Squeaky ethnic wheels – the Chinese

Australia is progressing towards free expression; if your views are different, debate the issue, … … Of course, it is difficult to know whether those who claim to represent the views of the community are only speaking for themselves. My friend suggests the latter, believing that most Jewish Aussies are fair-minded. Unfortunately, politicians will grease the squeaky wheel, and the political Jewish wheel is quite strident.

The ethnic wheel which squeaked least was the Chinese one. The majority of the visible Chinese were in restaurants or food shops, and their fluency in English was limited. Where were the educated ones we knew were out there somewhere? I knew no Chinese Aussie until I went to work in Canberra. Then I met a very clever man who became the family doctor. A fourth-generation Aussie, he had a great bedside manner. His first question was, “What’s wrong with you?” We remained friends for more than two decades. But he was no ethnic.

I had to wait until I became the Federal Chief Ethnic Affairs Officer for the State of Victoria to meet the Chinese community in Melbourne. Early in my term there, three Chinese Australians called on my team, seeking assistance for their community. A scheme of financial grants to ethnic communities had been in operation for a while under which the recipient community employed a welfare worker to look after the settlement needs of their people; the Chinese were not benefiting from it. My team represented a new policy: to research and assess the settlement assistance needs of refugees and other migrants, particularly the non-English-speaking communities, and to form a bridge between these communities and those responsible for the delivery of government services to the population at large. The primary emphasis was access to services.

The Chinese representatives were successful men in their own right. As expected, they were in sole enterprises. They confirmed the picture presented to me by my first Chinese contact in Australia in those early days. They were a marginal political community, even after four generations. Compared to this community, I wonder if the Jewish people and the Irish Catholics who bewailed their lot in earlier times really had any substantial cause to complain about; did they have any idea what real prejudice is all about? In much less than four generations, the latter groups had clawed their way not only to equality, but to real power where it counted, in bureaucracies and in politics.

One of the three Chinese visitors who consulted us was the exception to the rule. He had actually been elected to serve on a local government council. He was also active in the ethnic affairs committee of a political party. But he was going nowhere. The Chinese were spread throughout the city, instead of forming the electoral block that they need.

It appears that Australian-born Chinese (ABC as they call themselves) had indeed accepted assimilation. To that end, they had not only dispersed themselves into their host nation, “as water moulds itself into a pitcher,” but, reportedly, had lost much of their traditional culture. I was told that few could read or write a Chinese language, like the ABC of the USA, and did not observe many of the traditions of their ancestors. Chinese New Year, however, was another matter, offering a rare combination of inherited and adopted traditions. Some of the ABC also married non-Chinese, with (from my own observations) full support from their families. Such marriages are successful, I have been told.

Our visitors highlighted a major problem in their community: there were many old workers living alone in the city, with no family support. They lacked an adequate command of English and were not benefiting from the government policies for assistance to the aged. As they seemed to have a prima facie case, I arranged for someone in the office to assist the community to establish a welfare structure and to employ and oversee a social worker. I also arranged for the appropriate area of the department to assess, in conjunction with the community, the extent of service required by their aged. Yet another area would evaluate their claim against those of other communities.

My unit remained at arm’s length from this process. It was all successful and the Minister approved a grant in the next periodic allocation. A worker was subsequently employed and assistance began to flow to those in need. There were no complaints from any source and there were no obstructions from within the bureaucracy.

Not that we expected any. But time had taught us the extent of inbuilt prejudices in places where there should be none. As the Germans say: “He who hath burnt his mouth, always blows his soup.”

(These extracts show the timeliness of the government’s policy of establishing two high-powered teams in Melbourne and Sydney to assess the support needs of non-European ethnic immigrant communities. Not only were there ongoing grants for long-established European communities, but some of these were seeking additional grants when there were no new arrivals.

I was pleased to have the grant-in-aid social workers employed by their ethnic communities accept that the available federal bucket of funds was necessarily finite, requiring the prioritisation of demands. This demonstrated that an ethnic could communicate more effectively with other ethnics than the usual bureaucrat.

However, regrettably, there was evidence of some well-hidden religio-cultural prejudice in parts of the bureaucracy where there should not have been any.)