Like many children in Australia, I learned about the Australian gold rush in primary school. I learned that there were different ways miners hunted for gold, of Bendigo and Ballarat, gold-rich towns that were inundated with people trying their luck. I even went on an excursion to a place that claimed to simulate gold rush conditions. All I remember of that trip was that there was sand everywhere, and for lunch, we all devoured damper that had been freshly cooked over a hot fire.
Chinese miners were mentioned, but only briefly, and only in reference to the Australian (read: white) miners. The Chinese were greedy, were disliked, and readily discriminated against; we were a throwaway line in an Australian history unit that lasted months. I didn't think that much of it at the time, but in hindsight, this seems a little odd - especially since I attended a primary school with a significant Chinese population.
My parents studied in Australia during the 1980s, and they endured their fair share of racism. When they moved back to raise a family, I'm sure they hoped that sort of racism would be less prominent. But my sister and I were born around the time Pauline Hanson declared Australia was being "overrun by Asians". We'd like to think we're different now, that we are more resistant to this sort of overt racism. But a couple of decades later, many still harbour similar beliefs, this time coated in so-called reason: Chinese investors are snapping up too much of the property market, Chinese spies are infiltrating Western societies and undermining Western values. That's even before we get to the fact that parts of Australia still struggle to understand that China isn't representative of Asia and vice versa. Indeed, politician Elizabeth Lee, a Korean-Australian, was told, "Go back to your country, you're a Chinese spy," when campaigning for political office in the ACT.
But a couple of decades later, many still harbour similar beliefs, this time coated in so-called reason: Chinese investors are snapping up too much of the property market, Chinese spies are infiltrating Western societies and undermining Western values
It is worth noting that there are legitimate criticism to be made of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - most notably, international condemnation of concentration camps (or, as China claims them to be, training camps) that house Uighurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang, the party's increasingly violent influence in Hong Kong, and its regime of suppressing and persecuting dissidents. But there is a distinct difference between members of the CCP and people from mainland China. Just as the term "Asian" is a monolith, so is the term "Chinese". China itself is a diverse country, and that's even before we get to the Chinese diaspora. There is a whole generation of people with Chinese heritage who have been born and raised in Australia, many who have probably never even been to China. And yet, we are routinely asked to "prove" our loyalty, even in Senate committees, and by those who occupy positions of power in this country.
Apparently, we aren't to be trusted. We still don't truly belong.
The relationship between China and Australia has become increasingly strained over the past few years, and the ongoing tension has frequently made headlines in the media. However, when it comes to public discussions, the majority of commenters we tend to hear from are white. It is frustrating to be continually spoken for, and to be spoken at. Sometimes, I wonder how many more generations it will take until we are allowed to truly speak for ourselves.
It is frustrating to be continually spoken for, and to be spoken at
Last year, I endured weeks of racist jokes about COVID-19 at work before I mustered the courage to say something to my team leader. These jokes were never directed at me, but that didn't mean I couldn't hear them. Not long afterwards, I wrote of the fact that for the first time in my life, I felt like I could be in physical danger whenever I went outside. At the time, I thought we had moved past this. But I also thought that this, too, would pass. Unfortunately, it hasn't. Hate crimes - or, at least, hate-fulled crimes - against people of Asian descent (or people who look vaguely Chinese) have increased in Australia over the past year. Around the world, news articles about COVID-19 were commonly accompanied by images of unnamed Asian people - Forbes, the New York Post, and the New York Times used photos of Chinese people while reporting on New York's first COVID cases, which were not detected in Chinese people or Chinatown.
It is another reminder that racism is always just bubbling under the surface, waiting for something to push it to the surface. As a society, we aren't as progressive as we'd like to think we are. The recent rise in anti-Chinese sentiment has been a wake up call of sorts: don't get too complacent.
Despite it all, I am still incredibly proud of my Chinese heritage. I am the beneficiary of stories and traditions that have been passed down through tens of generations, across land and sea. I can communicate in a language that is thousands of years old, one that is playful and clever and imbued with history. It might take time for Australia to catch up but I refuse to be a throwaway line in this country's narrative.
Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of creative non-fiction, based in Meanjin, on unceded Jagera and Turrbal land. Follow her on Twitter.
New Gold Mountain airs over two big weeks premiering Wednesday 13 October at 9.30pm and continuing on Thursday 14 October, Wednesday 20 October, and Thursday 21 October at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. Subtitles in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese and Korean are available to stream on SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Teachers: head to GOLD, an SBS Learn website unearthing diverse experiences of the gold rush.
Join the conversation #NewGoldMountain