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Free speech, bigotry, from a Chinese Australian perspective

By Chek Ling - posted Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Since the release of the Exposure Draft, the media have canvassed personal observations on how free speech has caused unconscionable suffering to those not in a position to defend themselves. Henry Herzog ‘s letter in the Australian on 7 April 2014 is a succinct example.

I would like to add my observations, as a Chinese Australian who came here in 1962 as a Colombo Plan student from Sarawak, imbued with the vision of a beauteous God-loving white society that the joyful matronly Southern Methodist missionaries from America had planted in my soul during my primary school years. 

It took the anti-Asian campaign of Professor Geoffrey Blainey in 1984 for me to hear the wake-up call!  Twelve years later, in 1996, the apparent endorsement of Pauline Hanson’s tirade against Asian Australians by John Howard, the PM, a Methodist converted to Anglicanism, put paid to my rosy outlook that multiculturalism had blossomed on the terrain of our racist past. And when Kim Beasley, the Opposition Leader, a Catholic, caved in to John Howard’s opportunistic scapegoating of the Tampa asylum seekers during the 2001 election campaign, my faith in our political leaders doing the right thing when circumstances demand, plummeted. In all this, the media played an enthusiastic role in selectively fertilising the populist strain, and manoeuvred political leaders into straying from their ethical and moral bearings. 


When the Chinese first appeared in any number during the Victorian gold rush in the 1850s they were subject to free speech torments and intimidation: face to face, in newspapers, and in rallies.

And as newspaper articles and cartoons of the time attest they were treated as vermin for the half century before Federation. In time they also became convenient scapegoats for the major political parties, a fate that seems to have befallen the asylum seekers who have come by boat since the Tampa machinations of 2001.

“Free speech” gave birth to developments which condemned the Chinese in Australia to a hundred years of systematic and institutionalised oppression until after the end of WWII.

One brief re-telling of Brisbane’s own Night of Broken Glass will remind us of the vulnerability and callousness of civil society to untrammelled free speech from those with personal or political agendas and ready access to the media.  

At about 8pm, Saturday, 5 May 1888, a ‘Chinaman’ was seen chasing a white youth running from that Chinaman’s tobacconist shop into Albert St. The lad had not paid for goods he had taken.  In no time the Chinaman was set upon by a bunch of white youths who knocked him to the ground and relieved him of his wallet. Realising his mistake, Ding Chee turned tail and managed to get back into his shop. It was then that the first stone crashed onto a glass window on the upper storey. In the ensuing  four hours a white mob, reaching 2000 at its peak, managed to stone, and loot at will, most if not all Chinese premises in Brisbane city and the Fortitude Valley.

It was election night, and most of the crowd tarrying in Albert St had remained to celebrate the anticipated victory of the Opposition Leader, Sir Thomas McIlraith. They were rewarded: he won by an unprecedented margin. He had campaigned on the ‘total and immediate exclusion of the Chinese’. The Premier, Sir Samuel Griffith, had pleaded that the Chinese question was essentially resolved by various legislation which had reduced the number of Chinese in the colony. But the media and cultural warriors were adamant that only Sir Thomas would do to rid them of the Chinese. There were then 200 Chinese in Brisbane, one to every 430 Europeans – just .23% of the population. Yet the people in Brisbane were readily duped into believing that they were being swamped by these despicable celestials from an unyieldingly ancient and heathen empire.


In due course the Brisbane Supreme Court found Robert Walsh, the only man arrested on the night, not guilty of malicious damage to property; and soon afterward the Queensland Government declined a request from the Chinese for compensation.

What was the role of free speech in all this?

On the morning of the election The Boomerang published the 12th and last weekly episode of William Lane’s dystopian novel of race war, White or Yellow. Ray Evans wrote:

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About the Author

Chek Ling arrived in Melbourne in 1962 to study engineering, under the Colombo Plan, from the then British Colony of Sarawak, now part of Malaysia. Decades later, the anti-Asian episodes fomented by Blainey and later Hanson turned him into a mature age activist.

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