Operation Babylift 1975

The Australian arm of Operation Babylift, which involved an audacious international rescue of Vietnamese orphans right before Saigon fell to the advancing communists on 30 April 1975, saw its use of North Head Quarantine Station as a place of temporary respite for these “Asiatics”. By that time, however, the public opinion and mood regarding immigration of non-Europeans had changed dramatically from the core tenet of the racially exclusive Federation, and the Whitlam government used the opportunity of Operation Babylift to practically dismantle the White Australia Policy, which had become a historical burden on Australia when it came to a closer engagement with its Asia-Pacific neighbours, which included the Vietnam War.


Quarantine as white power

Enacted by an act of parliament, quarantine required the use of extraordinary powers: the sick and those who had been in contact with the sick were forced to be removed from their familiar surroundings and to stay instead in an utterly unfamiliar, institutionalised setting in a remote place for what could be a rather long period of time. Unlike a vacation, which also involves being away, internees in quarantine were isolated and segregated and placed under constant surveillance: they lost the basic freedom to do as they pleased, as one would in normal life. Quarantine was a situation in which one’s sense of place became seriously disrupted; there was a sudden rupture in the everyday human comportment to spatiality. The temporality of time, too, became abnormal, for the length of one’s quarantine was never a question of one’s choice. The democratic notion of consultation with the “impacted” with the view to seeking their feedback and input was never part of the equation when it came to quarantine. In quarantine, life was suspended – apparently for one’s own good, and for the good of society. And in the case of a dangerous disease such as plague or smallpox, one could die in quarantine, never to go back home and to one’s loved ones.

Quarantine as a political tool

Quarantine, being an institution to protect public health and to facilitate trade (Customs), was in Australian history subject to the ideological dictates of those in power: the white men. In order to keep Australia “white” after the conquest of Aboriginal Australia by their forebears, these men ruled at the exclusion of humans who were not of their kind by virtue of the otherness in their skin colour, language and customs.

During the May 1881-February 1882 smallpox epidemic in Sydney, the first identified case was the little boy of a Chinese labourer living at the Rocks.

As explained in McCreery and McKenzie (2013), quarantine became the tool of white nationalism in the quarantine of the Chinese passengers from SS Ocean and SS Brisbane, when none of them actually had smallpox or had been in contact with those who had (McCreery and McKenzie, 2013, p. 583).

To settle with the view to prosper is to colonise

Australia, as a modern nation, was born as a result of the global reaches of the British Empire; it was the product of an imperial colonialism. The first settlers to arrive in Australia – fair-skinned British subjects – wasted no time in establishing a polity to safeguard their interests. The Federation of 1901 only served to unite the self-interests of the earlier Colonies under the modern banner of nationalism. In view of this, the Chinese, who came in significant large numbers during the Gold Rush and were inheritors of an imperial and expansionist tradition far older than that of the British, were perceived by white Australians as a threat to their position of self-styled superiority over Indigenous Australians, who never had a “sovereign” say in which stranger could come and stay in their country, which, in contrast to the British notion of the Empire and the Chinese notion of the Middle Kingdom, and also to the modern notion of nation, was both an embodiment and a spirituality of the unity of human and earth. Meanwhile, the stunted growth of our national psyche continues through lack of restoration of justice.

The White Australia Policy was an instrument used by one kind of colonists to protect themselves against the potential challenge posed by colonists of another kind. Both were motivated by gain, even if one was oppressed by the other. The postwar abolition of the White Australia Policy further dispossessed Indigenous Australians in their peaceful efforts to reclaim their country and their identity. For a genuine reconciliation to happen in our generation, there has to be a third way – out of the historic animosities between Asians and Europeans in Australia.

Racial determination: Innengard and Utgard in quarantine and in society

Major quarantine stations in Australia such as North Head and Point Nepean, which segregated non-Europeans from European Australians and European immigrants, each acted, in its historicity, as the contested ground for the opposing forces between strategic oppression by the white authorities and the passive resistance of the coloured internees. On the general level, the same forces were being played out in Australian society as a whole under the White Australia Policy. Quarantine stations were microcosmic reflections of the highly racially determined Australian ethos of the time, which rejected any notion of an integrated citizenship but preferred the ancient dichotomy of Innengard and Utgard as described in the Old Norse sagas. In terms of public health control, this allowed for populist scapegoating of those outside the white Innengard as sources of dangerous infectious diseases that threatened to bring down its superior order, progress and prosperity.

Yi (邑): Chinese sense of place

Yi (邑), which literally means “county”, actually implies, on the hermeneutic level, a far more evocative and reflective attunement to a unique cultural sense of place that defines the traditional, earthbound Chinese attitude. For the Chinese, existence is not merely presence in spatiality, but an existential reference to place – what the German philosopher Heidegger describes as the engagement with the “placeness” of place (Örtlichkeit der Orte) as the “placehood” (Ortschaft) of being (Heidegger, 1996). Yi, in essence, is existential topology. In its meaningfulness, yi is also the voice of the Chinese people. Often found on Chinese gravestones in foreign lands, yi speaks beyond death, hence beyond the temporal limitations of an individual’s temporality.

SS Tsinan – a Chinese inscription of gratitude

One of the Chinese calligraphic inscriptions on the sandstone wall in the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station includes the words “ganjie” (“感激”), which means “heartfelt thanks”. It was written by a Chinese crew member or passenger from SS Tsinan, which in the late 19th century was a new steamship operated by the British-owned China Navigation Company to facilitate trade between Hong Kong and the colonies of the British Empire, which included Australia.
So why thanks for the inconvenience of the quarantine experience at North Head? Although the dating of the inscription is today illegible, my hypothesis is that it was written during Tsinan‘s quarantine at North Head in March 1903. Travelling from Townsville to Sydney, the ship survived a cyclone in Far North Queensland in the capable hands of Captain Lindbergh and his crew, but not without loss of “an anchor and 60 fathoms of chain” (Evening News, 16 March 1903, p. 4). It can be imagined that the passengers on board, both Chinese and European, arrived in Port Jackson with a great sense of relief.

The crew and passengers from SS Tsinan were quarantined at North Head on 13 March 1903 (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1903, p. 8) and were released from quarantine three days later on 16 March 1903 (Evening News, 16 March 1903, p. 4). Prior to Tsinan‘s arrival in Sydney, its second engineer and a Chinese crew member were removed at Townsville; the former developed symptoms of smallpox and the latter, symptoms that were suspected to be smallpox (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1903, p. 8).

As to the steamship itself, it was first detained in the quarantine limit at Watsons Bay, where its crew and passengers were then transferred to North Head. At Watsons Bay Tsinan was fumigated, after which it went to Neutral Bay where its cargo was unloaded. After that was done, it went into quarantine at North Head (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1903, p. 8).

Chinese Lantern Festival

Among the badly faded Chinese calligraphic inscriptions on the sandstone rocks in the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station is one that stands out in terms of the timing of the inscription itself. In it a Chinese person from SS Taiyuan, then a regular maritime visitor to Australia from Hong Kong, made reference to the date of writing as “Yuanxiao” (元宵), which is an auspicious time in the traditional Chinese calendar, a time that brings families, friends and communities together in celebratory public space: the Lantern Festival.

Yuanxiao falls on the 15th day of the first month in the Chinese calendar, when the moon is full. Going by the Chinese zodiac, one can also learn from the inscription the year in which it was made.