What Anzac Day meant for Asian Australians

10 Comments

 

This year, just before ANZAC Day, I read a poignant, insightful piece by Nadine Chemali about what new migrants to Australia really thought about Anzac Day.

Three Indian troops and a Gurkha (far right) at Walden Grove, Gallipoli Peninsula, April 25, 1915. (Australian War Memorial)Chemali's article brought home to me how starkly many of our new migrants would understand first-hand the sentiment 'Lest we forget'. She writes: 'I'm filled with respect for my class of newly arrived migrants, their ability to still reverently honour what Australians call their heroes and survivors, whilst being survivors of war and horror themselves.'

I held Chemali's optimistic piece in mind as I reflected on Anzac Day more broadly, and what it can mean for Asian Australians.

The day can signal and embrace former war-time foes as contemporary allies. Recent accounts of Turkish Australian Anzac Day connections, for example, mobilise sentiments around mutual commemoration and narratives where the enemy is transformed into 'one of ours'. Descendants of Turkish soldiers who were at Gallipoli have been allowed to march in Anzac Day parades, and have been considered by some as 'a very honourable enemy'.

It can also be a day, however, that mobilises the easily ignited racist sentiments around Australians and war, particularly about who 'the enemy' might still be seen to be. For Asian Australians, there is the overlying, sustained influence of Yellow Peril rhetoric to contend with, as well as the tendency to conglomerate Asians into a cohesive or interchangeable group.

This can be a matter of life and death, as the murder of Vincent Chin (a Chinese American man mistaken as Japanese) demonstrates. My family was once abused by neighbours when we first came to Australia; they yelled at us to 'go home to Kampuchea'. Being mistaken for a member of other Asian cultural groups in Australia is a common experience.

For Japanese Australians, the connections with Australia's war-time history continues to be particularly fraught. Whether they are early or more recent migrants to Australia, Japanese Australians have many narratives and expressions of complex identities that are now gaining voice.

 

"Recognising our Chinese ANZACs and knowing more about the extent of Indian involvement in Gallipoli goes some way to countering simplistic treatments of that history and how groups might signal 'enemy' or 'ally'."

 

Mayu Kanamori, a Japanese Australian photographer and writer, writes in 'Don't mention the war' of the complex identity negotiations she works through in Australia. Of her feelings when she returned to Australia in 1996, Kanamori says she felt 'guilt from the colonialist history' of her heritage, and conflicted about the sensationalist headlines commonly used by Australian newspapers (for whom she worked) when it came to reporting on war-time commemorations.

In addition, Japanese Australians' history here includes internment and prisoner-of-war (POW) camps, which have only garnered broader attention relatively recently. Cowra, the regional New South Wales town, has turned its notorious history as a site of a mass prisoner-of-war breakout into major part of its tourism strategy.

This element has shifted from more sensationalist renditions of the history to today's sophisticated engagement with international partners, universities, and Japanese Australian groups. For example, started in February 2018, the Cowra Voices project creates a textured, geo-located narrative trail that focuses on the town's initiatives in peace and reconciliation.

The continued focus in research and writing about ANZAC and Australia's other war-time histories continue to extend and enrich understandings of the events, and increasingly educate us about the roles of diverse Australian groups whose experiences during this period are less well-known. Recognising our Chinese ANZACs and knowing more about the extent of Indian involvement in Gallipoli goes some way to countering simplistic treatments of that history and how groups might signal 'enemy' or 'ally'.

Australia's history of treating Asia and Asians as threats gives rise to repeated bouts of xenophobic politics that inform how Asian Australians may experience national days such as Anzac Day. Sometimes, it's not just about getting the history more correct, or done 'better', and having it known.

 

 

Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), anetwork for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.

Main image: Three Indian troops and a Gurkha (far right) at Walden Grove, Gallipoli Peninsula, April 25, 1915. (Australian War Memorial)

Topic tags: Tseen Khoo, Anzac Day, Asian Australians

 

 

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Existing comments

It's not difficult to see why an earlier Australia - a European nation in an ancient land at the edge of Asia -may have felt threatened by the populous lands to the north. The sparse population in a huge landscape. The non-acknowledgment of human occupancy going back over 50,000 years. It still speaks of who we are. By embracing our neighbours we can take the edge off those fears. However, our history must also be acknowledged for us to do that. Then, I believe, our nation can more firmly attach to all who want to be 'Australian'. Whatever that means.
Pam | 08 May 2018


I'm not one who celebrates Anzac Day. I am however mystified as to the point of this mixed bag article which seems to be suggesting anti Asian sentiments inherent in Anzac Day commemoration. I'm afraid I don't get that. The fact that your family was yelled at my an ignorant neighbor has nothing to do with Anzac Day. Nor does it mean that Australians are anti Asian. I've lived in Asia and been subjected to racism. Does that mean that all Asians are racist? As for Cowra. Should we deny that because Japanese Australians find it confronting? Oh come on.
Angela | 09 May 2018


Commemorations of the Boer & Anzac wars in which Australians were co-opted to fight imperial battles on behalf of faraway despots, with no affinity for us except for an appeal to outdated notions of race and monoculture, are no more than nostalgic attempts to glorify foolhardy adventurism, needlessly responsible for the killing of many thousands of Australians and others, and setting us on a path of romanticising combat as the solution to social and political problems that, since at least WWII, have largely been successfully contained. My own great grandfather, an ethnic Indian who fought at Basra, had little choice but to join up as a means of earning his keep. He later suicided as a result of what he saw and the stress that it visited upon him. Incidentally, the illustrating photograph to this piece depicts Indian soldiers, who are still obliterated from the imperial record because of the narrow terms in which that narrative continues to contribute to Australian race history. Striving to widen an exceedingly narrow discourse in order to include groups of formerly excluded others in the service of 'war memoriality' is a sentimental project that denies the awfulness of our past and clutters our future.
Dr Michael Furtado | 09 May 2018


“as I reflected on Anzac Day more broadly, and what it can mean for Asian Australians.” Even if Chinese and Indians had not served Great Britain during the First World War, Anzac Day would mean as much for Chinese and Indians living in Australia today as Magna Carta, even though, to the best of our knowledge, there were no Chinese or Indians at Runnymede. Then again, how could Europeans and Western Culture avoid acknowledging how much it means to them merely because there were no Europeans living in the Middle Kingdom when paper was invented?
Roy Chen Yee | 10 May 2018


I was a conscript who served in the Vietnam War .I did not wish to go, but did so under orders. Anzac Day to me means a time to stop and reflect on the loss of life in ALL conflicts we have been engaged in, not just Gallipoli. Like most servicemen in all wars, we respect those who fought against us, as like us they were doing their duty at the behest of their governments. While there were instances of racism by our troops in Vietnam, I have no doubt this was the case in all conflicts, not helped by the vicious propaganda. Like Pam, I too have been subjected to racism while living in Asia , but then so has my Asian born wife and our children while living here in Australia.
Gavin | 10 May 2018


To compare Anzac Day with the Magna Carta and the invention of paper isn't just disproportionate but also raises a question of classification, Mr Chen Yee. And if Magna Carta truly mattered to us, as indeed it should, not only ought we to commemorate it as the cornerstone of our democracy but replace Anzac Day with a day for celebrating the Magna Carta.
Michael Furtado | 11 May 2018


Michael Furtado: “To compare Anzac Day with the Magna Carta and the invention of paper isn't just disproportionate….” Why? England invented Magna Carta and China the paper on which history is taught and commentary made about it. Anzac Day commemorates Australians and New Zealanders of 1914-1918 defending the rights of European civilians analogous to those derived from Magna Carta, which the ANZACS as children learned about on paper derived from China, against the pretensions of the Kaiser derived from King John.
Roy Chen Yee | 12 May 2018


To connect the ANZAC tragedy with Runnymede's enduring stamp and influence is to draw an exceedingly long bow. At best we commemorate ANZAC as a tragedy in terms of the many thousands of lives it needlessly destroyed. Those regarding it as an opportunity for celebration, with an abiding and exemplary precedent for all Australians to follow, require a re-educating about the Triple Entente and the mischief and mayhem it caused, that not only decimated our nation but left a scar that many wear as a badge of honour - rather than of tragedy - to be worn with pride for future generations to follow. Moreover, as a fellow Asian Australian I am dumbfounded that someone as erudite as you should be misled into supporting the celebratory drum-banging narrative rather than the more sober and better informed alternative that properly deserves to be remembered to the accompaniment of Chopin's Funeral March. Incidentally, regardless of the Chinese provenance of the Paper Revolution, which led eventually to the popular translation of the Christian Scriptures and the tragedy of the Reformation, such a progression has now been subsumed by the Digital Revolution, which treats paper as an environmental nuisance, suitable only to be pulped.
Michael Furtado | 14 May 2018


“To connect the ANZAC tragedy with Runnymede's enduring stamp and influence is to draw an exceedingly long bow. At best we commemorate ANZAC as a tragedy in terms of the many thousands of lives it needlessly destroyed.” If that’s all we’re doing ---- ‘commemorating’, ie., remembering the dead ---- we’re recollecting only half the story. A war is an event and, like any event, sits between a cause and an effect. Only remembering the dead is only remembering the effect.
Roy Chen Yee | 14 May 2018


Not at all, Roy; I have challenged your reading of the events of history under discussion, indicating that to abridge a reading of ANZAC to a contest between the libertarian democratic intentions of British imperialism and the Plantagenet-like abuse of the Kaiser is to misread the complex intentions and tragic effects of the Triple Entente, which led to the tragedy of Gallipoli and much else.
Dr Michael Furtado | 16 May 2018


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