They were only protecting ‘white space’

Imagine entering a large city and seeing only white faces. Where were the coloured people one would see in any other modern Western city? In the late 1940s, the only Chinese to be sighted were in Chinatown, in their cafes. There was one Indian shop. A few tinted Mediterranean people sold vegetables and fruit. There was a Greek cafe, usually filled with more tinted people; I have been mistaken for a Greek there. The real coloured were not visible. After nearly half a century of keeping out any coloured immigrants, and more than a century and a half of regretting the presence of the indigene, there prevailed a smug satisfaction that ‘everything in Australia was bigger than anything in the Southern Hemisphere.’ (I kid you not.)

After the war, the Americans had invested heavily in Australia, allowing the nation to become an industrial nation without going through the normal process of gradual industrialisation. The next step was to bring in the necessary labour force to build the needed infrastructure; that brought in the initially-unwanted ‘wogs.’ The country then began to grow. A generation later, the immigration door was opened to the East Asians. About another generation later, the Indian sub-continent was welcomed. This is a broad-brush canvas of the maturation of a people who had previously seen themselves as somewhat exclusive. What the Cosmos has in store for us is indeed unpredictable.

The flowing extracts from ‘Musings at Death’s Door’ may be of interest to historians.

“… … I had lived a long and highly interactive and contributory life, including holding leadership positions in civil society (including that of national president of Australian Rostrum). I had been a luncheon guest of the Governor-General, and a co-guest of honour with a State Governor in 2 capital cities.

Gone were the following experiences: fellow travellers leaving vacant the seat next to me on buses and trams; finding that a room which had been vacant 10 minutes earlier had suddenly been let; being ignored until the last white customer had been served in the shops (my 6 year old son had a similar experience, as I watched, in 1969 in a major department store in Canberra); and hearing some yobbo in a pub saying in a very loud voice ‘How did these blacks get in?’ I doubt if any indigene had been as expensively dressed as we were at that time.

I did wonder whether … the sight of young coloured people, well dressed, behaving with confidence, entering what had hitherto been ‘white space,’ bothered those Anglo-Australians who had been ‘lording’ it over their ‘blacks,’ the Australian indigene. Normally, we young Asians would move quietly away from any loud-mouthed or aggressive yobbo. But one late afternoon, I could not resist saying, as my fellow Asian friend and I walked away, ‘Haven’t you got a mother either?’ By the time he worked out what I had said, we were safely out of the door.

I hasten to add that none of the Asian students I knew in that earlier period were ever affected by the displayed racism. We were well protected by our faith in our cultural heritage. Indeed, my friend Kim, a Chinese Malayan, felt the need to point out to his classmates and their lecturer in 1949 that his people had been civilised for more than 5,000 years, ‘long before the white man came down from the trees.’ I can confirm that it was a commonly held view in pre-war British Malaya. But we rarely expressed that ‘knowledge’ unless denigrated in some way by white people.

To be fair, most of the people we had to deal with on an ongoing basis during those early years in Australia displayed the expected courtesies. They were civil, although more than one said to me ‘I do not want many more like you in my country,’ a view expressed to others too from time to time. (I am certain that the Australian indigene had the same thought over a period of two hundred years.) Tolerance did not mean acceptance; ‘white space’ had to be protected! “