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
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. …