By Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
TALK to Henry Tsang, Sydney's deputy lord mayor, and sense Australia's ambivalence toward its emerging multiethnic identity.
A native of China whose family retreated to Hong Kong after the Communist victory in 1949, the ambitious emigre has built a prominent architecture firm and political profile as a bridge between the city's white majority and its burgeoning Asian populations. As one of the few Asians in politics and an aspirant to be mayor and national legislator, Mr. Tsang boasts that he can cut across ethnic lines with more acceptance than most.
But he also gets caught up in the darker side of ethnic change: Recently in his Town Hall office, a Chinese student appealed for redress -- a second time -- against alleged police beating.
"In Australia, the Chinese community has been playing second fiddle for a long time. It's time we took over some of the leadership," Tsang says. "My strength and my weakness are my Asian background. Due to being Asian, I will capture the ethnic vote. It's also my weakness because due to my ethnic background, the white Anglos don't know me, and ... probably won't vote for me."
Tentatively and amid much debate, Australia mulls a future shaped increasingly by Asian immigrants. Once a white fortress guarding its British heritage, the country has refashioned itself during the last half century with a wave of immigration that may be unparalleled elsewhere in the world.
From a homogenous post-World War II society barricaded behind a "White Australia" immigration policy, Australia's population has almost doubled and become an ethnic tapestry of nearly 18 million with 4 out of 10 a migrant or child of migrants and 1 in 4 from a non-English-speaking background. Six percent are Asian.
Compared with a world rent by ethnic warfare and tensions, Australians congratulate themselves on creating an ethnically diverse population that works. Enthusiastically showcasing this cultural pluralism, the government last month offered Australia as a model in hosting the Global Cultural Diversity Conference.
"In our multicultural policies, in our diverse cultural practices, Australia leads the world. This is something we should be selling to the world and selling hard," writes Bill Cope, a researcher on Australia's cultural diversity.
"You can be very successful here because Australia promotes multiculturalism," says Tsang, the Sydney official, who once fled to the United States to escape discrimination here before opting to return to broadening economic opportunities. "You can retain your culture as long as you regard yourself Australian."
Just as labor needs for industrial expansion broke down racist immigration policies by the 1960s, so too are new economic compulsions propelling Australia to open its doors further to Asian migrants. Boasting the world's most dynamic economies, Asia is the target for Australia's initiative to broaden trade ties to the region, attract new capital, and lure highly trained and motivated workers.
Asians now account for more than one-quarter of the almost 70,000 new immigrants arriving in 1993 and '94, according to government figures. In Sydney where most new arrivals gravitate, 1 in 8 residents are either Asian-born or part-Asian. That's projected to increase to 1 in 5 residents during the next 10 years.
Buffered by prosperity and a sense of common purpose, Australians are only beginning to feel and adapt to the degree of social change under way, observers say. Spearheaded by the government's push to "enmesh" with Asia, federal education officials have launched a network of "magnet" schools geared to bring Asian languages and culture into the classroom.
Like some government bureaucracies and the police, the media are slowly catching up with the ethnic shift. Little in its Western popular culture has dealt with the Asian experience, and industry observers say filmmakers are just beginning to explore Asian themes. …