Last year, I went to find out what the Chinese century means for Melbourne and all its people. And I found it in the older generation who vote Labor after Tiananmen, the cashed up new arrivals who vote Liberal. In the second CBD rising in Box Hill, inching upwards on Chinese investment. In the loneliness – or wildness – of international students. In second gen high-achievers. In Daisy, a scion of the superrich who keeps falling in love with ‘ducks,’ male flatterers who sell their time in karaoke joints. In Tyrone, the second-generation fixer who shows me around, passing between worlds, who tells me about Chinese-Australian angst and anxieties – about what lies beneath. Along the way I win a flight to Beijing and act (badly) as a go-between.
This is a long work of reporting, in three parts.
Part 1: The Fixer
When I taught at Melbourne University, I’d always go to the same place for coffee. Bonnie was always there, with her quiet smile. One Friday, I asked if she had any plans for the weekend and she told me about Sea Lake. I’d never heard of it. A small wheat town 400 km from Melbourne, a dot on the map. “Why are you going there?” I asked. Bonnie showed me a picture. Shot at just the right time of day, the salt and the pale blue of the sky merged and the figure walking in the foreground seemed to float on a trail of ripples. “It’s called the Sky Mirror,” she said.
No-one knows how the fad started, but once the images started circulating on WeChat and Weibo, Victoria had a new, and very unlikely, tourist attraction. Now, busloads of tourists arrive, some driving 12 hours straight from Sydney, just for the perfect image. Some drive onto the thin salt crust, pursuing the water as it evaporates in drought years, and get bogged. The town’s notoriously grumpy rooster has become a mini-celebrity online. Even the tourists sometimes wonder why they’re there. “I find no people. And then lots of shops are closed,” Alice Lee told the ABC. “But in Hong Kong I don’t find the scenery like this.”
Sky Mirror is a Chinese coined-term, but Anglo-owned businesses like Skymirror.com.au have sprung up selling merchandise. Chinese wedding photographers take brides and grooms there for the perfect image. I came away from that conversation, wondering. Newcomers re-pattern and remake space in very different ways.
This is China’s century. In the 2016 census, migrants from North and South Asia outnumbered European migrants for the first time. In my city of Melbourne, Australian-Chinese are now around 8% of the population. Many of the blue-ribbon eastern suburbs are rapidly becoming more Chinese, from Box Hill to Balwyn to Mont Albert. What, I wondered, does that mean for the city? How will the Chinese presence remake the city? What promise and tensions does this shift hold?
In 2017, I decided to explore Chinese Melbourne – the emerging diaspora, the link to the renewed Middle Kingdom. The thought held me, though I, a red-haired Anglo, speak not a word of Mandarin.
I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese dynamism. Around the world, Chinese have earned the reputation as highly successful, adaptable migrants, who place great store in education and success. Chinese-Australians tether us to a major new economic and cultural power as part of a wide diaspora around South East Asia, Africa, Europe and America. They’re scientists, doctors, lawyers, milk bar owners, dentists, social media stars, academics. Whether first-gen migrants like Zehua Chen and Hongchang Lu, who brought the controversial and short-lived oBike bike-share business to Melbourne and Sydney or second-gen wunderkinds like Margaret Zhang, an influential fashion Instagrammer and photographer working with high-end brands, Chinese-Australians – especially the dynamic new arrivals – challenge conventional ideas of what it is to migrate.
Australia’s ambivalence on migrants has traditionally been appeased through the Ladder of Quietly Working Yourself to the Bone. Work your way up, stay quiet, don’t rock the boat, raise children who become acculturated second-gen Australians, who are permitted to more fully participate. But first generation Chinese move around the world and… change things. I remember hearing about anti-Chinese riots in Madang when I visited the sleepy town on the northern shores of Papua New Guinea. I could still feel the tension on the streets. The local Chinese-owned businesses had employed security guards and put metal bars on every window. These riots were less bloody than those in Malaysia or Indonesia, less heartfelt than the resentment of overseas Chinese wealth in the Philippines, but they were no less real. Why, I asked. The answer: “Too successful.” Chinese traders undercut locals, newcomers beating old timers at their own game. Frustration led to rage.
Poor Chinese from inland provinces are willing to risk everything for a chance at success. They move to dangerous or difficult places of the world – Johannesburg, Mogadishu, Astana – to set up businesses. Those less desperate move to Tehran or Florence. And many of the already-successful mobilise as much of their wealth as possible and move to Vancouver or London or Melbourne, where they set about making waves. Building apartment towers. Buying and expanding businesses to make use of their connections. Forging stronger ties with the new Middle Kingdom, the sleeping giant throwing off its century of humiliation – European colonisation, Japanese invasion – and reclaiming its historic position as a world power.
What does that mean for Chinese-Australians? It means they are, increasingly, a topic of Public Debate. Debate about the heavily patriotic Chinese students and their new willingness to push back against Western stories about democracy, about Tiananmen Square, about China’s place in the world. Students have protested their lecturers for voicing topics seen as a criticism of China. In late 2017, Monash University Chinese studies lecturer Jonathan Benney told the BBC it was a genuine concern. Many academics – including himself – had encountered students trying to prevent critical opinions on China being voiced. “It is restricting both the freedom of lecturers and fellow students to say what they want,” he said. Soon afterwards, the usually cautious head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, made a clear public statement to Chinese students: “Silencing of anyone in our society – from students to lecturers to politicians – is an affront to our values.”
Adamson pointedly gave her speech to international students at the University of Adelaide’s Confucius Centre. These centres are a key plank of China’s soft power push. The Chinese government offers them, fully funded, to universities around the world. They look like they’re officially part of the universities. But they’re there to promote a particular view of the world through China’s eyes. “No doubt there will be times when you encounter things which to you are unusual, unsettling, or perhaps seem plain wrong … so when you do, let me encourage you not to silently withdraw, or blindly condemn, but to respectfully engage,” she told the audience.
It was widely seen as a pushback against Beijing’s efforts to ensure its students studying abroad do not return with radical ideas likely to unsteady the CCP’s grip on power. Reporting throughout 2017 has catalogued Beijing’s efforts on that front – influencing student associations, threatening Chinese dissidents based here, interrogating Australian-Chinese scholars who visit China, and exerting full control over most Chinese-language media.
In 2002, I wrote a feature on the persecution of the Falun Gong, a qi gong spin-off group with a charismatic leader that has been persecuted in China. The group made the fatal error of protesting its early persecution, appearing in their thousands outside the leadership compound in Beijing. Organised protest meant a challenge to the one-party state, and the Falun Gong were swiftly pressed into the mould of state enemy. When I asked an editor of a Chinese-language newspaper in Melbourne if he felt any pressure not to report on Falun Gong practitioners who have long protested outside the Chinese consulate in Toorak, he told me that he’d felt pressure from the consulate to silence the group. “Of course,” he said. “It’s part of their job. But they can’t say something directly – they can only hint at what they want. This is a free country. We don’t have to listen to them.”
But 2002 is a long time ago. Now, Beijing has well and truly brought Melbourne’s Chinese media to heel. An editor at a pro-Chinese publication told Fairfax reporters Kelsey Munro and Phillip Wen that “nearly 95 per cent of the Australian Chinese newspapers have been brought in by the Chinese government to some degree.” The tactics Wen and Munro describe target the vulnerability of small media outlets – their dependence on advertising. The editor told them that “advertisers, usually Chinese-owned firms or businesses which rely on good relations with the Chinese government, are told by consulate officials to pull advertising from non-compliant media outlets, and are directed instead to divert their dollars to those who toe the party line.”
Does this sum up the Chinese experience here? Hardly. Consider. One of China’s most subversive cartoonists, Badiu Cao, has sought refuge in Melbourne. He does not give interviews in person, does not let his face be seen. He punctures the pomposity of the party elites, of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive in which his internal party rivals mysteriously always seem to cop it the worst. Many Chinese-Australians are rebels who loathe the iron grip of the Chinese Communist Party. But they are the old guard – and the new guard who waltz in on investment visas have done well out of the regime.
So – where to begin my exploration? That was logical – Box Hill, Melbourne’s emerging second CBD, driven by Chinese energy and investment.
Melbourne is a set of villages – the sprawling city, horizon to horizon. Most of us stick to our own and rarely venture beyond. I pack up my kids and drive eastward one Tuesday morning in April, to see Melbourne change before my eyes. It’s autumn but a damn hot one.
It’s been a long time since I was last in Box Hill. On the way out along Whitehorse Road, it feels like nothing ever changes in the east. For all the talk of the emerging Chinese middle-class belt in Glen Iris and Balwyn, very little seems to have changed. And at first, Box Hill seems like much of the eastern suburbs – slow-changing, brown-brick, leafy streetscapes. The tramline has been extended to Box Hill Central, the main shopping centre. Many of the old big blocks with weatherboard or brick houses with bare backyards still stand, waiting for the value of their land to appreciate enough to fund a Thailand retirement. Townhouse infill – or far more.
But then – there it is. The change. As you near Box Hill Central, you see blue-glass towers emerging directly out of surrounding low-rise suburbia. The effect is startling. None of them were there last time I came. A vast 40-storey tower is nearing completion on Whitehorse Road. Twin oval buildings inch towards the sky outside Box Hill Central. A crane built in sections, getting higher as it needs to. An external elevator, ferrying workers and building materials. And around them, smaller five storey apartment blocks overlooking Box Hill Gardens. Box Hill is becoming Melbourne’s second CBD, like Parramatta in Sydney.
Here, Chinese investors – and Australian building companies eager to attract Chinese buyers – have created a building boom. Jeff Xu came to Australia in 1998, at the tender age of 21 and promptly set about empire-building. He began with a humble student apartment block in the eastern suburbs. Almost 20 years later, his Golden Age company is building Sky One, a shimmering 36 storey gold-clad apartment building in the heart of Box Hill. Seven more skyscraper apartment blocks are being built. For longtime residents, a common response is NIMBY sadness. One pithily comments “Box Hell” on a local newspaper story about development. Another writes: “This is not the Box Hill I used to love. We are turning Melbourne into an over-populated, high density, traffic choked Bronx. No longer the world’s most liveable city.”
Hundreds of corellas have settled in the oak trees in the gardens, screeching and eating small round acorns. An elderly Chinese man gestures with his walking frame at the noisy birds, while an old couple powerwalk round the running track. I unpack the kids and set them loose on a playground. An Indian guy with beard and open face runs, arms out, towards a flock, laughing as they fly away. He flops down next to us and grins.
Box Hill is much busier than I remember. The TAFE has been reinvented as a gleaming modern edifice. The hospital and its ancillary providers buzz with people. And the park is full of phone-walkers, joggers, families. Anglo teens playing basketball, badminton grunts, the sound of concrete mixers churning. New tower buildings overlooking the park. Can’t be built out. Streets shut down to let trucks go through. The go-go zone, capitalism unleashed in line with migration patterns. Our own small Free Enterprise Zone.
I walk towards Box Hill Central, into the shadow from the ATO building on Whitehorse Road. Nearby, student accommodation, apartment blocks – square, concrete, but not ugly – with built in granny-flat, perfect for the Chinese family. We cross the road into the shopping precinct. Signs in Mandarin for vitamins (a popular export) and conveyancing. I see my first daigou store, set up specifically so the fleet of Chinese-buyers can take pictures of milk formula untainted by melamine or Ugg boots made here, as proof of their Australian Purchases to send to their buyers in China, who are – often rightly – very wary of fakes.
Chinese students often make ends meet as daigou, personal shoppers who buy in demand Australian goods and ship them back to China. The term means ‘buying on behalf of’. The most wanted product? Infant formula. Buyers would take pictures of themselves in Australian supermarkets or pharmacies as proof and send the tins by post to mothers on the mainland worried about the quality of local formula, in the wake of a string of melamine poisoning scandals.
A former student of mine, Xiaowen Hu, worked as a daigou to support herself in Australia. One of her regular buyers, Fiona Fang, told her that she wouldn’t buy formula made in China. “There is a lot of infant formula on Taobao [Ebay equivalent], but I’m really concerned they will give us fake things. I have a daughter with the whole family’s hopes behind her. We must choose the best things for her growing, especially nutrition before the age of three,” she told Xiaowen.
The enormous demand took Australian manufacturers by surprise, leading to sold-out supermarket shelves, restrictions on purchase numbers, and a huge push to export directly to China. Many buyers, though, were still wary. Tins can be faked. Photographs and postage from Australia are harder to do so. For Australian parents, it led to frustration – or fear. What if there was none available for them to buy? Xiaowen asked an Anglo-Australian, Morgan, who could not find her preferred formula for love or money. “I’m always concerned to face empty shelves in the store. I have to look in all the suburbs around our home,” she told Xiaowen. Xiaowen was sympathetic to Morgan’s fears. But she, and the other daigou, were doing nothing illegal. They were buying a product for sale. Supply would surely meet demand soon.
Box Hill Central still holds traces of the past, from when was home to Greek, Vietnamese, Chinese migrants, who started with little. You can see it in Everything a Good Buy to $2 dollar shops to cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurants. But these days, real money has arrived. Inside, Box Hill Central feels almost North Asian. (Fittingly, there’s a sister shopping centre named Box Hill in Chiba Prefecture, Japan.) A store specialising in date slice, another in vegan dumplings, grocers selling winter melon, Vietnamese mint, dragonfruit. A banh mi store offering Asian-style set menu options – A, B and C. Most of the stores are Asia-now – Korean Fried Chicken, sushi, Chinese noodle joints. Two Anglo schoolgirls slurp cha tea, chewing on the small jellies. Beautician stores offer medicated face rejuvenation. Comfort stores selling woollen quilts, massage chairs, foot massagers. Japan’s Daiso, everything $2.80. The shopping centre set above a train station, set beneath a bus terminal. It reminds me much more of Asia – everything co-located, buzzing – compared to our traditional retail strips paired with quarter-acre blocks.
Two young Chinese men emerge from the gym, rocking designer rat’s tails. I can hear weights clunking to the ground from inside. We pass an all-pink beauty parlour, the colours too intense, the K-Pop too loud for me, the sheep placenta products slightly confronting. A line of dogs leashed to a indoor washing station, the look of the condemned on every canine face, as they watch their peers get scrubbed and soaped. And we make our way to a playground I’ve heard of, deep in the centre. It’s rocketship themed, kid-safe, a childlock on the door, beanbags, and screens offering edutainment. A young girl traces a Z as her mother hovers – the habit of studying, drummed in early. And other traces of elsewhere – a 10 minute haircut place in the open part of the mall, where you buy a ticket from a vending machine, wait in line, get an efficient clip and cut, and leave. A brisk-looking Chinese woman gets her fringe trimmed. It’s lunchtime, and tradies and suits are well represented. A lot more Asian-background tradies and building workers these days. And two Somali women nattering in bright headscarves.
I extract my tired offspring and head for home. As we walk back down Whitehorse Road, I marvel at the string of gaming cafes. Many have started running their own local esports competitions – and even sponsoring local talent in League of Legends tourneys. Some are run down – two minute noodles for sale, low-light gaming den with hunchback teens playing like gods on screen. Nearby, another gaming café – or is it? It gleams like a hotel lobby, tastefully lit, high end furniture, a hovering receptionist sitting at a curved desk. I pass ugg boot stores, Uighur restaurants specialising in spiced lamb, a mechanic with his business name in Mandarin. School holidays means grandparents and grandchildren roaming. I exchange parenting-acknowledgement-nods with a harried looking Chinese grandfather, who’s herding two wayward youngsters away from the road.
I drive the long way home, through Doncaster. We pass a Buddhist monk in intensely orange robes emerging from a drab brick house, pacing to the letterbox, checking and returning empty handed. A Hellenic Scout group, a Korean BBQ joint, karate, Evangelical Chinese Church. And Doncaster, too, has changed. On the hill, surrounded by traffic-laden intersections, vast new apartment blocks boasting views of the CBD and the Dandenongs. Shoppingtown Hotel is hosting a Muay Thai competition followed by Babba, the long-running Abba cover band. A faint view of the Kinglake and Dandenong hills on this fog-lit autumn day – bright sun, far off fog, and cloud stacks like something drawn by an anime artist, an uncharacteristic stillness. At the traffic lights, I can see the CBD, new towers shooting up in the confines of the grid. But this remaking of suburbia – this is the CBD dragged east, towards Melbourne’s true population centre of Glen Iris. And it’s (mostly) overseas Chinese demand for apartments that’s doing this.
When I first start trying to learn about the Chinese experience in Melbourne, I get a lot of polite no-thanks. There was zero upside in talking to an Anglo writer, large possible downside. Plus – I hadn’t been vouched for. I was an unknown. Then I realised. I needed a fixer, a go-between able to make up for my ignorance. Whenever you report overseas, you need a fixer. I’d hired fixers in five countries. This was my first time needing one in Melbourne. But who?
The stretch of Swanston Street south of Melbourne University in Parkville is popular with Chinese students. Dozens of apartment blocks have sprung up to capitalise on the international student boom, offering tiny cell-block rooms offset by a short walk to the university. It was seen as a safe area. Grad students coming back from late classes would walk through Lincoln Square. So the spate of robberies in February 2016 came as a shock. In the first reported incident, a Chinese student walked home slowly, lost in her phone. It was around 8.30pm. She didn’t notice the two young African men tailing her until one grabbed her phone and sprinted off into the darkness of the park. Soon after, another young Chinese woman lost her phone to the same group.
Six days later, the group struck again, this time in daylight. Their outraged victim took off after them only to be confronted by four cronies. More victim reports arrived on Chinese-language forums, this time centred around Melbourne Central. The Chinese were easy targets. Wealthy, carrying expensive electronics, walking alone, and with limited knowledge of who to report the crimes to. For each report, comment threads quickly filled with anti-African comments.
One victim wrote: “I want to go home! I’ve only been here for two months and now I’ve been robbed for the first time in my life! Last night I was hungry so I went out! Once I got to the Hungry Jacks near Melbourne Central, two Black men blocked my way! They asked “Where is your phone and money?” I saw that they were armed with a knife so I quickly gave them my phone and 50 dollars! Then they ran! I’m fine, don’t worry everyone! In the future just don’t go out at night! It feels like there are lots of Black people around the city at night!”
Before long, an article went viral on popular Chinese social network WeChat. The writer listed all the alleged robberies of Chinese by Africans and finished with a line that wouldn’t be out of place on a Reclaim Australia thread, right down to the curious grasp of geography: “Oh right, another new wave of 10 000 refugees are coming to Australia… are you ready? [S]ometimes I wonder, am I living in Australia, or am I living in Iraq?”
Sadly, I’m monolingual. So these stories and translations have come instead from a young Chinese-Australian man, Tyrone Taishi (his chosen pseudonym). On his blog, Crossing the Wall, Tyrone covered Chinese-Australian issues, acting as translator and sense-maker. Why? Few others seemed to be doing it.
As Tyrone read more and more deport-them-all racist comments after the robberies, he became incensed. In a follow up article, he pinned the blame for what he saw as race-baiting directly on a new and very different group of Chinese migrants. “These comments and views are mostly held by a super-rich and spoiled minority, and not all Chinese people,” he wrote. Who were they? They were scions of rich parents, sent to the West as a finishing school and a playground. In Mandarin, they are dubbed fuerdai (uncouth nouveau riche), or sometimes guanerdai (second generation official). Their wealth – whether legitimately earned or illicitly siphoned off – had, in Tyrone’s view, puffed them up like little emperors. He was not a fan. They were entitled, privileged and remarkably resistant to attack.
Why – he himself had witnessed how little emperors responded to racist abuse on the train. Here, the jeering Anglo shouting Chink-go-home. And here, the little emperor replying quietly in Mandarin. “Poor white,” they’d say, with mock-sad eyes. Or: “I’ll buy all your houses.” For Tyrone, this imperviousness made him even angrier. “They don’t care that other Chinese people are getting crapped on daily. They can hide behind their wealth,” he told me.
On his blog, he offered a long list of grievances. “What really annoys me more than anything, is that these are the people that are representing Chinese people overseas,” he wrote. “No longer you get the hard working economic migrants, instead you get spoiled brats who show off their sparkly shoes and BOY caps. Of course you can say that the older generation empathised with the refugees, they were all migrants seeking to better their lives. Yes, the newly rich are also here for the betterment of their lives, except right after their parents or they themselves are have screwed over the Chinese environment so they can escape with their cosy millions/billions … where’s the accountability?”
I’m interested in Tyrone’s take on Chinese Australia. Where had this rift come from? Was it real, or just guesswork? We arrange to meet at Melbourne University’s campus, where he’s finishing off his arts degree. He catches my eye and nods slightly. He’s broad-shouldered, bear-like, a squarish face. We shake hands and head to a cafe. He seems nervous. He cut his chin shaving and staunches the flow with tissues. But his voice resounds like an Anglo footy coach. He speaks fast, fresh words jamming up the back of those just out. Purple cardigan, black jeans, black sneakers. No brands on anything.
When Tyrone lived in Beijing for 18 months, he stuck out despite his best efforts. “They can tell,” he says. “It’s weird. My accent is really good Beijing Chinese, but they can tell by the way I dress. It’s too casual. You can’t wear a hoodie.”
Australia – the land of informality – had got to him. For Chinese’s new millionaires, money only counts if it’s visible. And that’s in part why Tyrone resents them. “I had to wash dishes and pay for my own uni fees,” he says. “These kids gamble their fees away and ask Dad for more. They drive Maseratis. They’re disliked even in China. When one crashes their car and dies, there’s no sympathy. There’s cheering.”
There are many reasons why an Australian-born Chinese (ABC) might feel uncomfortable with newly cashed up Chinese migrants. For one, Tyrone feels many lack an understanding of Chinese history and culture. In Australia, they vote Liberal – a 180 degree shift from the earlier waves of migrants, many of whom stayed after Bob Hawke tearfully granted 42,000 students the right to stay in the wake of the Tiananmen Square killings. They were rusted-on Labor supporters as a result.
Tyrone’s mother and father benefitted directly – they were students here who were in favour of the democracy movement in China. But the new rich find much more in common with the Liberal Party. Tyrone tells me he’s been making hundreds of calls as part of his work in Young Labor. What, he asked, was the number one problem for young Chinese in Melbourne? All but one of his 90 respondents told him that black gangs in Melbourne were the main issue. Admittedly, this was soon after the issue flared to life, and shortly after the marauding so-called Apex gang made themselves known at the Moomba festival. “What a pity that Chinese and Africans won’t be friends,” he says. “But consider – no-one holds the mafia against Italians or Lebanese ice dealers against the rest of the Lebanese.”
Why Labor? “Hawke let my parents in, and you feel that sense of returning the favour, I guess,” he says. He ruminates on it. “But Labor are a lot more right wing than back in the 1980s. The Greens probably fit my views more, but Labor has more of a career path.” An MP, then? Could he be the next politician with an Asian background, following Penny Wong and Dio Wang? Tyrone makes a face. “I’d prefer behind the scenes. I would not be a good MP. My voice is kind of monotone.” That, I say, has not stopped many of our top politicians. Tyrone grins. But it’s the backroom work that appeals, trying to stem the flow of overseas Chinese to the Liberals.
In Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, I’d seen the Sinification under way. Box Hill had gone from a low-rise, cheap Chinese takeaway aspirational suburb to a bustling centre dotted with cranes, high rise apartments and a strong claim on being Melbourne’s second CBD – in large part due to Chinese investment. Small wonder, then, that the Libs, who regard the leafy east (where leafy is code for middle/upper class) as their domain are mounting a strong recruitment and fundraising drive in their most marginal seats.
“What the Libs are doing with the Asian community in marginal seats like Deakin and Chisholm is very smart,” Tyrone says. “I don’t know why Labor isn’t trying to get the Chinese voters in. Traditionally, Labor was the ethnic party because new arrivals would come and get jobs that were unionised and be exposed that way. But now it’s shifting.” And as the ground shifts, it becomes ever harder to stem the flow to the Liberals. “In Western culture, there’s often a consensus that what’s popular is good, and in the East, it’s even more so,” he says.
Tyrone comes from a family steeped in Chinese politics. Specifically, the wrong side of politics. His maternal grandfather was in the Kuomintang Nationalists who were beaten back by the Communists, eventually being forced to abandon the mainland for Taiwan, where they took control, turning a rival province into a standalone nation. His father, by contrast, was part of a once-powerful Communist family who picked the losing side in the June Fourth democracy movement. The student protests of 1989 exposed deep divides in the highest levels of the CCP, and a battle between hardliners and moderates took place. The hardliners won, and sent in the tanks to bloodily clear Tiananmen Square.
When Tyrone went to China at the tender age of 18, he was careless with his opinions – even daring muted criticism of the Party. Everyone he spoke to was beyond shocked. Some accused him of spouting extremist opinions. It was clear to them that Tyrone had been brainwashed by the West to be thinking so far outside the limits permitted by the party. And it became clear to Tyrone that all traces of the 1989 democracy movement had been quashed and history had been rewritten accordingly. In place of democratic yearnings came a renewed patriotism.
Politically minded students now marched not for democracy but for a return to imperial China’s expansive sea borders by pushing back the American warships, or to shout anti-Japanese slogans. But that was the minority. Everyone else preferred iPhones and watching Japanese anime. And as for race, Tyrone was amazed to find that only right-wing anti-immigrant newspapers like the UK’s Daily Mail were being translated into Chinese. No wonder, then, that so many were suspicious of Africans, Arabs and Muslims. After that, he was more careful. “You don’t want people to know about your past,” he says. But it’s clear he wishes he could be open. “We had culture, we were landholders, and we were pushed out by the upstart communists,” he says, a note of total honesty. “That’s why we hate the newcomers.”
When I was about ten, I found a yellowing book tucked away on a high shelf. It was called Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart. I was mesmerised. Even now, I reread it. It’s the tale of a Chinese private eye and his musclebound sidekick who navigate a dark fairytale to save poisoned peasant children. It’s classic Orientalist nostalgia, I guess, though Hughart, a white American, was clear about that. He subtitled the book “The tale of an ancient China that never was”. And yet, and yet – something in it gripped me.
So when I went to China in 2006 – even knowing full well that my fantasy was just that – I found myself disappointed. There were astonishing skyscrapers and cranes, hutong alleys, divine food. But there was no magic. There was only godawful pollution – so bad it conjured up textbook images of London’s notoriously lethal peasoup smog. This, I thought, must have been what industrialised England looked like, with Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” In one forgettable city, my girlfriend at the time and I were driven out within hours by the air pollution. I got an eye and throat infection almost immediately, followed by a huge immune response. Later, we found out it was the seventh most polluted city in Asia – and there’s plenty of competition. Pollution, though, is why China is going renewable at all possible speed. Japan and Korea started their post-war revivals with heavy industries and pollution and cleaned up later. In China, that’s already happening. Hong Kong and its sister city in mainland China, Shenzhen, feel like the future – neon-lit, fast-paced, and efficient.
For now, though, Tyrone believes pollution is China’s Achilles’ heel. Industrialisation means wealth but also polluted water, food and skies. “I can’t stop coughing when I go to China,” he tells me. “Rich people in China try to escape to the West and leave all the peasants to die.” I tell him I found China very much to be the pinnacle of internalised capitalism – more American than America. In China, I watched in shock a man dying after his three-wheeler was hit by a car. Our bus wove around him as he bled out, and no-one stopped. On social media, Chinese debate this endlessly, arguing that the Communist purges and the capitalist get-rich tide and the little emperors spawned by the one-child policy – all of this has trashed empathy. Everyone scrambles over each other, and the lucky few who get rich leave the country for a once-industrial place where the air and water are cleaner. That, at least, is how Tyrone sees it.
As a second-generation Australian Chinese, Tyrone has been lucky. He’s free of the affectations of the nouveau riche. Born in China and raised here, he sees himself as a bridge between the two powers that will shape this century. But he is also caught in a web of contradictions. Enormously proud of Chinese culture, he can rattle off the names of ancient emperors and important battles. But he’s dead against the current government. “For a country with 5000 years of history and culture, the current government is very regressive towards Chinese culture,” he says. “Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan don’t want to be associated with it. And yet [the government] is also what keeps China together. Without it, China would split up.”
There are, he believes, many Chinas. To keep them together requires force.
He identifies more with Taiwan than China – for Taiwan is a lapsed future, a possibility that never eventuated for mainland China that the more liberal-minded dream of. A once-authoritarian regime turned into a robust democracy, an economic powerhouse that got rich without sacrificing the environment. His family have turned their backs on politics and instead taken up the Asian migrant mantra: succeed at all costs. Many overseas Chinese are like him – dissidents exiled by choice or by force, who define themselves in opposition to the current regime but consider themselves loyally Chinese. It is a confusing position to be in.
So what motivates him? Why get involved in Australian politics? Tyrone doesn’t hesitate. It’s anger, he says. Anger that led him to start his blog, anger that led him to politics. Anger at the newly rich. Anger at what he sees as self-hatred practiced by young Asian-Australian men like him. (“I remember a guy in class failing to throw a ball and saying ha ha I’m Asian”). Anger at putting Anglos on a pedestal. (“A lot of Asians don’t think they’re as good as white people. You can ask any Asian guy about that. There’s an underlying inferiority complex.”) Anger at how Asian Australians now account for around one in five Melburnians and yet have almost no representation in politics. Anger at how Asians tend to be either the butt of the joke on Western screens or an impassive martial arts killer. Anger, too, at the rigidity of Chinese-Australian culture, at parental expectations of greatness. And anger at the tyranny of the Communist Party in China and the crushing of all dissent under strongman ruler Xi Jinping, who fancies himself the new Mao. The openness of the noughties in China has ended. Critics are jailed. The anti-corruption drive sweeping up “spiders and flies” – big and small – has magically served to rid Xi of rivals and their powerbases. Democracy is further away than ever. And with the economy still enormously powerful, with Chinese influence and power growing as America’s democracy falters, what, precisely, would the appeal be?
Tyrone’s grievances stem from personal experience. He’s seen the Bamboo Ceiling at work. At his retail job, the hardest working member of the team, a Chinese-Australian young man, was always overlooked for promotion. Anglos who were less dedicated but better at banter got the gig. He’d seen too many Chinese background girls chasing Anglo boys by preference, who openly admitted they’d never date someone from their own background.
And then, of course, there is the small matter of his family. His businessman father and strong-willed stepmother expected him to excel academically and get a job in one of the Chinese-parent-approved high status professions: doctor, lawyer, businessperson, accountant. But this never appealed. He did well enough at his private school. But when Tyrone pushed back and dared study politics at university, he was cast out. Even though his lineage was in politics in China, it was not a proven way to make a life and a living in the West. His stepmother – who never liked him – seized the opportunity to finally supplant him with her own son, who would be the chosen one. It was his stepmother, Tyrone says, who pushed his father to kick him out of home in 2013. Tyrone now has little to do with his family.
With Tyrone out, his stepmother turned her full attentions to crafting the ultimate ABC son. Steve, as I’ll call him, was given the ultimate Chinese-Western success story to emulate: Jeremy Lin, the basketball phenomenon and Harvard economics graduate. Steve’s life became a succession of academic tutors, music classes and sport training sessions. “She labelled him as the superior person, the one to inherit, not me, the useless one,” Tyrone says, his voice suddenly hoarse. The irony was, of course, is that Steve has not become the next Jeremy Lin. He hated the extra classes. All he wanted to do was play videogames, go out with his friends and shoot hoops without the pressure. Tyrone actually liked him. The competition between them was concocted by his stepmother. “He seems like a normal kid,” Tyrone says. “Not everyone can be a prodigy.”
The next Jeremy Lin seems like a high bar to set, I say. Tyrone laughs and there is bitterness there. “Yeah. In Shanghai, if you want to get married, you need to have a big city registration, a six figure savings account, a car and a house. You don’t have those, you’re a loser.” I’m confused. By city registration – does he mean you can’t be an internal migrant from a poor region? Tyrone nods.
To be a young Chinese man, Tyrone says, is hard and getting harder. Dating preferences are one thing in Australia, which has an almost 50:50 gender split between men and women – 11.8 million women to 11.7 million men. But in China, the one child policy – running for 35 years and ending only in 2015 – led to an outcome that could have been expected: an demographic surplus of men. Female foetuses were terminated in their millions. The UN estimates there are 66 million fewer women than there should be. Why? Men carry on the family line. As Tyrone notes, the preference for men (and female foeticide) dates back centuries, despite staunch opposition from Buddhists and Confucian officials, and, later, from Communists. The preference for boys – particularly in farming communities – had deep roots, and much of China was very poor for a very long time.
Now that the one-child generation is of age, the social effects are very visible. Many men simply cannot find a partner. Women’s bargaining power in the dating circuit has increased manyfold. They can pick and choose from the hopefuls lining up to impress them. Women marry up and poor men are left without a partner. Vietnamese and Russian women are being recruited in their hundreds of thousands to be brides in China, but even so, the gulf remains. The hugely popular Chinese dating show If You Are The One makes that power shift clear. On the show, a Renaissance man emerges – gym-built, glasses to denote a serious career, a keen dancer. And the women vote quickly and harshly. Too old. Too young. Not a serious enough career. Not successful enough. Or they find other excuses. I remember one of my Chinese students asking me why If You Are The One is so popular in Australia. I wove around the topic, but she got it out of me. “It’s, uh, because the women are so blunt about the man’s failings,” I admitted. “Australian dating shows – we don’t really say what we think.” This, she found hysterical. Why wouldn’t you name the exact deficit in a prospective partner?
The bigger problem of surplus men is, alas, no laughing matter. And if unmarried men are also unemployed, disillusionment, radicalisation and agitation soar. There’s good evidence to suggest that a country with an oversupply of unmarried men is a country that could soon be at war. War, after all, is an excellent way of slashing stocks of men. In their 2004 book Bare Branches, Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer argued that historically, surplus men precipitate war. And that’s a problem for China and India. These two population giants, they argue, are “acquiring a disproportionate number of low-status young adult males, called ‘bare branches’ by the Chinese” – a trend which threatens stability domestically and internationally. They might well have included the Middle East, or India, which also suffer from an oversupply.
On message boards for Chinese living in Western countries, anger is rising amongst young men. From what Tyrone has seen, the concern is real. “They talk about this white conspiracy to oppress them. It’s crazy and volatile,” he says. And in part, they might be right. Dozens of Asian-Americans have mounted lawsuits against Ivy League colleges, alleging that a cap on Asian enrolments exists. In Australia, their concerns are more specific: why, exactly, do women from their cultural background prefer whites? “It’s not yellow fever, it’s white fever,” Tyrone says. “White women are least likely to marry out and Asian women are the most likely. So it’s Asian women choosing white men. And it’s worrying when women of your own race don’t like you.”
So for Tyrone, a Sinophile born in the West, a young man exiled from the all-important family unit – what’s left? A life without guiderails – the terrifying, exhilarating type you have to make yourself. “I always feel like an outsider,” Tyrone tells me. “I feel judged a lot for who I am by every race.”
As if to really cement his outsider status, Tyrone is a Chinese Muslim, part of the less-visible Hui minority. He tells me proudly that his ancestors built the largest mosque in the city of Shenyang in north-eastern China, above North Korea. In China, the Hui are the fully assimilated Muslims who scorn the separatist Muslim Uighurs in China’s desert empire province of Xinjiang in the far west, where Beijing rules by the gun and a network of forced labor camps.
In Melbourne, he says, he grew up with Uighurs in Dandenong, eating lamb and rice pilaf. “Funny how you can be at war somewhere and peace here,” he says. “In China, there were hundreds of years of war between Hui and Uighurs. There were massacres.” Tyrone’s mum wants him to be more Muslim, like her. His dad wants him to be Han, the manufactured ethnic majority pressing eight major language groups into one ethnicity.
In late 2017, Melbourne University researcher Dr Fran Martin gave a talk on Chinese student uses of WeChat, the all-encompassing comms app. Her interest came from the very same issue that drew Tyrone – Chinese fears of mugging by African men. She sought the facts and found just under a third of the muggings reported to police had dark-skinned assailants. The rest – 22 out of 35 – were white. Clearly, fear of black men had deeper resonances than fear of whites. And more – there were outlets publishing on WeChat harping on about the Danger of African Men. In Dr Martin’s words: “Minimally regulated ethnonational social media, pursuing a product above any conception of media ethics.”
“It didn’t need to happen that way if reporting was different,” she told the audience at Melbourne University. “Even if the phone stolen by people with different coloured skin, it didn’t need to be expressed in ethnic terms. That was very much the view of Victoria Police, who like to dampen down ethnic conflict, to preserve social stability. It really was a panic.”
The result? Chinese students used WeChat more and more, reading panicked articles and comments on Melbourne Today, then writing to each other to find out where not to go. Fears – and scams and pyramid schemes are common, too. With no gatekeepers, the predators come out. It reminds me of the moral panic that the tabloid mainstream media whipped up at the end of 2017, centred around South-Sudanese gangs. A 17 year old Sudanese boy kicking a policeman in the head drew far more coverage than the near-riot on Torquay, where more than 100 Anglo young men attacked police.
Dr Martin doesn’t name the sites. But she might well have been talking about Melbourne Today, the most popular Chinese social media news site in the city, or another WeChat site, Australian Red Scarf. Melbourne Today’s sister site, Sydney Today, broke a story in August 2017 about a University of Newcastle lecturer who kept referring to Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries, to the annoyance of his Chinese students. They recorded him and gave it to a Sydney Today reporter. The footage captures the students saying the material makes them “feel uncomfortable”, that the lecturer should “show respect.” He responds that from his understanding, Taiwan is a separate country. “You don’t want me to influence your opinion. At the same time, you shouldn’t be influencing my opinion,” he says. The story goes viral, with versions of the story popping up everywhere from the New York Times to The Economist.
I ask Tyrone if he can introduce me to Tony Zhu, the owner of the Today news sites. I know Tony’s well connected and that Tyrone has done some work for him, running League of Legends videogaming tournaments with $5000 prize money. I’ve tried, but without an introduction, I’m nothing. Tyrone asks around and comes back with a maze of possibilities. Maybe we could sing karaoke together, if we’re out at the same time.
So one Thursday night, I head to Little Bourke St, the longest continuously inhabited Chinatown in the West, where Chinese lodging houses offered familiarity to newcomers heading to the goldfields, where in 1945 William Wing Yung took the dainty dim sum dumpling and adapted it to Australian conditions, enlarging the pastry wrapper and filling it with minced pork and cabbage to create the world’s first dim sim.
As I ride in under a clear gleaming sky rare in autumn, I can see stars. Then the moon rises, luminous. It might be pseudoscience, but there’s something about a full moon that draws people out of their homes. The city is packed. Little Bourke Street’s notoriously narrow sidewalks means you have to dodge people constantly, even sidestepping people on the road. I come in from Russell Street, where I remember the heroin dealers lurking in videogame parlours in the late 90s. Into Little Bourke, past bars hidden down laneways stinking of rubbish, past an alleyway where a Chinese high school student was stabbed to death in a fight over a young woman’s romantic allegiance.
Tourists take pictures of restaurant aquaria filled with lobsters and huge abalone. Lanterns and arches, stone dragons outside the museum. But Chinatown is no longer confined to this narrow street. I pass mixed-background couples, quiet international students heading home with a plastic container of noodles. Now that Tyrone has told me about fuerdai, I try to spot some. It doesn’t take long – a band of young men swaggering and smoking in their all-designer get-up. I pass a young Chinese couple using their phone lights to try to unlock their car boot with a broken key. Anglo hipsters with tombstone Nebuchadnezzar beards, slim Chinese girls moving whisper quiet.
Tyrone arrives, with an Anglo friend, who I’ll call William. “Down there,” he tells me, gesturing, “there’s a Hong-Kong style karaoke joint where they pull open the door slot when you knock and ask you something in Cantonese. You only get in if you can speak it. It’s an unlicensed bar. And down there is the place where under 18s can drink with no questions asked.” He grins. More fuerdai scions pass us, moving with that limpid elegance I associate with America’s Gilded Age, all with severe man-bobs or sharp undercuts, the sheen of an exacting hair regime.
Tyrone takes us inside the 206 Bourke St Building, a small piece of Hong Kong transplanted. Neon vertical signs, fuzzing on and off, dessert bars, a Michelin starred dim-sum franchise. We take a lift with no signs up to the Xiang Club on the third floor, which is all velvet curtains and ornate chairs that might suit minor European royalty. There’s a greeter who nods us through. We sit in the plebs area because we’re poor. The true rich sit in the smokers quarters, taking languid drags. Later, a group enters the VIP area, an annex walled off by black velvet. The glass isn’t real glass, and the velveteen chairs are made of faux wood. The look without the substance.
Tyrone has brought me here to kill time watching Chinese scions before we may or may not meet Tony Zhu. They’re worth looking at. Fur jackets or woollen one-pieces on the girls which look both expensive and faintly ridiculous, the young men taking their cues from Shanghai in the 1920s, Euro/Chinese look – slimline fitted jackets, long slim cigarettes dangling from hands, sipping drinks, poring over their iPhones. The kind of intentional boredom only wealth can produce – that true luxury, time. Some are deliberately underdressed, perhaps as a reaction, perhaps to demonstrate that true wealth can do what it likes. Garish t-shirts, slippers just over the Covered Shoes Only threshold, shorts. An elegant older Chinese couple sip cocktails in the public area, inspecting the gilt frames on the artwork.
William and Tyrone are schoolmates. They both went through an expensive private school, with VCE fees topping $30,000. William talks about going to school with the son of an Indian multi-millionaire, of driving 150 kmh on a quiet freeway late at night in his Ferrari. He talks about living in Penang, of attuning himself to racial politics in Malaysia, of ingratiating himself into Chinese families that Tyrone has introduced him to, of making some faux pas – he’s not sure what – and having them call him out on it. Tyrone listens and shakes his head.
William is white, but he’s a self-confessed Chinaboo – a massive fan of Chinese and North Asian culture. He talks authoritatively about male roles in China, about the need to show your ability to provide, even though women are very much free. “You have to be a provider, but there are very few avenues in which you can socially progress. You’re trapped, in a way,” he says. Tyrone nods. “I see so many of these guys.” He looks at his friend. “I thought you didn’t notice.”
A new wave of dandies are passing through soundlessly. One, in a topknot and look of cool disdain, drapes his arms over two elegant girls. And here we are, wildly underdressed. Tyrone’s in his favourite no-brand cardigan, I’m in jeans and a t-shirt. “Who are these people?” he whispers.
His phone buzzes and he checks it. “We’re in luck. Tony is here,” he says, with some relief. And we head off to a karaoke joint, a private booth laced in smoke, where a dice game is in full swing between two men and three women, who are introduced as ‘sisters’. I find out later they’re top League of Legends (LoL) players.
Tyrone leans over. “They’ve been playing a game where you have to name League of Legends champions or drink – and the girls were the best.” League of Legends is bigger than most real life sports now. 100 million play it, watch the top players live on YouTube, dissect their play.
Tyrone used to be an addict. “I used to be in the top one per cent in this region,” Tyrone says. “But I put too much time in. It’s a regret. All that weight gain and stress.” Stress? “Maintaining my rating.” When all your mates play a hugely competitive game, when they rag on you for dropping your ranking – it’s hard to leave. Tyrone grins. “It’s not like I’m gonna get a million dollar contract. What’s the point over pixels?”
The game is huge in China, where it’s become professionalised. Australia, too, is heading towards gaming as a sport. Our top LoL team, Chiefs, is mainly Chinese-background players. New high-end netcafes like the one I saw in Box Hill are springing up, some with separated booths, Korean esports style. “Everyone wants to pretend they’re a pro-gamer, buy the gamer mouses, the tshirts,” Tyrone says, a quirk to his lips.
Now I meet Tony. Even half-drunk, he has presence. The others defer to him. He wears expensive glasses, a leisure suit, and a pleasant face. He shakes my hand and offers me whiskey mixed with green tea, which is surprisingly drinkable. “Welcome,” he says. I expect to have to pitch myself, make clear my bona fides. But nothing happens. They take turns to sing, they banter about dice, they smoke. One of the gaming champions offers me a cigarette, my first in years. It makes the room spin. “It was polite to take it,” Tyrone whispers.
And then the microphone comes to me, and I falter. What to sing? How to impress? I choose Wonderwall by Oasis because I know it, only to mangle the high notes. I get a round of you-tried applause. William takes the microphone with grace, and belts out a famous Cantopop song. He gets real praise. Does he speak Cantonese? He shakes his head. “Just this song.” Now Tyrone dials up a song. On screen, a League of Legends anthem plays. I’ve never seen anything like this anime film clip. Here, gamers are heroes, wielding keyboards to smite foes and staring steadily into the distance after a victory, a small smile playing across their faces. All the while, the gamer boys are serenaded by a coy woman on the backing track, cooing words of support and valour. One of the girls sings along, heaping praise on Male Gamers Everywhere.
Tyrone and William do a duet of Justin Bieber. Tony hovers in the background, getting steadily drunker before singing a beseeching Mandopop ballad. The film clips are a tad turgid, I note through a fog of whiskey and cigarettes. Men walking away with strong backs, women standing hurt. I want to talk to Tony but the girls are flirting with him. Tony’s friend Richard is very drunk. He leans over. “The girls want to sit next to him – just wait,” he says.
Richard is slurring his words a little. He’s a migration agent, he tells me. And the bane of his life is shepherding rich kids away from the many vices Melbourne has to offer. He does not always succeed. Many, far from their parent’s gaze, hit the bars in St Kilda or the city. “One father cried in my office because his son is getting 20% on attendance, because he’s failing all his tests,” he confides.
Richard sees that Tony’s cup runneth dry and refills it, and mine too for good measure. He’s trying to get his friend drunk, he informs me, but it’s near impossible. Tony is a seasoned veteran of bonding through drink, a vital Chinese skill. The girl who offered me a cigarette pours more drinks into Tony, but all that seems to happen is that he starts singing Michael Jackson songs. Richard leans on my shoulder. “Drinking is business,” he confides blearily. “It’s part of Chinese culture. But shumtimes, shumtimes it’s possible to drink too much.”
I stand up and realise I’m far too drunk for a school night. Time to put myself to bed. Tony waves my offer to pay away magnanimously. “Guests don’t pay,” he says. As I stagger out of the smoky den, I pass young women with blank eyes, sleek presentation, miniskirts who don’t seem to be patrons or staff. I move on, past the circular windows, groups belting out songs, tiny worlds behind each door, business and pleasure comingled. A crop of fuerdai are singing as they piss in the trough next to me. Russell Street is heaving, dense enough to hint at riots. Midnight and the city’s just getting started, Melbourne’s reinvention as 24-hour city. As I head home in anticipation of a 6am hangover courtesy of my small children, I feel bewildered – the city is becoming new.
Tyrone texts me two weeks later: “Come meet Tony.” So off I go to meet a savvy new media entrepreneur, who, I suspect, chooses provocation because it gets clicks. I head down Flinders Street past a café offering Scottish comfort food, a Persian kebab store, Thai massage, Vietnamese pho, the Flinders St Vaults, the closed XXX Liberated Bookshop and a gentleman’s club with glittering gold sequins.
Melbourne Today’s offices look absolutely nothing like a rabble-rousing operation. They’re expanding, and this new office looks half-empty. An Ikea cube shelving unit housing awards, a solitary fern, a bottle of champagne, a bike, instant coffee and a kettle and a large fiddle-leaf fig. A stack of books includes biographies of Mao and Elon Musk. Boxes of infant formula sit to one side – a side business. Seven people work on laptops. Two slight girls in generic glasses hunch over, coding fast. A dapper young man checks his emails. He’s in an angular jacket, pointed shoes, elegant stubble, all of which screams sales. How have they managed this – to make online content pay? Their model is to use WeChat, aim at the underserved Australian-Chinese market, hit the right-wing knee-jerk stuff that makes people react, just as the Daily Mail has done.
When I checked their site that morning, Melbourne Today was making hay out of the United Airline debacle where an Asian-American doctor was bloodied and forcibly extracted from an overbooked flight. Melbourne Today frames it as an attack on Chinese, following the mainland trend. The New York Times reported that it took less than two days for the hashtag “#UnitedAirlinesBeatingEvent” to Weibo, China’s Twitter. “The subject has attracted more than a billion views, almost four hundred thousand comments, and memes of helmet-wearing passengers beneath which bloggers have written, “P.S.A.: Getting on the plane in the U.S. if you are Chinese is worse than going to war,”” the paper reports.
It didn’t matter that the doctor was defrocked, that he was Vietnamese. The look was all social media needed – elderly Asian man brutalised by Americans. The framing was good red-meat stuff for the post-Tiananmen generation, raised in an atmosphere of heightened patriotism, fanned by the government. China’s century of humiliation is gone, but not forgotten. Everyone learned in history class how the Western powers carved up their empire, how the British got a nation addicted to opium and fought wars to keep the profits coming, how Japan took half of the country and ruled it bloodily. They learned about the Rape of Nanking, about comfort women, about the live vivisectionists of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. That was what weakness got you – an invitation to be pillaged.
Now, it is China’s turn to rise and make the world shake. And the status quo powers – America, Europe, Japan – watch warily as the incrementalist would-be superpower stretches out gingerly, gradually shifting the balance of power on the ground and doing it a way designed not to piss off the resident hulk and self-appointed world cop. There’s China with its trillion dollar offer, One Belt One Road, designed to tie the world’s fate to the Middle Kingdom. America seems far away, across the Pacific, concerned with its own internal machinations and new tribalism, looking wistfully at its 19th century isolationism. China buys or leases farmland across the world – Madagascar, Kenya, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, builds up its army, navy, airforce, cyber and space, builds their own space station, prepares to return to the moon. China, in short, is pitching itself as the inheritor of America at its peak, coming off its postwar high, its zenith.
Tyrone arrives, understated as always in shorts and a logo-free jumper. The go-between who stands out for his lack of flash. He’s turning out to be surprisingly well connected in Chinese Melbourne, across politics, business, fuerdai and even videogaming circles.
We wait for Tony. I can hear murmuring from the meeting room, and eventually Tony emerges, impeccable in a natty blue suit with a neatly folded handkerchief peeping from a pocket, expensive glasses, spikey hedgehog hair. We shake hands. It feels quite different to our first encounter at karaoke. But getting drunk together makes me a known quantity. The sales guy gives us both glasses of hot water. “Superstition,” Tyrone says as we file into the meeting room. “Like that Korean fear that leaving fans overnight will kill you. Cold water apparently hurts stomachs.”
And we launch. Tyrone has told him I’m a writer interested in Chinese culture in Melbourne. I had thought I was here to interview Tony, but Tony is in fact interviewing me for an unspecified role. He tells me the Beijing Municipal Administration of Tourism is launching an event in Melbourne next month, and they’re hoping for coverage. Can it be arranged? An article? I explain the dark arts of public relations – hanging the story off a news peg or tethering to a trend – plus the need for good luck. I find myself in the role of explainer-of-Western-journalism, specifically the old and fading line between editorial and advertising, rabbiting on to a WeChat scion, well connected back home, whose wealthy industrialist family gave him the seed capital to found his own mini-empire. Not too much – he’s not ostentatious. He sharehoused during his Melbourne University days here, dresses well but not flamboyantly, goes easy on the Louis Vuitton. He’s only 26, but carries himself with the authority of a much older man. And as I go on, I start to doubt. Maybe I’m outmoded. In the social media world, Instagram #influencers, fake reviews and advertorial – this is what makes money.
Tony raises an elegant eyebrow. Is there not a better way, he’s wondering. He’s sounding me out, testing my usefulness. I’ve wanted to find out about Chinese Melbourne – and this is how it is done. Guanxi, Tyrone told me beforehand, is the web of connections through which everything meaningful in China and about China is done. In a country without a strict rule of law, trust built on guanxi is everything. Building patronage, networks – this is how you get ahead. Might I be a connection, a useful go-between?
Tony doesn’t know I’m essentially powerless, a member of the precariat – casual lecturer, author, sometimes-journalist, with an interest in people but with very few Strings I Can Pull. So I gulp and present my game face as Someone Useful, a fixer, someone to smooth the passage between countries.
He tells me he isn’t representing the Chinese government, that they’ve just asked him for help with their event. Later, the line blurs. He says that he needs to make something clear. “The government is careful about how it spends money. It will only spend a little this time. If it works, next time they will spend big.” If I help him, if I prove my worth, I can begin charging an agent’s fee, as Tyrone suggests beforehand.
Tony is cautious. Our meeting comes after unflattering publicity about Chinese government involvement in Chinese-language media here. Soon, the ABC’s Four Corners will release an episode claiming that Chinese soft power is far greater than commonly thought, that Beijing is exerting control over its students here – and even trying to influence policy through donations. “If you like, I can get you news from China for you first,” Tony is saying. I tune back in. Testing the waters, making an offer. So I agree to help. Coverage for the tourism association – my test.
Afterwards, Tyrone and I get burgers. He’s annoyed. “Tony must have connections with the government. His family are wealthy – and the rich band together. Industrialists need government connections.”
Tyrone tells me he’s thinking of moving to China. It would be his second time living there. But this time he has a plan. He wants to make this bridgework pay – straddling worlds, acting as an agent. Why not journalism, I ask? You’re already doing it from the bottom up. He makes a face. “It’s a small pool in Melbourne.” I think he means news outlets, but he means the Chinese community. Already many won’t talk to him, because he’s too willing to be critical. But he’s still useful for Tony, who took him out drinking again the previous Saturday, took him to a high-end bar. And in came Selina Jen, a Taiwanese pop megastar who made a splash in the noughties, and her producer. “I was like holy crap – this woman was adored by millions on their TV screens, and here she was in the flesh,” Tyrone says. “You could sense the power from her.”
Tyrone walks me through Melbourne Today’s business model. They get a lot of their news for free, sourcing it from social media or tips from Chinese students. They rarely fact check – it’s easy just to remove an erroneous article later, or put a small apology down the bottom. They borrow from Buzzfeed’s lists and crowdsourced news, and adding a dollop of populist race slant. “Everyone wants to read about the doctor dragged off the plane, about pure racism, about how Americans suck. That’s what gets clicks,” Tyrone says. “And on the 457 visa changes, Melbourne Today frames it as why has the PM betrayed us? We voted Liberal – so why would he do this?”
I go home and try to act like a fixer. But I can’t help but feel that the front door – ads that anyone can buy – isn’t what he’s after. It’s my first experience of Chinese-style business, of guanxi, and I find it intriguing. This is my chance to be a very, very, small cog in Chinese soft power in Australia. I try to pull strings. But I fail to get coverage of the event. My fixer skills are weak. Tony offers me a consolation prize – $300 to rock up to the event, take notes, and – he’s not clear on this – do something with them. Bring a friend, he tells me via Tyrone. Better if the friend is white.
I tote a token white friend along to the event. It’s a gusty day in May, and the Charming Beijing event is in the QV development, whose corporate alleyways act as an excellent wind-funnel. The invitation reads: “Beijing Municipal Commission of Tourism Development aims to show the rich tourism resources and a long history and culture of Beijing to Australian people by holding the Beijing tourism photo exhibition in Melbourne … so as to attract more and more Australian tourists to visit Beijing in a long run.” It’s part of a roadshow – Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane, Manila.
The organisers have gone all out, turning the QV forecourt, the old Queen Victoria Hospital, into a mini-China. Red carpet, roped off lines of chairs, a raised dais, and glossy photos placed on easels of temples and hutongs and malls, clear starry skies, tree-clad mountains and elegant promenades. I have to check twice to make sure the pictures in or near Beijing. Where’s the smog? The seething traffic? That’s precisely the point. Beijing has been busy forcibly relocating heavy industry and shutting coal power stations in a bid to clean the air.
My friend and I sit next to the only other white guy in the audience, a jovial bloke named Ken with a handlebar moustache. Ken doesn’t seem like the likeliest candidate to run tours across North and South-East Asia for business-types keen to dip their toes into one of the world’s biggest markets. His Chinese-Australian boss she asked him to be here, he sighs. She waves at him from where she’s working the room. He swears.
Ceremony doesn’t sit well with old mate Ken. He tells me about his many previous failed businesses, and about the two that worked – exporting Australian wine to China, and exporting pork products from Ukraine into China. “When I first went to China, my partners said do not go alone. You’ll be eaten alive. They’re very good businessmen and they’ll take you for all you’re worth.” And was it like that? You seem intact, I say. He grins. Ken speaks little Mandarin. But he’s good at converting blokey charm into guanxi, and his partners give him security.
The blustering wind picks up, rustling photographs, blowing Chinese opera masks clean away, rocking the screen. Worried workers zip about. A video plays, opening with a famous European mountain biker riding near Beijing, cutting to glossy images overlaid with phrases like “prevailing context of literacy” “harmonious conformity” “generous inclusivity” and then, over a picture of an Indian engineer with a gleaming smile, “spectacular diversity.” The woman streaming live on WeChat shoots a long shot of my friend and I talking to demonstrate the Anglo credentials of the event. I tilt my face so she can get a better angle of my pale skin and red hair.
My friend once worked for the Victorian minister for multiculturalism. He whispers that the state government is wrestling with Chinese soft power – and, for a Labor government, the trend for rich migrants to vote Liberal.
The compere, an urbane young woman, tries to introduce the visiting dignitaries but the wind turns her voice into a garbled blargh. Each of the speakers that follows tackles the wind by refusing to acknowledge it. It’s a classic Chinese event – dignitaries flown in to be the honour guard of the commission’s Vice Chairman Yu Debin, pomp, introductions, lecterns, talk of better connections, handshakes, photos, WeChat live streaming, important people circulating and leaving early.
Yu Debin has the blandly powerful face of an apparatchik. He talks about building foundations of the bilateral relationship. I spot Tony Zhu standing nearby, shaking hands. Word is he’s tiring of media. Months from now, he’ll open a skin care clinic in Melbourne’s CBD, aimed at Australian Chinese.
After Yu Debin leaves, an Anglo cross-cultural consultant steps up to talk about how QV used to be part of Melbourne’s Chinatown in the gold rush days. “Now there’s a new gold rush,” he says. “Tourism. Last year we had 1.4 million Chinese visitors.”
After the bigwigs leave, there’s a Chinese opera demonstration and a raffle. The compere draws out the first ticket, and old mate Ken wins a round trip to Beijing, the place he goes many times a year. “Christ,” he says to me, quite loudly. “I’ll never get to be at home.” And there he goes, stomping heavily up to the dais. “Are you planning to go to Beijing this year,” the compere asks. “Er… I was already. But I’ll go again,” says Ken.
The next ticket is drawn with a flourish, and my friend wins. He leaps up to the stage, ready for his plane ticket, giant grin at the ready, and receives an iPhone cover, which is for some reason second prize. He returns, deflated.
And all around me, I hear rustling as eager Chinese Melburnians hope for a trip home, and the third and last ticket is drawn, and it’s me. I walk gingerly up on stage, unsure if it’s a joke, and the compere grins and gives me a giant airline ticket with which I must pose for photos.
My friend ribs me about our relative luck. And then it hits me – the thing was fixed. It must have been. The only three Anglos in the audience win all three prizes in an event designed to get more ‘Australians’ going to Beijing.
Afterwards, as the organisers play hackey sack and kids dance with peacock feathers on the red carpet, Tony approaches. Did I enjoy it, he asks, and I say yes, very much, unsure if I should thank him for my truly remarkable stroke of luck. The city swirls past as I leave, feeling uncertain as to what actually just happened.
A week later, I’m walking with Tyrone to get my first and only paycheck for Helping China and Australia Bond. Tyrone is fighting off a cold. We walk from Chinatown to Queen Street, past a sharp eyed Chinese businessman sporting a tonsure, a refined Anglo dandy complete w/ curled moustache and purple jacket, past a young Korean couple – he in thongs and what looks like the entire hide of a woolly cow transformed into a jacket, past a man tonelessly arguing with the gutter. I find it interesting that Tyrone – for all his anger against the new generation of Chinese – does so much work for Tony.
Up again to Melbourne Today’s headquarters. Tony whisks us to the boardroom and fishes out crisp hundred dollar bills. I tell him I tried to place an article and failed. He nods. It’s okay, he says to my failure. It’s okay. Then he asks, obliquely, how I think we might best overcome the temporary tension between our countries. What do you mean, I ask?
The Four Corners program on Chinese soft power has aired between our meetings. The program focussed on Beijing’s efforts to make overseas Chinese more patriotic, to ensure their allegiances are first to the motherland, and would eventually lead to the downfall of Labor’s ‘Shanghai Sam’ Dastyari.
How, Tony asks, might we better align Australian and Chinese priorities? I offer platitudes about the closeness of our two countries, how our entwined economies got Australia through the GFC. Tony nods. His foot bounces as he talks, a constant drumbeat. He’s asking something indirectly, and my platitudes are an answer in similar vein. He has, I suspect, found out I have nothing really to offer.
Now Tony tells me about his operation. He has ten reporters here, and more in China, sourcing news there. It’s media on the cheap, Guardian-style, a few journalists doing a lot with no transmission costs beyond software and internet. “We have half of Melbourne’s Chinese reading us,” he tells me with pride. He talks dismissively of the old media who missed the shift to smartphone reading. The future, he says, is news delivered by app. You have to go where the people are.
My audience is over and I leave. This week, the big news on Melbourne Today has been on the Somali-Australian would-be terrorist Yacqub Khayre, who killed a Chinese-Australian man. Red meat for their readership – Islamic terrorism, with its resonances for China’s ongoing pacification and mass transfer of Han Chinese to its restive Muslim province, Xinjiang. Long term, Beijing will win – the Muslim Uighurs are already a minority in what was their land, just as Tibetans are in Tibet. Many of the headlines use the term tuao for Anglo-Australians, a term that literally translates as unrefined but is used (mostly) affectionately. Annie Zhang told the ABC that the term refers to Australians closeness to nature, the ‘coarse’ accent, and the country’s perceived slow adoption of everything from urban design to mobile payment technology. Reading Melbourne Today feels like a glimpse into a new future, where Australia takes its cues not just from American culture, but maybe, just maybe, a very different one.
Outside, Tyrone tells me he’s thinking more and more of moving to China. The Four Corners report really got to him. He felt it was unjustified, a million people in Australia tarred with the same brush. “There’s a wave of Sinophobia forming in Australia and this just makes it worse,” he says. “ I’m the perpetual foreigner. Even if I try to fit in, I have to sell out my old culture. Walking between is getting harder by the day.” Smoke, sure, but there was some fire, too, I say. Paying Sam Dastyari’s bills? Making major donations? Tyrone makes a sour face. All he feels is eyes on him, suspicion.
For most Chinese-Australians, politics is an abstraction or a distraction. But for those who are involved, loyalties are blurred. In 2016, businessman Huang Xiangmo, he of the large party donations and the links to Sam Dastyari, gave a speech saying overseas Chinese “unswervingly support the Chinese government’s position to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity [and] support the development of the motherland as always.”
And that speaks to the heart of Tyrone’s dilemma. Which land is mother? Born-country or ancestral-country? Later, he will write of his despair at the anti-Chinese sentiment on a popular Australian internet forum on reddit.com: “I’m born and bred in Australia. The last few months of reading the anti-Chinese stuff in Australia has been pretty disheartening,” he writes. “First of all, let’s get it clear. I am not a fan of the Chinese government …. Nor am I a big fan of the current wave of Chinese migrants, many of them are rich, ignorant and entitled … But there are good hearted people with the nouveau riche as well. China is a huge country with a billion people, a large spectrum of cultures and one of the oldest civilisations. It’s complex. You cannot generalise about a country like this. Not everyone in China is working in a factory. Not everyone in China is a communist … I know this isn’t going to get a warm welcome and I’ll probably get attacked but I hope to at least reach some of you to critically think about the issues at hand before commenting on how China is bad and the West is good.” When I ask him about it, he says only that he feels bigotry is on the rise. He has, he admits, been thinking that perhaps Australia is no longer home. Perhaps China would be more welcoming.