Previously in Refuge #13 Lady Camellia and Mother Hubbard: Josie describes how an people read and copied banned books in secret during the Cultural Revolution. Her life story brings us to Tiananmen Square, 1989.


In June 1989, I watched the rolling news coverage of the Tiananmen Square crackdown from a Year 12 common room in Melbourne.

It was my first year in Australia and boarding house mistresses had allowed international students to stay up late because we were Chinese. I doubted they realised that although I am ethnically Chinese, the People’s Republic of China was more foreign to me than Australia, largely because English is my heart language and I can barely read Chinese.

For me, the enduring image of Tiananmen Square is the picture of one man standing in front of a military tank, symbolising people versus power. Headlines in The Australian the next day screamed: ‘China erupts: 1400 shot dead, soldiers lynched’; ‘Tiananmen Square runs red as troops roll in’; ‘Crackdown justified by “party wishes”’.

Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was deeply shaken. His friend, Premier Zhao Ziyang, had been blamed for allowing students to get out of control and placed under house arrest. It was Hawke’s diplomatic friendship with Zhao that had opened the way for Australian exports to China: sugar, iron and education. Only three years earlier, in 1986, Hawke had initiated the opening up of Australian schools and universities to Chinese students. Hawke saw that international students could help fund free tertiary education for local Australians. Prescient.

In the days after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Hawke attended a gathering of emotional Chinese students in Canberra. Later, with tears in his eyes, he announced on national television that no Chinese student in Australia would be forced to return to persecution in China.

Hawke’s spontaneous decision was at odds with the political intent at the time. Making its way through the parliament was an amendment bill that spelt out criteria whereby non-citizens could enter Australia, stay and, if necessary, be deported. Although no asylum seeker boats had arrived in Australia since 1981, it also provided for the discretionary detention of illegal entrants. In November 1989 twenty-six Cambodians arrived by boat in Pender Bay in Western Australia. Unfortunately for them, the Migration Legislation Amendment Act 1989 came into effect the following month.

Josie did not see Bob Hawke’s tears on TV. She arrived in Perth one year later, in June 1990 to study English. Her classroom was a transportable pre-fab unit. The curriculum was so basic that Josie learnt nothing new. Many businesses were taking advantage of the influx of international students and the quality of what was on offer varied greatly.

Josie’s student visa conditions stipulated that she had to attend a minimum of eighty per cent of her classes. To support herself, she worked two jobs: on a farm and in a restaurant. After her short English course was over, she managed to scrounge together another $2000 for another student visa application. Despite her natural optimism, she realised that she would never be able to sustain this level of financial repayment. Yet, she was not ready to return to China. She had come for intellectual, cultural and emotional awakening. She hadn’t received anything of the sort.

So when her student visa expired for the second time, she dropped out of the system and became an illegal visa over-stayer. She estimated that there were forty thousand students from China in the same situation at the time. They were like mǎyǐ – ants. They were everywhere.

Most Chinese students congregated in cities and relied on one another for support. But when Josie’s friends were deported, Josie reasoned that she would be safer in Australia’s vast outback. She moved through fourteen Western Australian towns in twenty months, working in cleaning jobs or doing manual labour.

Outback petrol station

In August 1991, she flew to Sydney where a friend said he could help her find work. There she saw so many young Chinese, with water bottles in their backpacks, walking in Nike shoes, looking for work that she knew that there was no way she would find work in Sydney.

Determined to make the most of the trip, she visited the Sydney Opera House and then travelled to Canberra on a $25 bus ticket. At Parliament House, she was amazed that common people could watch national leaders mock one another. Her English wasn’t good enough to follow the debate, but there was no mistaking the posturing. After another $25 bus ticket to Melbourne, she visited the National Gallery of Victoria and basked in the glories of art, laughing and crying at the same time because the pleasure was so intense that it was akin to pain.

Adelaide would have been just another stop if not for an Arab man offering her work at the Morphettville Race Course. He paid her $3 an hour – ‘recession – times are hard on everyone’ – to move heavy jump rails. When she protested that she couldn’t survive on this, he introduced her to two deaf Italian men living in Semaphore. They let her have the spare room for free. Instincts told her that they were good people and she moved out of the $11/day backpackers hostel on Angas Street. The next day, she found a second job at the Phoenix Restaurant.

Josie relates all this to me, speaking very fast, stopping only to laugh, breathe, then plunging on to tell me about the next job, the next challenge, her frenetic speech mimicking her frantic effort to simply survive.

‘I had very few life skills. All I knew was how to talk.’ We both laugh. ‘I couldn’t even carry two bowls of chicken and sweet corn soup in one hand’– she flails her arms wildly –‘I said to the boss: I will run very quickly. Can I carry one bowl then run back to the kitchen for the second bowl?’

She picked up extra work wherever work was to be had. On four or five dollars an hour, she painstakingly saved up $2000, enough for a second-hand Holden Torona. It had the habit of stalling. Fortunately, by this time she had learnt some sign language and the deaf men had introduced her to the deaf community. They were very kind, and one of them, a mechanic, fixed the distributor.

Her Torona, parked at her Semaphore home

She tells me, ‘After twenty months, I felt bored. I didn’t want to work here anymore. I had not many friends. I felt I was dying in my spirit, dying for stimulation. So I decided to move. I travelled. I took a train from Adelaide to Alice Springs in 1993. The beautiful train, you know? I wanted to experience this very famous train.’

‘The Ghan?’ I ask.

‘Ghan. Right. And the first time I went to the toilet, I discovered my first white hair’ – we both burst into raucous laugher –‘I realised my life is in a different stage.’

That train ride was the start of some fantastic adventures: eating Witchetty grubs, visiting Melville Island where her new Aboriginal friends said that she looked like the sister of Jackie Chan – the famous kung-fu actor, sitting in a pub in Broome listening to stories of Chinese pearl divers who hid pearls in their mouths.


At a bus stop in Port Hedland, she gave her Chinese-English dictionary to newly-released Chinese asylum seekers. One of the men had been lost in the desert for a week before being rescued eventually by a farmer. He had lost so much weight that he could fit into the clothes of the farmer’s eight-year-old son. The man changed his name to Lucky after his rescue.

After travelling for three months, a very satisfying exile of self-discovery, she arrived in Perth during the winter of 1993. Thanks to her friends she was working at a Fremantle steam laundry the very next day.

Unbeknownst to Josie, not only was her life at a different stage. Her official status had also changed.

When Keating became Prime Minister in December 1991, he inherited a recession and a perception. The perception was that the government had lost control of immigration and the recession made people resentful. Although Keating had disagreed with Hawke’s promise to the Chinese students, his government faced a massive asylum claim backlog and the prospect of mass deportations.

So, he chose to honour Bob Hawke’s promise and the government announced that any Chinese student who had arranged for visas before May 1992 were allowed to apply for political asylum – this would have included Josie. (Chinese students who were already in Australia on or prior to 4 June 1989 had already been granted permanent residency, along with their immediate families.) Against this compromise, it was important to demonstrate that the government was firmly in control of immigration.

On 6 April 1992, the Immigration Department informed the Cambodian Pender Bay detainees that their claims for asylum had been unsuccessful. Lawyers for the detainees immediately lodged an application for their clients to be released from administrative detention. The had already been detained for more than three years. On 5 May, 1992, two days before the hearing, the Keating government introduced the Amendment Act 1992 to prevent the Courts from ordering the release of ‘designated persons’ – namely the Cambodians challenging the legality of their detention. The Bill was passed with bi-partisan support.

The Immigration Minister at the time explained, ‘The Government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community … this legislation is only intended to be an interim measure.’

The term ‘designated persons’ proved confusing, and was later replaced with ‘unlawful non-citizens’. The 273-day limit was also removed, paving the way for the possibility of indefinite mandatory detention.

As I research this, an experience I had in 2005 at the Auckland Airport starts to made sense. My family was trying to check in for a flight to Adelaide. The airline staff could not locate our Australian visas on the system, probably because our three-part Chinese names do not fall neatly into the categories of first, middle and family names. A voice on the walkie-talkie said, ‘Don’t let them board! Don’t let them board! They don’t have valid visas.’

Way too alarmist, I thought to myself. The visa stickers were clearly affixed on our passports. I was rueing the excess baggage we had to pay for a bulky second-hand stroller given to us. I could have bought a new stroller in Australia with that money. Eventually, our visas were located and we boarded the flight.

Now, it makes me think that if we had boarded that flight as non-citizens without valid visas, we could, in theory, have been locked up for the rest of our lives. In practice, this would have been highly unlikely. The government might have given us a bridging visa to sort out our status if they felt we were not a security or flight risk. Or, they could have deported us. If, however, we were unwilling to return to our home country, perhaps because of a well-founded fear of persecution, we could have been held in detention for the rest of our lives.

It is the first time I contemplate having my personal liberty taken from me. It is a chilling thought.

This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge. Next Friday 7 June 2019: Refuge #15 Blood and Sweat Money. Subscribe to receive new instalments in your inbox.