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What Anzac Day meant for Asian Australians

  • 08 May 2018


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.

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,