothesising over numbers is based on the tacit assumption that there is a line to be drawn somewhere, where the 'benefits' of having Asians around will supposedly be outweighed by its 'disadvantages', where the 'danger' of being 'swamped by Asians' does apparently become a reality.

It is an arid, managerialist discourse which is generally being fought out over the heads of Asians themselves: they are reduced to being objects to be counted, and to be held in check. Too often, then, Asians in Australia (or, more assertively, Asian Australians) are still voiceless pawns in the public discussion about the present and future shape and formation of Australian culture (Ang 1999). Intellectual engagement with Asia/Australia relationships is intense, but its articulation remains ambivalent and still biased towards a sense of panic or alarm. Despite the rhetoric of tolerance, the presence of Asians within Australia continues to be seen as a problem for social cohesion, and Australia's regional engagement with Asia is seen either as a political liability or a mere conduit for economic prosperity (via trade, tourism or educational export).

Yet the demographic changes reflected by statistical figures are very real, and whether Pauline Hanson or Philip Ruddock likes it or not, they cannot fail to produce profound social and cultural change in the coming decades, influenced and energised by the active work, participation and interventions of people of diverse Asian backgrounds in the public culture of Australian life. In the process they will contribute increasingly, and in varying ways, to the transformation of the very meaning and substance of 'Australian culture' - in art and everyday life, in media and popular culture.

Already, to take a simple and stereotypical example, Australian cuisine is routinely evoked in terms of its 'fusion' with Asian ingredients, spices and tastes. Whether or not such transformations can be described in terms of an 'Asianisation' of Australia - or better, 'Asianisations' - is less important than the fact that they will take place, gradually but inevitably. Yet there has hardly been any serious intellectual reflection so far on these cultural developments, their complex social and political implications, and the multiple contestations and contradictions necessarily attending them.

Most importantly, there is still hardly any public recognition in Australia of Asian Australians as subjects of representation, as intellectuals, artists or writers vigorously intervening in and making inroads into the dominant culture, and as active makers of culture in their own right, whether confined within their particular migrant communities or, more ambitiously, in dynamic exchange and interaction with their 'non-Asian' partners, co-workers, colleagues, and co-citizens. There is even less recognition of the complex set of transnational relations and cross-cultural social formations of Asian Australians, connections that may be social, political and economic and which may span several continents and dramatically impact upon the everyday experiences of Asians living in Australia and, in turn, on Australian culture more generally.

This book aims to open up the emergent cultural space of Asian Australia through a decisive shift away from the all-too-familiar treatment of 'Asians' as Other. Featuring essays by both Asian and non-Asian cultural researchers and critics living and working in Australia, the book critically overturns the unhelpful absolute dichotomy between 'Asia/Asians' and 'Australia/Australians', 'us' versus 'them', 'here' versus 'there', that still dominates public discourse in this country. Moving beyond such binary oppositions, this book gives a kaleidoscopic (and by no means comprehensive) view of the ways in which 'Asia' and 'Australia' are already thoroughly intertwined in everyday culture and in the imagined worlds of Australians of both Asian and non-Asian backgrounds.

As such, it creates an opening for new kinds of identities and affiliations, new ways of thinking and political possibilities for the 21st century. At the same time it recognises the hybrid category 'Asian Australian' as a contradictory site of cultural struggle for membership in the wider society, and the key role played by young people in this contemporary cultural negotiation, whether they be cultural producers, academics or others. The authors of these essays contribute to a deeper understanding and appreciation of an evolving cultural and political cosmopolitanism in Australia, without ignoring the continuing geopolitical tensions, racialised animosities and experiential frictions as Australia moves into a new century in an increasingly transnational, globalised world.

Perspectives that illuminate the extraordinary diversity of the social and cultural experiences of Asian Australians themselves, as they become an integral part of a multicultural Australia and actively participate in weaving the fabric of Australian public life, are still rare. Nor has there been much consideration of the dynamic scene of Asian cultural production in Australia (through art, literature and performance), where new and hybrid Asian-Australian identities are explored, negotiated or contested. The first two parts of this book focus on these themes, and stress the creativity and imaginativeness of Asian-Australian agency in challenging times and sometimes conflictive spaces. Part Three of the book focuses on the ways Asian popular culture and media are becoming part of the Australian cultural landscape. As the variegated presences of 'Asia' in Australia become increasingly ordinary through popular culture and media, Australian tastes and cultural connoisseurship are also challenged and interrogated, and consequently, as has already become clear through the growing influence of indigenous cultural expression on mainstream Australian culture, notions of cultural difference and fracture are being inserted into the very core of Australianness itself.

The increasing visibility of 'Asia' and 'Asians' in Australia is propelling a rethinking of the received parameters of multiculturalism in this country. It is well known that, when the notion of a 'multicultural Australia' first began to be formulated in the 1970s, it was primarily a recognition of the persistent cultural difference of non-British ethnic groups who came to Australia in the postwar immigration boom, mainly southern and eastern Europeans. In other words, in Australia - unlike, for example, the United States - multiculturalism in its original incarnation was a predominantly European affair in both cultural and 'racial' terms. In this respect, the later arrival of people of Asian backgrounds - most prominently Indo-Chinese refugees in the 1970s, business migrants from several East and Southeast Asian countries in the 1980s and 1990s, and mainland Chinese students in the wake of the Beijing massacre in 1989 - produced a qualitative rupture in the vision of racial homogeneity and essential Europeanness that was implicit in Australian multiculturalism: the cultural difference and diversity they introduced was arguably far more challenging to a mainstream Australia traditionally so insistent on its espousal of racial and cultural whiteness as the core of national identity.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the spectre of an 'Asianisation' of Australia is widely experienced as a threat. One could argue, of course, that a similar 'Italianisation' or 'Mediterraneanisation', for example, was once just as threatening for Anglo-Celtic Australia - something we can hardly imagine today as Mediterranean cultural practices such as drinking coffee and wine and alfresco dining have become so thoroughly mainstreamed (which, however, by no means implies a full emancipation of earlier European migrants within the Australian establishment). In this sense, one could expect that the Australian cultural embrace of 'Asia', at least at a superficial level, may just be a matter of time. However, the sense of danger associated with 'Asianisation' is more than a question of cultural xenophobia; it is intensified by the paradoxical geographical positioning of Australia, far from Europe and on the margins of Asia, an isolation that is manifest in persistent popular discourses on the 'distance' of Australia from the centres of US and European cultural and political power and influence, and on public debates on the 'place' of Australia, 'in' or 'out' of Asia, as quintessential to the nation's selfhood.

The title of this book, Alter/Asians, is meant to challenge the categorical otherness that is still imputed to Asia and Asians in Australia. The predominant definition of Asianness in Australia still depends on the lumping together of all of 'Asia' as if it were a monolithic entity, on a process of racial/cultural Othering that still continues to be reproduced, for example, in media representations of 'Asia' or even in some well-intentioned efforts to bring 'Asian' art to the Australian public. Paradoxically, however, one might speculate that it is precisely the perceived absolute difference - the felt incommensurability - of all people and things 'Asian' that has impelled the sense of urgency with which the relationship between 'Asia' and 'Australia' has been addressed in the closing years of the 20th century. Time and again the need for active engagement, enmeshment, involvement has been expressed (FitzGerald 1997; Milner & Quilty 1996). As a result, it is the interface between 'Asia' and 'Australia' that has become the site of cultural negotiation and contestation - a process in which an increasing number of Asian Australians take an active part.

'Hybridity' is a key term in discussing and thinking through the conflictive complexities of this new field of cross-cultural, intercultural, transcultural encounters between 'Asia' and 'Australia'. Unlike the increasingly stale term 'multiculturalism', which has been criticised because it encourages different groups to reify their individual and collective cultures and the fixity of their identities (Stratton 1998), hybridity, itself a heavily contested term - as several essays in this collection explore further - stresses mixture, cultural interchange, and mutual cross-fertilisation. But this emphasis on the productivity of interaction between cultures shouldn't be reduced simply to a triumphant 'celebration of cultural diversity' or the harmonious merging of cultural differences. On the contrary, the hybridisation of contemporary culture is also a process of disruption, disarticulation, critical interrogation: intercultural contact and the intermingling of different cultural groups, traditions and forms also always involves the destabilisation and contestation of prevailing cultural purities, essentialisms and chauvinisms. In other words, the concept of hybridity, used critically, involves 'an antithetical movement of coalescence and antagonism, with the unconscious set against the intentional, the organic against the divisive, the generative against the undermining'.

It is this concurrent dynamics of continuity and discontinuity, fusion and conflict, that we also wish to highlight in the title Alter/Asians. The slash between 'Alter' and 'Asians' indicates the simultaneous joining and breaking, the cut-and-mix processes of Asia/Australia relations and Asian-Australian identity formation - it both links and splits, connects and disconnects. This captures the intricate and heterogeneous entanglements and interconnections that all Australians - regardless of race and ethnicity - already face on a daily basis, whether through direct social contact or mediated through the newspaper and television, or in art and literature, reconfiguring the relationship of 'Asia' and 'Australia' beyond the static binaries of the past.

This brings us to a third arena in which an older notion of multiculturalism is being put into question. Multiculturalism's traditional concern with 'migrants' and ethnicity has implicitly and explicitly focused on the enclosure of national boundaries: its main aim is to redefine the national culture and the place of immigrants within the Australian nation. In this sense, multiculturalism is the equivalent of a mode of nationalism designed to manage diversity within the nation's borders. More recently, however, this model of multiculturalism has been eroded by the increasing importance of transnational connections and diasporic linkages in the cultural identifications of migrants, and by the process of globalisation more generally.

These relations frequently become a source of anxiety in public discourse about the risks of migrants bringing 'homeland politics' to Australia or maintaining political and economic loyalties elsewhere. Nevertheless, the increasing complexity and importance of these transnational and diasporic social formations is undeniable, and has become linked to the growth of cosmopolitan cultures in an age when cultural and economic flows between people and nations are enhanced by already existing cross-border relations such as those of migrants. In this context, the representation of Asians 'here' is inextricably linked to that of Asia 'there', making porous the boundaries between 'Asia' and 'Australia' and unsettling the reassuring separateness of the nation-state as a distinct and self-enclosed cultural entity.

The term 'Alter/Asians', in short, is designed to maintain a dynamic spirit of (dis)comfort and defiance in the (self)representation of Asian-Australian identities. The sense of panic and alarm most recently reinvoked by Pauline Hanson and her ilk is not usefully countered by a flat denial of the necessary frictions and strife that go with the widening and deepening of cultural differentiation within the nation - a strategy too often deployed by well-meaning liberal pluralists eager to affirm, as an article of faith, the positive value of 'cultural diversity'. On the contrary, what is needed are serious cultural interventions able to direct the conversation not only to the creative cross-fertilisations but also to the intercultural misunderstandings, difficulties, dissensus and discord. Asian Australians are here to stay, in ever greater numbers, and it is the difference that their presence makes in the Australian cultural landscape that is the focus of Alter/Asians. At the same time, this book will complicate the multiple relationships between 'Asia' and 'Australia', as each of these terms stands for shifting meanings and heterogeneous modes of significance, not only in relation to each other but also in connection with other important constituencies in the Australian context.


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*  Review: Beyond a White Australia
As we ponder the One Nation renaissance, a new book challenges the current debates around xenophobia and the perceived threat of danger from Asia.
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