Over the course of 2017, Chinese involvement in Australian politics became a topic of national debate. Soon, it seemed that there was no migrant group in Australia capable of polarising Anglo opinion more than the Chinese. If you read the tabloids, you’d see a minority who were shipping our baby formula overseas, buying our houses and apartments, supposedly making it impossible for young ‘Strayans to ever buy a house. If you read the economists in broadsheet papers, you’d get the sober-minded rebuttal: they’re also buying our iron ore, produce and university degrees, helping us coast through the GFC.
If you read Clive Hamilton’s controversial – and, to my mind, way over the top book, Silent Invasion, you find another variant – a Chinese Communist Party-linked minority undermining Australian democracy, buying favourable votes, buying up sensitive national infrastructure, hacking our systems, monitoring Chinese students for signs of deviant Western thought, advancing the agenda of a rising authoritarian country, and wooing the most far-flung outpost of the West away from America as it turns inwards and into their orbit as a supplicant state.
If you read the business papers, you get another view entirely. They’re the most dynamic and entrepreneurial migrant force at work in Australia, building high rises complexes in Box Hill and Parramatta, taking risks, building businesses, everything from the local fish and chip shop to huge industries.
I followed each new story with interest, following the splash that the Four Corners report made. I start to look more closely at grassroots involvement. Organisations like Poliversity, aimed at boosting diversity in the Labor Party, trying to rebuild the long connection between migrants and Labor. Newer Chinese coming in with investment visas, successful businesspeople, who seem naturally inclined to vote Liberal. Then you have the complexities of overseas Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong and South East Asia, and then the difference between generations. There was, it seemed, no such thing as the Chinese bloc.
“The Chinese are one of the rare communities that has continually had migration,” says Jieh-Yung Lo, co-founder of Poliversity and a City of Monash councillor.
Risk-taking migrants from China’s once-poor coastal regions came here during the gold rush. Many settled, despite efforts to dislodge them from White Australia, and made their mark. LJ Hooker began his life as Leslie Joseph Tingyou, an orphan of Chinese descent, before changing his name and founding his eponymous real estate agency.
Newcomers, though, often don’t have to work their way up. They did that in China first. “That aspirational community tend to gravitate towards the Liberals because of the emphasis on private business and individualism,” says Jieh-Yung. “But many young Australian-born Chinese like myself are more attracted to the Labor Party. I think very differently to first generation migrants.”
I’ve come to meet Jieh-Yung Lo and his Poliversity co-founder, Wesa Chau, at a busy sandwich bar on Flinders Lane near Parliament. It’s the type of nondescript place politicians and their offsiders like to do their real work.
What Jieh-Yung marvels at is Australia’s lack of interest in what diversity can do for the country. “Why are we spending so much money teaching people another language when you’ve got 11 per cent of the country with Asian heritage? Why can’t we find that competitive business edge in our population?” he says. “Keating was on the money talking about the Asian century.”
I nod. It’s puzzled me for years. I remember reading a brochure from the mid-90s, when Keating’s push for engagement with Asia was in full swing. The brochure was selling the idea of harnessing Australia’s multicultural communities to build businesses overseas. Australian-Japanese acting as fixers and go betweens in Tokyo. South African-Australians in Johannesburg. It’s remarkable, I say, that we haven’t acted on this – especially considering how often our non-mining businesses fail when trying to expand overseas. ANZ’s failed Asian strategy. Bunnings struggling in the UK.
Jieh-Yung nods. “It’s about understanding culture – for example, how Chinese people respond.” He looks at Wesa, who’s quietly impressive – sharp eyes, sharp mind. “Take Wesa – she’s on a number of boards. And because she’s more quiet, a lot of Anglos would assume she’s not a contributor. But actually she’s analysing five steps ahead while people are chatting. People don’t see quietness as leadership – but it is, leadership is about strategic thinking, long term vision.” Wesa smiles, a tad uncomfortable with the praise.
So – Wesa, I ask, do you try to make more verbal contributions to accommodate this? She laughs. “Absolutely. I just need to add noise.”
It would seem, I say, to make sense for Australian companies trying to partner with China to employ ABCs. But does it happen?
Wesa shrugs. “It’s quite rare. I’ve actually asked why there are no Asians on the board – and they say we can’t find Asians who understand the Australian context.” ABCs don’t seem to occur to them, even though they have dual cultural competencies. “They’re missing out on quite a bit of knowledge,” Wesa says.
Jieh-Yung speaks fluent bloke. “You are aware of the stats, right mate? One in four Australians is born overseas. And it’s 40% in Melbourne and Sydney. So there’s this pool of resources that Australia does not seem to recognise. My mate is Australian-born Chinese, and he’s a diplomat. Guess where they sent him? Nigeria!”
In mid 2017, a report on the Asian readiness of Australian businesses was scathing. For all the talk of the Asian century, for all the discussion of the huge new Asian middle class and demand for goods and services, the AsiaLink study found 90% of our top 200 companies were not Asia ready, scoring very low on knowledge of Asian markets, experience operating in Asia, and language skills. “Our direct foreign investment into China is the same as Papua New Guinea and more is invested into New Zealand than South-east Asia,” Mukund Narayanamurti, Asialink Business chief executive, told the Financial Review. Only three per cent of members of the top 300 corporate boards had an Asian background
Jieh-Yung looks to politicians like Penny Wong for change. Her speech on an open Australia, he argues, is an inspiration. Wesa, too. “A lot of Asians look up to her,” she says. “Especially second generation.”
I confess to them that when I heard their goal was to boost ethnic diversity in the Labor Party, I couldn’t help but think of branch stacking – the mysterious habit for a dying branch in the suburbs to suddenly swell with membership applications all from the very same cultural background, who never show up to meetings, and who wield their votes as a bloc to help one particular candidate. Wesa nods. She’s heard it before. “It needs to be dealt with across the board,” she says. “I know people who genuinely want to be members – but they’re not allowed to join. They assume every ethnic person is a stack.”
For now, Poliversity is focussing on getting Labor candidates from different backgrounds elected as councillors, far from the branch stacking of state and federal seats. “We got – let me count – six, seven, eight elected at the 2016 council elections,” Jieh-Yung says proudly. Most have ABC background. “The fact they’re second generation means they can argue their case when they go out to the community.”
For them, the election of Melbourne’s first directly-elected Lord Mayor, John So, was a milestone. The savvy Hong Kong-born restaurant millionaire turned his famously garbled English into soaring popularity, hamming up the joke to the point he upstaged the Queen at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. But the joke was just packaging. “One thing I admire about So is that every function he goes to, he will literally go to every table and talk to everyone,” Wesa says. So drew praise for his business-friendly policies, and criticism for, amongst other things, banning Chinese dissident spiritual group Falun Gong for participating in the Moomba parade.
Surely, I say, it seems like you’re on the underdog side now – trying to woo the new breed of entrepreneurial Chinese to Labor. It doesn’t seem like a natural fit. And especially now that gratitude for Tiananmen is decades old, now that a new patriotism is common. They nod. “You can’t take this community for granted, can’t assume they’ll vote for you if you’re not engaged with them,” Jieh-Yung says. Wesa nods. “They have to realise that they are actually losing the Chinese community.”
The real battle will be for the hearts and votes of the new crop of ABCs, children of the entrepreneurs. Will they, too, skew Liberal? “They will be swinging voters. They’re the ones you need to get,” Wesa says.
So why Labor, I ask? Jieh-Yung considers this. “It was Labor who opened up to Asia. There is a story there, but we’re not using it well enough.”
The challenge, they say, is that both major parties are still stuck in the era of thinking of migrants as single-issue voters. Toss them money for a cultural centre or dragon parade and you’ve got their loyalty – that was the old thinking. But once people settle in, get secure careers, put down roots, have kids – they want to be considered in full.
When Jieh-Yung’s parents arrived from Vietnam 30 years ago, they cared about two things: a secure job and a house. But his generation’s concerns are different. They have bigger dreams. To build a startup business, to succeed wildly, to buy investment properties, to lay down wealth. And that, Jieh-Yung says, is why many Chinese-background Australians bucked so hard when Labor proposed grandfathering negative gearing. Had they not worked hard for that investment? Could they not take advantage of the tax break like everyone else? Wesa nods. Several of her friends were outraged. They’d worked hard in their twenties, avoidng holidays and the evils of an avocado smash on a Saturday morning to get a deposit, buy an investment property. And now Labor wanted to take away the major perk?
That, I say, sounds like a very hard sell – it directly pits individual wealth-creation against the greater good. Jieh-Yung nods. How he approaches it is to say that the policy will apply to all, that the housing affordability crisis is keeping many from buying homes.
“This,” he says, “is why we need MPs from multicultural backgrounds. Because they can tell the caucus these things. Many won’t understand this stuff – because multicultural communities won’t reach out.”
“I’m confident that our multiculturalism will stop the populist right-wing policies coming through, the second coming of Pauline Hanson,” Jieh-Yung says. “Second generation communities are more active than ever.”
Jieh-Yung prefers to work from the outside, but Wesa would like to be an MP. She grew up in Berrick, outer suburban Anglo territory. Her school was mostly white. She was quieter there, but at Chinese language school on weekends, she was the noisiest, the troublemaker. She became good at code-switching between Anglo and Chinese contexts, a skill she believes is useful in business and politics. Wesa will head into a board meeting, ready to do a presentation, and then pause. “If I feel that this pitch isn’t going to work, I’ll suddenly change it,” she says. “My upbringing has made me flexible.”
The battle for the votes of Australia’s million strong Chinese-background community came to light during the 2016 federal election, when the marginal seat of Chisholm in Melbourne’s leafy east was the only one in the nation to buck the swing to Labor and fall to the Liberals.
I’d heard that the cause might have been a disinformation campaign run on WeChat, targeting the increasingly important Chinese vote in that electorate, stretching from Box Hill in the north to Clayton in the south. In a piece for The Guardian, I reported that two weeks before the election, groups on WeChat were lighting up with pro-Liberal posts. In group chats of up to 500 people, commentators attacked the ALP and spread claims that voting for Labor would lead to vast increases in refugee numbers which would mean fewer family visas or suggesting that the Safe Schools program would mean boys could use girls toilets. Many of the claims were spurious but effective.
It was the first of its kind: a volunteer-run social media campaign written entirely in Chinese, and designed to turn Australia’s Chinese further against Labor. Later, the same tactics would be visible in the push against same-sex marriage, and in the Bennelong by-election in Sydney.
The architect of the Chisholm scheme is Gladys Liu, the Liberal Party Communities Engagement Committee chair for Victoria. She tells me she believes the campaign was behind the upset. “Historically, [Chinese] migrants tended to vote Labor because they went to them faster. We were not doing very well.” That was what Liu, a speech pathologist, was determined to change.
The retirement of a well-regarded sitting member, Anna Burke may have played a role. But Ms Liu points to results from voting booths in Box Hill, where more than 20 per cent of voters are Chinese speakers, which saw a swing of 4.2% to the Liberal candidate, Julia Banks.
“In the booth results, we did very well in Box Hill and the upper end of the electorate, as well as neighbouring seats like Deakin and Kooyong with higher Chinese demographics,” Ms Liu tells me. It’s accurate – the 2016 census results show that almost 20% of Chisholm residents speak a Chinese dialect at home, up from 15% five years earlier.
“If you ask how many Chinese people read mainstream news, the percentage is so, so low,” Gladys says. “But the first thing they do in the morning is turn on the phone and go to WeChat straight away.”
Gladys claims the campaign was run by volunteers like herself and centred on three issues: the Safe Schools controversy, same sex marriage, and economic management.
“A lot of parents don’t agree with letting boys go into a girls toilet. They strongly opposed the Safe Schools program,” she says. “Cross dressing and transgender – this is something they found difficult to accept. Chinese believe same sex [marriage] is against normal practice. Chinese people come to Australia because they want good things for the next generation, not to be destroyed – they use the word destroyed – [by] same sex, transgender, intergender. All this rubbish.”
Gladys says refugees were also a key issue for Chinese voters: “If Labor is going to open the gate and let refugees in, that will affect people here and their lives here.”
But she denied that there was an orchestrated disinformation campaign. “If Labor policies are good, they can dominate WeChat,” she tells me. “But Chinese don’t like their policies.”
Liu’s comments led to a minor outcry, particularly from the gay press. But as 2018 careened to an end, the internal ructions inside Liberal Party led Chisholm MP Julia Banks to first announce her retirement at the next election – and then spectacularly quit the party altogether while still a sitting MP. Who might take her spot? A certain Gladys Liu was announced as the next Liberal candidate for Chisholm.
Did the WeChat campaign matter in 2016? Chisholm ALP candidate Stefani Perri believes it hurt her chances with the Chinese vote. “There clearly was a campaign that ran through WeChat, appealing to people’s fears and spreading untruths specifically designed to turn the Chinese community against [Labor],” she tells me. “It was lowest common denominator politics. It played on their greatest fears.”
She personally sighted posts claiming Labor would increase the refugee quota at the expense of Chinese migrants. “There was clearly no factual basis, but it was very opportunistic,” she says.
NSW Labor senate candidate Paul Han found the campaign was also at work in Chinese-heavy seats in Sydney. Han slammed the tactics in a Chinese-language press release a week out from the election.
“It is definitely systematic, organised and pushed by a team of political activists. It spreads so fast and took everyone by surprise. The purpose is very obvious. But it is a very dirty tactic,” he says.
The WeChat campaign in Chisholm proved a rare success for the Liberals in the nationwide battle for the diversity vote. Senior Liberal sources told SBS after the election that the party leadership had not focussed on the multicultural vote.
For Poliversity’s Jieh-Yung, the result came as a shock. He believes Labor used to take the multicultural vote for granted, but that would now have to change. “Labor will explore WeChat over the next election,” he tells me.
Researcher in Chinese-Australian affairs Dr Jen Kwok says targeting WeChat and other non-English social media was a logical extension of the two-decade-long effort to sway migrant communities through ethnic language media. “It’s very fertile ground to engage the electorate,” he said.
ALP senate candidate Jennifer Yang unsuccessfully stood for preselection in Chisholm. The Chinese-Australian scientist said in February that winning Chinese and Asian-Australian support would be a “critical factor” for Labor in the seat. Her predictions, it seems, were proven correct – even though the battle was between a Greek-Australian and an Italian-Australian.
On a national scale, the social conservatism of the Liberals is beginning to resonate with Chinese as well. During the same sex marriage survey period, a Sydney GP Pansy Lai drew the ire of progressives for appearing in a No TV ad, which in turn drew (over the top) calls for her to be deregistered. Dr
Lai’s concerns were so great that she launched a petition drawing 17,500 signatures against Safe Schools, and formed the Australian Chinese for Families Association. In response, two gay Chinese-Australians, Bo and Tim, said many gay Chinese felt they could not come out of the closet. “Especially young people, who have been through this identity struggle, in sense of sexuality, and see this kind of material, it will be quite devastating,” Bo told SBS.
As I’m winding up my interview with Gladys Liu, she lets something slip. That Chinese-Melburnians, concerned about street crime and robberies, were coalescing into self-help groups on WeChat, named Jinjihujiu – Emergency Help.
Eventually, Tyrone gains access for me. There are more than 800 around Australia, with more than 30,000 members. In Melbourne, there are groups for Dandenong and Glen Waverly, Mulgrave and Blackburn, Caroline Springs and Footscray In these groups, people volunteer to be available as call takers. If something happens – a robbery, an assault, even feeling unsafe – the victim will post or call on WeChat, and minutes later, cars will pull up, ready to protect their own.
He gives me the translation of a call for help in Bentleigh, in Melbourne’s south-east:
Kenny: A robbery has just happened at my shop. My employees have just locked the culprit inside the store. Any volunteers that are close by who can help?”
Xuqi：Call the police first
Xuqi: I also live in Bentleigh East, it hasn’t been safe lately
Wuhuaming: Someone quickly go help
Later, Kenny posts an update. The police came quickly – very quickly. The commentators all express surprise. They’d heard on WeChat that Victoria Police were too slow, that they didn’t care about Chinese concerns. So how could this be?
There’s even a business – the Australian Emergency Assistance Association Incorporated – which has sprung up in response, trying to monetise these self-help groups. A man named Huifeng Liu registers the business name in late 2016. My requests for an interview come to nothing. The association’s legal representative emails me instead: “Many of our member volunteers were concerned that … publication might cause the problem of their own privacy and security … Neither do we wish [the association] to be reported in the media.”
I ask Gladys Liu why she believes these groups exist. She tells me that the fear of gangs and petty crime is the cause. “People are so frightened about safety – and they relate that to immigration policy,” she says. “People blamed Labor for letting immigrants – especially refugees – in. So in response to the worsening of safety, people set up WeChat groups to scare the robber away. People are scared.”
And the link between migrants and crime? Simple, Gladys tells me. Chinese people don’t voice their opinion openly. So they’re soft targets – especially the do-it-tough migrants running newsagencies or milkbars, for whom shoplifting of cigarettes and magazines is a direct blow to their family income. “They see that police are not protecting them,” Gladys claims. “And they blame it on an influx of migrants who are not as hard working as the Chinese, not as disciplined in terms of respect for others. Chinese distinguish themselves from those not-as-good migrants. There are different kinds of migrants. Some work very hard for the family and the country. Others reproduce, have large families and take money from the government.”
“I see,” is all I can say. But I don’t. The power of these ideas – Daily Mail type ideas – that migrants can be divided into Good Migrants (quiet, hard-working, uncomplaining) and Bad Migrants (crime, welfare, breeders). And I wonder at the effectiveness of fact-lite tabloid articles published on outlets like Melbourne Today, the unedifying result of the race for lizard-brain clicks. Fear of people who don’t look like us, fear fear fear.
Gladys was careful not to mention particular cultural groups, other than the Apex Gang as a synonym for African. But online, people are much less cautious. In 2016, a group called the Australian Chinese Leadership Foundation hosted a petition to Stop Crime in Victoria. 2500 people signed, many with Chinese names.
The petition text ran in part: “It is quite obvious that our public security has gone steeply downhill in the past year, according to latest statistic. A wave of terrifying home invasion and carjackings linked to youths and gang member has becoming serious public concern for Victorian. Melbourne was once ranked as most livable city on the planet has lost its fame as public security continually worsen. We need our voices and appeal to be heard, we need to see actual result of our government tacking down the issue of crime, more than some empty promises that was given. We do not want to be afraid of carjacking and beaten up with assaulted weapon as we drive off work, we do not want to be fearing for our safety at our own home where we suppose to be safe. This is why we all need to step out and sign this petition begging our government to tackle the issue of increasing crime rate, and face the problem of insufficient police force has brought down on Victoria.”
And beneath, Melburnians wrote of their fears. “Increased crime rate cannot be reduced without rules for teenager,” wrote Chloe Xu. “Because I want to live in the safe country like 13 years ago. Now I can’t even let my kids play outside my house,” wrote Siew Poh Choo. “I miss the original Australia,” wrote Eva Lin, nostalgia for a safer past. Others drew on racial fears. Jason Luo blamed the crime wave on “some BLACK men, yes I said BLACK men, they are really dangerous, unfriendly and uneducated.”
The fears have some small basis in fact, but have been amplified manyfold. The youth crime wave is due, police have repeatedly said, to a small group of prodigious young crims on the make. Some of the bad eggs are South Sudanese, who give the rest of Melbourne’s upwardly mobile African community a very bad name. In famously rough Melton, a Chinese milkbar owner loses his patience with teenagers stealing and puts up a sign. His wording sent it immediately viral: “Because the 14 to 18-year-old blacks always steal. Prohibit 14 to 18-year-old blacks and dogs into the shop.”
Hours later, the owner, Lunjie Lin, took the sign down. He told The Australian he was driven to it out of anger. “It’s happened about 20 times in two months, and today when I tried to stop them they were asking to fight me. I was so angry so I went and made that sign.”
On the first day back from the mid year uni break in July 2017, Chinese-background students at Melbourne and Monash University saw posters warning them of deportation. Written in simplified (and badly Google-translated) Chinese, the posters sent a chill through international students. Melbourne University student Lisa Lu tweeted that if it was a joke, “IT’S NOT FUNNY AT ALL.”
It wasn’t a joke, it was a ‘prank’ by tiny Nazi group, Antipodean Resistance, determined to keep Australia white while keeping their own little whiteboy identities secret. On their website, they gloat: “This was essentially a low effort prank … boy did we ruffle some feathers. We knew the Chinese are bug people … and thus they’re gullible.” In the aftermath, a ripple of fear moves through WeChat. But for some strange reason, it does not resonate in the same way as fear of Africans.
In August 2017, I meet Tyrone just before he flies to Beijing to take a job translating a popular Chinese mobile multiplayer game into English so that Indonesians can play it. Go figure. We eat ramen in Swanston St. The life he’s been walking between worlds is leaving him at a loss. Does he belong there or here? The only way to know is to try both. In Australia, he claims, the Bamboo Ceiling is holding him and people like him back. His friend works at a consultancy with a mainly Asian and Indian workforce. The managers are all Anglo. And his Chinese friend in real estate noticed that only Anglos were winning awards at the end of year ceremonies.
But is this the whole truth? Highly successful Asian-Australian Cham Tang, co-founder of Authentic Education, one of BRW’s fastest growing companies in 2015, believes the bamboo ceiling issue lay more in an over-emphasis on book smarts. Tang’s parents came as Vietnamese refugees and worked six-day weeks in sweatshops before opening their own factories. “We were taught that the harder we work, the more successful we will become,” he told The Age in 2016. “But hard work and intelligence and [high] marks, like we’ve been brought up to believe, is only half the picture. In the corporate or business world … you also need to have social skills, confidence, good communication, sales ability, in order to move ahead.”
I wish Tyrone well and head home. When I hear from him next, he tells me he got within a whisker of an $80K job – an excellent salary in Beijing – only to fail at the final hurdle, the face-to-face. Why, he asked. The HR rep was remarkably honest: “With your English, we thought you were white. We need to show Westernisation,” she told him. Was this common? He asks Chinese friends who are working teaching English. They tell him they’re paid a fraction of what their Western counterparts at the same school are paid. One-third their wage. One told him: “They only care about skin colour and nationality. They use foreigner faces to get customers but use our labour to teach the children.” Tyrone saw it as a residual inferiority. “White worship still nestles deep within Chinese society,” he wrote.
I had no intention of taking the flight I won to Beijing in the mysterious raffle. I’d been there in 2006, and hadn’t overly liked it. But as Tyrone tells me more and more about life there, I find myself thinking a great deal about it. If the world was moving east, centring now on China, I should go.
For Australians, the new frontier for our imagination is not northern Australia, as the Coalition would like. It is further north still. China – the economic boon, the potential military threat, the rising power. A frontier is both threat and possibility. An acquaintance corners the market importing a very specific black bathroom tap into Australia, earning his one-man operation more than $100,000 a month. He did it very simply: by flying to Shenzhen and looking for the next big thing. A professional gambler I know of used to make his yearly seed capital by importing a container load of Christmas cards from China for two cents each and on selling them for $2. An family friend moves his plastics factory from Malaysia to China only to fall afoul of dodgy operators willing to take advantage of foreign ignorance. The first three loads were high quality, the fourth far lower. So he moved the factory back to Malaysia.
The picture I had in my mind of Beijing is one created in large part by the English-language media I consume. Even though I’d been there, the stories that stuck were of a giant, smog-ridden city with almost the population of Australia in it, the sanctum of power for an authoritarian party somehow capable of exerting control over 1.3 billion people, the same party responsible for whisking fully half a billion people out of poverty, and screw the consequences – dirty air, water, and food – until wealth had been achieved.
And then this great wealth begins to move, to places Western money doesn’t tend to go. To Africa, the next great factory of the world, and the last untapped area of fertile land. To Europe and America, who need loans, concessions, market access.
Soon, China will be the new Korea or Japan – both places I found more advanced than the West. And that will force smug Westerners to reconsider their place in the world. For the first time in half a millennia, a non-Western power would be the most influential.
So – on a plane, heading north, to pay court to the Middle Kingdom reborn, the kingdom at the centre of the world.
The first surprise is the air in Beijing. It’s crisp and surprisingly clean. Turns out I’ve just missed Donald Trump’s visit, and the air has been scrubbed up nicely. Factories off, coal unburned, polluting cars banned. The wonders of centralised authority.
It’s November 2017, and the northern hemisphere winter is imminent. Pale warmth in the sun, freezing cold in the shadow of office blocks. Tyrone comes to meet me, to act as my guide one last time. He takes me to a willow-lined lake ringed by cobblestones, Shichahai. Not far from here is another lake, one reserved for the sole purposes of giving Xi Jinping and his family privacy, security and an excellent view.
We eat a remarkable mutton and spring onion dish at a famous Hui Muslim restaurant and Tyrone talks ten to the dozen as always. A large part of his job is doing social media for a mobile game. It’s become hugely popular in the Philippines and Indonesia, and players from each country seem to relish baiting the other with racial slurs on the game’s Facebook page. So Tyrone cleanses them. “When we nerf [reduce the effectiveness of] a hero, I get death threats,” he says, grinning. Teenagers take the game that seriously? “Yup. I can’t sleep at night because of the ping of notifications.”
He tells me about the pressures of life here, in a city with six ring roads around it and a seventh under way. About cram schools, how Beijing children are under pressure even as fledglings, told that one day, they will have a more relaxed time of life – university and the workplace, when the intense funnelling of cramschools and extracurricular perfecting is over, when you’ve got a decent job. Then, at long last, you can take control of your life. The morning’s China Daily is running articles about a two year old Beijing boy who lost all his hair from stress. Could combining cram school, violin, sports and speaking lessons have been too much, his mother wondered? But everyone else was doing the same. What was wrong with her child? Was he soft?
We walk and talk. Street trees, cars, dedicated bike lanes, wild intersections where a red light only means stop for cars and buses, where pedestrians edge forwards, a constant game of chicken. The variety of vehicles dazzles: scooter riders wearing lap and hand warmers, looking like they’re being swallowed by a knitted teacosy. Three wheelers piled high with leeks and Chinese cabbage. Mini-utes carting LPG bottles. Tiny sanitation trucks, bikes, skateboards.
In the poorer back streets, far from the generic apartment towers and office blocks, Tyrone points out the outdoors underclass “They’re almost a caste,” he says. “Darker skin from working outside all their lives.” Most are born in poor inland provinces and migrated here under the hated household registration system, which makes it harder for internal migrants to get housing and jobs. At Peking University, we watch African students play hockey, calling to each other in Mandarin. The human result of China’s massive investment in Africa, trade over aid.
We drink $9 lattes in a Western style café near my hotel and Tyrone talks about the historic hutongs, the districts of narrow alleyways and courtyard houses, tiny noodle bars and bitter melon twining over rooftops. His grandmother owned one. But she was linked to the losing Nationalist side in the Chinese Civil War, and of course it was taken. “Would be worth millions now,” he says.
I look at him more carefully. He wanted to come here, seeking perhaps acceptance. Had he found it? Maybe. China is the ancestral home that has become strange. One of China’s self-exiled children, returning. No wonder he feels more comfortable with Taiwan, the other China, the one that took the path the West would like the mainland to follow, the authoritarian military junta turned market democracy. “Did you know there’s another Forbidden City in Taiwan,” Tyrone asks. I shake my head. “It’s better, because it’s full of things the Nationalists looted when they fled Beijing,” he says. Taiwan is China’s alternate timeline.
I walk home through the hutong alleyways. Small wooden doors hide open corridors, bikes leaning against walls, baby clothes hanging out to dry, a dog sleeping. Xi Jinping’s exhortations from the recent party conference where he consolidated his power, are written on red banners and tied to temples, park gates or printed on billboards.
That night, I call Professor Chen Hong. The Shanghai researcher is one of a surprising number of Australian studies scholars in China. He’s devoted his career to reading and translating Australian writers, from Patrick White to Helen Garner. When he saw the now-infamous Four Corners expose on Chinese soft power he was infuriated. At the 2017 Foundation for Australian Studies conference in Jiangsu in early November, he took to the podium to condemn it. The professor sends me the notes he delivered, which read in part:
“[When the episode aired] many of my friends in Australia texted me on WeChat on that night, asking for my opinion and comment. I didn’t reply to their queries at once, still recovering from my shock after finishing it,” he said. “[It] was misinformed, misjudging, and misleading. It plants till this day seeds of mistrust among many Australians towards China and very friendly Chinese people in Australia, detrimental to the healthy development of understanding and collaboration which till that day had been optimally growing. A strong degree of suspicion began to lurk among the general public … Tinker tailor soldier spy – or should we say banker investor student spy?”
He went on:
“Some media in China tries to caricaturise Australia as a paper cat, or a belligerent boxing kangaroo. Such attempts do no good to the further and better goals that we share for both of our two countries.”
The professor tells me he believes most of the allegations were groundless. “If students gather to welcome a Chinese dignitary, that is not against any Australian law. It was not long ago that 15,000 Indians flocked to New York to welcome the Indian Prime Minister.”
There were, I suggest, a number of well-substantiated links between Chinese political donors and Australian politicians. Sam Dastyari’s downfall speaks to that. The professor acknowledges this, that a game is being played. His concern is for everyone else, for the Australian Chinese tarred with the same brush.
It’s Sunday morning and I’m walking through the popular Beihai Park in central Beijing. Around me, thousands of men and women in their fifties and up jog or dance or sing or do tai chi in groups. I spot small groups playing jianzi, a Chinese hackey-sack sport with a two thousand year history. It feels like the Boomer Supremacy, the immortal generation. The phenomenon is so popular that there’s been a crackdown on oldies getting active. There’s talk of management plans, of restricting times of day. I pass one well preserved man wearing a hoodie with the words “AI is the new sexy.” At the exit, I dodge a purple Lamborghini, its fuerdai passengers driving with the top down, wind in their hair. This is what success feels like, and more importantly, what it looks like.
When I visited in 2006, Beijing was demolishing its hutong precincts ahead of the Olympics. I remember walking through piles of rubble, of seeing excavators tearing down remnant walls. The poor were in the way, their land was worth too much. But preservationists had some wins, fending off the demolition of the alleyways I’m walking through. The city government cleaned up and gentrified other hutongs, preserving them at the expense of some charm. My hotel is just off the most famous gentrified hutong, Nanluogoxiang. Day and night, young couples stroll the street, poking their heads in Japanese kawaii stores, eating Spanish churros or Beijing syrupy strawberries on skewers. There are less than a thousand of these alleyways left, a third of what existed when the Communists took control in 1949.
Much of the rest of Beijing feels efficient and impersonal, from the fast and clean metro to the glittering malls and national headquarters of banks and major corporations. It’s the street scenes I’m drawn to, and particularly the alleyways. A man calling out in singsong, selling vegetables from an esky on his scooter, tiny noodle shops, men jackhammering concrete. I turn the corner and end up in an estate for elites running alongside a tree-lined canal, grey pavers, neo-traditional houses, and tiny dogs in brightly coloured woollen coats. In manicured parks, late persimmons on high branches.
On the subway, I watch Tibetan monks from the Ethnic Culture Park hop on in sneakers and robes and huddle over their iPhones. A proud older man plays with his granddaughter on the train, clucking over her as she stuffs steamed bun in her mouth. Uni students in Korean perms or tonsure hairstyles. As the subway zips along, I think how surprisingly alike Australia and China are, in some ways. Atheist with a Christian fringe. Hugely individualistic. Family matters more than society. Heavily bureaucratic. Money focussed. A focus on building wealth through real estate.
And changes, too. China is the world’s most rapidly Christianising nation – by some estimates, 100 million worship every Sunday, more than in supposedly Christian Europe. Down many hutongs, I see electric cars plugged in and charging – the vanguard of the big shift away from oil to come. Teslas zip through traffic. And when I bring out cash, I see cashiers almost sigh. Old man, they’re thinking. Everyone else pays by app on their phone, through WeChat or Alipay.
On a famous neon-lit walking street, Tyrone points out the urban tribes. I know the scions of the rich, the fuerdai. But there are distinctions. There are the industrialist rich, and the party-connections rich. There are zhuangbi, pugnacious middle class posers who wear fake versions of expensive brands, aping the rich while hating them. There are the 2D world kids, those obsessed with fantasies on screen and on paper, who read comics and play games obsessively, who even fall in love with fantasy characters, the Chinese equivalent of Japan’s otaku. And the ranks of returned graduates are swelling, those who try to lord it over those who have not been given the Western imprimateur. But now, Tyrone says, the gloss is coming off. Many now return with very expensive degrees only to find they’re at no advantage in the job hunt. The newspapers are full of such stories. China’s universities have risen, and some employers have found that the Western education offers no major benefit. We pass a combination salon and photo studio. I watch as a young woman has her hair crimped and dyed maroon before posing under lights. “You have to submit a photo on every job application,” Tyrone says. “You’ll be judged on appearance.”
Every time Tyrone introduces me to someone, he uses “Doctor”. It’s an honorific I’m uncomfortable with, having obtained a PhD in creative writing primarily to get three years of funding to write my first book. Do you have to introduce me like that, I ask. Tyrone grins. “It will get you further. People prize education here. They’ll think, here’s a professor from a top 40 university.”
So it’s Doctor Hendrie who meets a foreign correspondent in Starbucks. He talks darkly about Xi Jinping’s crackdown. “No one expected him to be like this,” he says. His contacts kowtow in public, and express concern in private. One of the thousand electors whose role is to rubber stamp Xi’s ascendancy literally banged their head on the table when they heard that Xi would not appoint a successor, as everyone had anticipated. Xi isn’t going anywhere.
One night, I go alone to the Dusk till Dawn club. A bar under a glass roof, set in an old courtyard house. Young women are playing a popular game on their phones in which Chinese historical figures duke it out. Craft beer, black and white band photos, and a performance by an Israeli hand drum expert. Then home, past a stinky tofu factory (no signs, you just know), noodle bars, Hustler stores. I pass a bar called Waiting for Godot, which, amusingly, never seems to be open, past Dr Of Pox, part of an international association of acne removal clinics. I keep seeing the older, worn-out generation who never got rich, that underclass of street sweepers and shopkeeps. But the middle class has risen. Disposable income, thousands of restaurants, snack streets and malls, girls teasing boys, a new confidence.
And one afternoon, I go to Gongti, the rich kid’s playground in Beijing. It’s an odd place – a set of nightclubs named Club Latte and King of Party, next to luxury car showrooms set in the walls of the Worker’s Stadium. There’s a high security carpark for supercars, a store called Luxury Station. All names are in English, a class marker separating the globalised rich from the plebs. You can buy $15 single-origin lattes from Papua New Guinea.
Before I went to Beijing, my friends would tease me. Is the party going to make you an offer, Doug? And what’s your price – is a free plane flight and $300 enough to make you a stealthy agent of Chinese Influence? I laugh it off and quietly wonder. But no one approaches me during my time in the city. I am, it seems, of Little Worth.
China is many nations in one, an inland empire consolidating its gains. Tibet and Xinjiang are being forcibly brought into the Han Chinese sphere. But there’s a residual sense of difference in the south, too, the Cantonese/Mandarin divide. On my way home, I stop in Hong Kong, the fishing village turned global city, where the colonial powers pried open China, and where China began to pry open the rest of the world.
I’ve come here, in part, because it is still a key route in. Not just for America or Europe – the rest of the world is here too. If Hong Kong is the entrance for foreigners to access China, Chungking Mansions is the entrance to Hong Kong. The name is deceptive – these mansions were once upmarket, but have since become home to the cheapest flophouses in a very expensive city, squatting on top of prime real estate on glittering Nathan Road. A book on the mansions is titled Ghetto at the Centre of the World. Wong Kar-wai made his 1995 film Chungking Express here. At one point, an estimated 20% of all Africa’s phones were bought and sold in the mansions. It’s bottom up globalisation. I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s the first thing I do in Hong Kong.
You can tell you’re approaching Chungking Mansions because the density of tailors suddenly increases. Indian men press business cards in my hand, talk of high quality cotton and cheap prices. The entrance is almost tidal – people push against an outgoing flow of European backpackers, Filipino and Indonesian workers, Indian money changers, and African entrepreneurs. Inside, the ground floor is a warren of dimly lit Indian and African food stalls. The best Indian food in Hong Kong, they say. Here’s the world, come to take advantage of China’s industrious manufacturers, to buy and sell, ship out and cash in. Broad shouldered West Africans, slender Somalis, the sound of French from Congolese.
Upstairs are the cheap electronics stalls and beyond that, the flophouses and hotels. There’s a CCTV room, monitoring the flow of people. Signs fundraising for the Suffering Ummah. I talk to an Indian man selling pistachio sweets. “From Melbourne? Very nice,” he says. His friend works in Queensland, picking mangoes. “Hard work, good money,” he says. Dank humidity, cockroaches on the stairs. But I get a sense of re-centring, the developing world coming to the new manufacturing centre, picking up Mandarin, getting export licenses. Here, Kenyans export second hand PCs back home, here a Bangladeshi tries to sell me hash, here, Mama Africa serves up Nigerian oxtail soup and semolina fufu in a secret restaurant without a name. In the 1980s, it was reputedly where gold smugglers from Nepal hung out, where hippies bunked down. The South China Morning Post reports that Chungking is used as a doghouse for couples having tiffs, and is known as a popular place for ‘compensated dating,’ where older men give money and gifts to younger women for companionship and more. Here, Filipino lesbians find a quiet place where they can just be. People come from the Solomon Islands, from Latvia, Poland, Mexico, Peru.
I head outside, sweating. In the side streets near the mansions, the world’s people gather – boisterous Africans, a Turkish woman smoking rollies in her wheelchair while her mates listen to hiphop and drink beer. A man of undecipherable nationality sleeps rough. The underside of the world city. Great place to be rich, shit place to be poor. It’s late autumn here, but it’s still 26 degrees, a far cry from zero-degree Beijing. The sense you get from the city is intensity – towering buildings, small canopied alleyways, bong shops built into a wall, the mellifluous tones of Cantonese, Chinese banyans winding through colonial stonework, tangles of wires in taxis for dash cams, two smartphones, and a dispatch unit. If China is an empire, this is one of the furthest flung outposts, where people still consider themselves separate to the mainland, holding on to their receding history as a British colony.
In the poorer areas, the salt air from Victoria Harbour is eroding the concrete. Many of the old post-war apartment blocks have concrete rot. They look almost organic – beautiful in their decay, studded with air-conditioners, their rooftops bristling with aerials, ferns sprouting on the side of apartments. The ceaseless effort to keep a city perched on the edge of a warm sea intact.
It’s Saturday and the scouts are out in full force at the Kowloon McDonalds after their meeting. A gangly boy in full regalia navigates hotcakes without dripping syrup on his uniform. The strange second life of British pomp. And there – an Indonesian nanny holding a tiny Hong Kong girl’s hand. The Indonesians here stand out – they dress relaxed, slacks and top and a headscarf and thongs – in contrast to the designer-wear common. Filipinos are everywhere, dressing similarly minus the headscarf.
On concrete walkways above Mong Kok station, dozens of Indonesian and Filipino workers have spread out picnic mats to eat and chat. Some watch TV on their phones, elevated on small tripods. Their lives are constant work, tending children and the elderly, doing housework. But this one day off a week they get – they take it. Some doze, catching up on sleep. Without them, the whole towering edifice of Hong Kong’s housing market could not be sustained. Double income is the only way to make a dint in your mortgage.
And on the famous goldfish street nearby, a dizzying set of impressions. Terrapins, pale frogs in buckets, transparent fish, and hundreds of peculiar flowerhorn cichlid, striking orange and pink with an enormous protuberance of a forehead. These fish are human-made hybrids, made because they bring good feng shui. The bulge represents mountain and earth. Salamanders and newts, catfish and suckerfish, huge hermit crabs in clear bags, neon tetras, mini-coral reef ecosystems fluorescing blue and red under UV, tiny white crayfish, small mottled stingrays. Women do the Sisyphean task of rehoming fish in baggies, popping the fish in new bags with newly aerated water. For cheap fish, the water isn’t replaced. No point – if no-one buys them, they die. Crickets and mealworms lie bagged and waiting to be devoured.
The city makes no sense to me. It is bewildering. Crowds of people are filming a Moncler launch on fashionable Canton Road. The new product are high-end puffy jackets, perhaps the least useful item of clothing in the tropics. Elegant slim men saunter past, while Teslas and supercars drive by slowly enough to be seen. As I near the ferry terminal, I see my first begpackers, who are all Westerners. A blindfolded white man offers free hugs in exchange for optional donations, but the crowd steers away from him. Ukrainian and Latvian backpackers are doing better, selling photos of their trips through Kazakhstan. Two hippies sell braided wristbands and solicit donations with little luck. And some broke Europeans are simply begging. The old world, upside down. What a sight it must be, what a historic corrective – Europe rich, China poor; Europe static, China super rich.
Another day, I hike around one of the outlying islands, Lamma, which is lush and near empty, vines growing over an abandoned school. The paradox of Hong Kong – people living compressed along the shorelines, while much land is preserved as parks. I meet tall lanky Maurice, who has a Welsh accent and Hong Kong heritage. As we walk in the humidity, past beach dogs, dragonflies and papaya trees, he talks about the widespread fear – or is it resentment – that many Hong Kong people have towards mainland Chinese. “They buy up our milk powder, they buy our apartments as investments and leave them empty,” he says. That, I say, sounds eerily familiar to the refrains heard in Australia. But they’re buying things in a market economy – nothing illegal about that. Maurice shrugs as we take a breather under a starfruit tree. “Here, though, people see it as part of Beijing’s efforts to reduce Hong Kong’s power.”
By restricting freedom of speech, with the crackdowns on protests and newspapers? “That. And by building ports and cities around us.” He’s right – the Pearl River Delta region, which grew in proximity to Hong Kong, is now overshadowing the ex-colony known for free trade, the rule of law and proximity to China. Shenzhen wasn’t much more than a town just over the border back in 1980. But after being chosen as China’s first Special Economic Zone, it’s ballooned into a modern clean and wealthy city of 11 million. And not far beyond that is enormous Guangzhou. In 2008, Beijing moved to combine the eleven major cities of the delta into one megalopolis. Now, the Pearl River Delta has 66 million people in it – the largest urban conurbation in the world, the place where the shift from rural to urban has happened the fastest. This is due in no small part to Hong Kong. But you no longer need to go via this city to access the mainland.
We eat mantis shrimp and poached abalone at a restaurant, and Maurice tells me that this city, his second home, has a distinct racial hierarchy. Westerners are on a pedestal and move through rarefied space. Wealth, good jobs and expensive cocktails are their domain. Mainlanders with money can get special treatment, though tinged with resentment. Then come the Hong Kong locals, and below them, poor mainlanders, lumped in with the migrant entrepreneurs from Africa and the Middle East, and maids from Indonesia and the Philippines, who work here sometimes for decades without ever being able to get residency.
That night, Maurice takes me to the East District of Hong Kong Island, where few Westerners live. We go to a rooftop bar where we sip $20 beer steins extremely slowly and watch the skyline. “Mental illness is rife here,” he says. “It’s not a happy city. But everyone hides it.” That was his experience, struggling through the pressure-cooker high school years, ostracised and bullied. “I was in the top 20% of the class,” he says. “But the teachers only cared about the top 10% and paid no attention to everyone else.” Maurice tried as hard as he could, studying until the wee hours. But others somehow got slightly higher grades. They were the lucky few who rejoiced every time a ranking table of marks was published for all to see and judge.
When his father asked Maurice what he thought about moving to the UK, he was ecstatic. Anything had to be better than this. And in sleepy Wales, the very good student in Hong Kong became the top of the class. His habits were deeply ingrained. He’d rise at 5am, before anyone else, and do his homework. Then he’d play sport, learn photography and do all of his other well-rounded activities, knowing he’d ace the tests as well. When he came back to Hong Kong, years later, his friends told him he’d changed. Where was the pipsqueak who never said a word, whose failure led him to bury himself deep? Who was this tall, confident young man? “With the pressure I felt, I couldn’t speak,” he says.
“People judge you here,” he says. “Mostly by what you wear.” He looks around the dim bar. On the balcony, the bar staff are working frantically to erect canvas as a sheet of rain sets in. “It was in a bar like this that I saw how money really talks.”
That night, Maurice watched as a wealthy mainlander in his late 60s bought five bottles of top-shelf champagne and opened them one by one. The crowd hushed. Then he called out – any girls want a free drink? And in they rushed. “It was to be associated with his wealth,” Maurice says. “One went home with him.” The same trick – ostentatious wealth display – works for well-heeled local men too. Status matters. “If you want to date here, girls will ask you the normal questions,” Maurice says. “But they’ll also ask – where are you in your career? Do you own an apartment?”
Afterwards, we run through tropical rain to the Tai On building. By day it’s a small mall, but by night, the shops are shuttered and the street food vendors open for business. Dozens of locals mill around. Workers toil over deep fryers and steam ovens. It would be hell in summer. We eat fake shark fin soup, gelatinous, shot through with “fin” – a stretched tofu that looks like scrambled egg, with sharply spiced fish balls. That glutinous bouncy-consistency so prized here, achieved only by hammering fish flesh for quite a long time.
Maurice coaxes me into eating more and more until I can’t move. Egg waffles, cart noodles, deep fried pig intestines, turned into small whirls and skewered. “This,” he says, looking around at the throng with deep nostalgia, “is community. It’s very rare.”
His grandparents know everyone on their level in their apartment block. His friends, renting, don’t know anyone. “It’s less friendly now than when I grew up,” he says. He grew up here, went to piano lessons five floors up in the same building. But that was when there was a shipyard here, when blue collar workers would congregate to street food after their shifts. And it was back when you could just about afford an apartment. Now, people rent their whole lives, living hand to mouth, or live at home until their mid 40s. Maurice looks around, remembering. Tai On is still here. People still gather. But you can never come home again, for home was a time as well as a place. And the home you remember is sweetened by time, the horrors slowly evaporating, until nostalgia thrums in the back of your throat.
Another day, I go on a walking tour with Alla, a peppy Masters graduate who can’t find a career job. She takes us through the usual tourist places – songbird markets, Chinese medicine stalls. But the second half of the tour is where she lays the city’s problems bare. The massive government dependence on housing and development for their tax base – they can’t seem to tax companies. Apartment prices go up 20% a year at times. A government dependent on housing and development, because corporate tax has to be kept low. The average young Hong Konger lives at home until 41. You simply can’t afford to live elsewhere, if you ever want to buy here.
She takes us to Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest areas in the city. “Those blocks are where the famous cage apartments are,” she says, gesturing at a nondescript building nearby. Here, a single flat is divided into sleeping quarters the size of a rabbit’s hutch. In the cages, you sleep, keep your belongings. In other areas, families live in stairwells – their mattresses kept vertical by day so people can walk down – and only at night can they sleep. Some enterprising poor build illegal apartments on top of existing flats, mirroring the famously lawless Kowloon Walled City, which once stood not far from here.
Police are checking identity cards at a nearby homeless camp under a freeway overpass. Topless men with browner skin – denoting lower class outside work – ride past on lowriders, flaunting their full-back tattoos. One in five here live below the poverty line. “And they draw the poverty line pretty low,” says Alla. “Many families here have less than 100 HK dollars ($18) for all expenses per day.”
After the tour, I brush past a bovver boy smoking with his jaw jutting out. His tshirt reads: “US Bravely Confronts.” Past two street-smart African young men, Bibles under their arms, heading off to church. Past the Sunday dim sum rush where families queue up and take tickets, prepared to wait an hour for the experience.
On my last day I go to Lok Yung to see the remnants of the Kowloon Walled City, the famously lawless area where no government held sway, where unlicensed noodle factories and unregistered dentists set up shop, in the dense, dank air, apartment blocks built close to each other, slip-shod. There’s something organic about pictures of the Walled City – of the lack of straight lines, of the unevenness of streets. No water was supplied – it had to be brought in. And heroin and meth were bought and sold and used, and at nights, the rooftops were full of addicts in a stupor as they gazed at the stars. These days, Christianity has seemingly conquered all. There are crucifixes everywhere in Lok Yung. Evangelical churches, the sound of Sunday prayer. And the land of vice is gone. Nothing is left of the Walled City, except a single building, a former guardhouse turned almhouse. But the baton has been passed to Chungking Mansions, a small dense fragment of the world without any walls at all.
I walk one last time through Sham Shui Po. The money agents list different prices to send money back to different islands in the Philippines. Cheers from the Hong Kong Jockey Club as gamblers watch their horses. An old couple gingerly move through dense crowds. She nudges him whenever he dithers. I chat to Puni, who’s just arrived from Bangalore for an IT job here. “You’re from Melbourne? How are the house prices this year,” he asks. He nods his head when I tell him, because he already knows the answer.
I stand outside a maid shop in Tong Mi, unwilling to be dragged back to my real life. “Best for you” is the tagline. CVs of Indonesian women are tacked to the front window. All are smiling hopefully, hands clasped in a trust gesture. They’ve worked everywhere – Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Indonesia – and most have children, being raised by aunties and uncles back in Java.
On my plane home, surrounded by Chinese faces with very familiar accents, I talk to Tim. He’s Aussie-Chinese from western Sydney, that city within a city. Broad accent, strongly Australian. And then he confides – that stranger trust, knowing we’ll never see each other again – that his trip to Hong Kong to visit his girlfriend was a much needed break from a year looking after his aunty as she battled the intense pain of bone cancer. When she woke screaming, he would soothe her, hug her, smooth her head, adjust her meds. But she died unexpectedly while he was away.
When he heard the news, he broke down. She was like a second mother to him. His parents had divorced when he was very young, and in the mess and hurt, she’d stepped in and lifted him away and kept him safe and loved while the marriage vows were undone by harsh words and bitterness. When she got sick, she moved back in with her parents, and Adrian did too. “It was my turn to repay her,” he says, his voice breaking. “It will hurt my grandparents. They’re not meant to bury their children. Death is part of life, I know. But it’s hard.” I tell stories about the death of my own brother from cancer. And then the plane empties and he nods and the crowds swirl him away.
The intensity of the trip dies away as I come home and get promptly pounced upon by two small humans. But that night, in my own bed, an anecdote I read years ago floats back to me. There’s our Prime Minister John Howard on his first trip to Shanghai years ago, looking out of the hotel window at the thicket of towers, the thousand cranes made of metal, not paper, the sheer dynamism of the city beyond. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” he asked.