By Tina Wu
Among Sydney’s diverse cultural landscape is a community that’s seen but rarely heard – the people of Taiwan, an island country off the south-east coast of China that has been increasingly thrust into the international limelight due to ongoing political China-Taiwan tensions. From bubble milk tea to nutrient supplement companies, we investigate how the local Taiwanese are subtly altering Sydney’s cultural fabric.
Grace Chen, 59, was five-months pregnant when she immigrated to Sydney from Taiwan in 1990. Though she held a teaching degree back home and a master’s degree from America, she was utterly unprepared for what Australia held in store for her.
“It was a strange country, the language was different, and I don’t have the family here, no friends,” she says, recalling her first years in Australia. “It was pretty hard.”
Grace may have felt alone and disconnected from her people almost thirty years ago, but times have certainly changed. Sydney’s Taiwanese community, though small in number, has been slowly making its presence known as Taiwanese restaurants, art exhibitions and cultural festivals have spread throughout Sydney’s diverse cultural landscape.
The Taiwanese first started coming to Australia in the 1980s. Since then, over 46,000 Taiwanese-born people now reside in Australia; a 63 per cent increase from 2011, according to the 2016 census.
“When I [came] in 1990, when I go out, when I meet Asian people, they all speak Cantonese. Most of them from Hong Kong or something,” says Grace. “These recent years, when I meet people they all speak Mandarin.”
There are also over fifty Taiwanese local community groups, according to Constance Wang, Director-General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Sydney. But only one of them is listed on Multicultural NSW’s community organisation registry – the Taiwanese Friendship Association.
This speaks to Grace Chen’s husband Tom Tang, 65, who claims that the Taiwanese community in Sydney is still quite “dispersed”.
“The Taiwanese community is relatively dispersed, unlike the Chinese, who tend to aggregate in suburbs such as Hurstville, Eastwood,” he says.
According to Constance, a major reason for the recent rise in immigration numbers is “for the education of their next generation.” Indeed, according to the Department of Education and Training, Taiwanese students are among the top 15 international student cohorts in Australia, despite the country’s small population of 23.5 million.
Grace’s own move was spurred by her pregnancy. “And then think about – at that time, I just married – for the next generation. Need to have [a] good future,” she says.
For others, the reason may be simpler. “I think they probably love the sun, the water, the weather,” says Constance.
Grace herself was also drawn to the “space” that Sydney provided. “Because Taiwan is a small island, sometimes you feel so crowded…in Western countries they got land for parks, more freedom and fresh air,” she says.
The ancestors of many Taiwanese people were immigrants themselves, who came by boat from the Chinese coastal province of Fujian about 200 years ago. However, the country also has its own indigenous people and language system, having retained the “traditional” Chinese method of writing even though mainland China has since adopted the modern, “simplified” version.
The country has also endured a long history of colonisation, being ruled by the Dutch and then the Japanese before it was taken as the political stronghold of the Chinese Kuomintang Party in 1949.
Taiwan only has diplomatic relations with a few countries (Australia is not one of them) due to ongoing political tensions with mainland China. However, this has not stopped Taiwan’s bustling culture from making its mark in Australian society.
Unusual Taiwanese desserts such as bubble tea (milk tea topped with tapioca balls) and shaved ice (cream mixed with ice) have been major hits with Australian locals in recent years.
When asked if they had consumed the drink recently in an online survey, an overwhelming 73 per cent revealed that they had consumed the drink within the past month, with 40 per cent just within the past week. However, almost one third of total respondents admitted that they did not know bubble milk tea was a Taiwanese beverage.
Alan Lin, owner of the Sunflower Taiwanese Gourmet restaurant on Broadway, agrees. He opened his eatery fourteen years ago specialising in a unique Taiwanese dessert: crispy crepe. “It’s not like a French crepe, it’s crispy crepe. It’s like a biscuit,” he says.
Despite the success of his restaurant, Alan says that Western locals are still unaware that Taiwanese cuisine exists. “I don’t think they are promoting this stuff in Sydney. It’s very hard,” he says.
“Western people…or the local people, they don’t know what is Taiwanese food…they have less understanding [of] what this cuisine is about.
“For example, I give them…pig ear, [and] some people are just afraid. How can pig ear be eaten? But…if you cook it very well, it’s great tasting.”
Taiwan has also made significant contributions to Australian businesses. Nature’s Care, Australia’s third largest supplement company, was also owned and founded by a Taiwanese immigrant. “It was recently sold, but it was a very successful business [that started] from scratch here in Australia,” says Constance.
Plans to bring over “the artefacts of the National Palace Museum [in Taipei] next year for an exchange with the Art Gallery of NSW” are also currently in the works, an important step in establishing Australia-Taiwan relations, according to Constance.
“I really want to focus on cultural and economic and people-to-people exchange despite the absence of diplomatic recognition,” she says.
When asked about their stance on this lack of diplomatic recognition and ongoing political negotiations with China, however, some of the Taiwanese are indifferent, choosing instead to embrace their life in Australia.
“I’m not really interested in politicians…the news from the newspapers, sometimes they’re not really true, you know,” says Grace. “Sometimes I look at the newspaper…I skip that part, I don’t want to read.”
Lei Lei Hsu, 22, is the daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant. For Lei Lei’s mother, Paula, living in Australia seems to have wiped away any feeling she held for her country.
“Since she was young, she’s always wanted to travel, and now that she lives in Australia, she doesn’t feel anything for her home country,” says Lei Lei.
Lei Lei herself does not feel much connection with her homeland, either. “I never felt particularly connected. I did go back to Taiwan to study Chinese and to get in touch with my culture, but I still do feel that there’s a barrier,” she says.
“I’m a banana and an ABC [Australian-Born-Chinese].”
But thirty years on from first stepping onto this land of sun and water, Tom sums it up: “If someone asked me which country I belong to, I would say I belong to three: China, Taiwan and Australia.”
The Story Behind the Story – Piece-to-Camera