SBS Can Do Better Than This


Son Nguyen is introduced in the second episode of Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta, the three part documentary series on the Sydney suburb. Nguyen, his wife and their only child Lam spent five years in a Thai refugee camp before coming to Australia. Nguyen tells us that he hoped for a "better future" for his son. "Not for us," he says. "We’re already old."

As the episode draws to a close we return to Son Nguyen and his hopes. "I deeply regret that I failed," he concludes and begins to cry, pressing tears back into his eyes as if stuffing the pain in, before it escapes and he snorts, coughs and finally, covers his face with a flat hand. The Nguyen family settled in Cabramatta where Lam became a heroin addict at the age of 17, leaving home, he explains, to spare his family the shame.

Son Nguyen’s appearance in Once Upon a Time was, I thought, gripping and also courageous, given the Australian public’s appetite for refugee "success" stories. (Was it just me who found the popularity of The Happiest Refugee suspicious, while over four thousand unhappy refugees remain behind the razor wire?)

Lam Nguyen eventually gave up heroin with the help of his parents. At first they locked him in a dark room, where he writhed with the agonies of withdrawing. When his parents left the house to buy food he crawled out of a window and escaped. Then, Son Nguyen started borrowing money in order to buy Lam’s heroin supply. Each day he slowly cut back the amount that he provided his son, weaning him clean.

Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta features many such compelling stories. Tony Hoang, who overcame his habit with the help of God, offers insights into the powerful sense of belonging that gang membership provided, as well as the "good life" he lived as a dealer: for a period of time Hoang relished the easy money he was making, buying things he longed for as a kid — shoes, clothes and remote-control cars.

First person accounts of life in Cabramatta in the 1980s and 1990s are interspersed with a narrator reading from a hyperbolic script, which tells a chronological story about the rise and demise of the "Cabra" crime and drug scene. We follow the 1994 assassination of state Labor Member for Cabramatta, John Newman, the subsequent police investigation, and the 2001 conviction of Newman’s political rival and former Fairfield City Councillor Phoung Ngo, who is serving a life sentence for masterminding the assassination.

The scriptwriters’ creed seems to have been "sensationalise and simplify". The series purports to explore, and go beyond, the media’s vilification and demonisation of the Vietnamese community. But very often it uses media footage and clips to tell its story and in the process does plenty of demonising — of smack users and gang members — of its own.

And at every moment that "the story of Cabramatta" — as if, for a start, there’s a singular story to be told — seemed to me to be about to get more complex, the possibility for depth, richness and contradiction is refused. Instead simple moral categories and binaries are revived: there is an "old" and a "new" Australia; Vietnamese people were "silent", now they "speak".

This story, we are told over and over again, is about being Vietnamese, a category represented as a kind of ultimate, undifferentiated, non-modern, alien Other, in a strange world.

For example, Hoang describes a complex set of social conditions: his parents worked long hours in factories; he was acutely conscious of his materially impoverished childhood in a consumer society; and certainly, he experienced radical distance from his parents, with whom he did not even share a language. But the narrator picks up his story, this complex, multifaceted account, and simplifies it for the benefit of the viewer, driving home the point that Hoang is Vietnamese. Patently, he did not yearn for cool shoes as a young boy because he was Vietnamese but because he was poor.

Two things in particular disturbed me. The first is the series’ handling of police/community relations in Cabramatta. The second is the story of multiculturalism that SBS, the multicultural broadcaster, seems committed to propagating.

Once Upon a Time apparently involves the Vietnamese-Australian people of Cabramatta telling us their story but the story of the police is largely told from the perspective of the police. We simply didn’t hear enough about the experience of being policed in Cabramatta during this period.

Research into police/Vietnamese relations was conducted during this period, including some by Lisa Maher, who made a welcome appearance in episode two. This research features the voices of many Vietnamese-Australian drug users detailing their firsthand experience of police racism and corruption — yes, apparently even the most marginalised and stigmatised figures in Cabramatta already knew how to speak. These kinds of experiences are touched upon, but glossed over, in episode three.

It was particularly disheartening to see Once Upon a Time perpetuate one of the most pernicious myths that circulates about refugee communities in Australia: that refugee communities are fearful of the Australian police because of negative experiences with authority in their countries of origin. This is a factor, and I have no wish to dismiss it entirely, but again the whole story is far more complex.

Researchers Maher, David Dixon, Wendy Swift and Tran Nguyen found that distrust of the police very often arises because Vietnamese-Australians understand very well that they are citizens of a liberal democracy entitled to equality before the law. It is the gap between this expectation, that they will be treated as Australians, and the unequal treatment they encounter in reality, that engenders bad relations. In short, refugee communities are fearful of the Australian police because of negative experiences with the Australian police.

As to the story of multiculturalism, this was utterly mystifying. Why were we told, ad infinitum, that prior to 1975 Cabramatta was a part of this homogenous white thing called "the old Australia"? (Unwittingly, Once Upon A Time does point to the fact that the category of ‘white’ is labile, shifting, and far from agreed upon.) Apparently, post-war migrants to Australia didn’t count as significantly "different" because they were all "white". To insist that post-war migration had not already changed Australia, and that post-war migrants from southern Europe did not face intense hostility and racism because of their perceived difference, is to grossly distort many people’s refugee experiences.

Besides, if you want to talk about "old Australia" then the population of this continent was not the slightest bit white before 1788, nor was it uniformly white throughout the 19th century. And by 1967 Aboriginal people had powerfully captured the public imagination in the lead up to the referendum, reminding the nation that it had never, ever been simply "white", even during the high point, or rather nadir, of the White Australia Policy in the early 20th century.

Luckily Once Upon a Time is also wrong about another thing: that this is the "untold" story of Cabramatta. Khoa Do’s film The Finished People is amazing. A friend recommends a documentary by Dai Le, Taking Charge of Cabramatta. The research cited above appears in the report Ahn Hai: young Asian background people’s perceptions and experiences of policing. I’m sure there’s more out there.

I turned to look again at works that exists about Footscray in Melburne’s west during the same period. I’ll never forget hearing Cuong Nyguyen perform his tough, respectful spoken word piece about Footscray punks. And photographer Thuy Vy’s series Sewing Rooms features beautiful, eerie images of the workspaces of Vietnamese Australian home-based garment workers; they too have a powerful eloquence.

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