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 outdoor latrine. 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 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.

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.