Literature and Finance: a great combo?

What happens when you interview a 1987 Literature and Finance graduate from Xiamen University for your book? Well, you get a long reading list.

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My Reading List

Josie (not her real name) was born in 1965, a year before Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Recalling her childhood, she tells me that the only entertainment people had at the time were eight state-sanctioned plays. Her opinion about these plays?

‘Boring!’ she says, definitively.

As a result of this intellectual deprivation, an underground network of readers emerged. People would hide banned books, read them in secret, and circulate them among like-minded friends. Books were so rare and precious that each reader could only have a book for a short time. In order to be able to reread the texts, Josie and her mother used to copy books by hand.

‘What sort of books did you copy?’ I ask.

‘Books that reflect human nature, human love, human feelings, because we were sick of political books. French classics: Camellia,’ says Josie.

From 1981 to 1987, Josie studied Chinese Literature and Finance at university. After graduating, she worked at the People’s Bank of China before flying to Perth to study English in 1990. She eventually settled in Australia as a political refugee.

As much as the first part of her story is astounding for the breadth of her reading, the second part is astounding for her business acumen. I could not have made up the story of how she moved from working on less than minimum wage to owner of not one, but two, small businesses.

I then ask Josie what she thought about the current unease over major Australian political parties receiving donations from Chinese businesses. Her reaction is swift and far more emphatic than what I had expected, ‘They should NOT! These politicians do not care where this money comes from, and Australia should guard her sovereignty.’

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In 2016, Senator Sam Dastyari lost his spot in the Labor front bench for asking a Sydney based company with close links to the Chinese government to pay his travel bill overspend of $1670.82. In his book, he explained that he had not done anything illegal but had underestimated how damning it would look beside his comments on China’s conduct in the South China Sea.

I had thought that Literature and Finance was an unusual combination, but after hours of reading the books Josie read, and hours spent writing her story, it dawns upon me that literature and finance is a great combination because it teaches you that money comes with story.

It matters where money comes from and how it is acquired. It matters because money is used to shape the future. This is a problematic thought when so much of the Australian economy is dependant on the Chinese dollar, and more broadly, when money moves fluidly around the world as if it is a neutral agent.

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Hello and Goodbye

My paternal grandfather
My paternal grandfather

I sit in my study in Adelaide, thinking of the journey that my paternal grandfather took from China to Malaya somewhere between 1900 and 1930. It’s an imprecise estimate, my best guess.

In the only surviving photo of his younger days, he is in Western attire. He was a scholar, or, as the Cantonese saying goes, one who holds a brush. I imagine him looking for a better life, fleeing the political turmoil of China, setting sail for the South China Sea.

For the migrant, life is a series of goodbyes and hellos, and for me, the modern day migrant, December is a month of long summer days, bush fire dangers, and holidays back home. But home is becoming harder and harder to pin down.

Maybe home is where the food is best – where I hear a metal spatula fighting with a wok and know that a good plate of char-kway-teow is coming up. But my children have developed a taste for Spaghetti Bolognese, Aussie meat pies and Kourabiethes, and I must admit that I am partial to a good tiramisu myself.

Or is it where I can walk the streets my grandfather walked? Where I can gaze up at his calligraphy, imagine his brush forming words that were cast in concrete and affixed to the newest building in town? But my link to him is tenuous. I never met him; he passed away before I was born. Those streets may hold my history, but not my home.

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My grandfather’s calligraphy on a building in Menglembu, near Ipoh.

 

My grandfather left China and never returned to see family left behind, establishing a new family in a new land. Modern migrants are luckier. We travel back and forth with our hellos and goodbyes and our bittersweet holidays, maintaining links with the past where all the talking and remembering is compressed into a few emotional weeks, and then we return home again to forge a path into the future, wherever that may be.