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Erin Chew
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in August 2023

Erin Chew is a proud Malaysian Australian social entrepreneur, freelance writer and social activist focusing on issues impacting on the Asian diaspora. Previously, Erin worked within the trade union movement for over 10 years in the areas of organising and community building.

Erin founded the Asian Australian Alliance back in 2013 as a way to include the Asian Australian voice in the mainstream and create a platform for change. Her body of work includes advocating on issues related to racism, women of colour and international student rights.

Erin is also a founder of Being Asian Australian, a media website dedicated to putting out news, interviews and features about Asian Australians. This soon will become part of a bigger company called FlixAsia which will focus on bringing media trend news in unique angles from Asia and include other services which will benefit the Asian Australian and the diaspora community.

Currently, Erin lives between the USA and Australia and does freelance writing in the US focusing on Asian American representation in Hollywood.
How did you become interested in the social justice, political and advocacy space?
When I was around 8-10 years old, my dad went on strike with his co-workers and fellow union members over a pay dispute. I was on school holidays, so my dad took me to his strike which had a profound impact on me. Since then I’ve always been for social justice. The next time was in 1998 when I was in highschool. One Nation was a new political party spouting out racist and anti-Asian rhetoric with Pauline Hanson’s infamous Parliamentary maiden speech in 1996 where she started off by saying “Australia is being swamped by Asians”. In 1998 there was this huge rally in Sydney CBD that I ended up skipping school for (without my parents’ permission). I met so many activists at the rally and I learned so much from the community, leaving a huge imprint on my life moving forward.
How did you make the transition from working in trade unions to becoming a freelance writer and entrepreneur?
Getting into freelance writing was really a stroke of luck. I started writing on Asian Australian topics for Asian American media as “free” articles, simply to spread awareness of Asian Australian issues. From these articles, other Asian American media outlets started noticing me. I was offered more writing opportunities around 2018, when I wrote a piece about the Asian Australians in Crazy Rich Asians and the piece went viral. That changed my life and put me on the path to becoming a freelance writer focusing on Asian diaspora and Asian American representation.

In terms of becoming an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t say I am successful in that respect yet. Even though setting up the Asian Australian Alliance back in 2013 is entrepreneurial in spirit, it’s a community organisation/network. I guess in essence it’s an enterprise and has been doing a lot of projects and campaigns since 2013.

Currently, I’m setting up a media company called FlixAsia which has various services with a focus on Asia. The current Asian Australian site “Being Asian Australian” will come under FlixAsia. More to come on this.
Could you detail the work that you have done with the Asian Australian Alliance since 2013 to now?
The original premise for the Asian Australian Alliance (AAA) was to just have a simple platform for Asian Australian voices. At the time, it was all about having important conversations. By 2014, we started our first campaign, and from there it just grew.

Project 18C

This was all about working to stop changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The Tony Abbott Government back then planned to remove provisions which they saw as prohibiting free speech. In actuality the provisions protected marginalised and multicultural communities from being vilified in the media etc.

We ran a local council campaign where we asked local councils across the country to pass resolutions calling on the Attorney General at the time, George Brandis, to not make any changes. We ended up with almost 100 local councils sending out letters, and this campaign gathered both media and public attention. At the end the Government decided not to change 18C provisions so our campaign was successful.

Marriage Equality

In this campaign AAA via one of its caucuses AAuRA (Asian Australian Rainbow Alliance) decided to be strategic and remind the Asian/Asian Australian community that members of our own community also belong to the LGBTIQ+ community. We utilised the support of our Asian elders (who have respect within the Asian/Asian Australian community) to be our spokespeople and make comments at our press conference and to the media. This was successful in garnering support from the community with the plebiscite.

In addition, we had an effective social media campaign and were in the media pushing for a “Yes” vote. In the campaign, we were also mindful of reminding the broader Australian community that marriage equality is just the tip of the iceberg on the issues and concerns the Asian/Asian Australian LGBTIQ+ community have to confront.

COVID-19 racism incident reports

This campaign is still ongoing and open with more reports to come out. This campaign was in the form of a survey and was inspired by the work done by the #StopAAPIHate Reporting Centre, where a survey was launched in the USA to collect data on racial attacks during the critical years of the pandemic. In addition back here in Australia, there were Asian/Asian Australians who were coming out with their racist attacks on social media. This is when we decided to launch our own survey and get this out broadly.

The survey was the first of its kind in Australia, in terms of collecting data on racist incidents against Asians/Asian Australians and almost 1,000 incidents were recorded into our survey. The results from the survey and subsequent reports have been used by the media, academia and other racial advocacy groups all over the world.

The Voice

At AAA, the side advocated is a “Yes” vote as we believe that unless First Nations people in Australia get a voice in Parliament, there will be no equality for everyone else. However, we are also in support of all the other things which need to come such as treaties, alleviating poverty in regional and remote areas etc.

AAA has supported a public stance on all the “Yes” campaigns and will be hosting a virtual panel next month taking a “yes” stance. There will also be a lot more social media work as we get closer to the referendum date.
Why is it more important than ever for us to rally the CALD and Asian community to support The Voice?
Australia is really one of the only remaining “developed” countries which doesn’t have some type of acknowledgement at a national level on providing a voice to their First Nations people - that is why it is time for this to change. If you think about it, if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia do not get a voice in Parliament, then every other community that faces issues around racism etc will never get close to any type of equality.

Also, historically, Australia is an invaded nation, so aside from Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, no one else owns Australia. Australia is and always will be Aboriginal land.
You founded the Asian Australian Alliance in order to include the Asian Australian voice in the mainstream. Candidly, how do you think this has fared?
In all fairness, the journey has been rough and tough. There have been and still are a lot of stumbling blocks on the Asian Australian Alliance journey. In saying that we have achieved a lot and I would hope we have created a huge movement for change in Australia.

We started all the way back in 2013, when Asian Australian issues that are discussed today were non-issues, and we have come quite far since then with all the work we have done and campaigns achieved.
What initiatives are you working on now and planning to launch in the future?
Currently we are working on:
- The Voice to Parliament;
- Global COVID-19 Racism Incident Report;
- Youth consultation;
- We also will have for the second year the 123 Asian Australians of 2023. We started this in 2022 with 122 Asian Australians of 2022.

In the future we're launching:
- Fellowships, to be announced later this year. 
- Forums, webinars and events from September 2023 through to 2024.
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
In the past I had a love-hate relationship with my Asian Australian identity, but it's evolved to one where I am sure about who I am and feel pride in being Asian Australian.

Growing up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, the love-hate started very young, when I was physically and racially bullied when I was in kindergarten. Even though I didn’t really understand what identity even meant back then, I knew and felt different from the other students in school. Back in the 80s and 90s when I was still a kid, I hated being Asian and even went as far as telling my parents when I was 10 that I wanted to change my last name to ‘Smith’ or ‘Brown’.

When I was around 8 years old, Saturday mornings was Chinese school, and I remember feeling resentment and hate when Saturday rolled around and I was so ashamed of even being associated with anything “Chinese”. I remember telling my fellow classmates back then that I was doing some sports program on Saturday mornings.

So you can see how far my relationship with my identity has come from full on hate and resentment to full pride now.
You actively improved your Chinese language skills over the last few years. Do you feel like language is a big factor to your feeling of closeness to your Asian identity?
Absolutely! Being Australian-born, we are disconnected in many ways from our own cultural background and we feel like perpetual foreigners in Australia. Despite Australia being the country and life we only know of, it is sad that many of us feel disconnected and othered. A lot of that is due to the fact we are and look Asian and hence we are different from what the ‘majority’ or Australia looks like. Learning our Asian mother tongues is a tangible connection to our cultural identity and in many ways provides us with some type of belonging and feel that we fit into Asian society.

For me, being able to speak Mandarin fluently and being able to conversationally speak Cantonese and Hokkien, has allowed me to have a deeper relationship with my Malaysian Chinese identity and I have been able to learn a lot about Chinese people in Asia through being able to converse in Chinese.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
For me it was the first time I visited China back in 2008. I went there for a conference which invited Chinese people from all over the world to see the growth of China and how far they have developed. To be able to attend, you needed to be nominated by the consulate in your city. In some ways it may have been considered a ‘propaganda’ conference of sorts, but for me this was the starting point in really and truly falling in love with being Chinese and wanting to explore this more.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
For me it would be any type of dumplings cooked in any way and my ultimate favourite food is Assam and/or Penang Laksa.
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
Daphne Lowe Kelley who is a renowned Chinese Australian leader. She’s the most inspiring person to me because of how much she has done for the community in advocacy and in history. She has founded many organisations and was the main founder for MOCA (Museum of Chinese Australia)