It did not dawn on me until I earned my commerce degree from UNSW that life would present us more benefits if we found ourselves a niche. A piece of paper was all I got from the graduation ceremony. It did not really set me apart from the rest of the few hundred other graduates even though I was only one of ten who got the extra five letters after our degree – (Merit). Back in the early 1980’s, being Asian did not accord me a niche either. It may well be different now to be Asian in Australia. Of the four finalists in Young Genius of Australia 2019, one is of Chinese descent and another is Sri Lankan. The two ancestries only make up roughly 2.6% of the population yet they consistently are over represented in any field of excellence. A Chinese or Indian in an Australian school today would be accorded much respect in the school ground. They tend to excel in any school curriculum, especially mathematics, science and music. To glorify my existence, I inform myself I am one of the pioneers who helped pave an easier route for the next generation Asians in Australia. When I was in year 12, my reputation preceded me on the playgrounds in Unley High. They called me Bruce from the way I presented myself during recess – knees slightly bent like a tiger ready to pounce, fists clenched baring white bruised knuckles and a twitchy nose just like Bruce Lee in Fist Of Fury. I found my niche without realising it. Asians were only respected for their kung fu. “ You do karate? Judo? Jiujitsu?” My reply was always a smirk without a comment. Mysterious and serious. I walked the grounds, unchallenged and unscathed whereas other new kids on the block were taunted and deemed tainted. Not me, many considered me a young tiger. Certainly not edentulous. During the 1980’s in Australia, Asians were not yet synonymous with limitless capacity to accept work and prodigious output in the workforce. I would have been an early contributor in spreading that reputation, as a pioneer. We gained respect from our peers with our uncomplaining industry and consistent productivity. Regular promotions and the resultant pay rises became common in the Asian community of young professionals.
When The Mrs and I opened our first shop in Adelaide, we were the only Asian retailers that were not restaurateurs or Asian grocers. Everywhere we went, every event we attended, we were sure to be the only Chinese. We were best described as the odd couple in the automotive retail scene. At a drag race as a sponsor, we were heckled by a gang of bikies and told to go back where we came from. I almost told them they were in the wrong drag race – they were too pretty with their tattoos of naked women – but I knew my niche cannot be in this field, it would be wiser for me to eat humble pie and leave as soon as practicable. At the annual trade shows, no matter in which city, we were the odd-looking couple too. Most of the auto shop owners were “petrol-heads”, car fanatics and race car enthusiasts who would not grow up and ended as auto shop owners instead. They were beer drinkers – coarse, rough, loud and looked like mechanics with greasy hands and dirt-filled fingernails. We were red wine drinkers – refined, gentle, soft-spoken and looked like nerds. Wherever we went, we were the only Chinese. It soon became clear to me that I could not be a niche player in the automotive spare parts business.
In the late 1980’s, I befriended a nice Aussie cobber of German descent. He called me the yellow peril – in those days – an affectionate and harmless term for a Chinaman. He took me fishing one morning in the middle of winter in his tinny – a small boat with an aluminium hull. The sea was so choppy his yellow friend went home green from being sea-sick. Years later, he settled in Arno Bay and with a batch of newfound friends, founded an aquaculture business in Arno Bay. Their goal was to spawn the southern bluefin tuna off the coast of Port Lincoln and then grow the fingerlings in massive tanks on the land. Their other more immediate success was propagating kingfish and the green-lipped abalone. Success without sufficient capital would only lead to one certainty – cannibalism by a like-minded but wealthy neighbour in Port Lincoln. They were being offered peanuts for their exciting enterprise that could signal the world’s first success in farming tuna. Any sushi lover will understand how expensive tuna is. In January this year, sushi chain owner Kiyoshi Kimura paid over AUD$3 million for a 612-pound bluefin tuna. My Aussie cobber rang me for help – asked if I knew of any Asian consortium that might buy them out at a reasonable price instead. Instantly, I found my niche. I visited Port Lincoln in 2000, stayed in a haunted local hotel there and made a lot of noise about my Chinese-led consortium that was eyeing irresistible takeover targets in South Australian aquaculture. The pristine waters of Spencer Gulf – one of the cleanest bodies of water in Australia – were about to see “a cascade of Asian money rolling in”, I boldly claimed. Less than four weeks later, my Aussie cobber rang to thank me. They sold their company to their wealthy neighbour at a price they were all happy with. That was nice, to have found my niche in a white man’s land.
Five years earlier, I actually found my niche without realising it. The Mrs and I had put our family home in Highbury on the market. It was our family home for nine years – our twin boys were merely three years old – at their sweetest and most adorable age, and their elder brother had yet to play the violin when we first moved in. In other words, it housed a lot of precious memories for us. When the real estate agent told us the asking price was too high after the eighth opening, I sacked him. “They don’t like your chocolate brown bathroom.” The Mrs and I stripped the paint and gave the walls a fresh straw coloured paint. It took us three nights in that week after the first opening. ” They don’t like your wallpaper, it’s much too 1970’s.” The Mrs and I stripped them off, we were buggered by the next house inspection. Stripping the wallpaper from the whole house and giving it a new coat of paint before the weekend inspection would be beyond us today. We only had the evenings to work on it as I could not take time off my day job. But we did it! “Ah, I’m sorry to report they don’t like your gold and brown Egyptian floor tiles in the toilet and laundry room.” “Yes, I understand I’m asking you to take a big haircut here, dropping the price from $175,000 to $140,000, but given the weak market conditions and your outdated decor, we have to accept the reality.” the agent philosophised. And so, I sacked him, after four weeks. I figured I could sell our precious house myself at that price. We had three openings after that. The Mrs bought some oriental artefacts and displayed them strategically and lifted the “qi” of our house with nice big pots of variegated plants. We brewed fresh coffee and set the Hitachi radio on ABC Classic FM. I donned my favourite tie which matched my woollen suit tailor-made in Penang. It didn’t matter that February was the hottest month in Adelaide – I packed away the whole family in the garage and told them all to be quiet. The ambience had to be right, the feel of the house had to be perfect. We could not project a house filled with Chinese people – what would the white man think if they saw all of us? A horror house of Vietnamese refugees? It was nice, I found my niche. I sold our precious house after the third opening, for $171,000. The buyer came back for a second inspection prior to signing her beautiful signature on the contract. “I didn’t get to see how big your garage is” she said. “Sure, but don’t mind them, they are my sweet family” I said as I opened the garage door.
The next niche I find will be a wall in the pagoda that’s being built in Ottoway. Hopefully, there won’t be a sign that says “Urghhlings excepted” and I could sit close to Pa’s.