Floating Lives: The Media and Asian Diasporas

Stuart Cunningham and John Sinclair (eds),
Floating Lives: The Media and Asian Diasporas.
Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2000
ISBN 0 7022 31223
AU$29.95 (paper)
(Review copy supplied by University of Queensland Press)
Uploaded 1 March 2000

Floating Lives: The Media and Asian Diasporas is far more specific in its focus than its title might suggest, and by and large it benefits from that. First, this is not a book about Asian diasporas around the world. Rather, it is about Asian Australians only. Their cousins in North America and Britain have been both far more studied, so this is a welcome attempt to throw light on populations whose distinct characteristics have remained hitherto largely undefined. Second, this is not a book about the representations of Asians in the media, a topic that has also been extensively discussed already. Instead, it focuses on Asian Australian use and consumption of the media as part of their ongoing and dynamic negotiation of connections to “here” and “there”.

Four populations are focused on in the main chapters; Vietnamese Australians, Fiji Indian Australians, Thai Australians and Chinese Australians. The Chinese Australians are further sub-divided according to whether they are from the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indochina (ie. Vietnam and Cambodia) or Southeast Asia. The results show strong differences amongst and within these populations, demonstrating the futility of any attempt to generalize and the artificiality of the term “Asia” itself. At the same time, they do begin to give us a picture of these particular populations and their active use of the media.

For example, in Manas Ray’s chapter on the Fiji Indian population of Sydney and Brisbane, we discover that their relation to Bollywood Hindi films on video is far stronger than that of migrants who have come directly from the sub-continent, because those films helped them to imagine their “homeland” already while in Fiji.

By contrast, Glen Lewis and Chalinee Hirano show that television programs on video are the main link back to Thailand for the Thai Australian community, and usually of programs they used to watch in Thailand. In contrast again, the Vietnamese Australian eschews Vietnamese productions as they are tainted by the communist regime they fled. Instead, Stuart Cunningham and Trinh Nguyen show that they are more comfortable with Hong Kong videos (which do not “other” Asians as Western media product does) or their own diasporic media, in particular music videos. Finally, there are the Chinese Australians, whose levels of internal variety as detailed by John Sinclair, Audrey Yue, Gay Hawkins, Kee Pookong and Josephine Fox defy brief encapsulation here.

From this description, it will be immediately apparent that the title of the book could be further specified. For the main focus is not on Asian Australians’ use of the media in general, but of the “Asian media” in particular. To be fair, in some chapters and in particular that on Chinese Australians, brief attention is paid to their consumption of other forms of media. For example, we learn that when asked what television shows they watched regularly, Chinese Australians listed dozens of English-language titles in all genres. However, we get little more information than this. An exception, which has stuck in my mind precisely because it is an exception, is a discussion of a family from Taiwan’s habit of watching the seven o’clock news on the ABC. We are told that they watched at this time as a family because they used to watch the news in Taiwan as a family at that time, too, but they also watch to connect to what is going on in Australia and because the daughters can translate for the parents. In other words, this habit gives them both continuity to the past and a bridge into their present and future(54).

Here, then, is the irony. The book repeatedly and quite rightly refers to the damaging effects of Pauline Hanson and One Nation being felt at the time of its writing. Yet, with exceptions such as those just mentioned, it largely ignores the fact that “the media”, implicitly drawing a line between “them” and “us” where there should be a complex range of similarities, overlaps, differences and conjunctions. Although we learn that the Bengali Australians do not have the same affection for Bollywood as the Fiji Indian Australians, we never do find out what the Bengali Australians watch and what use they make of it. Instead, our attention is firmly fixed on those Indian Australians whose media habits seem most “exotic”. Perhaps it is not surprising after all that the subjects of the study are only specified as “Asian” and not as “Asian Australian”.

This suggests a flaw in the design of the original project, which does not seem to have taken into account the fact that Asian Australians might make significant use of local as well as “Asian” media. However, the editors of the book are to be commended for not suppressing the findings that indicate this. Not only does it point to directions for fruitful further research. It also demonstrates that binaristic “them” and “us” thinking is not confined to the demonized Hanson and her cohorts, but runs deep within even the best intentioned among us.

Chris Berry