Benjamin Law examines Australia’s relationship with China in Waltzing the Dragon
Benjamin Law examines Australia’s relationship with China in Waltzing the Dragon

‘The question isn’t if Australia is racist’

I could tell you about the moment when writer and presenter Benjamin Law and his mother peed in the bushes on the side of the road.

It's an endearingly comical moment in Law's new two-part doco, Waltzing the Dragon with Benjamin Law, starting on the ABC tonight. It'll make you smile and wonder if very proper Aunty viewers would tsk-tsk their way to a tetchy complaints call, but it's not the real fire here.

Waltzing the Dragon is an ambitious, grand and personal TV series looking at, no less, the complex relationship between Australia and China, and our fraught history laced with exploitation, racism and marginalisation.

The Chinese-Australian history in Australia - from those who came searching for prosperity in the gold fields to waves of migration following Tiananmen Square to hand-wringing over a "Chinese invasion" on the local property market - is a story that has layers most people would know little about.

"We are at a kind of flashpoint in our relationship with China," Law told "There's a broader conversion about Australia's role in the Asia Pacific, and where do these anxieties we have about China and Chinese-Australians come from?

"I wanted to sift through this murky conversation and try to figure out these anxieties are valid or not. What our new documentary shows is that none of these anxieties about Chinese-Australians are especially new. I don't think we can begin that conversation unless we understand our past.

"Chinese-Australians have been at the centre of Australian history this whole time. I knew going in that we basically federated because of anti-Chinese xenophobia, but I didn't know Chinese-Australian history predates white arrival, that it was mostly likely the Chinese that circumnavigated Australia in the 1400s."

At one point in the series, Law visited an Indigenous community that had traded with Asian nations hundreds of years ago, and where fragments of that trade remained. It's just a piece of a historical puzzle we continue to grapple with.

In between looking at the macro level of the China-Australia relationship, and where Chinese-Australians fit into that picture is a personal journey. Or, two personal journeys.

In one, he and his mother trace her roots back to her father's village in China, where he had fled earlier, migrating to Malaysia and then Hong Kong. In the other, he follows his father to the paternal ancestral village, where his father has maintained links but prefers to look forward.

The significance of Law's family history is what ties together and humanises this story that would otherwise be a more academic exercise that looks at the wider social, political and economic stakes.

But those stakes are ever present - especially the risk of conflating the legitimate anxieties Australians have towards an aggressive Chinese government, and Chinese-Australians.


In episode two, Ben visits his father’s hometown
In episode two, Ben visits his father’s hometown

"In Australia, there's a Chinese-Australian identity that's a community onto itself," Law said. "Many of us don't speak any Chinese languages. We extend our culture through food and tradition, the way we celebrate the passing of the years and the way we grieve our family. But does that mean we have any allegiances to China?

"What we need to be delicate about is the complexity of these issues. For me, I think I embody these complexities in that I have real anxieties about the Chinese government's influence in the region, and that includes Australia.

"When you're talking about the real estate market, it's a lot of Chinese-Australians getting into the market. A lot of those Chinese-Australians are new arrivals but does that make them any less Australian?

"You start to realise these anxieties about real estate are probably more to do with the real estate market generally than anything else. We've got to be precise in what we're actually anxious about.

"I hope people realise that a lot of the anxieties we feel towards China are real and legitimate and at the same time, a lot of the anxieties and fears that non-Chinese-Australians have towards Chinese-Australians are not legitimate and come from a history of ongoing racism. Both of these things can be true simultaneously.

"We as a nation need to interrogate our relationship with China more robustly. And that includes interrogating our relationship with the Chinese government and its human rights abuses while also rejecting the racism that can be inflicted on Chinese-Australians."

"I feel like Australia is at a point where we need to stop asking ourselves if Australia is a racist country. It's such a dumb and tedious question. We know that Australia was federated on a racist policy. We know we've had campaigns that can be fairly classified as genocide in this country. We know all that.

"What we need to ask ourselves going forward is what are the racisms that exist in our society and what do we want to do about them? I think Australians are quite good at robust multiculturalism and we celebrate that through our food and our holidays.

"But we're not good at confronting racism. I think that comes from complacency about how well we've done things and we could do a lot more work than that."

For Law, the experience of making Waltzing the Dragon, of exploring the past with his parents have been enlightening and rewarding - it's as if his own anxieties about not having the connective tissue to his heritage have been lifted.

"The more I engage with my history and with the Chinese-Australian community, the more I'm really proud of my heritage. We have a history that's worth being proud of, a history that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated.

"I'm proud to be one thread of a much bigger tapestry."

Waltzing the Dragon with Benjamin Law starts tonight on ABC and iview at 8.30pm

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