“a man of contradictions”
I thought I should probably get the ball rolling with the whole article posting thing. Last semester, I did a subject called Feature Writing. As much as I tried to hate it, like various other university subjects, I found myself falling in love with it. Having only done straight news writing stories the year before, where all your creative juices effectively dried out as we learnt to write in ‘simple’ English, this subject was a refreshing and welcome change. But enough about that.
This profile I did on Michael Choi has quite the back story. This particular assessment was due two weeks after the state elections. Being the worry wort that I am, I set up the interview nice and early, but Michael didn’t want to be interviewed until after the election. So there I was, doing all my research like a good journalism student. In my mind, I was already structuring the story around him as a politician. Fast forward to the day of the election, and my story abruptly crumbles. However, I think the events of that day paved the way for what ended up being the better story.
It’s 2:30pm, and a gentle breeze is lazily making its way from the ocean just down the road. The sun’s rays gently caress the skin of those outside to enjoy the beautiful autumn afternoon. It’s a day that most, it’s safe to say, are glad to see arrive; not for the weather, but for the end of the ceaseless election talk. A sea of red, blue and green volunteers buzz about the polling booths with their placards and flyers. It’s been a painstakingly slow day at the Thorneside Uniting Church booth, though the sight of fresh voters gets everyone’s veins pumping. A car pulls up to the curb. A balding, 53-year-old man wearing a bright red polo shirt and black pants steps out. Upon closer inspection the red polo is, in fact, shameless self-promotion on the man’s part. “Michael Choi for Capalaba.”
At first glance, Choi looks every bit the typical candidate. He chats to volunteers from other parties. He helps the elderly out of their cars and back in again. He is smiles all around. However, like his red polo shirt, there’s more to this Birkdale local than meets the eye. He’s a politician. Asian. Christian. Father. Australian. It doesn’t seem like a combination that works. Choi is living proof it does.
An hour later, Choi has long since gone to other booths, but his face remains plastered on placards all over the lawn. In an electorate where three in every four people are Australian-born, Choi’s face sticks out like a sore thumb amongst his Anglo competitors. Himself a migrant, he moved to Australia from Hong Kong when he was 17 after the White Australia Policy was demolished, his dad seeking a fresh start after the death of his mother. In fact, it was his ethnicity that led him to politics. “I was really unnerved – alarmed, in fact – because of some of the things that Hanson said in her maiden speech targeting Asians,” he says.
That’s Pauline Hanson, the one-time leader of the One Nation party, with that speech in 1992 where she delivered that infamous line: “I believe we are being swamped by Asians.” The speech, also targeting other ethnicities, resulted in abusive comments to ethnic communities that hit the University of Queensland engineering graduate – and former welder apprentice-cum-factory worker-cum-businessman – hard. He joined a community group against stereotypical racist comments and, when the opportunity came along, put his hand up to join the political game. In doing so, he became the first Asian elected into Queensland Parliament.
Despite having lived here a long time, he still carries a lot of Chinese culture with him. His cultural understanding of things might be a bit different to his prominently born-and-bred electorate, though he sees that as a positive attribute. “In a multicultural community like ours, it’s good to have different people, different aspects and different views.” Nevertheless, regardless of physical appearances, he considers himself an Aussie now. “The longer I’m here, the less Chinese I am.” However, he can’t seem to shake his bitter feelings towards the past. Even now, 20 years on, his Vote One flyers carry in tiny print: “Do not give preference towards One Nation or any of its candidates.”
The clock strikes 6:30pm, and two of Choi’s daughters, Priscilla, 22, and Rachel, 20, arrive at his electorate office, only to find the door locked. They’ve also spent the day on the campaign front. One of Choi’s assistants jumps up to let them in, wondering aloud who locked the door. They walk into his office, past a pin board overflowing with photos of past community events vying for coveted viewing space. Choi sits anxiously behind his desk, shoes off and legs crossed, staring at the small television in front of him. His daughters give him a quick hello and make themselves comfortable on the various couches. The room is silent as they all watch intently, save for the occasional comment about safe Labor seats (“We expected to win that.”) and Katter’s Australian Party (“Seriously?”). The news does not bode well for Choi. Texts and calls keep coming in, and the tension is palpable.
It’s clear that Choi’s choice of career has affected his whole family. Both he and his wife, Doris, worked long hours. As such, the daughter’s childhoods were spent with relatives and nannies. The eldest of the three sisters, Priscilla, doesn’t blame her parents for their lack of presence. “I do wish they were home more, but I’m not bitter about it. They did what they had to do.” Mention his family to Choi though, and a hint of pain underlines his voice. His volume lowers and his gaze turns downwards. One of his biggest regrets? Missing Priscilla’s grade 12 ball. “In this job, we pay a lot of attention to our constituents at the expense of our families.”
The sun has long set. It’s 8pm, and votes are still being tallied. The family makes its way over to the election party. Upon arrival, the mood is less than festive, the cavernous hall accentuating the gloomy atmosphere. Furnishings outnumber the amount of people present. Red and white balloons adorn tables, with chairs that yearn for human touch. A large projector screen in the middle of the room has everyone’s attention. His daughters enter first, announcing Choi’s imminent arrival, slightly animating his supporters. Then he enters. A brief speech, a few grammar mistakes here and there. His voice crackles over the faulty microphone. The somber mood thickens as he acknowledges defeat. He ends his speech with a “God bless” and, despite the overused phrase, he means it.
A Christian politician. It almost sounds like an oxymoron. Yet this was Choi for the 11 years of his political career. Controversial, and unpopular, decisions were made, including his opposition to the Surrogacy Bill and Civil Union Bill proposed by his own Labor Party. His passion is evident as he affirms that this is part and parcel of who he is. “I learnt my compassion from my faith. I learnt my social justice from my faith.” He asks, in a voice that invokes a challenges, should he not have these qualities when he walks into Parliament?
Choi has even given a few sermons, some at the Capalaba Community Church of the Nazarene. Steve Walsh, senior pastor at the church, doesn’t always agree with his choices, but commends his character. “He’s good at trying to balance his faith with what’s ‘real’ – the real situation.”
Three days later, the mood in his erstwhile office is depressing. The once overflowing pin board now lies plain and bare, stripped of all personality. A solitary notice remains. “Please feel free to take,” an arrow pointing towards the packed, wrapped and packaged items lying desolate on the ground. Choi is still grasping the reality of the situation, his slow movements and slightly forced smile betraying his objections. What’s next for him? “No idea. Ask me in three years time and I’ll be able to tell you.” If history is anything to go by, great things are in store.