Ouyang Yu: To Be(long) or Not to Be(long): Issues Of Belonging In A Post-multicultural Australia







Belonging is longing, a longing. For migrants to live in a land they have chosen to settle themselves in, to be(long) or not to be(long) is a crucial question. It depends on what they long for: Is it a temporary abode for short-term benefits before packing up and going home, a permanent enclave on its own or a (second) home where they feel they truly belong or want to be long in? This paper seeks to examine issues of belonging for first and second generation mainland Chinese migrants in a post-malticultural Australia where the idea of multiculturalism is being rendered increasingly obsolete, becoming almost ‘mal’ as in the sense of malfunctioning.[1] The discussion will be based on three books, Wang Hong’s novel, jile yingwu (Extremely Happy Parrots), Shen Zhimin’s novel, donggan baozang (Dynamic Treasure Trove) and Leslie Zhao (Zhao Chuan)’s photographic novel, he ni qu ouzhou (Going to Europe with You).


‘I should never have come to Australia, I should never have left my country’[2]

Wang Hong, born in Shanghai in 1962, is a Chinese woman novelist who stayed and studied in Australia from 1990 to 1992 before her return to China in 1993.[3] Apart from this, there is little biographical information on the dust jacket except a curious little note at the end of her Chinese novel, jile yingwu (Extremely Happy Parrots), published in September 2002. The note goes, in my translation, ‘Sixth draft 2000/12/8’.[4] One can work out from this that it must have taken her seven years and six drafts to finish writing the novel; further, it must have taken her about two years to find a publisher and get the novel published, nine years after her return to China. It wouldn’t be a far-fetched conjecture that the novel bears some parallel to her own life in that the main protagonist, Ma Lan,[5] returns to China after her failed attempt to stay in Australia through a fake arranged marriage, first with an Italian, then with another man of unidentified nationality by the name of Ma Er Fu (Marf?). True to the synopsis on the back cover of the book, the novel has a ‘wonderful sense of poetry’[6] and, in my view, presents a haunting image of Chinese student lives as if caught in a time warp, a vacuum created as much by their own blind, obstinate attempts to stay as by Australia’s indifference towards their fate, and worse, by Australia’s philistine acts to make a buck by fraud through the performance of characters like Ao Lie Fo (Oliver) and his family.


jile yingwu is a painful novel to read. It traces Ma Lan’s short sojourn in Australia as grape-picker, orange-picker, lemon-picker, cleaner and hospice-carer, in places ranging from Red Cliffs on the South-Australia and Victoria border to Westfield in Sydney. In China, this university graduate ‘tried her best to learn English…in order to chuguo [out the country, meaning going overseas] one day.’ (23)[7] After she finishes her studies in Australia, she has to extend her visa but lacks the money to do it. In order to stay, she borrows money to pay Oliver to secure her a partner in a fake marriage. When this does not work, she enters into an arranged marriage with Ma Er Fu in an attempt to stay but decides to leave for China after she aborts her baby. The day she leaves, Ma Er Fu says to her:


You are right. Why must you live in this country in the southern hemisphere? There’s no reason why. I can’t see any reason. I understand you. Like you, I also suffer from homesickness….I have left my home far too long. I feel that my inner heart has lost this strength. Living is a habit. The past has been severed and so it is impossible now. I am not living. I am only surviving and hoping that one day I may live better. If I were you, I would perhaps do the same. As long as you believe that huiguo [return country or returning to your home country] makes you happy, you should huiguo.’[8]


In the extreme circumstances in which she finds herself, deep in debt from both her own family in China and the Oliver family, Ma Lan has to scrape a living by doing the hard labor as a fruit picker, getting paid 0.39 cents for 10 kilos of grapes picked (6). When she marries Ma Er Fu she has only ten dollars in her account (98). She has to rely on superstitious belief for solace. For example, when Oliver’s mother dies and is about to be shipped back to her gutu [native earth or native land], Ma Lan thinks aloud to herself:


            One person leaves Australia.

            One person enters Australia.

            The matter of the world is indestructible. This person who enters should be her! (14)


She also willfully persists in her other superstitious belief that she is somehow from the Jewish stock that is ‘distinctly different from hanren [Han people or Chinese people]’ (20) and that it is because of her ‘unresearcheable ancestry-Jewish or tujue [Turkish] merchants’ that she has ‘come ten thousand li at the end of the century to the southern hemisphere to tie the knot of marriage with someone originally from there’ (187), that someone being Ma Er Fu.


All Ma Lan ever manages to do in Australia, though, is, as she says, ‘living abjectly-for a green card’ (175), a life that is ‘finished, dead’, and she feels that if she does not sum it all up, ‘what shall arrive is only an extension of death’ (176). Here, one can’t but recall Ouyang Yu’s contemplation that ‘living in australia is living after death’.[9]


Other Chinese students fare hardly better than Ma Lan: Yang Fan does not speak English, thus rendered deaf and dumb ever since his coming to Australia (94); Lao Yan writes a letter containing his first-time payment of 100 Australian dollars that will never reach his wife in China (27), which act repeats itself to a painful degree; and Qin Yue foolishly persists in her fantasy that only by studying hard could she somehow hope to change her fate (71). Their names are ultimate symbols of irony and terror, Yang Fan meaning ‘setting sail’ and, as part of the phrase, yangfan yuanhang, implying he’s someone setting sail for a distant voyage with great hopes; Lao Yan hinting at Old Devil; and Qin Yue, Qin Moon, a woman from one of the oldest stocks of the Chinese civilization, right back to the Qin Dynasty (BC 221-207). The place names are also imbued with a sense of the macabre as the Murray River is transliterated as mai lei he (Wheat Tears River) or deliberately mis-spelt in an English poem written by Ma Lan as ‘Marry River’ (85).


Added to this is a host of other characters, most of them immigrants whose nationalities remain undisclosed, including the fraudulent Oliver family who lose two members in 10 days, giving false hope to Ma Lan and Qin Yue; Ma Er Fu whose Jewish or Turkish stock is vaguely alluded to and who wonders if he should ever have come to Australia (284); and Steven, an Australian-born Hungarian who plays the role of a Chinese in a play in which no Chinese are allowed (225), the only one who does not have a guishu gan [a sense of belonging] when he goes back to Hungary. He says, ‘when I look at them [Hungarians], I am looking at completely foreign people. Secretly, I even think people there look ugly’ (225). The interesting thing here is that Ma Lan does not identify with Steven. She ‘looks at him, without curiosity, without polite concern’ and ‘her silence bears out that his appeal is rather affected’ (225).


Throughout, there is not a single mention of words like racism or multiculturalism. Only in one scene, Liz, an Australian patient, is heard to speak sharply to Ma Lan and Xiao, a Pacific Islander. ‘ “You, you Asians get out!” The old lady tells them ferociously. “Get out of our country!” ’ (275). What follows is a quite unusual musing about happiness by Ma Lan when Liz’s son in a ‘fine’ suit asks her where she learnt her ‘good’ English:


Ma Lan’s voice sounds flat. She goes out of the room. She is weary of the way others look [at her]. Nothing will change because of the conversation. He wears a fine suit and thinks he can take pity on her because she speaks English with an English accent. She is a civilized person from an ancient, savage land. She has given all her life to learn English. However, here it is the air everyone breathes. If she had learnt something else, if she were a senior staff member in a transnational company, would her life be worth more? When she worked in a big company in guonei [inside country, meaning China] and also wore a fine suit, she didn’t feel superior to people, she didn’t feel happy.

Happiness is so rare it can only come from the inner heart (276).


Where does Ma Lan belong in Australia? One can only gauge by where she situates herself in relation to Australia. In Sydney, ‘she feels like walking on the edge of this city, this city on the edge of the ocean, the continent that this city belongs to being surrounded by the blue sea water, turning around the edge of the planet in which they were born’ (258). Australia means nothing to her. At best, it is a place for her to be ‘walking through’, ‘without leaving a trace (278)’.


Interestingly, in an unlikely place, Rose, Tom’s mother in Tony Ayres feature film, Home Song Stories (2007), has said the same thing as expressed by Ma Lan that she ‘should never have come to Australia’.[10]


san yuan se[11]: the three original colors

When Shen Jiawei, normally known as Jiawei Shen, the Australian-Chinese artist, did a portrait for John So, Lord Mayor of Melbourne, he combined three major elements in the painting: John So’s Chinese face and his Aboriginal attire dealt in oils,[12] an artistic style that originated in the West, read white. Interestingly, more than a decade ago, prior to this portrait executed, in the early 1990s, when The Ancestor Game by Alex Miller was published, there is description of a harmonious relationship between Chinese, Irish and Aboriginal people, as exemplified by Noonan, Feng and Dorset, which was actually based on a goldfield painting by Joseph Johnson, featuring a Chinese, an Irishman and an Aboriginal person playing euchre that was supposedly a reflection of early harmony existing among these very different peoples before racism set in and wrought a havoc that has cast a long shadow over Australia.[13] It may sound exclusive towards people of other nationalities and ethnicities but this concern with the three original colours has been an age-old one with people from as diverse backgrounds as Scottish (Hume Nisbet), Hungarian (David Martin) and white Australian (Xavier Herbert), to whom Chinese play a linking role between the black and the white.[14] In donggan baozang (Dynamic Treasure Trove) by Shen Zhimin, the combination of the three original colours forms the basis of the novel, in which an Aboriginal boy, a Chinese boy and a white Australian boy go hand in hand in search of Australia’s Aboriginal origin, symbolized by the shangxin zhi di (heart-broken place or heart-breaking place) where a massacre had taken place 200 years ago involving many Aboriginal deaths (227), and, in the process, discover themselves. It is a much happier novel than the ironically titled, Extremely Happy Parrots, in that the three boys choose to live an outcast’s life by roaming the country, casting their sense of belonging to the four winds.


The stories of these three boys roaming the country in search of treasure, spiritual and otherwise, are less important than the idea that lies behind the construction of the novel. This idea reflects a significant realization, albeit limited, on the part of the author that the key to racial and cultural harmony in Australia is a blending of the three primary colours and it is based on this realization that Shen assigns roles for the three boys to play. What is more intriguing is the fact that two of the boys come from disreputable family backgrounds, tang mu si (Thomas), illegitimate son of a conservative MP who commits suicide after his affair is exposed and Gao Qiang [meaning High Strong], son of a corrupt Chinese company director. When these family tragedies occur, Thomas and Gao Qiang become homeless, straying into Redfern where they befriend tu gu [meaning Earth Valley], the Aboriginal boy, and fight together against the police in the Redfern Riots.[15] It is obvious that an echo to Australia’s convict past is implied in the family background of Thomas and Gao Qiang in that both have come from a disgraced family background and a defiance of Australian police, symbol of state control and power, is shown through their fight in the riots. Despite rather stereotypical portraits of the three boys, e.g., Tu Gu as someone who does not care about money (89) and who identifies strongly with the wandering spirit of an eternal traveler ge lan te (Grant) (125), Gao Qiang as someone overwhelmingly concerned with money (89, 129) and Thomas as someone ‘the most brainy’, full of intelligent ideas (135), the novel nevertheless reveals a darker truth about Australia as a place not fit for Chinese to stay. After all their adventures involving fights against a rascal si di mu (Steam), their musical band going places and their search for gold, etc, Gao Qiang ‘is going back to China’ (318). The novel ends with Gao Qiang saying, in response to the questions from Tu Gu and Thomas as to why he is going back, ‘You forgot. Didn’t I say that I was going to run a trading company and come to Australia to do business? When I make money and make a fortune, I shall invite you to have fun in China.’ (318)


It is worth noting that, by comparison with Wang Hong, Shen’s message is upbeat about his three fictional boys, as reflected in a remark made by Grant, an erstwhile bank manager who gives up on his work in favour of traveling alone, having been traveling on the road for 25 years, without family or kids. He says that after he gets on the road, he ‘thinks of wanting to go home less and less’ (125), that it’s only on the road that he ‘feels whole’ (127) and that, for him, ‘there is always a home by the side of roads’ (128). What I can recall from this is the story James Chang (Zhang Zhizhang), a Taiwanese-Chinese writer, told in the 1994 Chinese-Australian Arts Festival of an old overseas Chinese who said that the minute he sat down in his seat on a plane he felt at home and that’s where he belonged.


There is an early echo to Dynamic Treasure Trove in Shen Zhimin’s novella, titled, bian se hu (The Colour Changing Lake), which I published in Otherland (No. 2, 1996) as editor. In that story about the difficulties Chinese students have when they first arrive in Australia, it is Aborigines who befriend them, not white Australians. In fact, white Australians are terrible racists. When Jiang Hua, the name meaning River Flower or River Chinese, the protagonist, is playing erhu in a small town, a ‘tall white woman’ rushes in and tells him off, ‘like yelling at an animal’;[16] she calls Jiang ‘a beggar from the East and a heathen’.[17] Jiang has to leave even though he thinks that ‘their behaviour does not correspond to God’s spirit.’[18] When Jiang Hua is detained by the Immigration officers, it is niao (Bird), an Aboriginal elder who comes to his aid with his men and gives the officers and policemen a talking-to, ‘We have been living here for hundreds of years thousands of years tens of thousands of years. We are really master of this land. We should decide who is or is not an illegal immigrant. This Chinese is my friend. He can stay as long as he likes. It’s got nothing to do with you. If you don’t like it, you can go back to Sydney or elsewhere. Or you can go back to your old home in Europe.’[19]


In Shen Zhimin’s novella, there is almost a visible determination not to give whites their due but to insist on a healthy dose of ethnic mixture. None of his heroes or heroines are white Australians. Born of an English dandy father and a Gipsy mother, Weiduoliya (Victoria) is a street artist who becomes Jiang’s friend. Bird, the Aboriginal elder, is of Aboriginal and Chinese parentage because his grandfather was a Chinese gold-digger who escaped from ‘white persecution’ to live with Aborigines and married an Aboriginal woman, Bird’s grand-mother.[20] Even the two Immigration officers bent on taking Jiang prisoner turn out to be migrants themselves, one a Jew from England whose father had escaped there from Poland in the Second World War and the other is originally also an illegal immigrant from Yugoslavia.[21] It is these ideological underpinnings that made Shen’s novel and novella read more like political fables than truly realized fiction.


Possibly related to Australia[22]

he ni qu ouzhou (Going to Europe with You) is not an Australian novel; it is written by a hyphenated Australian. Leslie Zhao (Zhao Chuan) has indeed lived for many years in Australia since 1990 but, after he became an Australian citizen, he decided to return to Shanghai in or about 2000, coming back once every year, according to him, to lodge his annual tax return. In this roaming novel, interspersed with photographs, from Madrid through Saville, Bacelona, Napoli, Sicily, Rome, Florence, Venice, Geneva, Paris, Avignon and London, enacted entirely between ni (you) and wo (I), through a series of email letters or interior monologues, Australia is virtuely non-existent. The only Australian is a girl by the name of da fu ni (Daphne) that ‘I’ met in a Shanghai-based art exhibition (61), who grew up in a Melbourne beach town and is a girl of ‘innocent and natural Australian qualities’ (66). When they meet in Barcelona, Daphne asks ‘I’, ‘You go out alone this far. Do you want to escape? How far do you want to go?’ (66). ‘I’, who does not have a name, says in a philosophical remark that sounds like Grant in donggan baozang, ‘Travel seems to give me more opportunities to catch things that almost drift past my body’ (67).


A novel of lacuna in which Australia does not exist, by a Chinese-Australian who now prefers to make his home in Shanghai, ‘the most Westernised city in China’ (19), is perhaps more telling than otherwise, more Australian than un-Australian, or should I say, more Australian in being un-Australian. What is not expressed in the fiction finds expression in the non-fiction, in the houji (Postscript), in which Zhao Chuan describes why he wrote the book. ‘The reason why I had that desire to write is probably related to my having lived for many years in Australia. It is a migrant society where people from different cities and different cultural experiences have to live together. We are curious about each other; our mutual interaction is ongoing but is never somehow fitting. We live closely together: working in the same place, separated by buildings or walls or we scrape our shoulders as we walk past or are even sleeping in the same bed. However, our memories are probably far apart, hard to be pulled together (230).’


More than Leslie Zhao’s novel, Hongchen jie (Doomed to Red Dust), a recent novel by Ying Ge, based in Australia since 1989, completely abandons Australia in its narration, featuring instead a Chinese-American in Lin Wenlu, who gives up his well-paying job in an American company and chooses to stay in Beijing.[23] It is not hard to find that this homeward bound attachment has already been foreshadowed in his first novel, chuguo weishenme?—laizi dayang bi’an de baogao (Why Go Overseas?—report from the other side of the ocean), in which an old Chinese man muses on the significance of overseas Chinese in these words:


Wherever I go, I remain a Chinese in other people’s eyes. Chinese are a heavy nation. (339-340)…But, I think, whatever circumstances in which they find themselves, Chinese people have a thought that co-exists with their hearts. That is: I am born on yellow earth, I am a Chinese, I should do something for my zuguo (ancestral nation or motherland) and I should do something for my nation….(341)[24]


This is of course didactic but didactic in a way that makes sense. If multiculturalism is meant to keep peoples apart, so that ‘one cannot possibly dance the Russian ballet to the accompaniment of Aboriginal instruments nor can Western ways of singing match Asian folk tunes’,[25] they cannot but keep harking back to their zuguo (ancestral nation) as their only way out, as Ying Ge says on the back of his first novel, ‘However far they go, they remain sons and grandsons of Yellow Emperor, born on Yellow Earth.’[26]


If there is any home to belong to, it is perhaps in the fiction that Zhao Chuan creates, one that is ‘ready to get lost, to encounter strange crowds and to turn into another direction after an exchange of a few words’. (231)


The most poignant remark is made in a recent editorial in huaxia zhoubao (The Weekly Chinese) newspaper, in Melbourne, in celebration of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (25/9/07) when the editor says, after describing Australia as a ‘migrant country’ full of peoples from all over the world, ‘You’d be dead wrong if you think this country is like China where there are “fifty six nationalities, fifty six constellations, fifty six flowers and fifty six brothers and sisters that all belong in one family”. Respecting each other like guests is all superficiality, formality, politeness, distance, strangeness and non-intimacy; it is hard to mix like oil and water.”[27]

[1] Ying Ge, in his novel, chuguo weishenme?—laizi dayang bi’an de baogao (Why Go Overseas?—report from the other side of the ocean) remarks that, by comparison with the USA, Canada, Japan and ‘some advanced nations in Europe’, ‘Australia has not found concrete ways of how to promote multiculturalism and so has no culture at the moment’. See Ying Ge, whose real name is Liu Yingge, chuguo weishenme?—laizi dayang bi’an de baogao (Why Go Overseas?—report from the other side of the ocean). Beijing: Authors’ Press, 1997, p. 255. [English translation mine and elsewhere unless otherwise stated]

[2] Wang Hong, jile yingwu (Extremely Happy Parrots). Guangzhou: Huacheng Publishing House, 2002, p. 284.

[3] Ibid, front flap information, with her photo.

[4] Ibid, p. 288.

[5] Her name directly translates as Horse Blue that faintly recalls German painter Franz Marc’s painting, Blue Horse, in 1911. See it at: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/marc/blue_horse.jpg.html

[6] Ibid, back cover.

[7] Please note that the Chinese pinyin and the translation and explanation in the square brackets are all mine.

[8] Ibid, p. 281.

[9] Ouyang Yu, ‘After Death, After Orgasm’, Moon over Melbourne and Other Poems. London: Shearsman Books, 2005, pp. 46-7. Death is central to Ying Ge’s novel, chuguo weishenme?—laizi dayang bi’an de baogao (Why Go Overseas?—report from the other side of the ocean). Beijing: Writers’ Press, 1997, in which many Chinese students die: a Shanghai girl is killed by an Australian suffering from mental illness (69 and 73) and Jiang Xiaofan, another Chinese student, dies of work-related fatigue and cancer (235), one of many similar deaths in Australia.

[10] From memory, the subtitle renders it as ‘I should never have come here’ whereas what Rose says in Mandarin is wo zhen bu gai dao aozhou lai (I really should not have come to Australia). I saw this film sometime in mid-August 2007 in Dendy’s Cinema, Canberra. Similarly, in Ying Ge’s novel, ibid, p. 69, Cheng Xiaoyi, a Chinese girl student keeps saying, ‘wo bu gai lai aozhou, wo bu gai lai aozhou’ (I should not have come to Australia, I should not have come to Australia) when she witnesses a fellow Chinese girl student stabbed to death by an Australian man suffering from mental illness.

[11] Literally, three original colors, equivalent to the English ‘primary colors’ of red, yellow and blue, but here they refer to the black, yellow and white colors.

[12] According to a reviewer, it’s a possum cloak given John So as a gift by an Aboriginal elder. See John MacDonald, ‘Portrait of the Prize’ (30/4/2005) at: http://www.smh.com.au/news/Arts/Portrait-of-the-prize/2005/04/29/1114635739247.html

[13] The painting in question is titled, ‘Euchre in the Bush’, by Joseph Johnson (1848-1904), which, according to Alex Miller, had been totally neglected when he first found it, a sign of Chinese ethnicity left uncelebrated for a long time.

[14] In Nisbet’s works set in New Zealand, idealized Chinese, such as Wung-Ti, are paired with Maoris. In Martin’s Hero of Too, for example, Lam Yut Soon, a social outcast, shares accommodation with part-Aboriginal Snowy Barker and in Herbert’s Capricornia, Ket, part-Chinese, part-Aboriginal, is no match for Norman Shillingsworth, part-white, part-Aboriginal. See discussion of these authors in Representing the Other: Chinese in Australian Fiction: 1888-1988, unpublished PhD thesis by Ouyang Yu. Also, the Rush Hour film series is another quintessential example of this Yellow-Black pairing, as typified in Rush Hour 3 that I saw last night (29/9/07).

[15] See Chapter, hongfangqu baoluan [Redfern District Riots, pp. 18-36]).

[16] Shen Zhimin, bian se hua (The Colour Changing Lake), Otherland (No. 2, 1996), p. 42.

[17] Ibid, p. 42.

[18] Ibid, p. 43.

[19] Ibid, p. 46.

[20] Ibid, p. 43.

[21] Ibid, p. 50.

[22] Based on a remark made by Zhao Chuan in his after-word to he ni qu ouzhou (Going to Europe with You), Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2006, which goes, in my translation, ‘The reason why I had the desire to write [the novel] is possibly related to my having lived for many years in Australia’, p. 230.

[23] Ying Ge, Hongchen jie (Doomed to Red Dust). Huhhot: Yuanfang Publishing House, China, 2001.

[24] Ying Ge, chuguo weishenme?—laizi dayang bi’an de baogao (Why Go Overseas?—report from the other side of the ocean). Beijing: Authors’ Press, 1997.

[25] Ibid, p. 255.

[26] Ibid, back-cover blurb.

[27] Yang Yu, ‘yiguo de zhongqiujie’ (Mid-autumn festival in an alien country), huaxia zhoubao (The Weekly Chinese), 21/9/07, p. 1.