Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 September, 2010, 12:00am

He's been voted the world's best lord mayor, he's had a rap song, John So, he's our bro', written in his honour and he received a bigger cheer than Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. As the Australian city's first directly elected and longest serving lord mayor, it's clear the effervescent John So Chun-sai is an ideal posterboy for multicultural Melbourne.

'My family's roots are embedded in the Pearl River Delta, where my father's family lived in Shunde city, part of Foshan,' So says. 'My father and his brothers followed an uncle to Yunnan, where they established a tin-mining business and prospered - but as Hong Kong was the main trading centre, my father settled there, where I was born in 1946.'

His father passed away when So was five and his recollections of that time come from family members but he has vivid memories of Hong Kong in the 1950s.

'I was fortunate but plenty of kids weren't so lucky and I well remember the contrast between me in my smartly pressed school uniform and others who couldn't even afford shoes,' he recalls.

His education came with a dose of discipline at St Louis School, in Western, and then he boarded at Aberdeen Technical School.

'I came to Melbourne when I was 17, not because I had family here but because I had a strong desire to study abroad and a friend's sister was studying nursing in Melbourne,' says So.

Settling in quickly at University High School, he became an active participant in the student community and matriculated before going to the University of Melbourne, where he qualified as a science teacher. University during the 60s was a hotbed of radical discussion and ideas and So was politically active through student unions while helping local Chinese fight for their rights.

'I never joined any political party but was determined to give a voice to those who didn't have one by establishing language schools, liaising with social-welfare bodies and lobbying governments for grants,' he says.

It was while running a restaurant in the late 80s that he was encouraged to join the Melbourne City Council, which he did in 1991. 'I was a bit vocal,' he says.

A decade on and So was voted in as city chief, and he acknowledges that he was the right man at the right time.

'With China opening up and reforming, I was honoured to be in a position to influence business collaborations between Melbourne and China. We established a young-leader development programme, which has brought up to 300 officials here to train at all levels of business and management, and we are the only Australian capital city with a business office in China,' he says proudly.

Thirty years ago, Melbourne and Tianjin become sister cities, the first tie-up between an Australian and a Chinese city, and So requests that he be photographed in the boutique Tianjin Garden he established close to Melbourne's Victorian-era state parliament, Princess Theatre and rattling trams.

It is apparent his love for the city's diverse communities remains as ardent as it was during his university days. What does he consider the key characteristics that make Chinese such successful migrants?

'From my point of view, when settling into a new place you must come to love it and choose to stay there,' he says.

Even though he hung up the mayoral robes in 2008, So continues to promote Melbourne and Australia. 'It's the lucky country in the sense that we have the geographical advantage of being in the Asian region while remaining part of the Western world. Our challenge is to link the two.'

There's no doubt So is up to that challenge.