Exclusion: leprosy and mental illness

Although unrelated, social marginalisation in liminal zones of physical isolation was applied to sufferers of leprosy and mental health alike in the political design of exclusion during the late 19th century in Australia. An example of this can be found in the history of public health measures on the Moreton Bay islands near Brisbane in Queensland.


Epidemics today


Cholera in Yemen. – Epidemics are sometimes spread during political crisis and armed conflict, such as in the current case of Yemen, where the anti-government Houthi rebels, allegedly with the backing of Iran, are fighting a war with the Saudi Arabia-led coalition backed up by the US. Already 50,000 children are believed to have died in 2017 from disease and starvation, while 900,000 Yemenis are infected with cholera.

Described by Oxfam as the worst cholera epidemic on record, WHO, according to its own report, has nevertheless been able to treat 700,000 people for suspected cholera, with over 99% of suspected cases surviving, in a situation where an estimated 14.8 million people lack access to basic health care.



McKernan, Bethan. Yemen cholera outbreak set to be the worst on record. Independent, 29 September 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/yemen-cholera-outbreak-worst-on-record-health-middle-east-a7973726.html.

Nichols, Michelle. Yemen children are dying at a rate of 130 a day while Saudi-led blockade continues. Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November 2017. http://www.smh.com.au/world/yemen-children-are-dying-at-a-rate-of-130-a-day-while-saudiled-blockade-continues-20171118-gzo21m.html.

WHO. Outbreak update – cholera in Yemen, 26 October 2017. http://www.emro.who.int/surveillance-forecasting-response/outbreaks/outbreak-update-cholera-in-yemen-26-october-2017.html.

WHO. WHO’s Response to Cholera in Yemen, 27 April-20 September 2017. http://www.emro.who.int/pdf/yem/yemeninfocus/situation-reports.pdf.

WHO. Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan 2017. http://www.who.int/emergencies/response-plans/2017/yemen/en/.

Chinese community reference to Chinese inscriptions at North Head Quarantine Station


Personal circumstances have prevented me from submitting a full draft of a journal article that I have been working on for quite some time. One aspect of it will be posted here due to its significant Asian Australian cultural significance. It relates to an experience, written in Chinese, that a maritime passenger of Chinese background had in relation to the Chinese inscriptions at the North Head Quarantine Station when he was quarantined there in the 1920s.

Weisheng – hygiene in China

The equivalent to Cumpston in China was Wu Lien-teh, the Cambridge-trained Malaysian Chinese doctor who gained the trust of Chinese authorities when he used modern quarantine methods to successfully curb the spread of the highly deadly pneumonic plague that originated in Manchuria in 1910-1911. In 1930 Wu was appointed the first director of the National Quarantine Service, headquartered in Shanghai.

In January 1917 The Survey published an article by Wu on the history of weisheng – the Chinese term for hygiene or sanitation – in China. While Wu admits that Chinese urban planning traditionally did not have a good understanding of the importance of a drainage system for public health, he nevertheless argues that the Chinese always have, as a matter of cultural self-understanding, emphasised the importance of health in their everyday lives.

History as narrative and racial contention

The long, painful memory of racism in the community memory of Asian Australians is phenomenologically sustained as a heritage of trauma in the collective embodiment, generation after generation, of Asian communities in this country that largely thrives on forgetting, not-wanting-to-think-about, looking the other way or moving on in bad faith. White Australians, and those who are not really white but feel, think and act as though they are (thanks to varying degrees of assimilation), essentially thrive on an escape from history. And why this escape? This is because history, when narrated as truth, forces one to look at what really was – being as Gewesenheit, indelible in time – and its heritage and its legacy in the present and future. On the other hand, history, when narrated as untruth, encourages one to avert one’s gaze instead. The historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) of history is a contention between truth and untruth for a nation’s hearts and minds. Whither is authenticity?

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.