The day I flew with Hanson

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 September, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 September, 1998, 12:00am

With his strong Australian twang, Eddie Liu sounds like a man half his age. He may be known as the 'Father of Chinatown' in Brisbane, but the 76-year-old is no grumpy patriarch. Rather, this Chinese-Australian with Hong Kong roots boasts a boisterous sense of humour.

'I was born on Hollywood Road and my wife used to say I would become a movie star,' Mr Liu chuckles. 'I never did.' Instead, he became an odd-job man for more than 30 years and is now - among other titles printed on his business cards - the honorary ambassador for Brisbane, the honorary secretary of the Chinese Club of Queensland, and a committee member of the Chinese Temple Society.

Then there is his family of six children and 13 grandchildren.

'There is an old Chinese saying that we [Chinese] do not like to waste,' Mr Liu chuckles again.

He is the kind of man who would walk up to Pauline Hanson - known for her anti-Asian, anti-Aborigine stance - and suggest the One Nation party leader marry a Chinese.

And he did.

'Earlier this year, I was on a plane from Brisbane to Canberra and guess who sat next to me? Pauline Hanson,' he said.

'We spoke and I told her that her presentation was wrong. Every country has an immigration policy. China has one. You can say or do whatever you see fit for your country but you don't want to single out just Asian migrants.

'That is racist. What does she know about Asians? So I suggested she should marry a Chinese to see for herself.' And what did she say to that? 'Nothing. That woman has no sense of humour,' says Mr Liu, recently in Hong Kong on one of his regular visits to old friends such as the Harilelas.

Mr Liu has been a severe critic of Ms Hanson and he is proud of it. 'Read this,' he says, tapping several Australian newspaper clippings. 'I was among the first to criticise her after her maiden speech to Parliament [in 1996].

'[Ms Hanson] has no policy. She just complains. She needs to talk about policy. You can close the door on migrants or reduce their numbers, but do that with everyone and not just Asians.' Despite the fact her right-wing party mustered almost a quarter of the votes in the Queensland state election in June and sent shockwaves across Asia, Mr Liu believes the 'Hanson factor' has done little to deter overseas businesses investing in the Sunshine State.

'There are new Chinese and other Asian restaurants and takeaway shops in Brisbane,' says Mr Liu, who helped found the Chinese Club of Queensland in 1953.

'Basically, what Pauline Hanson is saying now has all been said before. She is saying nothing new.' Having lived Down Under for more than 60 years, he knows what he is talking about.

Brought up by parents who ran a herbalist shop in Kowloon City and educated at La Salle College, Mr Liu left for Melbourne in 1937 to join his uncles, who all came from Toishan, and studied at a Christian Brothers college.

There was no need for the young boy to be nationalised because Hong Kong was then a British colony and he held a British passport.

'My relatives who migrated to Melbourne took up jobs as gardeners or they got involved in the laundrette business or opened grocery shops,' he says.

'Since most of the inhabitants of Toishan left and settled around the world, I have relatives living everywhere. Some are now in San Francisco and even Venezuela.' Mr Liu returned to Hong Kong briefly in 1939 during his school holidays and left '24 hours before the war broke out'.

'I was among the last batch who got on the last boat leaving Hong Kong and before the bombing,' he recalls. It was a lucky escape. He was to learn later that both his parents died of starvation during the occupation. His only younger brother was able to join him in Brisbane where he has lived since.

During the war, Mr Liu was employed by the Manpower Department and sent to Brisbane in 1942 to help 2,000 Chinese seamen build landing barges for the war effort.

And despite being prone to seasickness, he became the secretary of the Chinese Seamen's Union of Australia for three years. During that time he contributed to the Australian Red Cross and helped the Trades and Labor Council raise refugee relief funds.

In the next 50 years, Mr Liu hopped from one job to another, including fruit and vegetable supplier, restaurant and kiosk operator, shopping centre manager, tour operator, newspaper deliverer, market gardener, grocer and even public relations consultant.

'The cost of living in those days was relatively low so I had enough money to support my family. I made sure all my children had at least three pairs of shoes,' he said.

Mr Liu knows about racism, partially through his marriage to his wife Elizabeth, who is of Irish descent, in 1939. They met and fell in love after playing a game of table tennis.

'In those days, if you walked down the street with a white woman, people would stare at you. Her parents and my relatives were not pleased about the marriage but they all got used to it eventually,' he says.

'Mixed marriages were very rare in those days.' But not today - his family composition now reads like a United Nations gathering and includes Germans, Taiwanese, Canadians, Australians and Australian-born Chinese.

His granddaughter Samantha recently married Olympic swimming gold-medallist Kieren Perkins.

While Mr Liu has assimilated fully into the Australian culture, he has never forgotten his Chinese roots. In 1987, for instance, he helped set up Brisbane's Chinatown.

Over the years, he maintained his links with Hong Kong and has struck up friendships with many influential figures including tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung.

He vividly remembers how angry he was to hear of his adopted country's 'White Australia' policy during the war.

He described the policy, introduced by Arthur Calwell, Australia's first Minister for Immigration, as an insult to Asian people.

'[Mr Calwell] was a personal friend and he said the main issue was to protect the standard of living of Australian workers and to stop any labour bargaining by foreign workers who might seek a working visa to enter the country,' Mr Liu says. 'I suggested to him that he change the words 'White Australia policy' so that Asian people would not be offended.' In 1945, the Minister for Immigration arranged for the first large-scale immigration of non-British people into Australia and coined the term 'new Australians' for the immigrants, hoping it would replace more derogatory names.

Since then, immigration policy has changed from time to time but not necessarily for the better.

'Sometimes you can't blame the Australian Government because so many people abuse the immigration system. They overstay and work in the country illegally,' Mr Liu says.

'So yes, I have seen many politicians airing their anti-migrant or anti-Asian views before.' That is another reason Mr Liu thinks so little of Ms Hanson: 'The reason why she has gained so much attention is because of the media. These people like stirring things up.

'I wouldn't worry about her. You can't stop people from expressing their views. In Australia we have the freedom of speech. But her views, just like all those expressed by her predecessors, will pass.

'Australians are really concerned about two races. They are the human race and the Melbourne Cup.' With that he bursts out laughing again.

Is there anything in the world that bothers him? Mr Liu says: 'I'm happy-go-lucky . . . I take one day at a time.'