Part 2: Second generation –  dreamers, ducks and danger

Melbourne Today isn’t the only Chinese media game in town. Tyrone vouches for me to meet another would-be new media king, Evan Yi, who founded Highfun Entertainment. Highfun is housed in a sedate part of St Kilda Road, part of the long tail of hotels and large business blocks stretching south of the CBD. It’s in a nondescript office block overlooking tennis courts and a private cataract removal centre, where wealthy boomers shed the scales from their eyes.

The office is very new – they’ve only been here a month – with office cubicles being constructed. A young Chinese woman hard-codes software on her laptop, while a young Chinese man in puffy black jacket and bleach-blonde hair carries a 4K camera. It feels like everyone is busy but aimless, a little uncertain, the kind of pacing preceding a film take where people don’t know exactly what to do. A gaggle of sleek young women – the screen talent – huddle, comparing the televisability of their gowns.

Tyrone arrives, a little out of breath. He broods in silence as we wait for a while. Then he bursts. “The Libs are infiltrating the Chinese,” he says, indignantly. And I think – it’s too late, migrants prefer aspirational politics over migrant identity. “The most potent slur against Labor is that only the poor vote Labor. And no-one wants to be poor, even if they are,” he admits.

He’s out of sorts after poking the ants nest of right-wing Chinese thought on WeChat, his nightly Sisyphean task. He took a screencap of one prominent WeChat user, Glen Eira councillor, Kelvin Ho, in which Ho appeared to link same sex marriage to bestiality. Ho later both apologised and claimed he’d been mistranslated. But now Tyrone is feeling the social media backlash.

Evan Yi appears in a kind of shimmer. He’s not there until suddenly he is. But Tyrone is still airing dirty laundry. Now he asks Evan – why is hate speech getting such a run in Highfun’s forums? Shouldn’t they be moderated? Evan smiles nervously and tries conciliation. “Is censorship the answer?” he asks, mild as milk.

Evan seizes the lull and ushers us through to an austere white room that looks as if it can become anything. There’s a large box of inflated balloons, a table with a small shrine of lollies, a large floor stand with Highfun logo. And all at once, the room fills with young tech types setting up cameras and boom mikes and I’m shaking a slightly nervous young woman’s hand – where did she come from? Where did Evan go – and now I’m the one being interviewed. Tyrone must have talked me up. “Can we do it live,” Evan asks, but I quail. “OK – we’ll pre-record.” The young woman asks me why I’m interested in Highfun, and what potential it has. “Great potential,” I say, and spin a vaguely plausible line about captive audiences and ABC culture, faking frantically.

What was that about, I hiss to Tyrone, as the cameras recede. “To use your credibility to indirectly boost theirs as a start-up,” he mutters. “I didn’t know they’d do that.”

Evan appears, again without a sound or fanfare, almost eerie. I get my first good look at him. A mild, undetermined face. When he disagrees with something, he does so with the same gentleness. But he carries himself with a diffident confidence I find interesting. A silver ring, underlings, glasses, a fuzz of daybeard. He is 32.

Evan’s goal is simple but enormously ambitious. He wants to make an app that out-Buzzfeeds Buzzfeed, producing listicles, viral content and streaming videos, rolling it in with social networking, news and messaging. From Melbourne, he wants to conquer both China and the Western world. It is classically Chinese – hard-nosed business with a strong appetite for risk. Evan has brought in $6 million in venture capital from the mainland, and tipped in $400,000 of his savings. Now he has 20 employees – writers, social media experts, videographers – the slightly nervous types figuring out what to do. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” Evan confesses. “Next we’ll build a theme park in Yarraville.”

Sorry, what? “Theme park. Like Luna Park, but it’s Happy Park. We’ll put 360 degree cameras through the park so you can see it all in VR. We’ll generate content for our app from this theme park so we don’t have to worry about content. We’re going to have a lot.”

I look at Tyrone. Tyrone looks at me. This sounds too bizarre to be true. Evan rolls on, getting more excited by his vision. It will have hotels, rides, food complexes, live entertainment. A mini-city, all streamed on his Highfun app. You see a listicle of the top ten Asian-crossover foods to try, you read it, and then you can try them all at Evan Yi’s imagined park.

I probe cautiously, unsure if I’m talking to a fantasist or visionary. But Evan is determined. “This will be one of the symbols of Melbourne in the future. Our investors have already put $100 million into the park,” he says. He won’t tell me the name of his investor, but the only megaproject that remotely fits the bill is Yarraville Gardens, bought by local soccer player turned media mogul, Tommy Jiang, who bought the derelict Bradmill Denim factory site, and later entered a joint venture with a Chinese development company. The plans for the site envisage a $2 billion mini city, with 4000 apartments and shopping centres, but there’s no mention of a theme park. Jiang’s company, CAMG, runs Chinese newspapers and radio stations, often using government-backed programming supplied by China Radio International and always supporting the Beijing line.

“Wow,” I say. “You must be very good at pitching ideas or very well connected. Or both.” Evan shies away. “He’s being very modest,” Tyrone says to me quietly. “I’m alright,” Evan says finally. “I’m from a technical background, so I’m not an expressive or people person.” This, Tyrone tells me afterwards, is classic suzhi – modesty and proper etiquette.

Evan came as an international student in 2007, leaving Qingdao in northern China to study IT here. After he graduated, he couldn’t find work in the industry, so he cleaned offices full time for two years, working like a demon and saving money. Then he started his own business, Flag Explore, developing websites and apps for other businesses. Realising he didn’t have enough brand awareness for his own messaging app, Aussie Message, aimed at Australian Chinese, he built his own media department to push out content and fell into streaming through WeChat. It was immediately popular, drawing him on to take the giant step into the unknown. He sold his house to pour money into Highfun. “It is a very tough time. We call it burning money, because we’re leaking funds,” Evan says. He was floundering when he met Lemon, his co-director. She’s 26, confident and personable in a red choker, red lipstick, pearls, and a blingy ring. She would be the people-person, he’d do the tech stuff. “She gave me hope in the toughest time,” Evan says.

It was fortunate for Lemon, too. After getting an MA in business and law, she launched into the job market only to fall flat. She interned in Chinese radio stations, interned at businesses, but internships bring in no money. “My family were sponsoring me for life. There was no salary. I was thinking I should change my career and my life,” she says. Then she saw an ad for a news anchor on WeChat, and hit it off with Evan.

Highfun has only been going three months when I visit, and already have a quarter of a million viewers a month. They’re experimenting with content, moving away from an early focus on streaming Chinese community events towards panel discussions. Monday to Friday, viewers tune in for particular live-streamed shows. “It sounds a lot like old-fashioned TV,” I say. Evan gives a slight chuckle. “Except it’s a TV in your hand. We’re the first company to do this. The whole market is empty.” They have eleven shows, all hosted in this room of requirement – talk shows, dating, makeup food, legal issues, and their most popular, how to get an orgasm. “It’s hosted by a very beautiful woman,” Lemon says. “She has two daughters and she’s 47, but she looks like she’s 30.” Evan leaves this one well alone. What he’s proud of is interest from Phillipe Mouchel, the famed French chef who, days before HighFun launched, opened a new restaurant on Collins St. “One of his Chinese diners introduced him to Highfun,” Evan says. The show they’re filming tonight is a warm look at Australian quirks and culture from a Chinese point of view. “It’s very interesting for Chinese people in China to see this,” Lemon says.

Their early success at drawing viewers earned them their first angel investors. One, a wealthy Australian Chinese businessman, saw their Chinese New Year live-stream in February 2016. “It was like a destined thing,” Evan says. Their first investor introduced them to another, the property investor.

“Our company is like a toddler – it’s learning to walk, but with a lot of potential and future,” Evan says, the ghost of a smile on his face. Lemon smiles. “Will our dream come true, to list on NASDAQ within three years? We will see.”

I leave, wondering at their quiet drive. If I was a newcomer, I would be uncertain. I’d be the type to find a job wherever possible, work my way up. It wouldn’t even occur to me to try to shape my host society. It’s hugely impressive. I check in again with Highfun towards the end of 2017. But their website is down, there’s no sign of the app, and no one is answering the phone. It seems that the dream burst. The risk was huge and it did not pay off. But still – the power of it, to dream like this, to risk like this.

On a rainy day in late May, I drive through Victoria Street in Richmond, which never seems to change. Flaking walls, Vietnamese grocers and restaurants, Indian eateries called Have You Eaten. Only a few cafes for the gentry – warm wood tones, large Edison lightbulbs, greenery. I’m heading to leafy Hawthorn, which like Box Hill has changed a good deal in the last decade. Swinburne University lifts sleek and silver behind terrace house frontages retained for the look. And all down Burwood Road, sleek apartments are rising, the quarter acre block replaced by 200 square metres and a good park nearby, Australians getting used to apartment living, of having neighbours above your very head.

I’m here to meet Richard Li, the migration agent who helped get me drunk at karaoke. His business, Neway Consulting, lies directly across from Swinburne in an intact old terrace with high ceilings that creak when someone walks overhead. It’s a spartan office, a receptionist and a single desk tucked behind the front door. But that’s an illusion. This is the tip of the iceberg – the underwater bulk is in China, where Richard has four offices of agents drumming up students, pitching Australian universities to the undecided. The suturing of worlds.

Richard seems diffident. Glasses, a round face, wispy brows, broom-tufts of hair jutting forward, blue jacket over a sweater. He taps his fingers idly, rat-a-tat, a coder’s hands. Wasabi peas in a bowl, cartoon characters sketched on a whiteboard behind him. A still life of stamps, forms and books lie on his desk. Richard is 29. He’s the marketing director, running the business solo while his business partner Cindy is in China right now. But he sees himself as more than a businessman.

“I’m like a parent to our students,” he tells me earnestly. “My most important duty is to get them to study hard, not just play or go to karaoke or clubs. It’s not just Chinese but a lot of Asian students have these problems.” What about locals? He grins. “Mm. But that’s not our responsibility.”

I laugh and tell Richard the story of meeting a young Chinese scholar in Brisbane who told me proudly he got the 1003rd highest score in his region. Well done, I’d said, half-heartedly. He’d looked at me. “Out of one million students.” Ah. Right.

Richard grins. A surprisingly large part of Richard’s job as a migration agent is tending wayward young people, who made it through cram schools and the pressure cookers of intensely competitive schools in China and now would just rather like a break before real life starts again. This, after all, is how university is often seen in Japan and Korea – a comparatively easy time compared to high school, a chance to meet your life partner, to relax. But China has 269 million young people, who would all like a good job, a better life. And that means fevered, intense competition, especially with eager smart kids streaming to the coastal megacities in from the poorer inland provinces.

China’s One Child policy has only recently been relaxed. And that means there are generations of children who are the vehicles for all of their parents love and expectation. “It means that parents very much love their one child, as they’re all they have,” Richard says. And for the children, it can mean their parents will always jump in to rescue them. “Some students think money will solve all the problems, they can just go to karaoke and not work hard. It’s too easy for them. Their parents will send them more money in two days. They don’t know that earning money is a very difficult thing. They don’t even work part time jobs.”

Richard came to Australia to study programming and worked part-time jobs throughout university. He got a job in the field. But it was never the end game for him. “If I only do IT, I’m just a programmer. If I use IT to make my own business, I’ll get my own job,” he says. “I know what I want. My parents didn’t give me a lot of money – they said you are a boy, you need to look after yourself.”

But around him, he saw younger students going to high schools in Melbourne – and flunking. Cultural clashes, depression, challenges with English, the possibility of being new in a new country. It wasn’t just the fuerdai – some of the middle class kids too, were struggling, kept afloat by parental largesse. He even saw fellow Chinese who did poorly at university, and whose parents then asked friends in Australia to invent a job for them to get them a 457 visa, even if it cost them $100,000. It gave Richard the idea for a business. He opened it in 2013.

Richard pitches his business as a step beyond the usual migration agent job of taking you from airport to apartment and setting up an Australian bank account. Most of his clients are high schoolers. As Australian Father Figure, he makes sure students pass on their results to their parents and organises events to encourage mingling with other Chinese students and locals.

“Chinese students go to the top 150 high schools in Melbourne. I often have parents say – I want my child to go to a top five school here. But if their results aren’t good, they can’t. Then the parents say – you are an agent, you have the ability to do that, I think you can.” He laughs. “No. No.” Guanxi and connections don’t go so far. Australia, after all, is a land of bureaucracy and forms and grant applications and selling yourself as best possible in written form. If you can navigate that world, you have a chance of a top five school. Otherwise, no.

One of his top students – a teenage boy who was in the top 15 students in a top high school in a city of ten million in China – was all but certain of getting into one of the selective schools. But the school selectors baulked. His results were too good. They must be fake, the selectors said. Richard grimaces. “They were true! I hate the cheaters. All students lose the chance because one person cheats, offers fake documents. They make high schools here think Chinese students aren’t telling the truth.” Now, the wunderkind is cooling his heels, waiting for another selective school.

Longer term, Richard has big plans. Buy four townhouses next to each other and install CCTV outside and fingerprint locks. Use that added security to quell parental fears, given the fears of increased street crime. Let parents see the time their children get home via a proprietary app his Chinese team are coding. Build a platform to bring together migration agents, high schools, English language schools, and restaurants to deliver food to studying students. Make sure the townhouses are located near public transport to encourage students to talk to members of the public. “I know students who’ve been here two years and don’t know how to order a meal at McDonalds in English. They use Chinese-language apps to get takeaway,” he says.

For Richard, work is life. He’s not married, not dating. “I just want to work. I started my business at 25, the best time to do it your own way, build your own future. After 30, maybe you have a wife and child, you don’t have time and can’t take high risks. If I fail, that’s fine. I’ll do it again, it doesn’t matter,” he says.

You sound like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur – that sense of transcendental mission, I say, and he offers a mild smile as disagreement. “Western values come from religion. But we don’t have religion. My values are to make family and friends and customers happy – that’s enough. I want to show my personal values here, to make Australia better. If I live better, the world gets better.”

In Richard’s view, Chinese mentality is family first and Australia is individual first. Australians raise and love their children – but want their kids to learn independence. For Chinese kids overseas – a dislocated strand of the family – the shock can be huge. The challenge of suddenly becoming an individual is very great, he believes. And that’s why he wants to recreate his own version of the family unit, his crop of students that he tends. To shepherd them away from the edge of the cliff.

Will you succeed, I ask. He inclines his head, uncertain. “As a new migrant, it’s hard to get to the top of Australia unless you are very good – or you’re white.” He laughs. “Australia is a migrant community, but it’s still a white country.”

Richard’s stories about rich Chinese kids going off the rails have me intrigued. In Canada, the trials of being obscenely rich and overseas have been documented in the reality show Ultra Rich Asian Girls of Vancouver. As China stratifies, a third of its wealth has now accrued to one per cent of its population. The lower middle class grind to get ahead – or just to stay afloat, leading to the emergence of the self-mocking diaosi loserdom culture for homely young men who play videogames all day. And all the while, the elite fuerdai live starlit lives.

I’ve heard many stories about the superrich Chinese scions. About the supercar club – supercars being the golden ticket demonstrating you’ve achieved Elite Life Level – who protested India’s claiming of supposed Chinese territory high in the Himalayas by driving Sydney’s streets noisily to the Indian consulate. But what happens to those who go off the rails? Who – presented with near-total freedom and a blank cheque – plunge into the night-time wilds?

Tyrone sorts me out. He seemingly knows everyone in Melbourne’s Chinese community. He knows one of the fuerdai, who first approached him seeking help to fill out his census form, and later asked for more help to fend off being expelled from yet another school. He’ll talk to me, but only if I pay him $100. He’s spent all his allowance this week and it’s only Wednesday.

I wait at the Emporium food court. It’s echoingly empty at 9am. Staff wipe windows, dust clothes racks with a feather duster. Only the Honourable Judge café is buzzing. Tyrone appears. “I used to work at the Emporium,” he says, looking around. “That was when I was slim enough to sell clothes to overseas Chinese.” Why did your weight matter, I ask. He looks at me. “It just does.” He shifts tack, gives me the names of several bars famous in fuerdai circles for letting in underage high-school student scions because they’ll drop $2K a night without blinking.

Tyrone’s phone buzzes. He’s here. We swivel and spot him loping towards us. I’ll call him Alan – a tufty fringe, a mop of hair too dishevelled not to have been artfully done, wide lips, an old scar on his arm, all in black – very Melbourne – and his figure-hugging hoodie and icon-laden trackies terminate just above huge sneakers engulfing his feet, stylised wings lifting off from their sides. I’m-wealthy and I-don’t-care-about-wealth. Alan is yawning, and continues to do so throughout our interview. He’s tired, sure. But it’s clear my questions bore him.

We get a coffee and find a quiet corner. The only other people in sight are two young men – small Anglo, nervous urbane Asian – on their first date, which seems to be going really rather well. Alan chews his nails and asks one thing – what’s my angle? How am I making money from his story? He can’t figure out my game.

As we talk, Alan’s knee keeps up a steady rat-a-tat. His fingers entangle and loosen, the effect almost tentacular. He’s good looking – round face, confident, 19 but still in high school. And he tells me everything I want to know – about sex, drugs, and League of Legends, the 21st century update.

Alan grew up near Shanghai and came to Melbourne to study in high school. Coming here felt like real freedom, real independence. His parents are extremely strict and have huge expectations. He’s the older of two boys. The fact there are two of them means money – it’s expensive to buy the right to a second child. But being the older one meant extra pressure and responsibility. To show the path. To be the icon. It’s exhausting. “Freedom feels really good,” he says. “But you can’t have too much of it because you can go over the top.”

Studying in Melbourne quickly palled. There was no-one to watch over him, no one to monitor him for the first time in his life. He came with one friend, but they drifted apart. Soon, he found a new crew of night-time wastrels, keen to party as hard as they could. And why not? His parents were renting him an apartment in the city. He got a decent weekly allowance. Time to party, time to cut loose. So he went wild.

He’s been shown the door at several public high schools, though he paints it as ‘changing school a couple of times’. Why study? What’s the point, when the city was filled with clubs, karaoke, parties, when everyone he seemed to meet was wealthy as well? That’s not to say it’s a rich kid’s paradise. “[Rich kids] compare against each other – what money they get, what their parents have. There are immature people who still compare here, even in Australia,” he says. Are you wealthy, I ask. He considers the question seriously. “My parents are upper middle class. Above the middle class, but not enough to be at the upper class. They’re in the top 65%, with businesses in food and restaurants.”

I’m sympathetic to this. When I lived in Japan in my early 20s, I felt exactly the same – that the invisible ties of society were cut loose and could not, through my ignorance / shield as a foreigner, be re-tied around me. It’s the kind of freedom that induces giddiness. It goes straight to your head.

And so too for Alan. In China, you can sleep around – but there are risks. Here, the girls in his social set are freewheeling just like him. “In China, it’s very rare to sleep around. Your whole social network gets cut off. Here, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t just going to want to sleep around. So if you want to fool around here, it’s easy, but a real relationship is hard.” Are you after a relationship, I ask, and he nods. “I want to find a girl who’s a bit less wild. With the wild girls, you don’t know what they’re thinking, what’s in their hearts.”

But then, moments later, he’s talking about Melbourne’s brothels and escorts. “In China, it’s illegal. Here it’s legal. Everyone wants to try it here because you can’t in China.” You too, I prompt. He nods, laughs. “It’s a bit different when you pay. But I like all girls. There are the apartment girls [escorts] and the mortar and brick girls [brothels]. I usually go to the apartments.”

Alan, it seems, does not consider himself a true fuerdai. His wealth is only significant, not stratospheric. He talks with some envy about the Lamborghini drivers he knows. All they ever do, he says, is use their supercar to get laid. How, I ask. “It’s easy. You park it outside a club, you ask a girl if she wants to feel the wind in her hair, and it works. But only if you have a luxury car.” So it’s the wealth? He nods.

If you’re partying at night, what do you do at daytime if you’re not studying, I ask. He grins. “League of Legends. Koreans here are the strongest players, but Chinese are better than locals. We’re better suited to teamwork.” I nod. “Westerners are more creative, but lack technical play.”

Alan is the captain of a team of LoL esports players sponsored by an internet café in a Melbourne-wide competition. The prize money is small change – $500 – but the bragging rights are worth far more. Alan’s team won one sponsored by Tony Zhu’s Melbourne Today. Their gaming nemeses are Beyond Box Hill, the luxurious gaming cafe on Whitehorse Road in Box Hill I walked past.

What have you learned from Melbourne, I ask. “I learned a lot here,” he says. Like what? He grins. “Drinking. And drinking games.” He laughs. It seemed like a frictionless life, a floating world. But last year, reality struck hard. His crew started bumping heads with other fuerdai groups. If you’re a young man trying to impress a young woman when everyone’s rich – how do you show who is boss? Fights. Alan tells me he doesn’t join in the fights, but he watches his friends get drunk and rowdy, watches them find a rival friendship group and start a punch on. “It’s more for girls – that’s the reason,” he says.

And then one Friday night in April 2016, everything changed. Alan wasn’t there that night, but he heard about what happened. About how a teenager loosely associated with his friendship group arranged to meet Jeremy Hu, a student at Yarra Valley Grammar. Jeremy was dating a woman the 17 year old was interested in. Both brought friends. Around 9pm, a fight broke out in La Trobe Place, off Chinatown and Jeremy was punched, kicked and stomped on. CCTV captured much of the fight. He died in hospital.

Latrobe Place, where Jeremy Hu was killed

One of those kicking Jeremy when he was unconscious was a young woman, Sirui Luo, who has since been deported. A court heard Sirui was in Australia on a student visa but was no longer attending university and had no job. Another, Hanjie Liu, 24, was jailed for six months after pleading guilty to affray, while Shenglian Wan would stand trial for Jeremy’s murder and this year be convicted of manslaughter. “The murder in Chinatown was over a girl,” Alan admits. “I know all of the people involved, and the girl as well. It was a really big shock when I heard, an accident that went over the top.”

When he heard Jeremy had died, Alan was shaken. The life free of consequences had come to an end for people he knew. And for him? How long will you keep this up, I ask. How long is this moment? He cocks his head. “Before I didn’t want to go back, but now I do. I feel like I’m wasting my youth, playing around, numb, with no direction.”

Alan shifts on his seat. Talking about this is boring. “Can I go now,” he asks. I nod, and he’s off without a backwards glance.

Afterwards, I ask Tyrone if he counts Alan a friend. Tyrone shrugs. “I felt bad for him. He’s part of a subset of the Chinese community – weird rich kids with nothing else going on. He asks for help all the time – for retail jobs when he’s run out of money, for help with English because he doesn’t study. His parents are wasting a lot of money. And he had a very rich girlfriend, but she dumped him because of his laziness in the relationship.”

Why don’t his parents cut him off if he keeps getting booted from schools, I ask. “They do. But then they relent. He’s their kid – they’re not going to make him homeless.”

Tyrone laughed when he saw a recent status update from Alan. ‘Man, got expelled again. Got to find a new school.’ But he’s never out for long – when you pay, you can get back in.

Can that supercar story be real, I ask. Tyrone nods and lists the CBD clubs where it’s common. “You should see it for yourself. But be wary of being a single white man turning up to an Asian club.” Why? “Weird white dudes trying to pick up young Asian girls are well known.”

I saw an Anglo creep with yellow fever working Melbourne Central once, hovering near a Myki machine and looking for newly arrived Asian girls. Do you need help, he’d ask, and they’d politely say yes or no. Then he’d quickly move to the hard sell – come get a coffee, come, come, come. There was something very off about him. Not knowing what else to do, I stood very close to him, watching, until he gave up.

Ducks and chickens in karaokeland

It’s 4pm on a Thursday, and I’m pressing Daisy’s apartment buzzer repeatedly. No answer. Tyrone and I wait downstairs. He seems perplexed. “She said she’d be awake by now,” he says. Eventually, a text gets through.

45 minutes later, Daisy is awake, showered, made-up, clothed and downstairs. “I work at night,” she says by way of apology. “Come for breakfast?”

Daisy wears steampunk glasses, a tshirt with a giant slavering Doberman on it, a jean dress. I’ve come to meet her because she’s classic second-generation rich Chinese fuerdai – and she’s happy to talk about her expensive duck habit.

Tyrone has told me about this. About how in certain karaoke joints, there is an additional service available for VIPs. The term is ducks and chickens – attractive young men and women who provide the boyfriend or girlfriend experience. Perhaps it was a flock of chickens, I saw, the blank faced miniskirt girls, the night I went drinking with Tony Zhu.

As we walk down Bourke Street, hunting for cha tea and noodles, Daisy pulls her face mask higher. She’s not sick. I’m puzzled why she’s wearing it. Then it becomes apparent. We pass a conservatively dressed young woman who spots Daisy despite her disguise. The two gush over each other and move on. Once she’s a safe distance away, Daisy tells us her acquaintance is a chicken, a famed hostess skilled at stroking the egos, tugging the heartstrings of her male clients. By day, she’s working towards her MA at a top Melbourne university. By night, she sees her clientele. Ducks and chickens don’t offer sex at the outset. If you build up a rapport, they may might make you an offer, privately. But the usual arrangement is $80 per hour for attentive, warm company in your private karaoke booth.

Daisy is annoyed to have been spotted. Why, I ask – you’re a social queen at night, right? She shrugs. “I never go out in the day. If I do, I wear this mask. I don’t want people to see me. Everyone knows each other. Chinese Melbourne is small. If I go out uncovered, many will say hello. But I don’t want to say hi. Night is when I’m social. I don’t need it in the day.” We sit at a deserted noodle bar and Daisy devours her first meal of the day. She’s here doing her Masters.

Daisy grew up in wealthy Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, the daughter of rich parents. She would never have had to work if she didn’t want to. But here she is, far away from their clutches. Before Melbourne, she went to high school in the UK. She looks at Tyrone and says something in Mandarin. “Translate!” she commands, and he obliges. What she said was that her English was still bad because my friends tend to be Chinese.

In Melbourne, Daisy lives a gilded life. Clubbing and karaoke at night, an occasional burst of studying by day. She rubs shoulders with the Chinese elite at Bond bar, a luxe bar that’s become a fuerdai hangout. Maseratis are often parked out front. But I get the sense that she’s lonely. She’s in her early 20s, and she wants very much to be in a relationship, to be loved. The problem is finding a man. Her social set is comprised of rich playboys and girls. Everyone has money, everyone just wants to play. No one seems interested in settling down. And there’s the added challenge that she’s half-European, that her mother’s genes have given her wider, Western eyes. “Chinese men often don’t like me,” she says plaintively.

Her one suitor is a wealthy Maserati driver, who supposedly has a desk job at a real estate company. “He doesn’t actually work,” she says. “He wants me. But I reject him all the time. No feeling! Oh, my god. If you know me, you know I don’t care about money. Money is not very important. If I like a guy and he’s not rich, its okay.” She reconsiders. “Well, so-so is okay, but not very poor. But this guy spent a thousand dollars on food at Crown for me at [high-end Japanese restaurant] Koko.” She makes a face. Do you consider yourself rich, I ask. She dodges adroitly. “Middle class.”

Tyrone laughs at this. “So he paid for you – but you weren’t impressed by that?” Daisy raises expressive brows. “I could pay for him.” She shrugs. If you’re both rich, money loses meaning.

She polishes off her noodles, sighs, looks up. “In Melbourne, how to say – I don’t know many guys and it’s hard to meet good looking ones. I like gentlemen, but you meet a lot of clubbing partyboys. None that could be a boyfriend. So I order ducks.”

It was an agent who first made the offer to Daisy. There she was in her regular VIP karaoke room with her single friend when the agent knocked. Would they, he asked, be interested in some company? Daisy and her friend looked at each other. Why not? What would the harm be? And in filed a line of elegant, dandied young men, Korean for the most part, with a smattering of Australian-born Chinese. Hair artfully scruffed, good skin, and each one smiling faintly, turning on the charm.

Daisy took a shine to one boy. He looked like a K-pop star, a soft face, almost feminine. He was tall and thin, and she preferred short and chubby. But there was something about the way he smiled at her. So she chose him, and her friend chose another. That night, under the heat lamp of their attention, the two girls glowed and preened. Finally – they were appreciated.

Over the next few weeks, Daisy learned the rules. The ducks had choice – her duck had chosen her. But she paid, and that meant she had the power. “You can touch them. Like this,” she says, rubbing her hands up and down Tyrone’s arms, to his mild discomfort. “And I liked him. I’m young and I’m pretty. I pick you –and I want that you like me, too.

During the day, her phone would ping with WeChat messages from her solicitous young man. How was her day? Was she eating enough? Would she come and see him again, that night?

Daisy fell for him. Hard. “He was my favourite. I trusted him, because he told me he liked me. But then I found out he just wanted money. He wanted me to take him over exclusively, to pay for him monthly. It was too much money. So – I cried for him. But byebye.”

Her first duck had played her emotions well. Would she pay handsomely for the privilege of his undivided attention? It wasn’t just the money that turned her off. At the first sign of cold feet, he offered to sleep with her, free, rather than the usual rate of $2000 a night. It became clear that it was a ploy. She knew he had many other clients, and that he’d slept with a number of them. “It was kinda disgusting. He might be dirty, because he was unhygienic. And the fact he offered it for free – how promiscuous,” she says.

After she said no, it didn’t take long for her dreamy K-pop boy to find another client. Daisy heard stories. About how a gangster’s beautiful wife found out about her husband’s mistress and decided she deserved her own toyboy. How she took Mr K-Pop on, exclusively, for the sum of $10,000 a month. How she gave him a Mercedes S-Class to drive, how she gave him a townhouse in Melbourne to live in. But only while he was hers. “That boy makes too much money,” Daisy says. She curls her lip. “Everything he was wearing – jacket, watch, phone – was a gift from rich girls.”

Tyrone shakes his head in disbelief. “Not only that,” he says. “I know that guy. He’s a top level League of Legends player. And he makes a lot of money levelling up other people’s heroes. He must be raking it in.”

Months later, Daisy bumped into her duck paramour. He’d blocked her on WeChat, but couldn’t block her in real life. He kept up appearances, smiling and asking how she was. “I couldn’t believe it. I was so stupid,” Daisy says. “He just wanted my money. When I was paying, he was so nice to me. And then he switched. He was so patient. And his strategy, too. It was a deep and hurtful game.” The League of Legends player had discovered that life, too, could be a game.

Did you quit ducks after that, I ask. Daisy’s shoulders slump. She’d found another duck. This one, she told herself, this one seemed far nicer. He was chubbier, shorter – much more her taste. And other Chinese girls didn’t like that body type. But Daisy found him much more masculine than the effete dandy who had broken her heart. “This boy told me I was the first girl who’d ever chosen him,” she says.

Her duck was five years older than her too. He knew more about life. And he didn’t ask for money directly, as the first one did. All she did was pay for his time at karaoke and buy him drinks. Sometimes she’d tip him, but not a huge amount. And for that, he was unceasing in his devotion.

For Daisy, the measure of a man is old fashioned. Courtesy, gallantry, respect – this was what mattered. And this older man – polished, urbane, respectful – would ask her to dinner or drinks. He would walk her home without trying to get into her apartment. He didn’t touch her without her permission. All he would say was – sleep well. When it rained on bitingly cold Melbourne nights, he would hold his coat high above her head. The protector, the knight, the man of gallantry, this mythical man girls across Asia dream of.

“Ah, he was sweet, that second one,” Daisy says, her voice almost reverent.
Unable to help herself, Daisy fell for him, even harder than for the first duck. So when it came time for her long-anticipated three month trip to Europe, she asked him if he would wait for her. And he said yes. Every day during the European winter, as Daisy toured Parisian galleries and German bars and Spanish restaurants, he would text her on WeChat. “He would pursue me every day. I was touched,” she says.

In Europe, Daisy met a young Chinese woman with a similar elite background. But she was quite different. This woman had stopped taking her family allowance. She had decided, instead, to rely on her own wits. “I decided that I wanted to be like her, to make my own money. To stay in Melbourne,” she says.

Before that, Daisy’s Western adventures were a way to be free of her parents. But meeting this girl, she realised that she had never been truly free. Wealth is control. Her life in Melbourne was a string of karaoke sessions, dawn homecomings, a bit of study, travel, eating out with friends, and seeing ducks – all paid for by the Bank of Mum and Dad. It was time, she thought, to get real, to cut the purse strings. In Melbourne, there was a boy waiting for her, and a boy could make this city a home. It was settled.

Days before her return, she got unwelcome news. Another fuerdai friend told her that her chosen duck had been taken over exclusively by a very wealthy older woman. Her white knight had not waited for her, after all. When Daisy arrived in Melbourne, she went that night to Bond bar. And there he was – hers no longer –on the arm of an elegant Chinese woman in her 50s. “Oh, she was so old. And he looked at me – what is the word?” Tyrone and Daisy talk in Mandarin, puzzling out the exact English equivalent. “Embarrassed? Awkwardly? I think you mean awkwardly,” Tyrone says.

Daisy nods. “Awkward,” she says, testing out the word. “Yes. He smiled at me and said hi. But still, so awkward. Later, he told me he still liked me on WeChat. But I knew.” Her knee is bouncing, pitter-patter, under the table. “In my heart, I think maybe he really liked me, before. Because I didn’t give him too much money. I just gave him $300 in tips. He was nice and chubby. And had nice small eyes.”

Daisy catches herself. “Sorry. My emotion is more like a Westerner. I have an open heart. Oh, life is harder in Melbourne. If I went back to Shenzhen, my parents would arrange me a good job. They have connections with the Workers Bank, a big one. But in Melbourne, maybe it is possible to make a new start.”

As much as Daisy tries to escape her party life, her world is still centred around karaoke nights. The only job she could get immediately was at the same karaoke parlour where her heart was broken. She swore off ducks entirely. Twice burned was enough. But Chinese Melbourne was not big enough. At work, she watches as her two ex-paramours come in and out with new girls. “The politics are complex,” she says, as Tyrone translates. “I know so many ducks now. It’s made me look at men in a more complicated way. Their strategy, their way of thinking – they will go through any mental gymnastics to get your money. I’m suspicious of all men. I prefer friends to relationships.”

Do you still believe in true love, I ask. “Yes, of course! I trust it, I want it. But around me right now, there’s no one who’s not fake. The ones I liked played me. Now I know if it’s fake or not.”

She looks at Tyrone, who seems uneasy under her gaze. “Don’t you think he’s handsome,” she says to me, archly. Sure do, I say, just to make Tyrone squirm. “But why would he take Australian citizenship if he’s Chinese?” Tyrone bridles. “She’s always asking me that – I had no choice! I’m born here,” he says. “She asks if people look down on me for choosing Australia.” He shakes his head. “I feel Australian.”

Before we met Daisy, Tyrone had hinted at her interest. It was, he said, unlikely to happen, even though he was freshly single. The gulf between Australian-born Chinese and Chinese-Chinese was too wide.

But Daisy is not a quitter. She turns to me. “Are you single?” I raise my hands. “Married, kids,” I say. “Oh. How old?” When I tell her, her eyes widen. “Oh. You’re like my uncle.” She turns again to Tyrone, pleads with him to come shopping with her for a dress to wear to a birthday party. “I’m a girl, I need boys advice,” she coos. Tyrone tries to fend her off. “I don’t have taste. Don’t ask me.”

Daisy brushes this off. She pays the bill and takes Tyrone by the hand. “Let’s go shopping,” she purrs. I catch a last glimpse of his widened eyes as he rounds the corner.  

These stories from the floating nighttime world intrigue me. Both Alan and Daisy are international students, part of Australia’s hidden migration boom. Up to half a million people are studying here at any one time – and Chinese-background make up the largest group of students. Many find Australia a secret playground. Stepping off the treadmill, even for a short while, is worth it. I seek out more stories without Tyrone’s help. It feels a bit like taking my trainer wheels off. But it turns out that these stories are everywhere.

For shy, soft-spoken Chinese-Indonesian student Joanna Wiyono, Australia’s freedom came as a welcome chance to escape stifling family pressure. At home in Java, she was the “goody-girl” who never went clubbing or dared to drink. In Melbourne, Joanna fell in with a group of Singaporeans – notorious party goers, she tells me, laughing – who drank a lot. “I got to experience a lot of stuff I never did back home,” she says. “It’s liberating.”

On her trips home, Joanna saw her family with fresh eyes. Why did her brothers get such an easy ride? Why were her parents so over-protective of their daughters? Was that why her sister Betty had rebelled so strongly?

Almost a decade earlier, Betty had come to Sydney as a student, and began working – and drinking – her way through her degree. To the despair of her conservative Christian parents, she became Westernised and shacked up with an alcoholic European. A gossipy friend even let it slip that Betty was no longer a virgin. “It was horrible,” Joanna says. Their mother believed women should serve as support crew to men. Betty disagreed: “Women are not men’s objects,” she told her mother. “This is the 21st century. That’s why I don’t want to marry an Asian man.” Eventually, she married an English engineer.

So when Joanna arrived in Australia to study in 2014, she was wary of how this country might affect her. Would she, too, be corrupted, Westernised? What happened instead was a surprise: a new way to glimpse her future. Four years ago, Joanna’s family was rocked by an affair. Her father admitted he’d had a month-long dalliance overseas. Did her mother leave? Impossible. Middle-class Chinese-Indonesian wives are expected not to work; if she divorced him, there would be no spousal maintenance, and she would lose much face. “The affair ruined my idea of marriage,” Joanna tells me quietly.

In Australia, what struck her was the absence of pressure from society. Other people didn’t care much what you did. You didn’t have to worry about face, about appearance. You could marry. Or simply have a long-term partner. You could have children. Or choose not to. “Now, I think I want to stay here because I feel society will embrace me more,” she says.

I hear a different story from Zongyi Fu, who wanted a city much smaller and quieter than Shanghai to study in. So she chose Melbourne. For her, Australia was a chance to be temporarily anonymous. “You can loosen up in a country where no one knows you and indulge yourself for once,” she says.

One of her friends, who wanted to be nameless, went far further. “Weed in China is illegal,” she told me. “Here, it’s just underground – it’s easy to try. And here you can go back home with someone you barely know from a pub, a white guy. It’s a new experience. Back home, in your parents’ eyes you are perfect – so you try to behave like a lady. But everyone has a double personality, and so I try to release my ‘evil’ side here. When I go back to China, I will change back.”

And she did. When I check in with her once she’s back in China, she responds in a very proper manner, almost like a British toff, inquiring about my health, my career, and telling me about her forthcoming marriage. Party time is over. The wall of respectability is back up.

State Library forecourt

The crowds are thickening outside Melbourne Central at 4pm. People hasten home ahead of rush hour, to secure a seat on overcrowded trains. Tradies knocking off after another day building apartments. In the State Library forecourt, a band plays Irish jigs while homeless men and women do the rounds asking for coins, cardboard signs round their necks. I meet Lily Lin at a café nearby. Round glasses, silver rimmed, silver necklace, silver-rimmed watch, carefully painted grey nails, an ear stud high on one ear the only deviation from the look of the upwardly mobile. She’s dressed for dinner with friends. Her Instagram shows her love of the good things in life – events, friends, food, travel. She’s in her early 20s.

I’ve come to meet her as someone who seems to embody the Chinese-Australian dream – a creature of two worlds, a full inheritance from both.

Lily Lin is going places. She gave up studying accounting after an epiphany travelling Europe, switching to marketing, her true strength. Throughout her uni degree, she’d been one of those ultra-involved people, the mainstay of many clubs. When she headed up the ASEAN club at Monash University, she ran the club ball and sold a thousand tickets. She wanted to donate some of the proceeds, and asked her boss at Crystal Palace, an Asian-style wedding caterer who she’d recommend. Try Project Gen Z, her boss said. That’s how she first came across the social enterprise. Lily asked if she could get involved, and met the founder Liz Atkinson, who came to Australia as a British backpacker in 2001, discovered the gift of the gab in direct sales, and started her own successful direct marketing company. Liz asked her to intern. Lily did so – for a full year, unpaid – her eye on the future.

The organisation runs trips overseas for disadvantaged communities, and workshops for high school students in Australia. In poorer areas where the kids are down on themselves, where they don’t think they’ll amount to anything – these, Lily says, can get amazing results. “We asked them about their goals and dreams, and asked – can you achieve the dream? So many said no. Why? They didn’t believe in themselves, didn’t know where to start, or they didn’t have a dream.”

“Meeting social entrepreneurs felt like the first time I belonged with other people,” she tells me. “Growing up with a Chinese background, it’s not something you’re comfortable with culturally. That’s why I did accounting.”

But isn’t Chinese culture big on entrepreneurship, I ask, surprised. She shrugs. “My parents came to Australia and ran small businesses. It’s how they made their living, not what they wanted me to do. At high school, you studied and no-one told you having a dream is important, having a life is important, that there are other paths than just studying,” she says.

She sips her tea. “I always had those tendencies, but I didn’t know what it was called. Then I found out it’s a thing, it’s a job, it’s fine, people do this.” This is entrepreneurship still, I ask, a trifle dubious. She laughs. “Yep.” She already has a well-thought through plan: get enough cash to fund Melbourne’s answer to the Grounds of Alexandria in Sydney, a greenery-draped set of cafés, florists, market garden and landscaped garden on a full block in a former pie factory just south of the CBD, and one of Australia’s most Instagrammed places.

When Lily Lin’s parents came out from the poor province of Fujian, on the coast across from Taiwan, they did so for the classic migrant reason: to improve their lives, and the lives of children to come. Her father and his friends talked about how to get ahead in life. They heard that Australia could be that means. They all applied, but only he and one other got the chance. So he left his job as a PE teacher in a small village and came out with his wife and six year old daughter with $100 to his name.

Lily’s parents did odd jobs – cleaning, cooking, working at Victoria Market – for years. They had day jobs and night jobs, working beyond the point of exhaustion. They’d work eight hours, come home for a nap, and work till dawn, and then nap, and then repeat. When more children arrived, Lily’s older sister had to step up and act as a second mum when mum was working. Eventually, they saved up enough to open a Chinese takeaway in Bentleigh. More children were born, until there were six Lins living in a flat above the restaurant. Later, they’d open charcoal chicken stores in places as far away as Moe, in Gippsland, where her father would work. Her mother would drive him and the supplies down with the three youngest kids in the car for the weekend, and then they’d return home, leaving dad to work alone.

They worked, in short, bloody hard for a very long time. “It’s a tough story for them to tell,” Lily says. “They get quite emotional. It was that hard. They’re very modest people.” At this, she tears up a little. In primary school, she had to find out about her parents for a class project. It was the first time she’d asked them their story. She never finished that assignment, and the evening ended in tears and hugs. Her mum talked about the hardest job she ever did, as an outworker for a clothing company, sewing jeans in bad light. She talked about how little she got paid for the long hours. About having to leave her oldest daughter in charge of young children. And finally it made sense – the comments her dad would make if Lily was lucky enough to get a 30 cent soft serve at Maccas. “Your sister never got those,” he’d say.

It’s no wonder, then, that Lily feels the need to look after the two people who sacrificed everything for her and her brothers and sisters. “I want to make enough money that my parents can live out their lives happily,” she says. And that is why she found her own leap into the unknown hard. To be an entrepreneur means failures, loss, hardship, in the hope of eventual greatness. She had the smarts to get a steady career job – dentist, doctor, accountant. Her parents asked her questions, and then wished her luck. “Dad noticed how happy and inspired I was – he was always wanting me to try things, and he has a lot of random ideas. I just realised that I really am like him. Mum calculates the risks.”

Growing up Chinese in Australia wasn’t something Lily paid attention to until she was 15. Before that, she wasn’t aware of differences. It was an Anglo-dominated school, but it didn’t matter. Her first boyfriend in high school was a quarter Chinese, but very Anglicised. He told his parents that he had a girlfriend. Would she tell hers? Lily was astonished. “No – of course not,” she told him. What about coming to the movies this weekend? “Not possible!” They kept romance to hand-holding.

After that, she dated another Chinese-background boy, and then decided relationships can wait. There was too much life to live. Her friendship group started to skew Asian-background. They got her – and she got them. They understood the expectations and hopes of Asian parents, of the need to take your shoes off inside rather than keep them on as in Anglo houses. “I didn’t realise how strongly culture impacted my self and values until then,” she says. She feels both Australian and Chinese. “I’d like to marry someone Australian-Chinese, for those commonalities. But you never know. I’m not sure where to begin to integrate with more Australian things.”

It’s when she’s in China that she feels most Australian, and when she’s in Australia that she feels most Chinese. The last time she went to the motherland was five years back, to see her extended family. But her cousins felt too Chinese, and many of her aunties and uncles too. One uncle, a kind man, told her and her siblings not to move to China. “You kids would never survive here,” he told them. “You’re too honest.” It wasn’t just her. Lily’s parents, too, had changed. Her mother was stricken with anxiety. She’d forgotten details of the dense web of gifts and debts that make up Chinese family relationships. Who she owed, and who owed her. When someone gives you a gift, you must reciprocate with one of equal value. It’s transactional, and it never ends.

One of her cousins contacted her when Lily was back in Australia. Could she get her some specific Pandora jewellery? It was on sale. Lily felt slightly uncomfortable. They weren’t particularly close and it felt like quite an ask. But her mother said – you must oblige. This is family. So Lily obediently went into stores and took pictures and sent them to her cousin, who texted back. No. No. Maybe. No. Yes. Soon, it took over her life. Lily was sending fifty pictures a day, neglecting her studies. And then her cousin said – actually, don’t worry about it. Lily had just wasted weeks doing her bidding. When her cousin asked for another favour, Lily said – sorry, I can’t. Too busy. “I ignored her requests. She was asking too much,” Lily says. “My mum wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Lily looks to her big sister, nine years older, as a second mother. “If I need to make a serious decision, I consult her first. She says I don’t listen to her advice – but I do take it to heart, even if I don’t take it up. She had it tough – she can remember the hard years, looking after us during primary school.” The siblings are night-owls, close-knit, hard working and driven, perhaps as a result of not having a coddled childhood. Lily, too, acts as a maternal figure at times.

When a close friend came to her house at 2am in March, she knew it had to be something sensitive. “Lily,” he said. “I’m gay.” He had just turned 18. They talked long into the morning. Lily told him that it was fine. He told her he’d known for three years, that he’d kept it secret throughout high school, where gay is still a common slur. It was only when he made a new female friend, outgoing energetic, who encouraged him to take that step, reassured him that everything would be okay.

“I wish you felt you could have told me sooner,” Lily told him. “I didn’t have the courage,” he said. And they talked and cried. The next day, Lily thought about it again and again. She found herself very emotional at work. “It was so upsetting to think about how hard it was for him,” she tells me, and her tears well again. “No-one should have to hide such a big part of themselves.” She dabs at her eyes. “Why are you making me cry so much?” she says, laugh-crying.

The fact of his sexuality was larger than school acceptance. Her friend is a considerate young man. He knew how it would affect his larger family unit, knew that their parents had four children because they wanted a boy, knew that he was the only grandson on the paternal side, that homosexuality is not openly accepted in Chinese culture – or even in parts of Australia. He knew his parents didn’t approve of same-sex marriage. So he buried it. Who would carry on the family name, if he didn’t have children? “It limited him,” she says. “Now he has self-confidence issues, not sure if he’s good enough, doubting who he is.”

Daylight is waning. Lily has clasped her hands together. Her hair blows across her face. She regains her composure, returns to herself. Passers-by are rubbernecking at her tears, wondering what kind of cad I am, what specific cruelty I’ve inflicted.

High clouds shaped like the ripples waves leave in sand. I ride home, emotional myself. An interview can be a seduction without the mess. From strangers to a temporary intimacy. I think of the times I, too, have confided in strangers. Wind on the Canning Street bike path blowing me home, a cool change imminent. Behind me, the new skyscrapers reflect purple light from the sunset. The leaves of the peppercorn trees look like trilobite fossils in the evening.

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