This piece is from a book that never was. It was going to be called ‘Change City.’ It was going to be about Melbourne, and how migration is radically reshaping the city in unexpected ways – turning it from a relative backwater into a city of the world. The book never eventuated, but I didn’t want this to be lost. So here it is.
I’m second-generation Australian, descended from Scottish, English and Dutch colonials in Malaya who fled the Japanese army and ended up in Perth. Dad took us to Melbourne for a job when I was young. My maternal grandfather, who I never met, was Eurasian. He was not permitted entry to white men’s clubs in British Malaya. My grandmother was considered a radical for who she loved. And my mum and dad hit it off, in part, due to their ex-colonial shared history. My dad – raised between Scotland and Malaya and Australia – still speaks with a curiously placeless accent. The past is not long gone.
But though mixed heritage made the lives of my grandparents harder, nothing such happened to me. The path to belonging has been smooth for me, in large part due to my pale skin. My gene mix produced a form closely fitting the ethnic majority, which meant that for me, the hazing at school was limited to my red hair and British vowels. Once my peers mocked my vowels into shape, I could easily pass for fourth gen.
When we moved from Perth, my parents found Melbourne a puzzle. For a big city, it felt like a closed shop – starchy, stuffy, a place where your private school pedigree mattered. It wasn’t that locals were unfriendly. But their lives were already full. No room. So we befriended other newcomers – Queenslanders and South Africans. A South African friend told us she gardened daily so she could accost passing neighbours, trying to squeeze more than a nod out of them. It took her a year of solid pestering to turn strangers into friends, but she did it. They didn’t lift a finger. They didn’t need to. Newcomers would do the gruntwork – that’s the rule.
My upbringing has left me permanently curious about the process by which newcomer becomes local. It happened to me – but the degree of difficulty for an Anglo kid to move from Perth to Melbourne is low. For others, the task is far harder. How do people do it? How do they accomplish the shift? How do they come to feel they belong?
To find out, I spent months talking to Indian migrants, asking them what it’s like to break in here. How had they done it? What had they learned about this city? I spent months more trying to talk to newly arrived Chinese, before learning that I was doing it arse backwards, that I needed someone to vouch for my worth. I talked to a Congolese man frustrated by Australia’s unwillingness to think outside the box, to take risks. To a Hmong playwright who writes vividly about the sex lives of Asian-Australian women, who are still expected to be chaste – or at least, discreet. To first gen, second gen, third gen migrants, to outer suburban Anglos uncomfortable with the pace of change, to young African men who are acutely aware of being watched, in the wake of gang panics largely whipped up by the media. I talk to a self-taught Vietnamese dominatrix, to the Indian scrap metal king of Sunshine, to a lonely rich Chinese girl who falls in love with ‘ducks’, charming male hosts who charge for their company. What changes had they had to make to themselves?
I’ve focused entirely on Melbourne, as it’s changing faster than any other city in the nation and growing faster than almost all others in the developed world. I love the thrill of feeling like my city is moving, morphing, never sitting still. That sense of the world coming to Melbourne, to Australia, of doing things differently.
Chinatown, Melbourne CBD. Photo: Darren Nunis
Here – see:
Swanston Street in the CBD used to be one-dollar trinkets, two dollar peeps and three dollar pizza slices. Now it’s been reborn as a playground for international students, with on-trend eateries mirroring Asian trends – Taiwanese desserts, Korean fried chicken, specialist dumplings, bubble tea, Hokkaido egg tarts, sushi trains, Indonesian spicy ribs.
In Venus Bay, two hours from Melbourne, locals (Anglos for the main) are openly critical of Asian-Australians from Melbourne, who come to their beach with sand pumps and buckets and collect the town’s famous pippie shellfish to cook in XO sauce (delicious). The council has put up signs, called for daily limits. But this passive aggressive approach isn’t working. Whose space is it? Whose rules apply?
It’s at the Mornington Hot Springs, a place modelled on a Japanese onsen, when I see my first Asian-Australian bogans. Three young women speaking fluent Strine, farken this farken, complete with well-padded stomachs and tattoos of butterflies. Outer suburbia, fast food, the intensity of high school and car dependency exert similar pressures on everyone.
My suburb, Northcote, is, if anything, actually getting less diverse, as old Greeks and Italians retire and the would-be gentry (Anglo, for the main) mob the auctions and eye the cost of renovating versus detonating. Here, I walk past an old Italian man listening to opera while he pulls weeds. Further down, two old men – Anglo and Greek – are talking in low voices about another neighbour. “He doesn’t talk about it – he’s a quiet type – but he killed enemies with a bayonet,” says Mr Anglo. He mimes sticking a soldier with great relish. I pass the same trio of very old Italian men who do a loop around Merri Creek every day of their lives, waving walking sticks, gesticulating, disagreeing every time I see them and having the time of their lives.
When a ban on smoking at outdoor cafes is introduced, café owners in Oakleigh’s Eaton Mall outright rebel. Oakleigh is Greek turf, and the essence of being an old Greek man is to gather in garrulous groups, drink strong coffee, and smoke like chimneys and they are damned if a nanny state is going to take that away from them.
New family values lobby groups sprout in opposition to same sex marriage – run by conservative Chinese-Australians in Melbourne’s east and Sydney’s harbour shores. Homosexuality is a hard sell. The primacy and continuity of the family – that is sacred. Godless Chinese and God-fearing churches unite in a losing battle.
Footscray in the inner west has been the first home almost for every migration wave since the 19th century. Here, many Vietnamese families plan their investments not through a bank but through the choi hui loan system – the game of borrowing – in which a group of families put money into a kitty that any of them can borrow from as long as you pay it back by a set date. If you don’t, large interest rates kick in. When it goes well, it’s an informal bank based on trust. But if it sours and you can’t pay back the loan, the desperation – and social shame – leads some into danger work as crop-sitters in marijuana houses in the suburbs or as drug couriers.
And elsewhere in Footscray, African traders are worried about druggie Anglos who hang around outside their stores, who leave smashed bottles and needles, who break store windows. Trader Salah Saraj says it breaks her heart to see children there. “People are coming with young kids … and the mother is taking drugs. You can see that she can’t move. Your heart is broken,” she tells The Age. When the article is posted to the Melbourne discussion forum on reddit, the usual Nazi sockpuppets trying to stoke a race war use it as fresh ammunition in their bid to deport all Africans, to stop taking refugees – without ever reading the article. They already know precisely what they think, what lens to apply to all news with the word ‘African’ in it. There is no nuance. Everything is either black. Or white.
Outside Melbourne Central, a whiskey company is running a promotion around their motto, Latin for ‘without fear’ and inviting people to write their own fearless efforts on a corporate graffiti wall. One entry reads: “I left India, shut down my business and moved to Melbourne for my Russian wife. And I’m glad I did.”
“The bloody monkey bike riders in Epping are so annoying.” A Kurdish barber is talking to his bearded Anglo customer while I’m waiting for a haircut in gentrifying Thornbury. “I throw bottles at them, but they never go away.” His customer laughs, talks about how his neighbour in a townhouse sings opera very badly, day and night, never seems to improve. The Kurdish bloke rolls along, talks about his train driver traumatised by having a young couple jump in front of his train. “Strict families and the girl was probably pregnant,” he says. “But everything is more intense when you’re young.”
I flip through a magazine, and when I tune back in, the barber is complaining about the cost of being a groomsman. “I have to buy a suit, buy my wife a bridesmaid dress – $500 each – and then fly to Sydney,” he says. And then he has to spring for the Turkish tradition where you pin money to silken ropes tied to the bride and groom. “It’s in front of everyone so you can’t just give fifty bucks,” he says. “It’s extortion. They have a camera trained on you.” His customer grins ruefully. “I spent $600 dollars on going to a wedding recently – and that was in Melbourne. How can you pay your mortgage?”
The barber finishes trimming his customer’s beard and it’s my turn in the chair. Short back and sides, I say, just like always. We talk. He’s 27. He met his Arabic-speaking wife through the same Turkish friend who’s now getting married. He’s learning Arabic, she’s learning Kurdish. We talk about the impossible dream of Kurdistan, how Turkey and Iraq and Iran will never let it form. He tells me anti-American conspiracy theories, talks about Muslim influence on the West – “the word alcohol comes from Arabic!” – and I tell him my stories, gush about fatherhood and isolation without meaning to. The friendly stranger, repository of small secrets.
“It is very difficult to be a left wing Jew in Melbourne,” says my left-wing Jewish friend from Melbourne. At Shabbat meals, he navigates silent parental disapproval of his public efforts to challenge Israel’s creeping settlements as they push further and further into what would be Palestine. A tough thing to do, here at the city at the end of the earth where many survivors of the death camps settled, where Zionism is lifeblood, strong enough to make it a key recruitment point for Israel’s spy service Mossad (that and the fact an Australian passport gets you into Arab countries where Israelis can’t go).
Our cleaner was once a dancer in Beijing. But Mao’s insane Cultural Revolution was intensifying and cadres were hunting everyone with even a hint of Western capitalism to them. Her father, a military man, told her to stop. Dancing was bourgeoisie. It was dangerous, for him and for her. So she gave up that dream and came to Australia. She worked as a teacher, and then discovered she could make more money cleaning.
One autumn day in 2017 she comes as our house is being restumped. The sound of mellifluous Lebanese Arabic distantly beneath the floorboards. She looks at me nervously. “These men make me feel scared,” she says. Why so? She grimaces. “I know I shouldn’t. But whenever I see Muslim boys coming down the street, my heart goes like this – pitter-patter.” It’s not long after the bombing of the Manchester stadium, and Islamist terror is once again on the front page. “But the women are fantastic,” she says, hastening to make amends. She sings the praises of her Turkish best friend’s warmth and almond eyes. Then she switches again, comfort and discomfort. “In [China’s Muslim province of] Xinjiang now, they are covering up girls of six or seven. It makes me uncomfortable.” She tells a story of her Anglo driving instructor who covered his face as she drove down Sydney Road past a woman in a full burqa. “Why did you do that,” she asked him. “If I can’t see her, she can’t see me,” he said. And she thought on this. It summed up her own misgivings. “It’s not equal. They can see us, we can’t see them,” she says.
Later, the restumping bloke’s teenage son comes inside. He’s got a day off school, and he’s watching dad work. But watching is getting boring – he can’t wait till he can get started in the family business. He warms his hands on the heater. He’s cold and hungry – the Ramadan challenge in late autumn Melbourne. “My ribs are sore,” he tells me. “Footy.” Last Saturday was the first game of the season, and he was playing a notoriously dirty team. “They’re all Aussies, so they don’t have to fast,” he says. One of them punched him in the ribs, got a warning, did it again, and got sent off. “They’re dirty. They bring first division players into our league. Last season, one called us dirty Lebs. So I punched him after the game and called him freckleface. Then the whole team got involved, then the parents and coaches. The cops had to come.” He shifts position to ease his sore ribs. “Too violent. They just want to win. One even told me he brought a knife to stab me.” He shrugs it off with the bravado of a 14-year-old. “I’m doing kickboxing now.” He heads back outside as I digest this information. He picks up an empty nailgun and pretends it’s an AK47, eyes alight as he mows down his footy rivals. Call me a dirty Leb did you? Well take this! And that!
An Anglo friend in advertising writes of his sorrow. His “mate and muse” has been forced to return to India after falling 15 points short of a 120 point target for residency. The life that he built here over a decade as a comedic actor in online ads, his friends, contacts, career – is zeroed out, and he must start again. “As he boards a plane today, leaving his home, friends and career momentum behind, I’m so sad that I’m part of a punitive and exploitative system that could milk my friend for his energy and talent and then take it all away … It’s not fair,” he writes.
A barber on Lygon Street talks about his three decades in one shop, about the homebody brother who stayed in the village outside Naples after the war while the other five left for the corners of the globe, about how Amazon may disrupt other businesses but cutting hair will always be safe. “No one can cut hair from China either,” he says, scissoring the air, that pleasant sound.
At a small supermarket near my house, the regular shopkeeper has befriended seemingly everyone in the neighbourhood. I see him one day, talking to two regulars about his upcoming wedding in Egypt. He has invited fifty of his regular customers. I buy bread and milk and he asks me my news. “My mother in law’s here for a week,” I say. His eyes widen. “At least you’ll get peace – when she’s asleep,” he says, laughing. Then his expression changes. A joke that’s not. “I’ve had to tell my wife to be that I am marrying her – and not her family,” he says. “The tradition is that the husband looks after the wife’s family.” He looks around, to make sure no word will get back to Cairo. “But I refuse to work myself to the bone to buy my mother in law a new iPhone. I will not.”
A new daigou store opens in Preston, selling the odd combination of abalone, vitamins, infant formula and ugg boots – Australian soft power. WeChat Pay opens up in Australia. The Chinese-Australian version of Uber Eats launches. That sense of the parallel Sinosphere rising, changing even nations like ours, right at the periphery.
When I ask recently arrived Indians about Melbourne, they say it’s quiet, as in toooo quiet, zombie-movie-quiet. Where are all the people? Where are the unannounced drop-ins from relatives, the sense of always moving through crowds? But the quiet has benefits, too – your business is your own.
On a road trip to Sale, in fertile Gippsland, I met a Filipino family who invited me to stay the night. They told me they were one of many who have settled there to work in farms and abattoirs, making a village in the town. Outside, as the sun set, the father set up a spit to make lechon, Filipino suckling pig, while the mother sang soulful karaoke in Tagalog in a room adorned in wreathes of plastic flowers.
My Polish-Australian mate has cousins who bought a hobby farm in one of the dying one-pub towns on the backroads in the Riverina. Wanting to be hospitable, they invited two neighbours round. Dozens of locals arrived instead, belligerent, stomping round the house in muddy boots, drinking heavily. And then the requests began. When other newcomers came, they said, they were happy for us to look after the place – keep the grass under control, that kind of thing. It’d only be a couple of hundred bucks a month. The menace was clear, though. And the Poles thought quickly, and saw the situation for what it was – newcomer-oldtimer – and sought out the old bloke at the centre of things and plied him with stubbies and blandishments. Once he was sufficiently pissed, he reckoned the newcomers were orright – and the requests for money stopped.
An Indian taxi driver tells me of a moving tent city outside the citrus areas along the Murray, transplanted wholesale from Kashmir. I remember him when I read the story of a Malaysian journalist who goes undercover in Victoria’s fruit picking areas along the Murray to expose conditions for migrant workers he describes as near slavery. Many are from Malaysia, lured here with false promises of riches. When they arrived, they were forced to live in overcrowded homes with high rents and paid a pittance. A crusading journalist going undercover exposing exploitative and corrupt practices in a foreign country. Familiar, unfamiliar.
In Thornbury, ground zero of the north-moving creative gentry, priced out of Fitzroy and Collingwood and Northcote, seeking good coffee and art and bulk-bought coffee beans, I sit in a barbershop that feels like something out of America in the 50s. A jukebox, Elvis posters, soda bottles made of green glass, and the tinkling sound of jazz. And my barber, Maj, boasts a quiff, its curvature held by Brylcreem. He’s a graphic designer who turned to hair to get away from modernity. “You can’t quit your phone, but you can get a haircut from a different era,” he tells me. When he came from Tehran in 2012, it was like “becoming a baby again.” Five years on, Melbourne is home and it’s not, and the place he’s built, homage to the postwar American culture that took the world, is a comforting anachronism, a place that – because it no longer exists – is safe. The past, at least, stays put.
I stand in a queue for coffee at Melbourne University on a summer’s day. Behind me, an Kenyan student in elegant silver glasses is discussing the usefulness of black skin. “It’s weird – I don’t get burned, but I can still get skin cancer,” he tells his friend, who’s Hong Kong Chinese and genuinely curious. Later that day, I go for a swim at the university pool. In the lane next to me, a young woman from mainland China with a kick like a thresher shark’s tail powers down the pool. She churns in for a breather, and strikes up conversation with another woman, whose flattened vowels give away her ABC status. They find common ground in bemoaning Melbourne’s housing market. Both want to buy houses, both attending auctions week after week. “It’s saturated,” says the mainlander. “There are Chinese at every auction you go to.”
An American chef I knew worked at a once-successful café in Melbourne’s inner east. Her manager was 24, a business consultant capable of some charm. But he was creepy. He’d watch her work on CCTV and comment on her appearance. He came from wealth and power, from a country ruled by men, Afghanistan. It was natural that he’d gravitate to an Anglo chef, a bloke who liked letting the wimmen work while they drank beer upstairs during their shifts. Outraged at the unfairness, the female chefs fought The Man (a rare appearance in the flesh) failed, and quit in disgust. But as the women left, one by one, the smarmy smile on the manager’s face flickered. How could they just choose to leave? Who would do the gruntwork? Soon, the owner flew in from Indonesia. He needed this business to work – it was how he’d purchased his permanent residency, after all – and he had pointed questions about where all the women had gone.
On a clear Thursday morning, I take my aching child-rearing spine to an osteo in Northcote. He’s got the type of face that could be cast as Prison Guard in any crime drama. Strong cheekbones, striking grey-blue eyes, clipped ratatat sentences, Irish extraction. He briskly swaddles me in a towel and turns me into a ball of man. Now that I’m a captive audience, he starts talking about the changes he’s seen take place – how Northcote, once a working class suburb for Anglos and Greeks and Italians is gentrifying, and the old Italians who did well have built mansions in Doncaster and Templestowe, while the Greeks – “less flashy” – mostly stayed. I smile and tell him about my Italian friend’s parents, who cashed in on the 90s wave of dotage by opening a string of nursing homes. Now they’ve built a mansion with eastern and western wings, a gym, and a private cinema. The house was immediately dubbed Xanadu. My osteo grins. Then he tells me his plumber mate charges ‘wog tax’ to old Greeks and Italians. I’m visibly shocked. “Not like that,” he says. “He charges 10% extra so they can have the joy of bargaining him down. Then he gets his normal fee, and they get the satisfaction.”
In a Thornbury playground, a mother tells me about a Persian man who works at her daughter’s childcare. He’s soft-spoken, nearing 40, sadness round his eyes. One day at pickup he asks if she has any single friends. “It is very hard to meet Australians,” he says. “They all have walls.” Caught on the spot, she fobs him off – she’ll have a think. The next day, he asks – did you happen to find anyone? And the next day, and the next. So she scours her circle of friends, makes ten calls, tees up a date, a chance.
A British-Indian friend is to be married. We talk weddings at a bar in Collingwood where you can peer into the motorbike workshop in the back room, catch the faint scent of motor oil. When she first started dating her fiancé, she was justifiably wary. He’d confessed early on that he had only ever dated Indian and Asian women. “What number am I?” she asked, incredulous. “Um. Nine.” He was a sweetheart, though, and her wariness eased and ‘number nine’ became a running joke. But the wedding has brought culture to the surface. Her Aussie fiancé doesn’t quite understand why it’s so important. An Indian priest? Sure. A Hindu altar? Fine. But you want me to ride in on a white stallion, wearing a kilt? You’re joking. Nope. This was how it would be, how it must be. “An Indian wedding is a performance,” she says. “My relatives will be there. They’re lovely, but they’ll judge if it’s not done right.” But they’ve been British for decades, right? She rolls her eyes. “Put it this way. The only time my mum stopped talking to me were when she gave up hope I’d ever be married.”
As I’m riding my bike down a leafy street next to Princes Park, a car powers through a roundabout and knocks me flat. I’m toweringly angry but alive. And out steps an Islander priest, soft-voiced, nervously tugging at his cassock. “My son, my son” he murmurs, his hands up. “I am sorry. I was on the way to visit a parishioner dying in hospital and I simply did not see you.” And I deflate without a sound and ride off on my wonky bike, bleeding freely, impotent in my anger, and even, by the time I near home, feeling faintly guilty for preventing a man of God from doing good deeds. I’m impressed that he was able to finesse me, quiet me so adeptly. It reminds me very much of the calming techniques people use across the Pacific – from Papua New Guinea to Vanuatu – to douse, to soothe, to mend.
Anecdote, anecdote, anecdote. Not data. But that’s precisely the point. They speak to the messiness of how we live in a megadiverse city, to that enormous grey zone between simple words like ‘diversity’ and ‘racism’. There are worlds between acceptance and distrust.
Australia has to date been immune to the hard-right swings across the West. We were once amongst the whitest nations on earth, a lightly populated ex-convict colony very, very nervous about outsiders and dilution of blood and conscious of race – nervous enough to make banning Chinese migrants the very first thing we did as a newly minted country. And before the Chinese, the Irish were the migrants to fear – radicals undermining the British Empire.
That’s why it’s downright strange that Australia has been able to rebrand itself as one of the more diverse rich nations. This shift – monoculture to multiculture – has been broadly accomplished without the race riots that once rocked Britain, without the simmering tensions in parts of America, none of the fears of Germany or France or Sweden, and – to date – without an accompanying pulse of white fear, the likes of which has been captured by populists and protofascists in many countries.
So the question is – when – and how – do ‘they’ bleed into ‘us’? And how do we encourage it to happen? How do we build social cohesion? How do we fend off the formation of enclaves filled with nervous whites and poor and angry migrants, as we see in America or Europe? It’s possible, of course. But it is by no means certain. Every new group arriving in Australia from the Papist Irish to the South Sudanese has gone through the same wringer, because difference triggers tribalism, us-them wariness and suspicion, and then eventually they become us through contact, built comfort, intermarriage, play. At least, that’s how it’s been so far in Australia. Lucky again, I guess. But it’s always there – to be tribal is to be human.
All it would take for our society to splinter is for things to get a little bit bad, for a populist to blame the new arrivals, and there they are, where they always were, tribes just beneath the surface.
America is splitting into enemy tribes, white-nativist conservatives and global elite left-liberals, both spurred on by silver-tongued sophists. But the Yanks may just be ahead of the curve. Across the West, a perfect storm is brewing, fuelled by high immigration, insecure work, rising inequality and declining manufacturing. In The Atlantic in 2017, Derek Thompson argued that low birth rates, high immigration, a spike in xenophobia and the fragility of the welfare state are all linked in a moving tragedy, and one that will pull apart left-liberalism. Western countries bring in young, talented immigrants to offset aging populations, but this triggers xenophobia and a turn to the far right. (See: Austria, Germany, Poland, America, Hungary.) Not only this, but as the population gets more diverse, white majorities resent giving newcomers access to welfare and support and elect politicians who will roll back welfare for newcomers and minorities. Thompson dubs it a “doom loop” for liberalism. “Cultural heterogeneity and egalitarianism often cut against each other,” he writes.
The populist storm hasn’t hit Australia yet, despite Pauline Hanson’s best efforts, despite the piss-poor efforts of white Aussie nationalist groups to ape the American alt-right and make Nazism edgy and subversive. There are still jobs. You can still, just, climb the ladder, even though millennials are poorer than their parents. China is still buying what we’re selling. But it may well come. Nothing makes us immune. There are undercurrents at work.
You can feel them in online comment threads whenever criminals are identified as “of African appearance.” You can overhear people complaining about traffic, about overcrowded trains. In debate over what would cause young Aussie Muslims to be radicalised – here, in the land of opportunity! In conversations laced with quiet dread, talking of a city gorged on newcomers, going from livable-at-4.5-million to god-no-congestion at 8, which we’ll hit within a generation if nothing changes. The strain on the city’s infrastructure, the kilometres of new sprawl, having to plan your life around traffic. Anglo women talking sotto voce about being outbid by overseas Chinese at auction. The points of friction are there.
Am I exaggerating? Is this really an issue? Australia has already undergone vast change. If the past is a foreign country, as British novelist L.P Hartley famously observed, our own past would be all but unrecognisable. How could White Australia be the common ancestor for our current iteration? Where did the British accents go? Why don’t the majority loathe Papists anymore? What, for that matter, happened to Christianity as the default lens for life? How can society have changed so much that women can vote, own property or businesses, can marry or divorce a man or woman? Why are men pushing prams? What happened to earlier fears? The fear of the Russians during the gold rush that led to the fortification of Queenscliff? The fear of the Chinese, the resentment of their ferocious work ethic on the diggings?
One of the weird things about Australia is that the Anglo-European majority is at once strongly supportive of diversity in public, while privately harbouring a range of ever-moving cultural fears and expectations. Each wave of migrants entering Australia – from the Irish Catholics and Chinese goldminers of the 19th century to the Southern Europeans after World War II to the Indochinese boat people fleeing the conflagration in Vietnam and neighbouring nations to the Chinese and Indian skilled migrants, the African refugees fleeing drought and war and Muslim migrants from around the world from the last two decades – each and every group has encountered a backlash.
As time goes on, old cultural fears detach from their targets and coalesce around newly arrived or newly scary groups. Anti-Irish sentiment is all but forgotten, Greeks and Italians no longer have to endure catcalls of ‘wog’ or get called ‘Jimmy Grant’ (rhymes with immigrant and saves pronouncing foreign names). The broad anti-Asian sentiment stirred up by One Nation in the mid-1990s has largely vanished, replaced instead by a specific fear of cashed up Chinese investors buying Australian houses (or putting downpayments on Australian politicians). One Nation leader Pauline Hanson acts as a bellwether, shifting targets after her resurgence in 2015 to focus on Muslims and the fear of terrorism. Turns out that being swamped by Asians was really quite good for the country. Who knew?
There’s an infamous bumper sticker – ‘Love it or leave’ – which speaks to a current Anglo discomfort: vocal migrants. Only Anglos can criticise Australia, because only Anglos are native to Australia, except that we’re not native, but we are the majority, and the majority sets expectations and the expectation is that you, migrant, pay in Permanent Gratitude and Deep Respectful Silence While You Tend the Till at the Servo, Underpaid, or Work Your Fingers To the Bone Picking Oranges for $5 an Hour or Satisfy Our Men in a Rub and Tug Joint.
So migrants have to rebadge themselves. Ditch traditional wear. Pull on jeans and an open, hopeful face. Gain a passing familiarity with cultural touchstones. Learn that the land of the fair go is also the land of the hammered-down nail, the land of not standing out, the land of framing your success so that others are Not Threatened. The land of fitting in. Assimilation never went away.
It’s human nature to stay close to familiarity – Aussies clump together in enclaves in London, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Singapore and don’t assimilate particularly well. In Australia, this tendency hasn’t resulted in social exclusion as it has in Europe. There are no ghettos here. Migrants are very likely to marry out of their group and social mobility is reasonably high. But this is not a reason to engage in frenzied back-patting. There are already signs of strain. Australians are turning against high immigration rates, blaming the numbers for everything from strain on infrastructure to house price rises to moribund wage growth.
Middle-class Anglos like to mouth polite fictions of how multiculturalism simply works here, of diversity as a self-evident good. But what, exactly, did whiteys like me do to make this a reality, beyond imploring each other to be ‘tolerant’? Very little, for the most part. If you ask, migrants and expats alike will tell you that this city, this country, is hard to break into, that our fabled casual friendliness is a surface phenomenon rarely translating to the Official BBQ Invite that means you’re in. For a nation of migrants, we’re reluctant hosts. Established Australians, of course, move everywhere – more than a million of us are living away at any one time – but because we’re comparatively rich, we’re expats, not migrants, and expats live in a bubble and don’t have to fit in, don’t have to wear local clothes, don’t have to even speak the language.
In part, that’s because Anglo-European Australians, in general, avoid talking about race. We wave away any awkwardness or cognitive dissonance in favour of pretending that race and culture do matter. We distance ourselves from the ethnic cleansing undertaken by our forebears, in which UK migrants forcibly displaced Aboriginal groups from all the best territory on the coasts, leaving untouched only the unwanted desert and tropical lands. We put the onus on new migrants to conform to mainstream Anglo dominated society, and we veer sharply away from any hard reckoning about any flaws in the great white complacency. Anyone who questions the great white blob is expelled from society – cast out by tabloid culture and barely-concealed racists on social media.
Donald Horne famously intended his phrase ‘the lucky country’ as a slap in the face for what he saw as an insular, complacent society. He aimed it as a shot over the bows for what he saw as a society that had become wealthy due to its natural resources and immigration rather than innovation. The full quote ran: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.” We’ve since stripped the quote of context, inverted its intention, and brandish it like a totem.
And, to be fair, we were not entirely wrong to do so – Australia has, in truth, been incredibly lucky, and luck breeds complacency. 25 years without a recession. An English -speaking country in Asia, an extension of the crumbling but still impressive American empire. Enormously rich in iron ore at a time when China, the new titan, was building and manufacturing its way out of poverty to emerged onto the global stage.
Our middle class complacency means we never expect to have to change or to have to do anything at all. For us, multiculturalism is rendered consumable – restaurants, a festival or two, a nodding familiarity. The challenge of contact has fallen largely to migrants and working class Anglos, who must share the same space. In a celebrated essay in Meanjin, Shannon Burns observes that multiculturalism is experienced very differently between classes: “For precariously employed, unskilled labourers, the prospect of competing against a recent migrant for a job is inevitable, while for middle-class people it is only a remote possibility,” he writes. “Our empathy and values are largely untested, and our livelihoods rarely, if ever, come under threat.”
Untested is right. Discomfort, awkwardness, conflict, serendipity – few seek that out. Far easier to live out parallel lives in the same city – the frictionless stock-photo version of living with difference. The majority is never asked to change. Only after the second generation survive high school and emerge with broad Strine, young men and women fluent in shit-giving, piss-taking, who speak footy – only then does the majority engage, or know how to. Only when they have become like us.
For a sprawling and fast-growing world city to function, contact is vital. Conservatives worry about the formation of ethnic enclaves, though it’s natural to seek familiarity, and Australia has no true ghettos. But they pay little attention to what the Anglo majority should be doing. In social science, contact theory describes the idea that unfamiliar cultures and faces become normalised only through contact. In America, contact is breaking down. Fearful white enclaves are forming as inner cities become megadiverse. Before Trump’s election, Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell ran the numbers on his supporters and found the single biggest predictor of support was if you lived in a culturally isolated white enclave with minimal exposure to people who don’t look like you. “Limited interactions with racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and college graduates may contribute to prejudicial stereotypes, political and cultural misunderstandings, and a general fear of rejection and not belonging,” he wrote. In short, it’s not just nervous new migrants who can cluster together for perceived security – the white majority can too. When everyone clusters – that’s when society splinters.
There’s a view that Australia can only be comfortable with immigration if there’s a select stream of Bad Migrants to divert our attention. Over its 11 years in power, John Howard’s government lifted migration intake to the highest levels since the postwar period, reaching levels of 300,000 a year, all the while demonising the couple of thousand boat people and irregular arrivals, poor, brown and desperate, who had ‘jumped the queue’.
At a bar on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, an old uni acquaintance claps me on the shoulder. He’s drinking solo, swaying, singing, in a worn brown suit. “This is my real work – the law just pays for this,” he whispers beerily. He tells me he’s working on a case about a refugee who finally landed in Australia, the promised land, after four years in the camps. “He was normal when he went in,” my acquaintance says. “Mad when he came out.” The refugee arrived in Australia with acute psychosis, and allegedly bashed someone soon after arriving. You can predict the tabloid response: Hard Proof That They Do Not Fit In. We manufacture our own demons.
A white man turning to crime is an individual who made a bad choice. A migrant doing so is a reversion to type. It is a hard cognitive bias to shift. The ethnic majority can see nuance amongst its own number – between countryfolk, outer suburbanites, cashed up bogans, inner city snobs, meth-making bikies, social climbers, Toorak mums. But it is blind to nuance amongst new arrivals. The aggregate is all that is visible. And that – that, unchecked, leads to a white man walking along Glenelg Beach in Adelaide who sees a group of agitated African teens running and shouting and calling, and the man calls out hard, horrible words. Not welcome, not meant to be here. But the African boys are not a ‘gang’. They are mourning. Their friend fell off the pier and drowned. His lifeless body lies on the sand. He was only 15. And this… this man dares. Does he not consider them human? No. He does not. All he sees is people who don’t look like him, don’t act like him. Enraged, they charge him, punch him, try to force the words back down his throat. But it is too late. They have been spoken.
Despite our best efforts to simply ignore the issue altogether, race and culture do matter, and will matter more and more, as we become more mixed – especially in the 40% of the country’s population that is Sydney and Melbourne. Consider the bamboo ceiling which Asian-Australians feel acutely – the white managerial class overseeing Asian/Indian workforces who get promoted, but rarely to the top. The tensions around the rise of China and Chinese money, from the Unquestioned Good (iron ore, market-premium degrees) to the Talkback Problem (Chinese buying things for sale in an open market – real estate, infant formula) to the Deep Unease (China flexing its new strength across the Asia-Pacific). The racial fears of the Apex gang of 2016, and South Sudanese crime in 2017 and 2018, who took crime out of its usual (expected?) place in the western suburbs – their critical error – and carjacked the leafy suburbs as well, thus guaranteeing themselves infamy, jailtime and deportation for non-naturalised members.
How do Anglo Australians talk about such things? For the most part, we find it too hard to talk about migration, integration and adaptation. So we don’t. But if pressed, we reach for old saws. In left-leaning public life, it’s whitey who must adapt to diversity, who must overcome His Innate Racism and it’s racist to even dare suggest reducing immigration levels. For the right, it’s migrants who must conform to Monolithic Judaeo-Christian Western Civilisation (you know, the one that exists only if you squint really hard at history and skirt around pogroms and the Holocaust.)
Even privately, we grasp for ways to capture the complexity of life in a very new world city. About why so many migrants vote for One Nation. My Eastern European mate’s dad votes for them – because now he’s in, it’s time to shut the door.
My physio’s parents met in Bali – he, a hippie Chinese artist, she a hippie Australian – and a holiday romance turned into a trial marriage for the sake of the visa. Years later, her parents separated and her now-deeply-Aussiefied father moved to far north Queensland where he slops around in thongs and singlets and rather too small shorts and goes to One Nation meetings held at the local Chinese restaurant, the ironies bouncing unheard around the room.
The easy bit about living in a Megadiverse World City with tickets on itself is good food and packaged culture. You can eat Armenian kofte, Korean fried chicken, souvlakis and kebabs, dumplings, dim sum, dim sims, all-you-can-eat African spiced meat, halal snack packs, American sloppy joe burgers. You can go out any night of the week to experience packaged culture at your convenience – from K-pop bands to Indian sitar players to French films. That’s the easy, consumable part. The tourist brochure part. But people – people are harder. The rhetoric of multiculturalism – unity springing from diversity, social cohesion and harmony – is pleasant on the tongue. A truer accounting might cover ambiguity, uncertainty, tension, flirtation, connection, rejection, difficulty, outsiders and insiders. Migration means change, and change is often confronting.
Newcomers re-pattern space, move through it differently, create overlapping worlds within a city and its surrounds, make it anew. Change means corporate Dragon Boat festivals, uni students feasting on cheap dumplings and Qingdao beer, Turkish neighbours chatting to Anglo friends, coffee shops patronised exclusively by old Greek men, enormous South-Sudanese weddings, wealthy Chinese buying property in ritzy suburbs, African AFL players and tennis stars of Russian or Serbian descent, Vietnamese refugees turned comedians, remittances sent back to Kenya or the Philippines, Islander farm workers, high-achieving Australian-born Chinese driven by parental pressure, hit Bollywood movies shot in Australia, Eritrean hip-hop artists, diverse public schools and white flight, Islamophobia, the rise and Anglo-mainstreaming of soccer, coffee and café culture, Indian doctors driving taxis, ethnic branch stacking in the Labor Party, Liberal Party wooing entrepreneurial Chinese, high rates of intermarriage and hybrid foods like dim sims that exist only here.
Lebanese-Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage once famously argued that Anglos see themselves as the mixers of other cultures. The stirrers of the melting pot, not the stirred. True once, but now it is less pronounced. Mixed friendship groups, high rates of marrying out, and a swelling population of second-generation migrants are building a new society.
The vestiges of the White Australia Policy and its assimilationist successors have left Anglos generally uncomfortable with even discussing difference. We like our difference in small doses. We like migrants to come to us – and, above all, to be like us.
We’re not naturally comfortable with difference or newness. Australia is conservative in many ways, slow to change, reluctant to shift from what’s worked, what’s known. The innovations of poor early settlers – adapting European crops to Australian fire-flood cycles, building Queenslanders on stilts to catch the breeze and avoid the floods, experimenting with eating everything from echidna to wombat to Warrigal greens – were driven by necessity. Once we got rich, we settled into the great Australian complacency. Our banks, investors, businesses, politicians and indeed, most of us are deeply risk averse. She’ll be right means it’s fine as is. But when it comes to maintaining social cohesion at a time of strong migration, global backlashes, and choppy politics – the status quo is no guarantee.
Ridwan Hasibuan arrived in Australia in early 2001. He’d come from Indonesia to study at an Islamic school in Melbourne’s west. His peers: Arabs, Bosnians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Lebanese, Turks. “The only Anglo contact we had regularly was our teachers,” he says. “Only as I grow older I begin to appreciate what tremendous individuals they were.” He remembers a physics teacher who stood up for his students when carloads of angry young Anglo men arrived, spoiling for a fight. It was September 12th, 2001. “Our teacher was alone, yet he put himself between us and them,” Ridwan recalls. “His back was straight as he calmly told these kids to go home.”
Ridwan lives now in a very white small town in South Australia. Sometimes he feels Australian. Other times, he’s excluded. But he’s learned to adapt. “Australia [has] given me a thicker skin, a cruder sense of humour. I don’t get offended easily,” he says. “But my children will be more Australian than me and I couldn’t be happier.” The first generation watch as their children go local, become creatures made differently.
Australia is becoming a Eurasian nation, our history and geography supposedly no longer in conflict. And my city, Melbourne, is at the forefront of the shift, as it swells, buoyed by skilled migrants from India and China and Europe, by interstaters and the few lucky refugees to slip through the net and rather a lot of Kiwis. Eight million by 2050, they say. Out in the once-unloved western suburbs, the migration boom has turned thistly, rocky paddocks into new suburbs dotted with Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples, African evangelical churches. In the east, wealthy Chinese investors are raising huge apartment towers in deep suburbia, turning Box Hill into a second CBD and bolstering the ranks of pro-business socially conservative voters. The Liberal belt is becoming safer than ever, thanks to Chinese-Australians.
Melbourne, is where Australia’s transition from mono to multiculture is most pronounced. Here, migration is now so important to the state that it underwrites our most important industry – education, expensive degrees sold to the rich or upwardly mobile scions from China, India and South-East Asia – and props up the housing boom, sends cranes fifty storeys skywards to throw up apartment blocks and remake the city.
This is the city I live in and love, in all its maddening complexity. A core of towers, ringed by vine-clad former workers cottages with glass and wood renovations out back, the wealthy inner east and south east, and wrapped around with an outer ring of dormitory and nursery suburbs, where families need four cars to survive while cursing the expense for keeping them poor. A city of striking private beauty and a good deal of public ugliness.
Marvellous Melbourne got rich on gold. Gold turned a fledgling colonial outpost founded by grazers from Van Diemen’s Land into the richest city on earth, and did so with remarkable speed, hitting boomtown status only 20 years after being founded in 1835. The city’s coffee palaces, pubs, hotels, brothels and fine architecture made it a marvel. People came from across the globe – Americans, Chinese, Europeans – in the hope of making their fortunes. But then the gold rush petered out, leaving superb colonial architecture and wide treelined streets. In Australia’s Second Chance, George Megalogenis argues that the 1890s recession – sparked by ludicrous land speculation in post-gold rush Melbourne – coincided with rising nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Australia turned inwards and stagnated. It was only during the populate or perish postwar years that we reluctantly opened outwards again, and it was only then that we began to grow in earnest, propelling most of us from working to middle class.
Melbourne was the nation’s first capital city for a brief period, before Canberra was chosen as an awkward compromise between Melbourne’s fading glory and Sydney’s brash rise. As banks, business and media moved north, Melbourne became a city of private schools and territorial football teams passed down the generations, a city of clannishness and insecurity, a place where radio hosts would interrogate overseas talent about what they thought of our city, a city we once ourselves mocked. And then, suddenly, something changed. Melbourne slipped into a new groove: pride and confidence. Pride at world-beating brunches and food, in Melbourne-style cafes now found in Jerusalem and New York and London and Hong Kong, in the exported avo smash, the symbol at once of Melburnian largesse – the luxury of brunch – and of the death of homeownership for millennials.
And the city balloons. Melbourne’s tendrils stretch along the freeways towards Geelong and Melton and Sunbury, Wallan and Yarra Glen and Warragul. Their time will come. Frankston and Dandenong and Werribee were towns before they were suburbs. The search for affordable family houses with a backyard drives the city ever outwards. Sydney is already reaching its boundaries, hemmed in by the sea to the east and national parkland to the west, north and south. Melbourne has fewer restrictions. The thistlelands to the west, stretching to Geelong, make poor farmland but turn out nicely as suburbs.
The middle and upper classes took up residence east, on the small rises and foothills spilling out of the Dandenong Ranges, leaving the basalt grasslands to the west and north to the factories and working class. The west and north is rock and grass, the inner east is plane trees and elms and the outer south and east is gum trees and acacias and strip malls, merging into the ti-tree retiree paradise of the Mornington Peninsula, where small waves lap the shores of the bay. Outer Melbourne stretches now for 150 kilometres from Wallan in the north to Bunyip in the far east, sprawling ever outward. It swells, bursting its seams, gorging itself on newcomers as apartment towers go up and our supposed boundaries dissolve and reconstitute and dissolve with each change of government.
Melbourne is nowhere near true population giants like Tokyo, Guangzhou, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo or Delhi. But almost one in five of all Australians live in Melbourne. And if Melbourne was in the EU, it would be the seventh largest urban area, beating Berlin, and one of the most rapidly growing. We’re already the biggest city in Australia – Sydney’s title is only made possible by including the NSW Central Coast, while Melbourne’s numbers don’t count Geelong, our equivalent. Melbourne is no minnow. What we do here matters – converting one of the world’s whitest countries in 1901 into an outward-looking nation, centred on its world cities. Melbourne skews Indian, Chinese, British and Vietnamese, Sydney skews Lebanese and Chinese, Brisbane skews Islander and Kiwi.
We’ve added a million more people in the last decade, the equivalent of a new Ballarat each year. A local baby boom coupled with overseas and interstate migration means Melbourne is changing rapidly. Each year, 65,000 skilled migrants arrive in Victoria – the cream of the world’s crop – and our hospitals, banks, industries, schools and universities are broadly better for it. But there are also Iranian doctors driving taxis, highly-educated and experienced African men jobless for a decade, there are Indian suburbs and temples springing up to the west, where migrants work two jobs, three, desperate to show to parents and relatives back home they’ve made it – a four bedroom house, a decent car.
On the edge of the city, to the far west, new suburbs and exurbs are being built in record time. My brother, who lives out west, invites me to Rockbank, a tiny town about to be swallowed by the city. Here, the developers are wooing young families by ploughing money into parkland, lakes – and multi-million dollar playgrounds, with rocket-ship slides, flying foxes, and clean white sand. The café is named, hopefully, Go West, and the lyrics of the YMCA song are on the wall inside.
It’s common to feel a sense of despair at urban sprawl. But when you look at what’s out here – poor farmland, rocks and thistles, which replaced the sea of grass that was here when the Brits arrived – it feels like an improvement in every way. Birds arrive, drawn by grass and water. A young Sikh couple takes their first tour of their new home, walking around the playground while their kids play. He boasts mirror shades and sideburns reminiscent of Bollywood action heroes. Prams are lined up in rows. An Islander bloke in a basketball singlet slings his toddler in one large arm while his Anglo partner double checks that her new tattoo – written in cursive – has her child’s name spelt correctly.
People want the inner city feel in the outer burbs – and they get it, with landscaping, cafes, playgrounds. It’s only when you leave these developer oases that you see the ungentrified west – caravan parks for old people without money and ex-crims who can’t find work, saltbush, boulders too big to move from fields.
Melbourne’s manufacturing base meant migrants used to be able to find work without needing perfect English. The inner city suburbs emptied out after WWII, as car ownership made the suburbs possible, and filled up again with migrants – Greek and Italian, Vietnamese and former Yugoslav and then emptied again as they got rich and sold to gentrifying Anglos.
The Brits and Euro backpackers gravitate to St Kilda, where the heroin, hooker and halfway house grittiness of old is dissipating. Now there are couples walking their parrots on the beach, drones hovering over the pier where the beleaguered little penguins get mobbed when they leave the water at night, expensive meals and bad tattoos at the sea baths.
Melbourne’s inner-south east is Jewish. Bagel shops, synagogues, bearded men and Shabbat observance, heated family debates over Palestine. Jewish schools have beefed up heavy security, and some even employ armed guards in the wake of attacks in France. A wire made of fibre optic cable or electrical wire encloses five suburbs in Melbourne’s inner south-east, stretching kilometres along the suburban powerlines. It’s an eruv, a symbolic enclosure turning public space into private so that strict Orthodox Jews can move freely around this ‘private’ space on Shabbat, the holy day stretching from Friday to Saturday evenings. It’s inspected every week, to ensure that the ‘private’ space is intact. And there is an even smaller world. The Adass Jewish community lives across a square kilometre in Ripponlea, a true microsociety. Men wear fur hats and coats of black silk, women cover their hair. Families are large, and marriages often arranged. It’s an inward-looking community with its own kindies and schools and synagogues and its own ambulance service, removed from wider society. No TVs, little internet use. The sect attracted unwelcome attention when the principal of a cloistered Adass school flew to Israel to avoid sexual abuse lawsuits.
Melbourne is the hard-luck bloke I met volunteering at a soup van, who told me he would have taken real pleasure in bashing the middle class out of me had he been three decades younger, for the crime of going to a private school. It’s the obsession with education, mums and dads ferrying children further and further afield, to selective entry or private or good public schools, always driven because of the Great Fear of pedophiles. The pleasant grittiness of Brunswick’s urban decay and renewal, streets lined with white cedar, a remnant of the ancient protocontinent Pangaea and one of our only deciduous trees. A city of suburbanites reluctantly learning to live in apartments and tolerate neighbours above and below as well as to the left and right. It’s cobblestone roux bike rides, bumpety-bump. It’s sex parties in prim Hawthorn, where 40-something banker couples in good shape take each other round on leashes in a dim nightclub while the babysitter gets paid overtime at home (Mum: I was there for research.). It’s the wealthy diaspora here, in the world’s third biggest Greek city, sending gifts of money back home to help relatives newly cast into poverty after the 2008 debt crisis. It’s where psychonauts go walking through suburban parks in winter looking for native species of magic mushrooms sprouting in pine mulch, while the hardcore distil the enormously potent psychedelic, DMT, from certain species of acacia, and day-trippers take acid and walk through the butterfly house at the zoo.
A powerful owl stores a dead ringtail possum in the crook of a tree outside my house, saving it for later. Olives and figs overhanging alleyways, box hedge and West Australian beauties like silver princesses and red flowering gums. Gall wasp bulbs on lemon trees and cabbage white butterflies, bellbirds and currawongs, honeyeaters, jenny wrens, pigeons, sparrows, carp and eels and redfin in the freshwater Yarra, bream in the Maribyrnong’s salt. It’s that faint sense of wrongness when the main animal you see is rabbits, white tails flashing as they flee to their burrows along the Yarra, when the introduced pigeon, rats of the air, take wing, when you catch a glimpse of a fox hunting in the suburbs, when you watch the aggressive Indian myna packs driving away meek silvereyes.
It’s the gentry demanding lattes further and further out into the cappuccino ring, it’s tarps along train lines and behind supermarkets where the growing ranks of homeless keep their stuff. The inner city splitting from the outer suburbs, the Greens university-educated vote taking seats from Labor, the Liberals sandbagging their strongholds in the east and south-east. King Street punch-ons outside the topless bars. The city swallows whole old country estates like Rippon Lea, a palatial mansion with an orchard of apple trees that taste like pineapple, home to one of the world’s best restaurants. A pork gyros from Oakleigh gets written up in the New York Times. An urban farm, Ceres, is built over a tip containing gold-rush architecture thoughtfully turned into debris by the infamous Whelan the Wrecker. Lycra warriors on shared bike paths, the Hell Ride of a thousand panting middle managers hurtling down Beach Road on the weekend. Cranes and apartment towers sprouting across the middle ring of suburbs – Ascot Vale and St Kilda Road and Brunswick, Box Hill and Footscray and Doncaster and Essendon. No longer a place to leave in disgust at the boring suburban quiet, as creative Aussies did in the 60s, but one you’re forced out of by cost. Priced-out artistes moving to Castlemaine – North Northcote, they quip. My plumber moves to de-industrialising Geelong for the big backyard, close beaches, and cheap housing.
Melbourne’s problem is bad lighting. In the coldest months, as grey clouds seem to hover permanently above cracked tarmac, wind-seeded thistles and drowned worms, you can see why the rest of Australia thinks it’s bleak. It’s parchment-dry in summer, and bliss in autumn and spring. In late spring, long shadows and warm yellow sun and cool air. Rubbish marking the high point of flash floods in creeks, blackberry thickets and lurid yellow sourgrass flowers and scribbly-bark gums and melaleuca and paperbark and dense golden nimbuses of wattle in spring and a Vietnamese woman gathering dandelions – every bit of the plant edible – by the side of Hoddle Street during the morning peak hour. Flooding rains and beat-down summer sun, winter winds with a bite enough to chill even Europeans or Japanese or Americans used to snow. Houses built cheaply, no insulation, hotboxes kept cool by aircon. Winter golden sun, low at 3pm, butcher birds impaling skinks, magpie packs hunting cyclists from the air, scrap metal men in their beat-up utes, looking for copper during hard rubbish weeks, trying to beat the council trucks. My Queensland sister-in-law suffering from actual chilblains during a winter visit, something I never thought existed outside of Enid Blyton books. Autumn’s hard shadows and angled light, brilliant on yellowing elms and the cream of ghost gums, that late afternoon slant to the world.
Teenage Anglo boys ripping cones from coke-bottle-and-stolen-hose bongs under the footbridge near my house, thinking no-one will recognise the distinctive herbal scent wafting up from below, that no-one else was ever a teenager. Humble bakeries and fish and chipperies and the last of the Greek-owned milk bars and the sudden appearance of kebab stations made out of shipping containers and plonked at servos for late night lamb and garlic sauce combos. It’s bayside wealth and large estates and high hedges and the torment of traffic. A city of villages, kept apart by traffic and sheer distance. Mafia profiting from the fruit and vegetable trade, a gangland war that left dozens of bodies behind without the rest of us ever really feeling fearful – gangsters killing gangsters, what fun. It’s imported heroin replaced by bikie-made meth, a local Aussie manufacturing success story.
If you ride up the Upfield bike path when a train is coming from the city – the game is on. As the train rattles past parallel to the bike path, boom gates lower and you can hurtle along, trying to make it across as many side roads as you can. I ride my bike into the city, drive my car away from it. There are bike burbs and car burbs.
At the Melbourne chess club off Brunswick Street, my ego takes a severe blow from a Chinese-Aussie kid with ADD, all of about nine. He’s so bored by my tentative play he goes and watches other matches, returns to make his move whenever I hit the clock, takes off again. I lose, badly, and no-one is surprised.
A friend is housesitting in Coburg while his mate is honeymooning. He invites me round. There on the wall is the framed title of the house. On the cusp of 40, the newlyweds have done it. They have Bought In Melbourne, they actually did it, beating precariat work, contract-to-contract, the endless spiral of price rises – staking their claim to the city. Which means, of course, they finally feel in a position to have children. Like many of the hetero couples I know, it was the woman who made bank and saved the deposit while the men were Pissing On or Pursuing Art or Other Unwise Options. I include myself in this – no way I’d ever have been able to have a house other than inherit one, had I not met an excellent woman who, unlike me, can actually make money.
Melbourne is the low breathiness of Triple R presenters designed to counter the forced peppiness of FM banter duos named something like Fo and Mo. Three dandies pushing penny farthings along the Capital City Trail. Ramadan hours posted on the butcher’s window, people lining up to buy food for Eid feasting. Chinese couples posing for their wedding photos – she in extravagant white ruffles, he in superb blue suit and dark sunglasses – outside the Old Melbourne Gaol, while their photographer, who sports a topknot and shaved sides – barks orders. The groom poses alone on a step, while the bride gathers her dress up into bunches to sit down. At a dumpling joint at the ritzy Emporium mall, I hear a couple whispering: “I was about to speak Chinese but he got there first in English. I never know which to choose.” It’s the Punjabi and Co taxi insurance company, it’s caterers specialising in Chinese wedding banquets, it’s the reclamation by Anglo baristas of Italian coffee culture, it’s the export of Australian coffee/brunch joints as a distinctive (repurposed) thing.
What do visitors notice? The Nepali doctor staying with my parents takes pictures of cars travelling in convoy at 100kmh down the M1 to Geelong. In Kathmandu, congestion is so bad he’s never been over 60km and this feels like an autobahn. A Jakartan student of mine takes photos of magpies and rainbow lorikeets – birds in a city, a rarity. A Dutch woman talks about the onerousness of life spent in a car, about louts yelling at her to getorftheroad when she tries to beat the traffic on a bike. Roads are for cars, bikes are fair game – that’s the Strayan rule. To my in-laws in Queensland, Melbourne is the city of crime – underworld killings, drugs, gangs. To a childhood friend who moved to Sydney, Melbourne is Bleak City, concrete-industrial overlaid with grey clouds. To cashed-up Perth acquaintances, Melbourne is the place you come to shop intensively for a weekend. And to internal migrants, Melbourne is the place you escape to from Tasmania or Adelaide or Brisbane, especially if you want to do something creative. Meet one, and you’ll quickly meet dozens. When my wife moved here from small-town Queensland, she found it amazing that for all its size, for all its internal and external migrants, Melbourne was deeply incestuous. It seemed to her that locals had made Enough Friends in high school, tried every possible combination of partners within the group – and then somehow stayed friends, the past lurking just beneath the surface at every social occasion.
I once got drunk with a Balinese cowboy in Ubud. Cowboys are the pleasingly-muscled men who specialise in offering the boyfriend experience to Western women who’ve read Eat, Pray, Love. He’s been flown to Melbourne for cosy weekends so many times he knows it better than I do. He tells me the best spot to fish on the Ninety Mile Beach, where to eat in Dandenong, what the best hike is at Wilsons Prom. All I can tell him is that Ubud seems nice.
Shisha bars and apple smoke on Sydney Road, shiny chrome cars with lowered suspension cruising on weekend nights in summer. Some have speakers installed outside the car, to better thrill the crowd with your sick tekkers. Wedding stores for princessy brides, boasting acres of gown, eye-achingly white and the world’s most patient staff. I remember my first Friday night at Revolver, the infamously messy club on Chapel Street in South Yarra. And I – wet behind the ears – asked my friend why so many of the cars doing Chap-laps outside, revving up and down in heavy traffic, seemed to be for sale. He looked at me pityingly. “It’s so girls can check out the Italian boys and their cars – and text them if they’re interested.”
Change city is our crop of locally-made and impressively incompetent jihadis. The laughable group who wanted to attack an army base with a couple of pistols. And the tragedy of the awkward teen from Craigieburn who thought he’d find glory and meaning in killing and made it to Iraq and promptly blew himself – and only himself – up in a suicide bombing that was, perhaps, just a protracted suicide.
It’s the pack of pissweak would-be Nazis who stick up posters around universities reading Chinese go home in mangled Google Translate Mandarin, because of course they don’t speak it. The same Nazis too scared to show their middle-class white faces, worried it might prevent them from getting a job.
And sometimes, it’s change that causes Anglo discomfort. This Anglo. One autumn weekend, I take my kids to feed the ducks at Coburg Lake. Black swans, a shopping trolley encrusted in pondweed, palm trees and willows, moorhens, mynas, pigeons and seagulls, the lake at the bottom of a steep, treed slope. The place is packed with people who don’t look like me. For once, I’m in the minority. I feel that slight sense of trepidation. When you’re in the majority, you don’t have to think about it. You just are. It’s cognitive ease, strength in numbers. I know – rationally – that there is no threat. A peaceful scene, people being people. And yet – if I’m honest, it’s a shock. The shock of the new, the shock of being made new. I find that I’m almost nervous. I don’t know the rules, how to move through this space. It’s almost funny – here’s an Anglo writing a book on multiculturalism, feeling out of his depth.
I steady myself. My discomfort is not a reason to shut down or retreat to my safe space, my Anglo gentrified suburb full of white people pushing prams and debating which private school will be best to nurture their two-year-olds, Seraphim and Elijah (only a slight exaggeration). Watch. See – there, a Muslim bloke with a ponytail feeding ducks next to two Arab teens talking about which graphics card is better for shooter games. A young Vietnamese woman watching her daughter dangle from the monkeybars. Charcoal smoke spiralling skywards from lamb kebabs on a brazier brought from home. A woman in a full burqa, talking on the most blinged-out phone I’ve ever seen – diamantes glued top to tail. A smattering of Anglo dads in t-shirts and shorts, talking footy. Clean-cut Korean parents fresh from the Korean evangelical church down the road. A serious young man in a Turkish skullcap passes by, his hands behind his back. A mixed Anglo-Lebanese birthday party bursts into song. Nearby, a teenage girl is taunting her brother. “Do you even know what hajj is,” she says, with withering scorn. “Yes,” he sobs. “It means a fat guy.” She dials up the scorn. “No! It means you’ve been to Saudi Arabia.”
Soccer singlets, sequinned dresses, pint sized Lebanese girls taunting their Panama-hat wearing uncle for being a scaredy-cat and refusing to go down the highest slide. A slow procession comes towards us – an Arab extended family, all the women in headscarves except for the one in a wheelchair, bareheaded, her day away from chemo and doctors and the big C. She wears mirror shades, her face unreadable. I can hear Spanish from a Latin American gathering, all the women in improbably white pants. An exhausted new Turkish dad feeds his new daughter milk from the bottle. Shisha smoke, fierce black beards, kids bikes, camping chairs. African Muslim girls whip down the slope on scooters, headscarves fluttering behind them.
My kids, of course, are oblivious. They plunge into duck feeding and tanbark tossing, swings and slides. They play with the other kids because why wouldn’t they. Whatever is now is normal.