06 January 2014

Western Australian local council politics and the Hakka community

- By Dr. Yit Seng YOW

The Western Australia Chinese community, in particular the Hakkas, is celebrating the election of Keith YONG 杨奕 (楊奕) to the Perth City Council. 

Picture on left portraits a confident, composed and smiling Keith at the oath taking ceremony on 22nd October, 2013, together with Lisa-M. Scaffidi, the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor.
Since the end of the White Australian Policy some forty years ago, the Chinese community has made slow but steady progress in political representation at the local council level.

Few people realised that ethnic Chinese participation in society occurred mainly within the past few decades.  In reality the Chinese population rapidly declined as a result of the White Australia policy.  By 1933 there were only 363 Chinese living in Perth, out of 705 in the whole State.  The 1947 census showed the State’s Chinese population had dropped to 385.  

The bulk of Chinese migrants came to Western Australia only after 1980.

From a historical perspective Dr Ching Howe CHAN became the first ethnic Chinese to be elected as a local Councillor to the city of Melville in 1996.  Since then others have been elected in the cities or shires of Gosnells, Mundaring, Nedlands, Perth and West Swan.

It is notable that WA lags behind other states in local government representation.  The first ethnic Chinese to serve as a mayor was Harry Chan, the mayor of Darwin from 1966 to 1969.  Alec Fong Lim served as Lord Mayor of Darwin from 1984 to 1990.  Henry Tsang was elected to serve as the Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney from 1991 to 1999.   Alfred Huang served as the Lord Mayor of Adelaide from 2000 to 2003.  John SO served as the Lord Mayor of Melbourne from 2001 to 2008.  At this moment in time Katrina Fong Lim, the Lord Mayor of Darwin is the only ethnic Chinese serving as a lord mayor in Australia.  A fifth generation Chinese Australian, she is the daughter of Alec Fong Lim.  In Victoria Dr Stanley Chiang served as the mayor of Darebin; and Robert CHONG served twice as the mayor of Whitehorse.

Even though he is the fourth ethnic Chinese to serve as a Councillor for the City of Perth, Keith YONG made history by being:

The first Australian from East Malaysia to serve in any city council in WA

The first Australian from the state of Sabah to serve in any city council in WA
The first Hakka to serve in any city council in WA
The first serving council member of Chung Wah Association (the major ethnic Chinese association in Western Australia) to serve in any city council in WA
Possibly the youngest ethnic Chinese to serve in any city council in WA

As Keith YONG is the president of the Hakka Association of Western Australia Inc.; he became the second president of a major ethnic Chinese association to serve in any city council in WA. 

Together with Lily CHEN, there are now two Councillors of the City of Perth from the ethnic Chinese community, both are members of Chung Wah Association.   As there are only 8 Councillors, it means that 25% of the City of Perth Councillors are of Chinese descent.

It is significant that elections (be it Federal, State or Local Council) in recent years were held free of any racial slur.  This contrasts with the atmospheres three decades ago.

Even though the White Australia Policy had ended, anti-Asian sentiments surfaced in the 80's.  Ethnic Chinese in Australia cannot forget that in 1988, John Howard, then leader of the Opposition, attacked the multicultural policy and called for slowing the rate of Asian immigration (The Age Newspaper, August 2 and September 9, 1988). Then Senate Leader John Stone and then National Party leader Ian Sinclair expressed similar views (Australian, August 12, 1988).  Sixteen Chinese associations, under the umbrella of the Council of Chinese Organisations, sent a telegram to Mr Howard condemning his stance on multiculturalism (Courier Mail, August 4, 1988).  Subsequently, Mr Howard had a meeting with three leaders of the Chinese community in Melbourne and explained that his comments were not meant to discriminate against any race.  The community was far from convinced.

In Western Australia the formation of the anti-Asian organisation Australian Nationalist Movement in the 1980s brought back memories.  The community was alarmed and outraged when Asian restaurants were firebombed.  The leader Jack Van Tongeren was subsequently jailed.  He was eventually released from jail on the condition that he left Western Australia.

In 1996 Pauline Hanson attacked multiculturalism in Australia in her maiden speech to the Australian Parliament.  Though her remarks were interpreted as highly racist, the Pauline Hanson One Nation Party attracted 1 million votes nationwide, with impressive support from Western Australia. At the 2001 State elections, One Nation won 10% of the votes in both the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly, with three seats in the Legislative Council.  It is remarkable that in 2005 their votes dropped to less than 2%.

As the Hakka (not in any way associated with New Zealand Maoris) community is not well known outside ethnic Chinese circles, this is an opportune time to look at this closely knit group in Western Australia.

The Hakkas are one of the three prominent ethnic Chinese groups overseas, together with the Cantonese and Hokkiens; they constitute about 20% of Chinese diaspora worldwide.  As a group they are pragmatic, resourceful and hardworking, who persevere even in the most adverse environment.  Collectively their legacy would perpetuate as they continue to have significant impact on the course of ethnic Chinese and world history.  As a group they are resourceful and hardworking, who persevere even in the most adverse environment.  Collectively their legacy would perpetuate as they continue to have significant impact on the course of ethnic Chinese and world history.

It is remarkable to note that currently there are 3 heads of state of Hakka descent.  They are the Prime Minister of Singapore LEE Hsien Loong 李显龙 (); Prime Minister of Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra ยิ่งลักษณ์ ชินวัตร (the first female Prime Minister of the nation), and the President of Taiwan MA ying-jeou 英九 (馬英九).

The Hakkas are prominent in shaping the destiny of history, in China and in countries where ethnic Chinese reside.  In China prominent leaders include Dr. SUN Yat Sen 孙中山 (孫中山) (the father of the nation 国父 in Mainland as well as Taiwan) and DENG Xiaoping 邓小平 (鄧小平) (the post-Mao Chinese leader who modernised China).  Added to the list would be the three SONG sisters, including SOONG Ching-ling 宋庆龄 (宋慶齡), wife of Dr SUN Yat Sen and SOONG May-Ling 宋美龄 (宋美齡), wife of CHIANG Kai Shek. 

Closer to our times HU Yaobang 胡耀邦, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (1980 – 1987) was the first senior Chinese official to visit Australia.  In 1985 he made history when the first Chinese plane physically landed in Perth!  Other prominent Hakkas include Marshall YE Jianying 叶剑英 (葉劍英) Chinese Military and Political Stewart), LI Peng 李鹏 (李鵬) (4th Prime Minister of China); LEE Teng Hui李登辉 (李登輝) and CHEN Shui-bian 陈水扁 (陳水扁) (both former Taiwanese Presidents)

Outside China prominent world figures include LEE Kuan Yew 李光耀 (Prime Minister of Singapore from 1965 - 1991), Adrienne Louise Clarkson 伍冰枝, Governor General of Canada from 1999 to 2005;  Thaksin Shinawatra ทักษิณ ชินวัตร 丘达新 (丘逹新) (Prime Minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006).  Arthur Raymond Chung 钟亚瑟 () (1916-2008) served as the founder President of Guyana from 1970 to 1980.  Sir Solomon Hochoy 何才 (1905 - 1983) was the last British Governor of Trinidad and Tobago (first British viceroy of non-European descent), the first non-white Governor and the inaugural Governor-General after independence.  Khin Nyunt, Prime Minister of Burma from 2003 to 2004.

In Mauritius four prominent Hakkas, Noel Lee Cheong Lem 李国华 (國華), Joseph Tsang Mang Kin 曾繁兴 (曽繁興), Emmanuel Jean Leung Shing 陈念汀 (陳念汀) and Sylvio Tang Wah Hing 邓学升 (鄧學升) served as ministers.  Another Hakka, Sir Moilin Jean Ah-Chuen 朱梅麟, had his portrait printed on the nation’s 25 rupees currency note. 

In Indonesia Hasan Karman 黄少凡, another Hakka, emerged as Indonesia’ first ethnic Chinese Mayor, in the city of Singkawang, in West Kalimantan.  In Malaysia Datuk Peter LO Sui Yin 罗思仁 (羅思仁) and Datuk YONG Teck Lee 杨德利 (德利) served as Chief Minister in the state of Sabah; Tan Sri WONG Pow Nee 王保尼 served as the Chief Minister of Penang; at the federal level three Hakkas, Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen YONG Kuet Tze, Dato’ Sri CHIN Fah Kui 陈华贵 (陳華貴) and Dato’ Sri LIOW Tiong Lai 廖中莱 served as ministers.

In Australia the Hakka community prides itself that Penny Wong黃英贤 (黃英), our first ethnic Chinese federal minister, was born in Sabah to a Hakka father.  Other Hakkas in Australian politics include Alfred HUANG黄国鑫, (黄國鑫) Lord Mayor of Adelaide (2000 – 2003), Henry TSANG 曾筱龙 (曾筱龍), Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney (1991 – 1999) and Robert CHONG 钟富喜 (鐘富喜) who served twice as the mayor of Whitehorse, Victoria.  In Western Australia Chu San YOW, a Hakka, was appointed as a J.P. as early as 1975, the first Asian justice of peace in our state.

People familiar with the history of Malaya would know that YAP Ah Loy 叶亚来 (葉亞來), a Hakka was considered to be the founder of Kuala Lumpur in Malaya, though the Hakkas were subsequently outnumbered by Cantonese in the city.  In Indonesia LOW Fan Paik 罗芳伯 (芳伯), another Hakka, established the Lanfang Republic in East Kalimantan in 1777, until it was ended by the Dutch in 1884.

In the business world prominent hakkas include the founders of “tiger balm”, AW Boon How胡文虎 (1882 - 1954); and his brother AW Boon Par 胡文豹 (1888 - 1944), both born in Burma (now Myanmar); LEE Loy Seng, founder of Kuala Lumpur Kepong, a Malaysian multinational corporate; Raymond Chow 邹文怀 (鄒文怀), founder of “Golden Harvest” film studio嘉禾 that launched the careers of prominent stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark; Prajogo Pangestu 彭云鹏 (彭雲鹏) Indonesian timber tycoon, Khun Bantoon Lamsam 伍捷仆, founder of Kasikorn Bank, Thailand’s agricultural bank, just to name a few from each country.

Other prominent Hakkas include Dr. HAN Suyin 韩素英 (韓素英), author of numerous books on modern China.   Dr. HAN visited Australia at the invitation of the Australian China Society.  Wherever she went, this dynamic Eurasian woman drew overflowing audience, and with her vast wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on, told them facts on China and China’s policies, plainly and without equivocation.   This was the major breakthrough in the atmosphere of ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding about China existed at that time.  Her visit to Western Australia led to the formation of Australia China Society (renamed Australia China Friendship Society after Australia and China established diplomatic relationship).

Most Australians, including many ethnic Chinese, tend to be confused between “guest” [kè rén] 客人 and “Hakka people” [kè jiā rén] 客家人.  In reality the Hakkas (also known as Kheks), is an important dialect group within the mainstream Han race in China.  From a historical perspective they were migrants from the Central or Northern parts of China to the South.  They would be best described as people who were “guests” or “visitors” in areas away from their place of origin 作客他乡; who eventually settle down, taking roots in a new land 落地生根.  This historical reality is reflected in the close resemblance of the Hakka dialect to northern languages such as Mandarin, rather than local dialects in the South (where they settle) such as Cantonese or Hokkien.  Known as nomads of China, their migration to South East Asia and elsewhere was a continuation of earlier southward movement.  It is not surprising to find that the “Hakka” is found in pockets of concentration in several places over several locations, rather than concentrated in one place.

In the 2006 Australian census 441 people listed Hakka as the language spoken at home in Western Australia.  Though the number is not huge, their numbers are comparable to Hebrew (480), more than Teochew (298) or Norwegian (354).  In addition one would imagine that a certain proportion of those who speak Mandarin at home (16,551), and some of those who do not speak any Chinese language at home might also be of Hakka heritage. 

According to the census Australia-wide there were 7,960 Hakka speakers at home, out of which there were only 276 were listed as people who do not speak English well.  In other words, the census indicated that the majority would speak Hakka at home to someone else (for example one of the parents), whose English is not that great.

A search on the internet indicates that at least four Hakka Associations have been established in Australia, in the Northern Territory, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.  It is also found across the Tasman in New Zealand.

The Hakka Association of Western Australia 西澳客家公会 was the brainchild of Dato’ Tet K Yong in 2009 杨德强 (楊德强), a community leader from the state of Sabah (Malaysia).  Remarkably Dato’ Yong was also the founder president of the Hakka Association in Lahad Datu, one of the major towns in the state of Sabah, some thirty years ago.  He certainly had the passion, the zeal and the energy to galvanise the collective intelligence, imagination and energies of the Hakka people in both Lahad Datu and Perth.  Two years ago the presidency was passed to his son, Keith Yong.  Both father and son provide strong and stable leadership.  They have a good understanding of the dynamics of running an organisation, and have provided immeasurable secretarial and other resources for the association.  Their generosity in allocation of personal resources is critical.

The Hakka Association of WA, despite its recent history, is undoubtedly one of the most visible, active and well run ethnic Chinese associations.  The official website of Hakka Association WA at provides general information of their activities.

The members come from a wide spectrum of countries including Australia, Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore and Taiwan.  In spite of diversity of the country of origin, the cohesion amongst members is remarkable.  The cohesion is reflected by the fact that some of the activities are often organised in members’ homes.  What is more remarkable is that some of the events are conducted in Hakka dialect itself, rather than in English or Mandarin.  Action speaks louder than words; the ability to collectively conduct events in one’s dialect is a manifestation of their language capability, as well as the will to perpetuate this aspect of the culture.  Social gatherings are held quite regularly, reinforcing the bonds between members.

Their spectrum of activities is multi-faceted and well documented in their blog

Few associations in Australia provide the range of activities to members.  It is evident that the leadership works in close relationship between other ethnic Chinese associations such as the Chung Wah Association, as well as Hakka diaspora worldwide.  In addition there is a good personal relationship between the leadership and the WA state government, and political leaders.  With Keith’s entry into WA politics, the connectivity would certainly be more intertwined.   This would also be a significant milestone in the history of the WA Hakka community, as the association celebrates its 4th anniversary in December.

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