Faculty of Asian Studies


Asian-Australian Fiction
Alison Broinowski
Faculty of Asian Studies
Australian National University

The No-Name Australians and the Missing Subaltern: Asian Australian Fiction

[For Asian Australian Identities Conference, 27-29 September 99. A shorter version of this paper will appear as a review in The Australian's Review of Books. ©Alison Broinowski, 1999. Alison Broinowski is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Asian Studies.]

Not only has the face of Australian fiction about Asia changed in the 1990s, so have the faces of those writing it. The new faces are predominantly Asian Australian, and female. These new novels suggest what has brought about the change, and what further change is on the way.

Nothing reminds us so much of the fictional Asia we used to know and love (or not know and fear) as an Australian thriller about a past crisis in some Asian country. The questing Australian male (usually) who was tempted and challenged, and muddled through mayhem, has been around in fiction and fact about Asia for over a century.

Novels by non-hyphenated, ‘ordinary, mainstream’ Australians, as Pauline Hanson calls them - but what can we call them? and who are we? - have now largely become things of the past. So such of them as are still being published concentrate almost exclusively on the past. Australians still writing them draw on their past expertise.

Take Chris Koch’s Highway to a War (William Heinemann Australia, 1995) that revisits 1960s Vietnam; or Nick Jose’s The Rose Crossing (Hamish Hamilton, 1995) that goes back to Ming China and England under Charles I; or Nigel Krauth’s new thriller, Freedom Highway (Allen & Unwin, 1999) that recalls both the period and the themes of Greene’s The Quiet American (1955), but transposes the action to Thailand; or Kerry Collison’s self-published trilogy of novels based on his experiences in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, in the 1970s-80s.

Hindsight places past events in Asia within a secure frame of reference in these novels - in all, that is, but Collison’s last two, which anticipate a post-Soeharto Indonesia facing nuclear catastrophe in Jakarta (1998) and a post-economic crisis Indonesia torn by anti-Chinese violence in The Fifth Season (1998).

China scholars Trevor Hay and Fang Xiangshu, who co-authored East Wind, West Wind (Penguin, 1992), have again collaborated in Black Ice (1997), a historical novel based on fact, that recounts the fluctuating fortunes of a Communist cadre, Mo Bing, from the civil war to the Cultural Revolution, and her eventual rehabilitation. They have drawn on Chinese literary sources to examine degrees of risk-taking and self-preservation that rarely arise with such intensity in Australia, in fiction or fact.

Just in time for Macau’s reversion to China in December, Marya Glyn-Daniel has written another retro-novel, The Macau Grand Prix and my part in the Cultural Revolution in China (1999), complete with pix of herself in bouffant hair and miniskirt. It evokes the 1960s adventures of many a neophyte in Asia, bibulous, broke, and in her case, blundering into the Cultural Revolution by the back door of Macau.

But the numbers of non-hyphenated Australians who now feel confident to write about contemporary Asia have shrunk. It’s as though they can no longer compete with today’s new, diasporic, Asian Australian novelists (usually women) for grants, publishers, media attention, and invitations to writers’ festivals. This year’s Vogel winner, Hsu-Ming Teo, is a sign of the times. Few ‘ordinary’ Australians seem able to match these new novelists’ mastery of Asian languages and English, their access to family history, mythopoeia and the supernatural, their dual familiarity with multi-ethnic Asian societies, and their experience of migration to multicultural Australia.

Or is something less obvious at work, a politics of identity, that permits pronouncements about both Asia and Australia when Asian Australian writers make them, but makes non-hyphenated Australians hesitant to write frankly about Asia for fear of being labelled racist or Orientalist? Is it now the privilege of ‘subaltern societies’ to define all white people as imperialist oppressors? Are we who never colonised them, who have ourselves been colonised and are still, in some ways, marginalised by both sides, to be equally Occidentalised? Or has Asian confidence to ‘say no’ to Western countries in general and Australia in particular hit a raw nerve of guilt here, and set off a new cultural cringe?

Recent fiction about Australia shows us ourselves as we may not realise others choose to see us. Large, lumpen, white, hypocritical, and unsubtle if not downright thick, is how Australians often appear in these books, and racist with a multicultural figleaf. In Asian Australian fiction, racism rules, but whose?

These novels give us a new view of both Asia and Australia, one that often entertains by sending up both, and that at the same time reopens the case on gender relations, Australian identity, and Occidentalism.

Some of the new fiction by Asian Australians ignores Australia almost entirely and exploits the mythologies and stylistic conventions of Asian cultures, in their contemporary settings. Arlene Chai’s two latest novels, Eating Fire and Drinking Water (1998) and On the Goddess Rock (1999) respectively evoke Marcos-era Manila and a small island in the South China Sea. In both, feng shui, water spirits, ancient curses, and enigmatic prophecies affect overlapping generations. At the same time, drives for power, wealth, and sex make these extended families part of the modern - indeed the global - scene.

Several of Merlinda Bobis’ short stories in White Turtle (1999) are incantations of both Catholic and pre-Christian belief. Bobis, an oral performance artist and poet until this book, recounts tales of mystery and misery that are passed down, often, by old women, but are played out here in the lives of a panorama of characters in the contemporary Philippines.

Similarly, in Lau Siew Mei’s forthcoming Playing Madame Mao, which alternates between Beijing and Singapore in the late 1980s, an actress plays the part of Mao’s eponymous wife, and becomes the lover of Singapore’s ‘Chairman’. Distinctions between what happens on-stage and off-stage are blurred. Chiang Ching is two women, one of whom is a ‘mirror person’ who can re-emerge in times of crisis in human form.

More feng shui, more wind and water spirits, more curses and predictions, link the generations of Hokkien women in Ang Chin Geok’s Singapore story of the Ong family. They struggle for literacy and independence, but are up against entrenched male privilege that - together with male incompetence - propels the family on a switchback cycle of wealth and poverty. Ang describes the plight of the many daughters of an ineffectual father in terms that recall Pride and Prejudice and underline its comic universality. The proud Ong family’s hubris against foreigners is defied when third-generation Peng An goes off with a ‘red-hair ape’ to live in Australia.

In the coda, Peng An’s Australianised daughter Lettie describes growing up in Townsville where the children of earlier migrants, Maltese and Greeks, ganged up with ‘white Australian’ kids against her and her brother. Their Hokkien mother, sure of her Han superiority, did not accept that in Australia ‘she was a slope-head, a chink, a slant-eye, second-class, or less’. But, she told her Australian-Chinese children, the gragos, Eurasians, stank. Racist name-calling is clearly not confined to Australians. Chinese, Ang comments through Lettie, are ‘efficient insultors, succinct and cruel’.

White people in Singapore after the war, says Peng An, the recorder and the expert insultor, took no trouble to conceal their opinion that they were the undoubted

masters of all the black and brown peoples in Singapore, and we could like it or we could lump it…Ugly little men with pink skin mottled by patches of freckles, and their orange-haired women with large noses and protruding teeth shouted at us, ordered us about, and said to one another, ‘The boss won’t mind you having a poke with one of these little brown monkeys, just don’t get silly and think about marrying one of them.’ I had always taken my racial superiority for granted, as the Hokkiens had always considered themselves the elite group in Singapore.

Notice here the fiction of Singapore-Eurasian-Australian Simone Lazaroo, whose forthcoming second novel, The Australian Fiance (Picador, 2000) follows the success of The World Waiting to Be Made (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1994), and deals with the effects of racial prejudice on the lives of people in two cultures for whom their definition of identity was a matter of survival.

Equally taken as other Asian Australian writers are with rivers, confluences, and weird water creatures, Christopher Cyrill in his second novel (following The Ganges and its Tributaries, McPhee Gribble, 1993), writes of a post-apocalyptic city in a ‘New Country’ that may be Australia or perhaps South Africa. Adam, his protagonist, is condemned to a solitary life there and tries without much success to find out about an India-like place, the ‘Old Country’, that he visits in dreams. The unknown lover of a Krishna-ish blue-faced god, depicted in a tapestry in the local library, may have the answer to Adam’s search, but she merges enigmatically with his evanescent lover, Mirren; his grandfather will tell him nothing; and his aunt’s hilarious raves in Indglish are mostly about her Australian love affairs. The story of how Adam’s father lost his shirt and pants at the races but came home with a bag full of money is the funniest thing in the book. The narrative’s multiple voices - labelled with Greek letters - provide a chorus of comment on the action but don’t always illuminate it.

Chiang Ching, the actress in Lau Siew Mei’s novel, like the protagonists in Cyrill’s, Ang’s and Lazaroo’s fiction, ends up with a new life in Australia, reborn perhaps in a mirror world that is not as constrained or threatening as Singapore, or may turn out to be so in other, unexpected ways. In these novels, Australia is the ambiguous resolution of various Asian dilemmas

The larger group of new Asian Australian fiction is something not completely different. They concentrate on the experience of migration and tell us about Asians’ views of Australia from, say, the local primary school, or Central Station, or West Heidelberg. Even in flat suburban streets named after wars, all is not photo-realism, however.

In Merlinda Bobis’ story ‘An Earnest Parable’, one tongue is passed around between a Turkish baker, a Filipino cook, an Australian fish-shop couple, an Italian butcher and a Sri Lankan tailor. They wait in turn to use it and enjoy their own languages and cuisines, but as it passes up and down Bessell Street, they adopt from it some of each other’s tastes and phrases, as well as the ‘Australian surf and grit’ of the tongue’s origins in a South Coast mollusc.

Two Indonesian women in Australia are the focus of Dewi Anggraeni’s new novel. Marayati is affected by visions of a child-spirit in Melbourne as powerfully as Eni is laid low by a vengeful spell cast on her by a medium in Indonesia. Anggraeni’s own successful integration into the multiculture doesn’t blind her to the fears migration holds for illiterate Marayati, who leaves Indonesia - and her child - to marry an inept, if well-meaning, Australian. Intellectual Eni is better established in Melbourne, but she is having an affair with Alex, who ‘wouldn’t know a mood-swing if it swung in his face’. As Anggraeni has done before in her fiction, she laments the habit disempowered Indonesian women have of taking their grievances over men out on their sisters. But while several of her Australian characters are empathetic souls, and her thoroughly post-diasporic daughters are drawn from life, she suggests that ‘Asian’ women - even Indonesians and Chinese - share an instinctive understanding of a superior kind to anything they can expect from Australians.

A recurring theme in this Asian Australian fiction by women is the universal conundrum of what women and men want. ‘A woman’, says Eni in Anggraeni’s novel, ‘thinks a man wants to marry her because he loves her and wants to make her happy. A man thinks it’s time to end his celibacy, and this woman happens to be there’. And in Lau Siew Mei’s Singapore story, Chiang Ching is advised by a visionary Chinese Emperor mirror-person that she should stay at home and do nothing: ‘It is not for a woman to make history’.

Writing about Syn, a Chinese former student given refugee status in Sydney after Tiananmen, gynaecologist author Lillian Ng revives an ancient Chinese proverb on the gender question: ‘Mountains and rivers are easier to alter than a man’s or a woman’s behaviour’. Later in her account of Syn’s affair with a married, fat, and kinky Chinese butcher in Chinatown, Ng resorts to traditional terms to explain it: ‘A woman without a man is like a vine without stakes for support’. Little, it seems, has changed for a female Asian migrant of uncertain status in Australia, where ‘a woman’s livelihood still depended on getting and keeping a man’.

Ng’s bizarre new novel (after Silver Sister, Mandarin, 1994) can and should be judged by its cover. It shows the face of an Asian woman with black pearls crammed into her mouth. In your face is only one of many ways Syn and Zhu, the Chinatown butcher, make what they rationalise as love, but that reads more like the grinding and grunting of two mills of mutual self-interest. Zhu, like a Chinese patriarch of old, is competed for by his wife, his mistress, his mother, and his autistic daughter. He refuses to divorce his wife for the young and beautiful Syn because he’s a Catholic and fears losing face in the Chinese community. Apart from Syn’s semi in Stanmore and Zhu’s mansion in Chipping Norton, it hardly seems we are in contemporary Australia: until you realise we are, and it’s our assumptions that are out of date.

Homework, Suneeta Peres da Costa’s widely-noticed novel, combines some of the surrealism of other Asian Australian fiction with a refreshing capacity for satire, both of a Catholic migrant family from Goa and of the Australian scene. Deepa is a precocious genius who is forced by a dumbed-down Australian primary school system to make Easter chickens when she would rather be reading Wittgenstein. Her sister Mina, the narrator, shows signs of comparable talent for the violin, medicine, and physics, but falls out with the school system through ennui and mental, emotional and physical deprivation at home. While the third sister just watches cartoons, their mother goes as mad as the patients she treats, and their father, who works for Immigration and promises all and sundry permanent residency, ends up burning their house to the ground. Mina wastes her talents, and the special instincts she gets by having feelers on her head, on trying to save her aberrant parents. Let no-one predict what new growths Asian Australian fiction may throw up.

Dao Zhuang is the alter ego of prolific writer Ouyang Yu in his first novel in English, and he offers another view entirely to those of Asian Australian women writers, or perhaps sends up the genre. His marriage to a Chinese woman whose body odour was ‘as strong as almost all the foreigners from the West I had met’ has failed because she was, in his view, a demanding and domineering feminist. ‘Women’s law’ rules these days, he believes. His wife was disappointed, on arrival in their outer Melbourne suburb, to find it like the ‘Chinese countryside where the peasants live’. Dao is angry on the one hand, as Ouyang is in his poetry and scholarly articles, that no matter how well educated, he can’t get a job in Australia. On the other, Dao is dismissively scornful of Australians as boring, conservative, and xenophobic.

Australian men go to China, Dao believes, for money and sex: Australian women are ‘unlikeable’. Chinese make foreign guests welcome without meaning it: but Australians don’t even try to make Chinese welcome. Australians are obsessed with national identity, while lacking the history China has to go with it. Australians’ stupidity is demonstrated by their knack of fixing simple things with their hands. Aborigines in Australia are treated like Tibetans in China. And so on, the paradox revealing the pain. But on a visit to China, Dao finds at least a much to criticise there, and little Chinese interest in Australia.

Ouyang’s new work recalls some of the themes of writing by overseas students in the late 1980s. Two novellas by Sydney student Liu Guande and Melbourne student Huangfu Jun were published in Shanghai in 1991 and were translated by Ouyang, with Bruce Jacobs, in Bitter Peaches and Plums (Monash Asia Institute, 1995). Ignorance of Australia is one common theme, and failure to comprehend Australian efforts to create a non-discriminatory society is another. The Chinese interviewed by Sang Ye in The Year the Dragon Came (UQP, 1996) talk in similarly Sino-centric, rejecting, terms, and for most of these writers, Australia remains a distant miasma outside the daily struggle of their lives. Some have no Australian friends. While most characters in the Asian Australian women’s fiction adapt and make contacts for the sake of their children’s future, in many of the male autobiograhies men remain angry and humiliated, as if desexed by the experience of diaspora.

We may have only one generation of concentrated, first generation Asian Australian fiction, film, drama and poetry before ‘being Asian’ is no longer new. The diaspora stories have almost had their decade. For now, fiction by Asian Australians is both displaying and displacing presuppositions.


Ang Chin Geok Wind and Water, Milsons Point, NSW: Minerva, Random House Australia, 1997. ISBN 1 86330 635 8. 303 pp.

Dewi Anggraeni, Journeys through shadows, Eltham North, Victoria: Indra Publishing, 1999

Arlene J. Chai, Eating Fire and Drinking Water, Random House Australia, 1996. New York, Ballantine Publishing, Fawcett Columbine. ISBN 0 449 91143-8. 350 pp.

Merlinda Bobis, White Turtle: a collection of short stories, North Melbourne, Victoria: Spinifex Press. ISBN 1 875559 89 2. 189 pp.

Arlene J. Chai, On The Goddess Rock, Sydney: Random House Australia, 1998. ISBN 0 09 183717 0. 336 pp.

Christopher Cyrill, Hymns for the Drowning, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1999. ISBN 1 86508 043 8. 193 pp.

Trevor Hay and Fang Xiangshu, Black Ice: a story of modern China, Eltham North, Victoria: Indra Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0 9587718 6 3. 182 pp.

Lau Siew Mei, Playing Madame Mao, Sydney: Brandl & Schlesinger. Forthcoming

Suneeta Peres da Costa, Homework, London: Bloomsbury, 1999. ISBN 0 7475 4626 6. 259 pp.

Ouyang Yu, The Eastern Slope Chronicle: A Novel. Forthcoming


Marya Glyn-Daniel, The Macau Grand Prix and my part in the Cultural Revolution in China, Canberra: Ginninderra Press, 1999

Jui Guande, My Fortune in Australia, and Huangfu Jun, Australia - Beautiful Lies, Translated with an Introduction by J. Bruce Jacobs and Ouyang Yu, in Beautiful Peaches and Plums, Clayton, Victoria: Monash Asia Institute, 1995

Nigel Krauth, Freedom Highway, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1999

Simone Lazaroo, The World Waiting to be Made, South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1994

Simone Lazaroo, The Australian Fiance, Sydney: Picador, forthcoming

This page was authorised by the Faculty of Asian Studies Executive Officer.
It was last changed on 10 Jan 2002.
Copyright © 2002 Australian National University [CRICOS #00120C].