Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2017

Dragon and Kangaroo (2017), by Robert Macklin

Robert Macklin is a versatile writer: he’s written books with titles as diverse as The Secret Life of Jesus; War Babies; and The Great Australian Pie.  And although he’s not an historian, he’s a journalist,  Dragon and Kangaroo, subtitled Australia and China’s shared history from the goldfields to the present day is highly readable and thoroughly researched.  It provides a political and cultural timeline of our mutual relationship that offers interesting insights.

Australia’s relationship with China is more important than ever because America’s influence and economic power is declining.   Allan Gyngell, writing about Australia’s relationship with the US, in the new journal The Big Picture: Towards an Independent Foreign Policy: Australian Foreign Affairs; Issue 1 (Schwarz Publishing, October 2017) has this to say:

Australia needs to put equal thought into its relationship with China.  In one way or another, China will be central to all Australia’s economic, strategic and political objectives.  It is hard to think of an international issue – from the security of the South China Sea to development policy in Africa – where China’s decisions will not be important.  Inside Australia, the impact of growing Chinese investment, the presence of rising numbers of Chinese students and tourists, and the role of Chinese Australians in politics and public debate will become increasingly significant.  (p. 40)

But it’s probably true to say that most of us know very little about our mutual relationship.  The book begins with not with the arrivals of the Chinese during the Gold Rush, but with the desire for cheap labour after the abolition of transportation.  Squatters got in touch with agents in Guangzhou (Canton), Xiamen (Amoy) and Singapore as well as the British East India Company in Calcutta.  It was the Chinese ‘coolie’ that they wanted because of his ‘untiring industry, frugality and perseverance’ which were ‘the inherited instincts of their race.’ John Macarthur employed at least three Chinese people on his properties as early as the 1820s, and…

…it is highly likely that they had compatriots whose records have been lost to history.  But either way, his family was at the forefront of the new push to engage ‘indentured labour’, a polite term for slave-like pay and conditions in the 1840s.

The Port Phillip settlers were not far behind, and the arrival of the Chinese provoked wonderment on the one hand, contempt mixed with hostility on the other. And so it proved to be for a very long period of Australia’s relationship with the Chinese.  In 1860, there was a disgraceful racist insurrection at Lambing Flat, now known as Young in NSW, which Macklin says affected Chinese-Australian relations for over a hundred years.

The Yass Courier described the terrible scene.  ‘Some 500 Europeans attacked a party of Chinese and maltreated them to such an extent as to cause the death of at least one of their number.  We are informed that the ‘pigtails’ of the unfortunate Celestials were cut off in so barbarous a manner as to detach the skin from the back of the head; and further than the brutality was carried to the length of cutting the ears off several’.

That was just the beginning. (p.48)

A subsequent mob of 2000 men brutally attacked and destroyed a Chinese camp of 300.  The victims included a British mother married to a Chinese and her infant whose cradle was set alight, escaping only just in time.  Needless to say, the attackers commandeered the mining claims of the vanquished and before long they were back again with repeated assaults, killing an unknown number of Chinese with an estimated 250 gravely injured – despite the presence of urgently summoned troopers from Sydney.

It seems that many Chinese put up with intolerable treatment because the Taipeng Rebellion in China had made their homeland into a killing field. 

I was fascinated to learn that in the era before Federation, Britain was embarrassed by the stridency of the White Australia Policy.

[At]…  the Intercolonial Conference of 1896 […] the premiers resolved to extend the 1888 Restriction Bill to include ‘all coloured races’, though the Queensland delegation made an exception for Pacific Islanders.

The British government, anxious about the reaction in its Asian and South Asian colonies, took a more conciliatory stand.  The new colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, told a meeting of the colonial leaders in London the following  year that he ‘sympathised’ with the Australians’ sentiments that ‘there shall not be an influx of people alien in civilisation, alien in religion, alien in customs [who] would most seriously interfere with the legitimate rights of the existing labour population.’ However, it would be ‘most painful’ for Her Majesty Queen Victoria, whose Diamond Jubilee they were celebrating, to be asked to sanction their exclusion by reason of their colour or race. (p.99)

And while the British solution to this dilemma was the infamous dictation test,  it’s still a shameful part of our history that it was the Brits who made our political leaders tone down their racism.

Mind you, Macklin – as you can also hear in this audio presentation at ACRI (the Australia China Relations Institute) in Sydney – makes the claim more than once, that the Chinese were just as racist.

[Early in the 20th century] … In the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal Protector, Baldwin Spencer, an anthropologist, conceived a particular hatred for the Chinese.  ‘There are a few decent ones,’ he said, ‘but 98 per cent are low, depraved beasts who want deporting.’  He was not alone in his racist views.  Many Chinese were totally opposed to ‘mixed marriages’ with Aboriginal women and the children of these unions were not given a Chinese clan name as it would bring ‘shame’ to the extended family.  (p.122)

(Unfortunately, while Spencer’s comments are footnoted, the statement about Chinese opposition to mixed marriages isn’t, so there’s no way to assess the credibility of the source.)

We learn about some interesting characters in the course of Macklin’s survey.  There was the entrepreneur and philanthropist Mei Quong Tart (1850-1903); Billy Sing the military hero and one of many Chinese who enlisted in WW1 despite the rules, (the subject of a fictionalised account of his life by Ouyang Yu); and amongst Australians who worked to forge more respectful relationships there was the journalist-adventurer George Ernest Morrison (1862-1920) noted for his heroic behaviours during the (anti-foreign, anti-colonial) Boxer Rebellion; and the newspaperman Bill Donald (1875-1946) who was a friend and advisor to Sun Yat-Sen and to Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek.

Macklin shows convincingly how Australia lost opportunities in the post-war period.  China in the Pacific theatre of WW2 played the same role in Australia’s interests as Russia did to support the allies in Europe, but has had very little recognition [despite Australia’s enthusiasm for commemorating military history].  But this opportunity for a ‘friendship treaty’ was lost.  In the wake of the Communist Revolution when Chifley considered recognising China in 1949, he was handicapped by domestic support for the White Australia Policy.  New Zealand went ahead, but Australia failed to take the initiative and ended up following the US in recognition of Taiwan instead.  We lost exports to Canada because they recognised China and we didn’t do that until Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971.  The only reason that Australia achieved any agricultural export sales to China in this era was because Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in catastrophic famine and the Chinese government had no alternative but to import grains to feel its starving people.

The failure to develop an independent foreign policy meant that Australia went along with the American theory of linking Vietnam and China as part of a monolithic Communism, thus generating antagonism throughout the Vietnam War.  There has been outright hostility between Vietnam and China for two millennia, because of Chinese territorial claims in Vietnam.  But Australian politicians tried to warn the Russian leaders, to their slight bewilderment, against Chinese expansionism and asked them to restrain the Chinese in Vietnam…as if … Beijing and Hanoi were now joined at the hip. They even went so far as to claim that Australia was at risk of Chinese aggression, when there is no history of Chinese territorial aggression against Australia, ever.

The last 100-odd pages of the book are about the recent history of Australia-Chinese relations during my adulthood, which is particularly interesting.  I would have liked to see a greater variety of Chinese sources from within China, but it’s still illuminating to read about the machinations of the Chinese communist party in the years since Mao’s death.  The chapter about Kevin Rudd’s time in office, and about Barack Obama’s policies in Asia is interesting too.

Now, of course, with the crisis in North Korea and That Man in the White House, who knows what will happen?  I can’t see our chaotic faction-ridden government coming up with an independent foreign policy any time soon…

I found another review by Stephen A Russell at The New Daily 

Author: Robert Nacklin
Title: Dragon and Kangaroo
Publisher: Hachette, 2017
ISBN: 9780733634031, pbk., 337 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hachette


  1. As long as I live I will never understand racism. People could achieve so much more if they embraced different cultures.


    • It’s certainly a whole lot more fun:)


  2. Yes Lisa our foreign policy with China has been awful and how we would have benefited if there had been a more open communication. There are so many gaps in our history both social and political that needs to be explored.


    • It’s particularly galling when New Zealand goes ahead and acts independently while we cravenly wait to do what the US wants us to do.


  3. Ex Mrs Legend’s family thought they might have had an Aboriginal great grandmother but research in the last couple of years has shown that she was Chinese, the second ‘concubine’ of a trader on the goldfields. Racism has always been ridiculous, whipped up by politicians wishing to show they defend us against ‘them’.


    • The shortage of women being what it was during the early colonial period, I have no doubt that a lot of those loutish ‘proud’ 7th generation Aussies in Cronulla have ancestors that come from all sorts of racial backgrounds…


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