Kowloon, Hong Kong
Hong Kong in March 1961
Sydney in March 1961
I stayed with my brother in Haberfield, Sydney.
Social worker at Sydney Hospital.
Chief social worker, Ryde Hospital; Welfare Studies lecturer, TAFE; solicitor at Cabramatta law firm; Commissioner, Ethnic Affairs Commission; Member, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation; Member of the NSW Legislative Council.
I was born and bred in Hong Kong in a family of six children. My mother was a typical old style housewife. My father was a missionary in Malaysia [and] spoke English very well. He was a public servant in the fire brigade [and] rose to Commissioner. We lived inside the fire brigade [station]. Because of my father’s ranking we already have a very mixed interaction with Western people. I went to a Catholic school with my three sisters and my two brothers went to a Catholic boys school.
In our family we were always community minded, with the guides and scouts, [and] I was a guide for a long time, from primary school. Girl guides stop at 15-16 [years] so I continued on in the boy scout troop and was assistant scout master for the cubs. I enjoyed the teamwork and the training of leadership quality. In Hong Kong, my life was very much devoted to community life already.
Because I was mixing with guides and went to a Catholic school, the fact it was all girls, all women, then somehow you don’t rely on the boys to do things. So you do everything yourself. You just take the initiative. It was very important in my whole life that I’m independent, [to] have the confidence to just go and do.
In those days, the late ’50s, Hong Kong [education] is very competitive so those who can afford it would send their children overseas. My older siblings studied in England, America, and my two brothers came to Australia. My first brother returned to Hong Kong. My second brother had a car accident and was in hospital for over four months. My mother was going to come because in typical Chinese family, the boys very much preoccupied the parents’ attention, not the girls! But my mother can’t speak English and at the last minute she pulled out [of coming to Australia ] and said, “You go and study there as well.” I was only high school [age]. It did excite me. I love being independent and like to explore. So I actually went on behalf of my mother on a student visa to see how my brother was.
Because I went to an Anglo-Celtic school, a Catholic school, [and] went to an English section at high school in Hong Kong , I wasn’t affected by the White Australia policy.
When I left, the boy scout group gave me this little statue as a bon voyage [gift]. It’s got my name there, “Helen Sham”. I missed them very much.
It was very difficult [leaving family and friends behind] because in those days it was a big thing to travel. I came by plane in early March 1961 which was unusual because my siblings and friends went by boat and it takes weeks and it took me less than 24 hours! I was crying all the time. In those days people sent you off. I had a crowd at the airport, my family and friends. I missed them, I had only just turned 17. I’d never been away by myself. We stopped at Nadi and Darwin to come here. I remember crying on the plane.
My brother met me at Sydney [airport]. He had already left the hospital. I stayed with him at Haberfield, in a cottage [for] about six months. I can’t cook for myself and go to school, and he had his own life to lead and not look after a little girl – he’s five years older than me. So I told my teacher who’s a nun, who spoke to Father Chang, a Chinese priest, who knew an Irish-Australian family – the Cockills in Canterbury – [and] I lived with [them] for 2½ years. They are very holy and religious; I went to church every day, seven days [a week].
They looked after me very well. I was full board. They look after you every meal, day and night, it was £10 [per week]. I didn’t know how to cook. When I was in Hong Kong I didn’t have to cook at all because we had a servant. I had lamb at least five days a week at the Cockills because in those days it was very cheap. In Hong Kong we had showers, but this family didn’t. I had a bath every day and my landlady actually ran my bath for me!
I went to Domremy College at Five Dock. I had problems conversing with my schoolfriends because of my accent. I wasn’t fluent. I couldn’t follow the accent of my teachers. I wasn’t used to the Australian sound.
I thought [Australia was] very laid back, quiet. People are very friendly. And very curious because my landlady asked if I came from Timbuctoo! The information was very limited, not very sophisticated. The Chinese food was appalling, I found it very unacceptable. Although there was the White Australia policy, the people are very genuine and sincere. Whereas now [there's a] non-discriminatory immigration policy, people are more hostile. They are more fearful now. They still ask the same question, “Where do you come from?”, but the tonation is different.
I did Arts and Social Work at Sydney University in 1963. There was a quota for overseas students and I was very fortunate to get in. Initially I was with the Cockills, then I flatted with three boys at Maroubra [but] it was too far from Sydney Uni. Then I lived with two university friends in Leichhardt, one girl and one boy, and the boy subsequently became my husband! I flatted with them for a couple of years.
I was a social worker after that. I got a prize [and] it was easy for me to get a job. I was doing a Masters in Arts so I could continue on my visa. My first social work placement was in Sydney Hospital in 1964. That year I got married to my husband who’s an Australian citizen and I became a citizen in ’68. We had two children in 1970 and 1971 and separated in 1975. It was not common for Chinese women to be separated or divorced. It was very stigmatised. That was a shameful thing.
The day my second child went to school, I started full-time work in 1976. After ten years as a social worker it was quite depressing. I found the new family law didn’t suit me because you can’t have maintenance from your husband if he wasn’t working. So I had to work. I didn’t understand this. I had a big fight with my lawyer [who] threatened not to act on my behalf. So I went to the library, got interested, so I enrolled to study law in 1978.
I had to re-focus my life. I had no family here and my friends, to be honest, made me feel like a leper because I’m single. I felt very isolated. I’m very independent. I didn’t want to go back to Hong Kong. My brother had gone. It was a very difficult time.
I was in charge of three social workers at Ryde Hospital in the late ’70s. Law took me six years part-time study. I also taught at North Sydney TAFE in social work. I did Chinese community fund raising. There were more migrants then, the Australian Chinese Community Association had just started at that time. I can’t even recall how I did so much in 24 hours.
Cabramatta had just started to have a lot migrants, boatpeople in the early ’80s. I graduated in 1985 and started working [as] a lawyer [at] an Italian firm. I did a lot of courtwork, a lot of small crimes, people not paying rent, bail. I organised a rally to the police station because a Chinese jeweller was shot opposite my office one lunchtime. After his funeral, we had this rally and demanded more police.
From 1978 onwards, multiculturalism [was] very much the political agenda. I was very involved with Dr Paolo Totaro who was the Chair of the [Ethnic Affairs] Commission at the time. I became a part-time Commissioner in the mid-’80s. I was very much a multicultural supporter because I feel we demographically are one, [a] concept respecting our differences. “One rainbow, many colours” was a saying.
Because I was so active in the community I was literally recruited in 1986 into the [NSW] Liberal Party to become a candidate by John Dowd. He was at the time the Shadow Attorney General [and] was my supervisor in law. At my graduation dinner in 1985, John asked me if I was interested in politics. I said I had nothing to lose. In ’86 he said the Liberal Party wanted extended democracy and an Asian candidate. Within six weeks I ran the pre-selection campaign. There are some racists there I can tell you, but by luck or hard work or just sheer fate, very few candidates of pre-selection get in the first time. I was the last person on the ticket in 1988 [and became] the first elected Chinese-born member of an Australian Parliament.
The Chinese community were euphoric [about my candidacy]. They feel they have been discriminated in the past, very looked down. I called [a] meeting [in] ’87 [with] 30-40 people there, all community leaders, all men. In those days, the Chinese [treated] women second class. However because [of] my credentials – they know I’m a lawyer and a social worker, in charge of the hospital – they can’t look down on me. I keep telling my children getting an education is so important. On the other hand they don’t feel threatened because I’m a woman. They are very accepting of me because they know “she will need me” and [are] very helpful. So I enjoyed the condoning kind of attitude.
My inaugural fund raising dinner for the Liberal party campaign [was] in the Good World, my second husband’s restaurant, in Sussex Street, [Chinatown, Sydney]. I was seeking support from the Chinese community for my election campaign in 1988.
As a Liberal member, I was in the Upper House for ten years before I resigned from the Liberal Party in 1998 when there was an anti-Asian debate started by this Independent member of Federal Parliament, Pauline Hanson. It was called “Hansonism”.
The phenomenon was appalling to the Chinese and Asian communities. We were abused, taunted. People would come to my office crying to say they are frightened of their future and their children’s. I couldn’t defend the party. I felt very diminished in my own confidence and outlook about the Liberal Party.
The breaking point was John Howard, the Liberal leader and Prime Minister, condoning what Pauline Hanson was saying. She had freedom of speech but you should also have the responsibility of what you say. But he didn’t see that [and didn't] condemn her for what she said, [that] the Asian community [was] taking over Australia and the Aborigines have too much handouts. That was absolutely wrong.
I feel very much a second class citizen as a Member of Parliament. During “Hansonism”, in party meetings, I feel just so out of place. Very few colleagues protected me. They talk as if I were transparent. Half of them are supporting what Pauline Hanson was saying. I was stunned. For personal reasons I just have to get out. The Asian community at that time were feeling very offended about the whole thing. Instrinsically being an Asian I have to protect [myself and others]. I cannot, so I feel I have to resign from the Liberal Party to be one of them again. Racism is abhorrent to me.
It was very bumpy. Initially I was really sad because I didn’t want to leave the Liberal Party. It was like I’m leaving home. They didn’t want me at the time, they vilified me. Later on, I enjoyed my independence. I can vote according to my conscience and not party line.
[In] 1998-2003, when I was Independent, a few of us hold the balance of power. We are not far Right [or] far Left, so the Labor Government don’t know how we vote. It depends on the legislation. They almost always have to come and talk to me. I really become a Member of Parliament then. I was a politician before because I was toeing the party line. When I was Independent I really go according to what [the] community needs.
I was very grateful to the Labor Party for appointing me to be Chair of [the] Ethics Committee, the highest committee in Parliament, [and] appointing me to General Purpose Number Three Committee where I had this very controversial Cabramatta policing committee to clean out the “drug capital of Australia”. I was famous for it, I suppose, at the time. Alan Jones used to talk about it every day! At least I helped the police force at the time to change cultures, I suppose.
I was appointed by three Prime Ministers on the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council for the life of the council, 1991-2000. I was appointed by Bob Hawke initially in 1990, by Paul Keating for a second term in ’94, and then in ’97 I was appointed by John Howard. That was one of my most satisfying experiences. In that ten years I feel that the main thing I’ve done is to put that issue on the political agenda. I think it’s important. They’re the first people. They haven’t been recognised for their uniqueness. Unfortunately the Aborigine people are still very downgraded.
Initially I had withdrawal [symptoms after leaving Parliament]. I missed it very much because 15 years is a long time and I had been very active. Since I retired four years ago now I have been very busy anyway! I fundraise every year for different communities. Eighteen months ago, I become the chair of a fundraising committee to build a 48-bed aged care nursing home, a new concept at Castle Hill. Aged people would go in there when they’re not sick, but when they’re sick they don’t have to move. They won’t have the traumatic experience of moving.
It’s supposed to be multicultural, it’s not exclusively Chinese. That project requires over $7 million [and will be built] in two years. Last year we raised $160,000 but we have several naming rights; each room is worth $30,000.
I still support the [guides and scouts] in finance, until last year I had been [on] the Baden Powell Guild. I’ve kept this little scout statue for over 45 years [and] am still very active with Lions, girl guides, boy scouts. Reflecting now, I think my girl guide training gave me the community spirit and confidence in being a leader.
Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
17 April 2007