Billy Sing - a study in ethnic identity, truth and intellectual beauty
by William O’Chee
Earlier this year there was a public furore when it was revealed that television producers were planning to make a mini series based loosely on the life of Billy Sing, the Eurasian hero of the First World War who was Australia’s greatest sniper at Gallipoli, and who was twice decorated for bravery.
Surely this must have been a good thing. What should give rise to any outrage over this? Not much, were it not for the fact the producers chose to deny his Chinese heritage, as well as taking considerable liberties with his actual life story. For example, Billy Sing suddenly spawns a fictional brother, and a fictional cousin, who rescues both of them from German captivity on the Western Front, winning a Victoria Cross in so doing.
Of course none of this was true. In reality, Billy Sing fought bravely as a sniper at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. At the war's end he returned to some modicum of fame in Australia before slipping into obscurity, but not before becoming a flag bearer for the rights of Chinese Australians in a young Australia which had less than 20 years before enacted swingeing discriminatory laws known as the White Australia Policy.
In consequence of this, many within the Chinese community demanded that the producers rectify the historical errors, or abandon the mini series.
It is the competing claims of the representatives of the Chinese community and the television producers to the life of Billy Sing which I have been invited to address today. This story has resonance outside Australia, and concerns ethnic Chinese communities throughout the world, and many other ethnic communities as well.
My starting point is to ask who is entitled to lay claim to represent the legacy of someone who has passed? Is it their descendants, or can a life lived large create a broader set of heirs, albeit heirs of a moral rather than a legal kind? Also does belonging to a distinct ethnic group create a legacy for people of that same ethnic group?
In so doing, I shall also make some observations on the somewhat unique issues concerning people who are Eurasian, or indeed of any mixed race background.Truth and Beauty
Having outlined the concerns of the Chinese community in Australia, it would probably not aid the discussion at this point to expand them any further. Rather, it seems that the defence of the producers is more deserving of examination first.
The producers' rejected these pleas, and responded by saying that in other cases, for example Robin Hood, film-makers have shown considerable licence towards their subject, and that they should be similarly allowed to do so as well.
They sought the defend themselves by invoking the right to artistic freedom, or more precisely, they wanted the right to supplement fact, or truth, with artistic freedom. Let me make it clear that I do not believe the producers’ actions were entirely driven by questions of artistic freedom. On their own admissions, it would appear the decision to portray Billy Sing as exclusively white was driven mainly by laziness. Be that as it may, I intend to be generous and treat their claims to artistic freedom at face value.
There are lots of ways that this argument can be considered. Is artistic freedom, once invoked, a right to do as one wishes? Is there such a thing as artistic freedom at all?
Not so long ago that the question of artistic freedom versus the offence that it might cause was considered by the courts. In Whitehouse v Lemon
 2 WLR 281, the proprietors of a gay newspaper were charged with blasphemous libel for printing a poem which sought to describe a Roman centurion performing homosexual acts with Christ after his crucifixion, as well as other things. The defendants were convicted, with understandable reason. This, and the more general law of defamation shows that artistic freedom is not without its limits.
I am not proposing some sort of Hitleresque burning of art and literature, nor am I even concerned with the legal limits of artistic freedom. I am concerned however, to explore the moral and social contexts in which such a freedom can or must operate.
It also strikes me that if there is such a thing as artistic freedom, it must serve some purpose. Presumably, it must be directed to achieving a form of artistic merit, which can be generically be termed beauty. Now, I know there will be many who will disagree with me at this point. They will say that not all art is about Da Vincis or Carravagios. What of the angry young man whose art is about screaming out to make himself heard, to wake society to some hidden truth?
To those people I say that there is a place for art which reveals truths, but if this is to be the debate, then in the narrow sense it cannot admit altering the truth, and the producers must be found wanting.
In the broader sense, though, truth is also a form of beauty, and in this context the debate may be considered a contest between two different forms of beauty.
As regarding truth, it was long ago argued by Plato that truth was the highest form of beauty. In his Symposium
"For he who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright, to love one such form only—out of that he should create fair thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same! And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form....until he is compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of them all is of one family, and that personal beauty is a trifle; and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences...."
Nor is this simply an ancient discussion. In her book On Beauty and Being Just
, Elaine Scarry argues that beauty is a form of symmetry, which is connected to justice and also truth. It is the symmetry directed towards uncovering some truth which allows us to speak of a beautiful proof in mathematics, for example.
Charles Fried, (Beneficial Professor of Law at Harvard, and formerly Solicitor-General in the Reagan administration) picks up on this in Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government
when he states:
"Perhaps beauty that grows out of evil and injustice is tainted and mocks, as it enchants those who enjoy it. Think of the slavery, misery and death visited by the conquistadors, whose American gold was used to adorn the ceiling of Santa Maria Maggiore."
Fried’s mention of justice is also apposite to the discussion here. In the opening line of Book One of his Institutes
, the Emperor Justinian wrote, “Justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render every one his due.” I struggle to find anyone in the subsequent 1500 years who has managed to offer a better definition.
It behoves us then, to render to historical figures, especially those for whom we have some reasonable detail, that which are their due: a faithful and true rendering of those aspects of their lives which are important. Certainly, details which are minor, or inconsequential may be safely deleted to make a film manageable, or biography readable, but justice demands intellectual honesty.
So, for Billy Sing, what does this all mean? I submit it means that one can make an argument for artistic freedom, but it is conditional, and not unlimited.
If that artistic freedom is used to create something which is false and untrue, which does not do justice to its subject, then it is tainted and deformed. It mocks the creator and those who partake of it.
Billy Sing didn't have to go to war. He could have stayed at home. He, like other Chinese Anzacs, joined up because they believed that it was their ethical and civic duty to do so. Although we do not have Billy Sing's words anymore, we do know that others who joined up felt that they were doing something to create a more just society, and that they were fighting, metaphorically, to relieve themselves of the civic injustice imposed on them by the racial policies of the day.
Truth is the highest form of beauty, and an artistic vision which seeks to ignore or cast aside the truth is base and deformed. Moreover it does an injustice to Billy Sing and the society for which he fought.Ethnicity
Another argument used by the producers to excuse themselves was that Billy Sing was not entirely Chinese. He was Eurasian, and therefore it was as fair to portray him as European as to portray him as Chinese. This is a more dangerous and insidious argument, for it invokes overtones of racial purity.
To properly consider the issue of identity, especially identity for people who are Eurasian, it is necessary to understand that identity has both external and internal components, that is, it depends on how people are perceived by others, and how they perceive themselves.
Dr Kate Bagnall has undertaken a landmark study of Eurasian Australians between 1855 and 1915, which is very instructive. She noted that identity was a complex issue but said that:
“in the face of ... prejudices and difficulties, Anglo-Chinese Australians lived, worked, played, married and raised families as part of Australian communities. Which of these communities they identified with was dependent in part on the way in which they were raised. White mothers and Chinese fathers brought up their children with particular combinations of linguistic and cultural knowledge, which varied between families and even between siblings, and it was this knowledge—operating in combination with other markers of identity such as names and appearance—which contributed to their participation in and acceptance by one or both communities.”
From my experience, and from my discussions with other Eurasian people, this is as true today as it was 100 years ago. It also depends on how “different” a person is perceived to be.
As a young boy growing up in Brisbane, I was the only ethnic-Chinese child in my school, so I was naturally perceived as different - as Chinese - and treated as such. I am sure for Eurasians growing up in Hong Kong this is not quite so much an issue. Appearance, therefore, is a powerful factor in determining personality, because it can govern the external aspects of identity.
Internal identity is, however, entirely dependent upon the way in which an individual identifies themselves. Eurasians therefore have some possibility of choice. They may be able to choose to be European, or Chinese, or a mixture of both. This is manifested in their maintenance of cultural traditions, language, patterns of thinking, and associations. Historically, maintaining Chinese language was always difficult for the Chinese community in Australia because of the White Australia policy being imposed through the language test, as well as various immigration and emigration permits. For this reason the small number of Chinese who remained in Australia between 1901 and 1975 - down to as few as 8,000 in 1948 - generally abandoned language in favour of maintaining cultural traditions and close association and inter-marriage. In rural Australia, the absence of sufficiently large communities who spoke Chinese contributed to the functional decline of Chinese language skills amongst these people. Moreover, most Chinese Australians who retained Chinese spoke Cantonese, Hakka, or some other dialectic variant, not Mandarin.
Perversely, the absence of Chinese language has sometimes led to a kind of snobbery from those Chinese migrants who have arrived in Australia in the last 20 years. They have been known to discriminate against he established Chinese community on the basis that they do not speak Mandarin, and are somehow “not really Chinese”. Such attitudes are not only ignorant and offensive, but overlook the fact that overseas Chinese communities everywhere often did a better job of maintaining Chinese traditions than those on the mainland who were deprived of these by the Cultural Revolution.
As for Billy Sing, he identified himself as Chinese-Australian, and was certainly seen as such during his lifetime, so it is wrong to attempt to ignore this aspect of his personality, or to make him out to be other than what he was. To do so is nothing short of intellectual dishonesty.Who should speak for Billy?
We now come to the vexed question of who should speak for Billy Sing. Normally, a person’s descendants, would be expected to speak for the memory of their deceased ancestors. In the case of Billy Sing, he died without known heirs, and there are no other known next-of-kin.
This does not detract, however, for the fact that like many public figures, or people of historical significance, he is held in deep affection by the ethnic-Chinese community. Should they, however, have a monopoly on his legacy?
I believe that the legend of Billy Sing should not belong only to ethnic-Chinese Australians, but to all those who can somehow identify with some aspect of his story, be that be on the basis of ethnicity, military service, general admiration, or geography (he is celebrated in his birthplace of Clermont, for example).
The duty of truthfulness, which we have identified as the highest form of beauty, still prevails, however. Those who wish to speak for Billy Sing are morally bound to be truthful to the whole of the man, and his life. That means people should not attempt to pervert his story to make it “sexier”, nor should they ignore fundamental aspects of his personality, including his ethnicity.
Finally, I am indebted to the counsel of a deeply learned friend, Fr Dimitri Tsakas, for an insight that was external to the debate about being Chinese or Eurasian, or anything else. His viewpoint is that Billy Sing was actually more than merely the sum of his parts. He sees Billy Sing’s story as a challenge to narrow ethnic self-interest, and an invitation to people from all backgrounds to reflect more widely on the national interest.
If my friend is correct, then are we wrong to be so concerned about the ethnicity of Billy Sing?
No, but we are wrong if we make the debate solely about ethnicity, and not the ideals he represents, and for which he undoubtedly lived his life.
Australia must eventually see itself as more than a refuge and place of financial prosperity for those who would rather be somewhere else if circumstances allowed. We as a people must recognise that we have an ever-emerging national identity, free to pick and choose the best of old worlds for the creation of a new one.
The sense of national identity was what compelled so many young Australians of Billy Sing’s generation to go away to war.
The significance of Billy Sing is that he was an exemplar for an Australia which we have inherited today, and which we continue to build. I could not achieve the things I did if it was not for Billy Sing, and Caleb Shang, and Jack Sue, and William Liu, and all those who went before me. To discard an integral element of Billy Sing's personality is an injustice against his memory, and also removes him from the canon of Chinese Australian history. It marginalises all Chinese Australians. Far and above all of this, however, is that it weakens the pluralistic society which is modern Australia.
Edited by HappyHistorian, 14 August 2010 - 08:23 AM.