How the Chinese became Australians

Christina Ho, University of Technology Sydney

John Fitzgerald Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2007 (289 pp). ISBN 9-78086840-870-5 (paperback) RRP $44.95.

Politicians often use the discourse of ‘Australian values’ to question the ability of some minority groups to integrate into Australian society. In October, the Federal Government went beyond rhetoric, to introduce a citizenship test that denies citizenship to those who cannot demonstrate understanding of Australian values. This is a fitting backdrop for reading John Fitzgerald’s new book, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia. Fitzgerald, Professor of Asian Studies at Monash University, reminds us that concerns about national values and the threats posed by alien cultures have preoccupied political leaders since colonial times. And throughout Australian history, these debates have relied on highly selective constructions of the meaning of Australian culture and values.

The White Australia Policy was undoubtedly the boldest and most exclusionary articulation of the meaning of ‘Australianness’. This policy, one the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Australian parliament in 1901, was a response to anxieties over the presence of Chinese and Pacific Islanders in the colonies, and restricted non-White immigration to Australia until its official abolition in 1973. Big White Lie traces the impact of the White Australia Policy and its underlying political ideology on one significant cultural minority—Chinese Australians. In many ways, the Australian nation was conceived by defining itself against the Chinese, and to a lesser extent, other ‘alien’ cultures. How did this affect the sizeable Chinese communities in Australia, many of whom had established extensive and deep local affiliations and networks? As Fitzgerald notes, ‘little attempt has been made to fathom the intellectual and cultural history of Chinese-Australian communities through their own eyes’ (p. 4). Big White Lie attempts to address this gap, and in particular, to show how Chinese Australians survived the White Australia era. Fitzgerald compellingly exposes the ‘big white lie’ that the Chinese did not belong in Australia.

The Chinese relationship with Australia is centuries old, as Eric Rolls (1992) so superbly documented, and China is currently one of the largest source countries of immigrants to Australia. As Fitzgerald notes, another great Chinese migration to Australia occurred in the 19th century, with around 100,000 Chinese arriving between the 1840s and 1901 (p. 13). Because of the dramatic impact of the White Australia Policy on the Chinese population of Australia, it is easy to forget just how large a minority the Chinese were prior to federation. Fitzgerald reminds us that Chinese diggers comprised the second largest group of people on the Victorian goldfields of the mid-19th century, after the English, outnumbering Irish, Scottish and Welsh miners. In Darwin, the Chinese outnumbered white Australians until the 1920s, and also comprised a sizeable minority in far north Queensland (p. xii). At the time of federation 30,000 Chinese immigrants and their descendants were entitled by right of abode to travel to and from China (p. 13). The descendants of these early Chinese immigrants include well known Australians such as chef Kylie Kwong, the ‘purple Wiggle’, Jeff Fatt, journalist Helene Chung-Martin, guitarist John Williams, and Olympian Cathy Freeman (p. 215).

Fitzgerald exposes the ‘big white lie’ that the Chinese did not belong in Australia.

Fitzgerald’s history of Chinese Australia provides an important account of the strength and persistence of a minority group surviving in hostile circumstances. Apart from the many layers of harsh entry restrictions they confronted, once in Australia, Chinese immigrants were subject to commercial boycotts and barred from the organised labour movement. ‘They entered communities that valued the wholesome and self-reliant family but were not permitted to invite their own families to accompany them to Australia without suffering impossible financial penalties levied through discriminatory poll taxes’ (p. 23).

Nevertheless, Big White Lie shows that Chinese Australians survived White Australia ‘more robustly than earlier observers generally assumed’ (p. 3). In part their survival can be attributed to the successful social networks they developed, whether religious congregations, native-place associations, chambers of commerce, Chinese Masonic lodges, philanthropic societies or political parties. Not only were there dozens of associations attending to the various needs of the local Chinese communities, but these networks tended to be well connected with other Chinese organisations throughout Australia and the Asia-Pacific (p. 24).

These social networks formed an important mechanism allowing Chinese Australians to integrate deeply into the social life of Australian communities. Fitzgerald notes that while historians usually portray Chinese Australian associations as based on native-place or kinship ties, there is much evidence that as early as the 1870s, Chinese immigrants were organising regional networks that were related to their lives in Australia as opposed to referents in China (p. 97).

However, despite their long and active history in the country, the Chinese were never particularly welcome in Australia. In the lead up to federation in particular, alleged Chinese cultural traits of slavishness, dependency, and hierarchy were portrayed as a threat to the Australian national values of egalitarianism, freedom, and mateship. As Fitzgerald writes: ‘Labour, business, political and religious leaders of colonial Australia frequently characterised Chinese immigrants as indentured slaves or servants of Mammon who could not be expected to appreciate the hearty individualism, egalitarianism and spiritual values of New Britannia’ (p. 7).

The primary mission of Big White Lie is to debunk this ideological construction. First, Fitzgerald notes that Chinese newcomers were generally not slaves, with only a small fraction arriving as indentured coolie labourers. The vast majority came as free men, and were often members of Southern Chinese peasant village networks attempting to make a livelihood on the goldfields (p. 43). Second, Fitzgerald convincingly shows that Chinese Australians were no less supportive of the modern values of freedom, democracy and egalitarianism than any other Australians: ‘Chinese home-town clubs and Masonic fraternities were as egalitarian and democratic as their counterparts in the white labour movement, in Irish Catholic sodalities and in local lodges of colonial and federation Freemasonry’ (p. 28). The prevailing depiction of the Chinese as hailing from a pre-modern, unchanging culture was entirely a product of age-old stereotypes about Oriental despotism, with no basis in the reality of Chinese community life in 19th century Australia.

Chinese Australians supported the modern values of freedom, democracy and egalitarianism.

Perhaps surprisingly, Chinese Australians were also enthusiastic supporters of federation, believing not only that they had a role to play in the new nation, but that federation was ‘a good in itself’ (p. 105), symbolising progress, British rule of law, and the values of liberty and fairness. In Melbourne, Chinese participated enthusiastically in the great parade accompanying the opening of the first Commonwealth parliament (p. 223).

Their response to the anti-Chinese hostility that followed federation was also framed in a typically modern, western fashion. Protesting discriminatory treatment, Chinese community leaders appealed to rights and obligations under British imperial treaties, but also to universal values of the equality of all human beings, and in particular, to the universal ethical claims set out in the American Declaration of Independence (p. 115).

One of the most fascinating narratives Fitzgerald explores is the way Chinese Australian political culture, as it developed in the Antipodes, had far reaching consequences for China itself, and for modern understandings of Chinese cultural heritage. For instance, in the context of debates around national values and cultures, Chinese Australians developed an innovative articulation of Confucian heritage that challenged the traditional emphasis on social hierarchy. Instead, they recast Confucianism, combining it with Chinese Buddhist traditions, as an ethical system embracing the ideal of universal equality (p. 101).

Ultimately, experiences of racism encouraged many Chinese Australians to seek redress in the form of strengthening China, in the belief that white Australians treated them with derision because China was weak and contemptible. ‘The spread of Chinese nationalism among the diasporic community owed a great deal to Australian, North American and European racism’, writes Fitzgerald (p. 227). Thus political sentiments drawn from the Chinese diaspora eventually contributed to the Chinese communist revolution, which, as Fitzgerald argues, reflected mass discontent over foreign humiliation and colonialism more than it did working class solidarity (p. 231).

Fitzgerald’s documentation of the rich cross-fertilisation of ideas between cultures, and the important historical relationships between political upheavals in multiple continents, is an important contribution to our understanding of modern international relations, given claims that our current era is characterised by a ‘clash of civilisations’ (Huntington 2002). Rather than being eternally culturally incompatible, Fitzgerald shows that Chinese and Australian communities have a long history of co-existence and energetic interaction.

However, the other, more sobering, message of Big White Lie is that no matter how well Chinese immigrants integrated into Australian society, they could never shake off the powerful discourse that they belonged to an alien culture. Fitzgerald writes: ‘Despite their modern aspirations, universal values, business success and engagement with civic communities, Chinese Australians could not escape being characterised as servile, hierarchical and self-interested aliens in White Australia’ (p. 226). Even those who were thoroughly accepted and even admired for their business success or contribution to the community were never embraced as fellow Australians. For example, as Fitzgerald explains, ‘Those who most closely approximated the British-Australian way of life earned public acclaim as savvy Orientals rather than true-blue Australians’ (p. 29).

Every minority group has its stories of the limits of respect for cultural difference.

This raises a fundamental question that Fitzgerald’s book does not address: is ‘integration’ the best way to achieve acceptance for minorities in a multicultural society? For Chinese Australians, despite a long history of active involvement at every level of Australian social life, and despite a shared passion for Enlightenment values, as Fitzgerald so meticulously documents, genuine acceptance from mainstream Australian society has always been elusive. Even today, when Chinese Australians are often upheld as a model minority, residual suspicion and hostility are never far from the surface. While economic and educational successes are lauded, admiration can quickly transform into resentment at the prevalence of Chinese in managerial jobs, for example, or ‘Asian’ dominance of selective school enrolments.

One is left wondering whether, for some minority groups, no amount of integrating will ever really be successful. With the current spotlight on Muslim Australians, this is a pertinent question. There is a widespread, and understandable, effort on the part of some Muslim Australians to emphasise their similarities to other Australians. At inter-faith dialogue events with Christians and Jews, I have heard many Muslims emphasise their commonalities with the other Abrahamic faiths: we all have our holy books, we all fast at certain times of the year, dress codes apply across faiths, and so on. Many leaders of mosques have decided to fly Australian flags to declare that being Muslim and being Australian are not incompatible.

Ultimately, though, reading Big White Lie leads one to wonder about the costs of pursuing these integrationist strategies. After all, minorities who attempt to gain acceptance by showing how ‘Australian’ they can be will always be positioning themselves as people with something to prove. What would an alternative political strategy look like—one that argued for a multiculturalism that genuinely accepts difference? Cultural diversity is officially lauded by governments of many modern multi-ethnic societies like Australia, but every minority group has its stories of the limits of respect for cultural difference. This is the real challenge of multiculturalism in the contemporary world.


Huntington, S.P. 2002, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Free Press, London.

Rolls, E.C. 1992, Sojourners: The Epic Story of China’s Centuries-old Relationship with Australia: Flowers and the Wide Sea, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.

Christina Ho is a Lecturer in Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney. She researches migration and multiculturalism, with a focus on gender. Her current research projects are on Muslim women’s networks, safety and security in contemporary Australia, and the role of community development in building cultural citizenship among young people of diverse backgrounds.