Portrait

An audience with the chic and ever diplomatic Australian Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Meeting Frances Adamson, Australia’s first lady in China

“It says here you’re a writer?” the woman behind the China Visa Application Service Centre counter on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road remarks. I blink back at her. I think of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, incarcerated in Jinzhou prison. His books banned in his home country, his name censored. Writer Liao Yiwu, jailed for writing Massacre, a poem about Tiananmen Square. Tortured for four years. For poetry. “I have a letter there from the, um, Australian embassy,” I say. The woman shuffles through my papers. “I’m, uh, not really working. I’m going for a…” I lean over and read the phrase from the embassy’s letter “…cultural exchange program.” I smile reassuringly.

The woman stares back at me, as if I’m a 13-year-old trying to fool the nightclub bouncer with her 25-year-old sister’s ID.

Over my first couple of days in Beijing, the embassy staff mention her excellency Ms Frances Adamson by position title only. The Ambassador. Pronounced painstakingly, with reverence: “The Ambassador (insert sliver-thin pause) was asking how everything’s going.” Or: “Hopefully you’ll get the opportunity to meet (insert meaningful look) The Ambassador.”

And finally: “The Ambassador (insert single, knowing nod) plans to be at your poetry reading this weekend.” “Really?” I’m stunned. “What’s she like? The Ambassador?” I wait for the embassy staff member to laud the razor-sharp mind of the accomplished diplomatic super-force her boss is known to be. The former deputy high commissioner to the United Kingdom. Once chief of staff to then Labor politician Stephen Smith. Former representative to the Australian Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei. The first female ambassador to China, serving at a time when Australia–China relations are arguably at their most significant.

“This is going to sound strange,” the woman says “But The Ambassador is kind of… A Little Bit Rock Star.” She laughs at my confused face.

Her excellency is dressed head to toe in the kind of lint-less never-look-like-that-again jet black you get when you’ve just brought new clothing home from the store. Slim-fit pants. High-necked knit top. Her thick crop of chestnut-brown hair is slightly bouffant-fringed back from her forehead. 

She looks accidentally hip, in a classic throwback kind of way. Round rimless glasses. Dark sangria lipstick. No frills to speak of. There’s something magnetic about this 50-odd-year-old diplomat that kills run of the mill stone dead. Some effortless, unplaceable, chameleon thing.

“Hi, I’m Frances,” says her excellency, The Australian ambassador to The People’s Republic of China. In her black-heeled matt-polished ankle boots, she’s the same height as flat-shoed me. Blend-in diminutive. She asks how my time in Beijing’s been so far, listening intently, as if the question’s not stock-standard. As if my answer’s not stock-standard. As if I am not stock-standard.

“My husband was going to come with me today,” she says. “He was all ready actually, but then he realised the grand prix was on, so he decided to stay home and watch.” It’s a strange admission. Icebreaking. Equalising. Smart. Patently undiplomatic. Which is to say, incredibly diplomatic, in the rabble-rousing bohemian huddle in which we find ourselves.

While each poet labours through their set, I watch her excellency watching them. Straight-backed in the plastic chair, she receives the mixed-bag hour of earnest emoting with listening-face perfection. Well practised. Nodding sporadically. Smiling at polite intervals.

“I’d like to welcome her excellency, The Ambassador,” says fellow Australian poet Zohab Zee Khan. “And thank her for being here as a representative of our prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.” The crowd giggles delightedly. It’s early 2015. Tony Abbott is still very much Australia’s prime minister. 

There is no decidedly diplomatic face with which to greet Khan’s joke, but somehow Adamson musters one. It’s the same expression I see from the stage when I perform 20 minutes later. “President Obama. I’ll show you where to hide your weapon of mass destruction.” Her excellency looks straight ahead at me, unblinking. “If you’ll be the cure to my electoral dysfunction.” No disapproval is visible. “I want to be secretary to the state of your affairs.” Adamson’s mouth is set straight across, but for a brief moment, I see the corners of her lips upturn ever so slightly. “The homeland security blanket that warms you everywhere.” The smile finally breaks through.

“I think it’s a very difficult thing to get up there on stage and give people your own words,” her excellency says, in the milling around after the event. “Because I mean, it’s not a speech is it. It’s poetry.” Thin lines map her face. Her mottled hazel eyes are piercingly clear. Her generous pursed-lipped smile makes it seem as if she’s constantly on the verge of bursting into laughter. She speaks briskly – engaged, but straight to the point. This economy of interaction extends to her tight movements. She is controlled, but not aloof. Accessible, yet restrained.

As Adamson exits the reading space, Zohab leans back in his chair and looks over at me. “So. The Ambassador (he inserts the requisite reverential pause). She was pretty chilled, huh?” I laugh. “For sure.” And in a strangely intriguing, casually charismatic way, A Little Bit Rock Star.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2015 as "The Ambassador". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.