This year’s OzAsia Festival ran from October 19 to November 5, at its annual festival grounds in Adelaide’s Kaurna Territory.
In its early years, the Asia-focused festival, which began in 2007, often highlighted work from a different Asian country each year.
Under the leadership of former artistic director Joseph Mitchell, it has grown into an event showcasing the best of contemporary art from across Asia.
Now in its third and final year after the cancellation of the 2020 festival and smaller-scale festivals over the past two years, artistic director Annette Shun Wah has overseen the burgeoning festival with guest artists from 13 countries.
Attending this year’s festival gave me the opportunity to reflect on how Australia’s appreciation of multiculturalism and diversity is most evident in the food.
Asians like others in Australian history
Despite their geographic location in the Asia-Pacific region, Asians constitute a minority in Australia. One in eight of us was born in Asia and one in six identify as Asian.
The first notable migration from Asia took place in the mid-19th century, during the gold rush, when Chinese miners arrived in Australia. In 1861, 3.3% of Australia’s population was born in China – the highest percentage until the 1980s.
Working in teams, Chinese workers were more productive than Anglo-Saxon and European miners, which led to conflict and anti-Chinese sentiments.
There was little social basis for Australians to appreciate or appreciate artistic performances from Asia in and around the 1870s, when performing arts companies from Japan arrived in Australia with acrobatic and juggling.
It was part of an international trend around appreciation of Japanese culture known as Japonisme. How Japanese performances were perceived and appreciated in Australia remains a mystery, as these shows received little criticism.
However, given the monocultural nature of the colonial mentality, they probably did not contribute to Australia’s multiculturalism or diversity. Instead, they were likely seen as foreign artists exhibiting an ethnic aesthetic.
Read more: From sinister orange sauces to refined regional flavors: how politics helped shape Chinese cuisine in Australia
Food as a way to experience other cultures
While watching shows is an obvious way to experience and learn about other cultures, food has become the means by which more Australians learn about others.
Food has been a gateway to Asia for many Australians. Many words drawn from Asian cuisine – like masala, tom yum and wasabi – are no longer foreign to Australian English.
Given this history, it makes sense that a hawker-style food market – introduced alongside the 2015 festival – became the Lucky Dumpling Market in 2017.
The night market style stalls along the River Torrens now attract a wide range of people wanting to enjoy Asian food, before or after a night out, or just to come and eat.
On OzAsia Festival’s A Night with Poh Ling Yeow and Sarah Tiong, I heard Ling Yeow highlight the diversity of food in Australia. She explained how Australians’ love of travel was a major factor in Australia’s multicultural food landscape.
Similarly, Tiong has observed how Asian chefs are respected in the Australian food industry because they can bring diversity to the kitchen.
The Lucky Dumpling Market was packed over the weekend with foodies, who sampled a variety of dumplings beyond the Chinese styles that have become orthodox in Australia, including Japanese gyoza and Nepalese momo.
At this year’s festival, I also observed two food-related solo performances, Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream by Jacob Rajan and Buried TeaBowl — OKUNI by Yumi Umiumare.
Ice cream and tea in solo performances
Rajan’s Paradise or the impermanence of ice is a poetic and metaphysical reflection on the border between life and death. Rajan plays all seven characters, including an ice cream parlor waiter and a chai seller.
The New Zealand actor’s ability to show us diverse characters is exceptional and inventive. Switching from Indian to Antipodean accents and back again, he is a talented actor capable of connecting with Asia and Australasia.
With illustrations of life, migration and death, the world it evokes is recognizable to many Asian Australians. The humor – including jokes about Harvey Norman, possibly inserted for Australian audiences – was warmly received by South Australian audiences.
Set in India, Rajan shows us that human feelings are not limited by cultural boundaries.
In Buried TeaBowl — OKUNI, Yumi Umiumare, a Melbourne-based artist born and trained in Japan, combines traditional tea-making ceremony and contemporary dance, around a framework referencing the origins of Japanese Noh theater.
The exhibition highlights Umiumare’s complex relationship with its heritage and culture. She shows the audience how peace can be found through a cup of tea and how this precious moment can be destroyed by drinking pre-mixed tea from a plastic bottle.
Unlike Rajan, who plays in English, Umiumare occasionally uses his native language without subtitles. The majority of the show is performed in English, but the Japanese version without subtitles reflects a complex journey of herself as a performer and a migrant.
Without understanding every word, the audience can still appreciate his overall performance, a blend of traditional sentiments and contemporary dynamic expressions.
Understanding artistic performances requires more skill and knowledge than enjoying tasty food. Along the river, many locals enjoy Asian food, but do as many of them appreciate Asian art? A task before us: extending the appreciation of Asian culture beyond food and beyond the festival period.
Read more: Why aren’t there more Asian faces on Australian screens?