Jim has commented already on the previous entry and I have promised to reply to some of the points he has raised. My perspective has been based on my experience in schools from 1966 on*, with some reference to the late 1940s and 1950s when I had my own schooling. In the years to the mid 1970s at least there was little evidence of provision for migrant children in schools that I can recall seeing, but Jim is correct to draw attention to migrant education programs at an adult level in those years. Anne Burns, Adult ESL in Australia summarises that history (especially in terms of the pedagogy used) and I will go back to relevant chapters in James Jupp (ed), The Australian People [Sydney A&R 1988] before I return to those points.
Jim is also right to remind us that there has been a good history of welcoming migrant people, something I would not deny, though there has also been an opposing xenophobia which can be encountered just as much. My own maternal grandparents were living examples, with my grandfather having a curious and welcoming spirit while my grandmother (God bless her!) could say “foreigner” in a tone of voice that left you in no doubt what she thought.
A similar paradox may be seen in the kinds of official cultural pluralism which did exist prior to 1972. Colourful displays and folk dancing were generally seen as good things; speaking Greek on the bus or eating too much garlic would often generate public rebuke, however. I realise that is a flip response, but I think the ambivalence it suggests was, and to an extent still is, quite real.
In this post I rather take up some of the issues raised in Paul Byrnes’s reading of They’re a Weird Mob (1966).
When humour is no longer funny?
It seems to me that you would have to be dreadfully puritanical not to laugh at and with They’re a Weird Mob and I really can’t see any Italian-Australians being hurt by this movie; in fact some of the cross-cultural conflicts and misunderstandings in the movie/book can be seen as critical of mainstream Australia, not of the migrant. If that is not to take it too seriously… Many migrants can tell stories like some we see in that movie. My German friends Tilly and Willy in Wollongong had a wonderful tale to tell of the “help” Tilly received from a neighbour in Dapto who taught her the “correct” English to use in the bank: “Excuse me. I want to make a f*cking withdrawal!” Tilly got it down pat and set off for the bank with (to her) surprising results… Perhaps, so soon after World War II, the neighbour was not over-fond of Germans?
Go forward to 1990-1994. By then I was accustomed to seeing my own countrymen (to an extent) through the eyes of those overseas students and through M. What I/they saw was often welcoming, but not always. (Ouyang Yu has made a career out of writing about such things…)
In 1993-94 as my own modest contribution I was compiling my anthology for schools From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt: stories and poems from China and Australia (Longman 1995). I went back fifty years before They’re a Weird Mob to a story which I had found hilarious when it was read to us in class in 1956: “A Golden Shanty” by Edward Dyson. The plot-line is still very funny, but it is difficult to read it now quite as innocently as I read it in 1956 or, presumably, as its first readers did fifty or sixty years earlier. It does seem relevant to ask “What values and attitudes do you find in this story?” and “Who is valued and who is denigrated in this story?” Of course the butts are the stereotypical Bog Irish and the cunning but inscrutable Oriental, standard fare in just about every issue of The Bulletin at the time. The assumption is there is another class of person altogether — the readers — who are themselves none of the above and implicitly superior, or the stereotype has no point. (Another stereotype not found in this story but common at the time was the effete English noble or Remittance Man, so it isn’t entirely a matter of favouring all Anglos.)
It is hard to laugh too much now at this without feeling embarrassed or unclean:
A battered sign hung out over the door of the Shamrock, informing people that Michael Doyle was licensed to sell fermented and spirituous liquors, and that good accommodation could be afforded to both man and beast at the lowest current rates. But that sign was most unreliable; the man who applied to be accommodated with anything beyond ardent beverages—liquors so fiery that they “bit all the way down”—evoked the astonishment of the proprietor. Bed and board were quite out of the province of the Shamrock. There was, in fact, only one couch professedly at the disposal of the weary wayfarer, and this, according to the statement of the few persons who had ever ventured to try it, seemed stuffed with old boots and stubble; it was located immediately beneath a hen-roost, which was the resting-place of a maternal fowl, addicted on occasion to nursing her chickens upon the tired sleeper’s chest. The “turnover” at the Shamrock was not at all extensive, for, saving an occasional agricultural labourer who came from “beyant”—which was the versatile host’s way of designating any part within a radius of five miles—to revel in an occasional “spree,” the trade was confined to the passing “cockatoo” farmer, who invariably arrived on a bony, drooping prad, took a drink, and shuffled away amid clouds of dust.
The only other dwellings within sight of the Shamrock were a cluster of frail, ramshackle huts, compiled of slabs, scraps of matting, zinc, and gunny-bag. These were the habitations of a colony of squalid, gibbering Chinese fossickers, who herded together like hogs in a crowded pen, as if they had been restricted to that spot on pain of death, or its equivalent, a washing…
…the Chinamen held off for a few weeks. Then they suddenly changed their tactics, and proceeded to cultivate the friendship of Michael Doyle and his able-bodied wife. They liberally patronized the Shamrock, and beguiled the licensee with soft but cheerful conversation; they flattered Mrs. Doyle in seductive pigeon-English, and endeavoured to ensare the children’s young affections with preserved ginger. Michael regarded these advances with misgiving; he suspected the Mongolians’ intentions were not honourable, but he was not a man to spoil trade—to drop the substance for the shadow.
This state of affairs had continued for some time before the landlord of the Shamrock noticed that his new customers made a point of carrying off a brick every time they visited his caravansary. When leaving, the bland heathen would cast his discriminating eye around the place, seize upon one of the sun-dried bricks with which the ground was littered, and steal away with a nonchalant air—as though it had just occurred to him that the brick would be a handy thing to keep by him. The matter puzzled Mr. Doyle sorely; he ruminated over it, but he could only arrive at the conclusion that it was not advisable to lose custom for the sake of a few bricks; so the Chinese continued to walk off with his building material. When asked what they intended to do with the bricks, they assumed an expression of the most deplorably hopeless idiocy, and suddenly lost their acquaintance with the “Inglisiman” tongue. If bricks were mentioned they became as devoid of sense as wombats, although they seemed extremely intelligent on most other points. Mickey noticed that there was no building in progress at their camp, also that there were no bricks to be seen about the domiciles of the pagans, and he tried to figure out the mystery on a slate, but, on account of his lamentable ignorance of mathematics, failed to reach the unknown quantity and elucidate the enigma. He watched the invaders march off with all the loose bricks that were scattered around, and never once complained; but when they began to abstract one end of his licensed premises, he felt himself called upon, as a husband and father, to arise and enter a protest, which he did, pointing out to the Yellow Agony, in graphic and forcible language, the gross wickedness of robbing a struggling man of his house and home, and promising faithfully to “bate” the next lop-eared Child of the Sun whom he “cot shiftin’ a’er a brick.”
Of course if you know the story the point is the Shamrock had been built with local mud bricks which happened to be liberally larded with gold…
Ouyang Yu commented: “The idea was fixed in the white Australian mind that somehow the Chinese were a species of inferior human beings, not fit to share the continent with white men as colonisers…” In my book I set students the following task:
Imagine this story is on a short list for an anthology of Australian literature to be used in schools. Would you select it? Write a carefully reasoned report to the editor of the anthology giving your recommendation, and your reasons.
I hope that was a suitably open question for a Year 11 student to try. I had in editing the story added notes near some of the more gross manifestations of prejudice referring them to Eric Rolls’s Sojourners where they could find alternative views of the Chinese on the gold fields.
What disturbed me as I revisited the story was that we had all roared at it in 1956, except perhaps for Billy Ling… What also disturbed me was that in that mid 1990s period one was hearing attitudes concerning people like M not a hundred miles from those fed by (or reflected in) Dyson’s portrayal of the Chinese, with other stereotypes added in of Triads and Tongs and Communist agents… Until in 1996 we were told we were being “swamped by Asians.” Honestly, I was almost physically sick. Indeed I so reacted in the way of helping every Asian I saw (almost) that I gave myself a hernia assisting a struggling Korean with some heavy luggage here in Elizabeth Street Surry Hills and ended up in hospital!
In another chapter of the book I published a talk by photographer William Yang explaining why for the first thirty years of his life under assimilationist pressure he preferred to be William Young, and how he eventually rediscovered the Chinese culture that his Australian-born parents in rural Queensland (also under assimilationist pressure) had elected not to pass on to him. My question then always elicits interesting reponses: it is this.
Do you think William Yang’s Australian identity is stronger or weaker now?
There are probably three possible answers. I get all three. The discussions that follow are always interesting and bear on my own understanding of what Australian multiculturalism has been and, perhaps, still is.
It is also a great story for anyone wanting to explain the use of the past perfect tense…
* Reading James Jupp’s monumental tome confirms my picture fairly well. It appears the first real moves towards ESL support began when Snedden was Education Minister in 1970, with some states making moves two or three years before; hence the presence of an ESL teacher at Dapto in 1970. Major developments really had to wait for the Fraser years.
There may be more… But not until the day after tomorrow. (Download issues press upon me! These two entries were composed offline in Live Writer.)