Australian-Asian History: Orientalism


Orientalism, according to Said (2003, p. 5), refers to an assemblage of untrue assumptions relating to the attitudes of the West towards the East, more so concerning the colonization of the East by the West. This term speaks more about the difference between the East and West and how the West has tried to transform the East, since they viewed themselves as having a superior culture. This superiority led to the colonization era, which was an attempt by the superior western cultures to transform the inferior eastern culture. Orientalism also refers to a greater extent to a style or a manner of life or even a culture that is associated with the Asians. For example, the building of small ‘Asiatowns’ within big towns in non-Asiatic countries could also refer to Orientalism.

Said (2003, p. 5) further claims that at the onset of European colonization, the Europeans divided the world into two parts, which is the West and the East, the occident and the orient, or the civilized and uncivilized. The Europeans used Orientalism to define who they were, and in most instances, they associated themselves with superior attributes and thus justified their colonization of Eastern nations with this belief. Orientalism was not only observed in the East versus the West scenario, but it was also seen in the representation of Asia in the Australian cultural practices. This paper seeks to explain the reflection of Orientalism in the Asia-Australian interactions and how this practice helps in the critical understanding of Australian-Asian History.

In what ways has the representation of Asia in Australian cultural practices reflected a style of thought that Edward Said termed “Orientalism”?

Australian-Asian History: Orientalism

Australia received its name from the Latin word ‘terra australis incognita’ or the unknown land in the south (Estensen 2007, p. 2). For some time, it remained unknown and a mystery to the rest of the world until the time when early explorers and settlers set foot upon it. It was viewed as a land dominated by people of backward cultures, histories, and practices, making it a place fit for colonization by the western nations. Before the invasion of this land by the European colonizers, it was majorly occupied by the Torres and the Aborigines, who comprised of nearly two hundred and fifty aboriginal languages (Koch & Hercus 2009, p. 71).

The Aborigines are thought to have migrated into Australia by land bridges and through short sea-crossing from south East of Asia (Salmon 1999, p. 61). These early tribes lived a life of hunting and gathering until the first Europeans arrived into this subcontinent and altered their lifestyle. The culture of these early occupants of Australia was marked by a belief system known as the Dreamtime, among other indigenous practices.

The arrival of European settlers led to the development of a more diverse culture in this subcontinent, which is present to date. This diverse culture is often referred to as the Anglo-Celtic culture, is what defines Australia today. This unique and diverse culture has borrowed much from the great Asian presence in Australia. It appears that links between Australia and Asia did not end by the arrival of their arrival during the aborigine immigration periods, but it continued even to the gold rush era during the colonial period. It is believed that during this period, a greater Asian population arrived in Australia as skilled laborers to work in the gold mines during the gold rush age (McCalman & Cook, 2001, p. 6).

These Asian immigrants came with new cultures and practices, which has influenced to a greater extent the existing cultures. Their great influence on this nation was fuelled by their numbers, which the white settlers feared that Australia might lose its superior British character as a result of being assimilated into an Asian culture (Chapman, 2005 p. 24). Apart from the immigrations, the close proximity of Australia to Asia has shaped its identity due to the contacts that occur due to this close proximity. People from Asia have brought with them into Australia new customs, beliefs, and traditions, which have contributed to shifting the Australian identity. The Australians of Asian backgrounds have also enriched and influenced the multicultural Australian society. Apart from this many of the Australian artists, journalist, adventurers, and writers among other have been influenced by the Asian traditions, writings, and art styles. This influence has been so deep in such a way to appear that the original Australian culture is being washed away as they embrace the superior Asian culture leading to what Said referred to as Orientalism.

Despite Australia having strong historical connections with western nations like Europe and Britain, it is increasingly becoming a part of Asia both economically and culturally due to its geographical location. This link has made it appear like the Asian culture is replacing the original Australian culture in a scenario similar to Orientalism. In Orientalism, a superior country decides to change an inferior nation in an attempt to civilize them. It involves transforming their whole cultural system and doing away with it so that they can embrace the superior new culture.

The Asian immigration into Australia is termed as the largest after the British and New Zealand migrations of the mid-nineteenth century. This larger proportion makes them appear as the superior culture, coupled with their unique lifestyle. For example, the Chinese who were working in the gold mines portrayed a unique culture in their dressing, lifestyle, physical appearance, and language (Thomas 2004, p. 177). This uniqueness made them stand out amidst other miners who were hostile to them.

The Asian culture has had the largest and most visible impact and influence on mainstream Australian society. To some extent, this culture has replaced the ‘inferior’ Australian culture in a number of ways, as Orientalism puts it. The first influence is seen in the presence of Asian restaurants and cafes all over Australia, even in the most remote towns of this subcontinent. This shows a change in the eating habits of the Australians, from their own delicacies like bush tucker, the prominent seafood, among others, to Asian meals. The Asian diet has also become the regular diet of Australians, even in the homes of non-Asian Australian citizens. This diet issue is also experienced in both small and major cities, where it has become a common phenomenon for Australians to use chopsticks.

Thirdly the influence is also on religion, with many of the cities and large Australian temples having Asian temples and gardens. These towns also celebrate the major Asian and Chinese festivals like the Chinese New Year. Apart from the building of temples, the Asians have built small Asia towns within the major cities and towns of Australia.

Orientalism is also reflected in the greater influence that Asian music and games like Karate, Karaoke, and Kimonos have on the Australian culture. Asian culture has been accepted as part of the Australian culture and is perceived as better than the Australian culture, a situation referred to as Orientalism.

How can such practices help us critically understand Australian-Asian history?

The Australian-Asian history dates back to the seventeenth century when the Asians started migrating into Australia for trading purposes. This pre-colonial interaction was made by the Macassan traders from Indonesia who were regular visitors to this land (Thomas 2004, p. 160). After the colonization of Australia, Asians came into Australia majorly as laborers, and specifically to work in the gold mines. The Australian gold rush, in particular, drew a large percentage of them into Australia.

Orientalism helps us understand why the Asians, and specifically the Chinese, were driven from their country when extreme poverty conditions, war, and population explosion faced them (Chapman, 2005 p. 24). These conditions forced them to seek employment elsewhere, making them come to Australia to work in the goldmines.

Orientalism further helps understand the beginning of the rivalry against Asians and specifically the Chinese. This rivalry first occurred in the gold mines where these Asians have exposed to xenophobia, a condition resulting from discrimination by the Australians. They were discriminated against because they had different customs from the others; this led them to form small groupings of their own.

Orientalism also explains the uniqueness of the Australian-Asian history is unique since being marked and defined by the tension between these two cultures. The white majority viewed the Asian as trying to transform Australia into an Asian country, which was against their desire (Docker & Fischer 2000, p. 158). This is because of the greater majority that they formed at that time and their unique culture and lifestyle.

Orientalism brings to light the major aim of the anti-Asian policies that were put in place to curb the further influx of Asians from Southeast Asia. The aim of these policies was not to bar further immigration from Asia per se but to allow low numbers of middle class non-European to enter Australia. These low numbers were preferred so that the Asians could be made socially invisible to the preferred white population. The removal of ethnicity as a condition of entry in Australia allowed a greater portion of the Asian immigrants to settle permanently in Australia and call it home. This action was very significant to the Asian community in this subcontinent since it amounted to the recognition of their economic and political significance. This action also led to an increase in the number of Asian immigrants from the Asian continent by about fifteen percent (Thomas 2004, p. 177).

Orientalism brings to light why the Asian Presence in Australia was viewed as a threat. Their presence in Australia has in most instances raised debates within this nation, and in most cases, they are viewed as outsiders and segregated by the white majority. But despite this fact, the Asian culture has impacted the Australian culture and has become accepted as part of it.

The practice of Orientalism further explains how the Asian-Australian interaction has seen the Australian culture being assimilated into the ‘superior’ Asian culture. This practice gives much understanding into the history of the Australia-Asian interactions in a number of ways. In addition, Orientalism brings into light the extent of the Asian influence upon the Australian culture by showing how their presence transformed this culture. This transformation can be seen in changes in the lifestyle of the people, their diet, the games they play, and even in their music. It also shows how the Asians stuck to their culture, which they perceive superior, though taken to be exotic by the dominant white population.

The Asians and specifically the Chinese were discriminated against because of their culture to the extent that legislation was made against them, but still, they held on to their cultural practices. This aspect is further illustrated by the now dominant presence of Asian culture in the Australian lifestyle. This practice also explains the reasons for the majority Asian population in Australia. Since it gives a historical background to their immigration and how they came to be the most populous group in Australia, making up a third of the nation’s population.

Orientalism also explains why the Asians did not colonize nations like their white counterparts, despite being equally developed at that time. The Far East comprising of China, during the seventeenth century, was more developed and had advanced naval technology but did not involve themselves in explorations and colonization ventures. Orientalism also explains the reasons for the enactment of legislation to curb the Asian influence on Australians. Though this legislation was made to restrict further immigration, their major intent was to stop further immigrants coming from Asia. Orientalism further explains the reasons that led to the immigrations and specifically the world unrest that was characterized by the fall and rise of new leaders, wars, and massacres.


In conclusion, Orientalism does not only refer to the way the western nations view the Arabs or other eastern nations, but it also refers to the Asian influence in a number of cultures. In this case, it refers to the greater presence of the Asian culture in the Australian cultural practices, which is seen in the diet, the dressing mode, the games, and the music, and even in buildings. This influence has been shown by the greater impact the Asian culture has on the existing Australian culture, which started even before the colonial period. The Asians tended to hold on to their cultural practice despite the ridicule and intimidation they experienced as they worked in the mines. This influence only further shows that Orientalism has been reflected in the presence of the Asian culture in the Australian culture.


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