Trauma in community memory

There is such a thing as the passing down of collective trauma in community consciousness. For the Jewish people, it is the Holocaust; for Asian Australians, it is the White Australia Policy. The two, of course, are not comparable in terms of brutality and death tolls. However, both belong to the realm of trauma even if their respective historicity is not the same.

There is no such thing as innocent laughter in Australia: being is mediated by history. I write this as an Australian; I am no recent immigrant. The shadow of the memory of trauma always stays in the background of Asian Australian consciousness. As Heidegger exhorts, being is historical; and so is understanding. This is hermeneutics – as resistance against the racism of forgetting.

With this philosophical preamble, how do we read the history of the quarantine stations in Australia, where racial segregation and discrimination were for the most of their operational years de rigeur? Indeed segregation and discrimination are staple items on the menu of racism served in the experience of being in quarantine – it applied even to whites in terms of their class status. But Asians and other non-Europeans were abject objects that could not even be included within the class system of Europeans.

Australia’s explicitly anti-Asian sentiments and Weltanschauung were formalised in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, nine years before a similarly explicit legislation was introduced in Canada (Ongley & Pearson, 1995, pp. 770-771). By 1902, anti-Asianism in Australia also became architecturally and spatially manifest in the permanent form of the Quarters for Asiatics at the North Head Quarantine Station – a well-defined area of racial segregation that included dormitories with bunk beds, a shed for cooking, a larger shed for eating and an outhouse latrine (despite flush toilets already becoming common since the 1850s). As a group these buildings once represented the most uncomfortable experience of accommodation possible while in quarantine, signifying the low regard that white Australians in public health administration had for Asians.

Racism is of a qualitative specificity (Postone, in Lye, 2005, p. 58), targeting a specifically socially manufactured racial form (Lye, 2005, p. 60) such as the slant-eyed Chinaman of inferior physique. On the level of transnational circulation of people and goods, Asian crews transiting in and out of Australia via its national quarantine system also embodied the lowest transactional value in human labour – the image of the Asiatic coolie who threatened the jobs of civilised, culturally and physically superior Europeans through his “subhuman” capability for silence and endurance in plain bad working and living conditions. Used mainly to quarantine Chinese and Japanese crews, the Quarters for Asiatics functioned like a holding pen for inscrutable aliens who posed an ever present danger to the hard-won wages and rights of white unionism. In his instructions for national quarantine administration, Chief Quarantine Officer Elkington specifically mentions the importance of always counting the numbers of Chinese crew and passengers right before they are admitted to quarantine stations: to prevent the absconding of the “inferior” “Asiatics” and hence their infiltration into the “superior” life conditions of white Australians.

I begin this post not with a desire for pathos as an Asian Australian thinker, but as a response to a question once posed to me by an elderly Chinese Australian physician in Brookvale, not very far from North Head, when I saw him for a minor illness this year: “Why on earth do you spend so much time at the Quarantine Station? The Chinese suffered a lot there.”



Lye, Colleen. America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Ongley, Patrick and David Pearson. “Post-1945 International Migration: New Zealand, Australia and Canada Compared”, in The International Migration Review, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1995), pp. 765-793.


On quarantine and race: notes toward a response to “Rewriting Quarantine: Pacific History at Australia’s Edge”

1. Race was the facticity of Dasein under the arch-narrative of White Australia Policy: there was no escape from it for any individual coming into quarantine at North Head, Point Nepean, Torrens Island, Woodman Point, Townsville, etc. This existential facticity reflected the divisive state of affairs in institutionalised, organised and popular racism that marked – or scarred – the greater part of Australian modernity (at this point in time as historicising temporality).

2. Australian racism was founded upon a Weltanschaaung of European exceptionalism or white supremacy. When countering it in historical research, such as in the case of quarantine stations, do we opt for Asian exceptionalism instead? My answer is a resounding no, simply because any race-based exceptionalism distorts being, with “race” itself being a social inscription without scientific validity. But social inscriptions, like it or not, are writings on our bodies, our action and our discourse. As intellectuals, we aim for the truth of being as a classical ideal, even if we now live in an age of postmodern nihilism as the prevalent way of coping with what the French philosopher Guattari describes as chaosmosis: the raging contest between identity and mutation in the socio-cultural sphere, which interfaces with and absorbs economics, politics and religion. Where the focus should be is this instead: the differentials in power between races – between Asians and Europeans in quarantine history, and between Aboriginals and Europeans in colonial history. Here we invoke the German philosopher Nietzsche and the French philosopher Foucault. Being in quarantine is this difference in power – in access to and comportment to power. Writing history is a contested ground involving will to power (Wille zur Macht).

3. The pull factor for the maritime movements of Chinese crew in the non-European Pacific region was the existence of a dynamic and commercially successful Chinese network of businesses, one example being the highly profitable banana trade between Australia and Fiji. A causal factor for such transnational Pacific shift was the White Australia Policy that came with the birth of the Federation in 1901 (Kuo 2009), which made Chinese lives in Australia increasingly difficult through a process of multi-layered disempowerment. Facing this unprecedented onslaught, the factionalised Chinese newspapers in Australia became united on the social level as a chronicle of community and racial anxieties which today provide historians with a valuable source of information on the wide-ranging negative impact of institutionalised, organised and popular Australian racism on the Chinese psyche. While not abandoning Australia altogether, the Chinese diaspora nevertheless had to look outside their alienated, racialised home to build new bases of success and influence in the Pacific region such as Batavia, Fiji and Penang.

4. Despite the serious difficulties posed by the White Australia Policy to the Chinese community when it came into effect in 1901, the commercial elite among the Chinese thrived through their successful control of the transpacific banana trade. The reach, strength and wealth of the Chinese diaspora were indeed enabled by their astute and skilful involvements in maritime networks (Kurashige, Hsu & Yaguchi, 2014, p. 183). Precisely because of this, Chinese crew and passengers would inevitably come into contact with the Western maritime quarantine systems of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US when there were persons (not necessarily Chinese) with quarantinable diseases or without vaccination papers on board. The anti-Asian, white supremacist immigration policies of these white settler nations that were introduced in the early 1900s meant that Chinese prosperity was heavily dependent upon the commercial success of their maritime trade as a wide variety of professions were denied them in their host societies. Given that prosperity was indeed achieved by the Chinese diaspora in this manner (see Kuo 2009), the elite in the Chinese community in a racist country such as Australia was composed of those who gained power and wealth through their access to and control of maritime connections. The sea routes enabled the survival of Chinese communities in the abovementioned countries when their national policies explicitly discriminated against them, which included systematic and institutionalised inferior treatments when the Chinese were admitted to quarantine stations. When on land in a country such as Australia, there was no escape from an unwelcoming “white power” for these Chinese, whether in society or in quarantine. We are talking about the panopticon of white power at quarantine stations, if not in society at large.


Kuo, Mei-fen, “The Making of a Diasporic Identity: The Case of the Sydney Chinese Commercial Elite, 1890s-1900s”, Journal of Chinese Overseas, Vol. 5 (2009), pp. 336-363.

Kurashige, Lon, Madeline Y Hsu & Yujin Yaguchi, “Introduction: Conversations on Transpacific History”, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (2014), pp. 183-188.