Australasian Interactions: Contested Geographies of ‘White Australia’.

Review of Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan by Daniel Oakman and Navigating Boundaries: The Asian Diaspora in Torres Strait, edited by Anna Shnukal, Guy Ramsay and Yuriko Nagata

by Adrian Carton

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The journey from September 11th 2001 to the Asian tsunami of last December revealed something about the contested nature of boundaries in the Australian imagination. On the one hand, the call for tighter security and tougher immigration laws re-racialized the historical moment and ignited old fears. The post-09/11 archive will reveal a story of safeguarding national space from potential threats, whether real or imagined, but it will also demonstrate deep-seated anxieties about the place of Asia in the shaping of official memory, anxieties that future historians will not find surprising or novel. Of course, maintaining an outpost of European civilization like a fortress, perched on the tip of south-east Asia, remains both intellectually and philosophically untenable, yet it is an ideal that seems to haunt the collective Australian conscience, drawing its legitimacy from the very manner in which our national history has been forged. Haunted by the ghost of White Australia, containment is articulated in a political language with a sinister and almost inevitable racial syntax.

On the other hand, the tragedy of the Asian tsunami illuminated the fact that borders can be washed away and that misplaced imperial attachments are powerless to prevent the tidal wave of a broader global interconnectedness. The outpouring of compassion and generosity from Australians spoke of another kind of collective memory: one that was intimately enmeshed with the region, which reached out to Asia, and one that has subsequently led to more intimate relations with neighbours such as Indonesia and India, with whom we are closely linked. Perhaps, in essence, these mixed messages speak of a deeper cultural dialectic between the ideology of national containment and the reality of an everyday global consciousness. Two recent books on the nature of Australia’s vexed and problematic interactions with Asia seem well-placed to reflect this paradox and offer divergent historical contexts that trace quite different spatial imaginings of cultural location.

Daniel Oakman reminds us that, before terrorism, it was communism that provided the impetus for the protection of borders. In a meticulously researched book, delving deep into the official primary sources, Oakman charts the origins, development and execution of the Colombo Plan in the context of Australia’s cultural self-image and, indeed, its political self-interest in the region. The book is concerned, above all, with the politics of aid in the post-war era and the fostering of diplomatic initiatives designed to address the fear that the expansion of communism in Asia would undermine national security. The Chifley government’s support of Asian independence and the moral rubric of the United Nations attracted ire from the conservative opposition, who perceived Australia’s isolation from Britain and the United States, in an environment of Asian postcolonial resistance, as the foundation of its own strategic weakness. Oakman traces the reaction to this sense of threat under the new Menzies government largely through the personality and beliefs of Percy Spendy, the tenacious Minister for External Affairs, and then his successor, Lord Casey.

The prime contribution of this book is that it interprets the Colombo Plan as far more than a set of neutral, educational opportunities for middle-class, English-speaking Asian students. It contextualizes the humanitarian impulse of aid for Asian countries as part of a broader, political endeavour to drive back the influence of the Soviet Union in the region. By strengthening “the spine of resistance from Delhi to Djakarta,” through intellectual and ideological influences, the Colombo Plan became an ideological machine. The liberal impulse of humanitarian aid was couched in terms of an engagement with Asia that served global political ends. Moreover, the campaign against communist expansion meant facilitating relationships with Asia through educational, cultural and scientific ties that were designed to appease resentment of the White Australia policy in the region. Casey wrote that educational propaganda should be able to persuade Asians that Australia “was not an outpost of an alien culture, antipathetic towards alien races” (151).

The book does the hard empirical yards in bringing issues of national security to the fore and the argument that closer engagement with Asia through the Colombo Plan was cloaked in self-serving motives is made with aplomb. No stone is left unturned and the author consults an extraordinary range of government files and private papers to give a very thorough and original interpretation which has hitherto been missing in conventional histories. The most touching parts of the book, however, narrate the personal experiences of Asian students in Australia under the Colombo Plan (chapter six), and the reactions of Australians to their presence, bringing a human dimension to a story which otherwise treats cross-cultural interactions as derivative of the manoeuvres of political players and the agenda of political policy-makers. The “incongruous and contradictory relationship between immigration restrictions and the personal interactions between Anglo-Australians and Asian grew into the decade [1950s]” (209), asserts Oakman, who also charts the often icy and hostile reception of the Asian press to a scheme that was there represented as a strategy to financially appease a guilty conscience.

The author does not often move beyond the public and private agendas lurking behind foreign aid diplomacy and adheres to the official mythology that the Colombo Plan introduced Australians to Asians for the first time. Whether this was a radically different cross-cultural experience for urban Australians is a matter of some debate, in view of the longstanding (and admittedly very small) Asian populations in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, and the fact that Colombo Plan students accounted for only twenty per cent of Asian students in Australia under the entire scheme (179). While Asian students were a sure novelty in the 1950s and 1960s, the most visible aspect of Australia’s program of international aid should not be construed as a unique cultural moment whereby Asia made its debut in the Australian consciousness.

But this idea was in itself an essential element in the Colombo Plan’s self-congratulatory mythology. The protagonists of the plan wanted the public to believe that they were ushering in a magical, new era of cross-cultural exchange. Arthur Tange noted that the Colombo Plan had allowed Asians and Australians “to mix together in a way which [had] not been otherwise practicable” (171). Were Australian-Asian interactions as rare or as impracticable as the architects of the Colombo Plan envisaged, before they launched their scheme of paternal aid? And where was this entity called ‘White Australia’, which Menzies nurtured with imperial relish and which Asian governments justifiably condemned as a marooned outpost far from the maternal metropolis? Wartime Japanese Prime Minister, Tojo Hideiki, infamously described Australia as the ‘orphan of the Pacific’, but was that orphan actually still part of an extended and incestuous global family?

If the recent tsunami asserted the importance of the sea as an alternative historical paradigm to that of the nation and its borders, then the editors of Navigating Boundaries have struck the right chord by sketching a radically different geo-political landscape from the fantasy of ‘White Australia’. Shnukal, Ramsay and Nagata have assembled a fine collection of essays, which interrogates and subverts the notion of a territorially encoded boundary existing to divide nation-states (and, indeed, continents) or as a product of the bureaucratic imagination. On the contrary, the main thesis of the collection is that the Torres Strait was a sea of cross-cultural exchange and interaction which renders any epistemological or geographical distinction between ‘Australia’ and ‘Asia’ meaningless in a specific historical location.

The collection aims to undercut monolithic accounts of ‘White Australia’ by charting these interactions through the experiences of those Asians who came to the Torres Strait to work and settle after the 1870s, largely in response to the demand for pearl shell or to service the infrastructure which developed around fishing and diving industries. The tripartite exchanges between Asian, European colonists and indigenous Islanders, where intermarriage along multiple axes produced new multiracial identities, form the thematic flow of the collection. Concentrating on the main diasporic Asian communities found in the area – Chinese, Filipino, Malay, Sri Lankan (‘Cingalese’) and Japanese – contributors map a new cultural constellation of ‘Australasia’. This is a constellation that does not imply the subordination of Asia by Australia in political and economic contexts (as it has so often in the past) but means instead what Paul Battersby calls “the intermediacy of the northern Australian maritime milieu and the reality of peaceful accommodation between diasporic Asian communities and Australians” (27).

The subsequent eleven chapters chart the cultural flipside of this geographical reconstruction, with Anna Shnukal and Guy Ramsay setting the stage with their racial mapping of Thursday Island before Federation. The island had become the first ‘Asian’ port encountered by outbound southern Australian passengers, where ninety per cent of those employed in the fisheries were of Asian origin. In fact, revealed through the vital description of these chapters, the island becomes a transnational highway where the mingling of “Asian and Torres Strait Islander individuals and families subverted the intentions of racially based legislation and racist officials to navigate increasingly meaningless borders” (8). Different methodological approaches are used to paint the landscape of Austral-asian interaction; from the broad genealogical approach of Guy Ramsay in discussing the Chinese presence on Thursday Island, to the three microsites of Anna Shnukal’s Filipino/Malay communities; and Reynaldo Ileto’s remarkable biographical portrayal of Heriberto Zaracal, a Filipino immigrant who married a local Queensland woman and took British citizenship but was actively involved in the support of Philippine independence from his base on Thursday Island. These approaches combine to expose the everyday paradoxes and contradictions of identity in a multiracial Australia, which stand in stark contrast to the imagined destiny of a racially homogeneous fortress.

But there are also other surprises in this collection, such as Yuriko Nagata’s chapter on the Japanese in the Torres Strait, whose settlement was known colloquially as ‘Yokohama’. Nagata takes a much-needed gendered approach to these interactions, exposing the significance of the role of Japanese sex workers on Thursday Island. In a world where sexual relationships between white women and indigenous men were socially taboo, Japanese women appeased both racial and class anxieties by providing sexual services to European, Asian and indigenous workers. Furthermore, they became economically significant players in the island economy by investing in local industries and becoming prolific players until Japanese women were banned from entering the colony in 1898. Nagata also charts the racial exchanges and interactions between Japanese men and local women in the twentieth century, where casual mixed unions were common despite these men often having wives waiting for them in Japan .

Stanley Sparkes and Anna Shnukal’s chapter on the little known ‘Cingalese’ (Sri Lankan) community on Thursday Island offers a rare, south Asian example of cultural interaction and a fascinating glimpse, not only of the different waves of migrants from ‘Ceylon’, such as the indentured seamen and pearl divers, but of the complexity of inter-racial unions which resulted from their settlement. Of particular note are the insights in regard to the different life experiences of the children of Sri Lankan men, depending on whether their mother was of indigenous descent and they were thus accepted by local communities, or whether their mother was a white European, when they became subject to much racial prejudice despite living as Europeans. These contested and complex life stories of Asian-indigenous and Asian-European cross-cultural exchanges speak of the myriad of ways which Australian identities were being refashioned beyond the whitewash. Moreover, they assert the strategic conceptual importance of hybridity for questions of race and national identity and they speak of the significance of the localized politics of place in any understanding of Australian engagement with Asia .

If Facing Asia talks of a homogeneous and threatening ‘Asia’ that was the discursive product of Cold War containment, it also talks of a specific geo-political construction of ‘White Australia’ that was shaped in the bureaucratic minds of strategists located very much in the south of Australia . While the Colombo Plan was a policy-driven system of educational and social links with Asia, its real purpose “was to relieve the anxieties associated with living next to Asia, to stimulate resistance to communist subversion, and to reinforce the boundaries between Australia and the region” (171). Navigating Boundaries turns the very notion of ‘White Australia’ on its head, not by dismissing its concrete effects and ideological cruelties, but by turning the historical gaze towards a maritime space of discursive resistance in the north of Australia. On the very northern boundary with Asia, in the liminal pocket of Australia’s Torres Strait, Australian identity was transnational, hybridized and quintessentially part of a broader Asian cultural flow. Perhaps, the main protagonists of anti-communist paranoia needed to spend more time on Thursday Island, to get a prime border-view of a society where that dialectic had no meaning, and where there was no distinction between what it meant to be ‘Australian’ and what it meant to be ‘Asian’. The oral histories provided in the last section of Navigating Boundaries are compelling testimonies to this fact and re-insert cultural agency into both the geographical and theoretical landscape.

In the conclusion to Facing Asia, Oakman states that “the fluidity of political and social change in the region, the uncertainty of decolonization and the mounting tension of the Cold War moved Australia to question where the boundary with Asia lay”(264). What Cold War ideologues failed to recognize was that there were varied, multiple and contested ‘Australia’s’ at play in this engagement with Asia . Cultural location and geographical proximity shaped the ways in which the largely imagined boundary between ‘Australia’ and ‘Asia’ entered the everyday imagination. Australians of Asian origin in the Torres Strait, for example, were re-negotiating this boundary some eighty years before the Colombo Plan was ever conceived.

 Both Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan by Daniel Oakman (ISBN: 1-740-76086-7 $34.95) and Navigating Boundaries: The Asian Diaspora in Torres Strait, edited by Anna Shnukal, Guy Ramsay and Yuriko Nagata (ISBN: 1-740-76089-1 $55.00), were published by Pandanus Books in 2004.

Adrian Carton is a lecturer in World History at Macquarie University .

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