Driven by diversity

By Sean Car

First-term City of Melbourne councillor Jason Chang said he was driven onto the council by a desperate need to give a greater voice to the city’s Asian community.

The 35-year-old, who owns the prominent Calia Emporium on Lonsdale St, said that while the pandemic had been challenging for all of Melbourne, it had too often been compounded by vitriol and racism towards the Asian community. 

As a proud born and bred Melburnian, Cr Chang told CBD News that the treatment he had often personally received just by walking the streets at times had been particularly difficult to endure given his love for his city.  

His family’s journey in Melbourne is yet another success story for multiculturalism. Having migrated to Australia via Fiji in the 1960s, his father, who passed away when Jason was just 12 years old, made his living as a fruit and veg trader at the Queen Victoria Market, while his mother has worked at the Ear and Eye Hospital in East Melbourne for 35 years. His family also originally ran grocery stores in Chinatown, as well as a Chinese restaurant on Acland St in St Kilda where Jason was first exposed to small business in the city. 

Now a new father himself and the owner of five Calia “restaurant-to-retail” businesses located at Emporium, Chadstone, Kuala Lumpur and soon Jakarta, the addition of City of Melbourne councillor is sure to set a new standard in juggling!

But as a passionate Melburnian and member of the Asian community, he said he wasn’t motivated by politics but only a desire to represent the community and restore values of multiculturalism and equality back in the city after COVID.  

“My dad and my mum taught me to give back to the community,” he said. “The pandemic has shaped us all in what we can do to give back and that’s the focus of what I want to do for four years on council.”

“I see the suffering that the Asian community is going through right now. A lot come to me and tell me that there are so many issues, some business owners tell me their staff have been pushed to the ground just for being Asian and they come to work upset and crying.”

“Unfortunately, some people are blaming us for the virus right now but it’s not right. The City of Melbourne is more than 30 per cent Asian. It’s a great thing to celebrate multiculturalism here in the city and that’s what we’re made of. People forget that sometimes.”

“The pandemic pushed me to run for election because small business owners, a lot of them are immigrants who have invested their life savings and spent all their money to open a business to give their kids a better life and for these four years. I want to do my best to represent them. I want to show the community that all immigrants, not just Asians, have contributed greatly. I want to give them some hope.”

Having been elected via former Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood’s ticket at last year’s local government elections, Cr Chang is one of six new faces on the council alongside Crs Jamal Hakim, Elizabeth Doidge, Davydd Griffiths, Roshena Campbell and Olivia Ball. 

He said that while he was still very much “learning the ropes”, the new council was a “young” and “refreshing” team of individuals. Echoing the words of Cr Hakim in February’s Councillor Profile, “soft on people, hard on issues” is the approach Cr Chang said was shared among his colleagues. 

And another issue he was personally passionate about in addition to helping the city’s small businesses and night-time economy was the gaping hole left in the city by international students. 

During the height of last year’s second wave of coronavirus in Victoria, his business at Emporium, which employed more than 100 staff, had supported many students through employment, as well as outreach with groceries, masks and sanitiser. 

But underpinning all of it, he said it was time for equal representation of migrant communities and businesses in the city and he would be “giving a voice” to the new generation of residents, students and start-ups. 

“The Asian community is known as the ‘model minority’,” he said. 

“The issue that I found as an Asian business is that we don’t get the publicity of a lot of Caucasian businesses. The election sort of helped me get more profile for the community and for Asian business owners as well and I think that was the most important thing for me was to provide that hope and confidence.”

“Speaking to a lot of small business owners last year they just didn’t know what to do and a lot were closing. A lot were depressed, even contemplating suicide. You think ‘how can I help them?’ because they couldn’t make ends meet.”

“I’ve got four years and I’m happy to do one term and represent the community to the best of my ability. I’ve got four years to do what I can.” •

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