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.


A forced separation of mother and son: the case of Mun Kee

In 1916 Mun Kee aka Herbert Hooklin aka Victor Hooklin (invisbleaustralians.org) was denied re-entry to Australia because of the racial profiling of him conducted by Dr Charles W Reid, Chief Quarantine Officer-General of the Australian Quarantine Service in Sydney. (Dr Reid died during the Greycliffe ferry disaster in Sydney Harbour on 3 November 1927.) Mun Kee was a son of Theresa Hooklin from Tingha, on the Northern Tablelands in New South Wales. He was born out of wedlock with no birth certificate. Theresa’s other sons had Eurasian appearances whereas Mun Kee displayed none, which led to Dr Reid suspecting that his attempt at entry into Australia was fraudulent. Indeed an elaborate racial profiling system had been formulated by the Australian authorities under the aegis of the Emigration Act 1910 to ensure that when dealing with cases of inadequate or apparently confounding documentation, a person with no display of the slightest European features could be excluded from Australia under the White Australia Policy. In the case of Mun Kee, he left Australia for China as a five-year-old boy in 1890, way before the Immigration Restriction Act was introduced in 1901 (Couchman & Bagnall, 2015, pp. 224-226).

Theresa Hooklin and Mun Kee were forcibly denied reunion due to application of racial profiling. The involvement of the Quarantine Service in his case was probably based on the medical expertise of Dr Reid, when medicine was tied up with pseudo-science on race. Quarantine came under the control of the Department of Trade and Customs.

Mun Kee was sent back to China on board SS St Albans, arriving at its last port of call in Australia, Thursday Island, on 28 April 1916, where his permanent departure was recorded. For complete records on this incident, see digitised National Archives resource at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=9414122.


Bagnall, Kate and Tim Sherratt. Invisible Australians: living under the White Australia Policy. invisbleaustralians.org.

Bagnall, Kate. Anglo-Chinese and the politics of overseas travel from New South Wales, 1898-1925. In Couchman, Sophie and Kate Bagnall (Ed.). Chinese Australians: politics, engagement and resistance. Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 203-239.

Why critique of a past Australian event such as the White Australia Policy?

Race for race, during the heydays of the White Australia Policy, Qing China was no less xenophobic when it came to acceptance of non-Chinese domiciled in its dominion. If the White Australia Policy had solely to do with the protection and the maintenance of an Anglo-Celtic Volksgemeinschaft on the Australian continent, one that would ensure a perpetual loyalty to the British Empire and its far-flung national interests in the world, then the architect of White Australia such as the New South Wales Premier Henry Parkes, who counted a prominent Chinese Australian such as Quong Tart among his friends, can be understood, or even forgiven, as a mere ardent advocate of the cultural conservatism of the global Stimmung and Weltanschauung. But was Parkes only following the racialised Zeitgeist of the late 19th century and the early 20th century? Was race all there was to it?

The answer is a resounding no. The White Australia Policy obscured the exploitation and oppression of “coloured” people such as Aboriginal Australians, Chinese, Japanese and Pacific Islanders in the mass construction of the economy of the Colony and subsequently of the Federation. White Australia ensured that these people would be used up to the maximum with their labour but not be allowed to become fully empowered members of Australian society. In the case of widespread indentured labour during the 19th century, the economic arrangements were founded upon bondage. The non-European, non-Aboriginal flotsam and jetsam who somehow managed to stay behind in Australia and eke out a living had to endure invisibility, humiliation, ostracisation and if not violence, when being an Australian was synonymous with being “white”. Work did not make one free; instead it made one “useless” and “unwanted” once one’s labour – the kinetic energy of muscles – was exhausted.

In retrospect, these masses of “coloured” people, faceless, nameless and voiceless in the annals of Australian history, should be remembered and honoured for the massive contributions they had made to the modernisation of Australia as a nation. In the case of quarantine history, given that the Quarters for Asiatics at Australian quarantine stations served as the institutional starting points in public health for these historic mass movements of “coloured” people to contribute to the national economy, these sites, today lying silent and unnamed, are fit places of memorialisation of non-European labour.

Random murders of Chinese under White Australia Policy

When one studies Australian history, incidents of mass violence perpetrated by Europeans against Chinese such as the Buckland River riot in Victoria in 1857 and the Lambing Flat riots in New South Wales in 1861 are well-known. However, not many know about the random murders committed by white Australians against Chinese living in Australia under the White Australia Policy; in fact there is no published study on this subject matter. However, evidence for this disturbing trend in the past can be found in contemporary Chinese community newspapers such as Tung Wah Times.