The 7th Asian Australian Identities biennial conference Genealogies of Identity Politics, held at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, 7th-8th November 2019, marked the 20th vibrant year of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network, acronymically known as AASRN. Even as we celebrated and commemorated two decades of camaraderie, catch-ups, collaborations, community activism and collegial support, we also took the opportunity to reflect, reminisce and ruminate over the changing profiles, positions and perspectives of, on, and by, Asian Australian identities. Given the rich chronicles and conversations unfolding at the conference, our task was accompanied by anticipating and forecasting what Asian Australia might look like in the future and what its animating preoccupations may be.
Active since 1999 and formally established in 2006, AASRN is a “network for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. Asian Australian Studies is a growing field that investigates the cultures, politics and histories of those of Asian descent in Australia. Much of its work engages with the fields of diasporic Asian, transnational, and diversity studies.” This special issue also marks our ongoing synergy and sympatico with Peril Magazine which has focused on issues of Asian Australian arts and culture since 2006, by profiling “leading and emerging arts practitioners, … foster[ing] dialogue and conversation around issues of cultural production and new issues of Asian Australian interest by supporting non-fiction, journalism and opinion pieces.” Based on the papers and presentations made at the conference to trace such accounts and narratives, this special issue marks new directions in Asian Australian genealogies.
There has never been a more urgent need for Asian Australian studies and scholarship, arts, architecture, activism and advocacy, to be at the forefront of our cultural politics, national dialogue and the public sphere today. The debates and exchanges that have been taking place at the various forums of the AASRN are now also garnering relevance and significance within the larger socio-political spaces of Australia, in part to counter a pervasive economic instrumentalism that often seems to accompany such discussions. These conversations and contestations are also taking place in a climate of resurgent fundamentalisms, a return to racist vocabularies and policies, and attempts to split and stifle civil society discourse everywhere, including in Asia. The resilience and endurance of Asian Australian identities and their enormous contribution in the national imaginary-space to tell the “Australian” story, and more, is a matter of expediency and utter necessity.
2019 was quite the remarkable year for Asian Australian political and professional representation, i.e. questions thereof. Throughout the year, we clocked stories in the mainstream as well as the alternative press about the hegemonic orchestrated lack of visibility of Asian Australians in the public sphere, paucity of welcoming participation in the workspace and the dearth of diversity in representation of Asian Australians in leadership and management positions. Some of the sounds of this chorus were heard at the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit and the Diversity Arts Australia report on culturally diverse leadership, Shifting the Balance. AASRN has been cognisant of, as well as championed, such issues; however, our remit has been equally to explore the nuances of mere representation and the theoretical ramifications and political responsibilities of being at the table, while taking into account all the chatter in the backdrop to the room of multiculturalism.
It has been more than half a century since Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy traced the shift from the older racist order based on “nature” and biology” to “national” and/or “ethnic” culture. This shift has not resulted in any disruption of the old paradigms of racism, but rather spawned a hydra-headed creature, of new colonialisms and new global capitalist regimes, that replicate themselves constantly in order to mobilise technologies of governance in contemporary societies. As Pooja Rangan and Rey Chow have argued, the move towards identity politics/coalitions and biopolitics have the potential of both negative-repressive as well as generative-creative functions. In Australia, identity-based politics now permeate every aspect of political, social and cultural life, from equity gap to environmentalism (Ghassan Hage), from arts/performance cultures to Asian-Aboriginal reconciliation (Jacqueline Lo), from racialized state violence to new media terror consciousnesses (Suvendrini Perera).
Asian Australian Studies itself traditionally employed strategic essentialisms in fashioning Asian Australian identities that resist racialising structures (Lo). However, essentialisms such as these are sometimes charged with reproducing the logics and boundaries of race—the very structures that anti-racist politics attempt to undermine (e.g. Gilroy, Chow). Often progressive critiques of identity are mobilised to delegitimise studies of race, religion and ethnic identity altogether. Even as we gathered at the conference, a discussion paper published by the parliament’s nationhood inquiry listed “ecofundamentalism and identity politics alongside right-wing ideologies as a source of ‘intolerance’”. How then do we examine and, even, mobilise Asian Australian identity in light of these critiques of “identity politics” especially within the discursive frames of “nations” that often mark diasporas? How have Asian Australian identities and identity politics changed over time, and are there new or emerging forms of these phenomena in the present day? How do eruptions of protest by far-right groups leverage these dissonances in identity-based coalitions, and what can anti-racism advocates do about it?
Convened in response to the above issues and compelled to construct, question and contest Asian Australian identities, the panels, papers and presentations at this conference were characteristically interdisciplinary, drawing on presenters from the arts and the humanities, political science, publishing, law, creative practice, built environments and many other fora and disciplines. As always, our arts and activist practices informed and communed with approaches and analyses from academia within our broader collective at AASRN. Our remit was to address the challenges of being Asian Australian at a time when phenomenal changes in the region demand due consideration to Australia’s ever-burgeoning internal multiplicity, even as calls to enable new forms of engagement with Asia reach a crescendo. We wanted also to contribute fresh insights from Asian Australia on our decades-long interrogation of hyphenations and hybridities, as the plenary sessions, by Eugenia Flynn and Shakira Hussein respectively, on Indigenous and Muslim Australia’s intersections with Asianness, demonstrated.
The keynote addresses, republished in full in this special issue, by Hsu-Ming Teo and Gilbert Caluya, set the tone for the conference, with their explorations of the foundational terms of reference for our network. They traced the cartographic genealogy of the term ‘Asia’ and also interrogated the itinerary of attendant traumas imbricated in the strategic deployment of Asian Australian identity, where some narratives are more permissible than others. The conference image very kindly provided by Rhett D’Costa, was a handy metaphor for paths by which figures in history traverse the spatial-affective as well as geo-political sites of identity. The Ascension, which was part of his installation, Becoming Differently at Hyphenated, March 2018 at The Substation, explores “the role of resilience and optimism in the intersecting areas of migration, multiculturalism, identity, nationalism and belonging.” D’Costa’s pandisciplinary projects have centered on the ‘right to belong’; his research focuses on ideas connected to culturally composite ethnicities, mixed race communities and the negotiation of the porosity of place, belonging and identity. More recently the ‘right to belong’ extends his interests in identity formation in terms of sexuality and culture. These interests take into account shifting social and political circumstances and the tensions and consequences of mobility and migration in transnational environments.
The Immigration Museum, itself in the throes of re-negotiations of naming and claiming, fostered our continued relationship by generously hosting the conference in partnership with the Monash Intercultural Lab (Monash University) and the Melbourne School of Design (The University of Melbourne). In particular, Jan Molloy provided unstinting support of the network. A huge thank you to our Board and conference organising committee: Denise Woods, Earvin Cabalquinto, Monika Winarnita, Nadia Rhook, Sukhmani Khorana and Timothy Kazuo Steains, who made time, and then some, through hectic academic schedules, to respond to each issue that emerged in the process of putting together the conference, as well as the emergent issues of how we see AASRN participate on a wider national and public platform in the future. Jacqueline Lo, our Chair, steered these conversations with her usual sagacity and support. Additionally, as regional convenors, our wonderful Board members were also instrumental in convening exciting Asian Australian programs in their respective cities, Sydney and Perth in 2019, and for growing awareness of our work across Australia.
AAI7 would not be here without our community partners and volunteers: we would specially like to mention Hyphenated Projects and Peril Magazine: Asian Australian Arts and Culture for their generosity and comradeship. The conference dates coincided with a Hyphenated exhibition, The End/Future of History, curated by Phuong Ngo, which all the participants were generously invited to. We are especially grateful to members of our larger Asian Australian community for hosting some of our presenters during their stay in Melbourne for the conference. In the face of reduced funding opportunities, many of our doctoral students, early career researchers and un-/low-waged artists and activists are unable to travel to these forums, so we are indebted to AASRN members who offered this gift of billeting. We would like to mention by name the following very special hosts:
Akane Kanai, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University
Oanh Tran, Dipanjali Rao and Ruchira Talukdar also offered to host presenters, but supply happily exceeded demand this year, and we did not need to take up their offers. We hope that we can making billeting a tradition for all AAI conferences in the future.
We were extremely excited to announce two new initiatives this year, The Tseen Khoo AAI Conference Bursary and the Asian Australian Identities AASRN Best Paper Prizes, about which you can read in our blogspace. While the two postgraduate recipients did no send in their contributions, we are pleased to publish the work of the winning ECR, Ryan Gustafsson, and community practitioner, Hoa Pham, in this special issue.
Till the next biennial conference,
We remain yours,