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The increasing relevance of our Asian Australian cohorts



It would be fair to say that Australia is in a hyper-nationalist phase. Pauline Hanson's One Nation party is back in the Federal Parliament, extremist anti-migration micro-parties have gained a foothold, and recent proposals for migrant entry echo the days of the White Australia dictation tests, which was once used to exclude those who were considered 'undesirable'.

Asian students in BrisbaneYet, our national population is more diverse than ever, particularly when it comes to those of Asian Australian heritage. Just how diverse is something we need to examine more closely if we are to develop a more inclusive, welcoming society.

It is commonly understood that more than half of Australians were born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas. It is also commonly understood that Australia has one of the largest overseas born populations of any nation — 28 per cent according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in March. These statements are easily translated into the slogan that Australia is one of the world's most successful multicultural nations.

When we take a closer look at the 2016 Census, tracking key characteristics and change across Australia's Asian populations, we find the extent to which cultural and ethnic diversity is a far more common characteristic among younger generations of Australians.

Taken from a total of 3.5 million people representing 15.1 per cent of the total Australian population, the median age for those of Asian ancestry was 30 years, compared to 38 years for Australians across the board. When we drill down into an analysis of Australians by age group, we find that close to 1 in 4 people living in Australia between the ages of 20 and 34 years were from an Asian ancestry.

Even when we remove non-permanent migrants (such as international students), the last ten years tells a story about transformative change in relation to racial and cultural origin.

These shifts are not only changing the way the next generation of Australians looks. It is changing the way these Australians relate to the institutions that represent them, attitudes and perceptions that are largely out of step with what is presented in conventional media and popular culture.


"Our Asian Australian demographic is growing, particularly across the younger age brackets, and Australia's civic, educational and cultural organisations must do more than pay lip service to supporting a diverse population."


When we add back the tremendous temporary migration flows occurring in Australia's urban centres, we could ask whether our current cultural and civic institutions are sophisticated enough to depict this diversity, let alone explore it in any meaningful sense. The answer may well be no, given the findings in the publication Leading for Change (Australian Human Rights Commission), the necessity of founding an organisation like Diversity Arts Australia, and numerous other initiatives that aim to counteract representations of Australia as only a white nation.

Asian Australian activism has grown over the last couple of decades, and Asian Australian scholarly activism is a small but important part of this broader momentum. For example, the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN) supports researchers networking in these areas, and is a mobilising platform for intellectual and cultural activist projects relevant to Asian Australians. Its publications, such as this recent special issue of the Journal of Australian Studies, includes papers that demonstrate the important cultural work being done by community and scholarly researchers. They provide answers that many assume aren't out there: What does Japanese Australian history look like? What is going on in Sydney's Chinatown and what does it mean? Is there such a thing as queer Asian Australian identity?

Over ten years and longer, the network's presence has generated a range of outcomes in academia, the creative arts, and for cultural activist communities. The AASRN emerged from a broader desire held by scholars and cultural producers across migrant communities to understand ourselves better and to tell different stories, stories that are sensitive to the power dynamics of not only who tells them but also how they are told.

Our Asian Australian demographic is growing, particularly across the younger age brackets, and Australia's civic, educational and cultural organisations must do more than pay lip service to supporting a diverse population.



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.



Jen KwokJen Tsen Kwok is an honourary research fellow at the University of Queensland, an associate at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, and a founding member of the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC).

Topic tags: Tseen Khoo, Jen Kwok, Asian Australians



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Existing comments

‘Inclusive’ is a two-way street. The calls made before their recent general election upon German citizens of Turkish ethnicity by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s dictator-in-the-making, show this. The question is not only what does it mean for Australia to be multi-ethnic, but what does it mean that each ‘ethnic’ person, from those recently arrived through those who have been here many years to those born here, in these times of dual and multiple citizenships, must also be ‘Australian’? This requirement is not unfair, given the current flavour of thinking that asks all non-First Nations residents to consider what it means to be living on land traditionally owned by the indigenous.

Roy Chen Yee | 02 October 2017  

I do not agree with you that 'Australia is in a hyper-nationalist phase'. The Hanson phenomenon is strong in parts of rural Queensland where there are real economic problems but not in Brisbane or on the Gold Coast. Certainly the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are modern and progressive on the matters of race and immigration. There has always been a racist element in Australia but these people exist in most Western nations and are a minority, though, as in the UK or USA, a worrying one.I suspect much recent 'racist' activity is more anti-Islamic extremism but may may also have racist elements.'Asian', of course, connotes a huge variety of peoples and it is interesting that both the authors of this article and the people in the picture accompanying it appear to be East Asian. That reminds me a bit of the Asian Studies course at Pomona College in California which is all about East Asia. Of course we also have a large South Asian and South East Asian origin population who add to our diversity. We are, I think, continually evolving as a nation. Hawaii is perhaps the ideal multiracial place.

Edward Fido | 03 October 2017  

The challenge is how do we stop people from being led to the polls on the basis of "Those who don't know their own history are doomed to repeat it." Plato. It is all too easy for incumbent governments to regurgitate issues we have already covered in the hope of re-establishing 'The Bunyip Aristocracy" Arbitration is a Chief Australian Policy that has been negated by firstly the Howard Government, and re-enforced by Abbott and Turnbull. If "Law is a code that people live by,' Aristotle, then surely the way we work is paramount in promoting Australian Ideals, yet although the Union movement has embraced diversity they are constantly demonised by MSM. [that's ironically 111 words exactly] My comment here is that "Multi-Culturalism" is all too easy dangled like Garlands over the Chains for Multi-National Capitalisation of the workforce and by extension the Nation. In closing I think Education for Citizenship is the best way to champion Australian Ideals and Race, Colour, Creed, Religion and Sexuality should not be used as a form of discrimination, in fact I think the diversity of our Culture should be celebrated and the Philosophy of Australian Ideals should be taught on an inclusive basis, and in particular the "thinking that asks all non-First Nations residents to consider what it means to be living on land traditionally owned by the indigenous." Roy Chen Yee

Kaijin | 03 October 2017  

Oops. On looking at the photo again I did realise that not all the faces were obviously East Asian. My apologies. That proved to me that you sometimes only see what you want to. I also realise, from having read previous articles of theirs and articles they have collaborated in, that neither coauthor has a narrow ethnic focus. The Pomona course - not related to this article in any way - intrigued me, but, then again, Pomona is a very good college and it and the Claremont Colleges consortium it belongs to may not have South Asian or South East Asian specialists to teach courses at the level it requires. 'Asia' is enormously diverse. I was intrigued yesterday to see the wonderful Jenny Kee, who, like Penny Wong, is actually multiracial on Grieg Pickhaver's superb SBS show Secrets of Our Cities. Australia's Asian history goes back a long way to Chinese miners, Afghan camel drivers and Japanese pearl divers. There are some descendants of these people, but, in many cases, such as the Chinese at the diggings, many traces of their presence have been lost, sometimes deliberately.

Edward Fido | 04 October 2017  

“The increasing relevance of our … Australian cohorts”: A cohort can be a group of members who share characteristics or a group which thinks the same way. Preserving what is sustainably functional in an Australia which predicates diversity as a norm is knowing the difference between the two and discriminating in favour of the cohorts which think functionally.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 October 2017  

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