Ask most people about the television series most identifiable with Australia, the chances are that they will mention Home and Away, Australia’s most successful popular culture export (next only to its predecessor, Neighbours), marketed in at least 80 countries and currently broadcast in nine.
Running since 1988, the soap opera’s motley collection of fostered children, “abandoned by [their] natural family, leaving [them] free to identify as 100% Australian in terms of language, culture and personal style” is a snapshot of the imagined community of “pre-mass migration vision of Australia, peopled with unassailably Anglo citizens”.
In the last decade, as the influence of Asia has announced itself in every possible way in Australia, from inbound migration (international students, temporary skilled workers, economic migrants) to outbound markets (Australia’s coal, agricultural and aquatic produce, cultural products), Asian Australian storytelling has come to occupy an integral space at least in the imaginaries of our (that is, in Asian Australian) communities.
But its uptake, both lay and critical, in the mainstream and dominant space of institutionalised “whiteness” has remained scant.
In the last five years, there has been an impassioned debate in the Australian public sphere about the lack of Asian Australian representation on screens, which have also been influenced by benchmarking reports like Seeing Ourselves: Reflections of Diversity on Australian TV drama and Shifting the Balance: Cultural Diversity in Leadership Within the Australian Arts, Screen and Creative Sectors.
I want to make a particular case for the soap opera that often does not have the same kind of artistic legitimacy as other media forms, and thus enters popular discourse via low brow appreciation. By having such a broad-based appeal, the soap opera in Australia can have unusual power to transform entrenched bias against those who are perceived to be outsiders to the dominant white settler narrative within the nation.
Enter The Heights. Australia’s home-grown gem, it should rightly alter the Home and Away face of an Australia consumed the world over and replace it with what contemporary Down-Under in the Asian neighbourhood actually looks like.
The Heights has been broadcast in the United Kingdom since June 2020, but it should be a no-brainer that it is precisely among Australia’s Asian neighbours that the show needs to be disseminated. This new kid on the block of television dramas exemplifies the relationship of Australia to its region in the Asian Century.
Arcadia Heights, the inner-city neighbourhood setting of the programme, is as diverse as it could get, but ever so nonchalantly and matter-of-factly, with six families plotting the main storyline and a secondary cast of characters crisscrossing them depending on themes.
Shot in Perth rather than the usual suspects of Melbourne and Sydney, the series is anchored, in equal parts, by The Railway, its local pub, and Dông Hu’o’ng, the local Vietnamese corner grocery store.
The pub has been a longstanding feature of soap operas, viz the British Coronation Street, which has clocked more than 10,250 episodes since 1960 and demonstrates the changing face of Britain using the ruse of the local bar. In the case of The Heights, the Vietnamese corner store occupies equal billing to the watering hole.
The characters of The Heights live in social housing, The Towers, amidst a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, and value judgements notwithstanding on either side, manage to have a mostly friendly association and even find love across the lines in the sand.
While the Murphys and the Davies provide their versions of dysfunctional family dramas, the Trans and the Jafaris offer cohesiveness of a refugee ethos that stands in stark contrast to some of the other neighbours’ shenanigans.
Residents of European as well as Asian descent are shepherded by Indigenous Elders, Uncle Max and Aunty Pam, and other central First Nations characters like Mich and Leonie. Any tensions that exist between the denizens of this imagined community are washed over by a seamless co-existence that is as realistic as it is aspirational.
Surely it behoves Australian audiences to pay attention to this drama unfolding within Australia’s shores to get a sense that while we were fighting the history wars and indulging in identity politics, Australia’s neighbourhoods and suburbs had quietly but surely transformed into something quintessentially Asian Australian.
The fate of Season 3 of The Heights seems to be in question, but it would be a real shame if such a powerful medium is allowed to quietly wither away without the kind of funding and viewership that would make it a real Australian television icon of the 21st century.
It is becoming ever more important to take note of Asian Australian stakes in media and popular culture so that we can tell the story of contemporary Australia and persuade the world within, and out there, that we are indeed worthy of Australia’s multicultural appellation vis-à-vis Asia.
That Australia’s Asianness is not something that is just part and parcel of a culinary exotica made familiar, à la Masterchef, or in an equal and opposite demonisation, cause for the needle of suspicion to descend when the Covid-19 pandemic hit our lives.
So, walk into The Railway for your evening pint and pick up your groceries and all the local gossip on the way home from Dông Hu’o’ng.
This article first appeared in Melbourne Asia Review, a publication of the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne.