In 1985, I left Singapore to study in Canada. I arrived in Winnipeg as a precocious nineteen year old tomboy beaming with the pride of a city-state on the ascent as a newly developed tiger economy.
This confidence quickly dissipated when the cold burn of the prairies begun to sting deep. I wasn’t eating properly because I never learnt how to cook, having grown up with the convenience of fast hawker food. My identity was increasingly becoming misrecognised because no one knew where Singapore was, and most mistook it for China.
Lacking in nourishment and dis-oriented in belonging, it was as if the glare of the snow had instantly melted away those markers that sustained my personhood.
In Winnipeg, I discovered feminist, gay and lesbian activism that I actively pursued when I moved to Perth two years later. Perth was considered a safer bet. The weather was mild, like California. It also shared the same time zone as Singapore. This time, in my suitcase accompanying me to Australia was a brand new Sanyo-brand rice cooker.
My student days, first as an undergraduate in Perth and then as a PhD candidate in Melbourne, were mostly spent as an activist. I was not a model student who completed assignments and theses on time. I even took a few years leave of absence from my PhD candidature to work full-time as a support worker in a women’s refuge. These experiences became central to shaping the foundations of my academic work. I remembered embracing the coalition of pride when staging “kiss-in” sessions in suburban shopping centers as part of Queer Nation. I also remembered how effeminized I was made to feel when told I was not ‘butch’ enough at women’s parties because my small size lacked the swagger of a bull dyke.
While celebrating with the multicultural gay group when we successfully petitioned to stop racist drag acts in nightclubs, I also witnessed the trauma of migration and violence faced by recently-arrived Chinese women who had escaped their abusive husbands.
Those experiences of inclusion and exclusion, understood as the intersectional theory of how identity determinants such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, etc. were interconnected to create social systems of privilege or disadvantage, influenced my understandings of gendered racism, sexualised racism and racialised sexism.
Pivotal here is being Asian in Australia.
In 1999, I attended the first AASRN conference in Canberra. It wasn’t an official network then, but there was palpable energy galvanizing around the ‘Asian Australian Identities’ conference theme. Many of us felt an instant bonding with each other. I know I certainly did, especially with the organisers and most of the participants whom I was meeting only for the first time.
At this conference, we rallied around the anti-Hanson agenda, and through it (and subsequently through the other conferences over the years), created a collective of scholars, writers and artists. Jacqueline Lo has written eloquently about how it was the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party with its anti-Asian political agenda that provided the impetus for the emergence of the nascent field of Asian Australian Studies. I have elsewhere called this emergence an instance of Asian Australian modernity.
From marginality to solidarity and activism, this was how we made ourselves critical, reflexive, relevant, interventionist and visible.
In these ways, being Asian in Australia is more than just a belonging to identity and race, or whether or not these forms of belonging are even post-identitarian or post-racial. To be sure, the AASRN, through the years, fulfilled these functions in crucial ways: it provided a safe platform to share our experiences of Asian pride and subjugation (identity); it introduced a theoretical grammar to problematise the ‘Asian’ in Australia (race); it opened up new trajectories of transnational and cosmopolitan affiliations that depart from subject-centered and fixed identities (post-identity); and it continues to tackle cultural racism in a world where racial difference is no longer biologically attributed but also culturally assigned (post-racial).
Being involved in the AASRN taught me that doing Asian in Australia is more akin to a method (here I am indebted to the politics of method discussed in Chen Kuan-Hsing’s book Asia as Method). This method is its engaged cultural research.
Since its formation, the AASRN has always included and involved the grassroots as central to its agenda. Its conferences exemplify this practice, with its diversity of voices, including writers, students, artists, politicians, community leaders and independent scholars. It was at one of these earlier conferences that I met filmmakers like Tony Ayers and Richard Fung, whose films I had only previously seen and studied, and whose support later enabled me to complete my Asian Australian cinema history Australian Research Council-funded research and book project (with Olivia Khoo and Belinda Smaill, see asianaustraliancinema.org).
When convening the AAI4 conference, I was thrilled that keynote speakers like artist and celebrity chef Poh Ling Yeow readily agreed to come, and also equally chuffed when Meaghan Morris (another keynote speaker) told me how rare it was for an academic conference to still be committed to its organic intellectualism.
Not only has the AASRN developed genuine collaboration with its community constituencies, it has also showcased an interdisciplinary practice grounded in the pragmatics of culture (e.g. working with cultural institutions such as the Immigration Museum and the Chinese Museum in Melbourne).
Through engaged research, its method is as much about its research object as well as its politics, bringing to the fore, the production and transformation of new kinds of social worlds and subjectivities, as well as the thoughts and knowledges, that are taking place, within the Asian diasporas here in Australia and elsewhere.