In 1977, we were the first wave of Vietnamese to hit suburban Sydney. My hair was the first thing the kids at school noticed. Thick, wiry, unencumbered by products, my plume fanned out like a black lacquered miso bowl turned upside down. It was a source of tactile intrigue; just about everyone in my class had a go at patting that bowl. Eventually most of the primary school had a go.
Once the novelty wore off, it was my eyes. Ordinary to me, but apparently they slanted — “socket head”, “slant eye”, “slanty eye”, “ching chong”, “slap head” — I bore the painful slurs and queer looks daily for the first few months.
Not content with patting my head, commenting on my eyes, now they wanted me to talk. The first questions were always, “where do you come from? China? Japan?”. Painfully shy, I always disappoint mumbling, “Vietnamese”. Blank look all round. Not knowing what to do, they decide on stretching out their own eyes and continue to cry “slant eye” until they got bored and walked off, leaving me a trembling mess.
Too often we rush to “call out” racism. But how much of that is ignorance?
Then in high school it was the gay thing: “you like disco, don’t you”, “you’re a faggot, aren’t you?” I’d keep my head down, hug my backpack and walk through them as fast as I could. Once I attempted to get fit by jogging around the block. Within five minutes, the lads in a passing car screamed out “you run like a faggot”. This is where you’d expect me to call out Australia for being a racist and homophobic country.
I won’t. Because it’s not true.
Being Asian didn’t restrict my opportunities in Australia
Overwhelmingly, Australians have been kind, generous and afforded me a fair go. Neighbours, friends, school and uni mates make more of an effort to stay in touch than I do. As a child from a penniless family, I have benefited from public housing and free university education. Today, I run an advertising agency that is part of a global communications group.
I reckon being Asian didn’t restrict my opportunities in Australia. In contrast, my step-sister in Vietnam, during the darkest years, had to pick through the rubbish tip for scrap to sell. She didn’t get to go to uni. With a little help from us, her family is now in a much better place, though her health never recovered from those hard years. So you think I’m one of the few exceptions, a strong-willed survivor? My partner will tell you I’m a wimp, that I have a ‘girly’ voice and that I’m overly sensitive — far from being a fine, survival-of-the-fittest specimen. There are many success stories judging by the names at the top of the HSC honours list. While I get around in a Hyundai i30, others in Cabramatta are floating past in beaming Mercs.
My partner’s grandfather isn’t a racist, though the first meeting was awkward. From Far North Queensland, Granddad fought against the Japanese in WWII. He hated the Japs and he wanted me to know he hated them. After visiting with us for a few weeks in Sydney, his attitude changed. He got to know someone from an Asian culture and found, surprisingly we’re not all that different. Years later, back home, during the rise of Pauline Hanson, he became a vocal defender of the “Asians”. It was the same at primary and high school, many of the “racist” students, once they got past the physical difference, became my friends.
Playing the victim gives them power. It’s defeatist, an admission that attitudes can’t be changed.
Too often we rush to “call out” racism. But how much of that is ignorance? Ironically, by rushing in with the racist slur, we divide rather than unite. It’s easier to revert to labels than to understand the cause — Is the person worried about their job? Do they understand other cultures and religions? It’s an easy option to call it out and disengage with them. I believe people’s attitude can change when they are engaged and when they are exposed to people of different cultures. One in three people in Sydney speak a language other than English — diversity is the norm for our children. They are already engaged. The future is bright.
For now, playing the victim gives them power. It’s defeatist, an admission that attitudes can’t be changed. When I was a local government councillor in Fairfield, the residents claimed the authorities and police were “racist” by containing the drug problem in Cabramatta. The improvements in policing didn’t come from labelling the authorities racist. It came when we united and engaged and successfully lobbied for a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Cabramatta Police resources in 2000.
While I appreciate well-meaning people calling out racism in solidarity, sometimes we need to think twice. Stephen Fry quit twitter recently, disillusioned because that community has become “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended — worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know”. The current US Presidential race is a case in point. Despite seemingly anti-Latino policies such as building a wall along the US-Mexico border, Donald Trump won the Latino vote in the Nevada caucus (admittedly the exit polling sample was low). Howard’s anti-asylum seekers policy were backed by the Vietnamese community leadership because they believed them to be economic refugees. When we visit my family in Vietnam, my partner is a constant source of attention. The children run up to poke his belly, stretch his chest hair and rub his head. Fluent in Vietnamese he frequently overhears people remark how obese and clumsy he is.
Racism? Or ignorance?
Thang Ngo served as a local councillor in Fairfield for nine years (1999–2008). He is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, part of IPG Mediabrands, and publishes the noodlies food blog.
Two hours of fast paced, commercial-free, live radio. Simon was in his element, and I was on my toes the whole time. The team put together some fantastic content, looking at the old and new – with particular focus on the second generation.
This article by Thang Ngo was first published on SBS World News.
Major Western companies – from the big banks and supermarket chains, to department stores and luxury cosmetic brands – are splashing out on Lunar New Year campaigns. And the budgets are only going to get bigger.
When Mark Zuckerberg, one of the world’s most powerful media owners, releases a Lunar New Year greeting video, you know this Asian cultural celebration is now a ‘mainstream’ event in the West.
“Last night at Facebook, we hosted our annual Lunar New Year celebrations…we have the honour of hosting famous chefs from China… for everyone at Facebook to experience,” announced a beaming Zuckerberg, together with wife and new baby daughter, via his Facebook page. They also took the opportunity to reveal their daughter’s Chinese name – Chen Mingyu.
Closer to home, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull used the occasion to link the New Lunar Year to his government’s key values of optimism, agility and innovation. In his Chinese New Year greeting message, the Australian PM said: “The Year of the Monkey highlights the value of agility, confidence, inventiveness and leadership”.
For nine years (1999-2008), I served as an elected local government councillor in Fairfield, one of the most diverse in the country – home to the largest Vietnamese community in Australia and also a large number of Chinese migrants. We tried with limited success to put Lunar New Year on the map. While the festival was celebrated with great colour and pride within the local community, it was largely ignored by the rest of Sydney.
Today, there are over 14 Lunar New Year festivals organised by councils and community groups all across Sydney, from Hurstville, Bankstown, and City of Sydney, to Chatswood and The Hills Shire.
China has now cemented its place as a world economic superpower and consumer. It accounts for around 29 per cent of global sales for Volkswagen and General Motors and around one in five cars sold by Nissan and Hyundai. From a global production perspective, it also produces three in four mobile phones, 87 per cent of personal computers and 52 per cent of colour televisions.
Locally, Mandarin overtook Italian for the first time as the most spoken language (other than English) in Australia, according to the 2011 Australian Census. China already accounts for the highest number of international students studying in Australia with 170,015 enrolments year to date to November 2015.
Annual Chinese tourist numbers exceeded 1 million for the first time in November 2015, an increase of more than 21 per cent. Chinese tourists are the biggest spenders in Australia, dropping $7.7 billion in the 12 months to September 2015, up 43 per cent. Federal Tourism Minister, Richard Colbeck recently floated the idea of translating road signs into Chinese to encourage more tourists to take road trips.
The exponentially growing interest in Lunar New Year reflects the spending power of the Chinese population on all fronts – local migrants, international students and very lucrative tourists.
Both Coles and Woolworths are offering special Lunar New Year product lines. In Cabramatta, Woolworths cater for the local Vietnamese community with pallets of watermelon. A Vietnamese New Year tradition involves slicing a whole watermelon on the first day of the year. If the inside is deep red, it symbolises good luck.
This year, Kit Kat joined in the celebrations, releasing four special Chinese New Year flavours – taro black sesame, red bean toasted coconut, tangerine crème brulee and almond cookie.
David Jones and Lancome have partnered on a Chinese New Year campaign promoted with Chinese language billboards at Sydney’s Central train station.
The Sydney Morning Herald Lunar Markets by the Star is an attempt by these brands to cash in on the festivities. The markets will be serving up a range of Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Japanese dishes and drinks to eager punters.
In addition to advertising special retail offers, most of the major banks sponsor Lunar New Year festivals, give out free branded red packets to account holders, and hold lavish banquets for their premium customers.
Both Qantas and Cathay Pacific run special Chinese New Year fare specials. While Westfield has a series of New Year entertainment across their shopping centres worldwide.
All this activity is a boon for the local Chinese media. The front pages of most newspapers have been bought out by advertisers. The home page of Australia’s most popular Chinese language website is plastered with Lunar New Year retail advertising by major brands – Commonwealth Bank, Vodafone, ANZ, Philips and Qantas.
Mainstream publishers are getting into the act, too. Bauer Media has launched Chinese language editions of Australian Gourmet Traveller and Harper’s Bazaar for 2016 Lunar New Year.
While efforts to promote Lunar New Year as a cultural celebration may have had limited success a decade ago, the commercial opportunities are proving devastatingly successful.
My prediction is that Lunar New Year advertising budget will double in 2017, the Year of the Roster. After all, money talks.
Thang Ngo is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, part of IPG Mediabrands. He served nine years (1999-2008) as a councillor in Fairfield, and publishes the food blog, noodlies.com.