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Big White Lie, by John Fitzgerald.

February 20, 2012

Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, by John Fitzgerald. University of new South Wales, 2007.

A well-researched academic history of Chinese and the anti-Chinese policies of the Australian government.

When I discovered from the Australian Women Writers Challenge that a wide variety of peoples had migrated to Australia, I was fascinated. I know the story of immigration to America and the opposition to immigrants this nation has periodically displayed. I was curious about how immigration had played out in Australia. This book was a first step toward learning that story.

Fitzgerald has specialized in researching Chinese history and teaching it in Australia. He is well qualified to write this book and has thoroughly researched the topic, identifying misconceptions that Australians have had about the Chinese in their country. Without any background in Australian history, I stumbled at times trying to follow events and debates he assumed I understood.

His main points, however, were clear. Chinese had filled important roles in Australian history, not simply as laborers but as leaders of businesses and reform organizations. Given the relative closeness of China and Australia, they often provided links between the two countries. They created their own organizations in Australia and worked in reform movements in China before the fall of the Manchu dynasty. Individuals and ideas moved back and forth more than was possible for Chinese migrants who went to the United States.

As Fitzgerald explains, Australians were narrow-minded in defining themselves and excluding Chinese by declaring that the Chinese lacked particular Australian values of freedom, justice, and “mateship.” As their activities show, the Chinese did not lack these values. Countries need to define themselves in universal human terms, not the more limited national ones.

I found Fitzgerald’s book helpful, if not ideal for me. I recommend it to others interested in the topic and somewhat knowledgeable about Australian history.

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