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Race and the Modern Exotic: Three ‘Australian’ Women on Global Display


This book has told the stories of three women who were Australian by birth or pretence, and whose careers on the stage and the screen fused ideas of ‘Australianness’ with celebrity and changing ideas of femininity. In each case, there was also a particular ‘other’ racial or ethnic identity linked to Australianness through imagery, representation, gossip or cultural anxiety. Kellerman, Quong and Oberon’s stories allow us to see how white Australianness was formed against multiple, particular forms of racial otherness. They show just how slippery racial identities were, and how complicated and active racial thinking was. These women’s careers reveal too how curious Australian and wider audiences were about racial ‘others’, as well as how astutely they understood the dangers of being relegated to a racial identity below the status of white. If being properly Australian meant being ‘white’, that superior status could be best understood through its opposition to other specific forms.

Kellerman, Quong and Oberon’s careers were each quite distinct as well as chronologically sequential, yet they shared some commonalities. Kellerman and Quong established their careers through live performance, in Kellerman’s case moving from performance swimming and diving to vaudeville, and in Quong’s moving from elocution competitions to repertory theatre and finally the West End. All three appeared in films, though in Quong’s case this was a minor film at the end of her life, while Kellerman was one of the international silent film stars of the 1910s, and Oberon one of the most successful movie stars of the twentieth century. Both Quong and Oberon played roles opposite Laurence Olivier, in each case marking a high point of their careers. Kellerman and Quong both published books, using these publications to support their performance careers.

Kellerman represented feminine modernity through her extreme physical fitness and brazen bodily display, becoming such an icon that she was represented in American and Japanese literature as the ideal modern woman. Internationally, she exemplified the Australian woman’s fitness and daring. Her stunning physical feats were perfectly in tune with the sensationalism and melodrama that shaped theatre and cinema in the century’s first decades.1 Quong used her body too, but as the basis for her second career as a performer and interpreter of Chinese culture, invoking her body as the signifier of her Chinese authenticity despite her Australian birth, upbringing and nationality. Quong represented the modern through her career as a cultural interpreter between East and West, as well as challenging traditional assumptions that Chinese intellectuals were exclusively men. Oberon used her body and her face as her passport to film stardom, enabled by contemporary ideals of feminine beauty. She epitomised feminine modernity by attaining celebrity and being seen as glamorous. The necessity to prove her whiteness and obscure her origins was the imperative behind her pretence to be Tasmanian, yet her claims to whiteness were continually shadowed by gossip about her being Anglo-Indian.

Despite the various forms their careers took, it is no coincidence that the three women studied here were performers. Public performance, theatre and film were at the heart of urban modernity around the world. The multiple forms of live performance (vaudeville, cabaret, nightclubs as well as theatre) proliferated along with industrialization, commerce and modern urban life. Recent research has helped us to see the transnational reach and mobility of performers in various forms of theatre even before the rise of film, and has especially revealed the racial and ethnic mix of workers in theatre, music, dance and film. Women claimed respectable careers in various performance fields from the late nineteenth century onwards, even as many of them lived on marginal incomes in chorus lines and other low-status roles. As Jayna Brown argues, the fast-moving and racially-mixed nature of popular theatre meant that the messages presented by performers and received by audiences were open to all kinds of innuendo and multiple readings. Because race itself was often a matter of interpretation and performance, with blackface and other genres of racial mimicry both widespread and popular, theatre was one of the main arenas for racial jokes and satire.2 Audiences understood that theatre and film could present racial slurs and hidden meanings. Because women performers were seen as especially modern, recognisable women actors on both stage and screen embodied both changing ideas of gender and the illusory possibilities of race.

Considering Kellerman, Quong and Oberon’s careers together is a useful way to see the span of racial and ethnic ‘others’ with which Australianness was entangled in popular culture. Even before its inception as a nation in 1901, Australia’s geopolitical location was based on being a developed Western state and a dominion of the British Empire in the Asia-Pacific region. Through its status within the British Empire, by the early twentieth century Australia had become a regional imperial power, not only as the superior partner to New Zealand, but through its colonial relationships with New Guinea and multiple Pacific islands. Moreover, islanders had constituted a major labour force in the late nineteenth century sugar industry in Queensland, and descendants of islanders still lived there despite the suppression of the indentured labour system. ‘South Sea Islanders’ were one of the pervasive racial stereotypes of Australian culture, even more than in other parts of the Western world.

The early twentieth century also represented the strongest immigration barriers against the Chinese in Australia, and the lowest level of Chinese presence here from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The need to exclude the ‘yellow peril’ was the oft-cited reason for the White Australia policy itself. Being Chinese and Australian at once was a difficult juggling act in this period; Quong’s decision to leave Australia was based on her desire for a career in London, but it reflected the exodus of other Chinese-Australians. Indians too were kept at bay by the White Australia policy. In late-colonial India, Anglo-Indians were a subordinated community marginalised by both the British and Indians. While in the nineteenth century the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ had meant the British resident in India, by the 1910s it shifted to mean those of mixed British and Indian parentage. Eugenics was at its height as an influential pseudo-science in the first half of the twentieth century, stipulating that races should not mix and that cross-breeding led to genetic weaknesses. Miscegenation was supposedly prohibited in a range of European colonies, and mixed-race children were removed from their mothers in Australia as in other places. In such a climate, Anglo-Indians were unwelcome in Australia and discriminated against elsewhere. Yet, like South Sea Islanders and the Chinese, they could represent the allure of the exotic.

Kellerman’s career provides us with particular insight into Australian culture from the turn of the twentieth century to the 1920s, and it is this period on which Chapter One focusses. But she did not disappear from Australian or global view; rather, her fame was such that she remained a public figure for much of her life. In the 1920s, besides performing in Europe and touring the US, Kellerman returned over several years to perform at the New York Hippodrome, with conductor John Phillip Sousa, ‘the Hippodrome stage provid[ing] a vast aquatic setting for Annette Kellermann “and her 200 mermaids”’.3 In September 1925, the Hippodrome advertised Kellerman’s ‘farewell New York appearances’, noting that her ‘return has occasioned unusual interest’.4 In September 1926, the London Coliseum presented her in a varied program not unlike her 1921–22 Australasian tour, and billed her as: ‘The International Star of Stage and Screen from the New York Hippodrome. Foremost Exponent of Physical Culture, in a Spectacle of Novel and Sensational Acts’.5 She again toured in Europe, performing in Berlin, Copenhagen, Sweden and Holland, and in the northern summer of 1928 she taught a physical culture course on the beaches of Deauville and Dinard in France.6 After gradually retiring from vaudeville, Kellerman’s life revolved around health and fitness. She developed her expertise on physical culture, even lecturing at the University of Southern California in September 1924 and writing health articles for the The Los Angeles Times in 1925.7 From 1919, she increasingly spent time in southern California. In 1924 she came second in a tennis tournament in Los Angeles, and in the 1930s she was known to have taken up golf.8 In 1924–25, she was involved in the establishment of a country club and estate in northern Los Angeles, advertised as a unique venture aimed at helping women and girls to health and fitness.9 However, it went sour, and Kellerman ended up suing the company, Annette Kellermann Rancho Realty, for wrongful use of her name.10

Even in 1930 she was still represented as shocking, through wearing an early version of what would become known as the bikini.11 For decades, she maintained a public profile in both America and Australia, taking organisational and lead roles at charitable and special events that had swimming themes; her charitable work began early in her career, when it included support for disabled children, perhaps because of her own early disability. Kellerman continued her film work beyond her vaudeville career. In 1936 she took to the US several ‘swimologue’ films she and her husband Jimmy Sullivan had shot on Pandanus Island, on the Great Barrier Reef. Apparently they were not terribly successful, perhaps because, according to one reviewer, the plot of at least one was rather unclear, with Kellerman playing both a mermaid and a sea nymph who kidnaps the mermaid’s ‘waterbaby’.12 Even then, she was still peddling her signature South Sea Islander and mermaid themes.

In 1939 Kellerman and Sullivan settled on Newry Island in Queensland, but when World War II erupted they moved to Sydney, where she organised large fundraising events for the Red Cross, as well as entertaining troops. Kellerman’s patriotism extended to writing a song titled ‘We’re All In It!’ for one of her fundraising shows, with lyrics including: ‘The Aussies came from Gundagai, Murrumbidgee and from Mudgee; They also came from Bundaberg, Yarrawonga and from Widgee’.13 Kellerman trained troupes of young women to swim and dance for these wartime reviews, as well as performing in them herself. After the war, she and Sullivan moved to California, where Kellerman had a house in Pacific Palisades. During this period she owned a health food store in Long Beach, which she saw as a product of her interest in and study of dietetics (including her vegetarianism). In 1959 they returned finally to live in Australia, briefly in Mosman, then settling in Southport, Queensland, where she died in November 1975 at the age of 89. Even in the last years of her life, Kellerman was reported to swim every day, still the energetic mermaid.

Fittingly, Kellerman is memorialised in Australia today through two swimming pools in Sydney: the Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre in Enmore Park run by the Marrickville Council, and the eight Annette Kellerman murals painted by artist Wendy Sharpe at the Cook+Phillip Park pool in East Sydney. Kellerman was also the subject of an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney from December 2005 to March 2006, and another at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2011.

The story of Rose Quong sheds light on Australia particularly in the 1910s and 1920s, while further illuminating the scale and dynamics of the Australian community in London in the 1920s and 1930s. From the late 1930s onwards, Quong largely disappeared from Australian view, despite maintaining close connections with her siblings in Australia, and likely maintaining some correspondence with Australian friends. Despite the growing attraction of New York as an alternate metropole to London, the individual careers of Australians there were much less visible in a culture still oriented toward Britain by the legacies of colonial ties. The writings and activities of Australia’s cultural elite who fled to London in the post-World War II decades were followed, even if with criticism and derision, while those in the United States were not until much later, despite successes such as the books Quong published with Pantheon. Her relative lack of visibility, of course, was also related to the fact that her level of success was much lower than that of either Kellerman or Oberon. While she continued to perform her solo shows of Chinese culture, and to give public lectures, she was not a celebrity of the same order. Perhaps too most Australians found her Chineseness an obstacle to their identifying with her, in a period when Chineseness and Australianness were viewed as antithetical.

Her remarkable longevity extended to being cast as herself, Rose Quong, venerable Chinese astrologer, in the offbeat Warner Brothers and Canadian film Eliza’s Horoscope shot in Montreal between 1970 and 1974. By the time the film was completed, Quong had died in 1972 at age 93; not surprisingly, in the film she appears very elderly as well as pale. The film, which starred Tommy Lee Jones and is somewhat surrealistic, was reviewed in the The Los Angeles Times on 15 June 1977 when it screened in that city as part of a Quebec film series. The reviewer called it ‘a boldly assertive and original work in which the creative imagination and the social conscience are joined in a way you seldom see’.14 The film seems to have been distributed in 1976 and 1977, and to have received a fair amount of attention in Canada. But it seems not to have been reviewed by the Australian press, and, unlike Kellerman and Oberon, Quong received no obituaries in Australia.

Merle Oberon’s story gives us considerable insight into anxieties about racial mixing in Australia in the 1930s, and the concerns which the widely-used term ‘exotic’ masked. Chapter Three focusses especially on the 1930s because the years in which Oberon was becoming known allow us to see how Australians reacted to this new celebrity, who pretended to be one of their own but in fact had never been here. Australians have continued to claim Oberon up unto the present, with diehard believers in Tasmania still maintaining the mythology of her birth to Chinese hotel worker Lottie Chintock. Oberon’s imagined Australianness has been maintained by a variety of other sources as well. Who’s Who in Australia listed Oberon, citing her Tasmanian birth, from at least the 1950 edition until 1977.15 When Oberon died in November 1979, her obituary in The Times (London) stated that she was born ‘in Tasmania on February 19, 1911 and educated in India’, and Variety Obituaries published the same claim as late as 1988.16

For her part, Merle Oberon maintained till her dying day the fiction that she had been born and spent her first years in Tasmania, and was thus ‘Australian’. It must have been stressful and awkward for her to carry out this pretence, as she did on a variety of occasions. During World War II, for example, Oberon served as one of the hosts at a garden party in Encino, California, to raise money for the Australian War Relief Fund. The event included games supposedly popular in Australia, as well as ‘a special Anzac barbecue’.17 Had anyone attending asked Oberon for her reminiscences of Australia, or commentary on Australian culture, she would have had to be inventive in reply.

In 1965 Oberon came to Australia for the first time in her life, at the invitation of Qantas airlines to be on its inaugural flight from Mexico. Undoubtedly tired after the long flight, apparently Oberon was dismayed to find a pack of reporters waiting to greet her at 7.30 a.m., full of questions about her birth and childhood in Tasmania. Rather than sticking to the studio-publicity full script of her supposed origins, she uneasily presented a new version. The reporters were, apparently, taken aback. The Sydney Morning Herald commented: ‘with as incisive and final a blow as that which ended her first big starring role – Anne Boleyn in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” – she stated bluntly that her birth there “was just a coincidence”’.18 The Adelaide Advertiser quoted her as saying: ‘Both my parents were English and they just happened to be visiting Tasmania as tourists when I was born…. As soon as my mother was well enough to travel, my parents took me to India where I lived until I was 14. My parents and I then returned to England where I eventually broke into films’.19 According to The Age, she diplomatically added: ‘But I still have strong sentimental attachments, and in any case I believe Tasmania is such a pretty place’.20 At a dinner in her honour, she told journalist David McNicoll conflicting stories about whether or not she had ever been to Hobart. Charles Higham interviewed her at the Menzies Hotel during her visit; she told him she was unwell, seemed distracted and frightened, and did not respond to questions about her childhood. Oberon briefly visited Canberra as part of the trip. She had a quick tour of the city, spoke to reporters (commenting that ‘Australia is very like England…. Not the colours of course, but the warmth of the people and your accents. Oh, they sound so English to my ear’), but because she was ‘not well’, she apparently did not attend a luncheon arranged for her at University House, and returned to Sydney on the same plane.21 She flew back to Mexico after only 72 hours in Australia.22

Her biographers Higham and Moseley report that in the mid-1970s Oberon came to Australia for a second time. It was a brief private visit with her fourth husband, Dutch actor Robert Wolders, who was about 25 years her junior, while they were on a cruise of the South Pacific. In 1978, Oberon made a third trip to Australia – at the invitation to appear at the Sammy awards, Australia’s annual film awards ceremony, in Sydney.

Prior to Oberon’s visit, The Daily Telegraph managed to catch an interview with her in New York. According to the reporter, Oberon was ‘bubbling with an almost schoolgirlish enthusiasm over her visit to Australia’, and full of questions about what she should expect in the way of the journey and the weather. She confided that: ‘I was really tiny when I left Tasmania, about one I think, but the people there feel I’m Tasmanian and that I belong … It’s very sweet and I like that’.23 Again, she was accompanied on the trip by Wolders, who told her biographers in retrospect that he did not understand why she agreed to go. At the time, he believed she had been born in Australia; he only learned the truth after her death. He recalled that she was upset from the time they arrived in Sydney; that she had fits of weeping, and did a poor job of presenting the Sammy awards. The Lord Mayor of Hobart extended an invitation to Oberon to add a trip there to her itinerary, organising a reception for her at the town hall. Oberon attended the reception, and, according to Wolders actually began a speech referring to her childhood, before breaking down and apparently fainting. Higham and Moseley report that, prior to Oberon and Wolders’s arrival in Hobart, the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages had discovered that there was no record of her birth in Tasmania, and that everyone at the ceremony other than Wolders knew this.24

In Hobart, Oberon and Wolders stayed at the Wrest Point Hotel, where one night Oberon judged the 1979 Miss Tasmania Quest. Reportedly, the hotel received multiple phone messages from people claiming they remembered her from her childhood at St. Helens and in Hobart. During her brief visit, Oberon agreed to be interviewed on radio, by broadcaster Edyth Langham on a program of celebrity interviews. Langham later recalled how exciting it was to interview Oberon, in the Lady Mayoress’s room at the Town Hall, and that Oberon ‘was exquisite’, ‘dressed in powder blue and these wonderful cheekbones’. Langham was convinced of Oberon’s Tasmanian birth in St. Helen’s to Lottie Chintock, and her interview with Oberon, whom she found ‘very fascinating’, did nothing to contradict that belief.25 Yet, according to one writer, Oberon told the driver who took her from her hotel to the town hall that she was not born in Tasmania, that she was born in India.26 The Tasmanian visit was so stressful that, soon after her return to California, she collapsed, at the beginning of what would be her final bout of ill-health.

From the 1970s, Australia began to define itself as a ‘multicultural’ nation, to accept the presence of non-British cultures as part of what was newly seen as a national mix.27 Even during the seven decades of White Australia, constructions of whiteness were anything but fixed or simple – despite the fact that, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues, they were ‘central to the racial formation of Australian society’.28 Australians negotiated their racial identities on local, national and global levels. What it meant to be ‘white’ was articulated in the arena of popular culture at least as much as in the law. Australians asserted their whiteness through social behaviour, language, attitudes, jokes, and visual imagery, both drawing on and contributing to national and transnational culture and practices. As a recent collection on Australian vernacular modernities argues, America and the British Empire were dominant sources of the books, magazines and films Australians consumed, but we need to see the particular and original contributions Australia made to globally-circulating cultural forms.29 Whiteness was constructed through hierarchical thinking in which Anglo-Saxons and other northern Europeans were understood as superior to other races. Australians’ sense of themselves as white, therefore, was expressed in relation to perceptions of other ‘races’, including South Sea Islanders, Chinese and Indians. The popular culture of the first half of the twentieth century incorporated racial representations that assumed hierarchies of race. Messages about racial characteristics and racial order suffused cultural forms from literature to advertising.

In the same period, technologies of culture changed rapidly, with film overtaking live theatre in popularity, radio becoming an important medium, and television emerging. Just as racial thinking permeated print media, radio, theatre and film, so did rapidly changing notions of respectable femininity. White Australian women were among the first in the world to be enfranchised, beginning with South Australia in 1894, then on a national basis from 1902. In political and other ways, Australian women asserted themselves as particularly modern, socially progressive, bold and physically fit. Gender became entwined with race in evolving definitions of what it meant to be ‘Australian’. Live theatre and film, therefore, were not merely idle leisure pursuits, but media through which Australian and other audiences grappled with changing social meanings, identities and behaviours. Accessible to a range of social classes in both cities and country towns, theatre and film constituted an influential cultural canvas. The stars of theatrical and movie productions thus became household names, whose facial and bodily images were widely recognised. Women in particular read about celebrities in the women’s and gossip magazines that were part of everyday life, and which featured stories about each of Kellerman, Quong and Oberon during the years of their greatest recognition.

Australia was White by both immigration policy and self-conception from 1901 to the 1960s. This racial order correlated with other parts of the world, ranging from the American South to South Africa, where the first half of the twentieth century saw either the full entrenchment of white supremacist systems begun in the nineteenth century (such as Jim Crow), or the genesis of systems that would not be demolished until the end of the twentieth (such as Apartheid). Yet we are only beginning to grapple with the social and cultural meanings of Australians’ attachment to whiteness from the late nineteenth century onwards. There is a growing body of scholarship uncovering the stories of Aboriginal Australians’ exclusion and subordination legally, socially and culturally. To comprehend fully the racial thinking that saturated Australian culture we need to look not only at the plight of Indigenous people, though that is crucial, but also at the self-conception of those who saw themselves as constituting the nation. Kellerman, Quong and Oberon help us to see how Australian celebrities, especially modern women performers, embodied the cultural fascination with racial types.

1 Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

2 Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 6.

3 ‘Chas. B. Dillingham Dead at Age of 66’, The New York Times 31 August 1934, p. 17.

4 Program for Keith-Albee’s New York Hippodrome, Ephemera Collection, Petherick Reading Room, National Library of Australia.

5 Programme from the London Coliseum for week commencing 20 September 1926, Ephemera Collection, Petherick Reading Room, National Library of Australia.

6 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3;’Women in the World’, The Australian Woman’s Mirror 24 December 1928, p. 20.

7 ‘Kellerman to Talk’, The Los Angeles Times 22 September 1924; ‘Care of the Body, The Los Angeles Times 3 May 1925.

8 Photos, The New York Times 6 April 1924, p. RP3; Golf advertisement, The New York Times 7 June 1937, p. 38.

9 The Los Angeles Times 26 October 1924; 4 January 1925; 6 January 1925; 11 January 1925.

10 ‘Mermaid Queen Seeks Damages’, The Los Angeles Times 15 May 1925; ‘Kellerman Row is Aired’, The Los Angeles Times 17 May 1925; ‘Details of Kellerman Club Aired’, The Los Angeles Times 29 May 1925; ‘Miss Kellerman is Quizzed’, The Los Angeles Times 17 June 1925; ‘Annette Kellermann Sues Club’, The New York Times 16 May 1925, p. 19.

11 ‘Styles for Beach will be Scanty’, The Los Angeles Times 19 October 1930.

12 ‘Film Gossip of the Week’, The New York Times 26 April 1936, p. X3.

13 I am grateful to Georgine Clarsen for the copy of the musical score of ‘We’re All In It!’

14 Charles Champlin, ‘Movie Review: Eliza’s Rocky Horoscope Show’, The Los Angeles Times 15 June 1977, p. G22.

15 ‘Oberon, Merle’, Who’s Who in Australia 14th edition (Melbourne: The Herald, 1950), p. 543.

16 ‘Obituary: Miss Merle Oberon; Notable beauty of the screen’, The Times 26 November 1979, p. 14; ‘Merle Oberon Dies At 68’, Variety Obituaries Vol. 8, 1975–1979 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988), entry for 28 November 1979.

17 ‘Garden Party Aids Australian Relief’, The Los Angeles Times 11 August 1941, p. A6.

18 ‘Miss Oberon Ends Some Old Illusions’, The Sydney Morning Herald 19 January 1965.

19 ‘Star To Visit Birthplace’, The Advertiser 19 January 1965.

20 ‘Starts Sentimental Visit to Birthplace’, The Age 19 January 1965.

21 ‘Film Star Visits Canberra’, The Canberra Times 20 January 1965.

22 Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1983), pp. 242–43.

23 Andrew McKay, ‘Merle’s out of the rat race’, The Daily Telegraph 7 October 1978, p. 19.

24 Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, pp. 291–92.

25 Edyth Langham interviewed by Gwen Emden, 11 September 1996, Oral History No. 305115, National Film and Sound Archive.

26 Nicholas Shakespeare, In Tasmania (London: The Harrill Press, 2004), pp. 299–301.

27 The term ‘multicultural’ was officially adopted in 1973. James Jupp, Understanding Australian Multiculturalism (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1996), p. 7.

28 Aileen Moreton-Robinson (ed.), Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005), p. ix.

29 Robert Dixon and Veronica Kelly (eds.), Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s-1960s (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2008), pp. xvii-xix.

Race and the Modern Exotic: Three ‘Australian’ Women on Global Display

   by Angela Woollacott