Friday, 23 September 2022

Happy Together, Bridging the Australia-China Divide book launch

Rod and I are delighted to be here to launch the book Happy Together: Bridging the Australia-China Divide.

I am particularly pleased to do so as both co-authors David Walker and Li Yao are well known to us from our time in China. Well known then, but much better known now after reading their deeply engaging and thought provoking book.

It is wonderful to be able to renew our association with David and Karen today, and to see Professor Li Yao beaming through the screen.

We send our best wishes and congratulations across the miles to him in his study in Beijing.

The Barr Smith Library holds a special place in David’s heart, “a shrine built in honour of books” as he describes this reading room in Happy Together.

We can easily imagine him as he studied here as an undergraduate ensconced at his favourite desk, piled high with tomes poring over the words and informing his thinking.

Some of us may recall a not dissimilar experience.

As many of you know, David was the inaugural BHP Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University in Beijing, where he met Li Yao, who teaches translation at Peking University.

Li has translated more than 30 Australian books into Chinese including important works by Patrick White and Henry Lawson, and is highly regarded for his lifelong work.

Even more highly regarded, it is fair to say, by those who have read the book and learned of his extraordinary, to our eyes, path to becoming a translator.

The pair forged a deep and enduring friendship and understanding of each other’s cultures and history which had the genesis in Li Yao translating David’s personal history Not Dark Yet, another Walker book I can thoroughly recommend.

It was then Li Yao’s suggestion that they should write a joint memoir telling of their parallel life stories, the result being Happy Together, its publication coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Australia and the People’s Republic of China.

The book provides a fascinating insight into their respective lives: Li Yao growing up in the time of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and David during the social and societal changes in Australia after the Second World War.

And yet it speaks also to our lives as Chinese and Australians and to how we live them, what we know of each other’s countries and how we perceive each other.

Among the differences, there are commonalities in our search for our historical roots and the warmth of human interaction, alongside our desire to fit within society and adapt to changes or to challenge them.

I must admit when David invited me launch his and Li Yao’s book, the title gave me pause for thought: Happy Together alongside Bridging the Australia-China Divide.

It seemed like a stretch in current circumstances despite my affection for the authors and the years I have spent contributing to deepening relations between the two countries

The words Happy Together play a small yet significant part in the narrative of the book.

They were embroidered on a traditional red pillow given to Li by his mother. She had made it when she herself married.

And I quote from the book:

“But the Red Guards said, Happy Together represents old thoughts and old culture. It must be destroyed! Borrowing a pair of scissors, Li Yao cut out the six characters.

That night, laying there with his head on the damaged pillow, he could not get to sleep for a long time, thinking of his mother, his family and what lay in store for them all.


History is often about the big picture, the changing borders, the conflicts, the leaders, the manifestos.

In the book, Li’s family remark that the story of ordinary people, “the small potatoes”, is rarely told.

Through Happy Together, the stories of small potatoes are indeed told and told well by two authors who bring professional historical research skills, a love of literature and a deep friendship to bear on their task.

The intertwining of David and Li Yao’s stories reminds us of the importance of human connections and personal ties to broader bilateral relationships.

Such deep personal knowledge is an important catalyst in the forging of deeper friendships that transcend borders.

Even as our government seeks to stabilise relations with China with a view to more regular high-level contact enabling the active management of our differences, there is no denying that the people-to-people relationships form a solid bedrock.

The book also reminds us to be aware of the cultural prism through which we interpret seemingly universal words.

Imagine if you will, the challenge that Li had in interpreting the word “country” and its meaning to Australian Aboriginal people; the dichotomy of Australians viewing a trip to the country as a place of relaxation and restoration - the historical Chinese view of such a journey as one of exile and punishment.

I last heard David’s voice two months when he was being interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Extra.

He revealed to listeners that due to his vision challenges, his wife Karen, who journeyed with David and Li Yao in China and undertook historical research for the book, had the task of reading the text to him many times.

He professes that reading aloud is a great way to improve a book!

I thank the authors David Walker and Li Yao with Karen Walker for providing us with such a compelling insight into how personal relationships can transcend borders, differences, anxieties and fears.

There is no better way of marking our 50th anniversary.

I leave you with a quote from the book which resonates.

“All societies are prone to think their ways are the right ways. Listening is both an act of courtesy and a way of learning.

Too often we fail to do this.”

As I launch it today, I trust this book will encourage us all to do otherwise.

Coming events