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China AbroadTravels, Subjects, Spaces$

Elaine Yee Lin Ho and Julia Kuehn

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9789622099456

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789622099456.001.0001

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Affirming Cosmopolitanism? Chineseness and the Chinese Museum of Queensland

Affirming Cosmopolitanism? Chineseness and the Chinese Museum of Queensland

(p.209) 12 Affirming Cosmopolitanism? Chineseness and the Chinese Museum of Queensland
China Abroad

Tseen Khoo

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this context of renewed, often parochial, assertions of Australian identity, examining racialized heritage sites allows the interrogation of the limits of the contemporary appreciation of “cosmopolitanism” and “diversity.” To this end, this chapter focuses on the phenomenon of internal tourism and the ways in which Australian Chinatowns present themselves to internal and external tourists, as well as their local communities. Taking into account Michael Keith's argument for a focus on the dynamics of the city, the chapter discusses the establishment of the Chinese Museum of Queensland alongside the geocultural context of Chinatown in Fortitude Valley. After presenting an overview of Australia's historical (dis)engagement with Chinese migration, the chapter outlines the socio-political setting of Brisbane and Fortitude Valley and the idea of “Chinatowns,” before concentrating on the development of the museum and the motivations of its initial steering committee as a case-study in affirming Chineseness.

Keywords:   cosmopolitanism, internal tourism, Australia, Michael Keith, Chinese Museum of Queensland, Chinatown, Fortitude Valley, migration, Chineseness


In a world of globalized capital where cosmopolitanism has become a discernible commodity,the expression of a society'scultural diversity has taken on significant political and economic dimensions.For a nation such as Australia,with a very particular—some would say notorious—history in terms of its resistance to non-European migration and rigorous bouts of anti-Asian sentiment,asserting these traits has become a crucial part of the country's cultural exports trategy.Indeed,a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade document about“selling”Australia's culture stresses the goal of promoting“an image of a nation that is democratic,welcoming,vibrant,intelligent and creative,with a rich and diverse culture”(“PromotingAustralia'sCulture Abroad”).These notions of a happily stable and diverse Australia are also circulated by the government to its own citizens.Because of ongoing debates surrounding asylum seekers,social cohesion,and“good”citizens,the pressure to define“Australian values”remains strong and controversial.In this context of renewed,often parochial,assertions of Australian identity,examining racialized heritage sites allows the interrogation of the limits of the contemporary appreciation of “cosmopolitanism”and“diversity.”

To this end,this chapter focuses on the phenomenon of internal tourism and the ways in which Australian Chinatowns present themselves to internal and external tourists,as well as their local communities.Sociologist Michael (p.210) Keith states that “[a]n understanding of the dynamics of contemporary urbanism is consequently imperative for a consideration of both the potential of the cosmopolitan and its actually existing realizations” (Keith 3). Taking into account Keith's argument for a focus on the dynamics of the city, I discuss the establishment of the Chinese Museum of Queensland (CMoQ) alongside the geocultural context of Chinatown in Fortitude Valley. After presenting an overview of Australia's historical (dis)engagement with Chinese migration, this chapter outlines the socio-political setting of Brisbane and Fortitude Valley (the city and suburb, respectively, in which CMoQ is to be created) and the idea of “Chinatowns,” before concentrating on the development of the museum and the motivations of its initial steering committee as a case-study in affirming Chineseness.

II Being Chinese: From White Australia to post-multicultural nation

In terms of Chinese diasporic history, Australia is most well known for its Immigration Restriction Act (1901), otherwise known as the “White Australia Policy,” whereby non-European migration was severely curtailed.1 A driving force for this discriminatory policy was, as with other “gold-rush” sites, the unsettling presence of large Chinese groups within majority white settlements. The policy itself never mentioned exclusion of immigrants on the grounds of race, but the effect of the legislation, its “dictation tests,” as well as other conditions that shepherded Chinese out of Australia meant that communities shrank and sometimes dissolved altogether. It was not until the late 1960s that migration control supporting the notion of “White Australia” was abolished and avenues for non-European migration opened up. Further, significant migration of diverse Asian groups has only taken place relatively recently, particularly through the decades where multiculturalism was Australia's official national policy; the 1980s and 1990s saw “newer” Asian communities from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China emerge in Australian society.

Today, Asian Australians comprise about 5% of the total Australian population, with Chinese Australians being one of the oldest cultural communities. Within the dynamic field of Asian Australian studies, Chinese Australian material dominates, and this is clearly the case in Asian Australian heritage studies. The Chinese Australian community is the most well-established ethnic community, with some families claiming sixth and seventh generation Chinese Australian status. Post-1945 migration to Australia by those of Chinese descent is dominated by a reliance on business/professional and education schemes.2 The Chinese Australian community itself is highly (p.211) diverse, with large representations from Southeast Asian source countries (e.g. Malaysia and Singapore), Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

The ways in which Asian migrants loom large as threats to Australia's sovereignty and culture are not elements of a colonial past, however, but very much a part of the Australian social environment even today. In a book about gold in Australia, historian Ann Curthoys argues:

These Chinese men perch at the edge of our historical consciousness, figures of fun and shame, a marker of our colonial origins and the colonial vestiges in our present culture. They truly were a harbinger, not of an invasion of millions of people as some feared, but of later dilemmas for policy makers and for citizens, dilemmas about immigration policy and citizenship, and of modern Australia's ambivalence about a place we call Asia.

(Curthoys 103–4)

The nation's “ambivalence” about Asia has meant decades of problematic political and economic grappling with Australia's “place” in the Asia-Pacific. Asians as threatening external competitors in commerce and regional political influence are juxtaposed uneasily with the presence of Asian Australian communities, whose treatment often reflects current public debates on immigration, multiculturalism, and cultural diversity.3 Bouts of anti-Asian sentiment recur in Australia, from the 1980s Blainey debate about Asian immigration4 to the mid-1990s, which saw the rise of the protectionist, anti-Asian political party, One Nation. Particularly during the latter instance, Australian commentators noted a marked trend towards cultural conservatism and a perception of “multiculturalism” as both divisive and passé.

The enduring notion of an “Australian” as only ever a white Australian persisted and was, if anything, reinforced by the rhetoric of the incumbent Coalition government (in power from 1996 to November 2007) and One Nation. Cultural critics Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese wrote that this “re-licensing of racism…target[ed] those racialized groups least conducive, corporeally and culturally, to the process of assimilation, and therefore least likely to be re-cycled into Anglo-Australians” (Perera and Pugliese 1). The verbal, and occasionally physical, attacks on Asian communities that were ushered in by One Nation's racist provocations had multiple outcomes. One of the most significant was that the communities felt under threat and socio-culturally disenfranchised by widelyaired comments that called their ability to belong to the nation into question. This spurred certain sectors of the Chinese community to political mobilization and activism, and these effects continue increasingly to make themselves felt in the fields of politics, the creative arts, and academia. Some consider the formation of “Chinese Australian” community groups in the aftermath of One Nation's success as self-serving (p.212) actions that were not elements of political change, radical or otherwise.5 Australia has a system of “clientelist” relations between ethnic groups and government institutions, and political sociologist Gianni Zappala argues that “the importance of ethnic associations in increasing the political participation of immigrants in their host societies is well known” (Zappala 157). The inter-group relations for Chinese Australian community associations or clubs can be highly competitive and fraught, as more fully outlined below, so Zappala's statement should not be read as easily optimistic. What has become apparent since the 1980s is the increasing number of community groups that give voice to various Asian Australians and, more recently, the ways in which these groups have formed coalitions to optimize political leverage. While their effectiveness and representational integrity will always be issues of constant debate, the opportunities afforded by their presence in the Australian public sphere have yet to be fully understood.6

III The Setting: Chinatown, Brisbane

Brisbane, Queensland's capital city, has “long [been] belittled by its southern counterparts as something of a ‘big country town,’ both culturally insular and xenophobic,” according to sociologist David Ip (Ip 69). The long reign of autocratic State Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent emergence of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party from the western Brisbane suburb of Oxley in the mid-1990s,7 are prime reasons why Brisbane seems to retain its parochial air despite its best efforts. Since the 1980s, Brisbane has been “anxious to rid itself of such negatively perceived images” (Ip 69), and the advent of mega-events, such as Expo 88, was read by many as the city's “coming of age.” In an article that examines this often misguided confidence, cultural studies scholar Tony Bennett argues that the success of the event lies less in putting Brisbane on the world-stage than in the effect of Expo on the local population: “Brisbane imaginarily leapfrogged itself over the shoulders of Sydney and Melbourne to bask in a temporary metropolitan status” (Bennett 32). The constant comparisons with its much larger, more heavily populated East Coast peers meant that Brisbane almost always lost in terms of population diversity and momentum; new migrants to Australia settle overwhelmingly in the urban centers of Sydney and Melbourne. This is especially true of new migrants from Asian source countries.8

Though the size of birthplace communities in Sydney and Melbourne are on a larger scale, the smaller population and lower number of groups means that focusing on Brisbane can be advantageous. Particularly in terms of examining (p.213) the ideas behind establishing CMoQ and community motivations in being involved, a more specific and smaller site lends itself to a more nuanced study.

Museums and other public history sites are increasingly recognizing Australia's diverse communities through expanding consultative processes, wider and more community participation, and acknowledging the exclusive nature of previous representations. The intertwining of historical and touristic discourses at many sites, coupled with escalating pressures to be more financially productive, result in complex negotiations of educational and entertainment potential. Sociologist and tourism researcher John Urry writes that “in recent years certain ethnic groups have come to be constructed as part of the ‘attraction’ or ‘theme’ of some places” (Urry 139), and, speaking as he mostly does of the context in the United Kingdom, he points to examples such as the marketing of Bradford's South Asian community as part of the city's points of interest. Urry also references the 1980s redevelopment of a particular area in Manchester as its “Chinatown,” a location that was “reconstructed and conserved as a now desirable object of the tourist gaze” (139). Critical “Chinatown literature” is an expansive and established field of research, from Kay Anderson's influential work on Canadian and Australian contexts9 and Flemming Christiansen's Chinatown, Europe (2003) to more specific modes of photographic and creative representations such as Anthony W. Lee's Picturing Chinatown (2001). The ways in which governmental and commercial interests deploy “Chinatowns” and other ethnic enclaves or heritage areas is described by Michel Laguerre as “maintain[ing] or enhanc[ing] the visibility of the landscape as a tourist attraction or…stabiliz[ing] a business sector that provided tax revenues” (Laguerre 4). Laguerre distinguishes several phases for a city's enclave development, marking the fifth phase of an enclave as “theme-parkization,” where “the neighbourhood is transformed into a commoditized site for tourists' consumption” (10). In Australia, certain urban and suburban renewal projects involve this form of “theme-parkization” outlined by Laguerre. In New South Wales, this is most apparent in the recent decade's marketing and renewal of Cabramatta, and the more recent designation of “Cabravale” (a merging of Cabramatta and its neighboring suburb Canley Vale) as a desirable commercial and cultural precinct. Shelley Kulperger and Sinta Widarsito describe 1997's “Cabramatta Project” as “an attempt to recode the suburb's image as one of providing exotic gastronomic delights.…[The suburb] became officially produced as not only an exemplary site of Australia's multicultural identity, but also as a metaphor for reflections about it” (Kulperger and Widarsito 10).

Ip's study of the creation of Brisbane's Chinatown in the inner-city suburb of Fortitude Valley, and the subsequent rise of the Chinese Australian “ethnoburb” in Sunnybank and its surrounds offers an excellent account of how these contrasting sites function in terms of tourist and local consumption (p.214) of these “Asian” precincts. Ip defines one of the main distinctions of Brisbane's Chinatown as the fact that it “emerged neither progressively over time, nor organically as the product of Chinese migrant residents and their local, socio-economic activities” (Ip 63). The deliberateness of its creation, attached strongly to rhetoric about how it would symbolize the city's successful and stimulating multiculturalism, was accompanied by a zealous drive for “authenticity” in its construction. Anderson, writing specifically about the Australian context, states:

In the case of Chinatowns, [attributing blame for orientalising only to white Australian government and business interests] is insufficiently subtle in that…certain traders and investors of Chinese origin have themselves participated in the orientalising of Chinatowns. Certain class fractions of the Chinese-origin population have joined state and local governments in commercialising “Chinese” difference.

(K. Anderson, “Otherness, Culture and Capital” 75)

Brisbane's Chinatown functions in similar ways, and it is positioned strongly as part of the inner city's urban renewal and marketing strategy. The precinct tries hard to connote cosmopolitanism and community diversity, and is presented as part of the city's cultural smorgasbord. Fortitude Valley has housed Brisbane's officially designated Chinatown since January 1987, with the Brisbane City Council and State government funding the establishment of the area. Duncan Street was deemed the heart of the commercial community and it subsequently became the “Chinatown Mall.” Eddie Liu, a high-profile Chinese community leader for many years, described the establishment of Brisbane's Chinatown as “a monument to the Chinese Community,” saying that “[it was] going to be a landmark, a status symbol and a testimony to friendly relationships between two important countries” (“Chinese Club of Queensland” 42). After a period of decline, which saw increasing numbers of vacant office and retail spaces, minimal use of the Mall and its surrounds, and the deterioration of facilities, the area was refurbished and re-launched in February 1996. Both times, when the Chinatown Mall was being designed and then redesigned, local authorities and community groups called on the expertise of mainland Chinese architects and artisans.

The chosen style of Brisbane's Chinatown is described as “ancient Tang Dynasty” (“Duncan Street” 1), and features positioned in the Mall (including the stone lions fronting the main entryway) are gifts from the People's Republic of China. Running parallel to the Duncan Street Chinatown Mall is the Brunswick Street Mall, a retail and entertainment strip that is touted by Brisbane Marketing as a place to “discover exclusive gifts with boutique retail shopping and bohemian markets” (“Chinese Club of Queensland” 44). These companion Malls are promoted jointly as the hub of Valley commerce (p.215)

Affirming Cosmopolitanism? Chineseness and the Chinese Museum of Queensland

Figure 5: Tseen Khoo, “Chinatown gateway, Ann Street side of the Duncan Street Mall.”

and activities; the advertising declares that it is “East meets West in this community of corners bustling with a colourful cross section of people, flavours and fashion” (“Chinese Club of Queensland” 44). Anna-Lisa Mak examines where Sydney's Dixon Street Chinatown appeared to be heading in its various incarnations and states that the “tourist function [was] beginning to outweigh other functions” (Mak 97). Mak's comment could apply to many Chinatown sites—Duncan Street included—but her argument that this “use of antiquated ‘traditional Chinese’ symbols to represent the Chinese community…failed to represent anything but a sterile, pre-digested version of a culture which omitted diversity and complexity” (96) fails to address the value that this symbolic space, however “inaccurate,” might have for the local Chinese communities who support and frequent it. Jan Lin's astutely contextualized study about New York's Chinatown discusses the competing demands of displaying “Chineseness” within these urban economic zones, stating that the “touristic presentation” is “not just a matter of functional cultural practices internal to the enclave but a performative repertoire of cultural displays that increasingly serve the consumptive and spectating demands of outsider audiences” (J. Lin 205). Lin's argument clarifies that while critique often centers on Chinatowns and how they function in terms of representation for external stakeholders, they should also be considered as vernacular zones of diverse cultural maintenance for the various communities under the umbrella of “Chinese,” and a site for economic and intra-communal dynamics. Chinatowns are indeed manufactured zones, yet this manufacturing does not empty the space of meaning for local communities, nor should activities held there be automatically dismissed as “inauthentic.” Chinatowns have multiple, contested meanings for different sectors of the community, and no single function eclipses others.

(p.216) IV The Chinatown Mall as site for heritage

This next section concentrates on the proposed establishment of the Chinese Museum in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley Chinatown. It focuses on the context of founding such an enterprise, and the motivations of members of the Museum steering committee. In the process of discussing this “marking” of tourism precincts in centralized urban spaces, I also briefly discuss the series of Chinatown storyboards that are part of the push to commemorate the contributory heritage of Chinese communities in Brisbane and Queensland.

One part of the Chinatown heritage plan was the installation of storyboards along the length of the Mall. These four, bright-red markers are meant to detail the position of Chinese communities within Chinatown itself, the area of Fortitude Valley, the city of Brisbane, and Queensland more generally. They were installed in 2004, after consultation with the Museum steering committee and other stakeholders.

Affirming Cosmopolitanism? Chineseness and the Chinese Museum of Queensland

Figure 6: Tseen Khoo, “Close-up of the first Chinatown storyboard, ‘Heart and soul of Chinatown’.”

The first, placed at the Wickham Street main entry and titled “Heart and soul of Chinatown,” refers to the Mall itself and boasts that the Valley's “Chinatown Mall is regarded as the most authentic in Australia.” Given the widely acknowledged mechanisms of constructing and maintaining “Chinatowns,” this statement is somewhat ironic, if not oxymoronic. The storyboard provides details about the building and refurbishment of the Mall and some information regarding the major Chinese community celebrations that are staged there, such as Chinese New Year and the 8th (Autumn) Moon Festival. Because of the centrality of Chinatown in perceptions of “where the Chinese are” in Brisbane, key community festivals are held there even though several “ethnoburbs” (such as Darra and Sunnybank) usually hold significant celebrations as well. (p.217)

Affirming Cosmopolitanism? Chineseness and the Chinese Museum of Queensland

Figure 7: Tseen Khoo, “Second storyboard marker in Brisbane's Chinatown.”

The second, titled “Oriental hub of the Valley,” talks about the history of the Fortitude Valley area and lists some of the Chinese traders present in the 1901 Business Directory. It broaches the issue of American servicemen in Brisbane boosting a growth in the number of Chinese restaurants, and the establishment of the Chinese Temple in Breakfast Creek. Given the scarce history of Chinese concentration in the area, as Ip outlines in “Contesting Chinatown,” this second storyboard attempts to embed a Chinese presence with, perhaps, more enthusiasm than accuracy.

The third marker, titled “Settling in the city,” tries to convey the Brisbane-wide story. However, the information on this storyboard and the second one overlap significantly with mentions, once again, of the growth in the number of restaurants because of the presence of American servicemen, and the creation of the Breakfast Creek temple.

The fourth and last storyboard, placed at the Ann Street end of the Duncan Street Mall and titled “Pioneers in a new land,” gives an overview of Chinese migration to Queensland since 1848. The storyboard talks about the Palmer River gold rush and the subsequent Chinese communities that formed in various North Queensland towns like Cairns, Innisfail, Herberton, and Atherton. It is by far the most content-rich and is also the only one to mention the White Australia Policy. It is also notable that the storyboard, in categorizing early Chinese groups as “pioneers,” echoes the conceit of colonial Australian narratives that ignore indigenous presence and their histories.

(p.218) The other storyboards contain information about census counts of Chinese in various areas, but no mention is made of immigration restrictions or the significant anti-Chinese riots in the Fortitude Valley and city areas in 1888.10 This is perhaps not surprising given the purpose of these Chinatown markers in guiding tourists (local and otherwise) to the area. Jennifer Craik, when writing about tourism in Australia and experiences of outback tours, states that “most visitors want an experience that is mediated, cossetted or inoculated” (Craik 103). This tendency, coupled with ethnic communities' widely acknowledged desire to avoid a “black armband view of history,”11 means that representations of Chinese history in Queensland and Brisbane will tend to be a sanitized and celebratory affair. In general, the Chinese “heritage” of a region offers information and displays in which incidents of racist violence or isolation are almost always included, but they are also defused by their allocation and packaging as historical fact, as events of the past.

From my experience on the CMoQ committee, past which versions of the storyboard text and design were run, it was clear that the momentum of the storyboard installation project came mainly from Brisbane Marketing, the official City Council agency that promotes the city and its surrounding regions. At the time of their consultation in 2003–04, there was some pressure to accept the wording and design, particularly because it was the lead-up to Chinese New Year, and Brisbane Marketing was hoping to launch them at the large public celebrations.

This outline of the geocultural context of Brisbane's Chinatown and the suburb of Fortitude Valley gives an idea of the complex, often ongoing, issues in this area. It is in this commercial, community, and heritage space that the proposed Chinese Museum of Queensland will be established.

V The Museum

According to one of the original steering committee members, the initial idea for a Chinese Museum in Fortitude Valley was broached at a Queensland Chinese Forum meeting in 1993.12 At the time, there was not enough interest to take it further. On November 5, 2003, the initial meeting for the establishment of the Chinese Museum steering committee took place in the TC Beirne building, a development that faces both the Duncan and Brunswick Street Malls. Even though it was described as a public meeting, anecdotal advice suggests that most attendees were there by invitation from certain representatives, or as proxies for community group leaders. Indeed, there was anxiety expressed by a few attendees that the project would be “stacked” with certain groups at the (p.219) expense of others. Community politics researcher Jen Tsen Kwok has written about the “strategic utility of ‘Chineseness’” and states that:

Internal competition within Chinese communities for access to these institutional resources problematise clientelist relationships with political institutions.

[He argues that] Part of the “relevance” of the ethnic performance in political contexts arises in legitimising a community leader, or a community group's access to ethnic symbols, not only for these political institutions but also in raising the prestige of these individuals and groups within their own communities.

(Kwok 7)

The suggested strategic and exclusive patterns of attendance should come as no surprise, then, considering Kwok's analysis and given the perceived prestige of being involved in such a high-profile exercise. That said, contestation about leaders from the Chinese community and their representativeness are a constant element of minority/majority politics.

At this initial meeting, during the speeches and outlining of the project, one of the Museum of Brisbane curators spoke briefly about the purpose of the proposed museum and the importance of presenting a balanced version of history. It was apparent that the Brisbane City Council, the prime funder of the Museum's initial stages, was wary of CMoQ turning into a hagiographic or purely celebratory exercise. It was emphasized that, while the establishment of the Museum was indeed a celebration of Chinese presence and contribution to the area, city, and the state, the Museum's content should reflect both successes and difficulties.

At the end of the preliminary information session, outlines of the proposed Chinatown storyboards were handed out and there was a call for volunteers to participate on the Museum's steering committee. Automatically on the steering committee was then councillor (now deputy-mayor) David Hinchliffe, a man credited with driving the establishment of the Museum through Brisbane City Council channels. The remainder of the committee was made up of community association leaders, Chinese Australian community historians, an academic historian, a representative from Brisbane Marketing, one from the Valley Chamber of Commerce, and myself.

The Museum is to be housed in the TC Beirne building and the Council committed AUD15K in starting funds for the project. Since November 2003, the Museum has become an incorporated entity and had a preliminary version of a website created (though it is currently still not publicly accessible). The steering committee was dissolved and the project is now in the hands of a management committee. In June 2006, CMoQ was successful in securing an (p.220) additional AUD50K from the Brisbane City Council. According to the CMoQ (“Media Release,” June 29, 2006), these additional funds will:

  1. 1. secure and set up a temporary site for the Museum;

  2. 2. commence campaigns to raise medium term operating funds;

  3. 3. conduct community awareness programs for the long term survival of the Museum.

Unfortunately, a date for CMoQ to come into material existence remains elusive, with the initial Museum site now rejected because of difficulties negotiating a lease. The Brisbane City Council is continuing the search for an appropriate site to house the Museum in the Chinatown Mall. Meanwhile, the Museum committee has started plans for a virtual exhibition, as well as collecting resources for the Museum's inaugural show.

My ongoing research on CMoQ is interested in the resulting material space and its exhibits as much as the processes of creating such a cultural community resource. In April 2005, I interviewed a selection of the initial Museum steering committee members about their motivations for joining such a project, why they thought a Museum was necessary and what they felt it signified. The results of these interviews are necessarily informed by my own time on the committee, some of which was in the capacity of committee secretary. I chose to interview particular committee members who would provide a sample representation from within the group: chair (Peter Low) and deputy chair (Jeannie Mok) are high-profile members of the team who have established connections with local and state government bodies, as well as occupied leading roles within various Chinese community organizations. They are also involved in a range of broader committees and executives; for example, Low is on the Board of Directors for the Port of Brisbane Corporation and Mok created the Multicultural Community Centre in Fortitude Valley. The other two members I interviewed were Leong Teoh and Leonie Leong. Teoh is an interested member of the Brisbane Chinese community who had also been involved with the Malaysian Club of Queensland. Leong's community efforts have focused on mobilizing Chinese youth to find out about their history in Australia; she was involved in the Chinese-Australian Historical Association (as inaugural president) and a range of cultural arts and multimedia projects exploring oral history and genealogy.

For the purposes of this chapter, I want to foreground three types of responses to the idea of establishing the Museum. The interviewees expressed contrasting versions of “Chineseness” and discussed what being Chinese means to them in contemporary Australia through the notion of being part of establishing a Chinese museum. They configured the CMoQ project variously as: (p.221)

  • a legacy;

  • a corrective education measure; and

  • a form of cultural insurance.

These elements interconnect a great deal and I will tease them apart here for discussion's sake.

First, the notion of “a legacy”: This was the sentiment most expressed by the interviewees about the establishment of the Museum, that it would function as a legacy for themselves and the Chinese community in the city and the state. The Museum was conceived of as addressing Chinese heritage and history at the levels of area (meaning Fortitude Valley), city, and state. The specific envisioning of the museum as a legacy was discussed in detail by three of the four interviewees. Their view of Chinatown itself was very much in terms of the area as a memorial to Chinese contribution; as Mok commented, “[The Museum] is going to be a continual reminder, even as a Chinatown in every city is” (1). Indeed, the very existence of a Chinatown was viewed, as Eddie Liu aptly stated earlier, as “a status symbol.” The designation of Chinatown as the site for the Museum has met with general approval. Some think of it as a perfectly logical and complementary site. Others have commented that it would be more appropriate these days to place it in Sunnybank. Sunnybank is one of the suburbs of Brisbane that has a high concentration of Chinese communities and commercial concerns. In what is a familiar cycle to many scholars of the Chinese diaspora, it is considered the “new” Chinatown, much more dynamic, organic, and “authentic” in terms of everyday community interactions. Low, chair of the steering committee, discussed this issue at length and said, “Sunnybank is not recognised by the [Brisbane City] Council as a ‘Chinatown.’ I don't think the Council will ever approve a second Chinatown, there's no two Chinatowns in one town anywhere in the world, so whoever disagrees with it will have to put up with it, that it's going to be in Chinatown [in the Valley]” (Low 2). The Chinatown storyboards shown earlier make no mention whatsoever of other areas in Brisbane with concentrations of Chinese communities, such as Sunnybank or Darra. Low goes on to state that the Valley landmark is recognized outside of Brisbane, and is viewed as “where the Chinese are.” So, even as local recognition of “where the Chinese are” shifts, the site of concentrated Chinese heritage and history in the Valley is set to become even more embedded as a community legacy through CMoQ's establishment. This functions as a process of legitimating Chinese presence in the city and, by extension, the state and nation.

The second stream of motivation for establishing this Chinese Museum, according to my interviews, is as “a corrective educational measure.” All the interviewees talked about how the “real” contributions and history of Chinese (p.222) communities and individuals are not represented in current institutions or material—and by this they meant other museum exhibits, textbooks about Australian history, and the public sphere in general. They were generally critical of existing museums and their perceived inability (or refusal) to give Chinese Australian histories their due. Teoh commented on how the “dead objects” in current museums have no relevance to his son, while Leong points to the importance of taking history to the community, not keeping it behind glass in “dusty, crusty types of museums” (L. Leong 1). All interviewees expressed the importance of knowing these Chinese Australian histories, and the pressing current need for documentation and oral histories to be gathered as key community members are becoming older. The familiar anomaly here is that the interviewees are almost all from Southeast Asia, and are first or second generation in Australia. The colonial history of the Chinese in Queensland is not “theirs” per se but, as Marita Sturken has argued with regard to cultural memory, “[w]e need to ask not whether a memory is true but rather what its telling reveals about how the past affects the present” (Sturken 2). In a similar way, the desire of these members to create a museum that they view as a corrective measure reveals the extent to which the past can be mobilized for contemporary affirmation.

This longing for a connection to deeper histories in Queensland and Australia leads to the third reason articulated by interviewees for helping in the establishment of the Valley's Chinese Museum. They view its creation and purpose as part of a corrective project, with these corrections becoming “a form of cultural insurance.” Mok, who considers herself “activated” by the Blainey debate and ensuing anti-Asian sentiments in 1984, spelled this out most explicitly when she stated that “when one's aware of those sorts of things [i.e. Chinese Australian history and, more specifically, their contributions]…who is anybody to tell us that [we] shouldn't come in” (Mok 1). She believed that “part and parcel” of asserting one's right to belong is “to show your contributions” (1). Low lamented his lack of knowledge about Chinese Australian history during the rise of Pauline Hanson and the subsequent founding and popularity of the One Nation Party. In particular, he talked at length about his involvement with the Chinese servicemen's commemorative bell that was installed and launched in the Duncan Street Mall in March 2007. He says: “The whole reason why I'm backing this project on the memorial [bell] is because I wanted people to know that there were Chinese that fought for Australia. A lot of people don't know. I wish I knew about it before Pauline Hanson” (Low 3). This latter point of Queensland and Brisbane communities having more to prove in terms of Chinese Australian belonging and worth is one that came through the interviews as well as during committee meetings. The state and city are the birthplaces of One Nation and (p.223) its founder, as mentioned above, and this is something that obviously has a continuing effect on Brisbane's Chinese Australian communities in terms of their need to redeem their city's multicultural and cosmopolitan credentials, as well as justify their place in the nation.

VI Conclusion

This chapter has been a preliminary discussion about issues surrounding the establishment of the Chinese Museum of Queensland in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. The fact that the museum does not yet physically exist points, of course, to the ongoing nature of this research. The complexities of creating a racialized museum space such as CMoQ, within the confines of a designated ethnocultural precinct such as Chinatown, reflect the variety of perspectives present in efforts to represent contemporary Brisbane and Queensland.

For fairly obvious economic reasons, a cosmopolitan “face” for the city is a major priority for its tourist bodies and Fortitude Valley's business bureaus. What does this appeal to and showcasing of the cosmopolitan mean for community-driven projects such as CMoQ in the longer term? Can the Chinese community of Brisbane maintain its momentum and vision to create an entity that speaks beyond particular group interests and endures after the initial glare of publicity and interest? The contentions that took place in committee meetings (many common to all community projects, such as communication difficulties, lack of administrative support, and uneven workloads) and that will continue to surface at each point of development can be frustrating. Rey Chow argues that these competing voices demonstrate the awareness that:

there is no unanimity, no absolute consensus on this issue; that conflict is actually a locus of reproduction and regeneration; and that even the most long-held and cherished assumptions about the ethnic culture are contestable and potentially dismantleable.

(Chow, Protestant Ethnic 190)

Representing the malleability and constructed nature of Chineseness appears to be an aim that is counterproductive for a Chinese Museum. However, if the Museum hopes to engage its local communities as much as tourists and other visitors to Chinatown, future exhibitions will inevitably need to tread a fine line between defining and deconstructing what Chineseness in Australia can mean. Ip argues that the newer “ethnoburbs,” such as Sunnybank in Brisbane, are “a much more grounded and integrated locale increasingly (p.224) representative of life in contemporary Australian cities,” and more convincing in their cosmopolitanism because of, among other things, their “‘spontaneous’ emergence” (Ip 73). Given the crafted nature of Chinatowns and their role in signifying a cosmopolitan city, they could be viewed as areas that “museumize” Chineseness with the antiquated accoutrements that Mak mentions earlier. The challenge for CMoQ is to resist being merely a museum within a museum, and to connect with the localized, organic facets of its Chinese communities while performing its informative role.


(1.) Relevant recent works that focus on the White Australia Policy and its ramifications for Australia's contemporary socio-political context include those of John Fitzgerald, James Jupp, and Laksiri Jayasuriya et al

(2.) The biggest exception to this is the asylum offered to mainland Chinese students in 1989 by then Prime Minster Bob Hawke in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square riots.

(3.) See Ien Ang 2001, Tseen Khoo 2003, Chapter 1.

(p.258) (4.) The “Blainey Debate” arose from comments made by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey that criticized the numbers of (Southeast) Asian migrants arriving in Australia. His argument was that these groups would erode Australia's social cohesion and the migrants would take “Australian jobs.” These comments inflamed considerations about the desirability of Asians as immigrants and resulted in many public discussions. For a range of resources pertaining to this debate, search the Making Multicultural Australia site (

(5.) See Tseen Khoo, Jen Tsen Kwok, and Chek Ling, “Chinese Voices”; also see Chek Ling's work.

(6.) A study that will hopefully rectify this is Jen Tsen Kwok's pending doctoral thesis (University of Queensland), titled “Chinese Australian Political Cultures and Subcultures in Multicultural Australia.” The dissertation focuses in particular on Chinese Australian politicians and political candidates.

(7.) Bjelke-Petersen was state premier for nineteen years (1968–87) and notorious for his corrupt political tactics (as exposed by the [Tony] Fitzgerald Inquiry into his government). Hanson and her One Nation Party rose to power in the mid-1990s on a platform of highly controversial anti-Aboriginal and anti-Asian rhetoric, and policies such as “abolishing multiculturalism” (One Nation Federal Policy document [accessed February 24, 2007]: au/Policy%20document.htm). Considered a minor party that espoused extremist policies, it ceased to be a federal party in 2005.

(8.) ABS, 4102.0Australian Social Trends, 2004

(9.) For example, see Kay J. Anderson 1991 and 1990.

(10.) See Raymond Evans 2004 and 1998.

(11.) This term was first coined by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey (see Blainey, “Drawing up a Balance Sheet of Our History”) and has since been embraced by conservative politicians and commentators alike when opposing “political correctness” and alternative histories.

(12.) The Queensland Chinese Forum is an association of local Chinese community groups in Brisbane. Being one of the longest surviving ethnic organizations in Queensland, it has a political profile with Queensland governments (state and local) and its fair share of leadership and managerial controversies.