Asian Studies

Modern Japanese Culture – what a seductive title! It evokes images of a fast-paced, technologically advanced nation with deep traditions reinventing itself as a post-industrial society with a rich culture. We immediately think of Kurosawa’s epic films, manga comics and anime, contemporary ceramics, video games, Issey Miyake’s extravaganzas, the sublime minimalism of Ando Tadao’s architecture, and the photography of Ishida Kiichiro, currently on display at the Museum of Sydney.

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I first encountered the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia long before I heard its name. Readers who  were at primary school in the late 1960s or early 1970s will know what I’m talking about — those illustrated booklets (a treasure trove for school projects) on Australian history, put out by the Bank of New South Wales, with pompous, triumphalist titles such as ‘Endeavour and Achievement’.

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In 1992, Fang Xiangshu collaborated with Trevor Hay, a mandarin-speaking Melbourne academic, on a non-fiction book, East Wind, West Wind, an account of Fang’s escape from China to begin a new life in Australia.

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Once the scourge of the conservatives, some practitioners of cultural studies are starting to make the stuffed shirts of English Departments look like mad-eyed anarchists.

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Mr Rolls has written an extraordinarily detailed history of the Chinese in Australia, interspersed with much additional related and unrelated matter. It is indeed a labour of love, written over a period of some twenty years, and the author has uncovered a large amount of fascinating and amazing information not readily available elsewhere. Much of this new material relates to the vibrant popular culture the Chinese brought with them: their food, cricket fighting, cock fighting, and other sorts of fairly harmless gambling; their diseases, living conditions and relations with their non-Chinese neighbours. A certain amount of the book concerns immigration acts and other forms of discrimination, of course, but the stronger impression one gets is a more positive one: the Chinese as hard workers and major contributors to Australian life.

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On page eleven of this book, Australians are called an engagingly innocent people ‘splendidly unthinking of anything but the simplicities of affluent living.’ On page twelve, they are called ‘lazy and uncreative’. On page 311, the author writes: ‘Yet in spite of a widespread belief (mainly self-generated) that we are a nation of yahoos, we have as much capacity for some unique kind of greatness as the people of any other race and nation.’

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