Kee opens door to Australia's new order

JENNY Kee pushes her trademark red, cat's-eye spectacles up her nose, casts a glance around the dazzlingly bright fabrics, knitwear, paintings, rugs, watches, placemats, even picture frames that cover every surface of her shop in Sydney's Strand Arcade and announces: 'I'm all for interbreeding.

'It creates much more unusual and exciting people. I think my work is vibrant and strong and it's got to do with my background.

'It's no accident that I'm half Chinese, a quarter Anglo-Saxon and a quarter Italian. That is what Australia is going to become. Read the statistics on the year 2020 - we are going to be that sort of mix. I am symbolically an example of what Australia will be.' Kee, whose late Chinese-Australian father's family came from Guangdong during Australia's gold-mining era, grew up in Sydney's Bondi Junction, a place she says 'reeked of racism and white RSL [Returned Services League] clubs. These days it's full of noodle shops and funky Japanese kids. It's great to see that happening. I used to loathe it'.

But still it's only 15 years since Kee, 48, was kicked out of the RSL club there and told: 'We don't want your sort here.' It was racism of that kind that drove her to become one of Australia's most successful artists and designers.

'I was going to show them. It was that driving me, that made me so strong,' she says.

Kee's distinctive looks - those spectacles and the red lipstick that is part of her affinity with the waratah, the New South Wales state flower that rejuvenates after bushfires - are known Australia-wide and she has incorporated her face into her new logo.

'Even when I was 14 or 15 I knew that my face was going to be worth something. I always knew it was going to bring me a lot of attention. I always knew that it was my face, my outward appearance that was most important,' she says of her Chinese looks.

John Lennon thought so too. Kee had a one-night stand with him in Sydney at age 16 or 17 - a fact that only became public with the publication of a book about Lennon in the 1980s. She has described him as a mentor and says her own beliefs now encompass peace, love and environmental awareness - all things which Lennon stood for.

'It was the basic mix of what I am that has helped me create what I create,' Kee says of her background.

The list of what Kee creates is a long one. And with the licensing of her designs to Sheridan sheets, plans for a new range of silk boxer shorts and pyjamas, a new napery venture and a mail order catalogue of her knits, it's getting longer.

Her graphics have been transformed into a range of merchandise that sells worldwide, her fabrics have been used by Karl Lagerfeld, she created a rug for Canberra's new Parliament House, the official Bicentennial scarf, tens of thousands of Australians follow her knitting patterns and needlepoint designs, and even the Princess of Wales has been photographed wearing one of her koala picture jumpers.

Kee doesn't do those any more. She is reinventing herself - again.

She is to move from the shop she opened 21 years ago as Flamingo Park with then-partner Linda Jackson. It was a partnership that was to last a decade and, with their flamboyant designs and innovative use of bright colours, transform Australian notions of fabric, fashion and Australiana.

But Kee says: 'This is in the wrong place now.' Tourists aren't coming to the Strand, in Sydney's downtown, anymore. So she needs to go where they are - the harbourside Rocks area, for instance, she says.

Kee has a knack of being in the right place at the right time - she even managed to survive Australia's worst rail crash in 1977. She always sat in the third carriage, but was late that day and she jumped into the first as the train from the mountains to the city pulled out. When it crashed 83 people died - most of them in the third carriage.

Now she says: 'I am reinventing how I do things. For 21 years I have been restricted to operating one very special, very lovely shop in an atmosphere that was very personal. That is going to change. There are much bigger fields abroad for me.' Kee already sells well in the US, and the Japanese are among her biggest customers. Now she's planning to expand her export business and is looking to the biggest market of them all: 'China could be huge for me,' she says.

'I am very interested in the Chinese market for the fact that I am half Chinese and I can give a unique vibrancy.

'I am an Asian-European person that has done what I have done for my country and I have fought for anti-racism and multiculturalism for the country. To be part of Asia and trade my business in Asia is a very exciting prospect for me.' 'I would love to do fabrics for cheongsams. I wonder how many women in China still wear the cheongsam,' says Kee, who has never been there. 'I would love to do it in my beautiful, vibrant fabrics.' Kee is giving new emphasis to her paintings. Her earlier work has been exhibited in Australia and at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, but in December she had her first solo exhibition of her 'pure art' at Sydney's Aboriginal Tribal Arts Gallery - the first non-Aboriginal person to exhibit there.

In recent years she has spent time with Aboriginal people and was inspired by her visit to Uluru [Ayers Rock] in 1982 and has since been many times. She is working on watercolour and crayon pictures from those visits and plans to spend a month in the Red Centre next year, then to exhibit at the Northern Territory's Yulara centre.

She recently spent 10 weeks in India - her shop now features a range of boxes which were hand-painted there in her designs. It was her first visit and a spiritual inspiration, she says. The spiritual features heavily in Kee's conversation. She's a Buddhist who meditates daily, sometimes twice, and she does two hours of yoga four days a week and 50 minutes on the other three days.

She has lived and painted in the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney, in the same house for 18 years, though she no longer shares it with Michael Ramsden, the artist she met in London during the 60s, married, and with whom she split recently. Her 19-year-old daughter Grace is currently in Berlin with her father. Kee is now living with a younger man and has only recently reconciled with Grace after splitting over this new relationship.

'It is because I have meditated and done my yoga that I can make my decisions. I have an inner world, I go with the flow now.

'I have always been a very driven woman and had to get what I wanted - and that is changing. When I was 30 I wanted that empire, I would not stop. But at 40 I was looking for answers and now I am getting them. The trappings of success are not so important now.' Kee says she wants to live in harmony with her surroundings: 'I have an exquisite home and I am probably going to sell that and go into the bush where I will build an environmental house that is very energy efficient.' For a woman who has found inner peace, Kee seems extremely prickly, operating to a strict timetable and refusing to be interviewed while her photograph is being taken.

She's very much a professional, refusing to cooperate with photographic poses she doesn't like, telling the photographer: 'You'll have to say when, because I can only be spontaneous for so long'. When he gives the word, her face instantly transforms from sombre to a bright red smile that's a million volts.

Kee is involved in numerous other projects outside her art: she's one of the fund-raisers for the Powerhouse Museum, which is to house her entire collection in its archives and exhibit her work - to mark the year 2000, she hopes. She's a member of the Government's Cultural Advisory Panel, an active founding member of the Australian republican movement and has redesigned the Australian flag, minus the Union Jack, incorporating Uluru.

She says the old flag and allegiance to the Queen are symbols of the old Australia, inappropriate to the new, young multiculturalism. It was the old Australia which drove her to London in the the 60s, where her seven years in the Chelsea Antiques Market shaped her ideas about fashion, colour and design. 'Australia in the 60s was like a cultural desert, I just knew that Australia was not where it was happening and I wanted to be where it was happening. I was a very repressed creative person.' Kee says she carried a double burden through her teenage years: she had a definite sense of style when most Australians were 'daggy' and to be original was unusual, and she looked Chinese. 'I felt the racism when I was growing up. The reason I am so much for anti-racism and multiculturalism is because of my years of growing up in Australia and realising by the time I was 16 what an asset it was to be all this different mix.