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On New Year’s Eve 1991, Chen Xing Liang landed in a wooden fishing boat – code-named Isabella on the far north coast of Australia. Aboard were 56 Chinese Nationals.

After walking more than 150 kilometres, over 10 days, through crocodile and snake infested country, the first members of the party stumbled upon a remote cattle station in the Kimberley. Within hours one of Australia’s biggest manhunts was in full swing. Gradually day by day all 56 were found.

Headlines hailed them as heroes – but the Australian authorities branded them illegal immigrants.

All were charged with illegal entry and transported to an isolated detention centre in Port Hedland. Here they waited behind bars, with hundreds of other boat people, whilst their applications for refugee status were processed. The long march had become the long wait.

‘The first sentence I learnt in Australia was ‘the sun is shining, no clouds in the sky.’ When I looked at the sky there were no clouds but the sky was divided into pieces by the iron bars. No matter what – there were obstructions.’

The Isabellas tells the story of Chen Xing Liang, a teacher and political dissident who left his family, job and friends in China to embark upon a remarkable journey in pursuit of democratic ideals and a new life. He recounts his tale of survival as he travels for the first time back to the Kimberley where he is reunited with his rescuers at the cattle station. At Port Hedland he meets boat people still held in detention and shares his own experiences of waiting for asylum – including going on hunger strikes and being placed in Roebourne jail.

Chen Xing Liang asks the Australians he meets:
‘Would you like to be a refugee? No. Australian people don’t understand what is a refugee. No Chinese people want to leave China – so why do people leave? You are working in a company – the manager maybe kill you, you’re in jail you don’t know what’s happening… China is a difficult country, it’s different to Australia’.

Alongside his personal story is the High Court battle of the 26 Isabellas who still remain in Australia without asylum. Until they are granted refugee status, they cannot work, are not eligible for any Benefits and rely on the help of charity. They live in constant fear of being deported back to China.

Press Quotes & Reviews

    (I) hope you are able to catch the excellent documentary THE ISABELLAS THE LONG MARCH. This is the story of one man coming to terms with exile. Articulate and poetic in his insights, Chen Xing Liang is the antithesis of the popular notion of the marauding opportunist. Economically and ecologically Australia is vulnerable to any unchecked wave of migration and we therefore have to protect ourselves. But the measure of any society is its generosity of spirit. Freedom without compassion is no freedom at all.

    SIMON HUGHES, The Age, 7 February 1995

    The Isabellas is an account of the 56 Chinese from the boat code named Isabella who landed unobserved and almost perished in the Kimberley…The words come out in simple and moving phrases of translation: You won’t die. We need each other’s company.

    DENNIS PRYOR, The Age, 4 February 1995

    The Cutting Edge on SBS tonight is a program called The Isabellas: The Long March. It is two things – a tale of quite amazing human resilience, determination and hardship, and a broader look at a whole subject. Four years ago, 56 Chinese nationals landed a wooden boat on the rugged Kimberley coastline. One of them was Chen Xing Liang. He is the subject of this documentary made by Sally Ingleton.

    PAM CASELLAS, The West Australian, 7 February 1995

    This Cutting Edge documentary is remarkable more for its substance than its style. But the content of the interviews is eyeopening for the many Australians who until now only thought of refugees in terms of how lucky they were to be here.

    MARGARET KENEALLY, Daily Telegraph Mirror, 7 February 1995

    Ingleton takes Chen to Port Hedland where he talks to internees through the wire. ‘What’s it like living in Australia?’ a girl asks him shyly. He shrugs ‘Not bad; like living in an aunt’s house forever’, he says.

    JANE FREEMAN, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 February 1995
Director's Statement

I became interested in this story when it first hit the headlines back in 1992. What was fascinating was that on one hand this group of people were being applauded for their ingenuity and survival skills and on the other it triggered Australia’s deepest fears about the Asian invasion.

I began researching the story in mid 1993. It took nearly a year to get the agreement of the Isabella boat people to participate in the making of the film. Their reluctance was due to their perceived vulnerability and the possibility of further persecution of their families back in China.

Many people do not understand is how difficult it can be living under a ‘totalitarian regime’. We take basic freedoms for granted – especially freedom of speech and human rights. These are simply dreams to most people from China.

All of the boat people interviewed for this documentary had fled China because they feared political persecution. Many had been involved in the democracy movement of 1989 and had been detained or sent to Hard Labour Camps after this event. As a result many had lost their household registration, job seniority and their families had been discriminated against. They believed they had no future in China whilst the present regime was in power. Unfortunately some of those interviewed whilst in detention at Port Hedland have already been deported back to China.

The current process of assessment for refugee status in Australia is under resourced and flawed. Lawyers describe it as a lottery. For most asylum seekers it is a maze of confusion.

The film’s intention is to present the story of one person who arrived by boat. We see Australia through his eyes – a strange and alien landscape filled with potential.

Chen Xing Liang:
”When I was kept in the detention centre, I watched the outside world. It was green. The trees were green. I could feel Australia. The air in Australia was free and fresh. How I wished that I could go out and walk around. When I was together with the others, we could talk and it’s not so bad, but at night when I’m on my own, I would lie down and think. Sometimes I would feel so lonely that my eyes would be filled with tears.”

The Isabellas is a personal story which gives an understanding of what it is like to be a refugee.