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White folk memory a case of white false memory

By Helen Pringle - posted Monday, 3 October 2005


Andrew Fraser is now notorious for his denigration of the civil standing of persons of African descent, whom he labels "Bantus". What has been less noted is that Fraser also targets the standing of those of Chinese descent in Australia. Fraser asserts in his recent article, "Rethinking the White Australia Policy", (an edited version can be read in On Line Opinion) that what he calls "the Chinese colonies in Australia" are marked by "rampant xenophobia and ethnocentrism". These characteristics are the alleged result of an "evolutionary path" taken thousands of years ago.

Fraser's wild claims about the Chinese are supported by no evidence, not even by a quotation from his own letter to a suburban newspaper that is used elsewhere in the article. Fraser simply asserts that "historic cultures of servility" mark Chinese communities. Paradoxically, this servility will not, in his view, prevent white Australians from being "outgunned" by East Asians. Fraser claims, "Within two to three decades, it is not unreasonable to expect that Australia will have a heavily Asian managerial-professional, ruling class that will not hesitate to promote the interests of co-ethnics at the expense of white Australians".

I recently received Fraser's article in an unsolicited email from its author, after publication of an article in On Line Opinion. After I finished reading the article, I went back to look at a beautiful photograph from the 19th century reprinted in Henry Reynolds' book North of Capricorn, a photo of Mr and Mrs Chick Tong. It is a studio photograph, and the couple are dressed very formally. Mr Chick Tong is sitting on a chair, and wears a double-breasted jacket with a watch chain hanging from the pocket. His white shirt is set off by a jaunty little bow tie. His wife stands beside him, dressed in an afternoon gown trimmed with velvet bands and buttons, and also set off by a bow at the white collar. Her arm rests gently on her husband's shoulder. One of the striking features of the photograph is that both Mr and Mrs Chick Tong have their hair braided carefully in the same style, one that has rather gone out of fashion now, but that my Scots grandmother wore throughout her life. The hair is plaited and then wound around the head.

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This photograph of Mr and Mrs Chick Tong is from the John Oxley Library, but Henry Reynolds gives no further information as to who the subjects are. Mr Chick Tong was in fact one of the leading citizens of Cooktown at the time the photograph was taken. He was the manager of Sun Ye Lee and Company, and later worked as a merchant in Brisbane. Mr Chick Tong was also an enthusiastic and gifted horse rider, who participated in the Cooktown Chinese races, as well as taking some part in the "ordinary" events.

Mr Chick Tong is one of the figures in Spencer Browne's memoirs of Cooktown in the late 19th century, published as A Journalist's Memories. Browne became editor of the Cooktown Herald in 1878, and arrived to find a vibrant community in the north Queensland town. Browne found the social life in Cooktown very pleasant, with fine hotels and good Chinese cooks, a skating rink, a little string band, balls, and theatrical productions.

Cooktown in 1878 was in some ways a little Andalusia. It had a Church of England, led by the Reverend R. Hoskin, "a fine type of an English university man", and a Roman Catholic Church, led by the priest Dr Cani, who took his vow of poverty very seriously. The mayor of Cooktown, S. Samper, was Jewish, and Browne notes that the Jewish community there also included the Brodziaks, Mark and Louis Wilson, Josephson and others. The sergeant of police was a luxuriantly bearded Irishman. The court interpreter was Mr Ah Shue, married to a woman of European descent, some of whose children joined the Education Department as teachers.

Like Mrs Ah Shue, Mrs Chick Tong was of European descent. Looking at her photograph in Reynolds' book, I detect a sweet smile on her face, as if she were acknowledging how she and her husband had become intertwined through a gentle love, symbolised in their twin hairstyles. Living in a multicultural society (or any other for that matter) is not all sweetness and light and love, and the lives of Mr and Mrs Chick Tong, for all I know, probably had rough and bitter patches as well. But as an image of a deeply-rooted multiculturalism in Australia, I'll take their gentle assimilation to each other any time as a model of hope over the "rampant xenophobia and ethnocentrism" of fear-merchants like Fraser.

And after all, it was not Mr Chick Tong or Chinese culture that was responsible for the vicious "outgunning" that did indeed take place in the Cooktown and the Palmer river area in the era when the photograph was taken. Spencer Browne's memoirs for example make detailed note of several contemporary massacres of Aborigines in the area that helped to form what has been aptly called our "national legacy of unutterable shame", as well as mentioning the 1873 massacres of Emu Creek and Battle Camp.

Andrew Fraser asserts that "a folk memory still survives of a time when Australia was “the lucky country”, the homeland of a particular people of British stock with their own particular way of life." Fraser's dream of an ethnically cleansed homeland is not a repressed memory of a real time. Granted, the ethnic history of Australia is complicated, and Mr and Mrs Chick Tong's gentle intimacy does not, alas, represent the dominant pattern of encounters of the British with others in Australia. But Fraser's invocation of white folk memory is a case of false memory syndrome, for which no evidence can be given, and from which no evidence can apparently free him.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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