My no-comment comment — and identity

Note: I have rendered the name of the commenter on the now deleted comment thread anonymous.

Poor Jim Belshaw probably doesn’t quite know what hit him.

After a quiet run of blog entries attracting few if any comments (same here — I think blogging in general is down in this area, almost certainly because social media attract more attention) his (I think) excellent post China’s apparently expanding Great Wall against Australia has now reached 24 comments. Mind you, they are all Marcellous, X—-, myself or Jim. They do tend to wander off Jim’s main points — and I am as guilty as any on that. Marcellous (who I thought had been disrespectfully treated by X—-) returned with some detailed amplification, X—- held out an olive branch to me (which I accepted) and then responded to Marcellous’s latest.

Which was kind of interesting. Marcellous had said: “Are you saying today’s Chinese in Australia just need to toughen up?” X—- replied:

marcellous, I wouldn’t simply dismiss their concerns with a throwaway such as “they just need to toughen up” – but it is close to truth that successive waves of mostly successful immigrants have at first been looked down upon as a group, then gradually respected for who they are as individuals, while discarding the basically monolithic identity they arrived with.

From the Jewish and other middle Europeans before and during WW2, through the 10 pound poms, and Italians, and Greeks, Vietnamese, etc. they’ve each and all had to “fit in”, rather than maintain a separation of group identity. “Today’s Chinese” are no different.

“They’re A Weird Mob” is one of the best commentaries upon 50s Australia ever written, and that’s now old history, but its lesson is still relevant imo.

“toughen up” is not the right term, but the attitude, individually, would help.

To be fair, X—- hedges what he says there. But he is expressing a view I have often heard. I replied with a no-comment comment, and some incidental bitching about Blogger. Since I am not on Blogger now, I have done some corrections and a slight edit.

For consideration, not in any way to be taken as dogma. Glad to see Marcellous amplifying his remarks. I can tell you that my … friend Michael Xu from Shanghai, who also has warm regard for the Taiwanese — indeed finding their version of Chinese culture in some respects superior to the Mainland — and yes, he has spent time in Taiwan not long ago — reacts to the more (shall we say?) Fierravanti-Wells/Abetz characterisations of China with greater rather than less desire to stick up for what the motherland has accomplished, to be more rather than less China-patriotic in reaction to what he sees as ignorance, hypocrisy or even racism. I can well understand his position and am sure it is not uncommon among Chinese-born Australians. As he puts it, Australia is my father and China is my mother.

That is a rather more profound expression of the way people really feel than sentimental memories of “They’re a Weird Mob” which is both outdated and actually quite patronising and embarrassing now. Actually, it was both of those even at the time.

(A side matter for a second: the comment thingie on Blogger is also outdated and sucks — you cannot for example add a video, which I want to do, nor can you revise a comment once sent. It is still as crappy as when I gave up Blogger over ten years ago.)

Now back to my next point. There is a brilliant 12-year-old Chinese Australian violinist called Christian Li.The only way I can show you how good he is is to refer you at the end to one of my posts — but he understands what being Chinese in Australia really means in 2020, not 1950. If you go to my post at the end — and it is pure enjoyment, not politics — you must watch “Fisherman’s Harvest Song.” It is lovely. He says of it “I chose this piece because it connects me to my Chinese heritage through music. The beautiful melody in the opening expresses the fisherman’s strong emotion as he returns to his village after being at sea. I love being able to express this heartfelt song through the singing quality of the violin.”

I would also strongly recommend searching out anything by French writer Amin Maalouf. “On Identity” is a key book. Search because crap Blogger does not really allow for hypertext.

I also very strongly recommend that you do not reply to this post, X— — and I say that respectfully. I am not setting up arguments here, just doing what I would hope to do if we were face to face: show you some things and leave you to take or leave them. I am definitely not being contentious, but rather speaking of what I know.

Here you will find Christian Li. Simply enjoy it. Do not bother arguing with it or me. This is a very different kind of comment. I do not look for a response. What you make of it is up to you.

And of course I want you to enjoy Christian Li again.

On Facebook I did a version of the no-comment comment.

Given all the argy-bargy about China-Australian relations, and the neo-McCarthyism of such as Fierravanti-Wells and Abetz, this then 12 year old (now 13) says something quite profound about identity — which that pair of migrant-sourced senators really should understand but apparently do not: “I chose this piece because it connects me to my Chinese heritage through music. The beautiful melody in the opening expresses the fisherman’s strong emotion as he returns to his village after being at sea. I love being able to express this heartfelt song through the singing quality of the violin.”

Or as my friend Michael Xu has said: “Australia is my father; China is my mother.”

Or as Amin Maalouf wrote: “To those who ask, I explain with patience that I was born in Lebanon, lived there until the age of 27, that Arabic is my first language and I discovered Dickens, Dumas and “Gulliver’s Travels” in the Arabic translation, and I felt happy for the first time as a child in my village in the mountains, the village of my ancestors where I heard some of the stories that would help me later write my novels. How could I forget all of this? How could I untie myself from it? But on another side, I have lived on the French soil for 22 years, I drink its water and wine, my hands caress its old stones everyday, I write my books in French and France could never again be a foreign country.

“Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions….”

First, let me say that They’re a Weird Mob is bloody funny, and still is. I am not pulling a “cancel culture” trick on it. I am generally speaking opposed to cancel culture. But both the book and the movie are dated, and certainly do not address the complexity of the reality of cultural and personal identity. While it on the one hand did much to address prejudice — the book especially — against what at the time were often called “wogs” or “reffos”, its message basically was the official policy of the time — assimilation, which unfortunately tended to involve the elimination of the culture, customs and language of the home country in favour of those of the new.

This policy was basically unrealistic and sometimes destructive. In the 1970s we heard of “multiculturalism”, a term much misunderstood and mistaken for encouragement of ghettos. In reality it is a policy of enrichment, of integration into Australian society but also of recognition that this works both ways — that what we know as “Australia” grows with the addition of other ways of life and thought.

Love it still! Very nostalgic, and some great actors there….

Consider this meditation on the subject, published in 2008:

Every family has a claim to fame and ours is this: we’re related to Nino Culotta. That counted for a lot as a child of the ’70s and surpassed all other family feats, past and present, including a grandfather with a dozen published books and a great-grandfather (his father) who became a barrister in his 50s after being forced off the land due to drought with eight children and a piano.

It’s 50 years since Nino Culotta published his rollicking bestseller They’re A Weird Mob, about arriving from Italy on a ship and finding work as a brickies’ labourer in Punchbowl, where he struggled to comprehend and eventually master the Aussie vernacular and ingratiate himself by bellowing, in a near perfect Aussie accent, “Howyergoinmateorright?”

But what I have never understood is how he got away with it. How did John O’Grady write a book pretending to be Nino Culotta when he was actually someone else entirely and still be warmly embraced, revered even, by the nation? Helen Darville was hammered 35 years later for wearing peasant blouses and feigning Ukrainian ancestry for her award-winning novel. James Frey was rebuked on Oprah for fabricating large parts of his memoir. And Norma Khouri was pilloried for not being a Jordanian woman who had witnessed honour killings, as she claimed in Forbidden Love.

And this: Frank Bongiorno, Island stories –Negotiating identity between different Italies.

Many of my own generation of Australian-­born Aeolian Australians became quite detached from the cultures of their parents and grandparents, even as they also experienced fragments of these cultures in their daily lives – through food, snatches of the Aeolian dialect and barely articulated habits of mind – such as the instinctive turn to extended family when you needed or wanted something, and the desire to touch government only with a very long pair of tongs. Some, like me, entering their twenties, donned backpacks and used the financial rewards of professional jobs of which their grandparents would not have dared dream to visit their ancestral homelands. Now, as we get older, we travel there in more comfort. Relatives on my father’s side of the family assemble on Salina every few years for a family reunion.

Their Australian story has been the familiar one of migrant success, as celebrated in From Volcanoes We Sailed: Connecting Aeolian Generations, an exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum in 2016. Curated by my cousin, Cristina Neri, the Aeolian-­Australian experience was seen to be embodied in business and professional success, cultural continuity and a thriving family life. There was a great deal of nostalgia about food and families, and a sense that modernity and the passing of the migrant generation threaten both. When Russo wrote about the Melbourne Aeolian Club in 1986, she thought its future ‘precarious’, since the migrant generations were getting old, the community was well integrated and the young seemed little interested in maintaining these connections.

They’re A Weird Mob is one of the best commentaries upon 50s Australia ever written, and that’s now old history, but its lesson is still relevant imo.” Yes it is still bloody funny! But no, it is not at all adequate if you are trying to understand how identity works in 21st century Australia. Michael Xu is much more informative when he says “Australia is my father; China is my mother.”

msplace 021

This August 2019 post visits some of the same issues, and also shows how different in many ways 2020 has become — thanks to COVID-19.

The post covers much more that is relevant to China policy than the following personal story — but that story encapsulates how so many Chinese people must see their country’s progress and how they most likely feel about it. It also has the advantage of being relatable and easy to understand.

What M knows from personal experience — and he was last in China just this year — is that the lives of his family in Shanghai and of the people around are immeasurably better than they were, materially and also spiritually, in that however much the government tries to control them travel and access to foreign ideas, including democratic ones, are far more possible now than they were at any time in M’s first 25 years. He can remember the final phase of the Cultural Revolution, and famine (in part man-made of course) when there was nothing to eat but cabbage. As a child M recalls enviously watching his neighbours eat.

A bit of Australiana today

Look at this painting:

That is “A Sergeant of Light Horse in Palestine” (1920) by George Lambert (1873–1930). It is in the National Gallery of Victoria.

George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873-1930), artist, was born on 13 September 1873 at St Petersburg, fourth child and posthumous son of George Washington Lambert, an American railway engineer, and his English wife Annie Matilda, née Firth. Soon after his birth the family moved to Württemberg, Germany, with his maternal grandfather, and then to England where George was educated at Kingston College, Yeovil, Somerset. The family decided to migrate and George, reaching Sydney with his mother and three sisters in the Bengal on 20 January 1887, soon went to Eurobla, near Warren, a sheep-station owned by his great-uncle Robert Firth….

— Australian Dictionary of Biography, linked above.

I can recall being gobsmacked as a kid by the following painting in the NSW Art Gallery: “Across the Blacksoil Plains.”

And that reminds me: I am still working on my post about Joseph Furphy and Such Is Life! Meanwhile, enjoy this:

Musical interlude

On Facebook today — seems that is where I test ideas out before here — I said: “There may after such a long run be a gap or two in future blog posts, which will mainly relate to my eBook library. I have almost finished reading Joseph Furphy’s “Such Is Life”, which I had not read right through since doing OzLit with the late Gerry Wilkes at Sydney U in 1964! I have found some very interesting related material, which I want to process before I post.I have oscillated in my response between on one extreme finding the book now virtually unreadable, to on the other extreme finding it brilliant! The genesis of the book is also so interesting. I am resigned to the fact that whatever I post won’t be adequate! Such is life!”

So now I share a performance — irrelevant to the above — of Grieg’s Piano concerto in A minor, Op.16, with the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra (!) and soloist Alexander Malofeev. He turns 19 tomorrow! As I also said on Facebook: “I love this Concerto. And it seems fitting as a birthday greeting to this talented young man — they are not all in China after all — to mention he was born 21 October 2001. Which makes me wonder what I have done with the almost 60 years I have been on the planet longer than he has. Enjoying such music and sharing it is something, I suppose.”

So enjoy.

Martin Place early 1960s

The Facebook group Lost Sydney has posted this photo of Martin Place in 1962 by Frank Hurley.

Does that ever bring back memories! In 2013 I posted:

I was living in Sutherland, back in Vermont Street opposite the house we had lived in from 1952 to 1955. I turned 20 in 1963. My dad’s business had failed – not his fault – and I had to work, so Martin Place saw a lot of me. I noted a few years back:

You will find I have mentioned S L Goldberg (1926-1991) before: on Lines from a Floating Life. Back in 1964 he was just coming into his own as Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney, having taken up his duties during 1963 when I had a year out working at the MLC Insurance Company in Martin Place where they vainly tried to seduce me into a business or legal career.

And in May 2019 I posted a favourite poem by Les A Murray.

An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit—
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body

not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea—
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.

 
from The Weatherboard Cathedral, 1969

Living with the facts of our history

There has been a kerfuffle lately about this statue on Sydney’s Hyde Park.

Hyde Park Captain Cook

Obviously recent events in the USA have caused this current crop, notably the observations of Stan Grant in America tears down its racist history, we ignore ours. Grant’s key point is quite reasonable:

Think of those words: “Discovered this territory.” My ancestors were here when Cook dropped anchor. We know now that the first peoples of this continent had been here for at least 65,000 years, for us the beginning of human time.
Yet this statue speaks to emptiness, it speaks to our invisibility; it says that nothing truly mattered, nothing truly counted until a white sailor first walked on these shores.
The statue speaks still to terra nullius and the violent rupture of Aboriginal society and a legacy of pain and suffering that endures today…

Captain Cook’s statue stands in the centre of our biggest city. There are Indigenous people who for good reason would prefer to see it removed.
Personally I accept that it remains; Cook is part of the story of this nation.
But surely we need no longer maintain the fiction that he “discovered” this country. It dishonours the people who reached this continent 60,000 years before Cook.
This was not an empty land.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, defending Australia Day this week, said it is also a day we honour Indigenous Australians.
If he is serious then what could be more apt than to correct a monument that tells us, still, that in 1770 we did not exist?

8822070-3x2-700x467

In 1879

Do have a look at Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Visions of Captain Cook.

Let rum-tanned mariners prefer
To hug the weather-side of yards,
‘Cats to catch mice’ before they purr,
Those were the captain’s enigmatic words.
Here, in this jolly-boat they graced,
Were food and freedom, wind and storm,
While, fowling-piece across his waist,
Cook mapped the coast, with one eye cocked for game.

And now we have a concern about a recent statue of Governor Macquarie.

Sold-web

Keep in mind that Lachlan Macquarie was among the most enlightened and humane of our early NSW governors. Macquarie definitely deserves a statue, but on the other hand:

Ce8QXYZWsAAascC

See my post Bicentenary of Dharawal massacre in Appin area.

I say keep these statues, but correct their inscriptions where they are plain wrong. We should then face ALL our history.

Update

Typical! Here’s the OTT sensationalising of, essentially, Stan Grant’s article as filtered by the Daily Terror! Talk about “fake news!”

DH801kIVYAApKIv

So disappointing! 26 August

Referring to the news item on SBS: ‘Change the date’: Vandals attack statues in Australia Day protest. On Facebook I have said: “How disappointing! Turnbull —shame on him— is being a total arse, and is dead wrong himself, and these vandals are self-righteous pricks with no understanding of history either. Given my family history I am utterly opposed to ALL those right/left who have made such a hash of the perfectly sane and reasonable points made by Stan Grant. Why can’t we all just grow up? ”

Next day!

I stand by the everything from “these vandals are self-righteous pricks” on, though there may have been just one vandal. I have however been too harsh on Malcolm Turnbull, given what he actually wrote on Facebook. Shame about his “Stalinist” claptrap, but this is fair enough I think:

Tearing down or defacing statues of our colonial era explorers and governors is not much better than that. Of course Cook didn’t “discover” Australia anymore than Columbus “discovered” America or Marco Polo “discovered” China. I knew that when as a schoolboy I first read the inscription.

The statue gives a perspective of history from the time it was erected – 1879. Just as a history text in the Mitchell Library from the same era would do. Is the next step of this new totalitarianism to burn the 19th century histories of Australia as well, or should their yellowing pages be simply overwritten in crude graffiti condemning their long dead authors?

Old histories should not be burned, anymore than old statues should be torn down. Rather they should be challenged and complemented by new histories, fresh evidence and modern monuments.

And now to be really provocative, here is a thought that often crosses my mind:

Hyde Park Captain Cook01