It’s almost exactly 10 years since Hoa Pham launched the first edition of Peril — the deliciously themed, Nerds.
In that editorial, Hoa name-checked the one-and-we-wish-only Pauline Hanson; reeled off the nerd-stats of her co-editors, Tseen Khoo and Tom Cho; and welcomed you – our generous readers and colleagues – to this dangerous, digital place of writing and art, with interviews and stories from Asian Australians like Andy Quan, Hsu-Ming Teo, and Tom Cho.
So much, and so little, has changed.
The most recent census shows Australia reached the highest levels of overseas-born Australians in 120 years. The once-feared Tartars, Turanians, Mongolians, Asiatics, coolies, chows, chinks, Hindoos, Lascars, Afghans, orientals, celestials, the John Chinamen, the Mikados, Malays, Macassans, Javans, the yellow torrent, the hordes, the tides, the agony and peril are a part of Australia now, and the simplistic divide between us and them make little sense. And so, while Pauline Hanson launches her latest campaign, Lee Lin Chin #givesnotonefck about the Logies and (although we only have stats for the last four years) you and some 200,000 of your friends have checked out the 600+ stories we’ve shared in this past decade, racking up almost 400,000 pageviews on the Peril website.
Thank you for being a part of our story.
Like all anniversaries, this is a bittersweet one. After 10 years of publishing, we are putting the final touches to a commemorative report, plotting gleefully with partners who are keen to celebrate this digital decade with some IRL fun, and reveling in the excitement that comes from putting together yet another edition. We called for contributions that considered “Asians to Watch Out For”, and welcomed your fierce, fabulous and frustrated questioning of race, identity and art in Australia. What follows is a collection of passionate stories, graceful visual offerings, and poetry that bites in just the right way, from emerging and experienced practitioners alike, from diverse cultural backgrounds that speak to the complexity of defining the limits of this “Asian Australian” project.
Yet, as an organisation, like so many others in the sector, Peril faces an uncertain future. Funding changes at the national level mean it may no longer be possible for Peril to operate in the way that we have in the past. As we noted in the Senate Inquiry late last year:
We respect that these funding changes do not formally establish new or express barriers for cultural diversity. However, in a context that is already marked by inequality and imbalance, increased internal competition, sector instability and purportedly value-neutral phrases for excellence mask a disproportionate impact on creative producers, participants and audiences from culturally diverse backgrounds.
And so it has come to pass.
Peril is at a cross-roads and we will be looking to you to help us decide just which road we go down.
But before we ask those hard questions, there is much to celebrate. As Editor in Chief, I’m lucky enough to see the entire edition come together, but I’ll reserve specific comment on the prose and poetry featured in this edition, leaving that to my indefatiguable colleages, Angela Serrano and Muzamil Syre. Together with Nikki Lam, however, I have had the pleasure of bringing together the visual arts contributions to this edition, which have played with, around and within the various connotations and innuendos of “watching out”. From gender queer comics to Rumi quotes, across fashion, film and photography, these artists have considered the celebratory, celebrity, absent, empty and sinister qualities of Asians in Australia.
On the “positive watch” side, we feature an interview with Mikala Tai of the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, who reminds us that the role of curator is moving far beyond the “keeper of things” to that of an interlocutor and champion, capable of understanding that “art doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is part of the ever-changing reality of contemporary life and interacts with all aspects of humanity.” Model and actor, Aimee Butler (featured here at left), interrogates her experiences as an model of both Asian and Australian backgrounds, with a charm that almost erases the endless Alison Brahe interviews I endured as an adolescent, while Wesa Chau adds to her overwhelming list of accomplishments, sharing insight into a new venture that blends traditional costume and contemporary fashion.
On the darker, more contemplative side of the edition, the darkly narrative, filmic images of Chris Allery and James Prowse (working together as Past Life) remind me of the deep absence, the powerful “othering” of Asian people in Australian stories. There is something wonderful and painful in the images – the pleasure that comes from pushing a bruise, perhaps. Cartoonist, Hiro, with simplicity and power, communicates the dilemma of gendered gaze. Political cartoonist, Sam Wallman, took some time from his new book project, If We All Spat At Once, to embellish the transcendentally influential Rumi, while Sudeep Lingamneni, captures poet, Bella Li, in a playful, urban portrait series that seems to bear a delicious non-relation to her finely wrought poetry.
Interspersed with these offerings are features from one of our newest team members, Allison Chan: a review of Felix Ching Ching Ho’s Approximate Translation (image at right), and a profile of New Australian of the Year, Gary Lee. All of which leads nicely to a list of Asian Australians who sparked your interest as leaders in their respective fields of endeavour. Like all crowd-sourced activities, the listing is complex, incomplete and undoubtedly up for debate – for every person nominated, there are another ten who might equally hold their own. What we hoped might be a cheeky list of 20 or 30 Asian Australian stalwarts to balance the very impressive, but not particularly culturally diverse, Honour Roll of Australians of the Year, has morphed into a sprawling, eclectic and, arguably, powerful rendering of the impact of Asians in Australia.
Asians are everywhere, and we have come for your jobs, your women, and your cooking shows.
Take for example, politics. As the current Federal election campaign lumbers on, only a few notable candidates cut through the haze: Labour Senator Penny Wong, Liberal Member, Ian Goodenough, and Labour Senator Lisa Singh. You’d be well and truly forgiven for thinking there was a dearth of well-positioned candidates of Asian background in the current Federal political party system. And yet, if we were taking a vote, Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane would be well and truly first past the post, with many of you commending his forthright analysis and key leadership role in Australia’s civic sphere. Your memories ran longer than the media cycle, however, nominating Rachel Jacobs – one time Brisbane Greens candidate, who inadvertently sparked the #illridewithyou campaign following the 2014 hostage crisis in Sydney. Long-term community campaigner, Melba Marginson, was joined by members of the refugee, ex-detainee and asylum seeker-run and controlled organisation, RISE, such as R-Coo and Ramesh Fernandez as people who have inspired you through their tireless activism. What emerges is a picture of power inside and outside of structural paradigms, where grass roots activists stand alongside notables such as South Australian Governor, The Honourable Hieu Van Le AO.
It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions from the list, or to make sweeping statements about the collective body of work in this edition: looking at Asia is a distorted pre-occupation in Australia, a window just a little too high or too small or too cloudy to see clear from.
In Australia, we grow Asia large in our imagination. Fearful of marauding invaders, we legislate, we intern, we villify. Then we shrink Asia in our hearts, hoping that an amorphous redux of oriental images, fluttering fans, and henna-tinted hands will be sufficient to legitimise our ability to “read” a region so vast and so complex that we can eat the food, travel to the beaches and purchase the electrical goods that will attest to our cosmopolitanism. We congratulate ourselves on our multiculturalism, hopeful that we – and those around us – will believe that contact has meant tolerance and inclusion, in lieu of conflict or assimilation. We like our Asian over-achievers, as long as they like their footy. We reinforce the myth of Australian mono-culturalism because a complex history would undermine our fragile identity. And how will we enjoy ANZAC Day? Successive generations of migrants to Australia wonder – if but for a minute – what role they play in the continued dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – just as Australia’s dominant culture and political parties are suspiciously eyeing off the new arrivals who might just displace “European settlers”, just as they displaced others before them.
Because this is an extended, two-part edition, I will reserve some of the more future-minded elements of life in the #dangerousasian lane to a concluding editorial, paired with the absolutely ridiculous listing of ATWOFs nominated by you. Rest assured, these are questions that go to the heart of Peril and its mission to empower the creativity, agency and representation of Asian-Australian people in arts, society and culture, and we look forward hearing from you about the value, or otherwise, of a dedicated space for Asian Australian writing and arts such as Peril.
And so, as always, I am excited to share this work, grateful to those artists and creatives who have contributed their labour and humbled by the editorial team who work collectively to make this happen. This might look like a website but it’s actually a conversation.
Your voice makes the conversation richer, we can’t wait to hear from you.