Culture //

On “Local”

Yangfan Wu thinks that racism is not just confined to the Australian cafes.

When asked to define “local,” Mr Hu, the Chinese cafe owner from Shanghai who refused to hire a black barista because he preferred “local” people, said he meant people who had lived here for some time. Shaking my head in dismay, I was reminded of some typical, middle-aged Shanghainese I used to know very well. Their concept of “local” has a rather complex history.

Shanghai, the largest Chinese city by population, is “the” global financial center in the 21st century. However, there exists some deep-seated regional discrimination in this model city. Attracted by Shanghai’s economic growth as well as its social benefits, hordes of migrants have flowed into Shanghai in recent decades. They are widely blamed for the rising rates of crime and unemployment by “legitimate” Shanghainese. The supposedly “legitimate” Shanghainese are the descendants of immigrants who came to Shanghai in the late 19th century or early 20th century. They have long been accused of looking down upon people who speak the dialects of Shanghai’s traditional areas, known as “the local dialects”. Additionally, they are often prejudiced against new migrants who can’t speak fluent Shanghainese. A friend once told me that he was born and raised in Shanghai, but he never identifies himself as “Shanghainese”, rather says he “came from Shanghai”, because he can’t speak the dialect fluently.

However, most Chinese people would hardly consider this an example of “racism,” as China’s ethnic composition is largely homogenous, with 91.9 per cent of the population being of Han ethnicity. Most ethnic groups have intermarried with Han Chinese; therefore, they are less distinguishable from Han Chinese. We’d rather call Shanghainese prejudice a repugnant strain of regional discrimination than we would racism. Including Steven Hu, quite a number of Chinese are rather insensitive to “racism”.

Steven Hu, the cafe owner, simply transplanted his ignorant Shanghainese “local” prejudice to Sydney. Since the story broke, thousands of Australians responded on the cafe’s Facebook page, pointing out the “irony” of the situation and exhorting Steven to “go back home.” Is the “irony” because he is also a non-local Australian? I, as a foreign student, was also told to “go back home” not long ago. Other anecdotal evidence suggests that white Australian society has not really come as far since 1788 as it might wish to believe.

My Chinese friend graduated from university this past year and sent out resumes to Australian companies, but did not receive a single call in the first two months of his job search. After he changed his first name on the resume to “Michael,” he started getting a few interviews. Many more interviews were offered after this young Chinese man changed his full name to “Michael Cade”. What is the difference between this and the case of Steven?

Perhaps this is not an example of racism because the interviewers didn’t ask, “Why are you Asian?” Maybe when an aspirational young Chinese strides into the annual job fair in the Great Hall and discovers that 47 out of 50 firms are requiring that applicants be permanent residents or citizens, it does not reflect racist attitudes. Maybe Clive Palmer’s calling Chinese “mongrels” is just emotive, colorful, or “unhelpful,” but definitely not racist. Or perhaps it’s not just Mr Hu.