State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 60 Spring 1997


God's One Country: The Depiction of Asians by Australian Children's Authors

Australia's success as a multicultural nation has been one of our greatest achievements, despite what some would have us believe. With a greater proportion of immigrants making up our population than anywhere else other than Israel, and after almost a century of nation building, we are able to live comfortably with such a mix of cultures that we have become a model for other countries. The diverse nature of our population has intrigued creative writers for more than forty years, and difference — always the basis for character delineation — has expanded to include cultural backgrounds. During the 1950s and 1960s, Australia mainly drew on people from Europe, and from L.H. Evers’ The Racketty Street Gang (1961) to Nadia Wheatley's Five Times Dizzy (1982) the new Australia was given literary expression in books for the young. However, in the 1980s the balance altered, and more than 20 per cent of those who came here to take up permanent residence were from Asia. Indo-Chinese immigrants, Japanese tourists, and Malaysian and Singaporean students have made their mark, challenging the Anglo-Celtic and European hegemony. Consequently, literary attitudes towards Asia have changed. Nineteenth-century writers exhibited contempt towards Asian characters; for the first half of the twentieth century such contempt was leavened by pity for the misfortune of not being Anglo-Celtic. As this century draws to a close a growing respect for Asian cultures is discernible, resulting in a new awareness of the ancient and various cultures of the region and a recognition that Australia has much to learn from them. Increasingly, Australian writers for children, almost exclusively Anglo-Celtic or European in origin, confront prejudice and admit Asian children and Asian settings into their writing.
This paper will examine some of the representations made of Asian characters in Australian children's literature, with particular reference to the image of Chinese, who are the Asian people most frequently alluded to before World War I and who have continued to be present in more recent writings.

The Chinese

The eunuch-explorer Zheng He may have travelled to Australia early in the fifteenth century, and it is entirely possible that the Baiini — to whom the Aboriginal peoples of Arnhem Land refer — were Chinese travellers who came each year to gather trepang.1 At least it can be said that contact between China and Australia has a much longer history than the appearance of Chinese characters in our literature.
Soon after white settlement there was official Chinese immigration. The Macarthurs employed three Chinese, and others were brought here as shepherds, farm-hands, domestic servants, carpenters, gardeners, basket-makers, blacksmiths and shoemakers throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Certainly, if the whole of the Australian population was taken into account, the proportion of Chinese living in Australia was not large, but there were places, such as the Palmer River gold diggings, where the Chinese outnumbered the Anglo-Celts, and in the mid-1850s every fifth adult male Victorian was Chinese.2 Such statistics go part of the way to explain the general antagonism towards the Chinese: their industriousness was a challenge to Anglo-Celtic control of the economy in certain areas. The use of Chinese as strikebreakers was another factor in aggravating anti-Chinese feeling.3
Writers responded by denigrating the Chinese, presenting them as curiosities in children's books of the nineteenth century, as objects of fun and derision, or as manifestations of evil. Almost all reference to them was in the context of the bush or the goldfields, ignoring their contribution to Australia's manufacturing and pastoral industries.4
It could be asserted that some writers were less racist than the policies of the colonial governments, which were determined to keep Australia as a stronghold of the Anglo-Celts; yet not one writer was prepared to depict Asians as equal to white men (particularly if the latter were Scots). In an allusion to the Chinese miners, Richard Rowe in The Boy in the Bush: a Tale of Australian Life (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1885) describes how they are taunted by a group of boys, ‘pelting the Chinamen and taking sly pulls at the dangling tails whenever they got the chance, meanwhile shouting “Chow-Chow!” and singing in chorus — “Here he was, and there he goes, Chinaman with the monkey nose.'” Rowe decries the brutal behaviour of the young barbarians, but himself goes on to describe the ‘mob of Chinamen’ as ‘glancing very evilly from under their beehive hats’, (p.215) The Chinese were drawn not only as figures of ridicule but also as purveyors of evil.
The greater opportunities available in Australia to the underprivileged (as the Chinese were regarded) is a constant mantra in the books of this period. Echoes are heard even today. William Howitt, in A Boy's Adventures in the Wilds of Australia or Herbert's Note-Book (London: Routledge & Sons, 1854), puts it this way: ‘And all people are equal on the goldfields; the Chinese fears here no cruel mandarin watching to squeeze him for his gold; the negro grins merrily, and laughs and sings his chirpy, jolly song, freer even than if he were in Africa.’ (p.239) But if fortunes are possible there is always the danger of the despised rising above their station. In Arthur Ferres's
His First Kangaroo: an Australian Story for Boys (London: Blackie & Son, 1896) there is a scene where the young friends discuss the Chinese cook, and while there is agreement that the food he serves ‘tempts the appetite’ and the Chinese are ‘civil, cleanly and sober, and you can always place dependence on [them]', Archie is moved to caution the others about the extravagant wages servants are paid. ‘I couldn't believe it when Aunt Jane told me that her cook — a yellow heathen of a Chinee, like your own — received twenty-five shillings a week … Why, man, it's preposterous!’ (p.51) Archie, however, is a free spirit due to his father's wealth and his indisputable Englishness.
The first Act of the new Federal parliament was to set the anti-Asian feeling in concrete (through the White Australia policy), giving an official imprimatur to unofficial racist attitudes. It was open slather from thereon. Even such restrained views as that of Howitt and Ferres were generous compared to those expressed by Alexander Macdonald in The Invisible Island: a Story of the Far North of Queensland (London: Blackie, 1910). He presents a Chinese character, Quong Lee, who is described as ‘wily', ‘with the agility of a cat’, a ‘lithe Celestial’, with ‘the style of trained Thug’ and ‘a face like a marble cast’ — all in one paragraph, (p.49) Quong Lee is shot by the bad whites, Thomas and Carson, and found barely alive by the heroes, Mackay and Edmund. Macdonald excuses Mackay's assistance to Quong Lee in an oddly contradictory remark, saying, ‘After all, a Chinaman was a human being, and although belonging to a race cordially disliked throughout Australia, the fact that he was helpless, with life almost extinct, aroused in Mackay, who was intensely Australian in feeling, the desire to save him if possible.’ (p.59) The Chinese are stereotyped: the bad Chinese are sinister and threatening, and the innocent are peculiar. Quong Lee (with the good whites, of course) triumphs in the end, perhaps because he has been educated at Edinburgh University and is a government agent, suggesting that there is a connection between racism and class. But Quong Lee's triumph does not occur before Macdonald has let loose several tirades against Asian immigration, including an early reference to the Yellow Peril: ‘The white man canna always have his day, laddie, an’ there are eminent people who think that the yellow man will have the next innings on this little globe.’ (p-66)
A widespread view of the Chinese as corrupt was enlarged upon in Lillian Pyke's Jack of St. Virgil's (London: Ward Lock, 1917). Pyke has her hero visit ‘Yen Foo's fan-tan place’ in Townsville. Jack's informant tells him that the Chinese are only able to have a ‘regular settlement’ in northern towns, and that Yen Foo is a ‘yellow chow [who] wouldn't think anything of knifing a chap if he interfered. ‘Yen Foo's place is an opium den where Jack sees ‘in a small room full of pale bluish smoke a number of Chinamen lying in all sorts of attitudes, with long-stemmed pipes beside them. Others were at a table where a gambling game was in process.’ (p.219) In Fortunatus: a Romance (Melbourne: Melville & Mullen, 1903) by J.H. White, the
struggles which frequently occurred on the goldfields are mentioned, and the victim blamed for the friction. Sailor Bill says, ‘There was a bloody fight here once with a party of Chinese who tried to shove into the field. By the time it was over — and no time was lost — half a dozen Chinkies lay dead on the ground.’ (p.62)
A few writers assessed the situation with more humanity, and there are some notable exceptions to the general contempt. An early Chinese hero appears in Will Aylmer: a Tale of the Australian Bush (London: Religious Tract Society, 1909) by Laura Bogue Luffmann. Ah Ling is presented with dignity, although his speech and childlike loyalty mark him as not quite equal. He saves the children and the homestead from a bushfire, and when the family decides on a celebration after one of the children is rescued from the bush, there is the following discussion: ‘Some of them [the invited guests] won't like to sit down with a Chinaman,” said Annie, pointing to the name of Ah Ling. “Then they can stay away,” answered Will, stoutly. “If they're such fools they can't see a white heart under a yellow skin, I'm sorry for them, that's all!“’ (p.236) As we have seen, not all white hearts were so generous. In The Gold-Stealers: a Story of Waddy (London: Longmans Green, 1901) by Edward Dyson, after a theft has occurred, the author makes an insightful comment on contemporary attitudes towards the Chinese. ‘Already Waddy had decided upon the identity of the culprits who, it was confidently asserted, would be found amongst the small community of Chinamen whose huts were situated on the bank of the creek at a distance of about two miles from the township, and who made a precarious living by fossicking and growing vegetables. Waddy always settled matters of this kind out of hand, and the presence of those Chinamen saved it much mental trouble in accounting for thefts small and great.’ (p. 197) The irony is not lost on the reader.
Perhaps the best known Chinese character in Australian children's books until the 1950s was Lee Wing, the Chinese gardener in Mary Grant Bruce's Billabong books, who is transformed from a comic stereotype in the early novels to become a ‘trusty’ in the station hierarchy, an equal of Murty O'Toole and Brownie. In A Little Bush Maid (London: Ward Lock, 1910) Lee Wing is granted two paragraphs of description detailing his quaint appearance and, for the readers’ amusement, an escapade of Jim's in which he ties Lee Wing's pigtail to a chair, (pp.8-9) In Wings above Billabong (London: Ward Lock, 1935), after 25 years Lee Wing is still so ignorant that he thinks a kangaroo will eat him, and he vents his rage in ‘the most awful-sounding Chinese', (p.103) Jim continues to refer to him as ‘the old Chinese heathen’. But in Billabong Riders (London: Ward Lock, 1942) Lee Wing is accorded a major role in the adventure, mainly as a support for the insecure Rob and as the creator of energising hot stews for weary travellers. There is also a sympathetic description of his demeanour: “That quiet, gentle manner was very restful after the rough loud voices of his [Rob's] former travelling mates. But under it was humour and shrewdness, and a curious understanding of how a boy felt about things.’ (p.99)
Perhaps the heroism of the Chinese people at the hands of the invading Japanese had had its effect on Mrs Bruce. Certainly, John Moodie Heddle's Son of the Sea Dragon (London: Longmans Green, 1953) recognises the enterprise of the Chinese navigators as it tells the adventures of Chan Kwai and his various sea journeys around Chinese ports and further afield. Six years earlier a breakthrough was made with Sylvia Chew's Little Chiu: Kwong Chiu ‘s New Clothes (Melbourne: Murfett, 1947), a picture book for the very young. Although, with little Chiu in Chinese garb, there is no sense that he is an Australian child, it may well be the first children's book to be written by an Australian-Chinese. Sadly, a second book of the adventures of Kwong Chui was never published, and we still await the next Australian-Chinese writer of children's books, although Allan Baillie's collaboration with Chun-Chan Yeh in Bawshou Rescues the Sun (Gosford, N.S.W.: Ashton Scholastic, 1991) shows that a change is imminent.
Official government policy moved to support multiculturalism from the early 1970s, and at that time the tide began to turn in books for the young. Early in the decade, David Martin's The Chinese Boy (Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973) looked back to the Lambing Flat massacre, reminding the reader of a real historical incident. Ho, the young hero of the book, is portrayed as a participant in a rich cultural heritage and yet is despised and victimised by the non-Chinese. In contrast to William Howitt a century earlier, Martin sees the diggings not so much as a way of making a fortune but more as a killing field: ‘Black ropes of hair dangled from [the banner's] border. Severed pigtails, cut off and pinned to the flag-cloth for decoration. (There would be witnesses to say that often skin was torn away with the hair, that scalps were hanging there too.)’ (p.187, Sunbird Books ed.)
Even so late in this century, apart from The Chinese Boy, a Chinese character who is not a cook or market gardener is rarely found. For instance, in two novels by Max Fatchen — The River Kings (Sydney: Hicks Smith, 1966) and Conquest of the River (London: Methuen, 1970) — the crew of the Lazy Jane, a Murray River cargo boat, includes Charlee the Chinese cook; however, unlike his incoherent predecessors Charlee is witty and good company. In Salt River Times (Melbourne: Nelson, 1980) by William Mayne there is a Chinese boy, Joe, and Mr Young, Mr Lee and other Chinese market gardeners. When Joe is abused as a ‘dirty Chinaman’ the racist jibe offends him, but the central issue of Salt River Times is that Australian society is multicultural, and while racist remarks are made they can be confronted and justice demanded. In Garry Hurle's The Rusty Kee Adventures (Adelaide: Omnibus, 1984) Rusty, the illegitimate son of a Chinese gold-prospector, is brought up by Smiler Harris, the false-teeth maker, during the gold rushes of the last century, the boy having been found abandoned on the doorstep by Ah Kee, Smiler's servant. Rusty's mysterious Chinese father is dismissed in a few lines, and no emphasis is placed on the boy's different racial origins. As well as being neither a cook nor a gardener,
Rusty is the sole representative in Fiction of children born of the many Chinese and European relationships of the time.
Recently, the depiction of Chinese characters took a great leap forward with Allan Baillie's The China Coin (Ringwood: Penguin, 1991), in which the main character, Leah, searches for her cultural roots through a journey leading to the discovery of her Chinese family, touching in the process some of the profound depths of Chinese culture. Leah's journey also leads her to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The reader inevitably compares the scene with the Australian tradition of freedom to disagree so that the lasting impression is of the restriction of human rights in China. But Baillie has clearly been moved by his Chinese connections. In the same year as The China Coin was published he collaborates with Chun-Chan Yeh on Bawshou Rescues the Sun, a Han folktale in which Bawshou goes on a dangerous journey to retrieve the stolen sun. Another of Baillie's books, Old Magic (Sydney: Mark Macleod/Random House, 1996), illustrated by Di Wu, suggests a new paradigm. In this there is a blending of old world China with the new world of the Australian-Chinese child. Another successful Chinese character, May Kim Hong, in Carol Jones's Goddess of Cool (Dingley, Vic.: Reed for Kids, 1996) is a confident member of a schoolyard clique, when a challenge from a classmate causes her to remember her years in China and her beloved grandmother. In this novel there is also an amalgam of two cultures and a recognition by May Kim that she must stand by the old world as much as the new, affirming that the depiction of the Chinese has at last moved from denigration to admiration.

The Japanese

If the Chinese have until recently fared badly in Australian children's books, then the Japanese have done worse. Until the 1940s they were rarely distinguished from other Asians. In Coutts Brisbane's The Secret of the Desert (London: Nelson, 1953; first published 1941), one of the stalwart heroes, Captain Girvan, expresses the attitude of many Australians of the period when he is discussing the ‘Chinese’ cook, Ah Sin: ‘Yes, he has a touch of the Jap in his manner. He might be one, for that matter. It isn't easy for a European to tell the difference between them. After all, they're very much the same racially.’ (p. 15) A variant on the ‘They all look the same to me’ mentality. Ah Sin is later identified as a Japanese naval officer.
Japanese characters presaged evil, and there is no recognition that the northern Australian pearling and sugar industries could not have survived without them, or that Australia was highly dependent on Japan as a trading partner.5 The Secret of the Desert is an adventure story about an entomologist found murdered in the Gulf
country of Australia's north. As the murder is investigated it is found that the Japanese plan to invade Australia's north-west. One of the white characters elaborates on the Japanese threat — the Yellow Peril again: ‘Japan is like a hive, with a swarming population which keeps on increasing at a tremendous rate … What's more natural than that she should turn envious eyes this way? Australia would be an ideal dumping ground for some of her superfluous millions.’ (Brisbane, p.16)
World War II had clearly differentiated the Japanese from the Chinese. The same idea as Courts Brisbane's — that the Japanese had their eyes on Australia — informs Morwell Hodges's Bob Berrell in North Australia: a Story of Adventure and Peril for Youths of All Ages (Melbourne: Southern Moon, 1947), an improbable story about two film crews, set in Cooktown and written when racial hatred of the Japanese was at its height. The book vilifies the Japanese on nearly every page. When the heroine is kidnapped by the Japanese film crew the author goes into an almost apoplectic rage over the Japanese gazing at Nola's ‘unbared breast and shoulder, [smacking] his lips avidly, as though relishing some ill-gotten sweetness.’ (p.89) The Japanese were not only potential invaders but also potential rapists, because Oriental eyes apparently found Caucasian beauty irresistible!
After 1952 Australia began to admit Japanese women who had married members of the occupation forces, and by the 1950s Japan had regained its position as a key trading partner.6 Australians were forced to re-assess their attitudes towards the Japanese people. The change in perspective was not reflected in creative writing until late in the 1970s, with the discovery that Japanese culture was rich with adventure and colour. Ruth Manley's The Plum-Rain Scroll (Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978), The Dragon Stone (Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982) and The Peony Lantern (Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 1987) is a trilogy based on the values of bravery, honesty and morality. Resourceful, clever and brave Taro embarks on a quest, assisted by Aunt Piety and others, which sets him against Marishoten, the Black Iris Lord. Stories set in Japan, such as Wolfgang Grasse's Snowball (Sydney: Collins, 1979) and Kenji's Magic Kite (Sydney: Walrus, 1984), and the authentic folktales illustrated by Japanese immigrant Junko Morimoto — among them The White Crane (Sydney: Collins, 1983), Inch Boy (Sydney: Collins, 1984) and Kojuro and the Bears (Sydney: Collins, 1986) — continued this popularisation of Japanese culture. Morimoto was present at Hiroshima when it was bombed, and the affecting My Hiroshima (Sydney: Collins, 1987) recounts her own childhood during that time. Similarly in Christobel Mattingley's The Miracle Tree (Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 1985), illustrated by Marianne Yamaguchi, another Taro returns from the war to find Nagasaki in ruins and his wife Hanako lost. A picture of present-day Australian-Japanese relations is found in Gillian Rubinstein's Shinkei (Norwood, S.A.: Omnibus, 1996). Rubinstein confronts anti-Japanese sentiments, juxtaposing
the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese in World War II with the awful experiences of the Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘No one country has a monopoly on cruelty’, says Shaz the dancer. (p.32) The author's picture of Japan shows how much that country has in common with Australia. In one scene Andrew reflects on the attitude of his Japanese friends (and the profound question of inherent racism): ‘It was a shock for him to realise that Toshi and Midori both assumed they were superior — in a way Andrew recognised many Australians did too. Perhaps every race did. They just automatically assumed they knew more than anyone else — particularly anyone else who looked different from the majority.’ (p.125-126) The Japanese characters are diverse and not stereotyped, and by setting the action in Japan, in Australia, and within a computer game which has been conjured up, Rubinstein creates a stage where the Australian and Japanese young people are equally at ease.

The Indians

Until well after the Second World War Chinese and Japanese characters were lumped together beyond the pale, but Indians were almost completely neglected, even though there were more than 3,000 people from Afghanistan, Baluchistan, the Punjab, Kashmir and Sind, brought to Australia as cameleers after 1860. So many ‘Afghans’ (as this loose racial group was described) had arrived in Australia that by the early 1880s Maree was known as ‘Little Afghanistan’. Many stayed on in Australia to become successful merchants and travelling salesmen.7
Like the Chinese and Japanese, Afghans were denied citizenship and were the butt of racial abuse, even in literature. An exception is Ernest O'Ferrall's The Adventures of “Chunder Loo” (Sydney: Blyth & Platt, 1917), illustrated by Lionel and Norman Lindsay. The book's satire and the Lindsays’ illustrations combine to present a witty advertisement for boot polish, which is a comment on Chunder Loo's complexion. But Chunder Loo is no stereotypical Indian. His dapper appearance and great aplomb — he sometimes dressed in an evening suit with top hat and monocle, sometimes in a checked suit with walking cane — enable him to perform miracles while doing The Block in Melbourne, capturing spies, feeding the hapless Belgians, or advising the French on battle strategy.
Another fifty years was to pass before The Time of the Peacock (New York: Roy, 1965), Mena Abdullah and Ray Mathew's collection of stories about Nimmi, ‘a Punjabi Muslim in a Christian land', offered a rare insight into a little known cultural group. The Time of the Peacock is particularly notable because one of the authors was drawing from her life experience. Although the collection found a ready audience with young people and was widely used in schools, the stories were originally written for adult journals such as The Bulletin. Once again it was David Martin who wrote the first book specifically for the young about the experiences of the Afghan traders,
with The Man in the Red Turban (London: Hutchinson, 1978). In this novel he captures the longings of the exile for home through his hero, Ganda Singh, an Indian hawker, who is travelling along the Murray River on his last journey before he returns to the Punjab and his wife. As he leaves his young companions, Griff and Bron, he puts his arms around them and says, ‘God, He only have one country,’ (p. 164) a sentiment all too rarely expressed.

The Indo-Chinese

By the 1980s multiculturalism was widely accepted, and the advent of Indo-Chinese refugees and immigrants caught the imagination of writers with particular force. The war in Vietnam and the Cambodian struggles offered opportunities for difficult journeys and life-threatening adventures. An important contribution was made by a collection entitled Why Must We Go? Descriptions of Journeys to Australia from South-East Asia by South-East Asian Students of Richmond Girls’ High School (Richmond: Richmond Girls’ High School, 1981), compiled and edited by Valerie R. Falk, and used by Diana Kidd as the basis for her novel Onion Tears (1989). Nam-Huong's traumatic experiences aboard a small boat with her grandfather are related through letters which she writes to the people and animals she has left behind in Vietnam. Gradually the kindness of her ‘Aunty’ and another refugee, Chu Minh, and the understanding offered to her by her teacher. Miss Lily, enable Nam-Huong to weep for her lost relatives and speak again. There is no promise that Nam-Huong's unhappiness is over, but it is understood that Australia will offer her a new life, reminding us of William Howitt's much earlier homily about there being ‘no cruel mandarin’ here.
Australia as the ‘millennial Eden’ is also the import of Jack Bennett's The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon (London: Angus & Robertson, 1979), written ten years before Onion Tears. Bennett traces the journey of a family who leaves Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, when their small shop is confiscated and they are threatened with ‘re-education’ by the Viet Cong. They set off in a small boat, are attacked by pirates, and almost die of starvation before reaching Australia. It is a harrowing account of a desperate journey, but it concludes with the survivors all happily settled in their new country, working in a car factory, knitwear shop, and other humble occupations, or in the case of the younger ones, still at school. They have a small house, and there is no threat of expulsion and every hope of moderate wealth. When the family lands on these shores, there is some irony for the reader in that the newly taught Ly is able to say ‘we want… a fair go’. (p. 145)
Indo-China was also the setting for Little Brother (Melbourne: Nelson, 1985) by Allan Baillie. This time it is the Khmer Rouge who are the demons. Vithy and his brother Mang flee into Thailand. Baillie pays due tribute to the tenacity of the Cambodian refugees. Once again Australia offers sanctuary to the refugee. The idea
that there may be other homelands where there are possibilities for happiness and moderate worldly comfort rarely exists in these books. Always, Australia is the most desirable place to be — the longed-for haven where everyone will help the Asian immigrant. Clearly, the unwelcome illegal immigration of later years is not on the horizon yet, for the slogan ‘No Asians Here’ never appears on these fictional walls. But life for these settlers becomes increasingly less optimistic. On Loan (Ringwood: McPhee Gribble/Penguin, 1985) by Anne Brooksbank is a story of cultural discovery. Adopted by an Anglo-Celtic family, Lindy finds that her real father exists and wants to visit her. The conflict between her love for her Australian family and her gentle Vietnamese father is difficult and there is no easy resolution. Maureen McCarthy in Saret (Ringwood: McPhee Gribble/Penguin, 1987) was the first to conjure up the darker side of Australia's response to immigration. Cambodian Saret and Kanya are illegal immigrants who have seen their father and the rest of their family die in a refugee camp in Thailand. Both young people are exploited in their Australian life and are finally overpowered by a system which will not admit any ‘special cases’.
McCarthy's novel is a straw in the wind, confronting the reality that Asian immigration has its opponents as well as its supporters. Her sympathies lie with her young Cambodians, and increasingly during the 1990s Asian characters take a more prominent place in writing for children and young adults, their predicaments recognised and their contributions appreciated. Steve Tolbert's two books about Cambodia, Channeary (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1991) and Stepping Back (Melbourne: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996), are less centred on his young protagonists’ Australian experiences and more on life in Cambodia, including the period when the Khmer Rouge were in control, Channeary's life, from when her village was devastated by the Khmer Rouge to her period in a Thai refugee camp, is told sympathetically, and when she is brought to Australia Tolbert shows the immigrant's problems — a gentle, quiet Asian girl amid the rough and tumble of an Australian secondary school, facing not only a cultural clash but also the schoolyard taunts of the racists. Stepping Back is set in a hospital for the wounded outside of Phnom Penh and involves a love affair between Somaly, whose father was Cambodian, and Keo, once a soldier for Prince Sihanouk. Somaly's Camodian heritage becomes increasingly more meaningful to her as the country enfolds her, and she, like Keo, is drawn back to the struggle. Only the Heart (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1997) by Brian Caswell and David Phu An Chiem takes the story of Vietnamese refugees one step further. Not only is their journey to Australia beset by tragedy but also the loss of family and community support and the memories of the refugee camps bring catastrophes to the children and grandchildren of the Vo Vans after their arrival. Life in Australia is at times worse than what they left behind; but wherever they live young people like Linh and Toan are determined to go beyond the despair of the past.


Today, writers acknowledge that there is opposition to Asian (and European) immigration, and some, like Rubinstein, attempt to confront that part of the opposition which is made up of sheer racism. But what lies at the base of that racism is a broader question that takes in not only Asian characters but also such peoples as Turks and Lebanese. Underlying attitudes towards racial minorities in all periods is the concept of class. The nationalities and the status and occupations of various characters frequently reflect middle-class attitudes. For the earlier writers, prejudice is sometimes acceptable, especially against the Germans and Chinese; but sometimes prejudice is not acceptable, particularly if the victim happens to be from the same social stratum as the hero or heroine. The crass schoolboys who call Andi a ‘nigger’ in Lillian Pyke's A Prince at School (London: Ward Lock, 1919) are soon put right by the better informed: ‘“You will find Andi is a white man to deal with,” concluded his friend and champion. “He is straight and loyal, and though you may find he doesn't quite understand Australian boys’ ways, he is willing to learn.'” (p.81) Perhaps this reassurance is more of a threat than a promise, as the story unfolds to reveal the treacherous German Bernstein — although Pyke would be unlikely to include a German in the category of ‘white man'. Even today, lower-class or less educated characters are more likely to express blatant racist attitudes than those from the more genteel classes. In David Metzenthen's Brocky's Bananagram (Sydney: Ashton Scholastic, 1993) Brocky's father, a struggling farmer, ignorantly characterises all Asians as threatening, while his wife, an educated librarian, defends Brocky's Chinese penfriend. Warren Flynn's Different Voices (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996) has an Indo-Chinese girl at its centre, and it is the cigarette-smoking ‘brogans’ at the local hang-out who express their hostility, not the more cultured guitar-playing teenagers, (p.20)
Nevertheless, in the 1990s the assumption of Anglo-Celtic superiority, blatant ethnocentrism, and ideas of immigrants as untrustworthy aliens or inscrutable foreigners are not now found in books for the young, even though they may find expression in some schoolyards or in the adult political arena. Writers of books for children and young people generally support the concept of multiculturalism and are acutely aware of the need for tolerance and the acceptance of infinite variety. The dilemmas that immigrants, or other marginalised groups, face are shown to be the perplexities of society as a whole. The contemporary literary climate demands that books about the needs, interests, differences and similarities of Asian Australians will be free from racism and prejudice, although it may still be true that many writers show Australia as the place where Asian people can find a better rather than an alternative life. Lessons can be learned from the literary experience of Aboriginals peoples, who have presented a rich pasture of their culture and its diversity in books for the young. Now that Asian Australians like David Phu An Chiem (himself a
Vietnamese refugee) and Chun-Chan Yeh have found the confidence to write their own stories then we may expect many more Asian Australian writers to follow, providing a deeper understanding of the cultural and spiritual contribution of the Chinese, Japanese, Indians and other Asian people who have been a part of this nation since first settlement.


See Eric Rolls, Sojourners: the Epic Story of China's Centuries-old Relationship with Australia (St Lucia: University of Queenlsnad Press, 1992), pp.8-13.


Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia rev. ed. (Ringwood, Vic: Penguin, 1986), p.36.


ibid., pp.32-33.


It should, however, be noted that in ‘The Missing Fingers’, one of the stories in James Skipp Borlase's Daring Deeds and Tales of Peril and Adventure (1894), there is reference to a Chinese merchant in a description of George Street, Sydney.


By 1936 Japan was Australia's second largest export market, taking 13% of our exports, including almost a third of all our wool. See M. Loh Sojourners and Settlers from Japan in Victoria 1897-1991 (Melbourne: State Library of Victoria, 1991), p.2.


Loh, op cit. p.2.


Michael Cigler, The Afghans in Australia (Melbourne: AE Press, 1986), pp. 1-32 passim.