“We simply get ignored, usually because of the stereotype; we’re small, petite, we’re often viewed – undeservedly and unjustifiably so – as subservient, submissive, quiet, that we don’t really have a voice, we just sit there and work. I’m hoping to change this as the reality couldn’t be more different.”
Cheri Ong is the embodiment of that reality, but the burden of the stereotype is hard to shrug off, even for educated, accomplished Asian Australian women.
“Often they have views they want to express and they do want to contribute but since they are not given the opportunity, it can be easier to remain silent. Or if they try there is a combination of absolute surprise – “Oh you talk!” – or the weight of what they say doesn’t mean much. If that happens often enough, you choose the path of least resistance.”
Ong hopes her collective giving initiative The Gathering Circle will help alter this path.
“Part of The Gathering Circle is bringing women together to help them practice what they can give back. Hopefully in a safe environment so they can soon come out of their self-imposed shell.
“The tagline is ‘Empowering women in true giving’. It’s not a message of victimisation. I want to crash that stereotype that Asian women are often in the background, victims. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it’s about women empowering women. Even within that section of the community we can do much to empower each other.”
Of course Ong recognises that this is an issue for all women, it’s just that it can be more heightened for Asian women.
“If you get women together, especially in corporate life, how many times do you hear the same stories? You might say something in a meeting and some bloke down the room says the same thing later in the meeting. Everyone says that’s a good idea and you think ‘I just said that!’. That selective hearing, that selective recognition, it’s not different, it’s just more defined because of the stronger stereotype of Asian women as submissive and quiet.”
The members of The Gathering Circle are a combination of Australian born women of Asian descent and Asian-born immigrants. But it would appear there is no nuance in stereotyping.
“I have found anecdotally that even women who are born here they tell me the same stories, which is rather disappointing. But can I say this, perhaps controversially? Stereotyping is not just by men of Asian women – it’s also by other women of Asian women.”
At the time of our conversation, I was taken aback by this revelation. Listening to the recording of our conversation, it’s impact is more powerful. I’m horrified that women I know may feel that way; that they don’t have a voice or that nobody is listening. I’m mortified that they feel other women contribute to the silencing of their voices.
For Cheri Ong’s voice is strong, erudite and funny. Raised in Malaysia, she came to Australia to attend university and never left. She rose through the corporate ranks to become the first Asian Australian woman in the leadership role of chief operating officer for Risk in KPMG Asia Pacific and later as Head of Regulation and Compliance of KPMG in Australia. She sits on the boards of a number of nonprofits and in 2015 she founded the Asian Australian Foundation (AAF), a community organisation designed to bring Asian Australians together to inspire each other and develop a philanthropic presence in Australia. The Gathering Circle is an initiative of the AAF.
“I don’t have a background in philanthropy, it was a bit of a stab in the dark,” says Ong of setting up AAF. “I’m a big believer that leadership is about contributing and giving. For some reason, it seemed to me that a platform of philanthropy that brought the community together was an ideal platform to focus on servicing that leadership.”
Cheri treated the AAF like a start-up, pounding the streets to get it off the ground. For her and the other board members, this was the easy part – their corporate backgrounds meant management and governance came naturally and intuitively. It was the ‘philanthropy’ part that proved more difficult.
“I believe that in the Chinese language there isn’t a similar word to philanthropy as there is in the English language. So while the Chinese may give to charities, philanthropy as long-term impact giving isn’t quite the same. Often the approach to giving is quite transactional: ‘If I give you X, what do I get back?’ Well that’s not really giving is it!? The first time it happened it gave me pause, and I thought hang on!?”
To help change that way of thinking, Ong found an ally and mentor in a member of one of Australia’s great philanthropic families.
“Just by chance I was sitting next to Carrillo Gantner and his wife and we started talking and I shared with him what we had started, and he was really impressed. I thought that his story and his family’s story had a lot to teach us in the Asian community about what philanthropy means and how to live an impactful, giving life as a family tradition. He shared with me his own and his family’s attitudes across generations. As a result he was our first keynote speaker. I think sharing his journey and his family’s journey was a way to change the mindset in the Australian Asian community, and for me personally it opened my eyes to what philanthropy could be.”
The idea of what a philanthropist was or could be also required some rethinking. Many in the community believed that philanthropists had to be very rich and that philanthropy was “for someone else to do”.
“What we are trying to promote is that philanthropy is not just for the super wealthy, it can be the reverse. People who have much less are often the most generous. And if you pool together your resources and your voices you can have a whole lot more impact. It’s not just monetary, often it’s connecting people – it’s other people touching people.”
The Asian mindset that Ong refers to was also an issue with the set up of The Circle of Promise, a giving circle which requires a $1,000 commitment over three years. Even for those that have the capacity, it can be a hard sell, she says. “They say ‘It’s $1,000, it’s a lot of money’, but if you break it down it’s $2.70 a day. How much do you pay for your coffee?” she laughs.
“It’s not a monetary issue, it’s a mindset issue. But once people make the decision it’s a step across the line and they think ‘Okay, it’s not so bad’. They can then see that they are doing something bigger than themselves. It’s our first year so we’ll see if people return in the second year. We’ll see if people read the fine print!”
The AAF now has donors from many different backgrounds and communities, including a significant cohort of young professional Asian Australians. For many it has been an eye-opener, which Ong puts down to “corporate insularity”.
“When you are not out there in the community you are not aware. Many of our members were not aware that members of their own community were dealing with such hardship in terms of getting funds, even for small things like the Myki [Public Transport Victoria] card.”
While they prioritise helping Asian communities, AAF is inclusive in their giving.
“We do try and focus on the Asian community as a priority but that doesn’t mean if there was another child in need we would ignore that child. We go by what the issue is and if the organisation is doing good work. If a particular issue surfaces in the Asian community then that’s even better as not many philanthropic organisations are actually focused on that.”
AAF is based in Melbourne but, unlike many community foundations, AAF is not bound geographically. So far they have granted in Victoria but hope to expand nationally.
For the first couple of years the focus was broad and directed to education, the arts and capacity-building. The AAF sought out organisations such as Western Chances, which helps young people in the western suburbs of Melbourne, an area with a strong Asian community.
Then in 2017, the AAF took a more strategic approach and granted in an area that had personal resonance for one of their donors – mental health – often a taboo subject in the Asian community and consequently underserved.
The Gathering Circle launched last October with an event called Fashion for a Cause. “We’re not afraid to say we like fashion,” laughs Ong.
The fashion show, which raised funds to support peri and postnatal depression, was also an opportunity to support a young designer and showcase her work.
“She isn’t Asian, she is Greek, but we felt her story fitted in with what we wanted to achieve, which was to give women the opportunity to empower themselves. And for us to empower them to realise their own empowerment. There is a lot of empowerment being said here!” says Ong, laughing again.
While “throwing a few frocks together” turned out to be a lot more complicated and stressful than the Ong and her committee members anticipated, it was the first step on their path to bring about change.
I’ll let Ong tell it – in her own voice.
“As I’ve been on this journey it is just as much about changing the community’s mindset of who they can be. I can begin to encourage young Asian Australians that you do have a voice, you don’t have to keep silent. For me it’s about giving them that confidence to participate and contribute in a very Australian way. If you want change, you have to as Gandhi said, be the change you want to see. You’ve got to rise up. You’ve got to want that change. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t accept the default position.
“Having said that, Australia has come a long way in a multicultural sense, although I flinch at that word because you know the Chinese have been here for a long time. I think the bias is more subtle today. In the corporate working life it is a very subtle thing. I think most Australians are very open, and I count myself as Australian. As long as we keep that open, learning mind then I think as a society we have a better future and better hope. But we have to work at it, we can’t let it default into an easy position.”
For more information about the Asian Australian Foundation and The Gathering Circle visit the website.