In Conversation

Changing palates

Multiculturalism on the menu

In the fiftieth anniversary year of the Whitlam government’s election victory, the legacies of its groundbreaking multicultural policies are still being felt – in courtrooms and boardrooms, in classrooms and living rooms. This final instalment in our series of intergenerational exchanges – a collaboration between Griffith Review and the Whitlam Institute – brings together cook, writer and television presenter Adam Liaw and Emeritus Professor of Sociology Andrew Jakubowicz to explore the many ways Whitlam helped us reimagine Australia.

ADAM LIAW: My parents were both medical doctors, so we were able to get access to Australia for the purpose of skilled migration relatively easily. The reason they wanted to come was to look for greater opportunities, primarily for me and my brother – my sister wasn’t around at that point. So we came to Australia [in 1981] primarily for that purpose…from Malaysia, a relatively poor country, and neither of my parents had ever worked. My father had just finished his national service in the military. My mother, straight after university, had had two children. We didn’t have a huge amount of money, so we lived in rural South Australia for a little while and my dad worked in the public service. They sort of spent all their money trying to put my brother and me into the best school that they could possibly afford for us.

ANDREW JAKUBOWICZ: We were accidental arrivals, I think is the best way to put it. My parents were refugees from Poland. They were Jewish citizens of Poland and they basically flipped a coin and made a run for it. Thankfully, they made a run that headed in the right direction, so at the end of 1939 they found themselves in Lithuania, which at the time was still not at war with anybody very much. They were part of a group known as the Sugihara survivors. There was a Japanese consul in Lithuania who for quite complicated reasons arranged for transit visas for refugees through Japan going somewhere else. The somewhere else was in fact a place called Curaçao in the Caribbean, a Dutch colony. The Dutch honorary consul in Lithuania was a party to this – he created the sort of fake visa stamp that basically said you didn’t need a visa to enter Curaçao, and the Japanese consul collaborated in this fantasy by saying, well, that means you’ve got somewhere else to go, so you can transit Japan. Maybe 2,500 people, mainly from Poland, managed to get across the Soviet Union in 1941 and get into Japan, where they had ten-day visas. Six months later many were still there, and the Japanese were getting a bit touchy about this and decided to move them on. They transhipped the whole lot who were left to Shanghai and my aunt, my mother’s younger sister, had a visa promise that her boyfriend in Canada had sent her and got the last ticket on the last boat out of Shanghai in November 1941. She had to transit to Sydney to get on a trans-Pacific steamer to go to Canada and the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor and nothing moved, so she was stuck in Sydney for the war. My parents were stuck in Shanghai for the war and at the end of it she managed to organise to get them to Australia and I was born here postwar.

For my parents it was a very bizarre exercise and the positive side was you couldn’t go very much farther except New Zealand to get away from what had happened in Europe. Most of their families had been annihilated in the Holocaust and none of their education or background was recognised as having any validity in Australia. They had to reconstruct their lives, which they did – and my grandmother was a professional chef. She had run the refugee kitchens in Shanghai, which was basically turning sawdust and mouldy rice into something that people would eat, and she ran the kitchen for about 200 or 300 people every day for four or five years. When she came to Sydney she opened a club in Bondi Junction where she and a friend would cook, and the refugees would come and play cards and they’d pay for food and drink and real coffee, which was quite an experience in Australia in 1947–48.

AL: I think my parents particularly had a huge affinity for whatever you would call Australian values at the time, and I remember there being a genuine excitement about being a migrant to Australia – the model was very much one of assimilation, but it was something my parents embraced as a challenge. Once we had started the process of assimilation it was like, we’re here now, we’re Australian. My grandmother, who did not eat beef for cultural reasons, would make us steaks and spaghetti bolognaise and these things that we would never have eaten in Malaysia. We had our Malaysian dishes, but it was like going to a regional Chinese restaurant at my house because there were Australian dishes and Chinese-Malaysian dishes, but we didn’t speak Chinese at home. My mother would speak to my grandmother in Malay because she didn’t speak Chinese at the time. My father would speak to my grandmother in Hainanese, but everyone would speak to all us kids in English.

Adelaide would have been a little bit different to the rest of Australia – I think there was one other Asian kid in my school. We didn’t live in an Asian community. I don’t think we had any Asian neighbours or grocery stores and the commute for my grandmother to buy the ingredients for Chinese cooking was to head to Chinatown in the Adelaide CBD – once we moved to Adelaide it was probably an hour away by bus. And she would be a stereotypical grandma with the trolley behind her, stocking up on all the groceries for the week and then heading back on the bus back the other way.

AJ: I can remember travelling on the bus with my mother or my aunt and my grandmother and they would be speaking Polish and everyone would be looking at them and pointing and hissing and I’d be saying to them ‘speak English, speak English, speak English’. I also grew up in an environment where having a name like mine, Jakubowicz, was extremely difficult for everybody around me. And in fact my father regaled me with a story endlessly that soon after he arrived, his brother-in-law, the guy who had married my aunt who had arrived in 1941, took him out for the six o’clock swill at the Great Western Hotel in Broadway in Sydney. And there were about ten guys doing schooners between 5 and 6 pm and basically you had to do a complete swill, so that meant ten schooners in an hour of icy-cold beer. And my father said the first time he did that he thought he was going to die. Whether it was because he was so totally pissed he couldn’t see straight or because his throat was frozen from his nose to his navel – it was one or both of those together. And at that point his name was Boleslaw Jakubowicz, which in postwar Australia was very difficult. So one of the guys in the drinking school said:

What’s your first name?


What letter does that start with?


Okay, Bill, you’re Bill. And what’s your second name?


So is that Y?

No, it’s J.

Oh, Bill Jay, g’day mate, welcome to Australia!

And so from that point on he was Bill Jay, and for most of my younger years I was Andrew Jay. And I was quite taken with that because it meant that I could pass as being Australian.

Prior to Whitlam’s election, I think we need to remember Australia was in the midst of the Vietnam War. There was a huge mobilisation of people against the war, and I think if that hadn’t been there, Whitlam would have had a much harder time coming to power. We had our own version of the Teals: tens of thousands of middle-class mothers who didn’t want their boys to go to war. So…there was a huge expectation and very wide support for the Labor position, which was to get out of the war and end conscription. So that was the first thing. Secondly, Whitlam had captured the sense of the future. There was, I think, a sense of enormous staleness about the conservative government. It was backward looking, it was unimaginative…A very large proportion of the population had just had enough of the old thing and they wanted what Whitlam was promising, which was being part of the world rather than apart from the world.

And then there was the whole migrant thing. The migrants loved Whitlam not only because Al Grassby [Minister for Immigration in the Whitlam government] had those extraordinary ties but also because the rhetoric of inclusion was something they’d never heard. Both Adam and I have spoken about the sort of assimilationist approach – now it was about recognition. It was around reciprocity. It was about the sense of innovation and creativity that different cultures could bring together.

I met Grassby when  I was an undergraduate at Sydney University when he was in the state parliament. He was a very rare object: a Labor representative from a rural electorate…and it’s not important how, but he basically made me get rid of Jay and take Jakubowicz back.

As he became Minister for Immigration he created what he called migrant taskforces – each state had one. He got me very actively involved in the migrant taskforce process. I helped when he lost his parliamentary seat and with the work that went into creating the Community Relations Commission role, which he took over and that Whitlam appointed him to. I was particularly entranced by the story that he and Jim Houston, his advisor, told of the creation of multiculturalism. There was a paper that was written about multiculturalism in Australia that [Grassby] gave to the Cairnmillar Institute in 1973, and this is the founding document of the whole idea. Houston had brought the concept in from Canada and they’d worked it out together. Houston recalled that as he was writing this document with Grassby he’d have to take it round to Grassby’s house in Canberra every night and put it in the letterbox because Grassby was aware that if it went through the Department [of Immigration] it would get chopped. Immigration was where all the old patrol officers from New Guinea ended up. It was a place full of the most rigorous institutional racism – we’re at the moment that the White Australia policy is about to disintegrate, and everybody in this department is highly skilled in telling people’s races and which side of the colour line they’re on. It was both paranoid and intensely archaic, not dissimilar to Home Affairs today.

AL: My personal view now is that there are more opportunities to carve out a Chinese-Australian identity that is not necessarily the same as someone that might have British heritage or Italian heritage. When I was growing up there wasn’t really the opportunity to do that because there wasn’t a model to follow.

When I talk about the White Australia policy I always talk about it in terms of opportunity cost. If you look at the period from Federation through to the unwinding, to me it’s not so much about, ‘gee it’s a bit more fair for non-white Australians these days’, but I look at what we could have been had those policies not been in place for fifty-plus through to seventy-ish years. If you look at The Chinese Question in Australia, the pamphlet that was written by Louis Ah Mouy and others back around 1880, [it was] the economic conditions that followed that and brought about the sentiment for the White Australia policy post-Federation. The recessions and the economic downturns of the 1890s probably set that stage, but we also missed [out] by not being able to grow our population, not being able to grow our economy, through that long period of the White Australia policy when there was so much economic oil to the fire being added by particularly Chinese migrants in the nineteenth century that we didn’t have in the early part of the twentieth century. Would we have been a country with a population up in the fifty, sixty, hundred millions, would we be an economic powerhouse, would a port city the size of Singapore be located in Darwin instead, had we cemented our place on the world stage so much earlier? We went from a period at the turn of the twentieth century where that was a possibility for Australia to a period much later on where it was like, if we pay you $10 would you come to Australia from England to help us grow our economy? So the legacy of Whitlam certainly lives on in unravelling that damaging period in Australian culture, but primarily economically. This lingering fear of ‘Asians taking our jobs’ – if history has taught us anything, it’s that when things are going economically well for us we have boundless plains to share, but as soon as things start to look a little bit on the downside, there is far more time to start pointing the finger at where those problems may have come from. It could be the smallest problem, from peak-hour traffic to housing prices to ‘I can’t get a job’ – when things are going badly it’s human nature to look for the fault and the fault is often something that you don’t understand.

If you want to talk to a parallel to food, I think that’s a very strong parallel in the way that we adapt Australian cuisine. We look at Chinese restaurants in Australia – regional Chinese-Australian cooking is entirely cuisine in and of itself, and one that I very much enjoy eating because it’s certainly not the kind of thing that I’m eating at home a lot – you know, rainbow beef and spring rolls and lemon chicken and honey prawns, that kind of thing is as fun for me to eat as it is for anyone of any extraction. But when we choose the dishes that enter into Australian cuisine, they’re the good-time dishes. They’re the dishes that have lots of flavour and they’re sweet and they’re sour and they’re savoury and they’re fun to eat. What we don’t choose to import into our cuisine are the congees and the more bland dishes that balance out a cuisine and keep us alive. If we have the good times all the time, we end up with the problems with the food system that we see now. But if we learn and put the work in to accept the light and shade when it comes to food, I think we’d get a much more healthy environment for it.

AJ: Whitlam really did change gear on all this stuff. The decision to introduce the Racial Discrimination Act was the last thing the government did before they got turfed out. That was so important because what it basically said was, for the last seventy-five years being racist is good – that’s what Australians are, we are racist and we’re proud of it. And we put a lot of money into making sure that people like Adam stayed where they were rather than coming to Australia. I remember a talk I gave in Indonesia in 1996, just after Howard came to power and all that stuff with [Pauline] Hanson was happening. I was asked to talk about Is Australia a racist nation? This is twenty years after the end of White Australia. What I said was, look, Australia is a country with a racist history trying not to have a racist future, and for me that sort of captured the Whitlam trigger – saying we can’t discard or disown what our own history is, but we have to recognise what it’s been so that we can make sure the future doesn’t look the same.

I think one of the other things that Whitlam called on us to do – I’ll make him sound a bit like a messiah and he wasn’t necessarily that – was to take responsibility for the world around us. And in a sense he was the complete opposite of Margaret Thatcher’s comment that ‘there is no society’. For Whitlam everything was social, everything was societal and we are all interconnected…we have to realise that the decisions we take affect people all over the place all the time. And the role of government in an area like multiculturalism is to look for opportunities…and use those opportunities as much as possible.

AL: I think food is a useful benchmark to how we approach multiculturalism in Australia. We’re now moving to, I think, the third phase of being a multicultural sort of society – if you think of the first one as being the mindset of ‘they can’t do anything for us so why would they even be here’ and a second phase of ‘well, let’s think about what they might be able to do for us’ to a third phase of thinking ‘what if there was no us and them and it was just a single society with multiple parts?’ I think we can see that very clearly in the food that we eat. Speaking specifically with reference to Chinese cuisine or Chinese-Australian cuisine, Chinese food was at one point considered very foreign and then we embraced the version of Chinese food that is unique to Australia, that is entirely our own and is not in any way found in China or Chinese home cooking. To a point where we would look at a homegrown dish like lemon chicken or BBC, as you get in Adelaide, as being on the same level of Australianness as fish and chips or a meat pie. Fish and chips came to Australia far later than Chinese-Australian cuisine did and adapted far less and assimilated far less than Chinese-Australian food ever did, but we still look at fish and chips in a very different way to how we might look at something like lemon chicken or sweet and sour pork. So I think it’s a very good way of gauging how we approach our multicultural society… Do we accept it as being part of just how we eat? I think in many cases we do – spaghetti bolognaise has moved to the point where [we consider it] Australian food, and there may well be dishes from other parts of the world that assimilate and become part of Australian food as much as that does. The analogy of food and multiculturalism is a very, very informative one and…it really does gauge how we’re going with how we approach the adaptation of Australian culture.

I think that third phase of multiculturalism is something that we’re really only just starting to scratch the surface of now. We still look at multiculturalism and diversity as being about the diverse person that [it] is a benefit for: it’s ‘am I allowed to be included in society’, or ‘what can I do for that society that is so gracious as to include me’, rather than seeing that participation as being a benefit in and of itself. My view is quite strongly that a society or a culture that doesn’t adapt soon becomes obsolete and the way that we choose to accept the adaptation is a benefit of itself. It’s not just that I can bring a nice dish that ends up on a dining table – the fact that there is a process for that dish to end up on a dining table is the benefit.

AJ: I’ve just come back from a place called Culburra, which is an ocean-side township south of Sydney. It’s got a population of about 3,000, average age sixty-two, overwhelmingly white Australian. It has about ten places you can eat. There’s the traditional Chinese regional cuisine, unchanged since my childhood, run by a second-generation Cantonese family. Then there’s a Tex-Mex, which does nachos and mojitos and that’s run by a group of Anglo-Australian young people. Then there’s a hot bread shop, not surprisingly run by Vietnamese, and it does a mixture of pies and Vietnamese pork rolls. Then there’s a fish restaurant run by Koreans who have developed this fusion menu, a cross between Japanese-Korean cooking and Australian cooking. So you can get some steak and chips with some very interesting miso sauces on the side. Then you go across to the Burra Beach Eats shop, which is run by a couple of Hong Kong brothers and does a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese and Anglo-Australian and has a special hamburger night on Sundays. The hamburgers include things that you could buy very easily in Hanoi.

This is a normal environment in which people who grew up on overcooked veg, meat and potatoes are more than happy. And in a sense your third stage is, for me, actually represented by the recent Australian election. Because in a sense Whitlam got rid of White Australia, and this is the first election that moved White Australia along from parliament, half a century later. The Labor Party, I think much to its own surprise, is now far more multicultural. It won the election because a group of non-Anglo Australians won seats that nobody expected them ever to win. And I think that your point about the way we’re moving as to what it means to be Australian is absolutely right. It’s now in a sense the imaginary that Whitlam and Grassby and the women and men of that time were formulating half a century ago – it’s taken about that long to happen: two generations before you can bring about that sort of transformation. And I think, leaving aside all the bits that aren’t working, it’s worked dramatically well.

This is the fourth conversation in a collaborative series designed and curated by Griffith Review with support from the Whitlam Institute.

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