Shopping for souvenirs in Cairns – a world away from the nearest koala, emu or sheep.
I enjoyed reading a piece by Nick Bryant on Australia’s national identity and how it has been misshapen through our self-reflective cliches. The way we call ourselves ‘Down Under’ to Americans is cited as one example of how we tend to belittle ourselves. (I would add that our failure to put Americans in their place when they use the term also shows a tendency to ignore our success and pride.)
Nick’s article included this paragraph to help explain our fond attachment to phrases most of us don’t even like or use …
…as the database at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra reveals, “She’ll be right” gets at least two outings a week in Australian newspapers, while “Tall Poppy Syndrome” has been a weekly fixture for years. As the Centre’s director, Sarah Ogilvie, notes: “People are still using phrases which to an outsider seem anachronistic.”
Nick is a talented journalist whose biography shows he has moved regularly during his time as a foreign correspondent. Nick’s decision to stay in Australia since 2006 shows, I believe, his admiration for our country, plus some sense of hope in our future. If you thought our best years were behind us, you wouldn’t move here. You would just visit, grab some souvenirs, then head home to where you belong, right?
I have just returned from a week in Cairns, in Far North Queensland, where the souvenirs tend to define a city having its own identity crisis. Stifling nostalgia is passed off as a historical discovery tour. Surreal caricatures of our fauna trivialise any natural beauty that lies outside our cities. If you subscribe to my Facebook Feed, you would have seen my gallery of the region’s eclectic architecture and other oddities but neither of those begin to explain the schizophrenia Cairns suffers trying to balance as a home for locals and as an international tourist destination.
As Cairns tries to position itself as the first stop for Asian visitors to our shores – something record airport arrivals would suggest it is doing very well – what greets visitors is a parade of tackiness and a clichéd approach to our emblems, wildlife and culture that presents an Australia unchanged since the 1960s.
Here is what confronted me on my first wander through the town centre; Opals, Ugg boots, koala backpacks and, for when you feel peckish… emu jerky.
Which of these resonates the most with your knowledge or concept of Australia?
Opal shop owners are doing us all a disservice. The romanticised depiction of a man down a mine grabbing a precious stone has kept Sydney’s The Rocks alive for much too long. It’s a tragedy that Cairns is going the same dusty, irrelevant way. Few Australians will ever head to Coober Pedy, and just because even fewer tourists will, doesn’t mean we should shovel such a flawed idea of mining down their bejeweled throats. Yes, we are the world’s largest producer of opal – being responsible for 95% of production – but most of it comes to us not by a rugged man in King Gees and a torch-helmet but like this…
…especially the opals coming out of Queensland.
Ugg boots are a peculiar fashion statement, at best. Wearing Ugg boots in Cairns – as I am told people do when the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celcius – is truly gormless. Trotting out Uggs and sheepskin rugs is also a quaint throwback to an age before polarfleece and cotton blends, when we were all wrapped in wool because there was a shearing shed down the road. But the fantasy must stop that put Australia forward as a sheepish, agricultural economy built on grazing animals for which the export market is rapidly dwindling just as the our ownership of the word ‘Ugg’ is under threat.
No Australian would think of skinning a koala, let alone wearing one on our back. The myth of the ‘Koala Bear’ should really have died off along with Matilda, the winking kangaroo inexplicably wheeled out at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982. Let’s be honest with our tourists – most people who manage to see a koala find it snoring and if they choose to hug one of the heavily clawed, disinterested beasts, they had better not be in NSW or Victoria where it is illegal in Victoria for anyone other than a Koala’s handler to hold them.
As for emu jerky…
There could be no more superficial Americanisation of Australian wildlife as this. Jerky is a US fascination and employing our national emblems to enjoy a salted chewy treat makes me sick for all number of untreatable reasons.
Cairns used to see most of its tourists arrive from Japan, however China and Germany are now the biggest contributors to the local tourism industry, no doubt due to the relative strength of those two nations. I was surprised to hear German used as the second language after English to give instructions on the Scenic Kuranda Railway. Likewise, many signs in the town centre are also displayed in Chinese. The local paper, the Cairns Post, reports peak tourism bodies are striving to bring Chinese flights direct into Cairns which would send arrivals from our biggest export market into the tens of thousands per year.
So far, the nation we feel safest putting forward is still tied to the outback and way out-of-touch.
Will we present the world with a decades-old view of our nation’s brightest points; one of a dusty rural paradise where so few drovers actually roam and precious few miners dig for opals by hand, or will it be one that shows off our colours, talent and enthusiasm for life, exhibited in our stunning capital cities and across countless regional centres each with their own appeal? Let’s promote the brands and outfits we stand by, the artists and home-grown designers we know by name. Let’s leave The Kens behind. Ken Duncan and Ken Done, your time has past. Our tourism has become entrenched in a dated value system that elevates our strange marsupials and landscapes above our achievements as a wealthy, warm people who have accepted millions of migrants, built glorious cities, a diverse society and a robust national economy and we will happily share our glorious nature with anyone who visits. We will even let some of them stay.