Sunday, 6 November 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 45 - "Birds of Passage," by Brian Castro

The Australian continent was among the last significant land masses on Earth to be "discovered" and colonised by Europeans, beginning with the voyages of the Dutchman, Willem Zamszoon, in 1606; and the English navigator, James Cook, who claimed the territory for the British Crown in 1788. Unlike other territories, such as New Zealand and Hawaii, Australia was developed by the British as a series of penal colonies, the "First Fleet" arriving in Botany Bay in 1788.

As with these other territories, however, the native population, which, in the case of Australia, had occupied the land for more than forty thousand years, was soon devastated by the diseases brought by the colonists; and the task of building the infrastructure and developing the economy of a new nation was too great to be accomplished by the European settlers on their own. The Australian colonies drew in migrant labour and, as in New Zealand and Hawaii, many of the immigrants were Chinese, driven from their homeland by a combination of poverty and political upheaval.

The discovery of gold in Victoria and New South Wales, in the mid-Nineteenth Century, became a major pull-factor. It is estimated that, in 1855, 11,493 Chinese immigrants arrived in Melbourne alone. Almost all of these were young men, keen to make their fortune (which few did), and return home (in Victoria's Bendigo Goldfield, in 1861, there were 5367 Chinese men recorded, and only to women).

Bendigo, a sketch-map of the newly discovered gold-field, William Sandback, 1851 (image is in the Public Domain).
Gold diggings at Ararat, Victoria, 1854, by Edward Roper. State Library of New South Wales (image is in the Public Domain).

Clashes broke out between Chinese prospectors, and those of English, Scottish and Irish ancestry, who, ironically, now considered themselves to be "native" Australians. The Chinese were regarded as better organised and harder working, but were also accused of being dirty, spreading disease, and "stealing" white women.

Anti-Chinese cartoon of 1886, National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).
Anti-Chinese cartoon of 1886, National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).
Banner used in anti-Chinese protests and riots at Lambing Flats, New South Wales, 1860-61 (image is in the Public Domain).

Australia's gold-rush was as short-lived as its counterparts in New Zealand, and those Chinese immigrants who did not return to China (as many did), found themselves a minority, frequently discriminated against in education and employment. The beginning of the Twentieth Century saw the implementation of the "White Australia" policy, with support from successive state and federal governments of both the right and the left. Its legacy persisted into the 1970s, and arguably still reverberates in aspects of Australian culture and politics today.

"White Australia" badge, 1910, produced by the "Australian Natives' Association" (image is in the Public Domain).

Brian Castro's novel, Birds of Passage, tells the story of an Australian-born Chinese man, Seamus O'Young (Sham Oh Yung) struggling to find his identity in post-Second World War Sydney. He suffers very modern forms of discrimination, but also discovers papers relating to his Nineteenth Century ancestor, Lo Yun Shan, who made the journey from China's Pearl River Delta to Australia in the 1850s, and eventually returned home, leaving his son in the care of his mother, a woman of Irish heritage.

"My passport lies open on the table. Its empty pages marked with the word VISAS tease my imagination. My stub of a pencil trembles over them for it is here that I will begin my journey. Beside me I have the fragments of a journal. I found them a long time ago, stuck to my memory like the remnants of a dream. I have read and re-read those words, translated and re-translated them, deciphering the strokes of the Chinese characters, building up their meaning, constructing and re-constructing their sense. I feel the closeness of the situation the author is describing; I feel I am the counterpart of this man who was writing more than a century ago."

"I had to go for an interview. They were undecided about whether I was capable of being a teacher. They wanted to give me a reading test. (I later discovered that this was only given to foreigners) ... In the city I went to a bookstore and browsed among the shelves to kill time; I bought a copy of 'The Trial' by Franz Kafka ... I was called first ... 'Please read from the book in front of you' ... The heading at the top of the page said 'The Yellow Race.' I began to read. 'Before the discovery of gold there were relatively few of the Celestials in Australia. However, in the fifties, the yellow tide threatened to engulf the country. The white race was partially to blame for spreading rumours in Chinese ports that fortunes could be made here ...'"

The stories of the two men, descendant and ancestor, immigrant and Australian-born, both recounted, for the most part, in the first person, are interwoven, and combine to make up a poignant narrative of the search for individual identity in a nation that has yet to settle on is own, or to find a reconciliation with its past.

Australia Day, 2014 (Chinese Australians make up around 4% of the country's population. Photo: Chris Phutully (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales - a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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