Pandemic reveals a Chinese migrant’s neighbours at their best and worst

The comments began not long after he returned from a trip to China. Anonymous posts on a neighbourhood networking site set up to connect locals in the Clayton area – unfunny jokes that mentioned bats and China.

Every January, Clayton Road restauranteur Felix* returns to China with his wife and daughter for the Spring Festival, the most important traditional celebration in the Chinese calendar. This year he had booked a reunion dinner for his extended family in his home city of Zhengzhou, Henan Province, for Lunar New Year’s Day. He had made the booking almost six months in advance to be sure of getting a table. Everything was organised.

Then shortly before heading to the restaurant, Felix had a call from the manager. Because of China’s worsening coronavirus epidemic, the main part of the restaurant was now closed. His family could eat in their private room but only if everybody wore face masks. The meal went ahead but was a subdued affair. The next day the restaurant close entirely.

A few days later Felix and his family returned to Australia and Felix went back to work at the Chinese restaurant he had set up on Clayton Road more than a decade earlier, after immigrating to Australia.

Felix hoped he had left the virus behind him. But as a restaurant owner, he knew enough now to take COVID-19 seriously. Zhengzhou is about 500 kilometres from the city of Wuhan, the reported crucible of the coronavirus pandemic now sweeping the world. Felix wanted his Australian neighbours to be prepared.

So, he wrote a proposal listing 10 initiatives he believed could help stop the spread of the virus in his neighbourhood. “The epidemic first broke out in China. They imposed restrictions which have been proved to be effective to control the spread of the virus, so I knew that the sooner the steps were taken, the better,” Felix says.

His list included measures previously unthinkable for most Australians, but now part of everyday life: social distancing; rules preventing people from gathering in groups; and the closure of non-essential stores. He posted his plan into an app called Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social networking service connecting people living nearby.

That was when the “jokes” started.

“To be honest, I felt disappointed and uncomfortable,” Felix recalls in a telephone interview with The Citizen.

“It’s like you were hoping [for] neighbours expressing themselves, being for or against. However, racism arrived in a very multicultural country.”

Not long after that, in March, the Federal Government announced sweeping lockdown restrictions across the country.

Since then, allegations of racism against Chinese people have proliferated, upsetting individuals, and escalating China-Australia diplomatic tensions. Earlier this month the Chinese government advised its citizens and students to reassess travel plans to Australia, citing a rise in racial discrimination and abuse towards people of Asian descent.

Felix had heard stories but hadn’t expected to become a target. He knew that some people insisted on pointedly calling COVID-19 the Wuhan or Chinese virus and feared that the tone of the comments risked setting “innocent, average people” against each other. “I figure that these kinds of discrimination are a meaningless symbolic gesture, not conducive to problem-solving.”

Before this, Felix says he experienced relatively little racism or discrimination. He describes his experience of Australia and his Clayton community – the second richest cultural mix in the state – as generally friendly. But he acknowledges he was always aware of a group of people who kept their distance. He suspects that the coronavirus stirred them into action.

“People can, of course, disagree with my initiative, but these unfriendly racist comments were off-topic.”

But by now Felix had other things to worry about.

Felix has run his Clayton Road restaurant for over a decade without being the target of racism. The pandemic has changed that. Photo: Duolin Li

As concerns around the potential threat of COVID-19 grew, his customer base all but vanished. By March, he says, turnover had almost halved. Staff too were disappearing. Many had been Chinese international students studying at Monash University. Some failed to return to Australia after the summer break, caught out by the Australian bans on travel from mainland China. Others were still in Australia but didn’t want to venture outside their homes for fear of infection.

The pandemic also affected Felix’s home life. Felix and his wife started to worry for their seven-year-old daughter. While the situation back in China had begun to stabilise, in Australia the outbreak was worsening. By mid-March, they were considering sending the girl back to China. They debated various possible scenarios but eventually decided the plan was too risky.

Felix says they probably overreacted, but that their concerns were the same as for any other parent. “Parents invariably hope their children are able to stay in a safer place.”

But for all the fear and distress that it has brought, the pandemic has also delivered some unexpected gifts.

Felix feels his relationship with his daughter has become better and closer. Before, he had to work long days looking after his many customers. Now, he closes the restaurant earlier and spends more time with her. He built a swing in the backyard to cheer her up.

And in a welcome contrast to the racial jibes on his social media feed, he says others have used the Nextdoor app to reach out to neighbours, offering help taking care of kids or buying and sharing household necessities. One even offered free painting lessons.

“All of these kind of things made me feel the valuable spirit of mutual assistance,” Felix says.

Felix also tries to help where he can.

Through the long weeks of lockdown and beyond, delivery drivers have been among his most regular customers. Most are from Southeast Asia and Taiwan, working on holiday visas. Often, they choose to eat in Felix’s restaurant. He offers them everything at half price.

“I am not able to do something great, but some tiny things to make people feel a little warm during this especially tough time.”

*Felix asked that his full name not be published.