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.