Review: Visiting the Neighbours – Australians in Asia

Cover of Visiting the Neighbours

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia by Agnieszka Sobocinska (New South: 2014).

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia gives an overview of more than a century of Australian travel in South-east Asia. It demonstrates that the Australian relationship with Asian countries is long and complex. Focussing primarily on private travel, the author, Agnieszka Sobocinska provides a book which will cause many readers to reflect on their own relationship with Asia.

The breadth of Sobocinska’s work is ambitious. Using diaries, letters, travel books and other sources, Sobocinska looks at the experiences of Australian tourists, business people, travel writers, soldiers, humanitarians, drug traffickers and more. Sobocinska shares glimpses of their experiences to demonstrate that contrary to the proclamations of various Australian politicians, Australia’s engagement with Asia is not new and it has a complex history.

While Visiting the Neighbours focuses on the twentieth and twenty-first century experiences of Australians travelling in Asia, Sobocinska acknowledges the fact that Aboriginal Australians have had a trading relationship with the Macassans (who lived in what we now know as Indonesia) for centuries. In the twenty-first century Sobocinska notes that nearly twice as many Australians visited Indonesia than visited the United Kingdom.

The book unfolds in a broadly chronological sequence starting at the time when the British Empire reached around the globe. The issue of race is a theme that runs through much of the book. Sobocinska shows that travel in Asia forced Australians to think and in some cases, re-assess their views on the White Australia policy. She continues to examine race issues by reflecting on the post-colonial relationships that some of the Australian travellers developed with locals when they visited to give humanitarian service as well as the experience of travellers on the ‘Hippie Trail’ of the sixties and seventies. Sobocinska points out that the travellers on the Hippie Trail had little to do with the local populations, preferring to hang out with fellow western travellers:

Although few travellers would have relished the comparison, the travel culture that developed along the Hippie Trail did indeed carry the imprint of Empire. Every country along the Hippie Trail had either been colonised by a European power, or fell within the United States’ Cold War sphere of influence, or both. Furthermore, most travellers came from nations that had once been colonisers. In this context, the strong in-group identification between travellers could appear less like cosmopolitan internationalism than a reproduction of colonial-era divisions between ‘European’ and ‘native’.

This book covers the topic of Australian travel in Asia broadly and is a starting point for deeper understanding. Surveys are an important type of history as they provide a starting point for anyone who is not familiar with the topic. In this case Visiting the Neighbours is a pioneering history that opens up many questions.

On just one aspect of this wide-ranging book, Sobocinska says, “[t]his exploration of Asian-Australians’ journeys is only the briefest scratch on the surface of a subject that requires a book of its own.” In the brief space allotted to the travel experiences of Asian-Australians, Sobocinska focuses on the travel experiences of Chinese-Australians because “the Chinese have the longest and best-documented history of Asian migrant groups to Australia, allowing for a sustained analysis”. This highlights the paucity of research into Indians in Australia who have been in Australia since the early nineteenth century and people from other parts of Asia who form substantial communities here. It also shows how disciplined the author has had to be, weeding out relevant topics in order to write what is a readable book.

I have spent some time pondering how to fairly review this history. Given the breadth of material to be covered it is impossible for the author to give all topics the depth of research and analysis that the material sometimes begs. It is too easy to criticise the author for not spending more time to explain the change in the Australian public mind towards the Japanese after the horrors of World War II, or to say there should have been less about Schapelle Corby and more about other convicted Australian drug traffickers.

It is possible that anyone reading this book will respond with a wish that something was covered in more detail, or that a missing issue relevant to the book was mentioned. It is in the nature of this type of history that there will be some, possibly many, missing topics. Potential authors are turned off from writing such broad histories because reviewers find it very easy take down such books with negative reviews based on what is missing from the book. Yet we need history surveys. So how should I approach reviewing this book?

I have concluded that it is best to assess these types of histories in terms of what they do, not what they don’t do.

The strength of Visiting the Neighbours is that it makes the reader reflect on their own relationship with Asia. This book has a large potential readership. One-third of Australians have been to Bali alone. Sobocinska tells us that the Australian Consul in Denpasar observed that Australians regard a trip to Bali as the new ‘Gold Coast holiday’. In an interesting chapter the author explores the “mental annexation of Bali” by the thousands of Australians who have visited it.

And then there are all those Australians like me who have never been to Bali but have been to other parts of the continent. A large proportion of Australians have travelled to Asia at least once in their lifetime.

Sobocinska does not shy away from assessing her own tourist experiences of Bali with her family while growing up and in another chapter reflects on her role as a ‘volunteer tourist’ at a university in Cambodia. Much of the history in this book is about the times in living memory. As such it encourages personal reflection.

In 1975, the year after our family visited Singapore on a holiday, one in 125,000 Australians travelled to Singapore and Malaysia.  Recently I dug up the travel diaries I wrote on that holiday. I was eager to read ten-year old me reflecting on a different place and culture.

I was very disappointed as I read my notebooks. Instead of observations about interesting life in Singapore, they told the tale of a ten-year old consumer. It seems that ten-year old me was in Singapore on a big shopping trip. I noted the names of the department stores we visited, the things I bought with the pocket-money I had saved for months and what other members of my family bought. I was reminded of my childhood consumerism when I read in Visiting the Neighbours that a Hong Kong Tourist Association survey in 1966 discovered that Australians were “particularly enthusiastic shoppers”.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 logoAgnieszka Sobocinska keeps the narrative flowing throughout the book. It is easy to read. The only trace that Visiting the Neighbours is the outcome of a PhD thesis is her occasional use of the expression,“body politics”. Sometimes the reader comes across the phrase, “as we shall see in chapter X” – a phrase that I am not fond of. But overwhelmingly this book is one that the general reader will find both readable and thought-provoking.

This book is a welcome addition to a small but growing number of Australian histories about our relationship with Asians. Visiting the Neighbours demonstrates that we need to explore this aspect of Australian history a lot more.

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2015.

A review copy of this book was supplied by New South Press.

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