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Still the bell tolls: Brisbane’s Kristallnacht

Night of Broken Glass Brisbane
Ding Chee's shop was attacked and looted by a racist mob, which rampaged for four hours. There was little hindrance from police

| Pearls & Irritations | Edited extracts

MELBOURNE - It happened 133 years ago. Yet the Chinese Question remains, having now mutated to the China Question.

Meanwhile the burden upon the Chinese as scapegoats, at the altar of racial purity in the first instance, cultural cohesion a century later and more recently the issue of national sovereignty continues unabated.

One Saturday night in May 1888, a white mob of up to 2,000 threw stones at premises occupied by Chinese in Brisbane city. 

As glass shattered, the Chinese hid in fear of their lives.

Towards midnight the mob was dispersed by police.

One white person was charged, but a few months later he was declared not guilty by an all-white jury.

A fictitious edict indicated Chinese were planning to conquer Australia (cartoon from  Queensland Figaro and Punch,  1888)

The Chinese asked for compensation for their loss. The Queensland government refused.

The incident occurred on election night in Brisbane.

The Opposition Leader had won by an unprecedented margin and was on his way home to Toowong after delivering his victory speech to a rapturous crowd.

Ding Chee was seen chasing a white youth who had taken goods from his shop without paying.

Ding was wrestled to the ground and relieved of his wallet but managed to get back to his shop.

At that moment a stone broke his shop window. Many more followed. The attackers then looted the shop.

The rampage went on for four hours, with little hindrance from police.

Why did that incident lead to attacks on all Chinese premises in Brisbane?

The Chinese Question has been festering for decades and political opportunism played a big part.

In the lead up to that election, Opposition Leader Sir Thomas McIlwraith campaigned for the “total and immediate exclusion” of Chinese in Queensland.

The newspapers cheered him on.

A Thomas_McIlwraith
Sir Thomas McIlwraith called for the “total and immediate exclusion” of Chinese in Queensland

On the morning of the election a cartoon appeared depicting Sir Thomas on horseback wielding a whip at weird, cowardly-looking Chinamen.

And on election morning, the last instalment of William Lane’s serialised novella, White or Yellow, was published in his weekly newspaper, The Boomerang.

That last chapter described white vigilantes killing the evil Chinese characters and throwing their bodies into the sea.

Over the previous year or more, Lane had published in the Brisbane Courier a series of ‘investigative’ articles vilifying Chinese concentrated in a poorer part of the city, Frog’s Hollow.

The articles claimed they ran hostels and opium, and gambling dens, and attracted white prostitutes.

The die was cast. The population was primed for an attack upon the Chinese.

 All it needed was a little incident at the wrong moment, and the unthinkable took off.

The bell tolls.

In 2020 the Chinese in Australia were treated as the harbingers of the Covid pandemic.

Once more, the White Australia virus emerged in a polity weakened by corruption and political opportunism.

That visitation has now mutated into China’s threat to Australia’s sovereignty and the dubious trustworthiness of Chinese-Australian loyalty to Australia.

It seemed a khaki election campaign was being hatched for a second Morrison miracle and we have seen elements of that in the first week of campaigning in relation to Solomon Islands.

A The Australian Natives' Association created the White Australia badge to identify the wearer's racial loyalty  1910
The Australian Natives' Association created the White Australia badge to identify the wearer's racial loyalty (1910)

Yet the disparate leaders within the Chinese diaspora in Australia are deaf to the tolling of the White Australia bell.

Most know little about the history and even less about how to be effective in our political system.

Amongst the huayi leaders, born and bred in the ex-white colonies of Asia, the comprador outlook persists.

See no evil, hear no evil, do no evil. Be good docile boys and girls and get rewarded with medals, seats on advisory committees and even sinecures in State upper houses.

It is among the more recent arrivals where people talk of calling out discrimination, human rights violations or misinformation about China.

Sadly the current batch of leaders does not see or dare not face the need to reform the political culture of Australia, the chosen homeland for our children and grandchildren.

What can Chinese Australians do?

Stand up. Stand up for Integrity in public life.

It was lack of Integrity in public life that led to Brisbane’s Night of Broken Glass in 1888: the Chinese Question was politicised for electioneering purposes.

In 2020, the Covid Question was politicised.

And there are signs that the government might well continue to politicise the China Question for the May 2022 election.

Through these political manipulations, the Chinese in Australia have suffered with little protection, just as those Chinese suffered in Brisbane’s Night of Broken Glass in 1888.

How are they to stand up?

They should wage a campaign to urge fellow Chinese Aussies, and all Aussies, to vote for Independents and to Vote Below-The-Line for the best candidates rather than in accordance with the wishes of the parties.

Corruption, policy paralysis and sundry afflictions upon our body politic are well-known: sports rorts; climate policy bogged down in ideological jousting; still no anti-corruption commission; no significant action beyond platitudes to redress the abuse of women; no end in sight to right the wrongs done to the original inhabitants of this land.

Trust in our politicians is at an all-time low. With each new poll, trust in the old Liberal and Labor duopoly is eroding.

For the first time we will see a significant number of ‘Voices of Community’ candidates, unaligned to any party or group, offering themselves at a Federal election.

A 1 In 3 Chinese Australians faced discrimination in 2020
Loyalty in question: 1 In 3 Chinese Australians faced discrimination in 2020

So far, compared with the average quality of our current MPs, all are outstanding: well educated, with professional experience, age and maturity, and commitment to reform in critical areas of our afflicted polity.

This is a moment Chinese Australians should seize, for the sake of their descendants and indeed for the descendants of all who inhabit this land.

Why do this?

We desperately need a Disruption to reform our political culture.

If the polls are reliable it is likely we will end up with a minority government requiring the support of Independents, and the Greens if they are lucky.

We should grasp this moment and make it happen by supporting Independents at this critical time.

It is not inconceivable that when Independents hold the balance of power, they will insist on the adoption of proportional representation in the Lower House, as has been successfully adopted in New Zealand.

Given our winner-take-all political culture, that would be a new dawn. The quality and diversity of MPs would change, almost overnight.

The mafia-like grip of factions would wither over time and parliament itself would become more civilised. Then our democracy would breathe with decongested lungs.

Chinese-Australian leaders should stand up and do what is good for our country, the homeland of our descendants, in what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Identify one or more Voices of Community candidates who Chinese-Australians can support materially in each State.

For me, as a Chinese-Australian, it’s like going to a restaurant. We choose what we think we would like. Voices of Community candidates would inject a much-needed tonic into our afflicted body politic.

The entire focus will be on reforming the political culture of this homeland of our heirs.

In 1998, against the conventional wisdom of petitions, the Queensland Chinese Forum launched a public rebuke of the State Liberal Party, then in government, for directing its preference to the Pauline Hanson Party in the coming State election.

The subsequent media release achieved success unprecedented. For weeks we were reported in the media: broadsheets, tabloids, radio, even a live appearance on a Saturday national TV program.

I feel confident that this time Chinese Aussies can not only succeed but can in fact leave a legacy that all Australians would be proud of for all time.

Most of all, it would change the cultural and political outlook of Chinese-Australians forever.

A Chek Ling
Chek Ling

It’s time: well past time in fact.

After arriving in Melbourne in 1962 to study electrical engineering, Chek Ling spent his career in the oil, water, and electricity sectors. In 1984 Geoffrey Blainey sparked his interest in the place of the Chinese in Australia


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Bernard Corden

I wonder what Butcher Mayne was up to during all the commotion?

Lindsay F Bond

Illustration of industriousness of chaps from China:

A family of my Victorian forebears departed 'Smelbourne' and went to the diggings field known as Grassy Gully (Dereel) in the early 1860s, and would have encountered something of those enterprising orientated diggers.

A celebrated image is that of trekking lines of chaps intent on prospects at Ballarat and Bendigo filing past the Flemington Hotel, not diverting to the pub.

That alone might have differentiated Chinese diggers from many other prospective men, though I have no actual record of my forebear's preference for refreshments.

Discontent among diggers with too little plundered from the land (not free to take but colonial revenue paid) drove many to industrial employment, at deeper mines, railways and for the colonial government.

A more enlightened conversation ought yet expand on how we might share care and health of Oz-land.

Chris Overland

I can only strongly endorse Mr Chek Ling's call to arms to all Australians, including Chinese Australians, to direct their votes to independent candidates at the coming election.

Neither of the major parties any longer represent the interests and ideas of most Australians.

They both draw their candidates from an ever diminishing gene pool of political professionals and those special interest groups that they really represent.

My own electorate of Mayo, once the most blue of blue riband Liberal seats, is now in the hands of an intelligent, rational and strongly community oriented independent.

Although formerly a member of the Liberal Party she realised that its membership no longer reflected main stream aspirations and values.

She has won three elections so far and will certainly be returned to Parliament at the next one.

Chinese Australians now constitute about 6% of the population and are widely represented in virtually every area of Australian society.

While no longer subject to the sort of overt racism referenced in Mr Ling's article, there remain festering pockets of prejudice and suspicion, notably within the ranks of the conservative right from which the Liberal and National parties tend to draw support.

It is therefore in their collective interests to use their formidable voting power to elect Parliamentarians who will put in place the legislative structures needed to minimise the impact of these groups and, co-incidentally, create a much better system of governance for us all.

As Mr Ling has noted, the implementation of a revised electoral system which featured multi-member electorates with candidates elected by proportional representation, would lead to a Parliament that better reflected the breadth of community opinion and thinking about how the country should be governed.

Such a system, combined with a powerful Federal ICAC, would be fiercely resisted by the major parties as their ability to effectively control the governance of the country would be hugely diminished.

This is a much more important issue than whether or not Australia becomes a republic. This should never be allowed to occur whilst the major political parties continue to dominate and control the national political and governance processes.

A revised electoral process such as I have described would enhance the capacity of currently unrepresented minority groups like Chinese Australians to put people in Parliament who understood the issues that confronted them and influence the political process to their benefit.

After all, that is what representative democracy is supposed to do.

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