Have the property wars become racism’s new frontier?

We've all read the headlines - 'Chinese buyers are swooping on our homes!'

We've all read the headlines - 'Chinese buyers are swooping on our homes!' Photo: Bloomberg

Back in 1913, C.A Jeffries and John Barr, two writers from The Bulletin, made a small but critical contribution to the diversity debate that has us scratching our heads more than a hundred years on. The pair wrote Australia Calls, a silent film directed by Raymond Longford, which cast members of Sydney's Chinese community as "Mongolian" invaders that storm the city, set landmark buildings on fire and interrupt a horse race before taking off with an outback damsel named Beatrice who - in a move straight out of Jerry Bruckheimer - is rescued by legendary NSW aviator William E. Hart.

The film trades on the Yellow Peril, the corrosive panic that erupted in response to Chinese settlers and is a celluloid extension of The Bulletin's charming slogan "Australia for the white man". And what is white Australia if not the kind of honourable place where buildings are protected from shadowy Eastern interlopers and where enjoying a horse race in peace is a God-given right?

Turn-of-the-century heroics might be hopelessly outdated but the ghosts of Jeffries and Barr are still looming large. In the last two years, the fact Chinese investors have overtaken the US as the biggest buyers of Australian property has sparked headlines that could wake the ghost of Edward Said, the thinker whose 1978 book Orientalism first suggested the West imagines itself in relation to the "Inscrutable Oriental", a deviant Asian Other whose strange customs and shadowy intentions should be mistrusted at all costs.

In September 2014, a Fairfax column attributed the housing bubble in Sydney and Melbourne to the "influx of murky money coming from China". A May 2014 Herald Sun article accused cashed-up Chinese investors of "swooping on Australian property". And in a February 2014 article in The Guardian, Clive Hamilton lamented the secrecy surrounding Chinese investment before describing a fate dire enough to send anyone who squandered adventure and personal development to save a decent home deposit screaming into the night. "Every weekend in Sydney, young Australian couples are turning up at auctions excited at the prospect of finally owning their own home, only to find that other bidders are wealthy foreign buyers with money to burn," he wrote.

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It's unfair to condemn this backlash wholly when the Australian Dream is so clearly at stake. The last twelve months have proven disastrous for a generation of renters hoping to climb a property ladder that's dissolving like quicksand. In June 2015, the Australian Financial Review reported that a first home-buyer would need to earn $152,000 per year to buy an average property in Sydney, $115,000 in Melbourne, $93,000 in Brisbane and $103,000 in Perth. This lack of affordable housing is deepening social inequities around the country, forcing relocations to the outer suburbs and - according to an April 2015 report by Anglicare - making homelessness worse.

Aspiring politician recently Nick Folkes attempted to fix this problem by launching a letterbox campaign in Sydney's North Shore. His leaflets, which advised "Aussie battlers are being pushed to the fringes of our cities while foreign intruders are reaping the benefits of our hard-working previous generations," might be a glittering example of idiocy. But it's also obvious that he was desperate.

Crikey writer Bernard Keane last year exposed the relationship between Chinese foreign investment and housing affordability for the farce that it really is. Citing the Foreign Investment Review Board's 2012-13 Annual Report, he stated the bulk of Chinese foreign investors were purchasing new dwellings, a fact that's unlikely to impact the property bubble, and that investors from the US and Canada were only slightly behind. "Hard to get a good anecdote about white people showing up to an auction and bidding successfully for a property. "Chinese" buyers, even if their families have lived in Australia for a century, are easier to spot and complain about," he wrote.

Marilyn Lake believes that it's dangerous to relegate the Yellow Peril to history books or silent films. "No longer accused of augmenting the ranks of cheap labour, [Chinese] are now attacked for their apparent wealth and blamed for the difficulties experienced by young white Australians in buying their own homes, in realising the Australian dream," she wrote in a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald article.

The prospect of shadowy invaders may be laughable but Australia Calls' message is alive and well. It's easier to be racist when it's in service of a cause that we can all believe in.