Lost in a legacy

Beau Newham
6 min readMar 19

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It’s a Monday evening and there is a small crowd gathered in Melbourne for the official launch of a brand-new health service called Asianline. The initiative is deceptively simple: a phone, staffed by volunteers, can be called to access sexual health information in multiple Asian languages.

If the event is low key, the speakers are the opposite. There to formally launch the program is Marina Mahathir, the former president of the Malaysian AIDS Council and daughter of the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. She is joined by Suzanna Murni, an outspoken HIV advocate and one of the founders of the first organisation for people living with HIV in Indonesia — Spiritia. It’s a dazzling showing of regional solidarity for a humble volunteer run telephone line.

Pictured next to them, with a dazzling smile, is Beng Lim, the founder and coordinator of the project. Asianline was the culmination of years of his advocacy and hard work. He had spent years volunteering to build up Asian focused programs in Melbourne but sadly this would be his last. He would die a year later, in the summer of 1997.

That brief story, as reported in the Star Observer, was one of the first times I came across Beng Lim.

At the time I was going through the archives searching for mentions of positive support groups in Melbourne. Instead, I ended up getting lost in the legacy of a man who had given us so much.

For anyone who has lost hours of their life going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, community archives can offer the same sort of seductive magic. Those of us in the PLHIV community know it can feel like finally catching up on the early seasons of a show you’ve been watching for years. You recognise the familiar characters, but they are speaking to you from a different place and time (and sporting some very fetching haircuts from decades past).

Staffed by volunteers, Asianline provided sexual health information in Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese.

When I heard about the upcoming 100th edition of Poslink, I thought of Beng. He was a regular contributor to Positive Living, PLWHA Victoria’s earlier magazine.

Community archives offer us glimpses into our collective history. Awareness of so many things that still echo in our present. They can also give us insight of what has been forgotten. The blind spots of the narratives that we tell ourselves about HIV, the response, and our communities.

I hadn’t heard of Beng before. I hadn’t heard of the support group for Asians with HIV that he used to run out of his house. I hadn’t heard of the incredible dedication he had to the Positive Speakers Bureau — his endless engagements speaking at schools and other public institutions across Victoria. I hadn’t heard his radio shows. I hadn’t heard of Asianline.

What I have often heard, working in the sector, was that migrants, especially Asian migrants, are “hard to reach” and “hidden.” But migrants have been part of the HIV response since the very beginning. Beng’s story is one of many. It’s a story that shows again and again what we all know; when communities are the centre of the response, they can achieve amazing things.

Beng’s legacy is safer than most. In 1995 a collection of interviews and talks by Beng were brought together by Peter Davis in an audio project called ‘The Heart of a Tiger’. The work is a thoughtful, frank conversation between himself and Beng. It highlights many of the intersecting challenges for positive gay and bi+ Asian migrants in Australia. Beng’s story speaks to the specificity of many of his experiences, be that of sexuality, racism, stigma or death.

“I hope that with this tape it will be something that I can reach out to the Asian people who is living with the virus. And if this tape can touch one person’s life, it will be my greatest joy. And I hope also that with this tape, when people hear it, they will feel that they can go out and enjoy their life and to be able to say, I’m all right, although I’m positive but I’m still living well.”

Beng Lim, 1995

The tape was distributed alongside a cultural guide called “Sex, Living and Dying: Cross Cultural Meanings & HIV/AIDS” by Amos Hee. In combination they are a powerful reminder of the ongoing struggle of the HIV sector to build in a concept of cultural safety into our responses.

In the short time that he was active, Beng was able to build a community in Melbourne for HIV positive Asians. When I spoke to those who attended the positive Asian support group, they emphasised how important that space was for them due to the social isolation they often experienced at the time due to both their status and racism within the gay community.

It’s important to contextualise the racial hatred Asian communities were facing in those years. By 1996, Pauline Hanson became the face of anti-Asian racism in Australia, a viewpoint legitimised by her election to parliament. Asian migrants were suddenly in a country where their very existence was up for debate.

This anti-Asian hatred found its way into all our communities. It was not so long ago that dating profiles still brazenly stated “no Asians.” Bars popular with Asian men were dismissed — “it’s all chopsticks and walking sticks.” The community spaces promoted as “safe” were often anything but for Asian community members.

Asian communities (both migrant and Australian born) weren’t passive or inactive in response to this racist hostility. Leaders like Beng were able to highlight the very real impact this was having on Asian communities. Others built their own club nights and bars such as Katana Club and Lotus Club. Important community groups formed throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s with the direct goal to build safe spaces and mobilise around issues facing Asian communities. To name but a few, in Sydney there was AsiaHoy!, Silk Road, Asian Lesbian and Gay Pride and Asians and Friends and in Melbourne Silk, Long Yang Club, Lotus and Gay Asian and Proud.

Beng’s obituary written by David Menaude in Positive Living, January 1998, page 11.

These histories are important to remember, especially as the community and our sector work to cement and celebrate our complicated legacies. Significant works such as Fighting for our Lives and In the Eye of the Storm cover such a broad scope of the history of the community response to HIV that I’m at a loss to explain the absence of the work of Asian communities within their pages. Even when directly referencing key figures in these groups such as Lyle Chan (one of the founders of Asians and Friends) or William Yang, there is no mention of their work with Asian communities or their long spanning impact on the sector. Other important figures such as Beng himself, Michael Camit or Arnel Landicho are completely absent.

The positive Asian support group and Asianline are no longer active, but they are a reminder of the longevity and strength of positive Asian community responses in Australia.

As we seek to (re)engage new and older generations of migrant communities, this legacy falls to an incredible array of positive migrant leaders who now work in our sector. This includes LPV’s very own Emil Canita, ACON’s Justin Xiao, NAPWHA’s Jimmy Chen, Satrio Nindyo Istiko and many others. Their work has seen the growth of the Positive Asian Network of Australia, and I have no doubt they will continue to push the sector towards centring Asian communities in Australia.

Beng dedicated the end of his life so that Asian people living with HIV in Melbourne wouldn’t be left behind. We owe it to his legacy, and the legacy of the many leaders like him, to support new initiatives and new leaders to make sure that becomes a reality.

Originally published in Living Positive Victoria’s Poslink 100: The Retrospective.

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Beau Newham

Beau Newham is a writer, development worker and queer activist based in Melbourne on Kulin Nation lands.