Friday, December 21, 2012

“Not a racist”

I have mentioned before, I think, that my father – born in the 1920s – was a creature of his time, who tried as long as he could to change. His views were set hard, but I had the good fortune that he didn’t teach them to me.

In the 1980s, Japanese tourists in Katoomba might ask him for directions to Echo Point, politely and with hand-clasped bows. It would make him weep: "I might have killed their grandfather!" (He was on board ship in the pre-atomic-bomb bombardments of Tokyo).

And: he understood symbols.

He was a civil engineer, and if you look at Australia Square, shop in Bankstown Square or Carlingford Court or Penrith Plaza, his fingerprints remain.

He also served in the Royal Navy in World War Two – as a good Aussie, but Australia didn’t have enough ships, so some of our Navy volunteers were placed on English ships.

Enough. This is a story about racism, not World War Two.

When Oxford Square – corner Riley and Oxford Streets – opened, Stanley Chirgwin conceived an idea that was odd at the time. He somehow conducted a census of workers on the site, and worked out their nationality.

For the opening, he decided that every country represented on the site should see its flag flying (and the hardest to obtain was the Dutch flag, amusing since the building was in the hands of Civil & Civic, then owned by a Dutchman, Dick Dusseldorp, “Duss” in our household).

Asian flags weren’t excluded – even though my father “fought the Japanese”. His idea, in spite of an old-style Aussie racism that died hard, was inclusive. Every flag had its place.

Oh, and by the way, the Hurstville he grew up in had its fair share of Chinese market gardeners in the 1920s and 1930s, because that was the Sydney of the time.

So: when the @WeAreAustralia Twitter account makes this complaint:

“I do live in Hurstville and I think it's turning into a bit of an Asian ghetto.”

… I call bullshit and racism.

Let’s see.

My first Asian work colleague crossed my path in about 1982, and dammit, he’s good management material in a telecommunications carrier and I’m a hack! (Well done, Nguyen!)

In the subsequent 30 years, Asia has been part of my Australia.

And what have I learned in those 30 years, apart from food?

We’re all people. Really. Superficial distinctions don’t matter a damn. Asians visiting Australia as far back as the 1970s were willing to forget World War II and ask Australians for directions.

Anyone who thinks there’s a meaningful distinction that needs a lament is a sad individual.

And as for Hurstville? It wasn’t pure merino in the 1920s: why should it be now?

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