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Ethnic Diversity

Throughout its history, Melbourne has been the home of poor, adventurous and ambitious immigrants. Its ethnic diversity has been one of its most enduring and distinctive features.

Most of the settlers in the 1830s and 1840s were drawn from the English, Irish and Scottish working class, seized by rumours of Melbourne's favourable working conditions. Although in certain trades wages were mediocre and unemployment was rife, most of the skilled labourers and domestic servants who came were materially better off than those who stayed at home. Without the support from family members, some nonetheless felt lonely and isolated, struggling to retain links with home through letter-writing. New beginnings combined with old enmities. Immigrants experienced the sectarian differences which prevailed between Catholics and Protestants; stereotypes of the Irish as unruly and inferior were carried over to colonial life.

In its cultural institutions, Melbourne was predominantly Anglo-Celtic. Those few who were not found it difficult to continue their cultural rituals. Jews, for example, had no kosher meat, nor anybody to circumcise their offspring until the 1840s. Men found sociability in hotels, while women sought solace in church and community activities, many of which were organised along ethnic lines.

All this changed during the gold rushes of the 1850s. Even the most hardened observers found the atmosphere one of heady optimism. The streets were inundated with fortune-hunters from across the globe, with an average of 259 new immigrants arriving every day between 1852 and 1854. Melbourne transformed into a busy cosmopolitan town of mainly loud, boisterous single men who drank to excess in local pubs. Many were housed in Canvas Town or temporary shelters in Carlton, while others chose to stay in the inns and pubs dotted along the route to the goldfields. New arrivals looked to their countrymen for help in coming to terms with the booming city. Several locations offered refuge for specific ethnic groups. Fauchery's coffee place, for example, provided a space where Continental Europeans could escape excited diggers and talk of home.

Melbourne experienced a second wave of immigration during the land boom of the 1880s. By the turn of the century, the city hosted a diverse range of ethnicities which included New Zealanders, Germans, Americans, Dutch, Belgians, Austrians, Hungarians, Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and Russians. Families often formed the main supportive network for newly arrived immigrants, who generally did not mix beyond their national groups. Friendly societies and church organisations provided financial support, and helped to sustain links with 'home'.

Despite this diversity it was the English, the Irish, the Scottish and the Welsh who gave the city its character. The English remained the largest group and by 1900 were over-represented in the middle-class eastern suburbs. The Welsh gravitated to the industrial western suburbs like Williams-town, and the Scots collected most visibly in North Melbourne. The Irish originally made their homes in the inner city, but by 1861 they had established footholds in Coburg, Essendon and North Melbourne. In 1901, there were also clear Irish concentrations in Richmond and South Melbourne.

The Chinese, probably the most vilified of those recently arrived, clustered around Little Bourke Street and the market gardening areas of Kew, Brighton and Moorabbin. Popular representations depicted them as devious, sly and destructive. Far from being so, they endured hardship, poverty and discrimination and, within their tightly knit community, relied on each other in order to survive what was a particularly hostile environment. The community facilities they developed in the inner city became one of Melbourne's earliest identifiable ethnic precincts, laying the foundations for what would become a tourist-oriented Chinatown during the course of the next century.

European immigrants came under less scrutiny. The 2500 Germans who had settled by 1900 lived mostly in the farming districts of Hawthorn, Camberwell, Malvern, Heidelberg, Northcote and Preston, where they formed a lively community complete with German-speaking clubs and churches. This apparent harmony, however, was disrupted during the Boer War, when local patriots condemned Germans for opposing the British cause.

The Jews, like the Chinese, carried with them the historic burdens of a vilified people. By 1900, there were about 5000 Jews in Melbourne, two-thirds of them living in North Melbourne, Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond, with the rest in St Kilda, Prahran and Caulfield. While Jews participated in wider community affairs, anti-Semitism was prevalent. The elite Melbourne Club disallowed membership and an increased intolerance was evident after the arrival of Yiddish-speaking East European Jews during the 1890s. Settling in Carlton, these new arrivals established a range of community organisations which enabled them to sustain a rich cultural life from which they went on to make a major contribution to the art, literature and theatre of the city.

Other non-English-speaking groups clustered in the inner city. Of the 461 Italian immigrants resident in Victoria in 1901, three-quarters worked as fruiterers, tailors, cobblers or hawkers in the inner city. Here they lived alongside an even smaller number of Greeks, one-third of whom worked in catering around Elizabeth and La Trobe Streets, while others were small traders selling drapery, groceries, confectionery and fruit. The centre for this community was the first Orthodox church established in East Melbourne in 1900. The nearby Carlton Gardens provided a place of leisure when more formal activities were finished.

Despite such ethnic diversity there was much that was shared in the experience of migration. However prosperous and integrated immigrants may have become, the dislocation of migration produced severe disruptions which the host culture did little to alleviate. The lack of compatriot women condemned single men to social isolation. Many were unable to marry. Language difficulties further inhibited opportunities, condemning migrants to living on the margins, ghettoised by their ethnicity. However, immigrants to Melbourne generally did better than if they had stayed at home. By 1900 Italians, Germans and other Europeans could be found taking a leading role in Melbourne's cultural, political and social life, but their success did little to transform the prevailing conviction - enshrined in the White Australia Policy - that Melbourne should remain British and white.

During the 20th century, the reality increasingly contested this conviction. The Lebanese joined Greeks in Lonsdale and Drummond streets, while older groups continued to leave their mark in the inner-city areas. In 1913 it was found that the region bounded by Exhibition, Spring, Lonsdale and Little Lonsdale Street had concentrations of Chinese, Indians, Lebanese, Italians and Greeks. Most were hawkers, small traders, or in the case of Chinese, cabinetmakers and laundrymen. Greeks and Italians ran restaurants and caf├ęs in Lonsdale Street, creating a lively and convivial atmosphere where mostly men congregated. To some observers, Melbourne was an open and independent society, the place of cheap, good food and housing, though counter stories of destitute immigrants looking for work abounded.

World War I created a dramatic, if temporary, shift in these trends. Immigration ceased as sending countries retained their men for war service and women for industrial labour. Social and racial tensions in Melbourne mirrored events abroad. Germans were victimised, interned and abused, while the Irish, inflamed by the British reaction to the Easter rising of 1916, rediscovered their nationalism.

When assisted immigration began again in the 1920s many skilled British workers were recruited. Congregating in Ringwood, Box Hill, Frankston, Sandringham, Brighton and the inner areas of Collingwood, Fitzroy, Prahran, Williamstown, South Melbourne and Footscray, they formed the core of Melbourne's industrial working class. In the same period, small numbers of Italians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Greeks, Poles and Albanians arrived at their own expense. Restrictions increased during the depression, banning all but those sponsored by relatives in Australia, or bringing substantial capital. The practice of married men leaving their wives and children behind until they could establish a foothold in the country intensified the loneliness and social isolation of the immigrant's life.

Melbourne was transformed by the postwar migration program. Between 1945 and 1981 a quarter of a million Greeks migrated to Australia, with 40% of them coming to Victoria. Italians, Maltese, Lebanese and Turks joined them in a massive wave of migration which provided cheap labour for expanding manufacturing and service industries. During the 1950s, displaced persons and other immigrants were to be found in Footscray, Sunshine and Broadmeadows, where heavy industry was located. Yugoslavs settled in Keilor and Fitzroy; Latvians in Keilor and Broadmeadows; and Poles in Keilor and St Kilda. Each world crisis brought new refugees. Soviet invasions in 1956 and 1968, for example, attracted shattered Hungarians and Czechs to a city that was less politically volatile.

The assimilationist policies of the 1960s assumed that each new generation of immigrants would become 'Australian'. In a scheme aimed to anglicise newcomers, voluntary organisations attempted to introduce them to the 'Australian Way of Life'. But identity could not be annihilated so easily. Although there was no individual electorate in which other than British immigrants constituted a majority, it would be inaccurate to assume an ethnic 'mix'. Three-quarters of all Southern European postwar arrivals were unassisted, which drew them to their own communities, and easily identifiable concentrations developed as a result. By 1966, the Greeks were concentrated in the inner areas around Richmond, Brunswick and Collingwood, while the Italians were concentrated in Brunswick. The British and Germans were to be found in areas like St Kilda and Caulfield. As they grew more prosperous, individual families began to move out, but this had the effect of expanding rather than dissipating ethnic communities. Reaping the benefits of their labours, many inner-suburban Italians moved to Coburg, Essendon, Footscray, Oakleigh, Doncaster, Templestowe, Springvale and Dandenong. As opportunities arose to improve themselves, Greeks began to move out of inner areas to the northern, eastern and south-eastern suburbs. But this embrace of the suburban ideal was not evidence for assimilation. Women, who had since their arrival been performing two jobs, in the home and in factories, and had lacked the time and opportunity to learn English, knew little of the 'Australian way of life'. The 1976 census revealed that 21% of Melburnians did not regularly speak English. Recognising this changed reality, Melbourne politicians embraced the city's 'multiculturalism'. Ethnic communities flourished with culturally specific services, often in receipt of government funding but managed and staffed by compatriots, providing immigrants with a sense of belonging.

The Indochinese and Vietnamese refugees and the Asian migrants admitted to Australia after the dismantling of the White Australia Policy arrived to this multicultural reality. While many still settled in the traditional immigrant areas of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond, others congregated around the migrant hostels to which they had originally come. Racial tensions and antagonisms were fuelled by a climate of high unemployment, but this did not prevent a lively and energetic cultural life emerging in Richmond, Collingwood and Springvale.

Language barriers, limited job opportunities and cultural marginalisation have made the migratory experience stressful and painful, but in some cases also lucrative. In most ethnic communities, high rates of out-marriage in the second and third generations are evidence for cultural diversity rather than assimilation in a city which now promotes its ethnic enclaves and celebrates a regular round of ethnic festivals. As generations of immigrants continue to both define and absorb the culture of Melbourne, a distinctive and unique ethnic experience is being forged.

Joy Damousi