Anna Donald on colonialism and skin tone

Anna Donald A blog, at last. I apologise to kind readers who have been wondering where I’ve got to. We went on holiday for a week – seven days in the equatorial sun in the far north of Australia. It was heavenly. The sea was green and 23-25 degrees centigrade (for US readers who might think we visited the Arctic sea if these temperatures were Fahrenheit). The beach was four miles long – or at least I think it was; it’s called four-mile beach. Maybe I’m being too literal.

We stayed in a small holiday town called Port Douglas, which is north of a medium-size town called Cairns. Both are a long way from any part of Australia I’ve ever visited, about 2000km (actually 1957 as the crow [or more realistically, plane] flies) north of Sydney on the east coast of Australia. Port Douglas and its environs are known as the land of salt-water, “sea-going” crocodiles (not an encouraging title for swimmers); palm trees, white sand, mud crabs, and virgin rainforests in the hinterland. It is well towards the eastern shard of Australia which points to Indonesia and East Timor (I think! I read history; my geography is disastrous despite a lifetime of international travel). My husband booked a lovely apartment with fans and Japanese sliding doors and posh shampoo. (He wasn’t impressed with the broadcasting of bathroom noises through the sliding doors, but that’s already enough information).

We had a super time, cycling on our rented mountain bikes, eating mud crabs, flouting most of my semi-vegan cancer diet rules (sort of; I had an ice cream, lots of fish and seven chips), and lying on the beach, smothered in 50+ UV protection sun cream beneath a huge umbrella, doing what we both love most – reading books. Geeks that we are. And occasionally having a swim.

Billy Connolly once had a skit in which he described his skin as “blue,” coming as he does from the far north where the sun never shines. I believe him, having examined – indeed incised – many Glaswegians’ skin during my surgical house job in Glasgow, giving me an enduring love of Scotland and of Glasgow in particular. I can never understand why people rave about Edinburgh when Glasgow – and more to the point, Glaswegians – exist, with their tough-as-steel humour and crazy weather and the world’s most beautiful and haunting landscapes within an hour of the city.) In any case, my husband (whose Dundee granddad was a founder of the SNP) and Billy Connolly must share Scottish genes, because Michael’s skin is not pink, it’s a kind of translucent non-colour that goes bright scarlet after 30 minutes in the sun unless he’s wearing a burka or thick rain jacket and trousers, neither of which are the in-thing on Australian beaches. Needless to say, he burnt and peeled all over the place, despite our precautions.

Although I have, mostly, my father’s peaches-and-cream skin, I have, thank heavens, a smattering of my mother’s Opium-Wars-Chinese skin, which means, surprisingly, I go a kind of pale yellow-brown, rather than red, when my pale skin hits the sun (or rather, when the sun hits it).

This might need an explanation to people who have always known me with flaming red hair (no longer of course) and the palest skin (as a child I could have been in an ad for cream-and-strawberry whips). My grandmother was a late product of the New South Wales gold rush, which had pretty much petered out by the time she was born in 1908. In its heyday, however, thousands of Chinese people came to Australia, along with many others, to fossick for gold. Granny’s parentage was, as far as we can make out, Chinese, English and probably Welsh. She tanned easily too. But apart from that; her jade bangles; her little (and, come to think of it, large) Chinese chests and old photos of Chinese-looking relatives, you’d not have guessed her ancestry lay, at least in part, in Xiamen. She was called Lillian because she was so fair (“Lily of the Valley” as she used to say with pride).

Until the early 1970s, Australia still had a “White Australia policy”, mostly to keep out the “Yellow Peril” – the Chinese and anyone else of Asian extraction (not Indians, who are not called “Asians” in Australia). This policy was to keep immigrants European and to provide a cultural legitimacy to casual racism, which abounded and, shamefully, still exists. (A few weeks ago, a nice, educated, interior designer confided in me that she didn’t send her daughter to my grammar school because, she said in a hushed tone, “she would have been one of the only Caucasians.” This is because the Asian kids are nice, polite, and work hard, winning a disproportionate number of the  prized places in Sydney’s small number of academically selective schools. I was on the verge of retorting “so you want your daughter to go to school with lazy Anglo blobs, rather than expose them to people who know how to behave and know how to work hard do you?” but I restrained myself and offered her some tea so I could disappear into the kitchen and not have to hear any more of her oh-so-casual bigotry. Too many years in England. I should have told her a piece of my Aussie mind.

I don’t understand the persistence of racism against the Chinese in Australia. In general they/we are lovely, polite, hard-working, and have been here for ages. Contrary to the stereotype (they’re “different from us”), they/we are very active in founding and running countless community services and politics at all levels. My own great-great-great grandfather, for example, petitioned the government, and then helped to establish, a school system in the goldfields, among other things. Many “Anglos,” like me, have old Chinese blood due to the massive migrations here in the late 19th century.

I just don’t get it. I suppose it reveals the insidious and pervasive legacy that racist, nation-wide policies leave, like slavery in the USA. And the power, still, of political leaders. Australia’s recent prime minister, John Howard, had a long record of speaking ill of “Asians” and it shows. I feel as if I’ve returned to a much more racist, snide society (against the Chinese) than I left, twenty years ago. Which also shows you need to be vigilant at every level against racism and other forms of bigotry. It can return so quickly. I’m so sad about this aspect of Australia; I had really hoped we’d progressed beyond all this. I think the Sydney Olympics was the pinnacle of multi-culturalism; after that, ironically given the world’s embrace of Australia, it seems to have slid downhill.

For all these reasons my grandmother denied her Chinese origins from a young age, point blank, despite her siblings all looking Chinese. She claimed her mother’s name was Mary “Doug” when in fact it was Mary Dong. Her brother, Roy Lee, who  looked Chinese, somehow managed to get an early, postgraduate Nuffield Scholarship to Oxford (something of a miracle, given that it was touch-and-go as to whether Sydney university and its men’s college, St Paul’s, would accept him – it excluded Jews and Catholics). His Australian mentors told him he’d never reach his potential in Australia due to his colour. A one time communist, he went to Paris to set up soup kitchens before becoming the  vicar in St Martin in the Fields church in Trafalgar Square during the war, as well as the flying priest for the BBC, visiting the troops on the continent (not sure he made it to Africa) and interviewing them about their morale and welfare for the listeners back home. After the war, he became the vicar at Oxford’s University Church, St Mary the Virgin. He was affectionately and naively known by the ladies in North Oxford as “the Chinaman vicar.” (I met a clutch of them when I arrived as a Rhodes Scholar in 1989). He stayed there as priest and theologian, helping to  found St Catherine’s College, until he retired. He never once visited Australia again.

I realise I’ve used up more than enough space talking about the colonial origins of why I don’t burn in the sun as I should (don’t get me onto the Opium Wars and how the British brought China to its knees within a few years, an incredible history which few British people know. We’ll be here all night). I was going to try to explain why I couldn’t write for three weeks, but I’m not sure it’s very interesting. (The dog ate it.) So I’ll stop here. Thank you to everyone who sent me kind notes enquiring about my health. I’ll try not to worry people in future by making sure I write something regularly. Have a lovely week.