History all in the family for Benjamin Law
Writer Benjamin Law turns to his crazy Asian parents for first-hand look at Chinese-Australian history.
Writer and broadcaster Benjamin Law has again turned to his family in his latest television project, Waltzing the Dragon with Benjamin Law.
The Family Law star looks at the China-Australia relationship, by visiting China separately with parents Jenny and Danny Law.
Raised on the Sunshine Coast in the 1980s, Law is the son of immigrant Chinese, but with limited first-hand experience of his heritage.
But travel with a parent is also awkwardly captured in the 2 part documentary.
“It’s fascinating to find out how hilariously incompatible we are”
“I’m quite comfortable travelling with mum. We’ve been on a road trip to Uluru. But Dad was working 7 days a week with 5 kids so I’ve never travelled with him solo. So it’s fascinating to find out how hilariously incompatible we are,” Law tells TV Tonight.
“But going on a road trip with parents -as an adult- is always a dicey prospect. And doing it with a camera crew is dicier still!
“Mum is very much yearning in the discovery, tracing her roots. But Dad knows his story and is not particularly interested in it. He’s more interested in entrepreneurship and earning money.
“It’s a very Chinese mentality!”
Law embarks on a journey to trace the Chinese-Australian history, from long before the days of the gold rush, to Bob Hawke’s post-Tiananmen Square Massacre immigration intake, to Crazy Rich Asians. He gains more of an understanding of how the two countries are entangled and China’s increasing sway over Australia’s fortune.
“When I studied at school all we got was the Gold Rush and maybe a mention of Tiananmen Square”
“Many historians feel this has been an essential part of Australian history, but when I studied at school all we got was the Gold Rush and maybe a mention of Tiananmen Square,” he explains.
“The Chinese have diasporas all over the world and in Australia we have one of the biggest: 1.2m. Mandarin is the most spoken language after English and Cantonese is the third.
“But I don’t think many of us have ever sat down to question how that came to be.
“We never really talk about Cantonese-Chinese people in Australia or hear it on television or in our media.”
“Our version of Australian history is built on a lot of myths, and myths can easily become propaganda unless you find out the true nuances,” he continues.
“There is a Chinese history with Aboriginals that pre-dates white arrival. So much of the history I learned is through a white lens, but in some ways we’ve been a multicultural country for 65,000 years.
“It’s building the full mosaic of what Australian history is, and this is a contribution.”
Growing up as Chinese-Australian on the Sunshine Coast in the 1980s was a fairly solitary experience, with his parents constantly working in a local shop. As depicted in the SBS comedy Family Law, it also saw his parents separate, while a young Law was coming to terms with his sexuality.
“Even now there is a huge social stigma”
I ask if growing up gay would have been harder in Australia or China, which only decriminalised homosexuality in 1997.
“Even now there is a huge social stigma and an absence of conversation around it,” he acknowledges. “Under President Xi there have been far more crackdowns on representations allowed in Chinese media, of same-sex relationships.
“If you’re gay there is extra pressure on you to extend the family name. There is a cultural incompatibility with homosexuality, which I have written about in my second book, Gaysia.”
But Law still manages to find the lighter side of culture in his ABC documentary, with audiences introduced to his sometimes-kooky mother Jenny, dramatised in The Family Law by actress Fiona Choi. Together with writer / performer Michelle Law (Homecoming Queens) and photographer Tammy, the Laws certainly draw upon a rich history for their art.
“I feel like we know how to mine our family story with respect,” he says of his family.
“But there are so many aspects to our history we all want to uncover as a collective.
“The intentions are all good and virtuous.
“When you are the child of migrants…..that history is very easy to lose.”
“When you are the child of migrants, who are themselves a child of migrants, that history is very easy to lose.
“So the sense of quest and longing to know where we come from is shared by all my family.”
But he adds of his mother, Jenny, “People think I am making her up but the real version is 10 times more colourful!”
Waltzing the Dragon with Benjamin Law airs 8:30pm Tuesday July 30 and August 6 on ABC.