On the campaign trail: the Asian-Australian story
John Nguyen and Wesa Chau both came to Australia as young children. Both have climbed to the top in their professional lives - and both are now in the race to become the first Asian-born member of the House of Representatives.
They're on different sides of the political fence - Nguyen is standing for the Liberal Party; Chau, the ALP - but they represent a new generation of Asian-Australians hungry for a career in Canberra, sometimes to the bewilderment of their families.
"Politics is not seen as a stable career by my family and a lot of people in the Chinese community," says 31-year-old Chau, from a well-to-do Hong Kong merchant family, who has made her name as an advocate for international students. "Many prefer a career in medicine, accounting or engineering ... My father told me: 'Politics is hard work with little reward'."
That may be true, but it is hasn't dissuaded the Asian-Australians who have been preselected to contest this year's federal election.
The Coalition has endorsed 12 candidates of Asian background; Labor is still finalising candidates. While Chau is on a mission impossible for the Labor Party, contesting the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Higgins in Melbourne's leafy eastern suburbs, John Nguyen stands a better chance of making history in the House.
The Vietnamese refugee, a partner at accounting firm Ernst & Young, will attempt to unseat Labor Speaker Anna Burke and win the seat of Chisholm, an electorate in Melbourne's outer south-east with a large ethnic Asian population.
ABC election analyst Antony Green says Nguyen has a "reasonable chance" of winning, especially if there is a swing against the government.
The 39-year-old, who fled Vietnam with his family in 1979, says his interest in politics was piqued as a child, when he would translate Australian news and current affairs programs for his grandfather, who could not speak English.
"I used to translate for him and obviously my translation was not the best," he says. "My grandfather talked about John F. Kennedy in the present tense - until I found out Reagan was actually US president."
Nguyen was raised by his grandparents: his parents stayed in Vietnam because his father, an intelligence officer in the South Vietnamese army, was being held by Vietnamese communists in a "re-education" camp. The family was not reunited until 1989.
Nguyen, his grandparents and his two siblings, fled the Vietnamese communist regime, which was persecuting the ethnic Chinese business community after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The family spent three days and nights on the high seas in a fishing boat, braving waves and attacks from pirates, before landing on a small Malaysian island. They spent nine months at a Malaysian refugee camp before being given permission to settle in Australia.
Nguyen does not remember much of his time in the refugee camp, but still recalls the Alice in Wonderland moment when the family landed in Melbourne on a flight from Kuala Lumpur.
"I remember seeing very strange-looking people - tall and fair-skinned, having just spent nine months with malnourished, smaller Asians at a camp."
The Nguyens eventually settled in North Fawkner, a northern Melbourne suburb, and John went to school at St Matthew's Primary School, then an enclave of Irish-Italian Catholics. His family was one of the two non-white families there.
Nguyen's grandfather supplemented the family pension by selling Chinese herbs at the Queen Victoria Market. "My grandfather had a herb garden. He picked them on Thursdays and he wrapped them up in little bundles. He took them to the Vic Market and sold them for $10," he says. "It would take him a hour on train or tram to get there and another hour to get back."
Nguyen's first encounter with a politician was when he was at primary school. His class wrote letters to MPs, and the others got their replies within days. He had to wait four months - by which time his hopes were dashed.
But it was worth it. The letter was from then prime minister Bob Hawke. "It was a pretty big deal that I got a letter from the prime minister," Nguyen says.
In the letter, Hawke told him the best thing he could do for the country was to finish secondary school, undertake tertiary education and contribute to the community.
Nguyen still has the letter, and followed its advice. He studied commerce at the University of Melbourne and snatched a prized graduate position at accounting firm KPMG. Soon after starting work, he joined the Liberal Party, choosing it over Labor.
Mindful of the perception that the ALP is friendlier to migrants and supportive of multiculturalism, he says: "It was the Fraser [Liberal] government that allowed Indochinese refugees into Australia. "It was the Liberal Party that began the process of dismantling the White Australia policy."
He also points out that the first Chinese-Australian elected to the federal parliament - Senator Tsebin Tchen, in 1998 - was also from the Liberal Party and Victoria.
This election will be Nguyen's second tilt at the seat of Chisholm. At the 2010 election, he managed to achieve a swing of 1.27 per cent to the Liberals, despite Victorians throwing their support behind prime minister Julia Gillard. This year, he still needs a 5.8 per cent swing.
Wesa Chau is gearing up for a different contest. Her electorate of Higgins, like Nguyen's Chisholm, is east of Melbourne, but nine kilometres closer to the city.
It has been in Liberal hands since its creation in 1948 and is one of the bluest in Victoria - a launch pad for prime ministerial ambition, and the former seat of Liberal prime ministers Harold Holt and John Gorton, and treasurer Peter Costello.
The party has never been forced to preferences in the seat. Currently held by Costello's fiery former staffer Kelly O'Dwyer, who is armed with a war chest many times larger than Labor's, the ALP would require a 5.4 per cent swing to win.
Few in the Labor Party wanted to play the role of David in the battle against incumbent Goliath, but Chau answered the call and was swiftly endorsed.
Yet so poor are her chances, several within the party believe her talents are being wasted.
"It will be a miracle if she can pull off a win," says Jieh-Yung Lo, the deputy mayor of the City of Monash and a Labor Party activist. "I think it is unfair ... She is a great candidate ... and she has got a fantastic profile and image," he says. "She has done a lot of grassroots campaigning and she deserves a winnable seat."
Of course, Chau's prodigious advocacy skills mean she is unlikely to be a passive candidate. The engineering graduate won the Young Victoria of the Year prize in 2010 in recognition for her work defending the rights of vulnerable international students.
Labor MPs were more sympathetic to her pleas for help over transport concessions than those in the Coalition, she says, and state MP Hong Lim, then the only Asian member of the Victorian parliament, was so taken by her passion that he recruited her to the party.
Yet Chau, like many young Chinese-Australians of her generation, says she was never particularly interested in politics when growing up.
She excelled at school and intended to follow in the footsteps of her older sister, an electronic engineer working for the Defence Science and Technology Organisation in Adelaide.
It was while studying at the University of Melbourne for her engineering degree that she saw her political "burning bush". She was deeply touched by the plight of international students, who were culturally and socially isolated from the Australian society, and reminded of her own struggles when she arrived in Australia in 1989.
It was the year Chinese communist troops opened fire on student protesters in Tiananmen Square, sparking a panic in Hong Kong, then a British Crown colony that was due to be handed back to Beijing in 1997.
"It was winter 1989, Tiananmen Square was rumbling with the sound of army tanks crushing dissent, and my family was part of a wave of new migrants who sought the stability and safety of a land where you could speak your mind without looking over your shoulder," she says. "Dad is a very particular and cautious man, and he also wanted to live in a place with mild weather and no earthquakes or monsoons."
The family, which was in the business of manufacturing garments, ended up in the hilly suburb of Endeavour Hills, south-east of Dandenong. The Chau sisters went to the local primary school and then St Margaret's School, an independent school.
"After I got over the cold, I remember thinking how much room there was in the suburbs; space that I grew to cherish as I adapted to my new home," Chau says of her early days in Melbourne.
While at university, Chau became concerned that so many international students were not reaching their full potential. She says roadblocks had been put in their way, causing many to underachieve and others simply to give up and go home.
She took up their cause, starting the Australian Federation of International Students (AFIS) advocacy group in 2002.
"They [international students] were being treated as cash-cows by an education system that was pleased to take their money, but not always willing to provide the support that students living and studying in a new culture need," she says.
One of the first students Chau helped was a 16-year-old Chinese student named Jenny, whose host family in Prahran had treated her poorly. Her host parents refused to return her bond money after she plucked up the courage to leave after a year of endless arguments with them.
Chau had to go to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and the Victorian Sheriff's Office to get the money back. The saga took six months and left Jenny traumatised and disillusioned; she left Melbourne to study in the US.
Chau also lobbied for transport concessions for international students. But her campaign fell on deaf ears. "It was a situation that burned me up and underlined a harsh fact - international students don't have a vote and that means they don't have a franchise in our democracy," she says.
(Student groups including the AFIS are still fighting for the concessions. Victoria is the only state that does not offer them to international students.)
Chau names Finance Minister Penny Wong, the first and only cabinet minister of Asian ancestry, as one of her sources of inspiration, not only as a leader, "but as a shining light in our community".
"[Wong] may have experienced many disadvantages herself, but speaking to her, she doesn't see herself as a minority," Chau says. "It can be hard to maintain your inner strength when others try to tell you that you're different from 'the mainstream', but she manages that every day. She reminds me that the fight for recognition is worthwhile."
It's a fight Chau's family is also beginning to understand. Despite his initial scepticism at the wisdom of choosing public life over a lucrative, professional career, her father Albert Chau now recognises a generational shift.
"We Chinese are afraid of defending our rights. When things happen to us, we are reluctant to speak out in order to avoid more controversy and we just bear it silently," he says.
Instead, he says, his daughter's generation "will fight injustice and are more politically conscious. It is only natural that some of them are seeking political offices."
More Asian-Australians may be seeking office, but whether they are successful is another question.
Many of them have little chance of winning, and most are "token" candidates. In Victoria, the Liberals are fielding ethnic Asian candidates in ultra-safe Labor seats such as Calwell, Lalor (Julia Gillard's seat) and Hotham (Simon Crean's seat).
Meanwhile, Moreland deputy mayor Lu says standing Chau in the Liberal stronghold of Higgins reflects Labor's neglect of the Chinese-Australian community, which is 1 million strong and growing.
"I am disappointed with the lack of opportunities given to people from Asian-Australian background. We are supposed to be the party for diversity, social inclusion. The Liberal Party has worked tirelessly to get the support of the Chinese community and we are not doing that."
Chau says while she could not comment for the party as a whole, she believed Labor had a better record of placing Asian candidates into more winnable seats than the Liberals.
"We now have Senator Penny Wong, Australia's first Asian-born federal minister and now Senate leader, who has been able to achieve the highest office of any Asian politicians," Chau says. "I'm certainly inspired by her and her achievements. She has also been confirmed as the Labor Party's number one spot holder in the South Australian Senate."
Liberal Party state director Damien Mantach says the party started to place greater emphasis on engaging multicultural communities in 2008 after a root-and-branch review led by party stalwarts Tony Snell and David Kemp.
He says the party wanted to be more inclusive and remake its image. "The party was perhaps not as open as we would like and we work hard to address that."
Mantach nonetheless plays down Nguyen's Asian heritage as a "deciding factor" in his preselection in Chisholm, where Chinese-Australians account for 12 per cent of votes.
John Nguyen says that while he would like to see more MPs from ethnic communities in the lower house, he is not a fan of quota systems of affirmative action. He likens it to the push to have more women on corporate boards.
"Boards' discussions are more robust when there is a diversity of background and opinion ... [But] I believe people should get to board positions or get elected on their merits," he says.
"I was preselected as a Liberal candidate based on my merits, not because I am a token Asian."