Letters to Chinatown

Chinatown, my chinatown
Where the lights are low,
Hearts that know no other land,
Drifting to and fro.

William Jerome

 

For its special Chinese New Year edition, Cathay Pacific’s Silk Rd magazine ran a collection of stories from writers around the world covering their special relationship to their city’s Chinatown. Here’s mine to Sydney, Australia:

Walking through Dixon St in Sydney’s Chinatown during its Friday Night Markets is like stepping into a colourful, crowded and kitsch-filled Asian kitchen: how many flavours, languages, scents, sounds and cultures can we throw together to feed one massive family and assorted guests?

Whether you’re blood related or not, multiple generations of different nationalities flock here for a seat at one of its 200 or so restaurants at all hours. But like so many other Chinatowns in the world, the roots of its inception were far less wholesome.

 

Photos: Irwin Wong Illustrations: Sam Ki

“It used to be called ‘Sleazetown’” octogenarian local expert George Wing Kee informs me.

“It was a ghetto before WW2. Australian people didn’t come here to eat.”

Due to the area’s proximity to the wharves, enterprising seamen used to fly under the radar importing contraband items such as opium. That – and the (quite true) impression that up to a hundred undocumented Chinese migrants lived in cramped quarters above storefronts. Considering the White Australia policy restricting the migration of non-European people into the country was only dismantled in 1972, being Chinese and ‘illegal’ pretty much went hand in hand in those days. Many of these migrants had been employed as cheap labour by merchant ships sailing between Europe, the USA and Australia and realising they would be out of work when the war ended – jumped ship wherever they could. Those in Sydney inevitably joined the expanding Chinese nucleus that would later come to be known as ‘Chinatown.’

By the time my family arrived in 1983, Chinatown was on track to becoming a tourist destination as part of Sydney’s new, multicultural outlook. Up went the traditional symbols which still stand today: Tang Dynasty style ceremonial arches inviting fortune and luck; a pagoda; a refurbished Dixon St reminiscent of Chinese laneway culture with restaurants, shops and grocery stores.

 

For my parents, it was a place that unambiguously reflected back their culture as well as fulfilling other – more urgent -needs. At that time, the only Asian supermarkets were in Chinatown. My mother was our sole breadwinner -and would also add a 45 minute bus ride several times a week to buy the groceries she needed to cook to feed her children, husband and in-laws who longed for the flavours of their homeland.

“Australia was boring in the 80s” my mother tells me over the phone. “Shops were closed after 5pm during the week, and on the weekend too. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go- except Chinatown.” She pauses. “And Kings Cross.”

As a child, there isn’t that much difference between holding your parents’ hand and weaving between restaurant hawkers in Chinatown or nightclub spruikers in Sydney’s red light district, but it does give me pause to think of how these two districts in Sydney are related. Not just in the way that they have played out in my own life, but in the way that place is a state of mind. Both Chinatown and Kings Cross are regarded as outliers in the idealised Sydney landscape. Both exert a type of exotic allure, a whiff of comfort, the danger of chaos.

And both at one time offered my family what they needed to feel less displaced – the physical immediacy of life in all its vivid and varied forms, on the street.

But today- where Kings Cross’ bohemian reputation has languished –  Chinatown has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. Sydney’s Chinese New Year celebrations are the largest outside of China, with more than a million visitors celebrating last year. After its 20th century White Australia policy, Australia in the 21st century is all about embracing “the Asian century.”

The proliferation of public art in the area expresses and activates this growing consciousness. A mural of Aboriginal rights activist Jenny Munro watches over Harbour and Goulburn St. The Golden Water Mouth – a yellow box gum tree covered in gold leaf- serves as a symbolic entry point on the corner of Hay and Sussex St. Lindy Lee’s New Century Garden borrows elements from the design of a traditional Chinese Garden to create a public domain for rest and reflection. Jason Wing’s Between Two Worlds consists of 30 suspended blue spirit figures which are illuminated at night, inspired by his Aboriginal and Chinese heritage.

“China is more than a singular entity. I think it’s important to be breaking the idea of a mono culture by showcasing more complex layers of identity” says Mikala Tai, Director of 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, which has fostered Chinatown’s art projects with the City of Sydney over two decades.

In a globalised age where traditional boundaries of East/West are collapsing, Chinatown’s expression of visual culture seems determined to stay ahead of the game. But it’s a neighbourhood in flux. Like China, it’s mutating at a rapid rate –  and its preservation at the mercy of the wrecking ball of urban development.

But perhaps Chinatown’s uncertain future isn’t necessarily a reason to grieve. After all, its original raison d’etre was as an enclave for working class, alienated immigrants to eke out a better life. As China continues to boom, it has eroded the need for Chinatown to play this function. There is a reason there are no Chinatowns in China. Those who are assured of belonging have less need to demarcate their comfort zones.

 

As a state of mind, Chinatown will continue to be a cultural heartland for those that remember it as somewhere they felt tethered in a strange land. As I study the grainy photos of my grandparents in front of the Dixon St stone lions representing strength and courage, I feel hopeful that there will always a place for sanctuary and reinvention here.

On Racism

This week, my first ever article was published in The Daily Life. It’s been a bit nerve-wracking to write for such a large readership. I mean, I know that I’ve written a book and all but

1) 1200 words is that much more consumable than 86,000

2) you have about 85,000 more words to explain yourself in a book

But I knew I wanted to write about racism, zeroing in on one particular personal aspect of it as it played out in my cross-cultural Chinese Nigerian family.

My submission did go through a pretty judicious edit before hitting the Fairfax channels, so I thought I’d provide readers with a full- length version below. It gives more context on the current state of affairs with my parents now that my memoir has been published.

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My Wedding Day, 2005

“What do you mean, he’s black?” My mother’s voice on the other end of the line wobbled as we talked of the man I’d just become engaged to.

I took a breath. “He’s Nigerian. Well, he’s British. But his parents migrated to London. Just like you and Dad migrated to Sydney.” I said, thinking this information would showcase our similarities. After all, we were both children of the migrant experience.

But my mother was not to be swayed. “How black is he?” For her, concentration of pigmentation was directly proportionate to what she could and couldn’t accept.

I had given up on my parents’ approval of any of my life choices long before that moment. I had deliberately put oceans between us to be free of their malice, which extended far beyond race. Still, I thought it courteous to let the people who gave birth to me know I was getting married. If I was to be honest, there was a sliver of hope that after all that had been said and done, my falling in love and finding happiness would collapse their barriers of hate. But it was not to be. If anything, I became more aware than ever the depth of their prejudice.

My father’s guide to dating when I was a teenager followed more or less along these lines. “I expect you to date a Chinese man. If you must date a white man, I’ll think about it. Jewish men are acceptable. If you date a black man, I’ll kill you.”

This thinking was the product of a rage-filled mind. My father battled demons that meant his need to feel better than others was unerringly high. The ability to control and oppress the only panacea to the gaping void at the core of his self-worth. Yes, it seems almost absurd to justify his hate in these psychobabble terms, and yet the need to make sense of senselessness overrides futility.

I’ve battled racism my entire life. And half of that battle has been waged with my own people, with my own parents. It’s made me think a lot about the contributing factors to racism, the kind of fear that entrenches itself in the mind to boil hate down to something as innocuous as skin colour.

“Race,” writes the historian Nell Irvin Painter, “is an idea, not a fact.” And therefore racism does not come in a one size fits all model. The way it exudes its toxicity is a product of a specific time and place and set of experiences. My parents – knowing all too well the pain and subjugation of living life as a marginalized identity – found it all too convenient to project that same social prejudice onto others. They bought into the narrative that blackness implied greater poverty, less privilege, poorer education. Likewise, that ‘whiteness’ (whilst traitorous to marry into) denoted a kind of roughshod dominance, and therefore acceptable. The Jewish preference was purely because my father worked at a firm where the upper echelons were occupied by wealthy, Jewish men with zappy business skills, and felt this experience must be representative of the “quality” of the entire culture. But the most noble race of all was naturally our own. Maintaining our ethnic purity and cultural solidarity, etc. Though –it should be noted – there was also a hierarchy to be observed here. Ali Wong calls it the difference between Fancy Asians and Jungle Asians. Criteria ranging from global development to skin colour – generally, the darker the skin, the less superior. And – according to my family- out of all light skinned Asians, the Japanese were at the bottom. After all, the war and what happened in Nanjing belying the barbarianism underneath the affected sophistry was not that long ago.

My parents prioritized their convoluted construction of race over other, more intrinsic, qualities of existence: kindness, compassion, love, empathy. They did not attend my wedding. My father refused to acknowledge my husband’s existence, and ceased to acknowledge mine. When we came to Australia to visit, my mother would only deign to meet my husband in the covert darkness of night. The fact that she was willing to meet him, but did not want to be seen provided further insight. For my mother, it was not so much that I had married a black man but the supposed social stigma that came attached to this. In her mind, her friends (other baby boomer Chinese migrants with a precarious foothold in the wider Anglo-Australian culture) would shun her, mock her, reject her if they found out the truth to this…this scandal. She was utterly convinced that her world operated on such rigidly held lines. We might have been only a generation apart, living in the 21st century world, but our psychological realities couldn’t have been more different. If my father’s prejudice was characterized by a fear of difference and need for control, my mother’s prejudice was the manifestation of a different but equally primal need. That to be accepted by her community. Whereas I – their child, the beneficiary of their sacrifices to provide a better life and better education – could only observe their bigotry with horror. My world had been a late 20th century Australia conscientiously embracing multicultural values followed by culturally fluid London, with no less than three arts qualifications under my belt. For me, racism was- and still is- the most ignorant type of hate, vindicated by everyone else I chose to have in my life, except my parents.

Even my grandparents accepted my husband with open arms. They were well into their 90s by then. They had lost parents to famine, children to war, generations of accumulated wealth to revolutionaries. On the day I introduced them to my husband, they gifted us with calligraphy scrolls painstakingly handcrafted with their wishes of happiness and marital longevity. Perhaps it was that they had seen too much not to recognize that the concept of shame was as useless a construct as race. Or simply, that love trumps hate. It was the last time I saw my grandfather. He passed away 3 months later. That last memory of his gift, his smile, his open arms in defiant opposition to my parents’ disapproval says so much about the man I’m glad my husband had a chance to meet.

My grandfather

My marriage lasted seven years. In the end, communication breakdown, moving to a new country and my own insecurities eroded its fabric. I walked away as things got hard, the imaginary, incessant sound of my parents’ “I told you so’s” greasing the wheels of my retreat. I was heartbroken, but I told myself that it was for the best. We would remain friends. And perhaps I could repair the relationship with my parents that had caused me so much pain. Pain that I had inadvertently brought into my marriage, like a fraying backpack full of bitter angst.

 

I returned home, and I made myself available to the family I had run away from. I engaged with the good and the ugly, and tried to stand my ground. I wrote a book, and reflected and built bridges, and then came to accept that some divides are just too wide to bridge.

Two years ago, my sister married an Italian (Caucasian) man. They held the ceremony at a luxury resort in Bali – a scenic geographical compromise for our family flying in from Sydney and his family flying in from Milan. It was a beautiful wedding. My father walked her down the aisle. My mother wept. My sister had invited my ex-husband, who happened to be in Bali at the time. After 10 years, my father continued to act as if he didn’t exist. Later that night, as both sets of parents laughed and danced with the bride and groom, my ex-husband stood beside me.

“Do you think if we’d had half the support and love your sister got today, we might’ve lasted?”

I couldn’t answer him. And at that moment, under the silvery sky of my sister’s happiness and the celebration of two families coming together, the stark contrast of our alienation a decade earlier was just too much.

My mother travelled to China for a holiday this year. Before she left, I made one request. A few weeks later I heard from my ex-husband, who is still living in Shanghai.

“Your mum called me while she was in town.” He sounded bewildered. “She wanted to apologize for her racism towards me all those years ago.”

In my mother’s case, it seemed that age and experience has started to take the edge off her fear and hate. Or perhaps it’s safer for her to make this concession now that he’s no longer part of the family. Or perhaps she finally recognizes the part she can play in mending old wounds with her daughter if she just opens her heart a little.

With my father however, after spits and starts – we are back to estrangement. He is Jekyll and Hyde in his temperament, a rollercoaster of unchecked anger punctuated by steep descents into regret. It’s exhausting and terrifying to keep up with. Our last argument occurred on publication of my book. I still remember the moment when he reassured me I could write whatever I wanted about him. It was during one of his magnanimous spells, when he is wont to behave like a different person. I remember these times during childhood, when all we ever wanted was for this nice and pleasant version of my father to stay and for the mean, violent one to stay away. Of course, this never happened. The mean, violent version would return, sweeping everything in his wake. This time, it was the sight of my freshly printed uncorrected proof that set him off. The evidence of an actual book I had written, available to read made him inexplicably angry. I left the house before it could get physical. I also vowed then not to return. When anger and hate is that deep and boundless, sometimes the only thing to do is to walk away, and stay away.

And yet, there was a brief moment last year with my father that I’ll hold onto. It was a warm evening in Sydney’s Chinatown. We had just enjoyed an unusually amiable family dinner and were walking down Sussex St. My mother was ahead with my brother and sister. My father and I had just settled the bill. As we walked side by side to catch up with the rest of the family, my father said, “I’m sorry I opposed your marriage, it was wrong of me.” Then he turned away, and quickened his step as if he hadn’t said anything at all.