Once upon a time, the Dragon King from the East Sea fell in love with the Fairy Queen from the mountains. The queen gave birth to a hundred eggs, from which came a hundred sons. The eldest son declared himself the first ever King of Vietnam. The divine couple then divided their children. Fifty stayed in the land, and fifty followed their Dragon Father to the sea. The children made a promise to remain brothers, forever. From this legend derived a word unique to Vietnamese culture: dong bao – brothers born from the same sack of eggs.
The fall of Saigon in 1975 cast the whole nation into the same sad scenario. More than two million people would escape to the sea in search of a new homeland, while their dong bao stayed and celebrated the victory of the Communists. This time, they never made a promise to remain brothers.
None of this would have struck Huy’s mind while his family was crossing a leech-infested swamp in U Minh forest on a moonless night of 1983. The mud was as high as their knees. Huy’s dad carried his older brother on his shoulders. His mom struggled with her late pregnancy. Another man gave Huy a piggyback. They moved in silence, towards the boat. If the Communists found out their secret, they would be sent straight away to the re-education camps where they’d eventually lose their life, just like the 2.5 million “war criminals” during that period.
Two weeks earlier their family left Saigon after paying a great sum in gold to the people-smugglers. In this southernmost town, they waited patiently for that night, to be packed on a tiny fishing boat with about 250 people, spend days and nights on the sea with little food and lots of dark stories about death, cannibalism and pirates. Once they finally made their way to Pulau Bidong refugee camp, they would, again, wait patiently for resettlement in Australia.
Huy was only nine back then. He is now in his forties, a father of three well-raised children, a managing director of a successful consulting group in Docklands, and a coordinator of a Vietnamese Buddhist group. His office looks out over a picturesque view of the Melbourne Star and the bright city skyline.
It is 6:12 pm. Only two of us in his neat and orderly office. On his desk are photos of his children, Ananda, Tam Dang and Maitri, whom he named after the Buddhist metaphorical words for wisdom, spirit and compassion. In his grey suit, Huy recounts the last 30 years of his new life in Australia, as if it just happened yesterday. He is distracted by occasional calls from his clients, but quickly picks up the story afterwards.
The war is fresh in Huy’s mind, just as it is still haunting the first generations of Vietnamese refugees, defining their life values. “You don’t know enough about the war,” he says. “There was no hope. Only fear…”
Nearly 40 years have passed since the first Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived on boat in Darwin, but memories of the tragic event still linger. Nhan Quyen and Ti Vi Tuan San – two notable Vietnamese newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne – rarely fail to remind readers of the Communists’ wrongdoing. At the same time, racism, exploitation and poverty haunt the past of most first-generation Vietnamese in their new homeland.
As they try to pass on their past to the next and the next generations, young Vietnamese–Australians also have their own take on the Vietnam War as well as the Vietnamese culture and language.
University of Technology Sydney’s Professor of Sociology, Andrew Jakubowicz in his 2004 study said, “there is a generation of new voices emerging among young Vietnamese Australians, that reflects the complexity of cultural collision, interaction and adaptation…”
These new voices are reflected vividly in the work of writer Hoa Pham, comedian actor Anh Do, visual artist Phuong Ngo, and a whole generation of Vietnamese brought up in Australia. They rarely talk about the rice fields, the boats or the war, instead referring to “a psychic girl”, “the happiest refugee” and “Article 14.1”. By varying their topics and literary techniques, with a touch of postmodernism, they are trying to tell new stories about Vietnam.
Last April, I caught up with Phuong Ngo, an Australian-born visual artist whose parents came by boat from Vietnam. Phuong explores the individual and collected Vietnamese identity through many of his photography, video and installation artworks.
Returning from work – complete in a snapback, tee and jeans – he looks typically Australian. We meet at Grill’d. His call. I would expect a pho restaurant, but Phuong fancies a burger after a hard day’s work.
He recently staged a project called “Article 14.1” at La Maison Folie in Belgium, in which he lived off the same limited supplies his parents had on their escape to Pulau Bidong and occupied his time by folding paper boats out of tien am phu (hell money). At the end of the project, the boats were burnt in honour of the 500,000 Vietnamese who perished at sea.
Through this installation artwork, Phuong hopes to seek his own experience of the war, one thing he has lost being brought up in Australia. “Just like my parents have lost their house and their country, I myself have lost the sense of being Vietnamese.”
During his childhood, Phuong always identified himself as “white”. He spoke perfect Australian English, and would only hang out with “white” friends. Yet every once in a while, someone would ask him: “Where are you from?”
“In other words, they mean, ‘You don’t belong here.’ So a couple of years ago, I went back to Vietnam, and I found out that I didn’t belong there either. So where do I belong?” Phuong asks.
To answer that question, Phuong traced back in space and time: he followed his dad’s story to places in Vietnam and Malaysia, he re-read Vietnamese history back to the French colonisation – the war that started it all. From this, many of his artworks were born, such as “Ao Dai Cho Me”, “My Dad the People Smuggler”, and “Before Pulau Bidong”.
“Cultural identity is a personal thing,” Phuong concludes.
It is, indeed. Today, about one per cent of the Australian population consists of Vietnamese-born people. And yet, many of the second and third generations do not identify as Vietnamese at all. They are strangers to Vietnamese language and culture, even though Vietnamese is the seventh most popular language spoken at home in Australia according Census 2011. Brought up among Caucasians and international friends, they feel hard to relate to the past.
“Would you teach Vietnamese to your children?” I once asked Hoa Pham, a Melbourne writer of Vietnamese heritage whose award-winning book The Other Shore is about the Vietnam War.
“No,” she said, without blinking an eye. Even she doesn’t know how to speak Vietnamese herself.
The only link to Vietnam she has is through Vietnamese Buddhism, a tradition established by Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The land of The Other Shore is no more than her “spiritual homeland”.
The good news is many young Vietnamese, according to Professor Jakubowicz, “have been able to utilise the education system [and] are breaking clear of the constraints that locked in many of their parents.”
In 1988, Tan Le was awarded Young Australian of the Year; she later co-founded Emotiv, producing headsets that read brain signals and facial movements. In 2008, Nam Le’s The Boat became a big literary hit. Lately, in 2011, Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee entered Australian bestseller list.
The recently departed former Prime Minster of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, regarded the Vietnamese community as “energetic, innovative and contributing enormously to the culture and development of this nation”. He is also the man whom Vietnamese refugees bear great gratitude to. During his 7.5-year office term, he took in more than 50,000 Vietnamese.
Vietnamese community members increasingly take on important roles in local government and the Upper Houses of both Victoria and Western Australia. They have their own newspapers, publishing houses and cultural websites, as well as a regular SBS radio program. Overall, Vietnamese-Australians are well presented in every profession and aspect of society.
You could ask – with all the pho, bun bo Hue and banh mi restaurants lining the busy shopping strips in Springvale, Richmond and Footscray, and all the young Vietnamese professionals around Australia, is the old-time story of the boat people still relevant to this generation? Is it necessary for the Dragon King to reunite with his Fairy Queen? Or is it time for new stories – written by the emerging Vietnamese-Australian generations?
First published on Meld Magazine.