I was about six or seven when I saw someone shoot up heroin for the first time.
It was late in the afternoon and I was gazing out of the window when I suddenly saw a man scurry behind the old wooden fence that separated our communal driveway from the white brick flats next door. Although he was on the other side, I had a pretty clear view from the second floor of our townhouse.
I’ve grown up seeing used syringes and overdosers lying around on the streets. As kids, we always wore closed shoes and were careful not to step on needles as we went grocery shopping with the adults. Going to the local park or a public toilet was completely out of the question.
So that day, when I saw the strange man on the other side of the fence, I was curious to see what the fuss was all about with syringes. So I watched on. I wanted to tell someone about what I saw after he ran off, but even as a child, I remember thinking, “Well, it’s what happens around here. Who cares?”
They’re memories that I’ve come to realise are quite abnormal for most people living in a developed country.
I grew up in the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta during the 80s and 90s when it was the heroin capital of Australia – way before it was trendy and frequented by young hipster-types and food bloggers who go there to Instagram photos of fruit shops and pho restaurants. I never thought our cheap Sunday lunches at Pho Tau Bay or munching on hot chips from Red Lea would become a ‘thing’.
Back then, I was so embarrassed by my steamed BBQ pork bun breakfasts, and packed lunches which consisted of Chrysanthemum tea drinks and $2 banh mi’s that my granny bought from the local Vietnamese bakery.
Even telling people I lived in Cabramatta made me feel inferior at times. Demonised. Pitiful. Poor. And it certainly didn’t help when some politicians felt they were being swamped by Asians who formed ghettos and didn’t assimilate.
My family – like most families in that area – were refugees from Indochina. My grandparents had moved from China to Hanoi in Vietnam after the Second World War hoping to start a new life. Little did they know they would have to flee again to Saigon when the Vietnam War erupted in 1962.
When the North Vietnamese eventually captured Saigon in 1975, scores of Southern Vietnamese people, include the ethnic Chinese community like my family, were forced to leave the country.
My uncle John’s family ran a jewellery business in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Their business operated from a multi-level building that they owned and lived in. When the communist regime took over, their business and property were seized by the government.
“They took everything,” he said, when I asked him why he and his family decided to leave Vietnam. John said his family had to sleep on the street and said the injustice of the situation was overwhelming.
“We would have no life. No freedom,” he said, adding that people who were – or were perceived to be – sympathetic towards western governments were routinely imprisoned or killed.
His wife, my aunty Anita, said my grandmother’s brother was one such person. I never knew about him, but Anita said he was locked up for 30 years in Hanoi for being able to speak French, Chinese and English.
When my great-uncle was finally released, his little sister (my grandmother) had already fled to Saigon during the War, and then subsequently to Australia. They were never to be reunited again. By the time my family tracked him down in the UK, he had already died, not knowing whether his little sister escaped Vietnam or died trying.
It’s a story that gets my aunty Anita quite upset. She told me that in her final years, my grandmother would often look at photos of her long lost brother – her only sibling – and wonder if they would see each other again. Not in this lifetime, it seemed.
Death and tragedy are common themes around our family dinner tables. It’s what happens when you grow up in a refugee family. If we ever whinged about school, Saturday school tutoring, Chinese school, karate lessons, Sunday school or life in general – well, don’t bother.
“When we were living in Vietnam, your grandma had to wake up when it was still dark, to sell street food on the side of the road to pay for us to go to school. We lived in a small shack. Don’t take your education for granted,” my uncle Minh would say. “And don’t do drugs.”
My mum Rose was also particularly good at guilt-tripping. “I wasn’t ever allowed to learn English in Vietnam because my mother didn’t want me associating with Americans. You’re lucky you get to do what you want to do,” she would lament. In Cantonese, of course.
As a kid, I would tune out and roll my eyes. Here we go again. Bring out the violins.
My brother Luke was born at sea, somewhere near Malaysia. My mum remembers placing him in a bucket and pushing him to shore when they were finally let into the country.
War stories were common too. And of course, the traumatic boat journeys out of Vietnam would crop up from time to time. But asking my relatives specific details about the war, or getting them to talk openly about the boat journey is – understandably – not an easy feat. “What do you want to know? You already know what happened,” my dad said to me the other day. Even now as adults, my siblings, cousins and I don’t really know what they went through – and probably never will.
It was only this year, during our annual Lunar New Year celebration, that I found out my uncle John’s father had died while they were fleeing Vietnam by boat.
John was 18 when their fishing boat was attacked by Thai pirates off the coast of Singapore in 1979. They were escorted onto the Thai ship, robbed, and forced back onto their sinking fishing boat. John said they had no choice but to attack and kill the pirates to save the 157 Vietnamese refugees on board.
“Some of the older men sacrificed themselves by grabbing onto the pirates and hurling themselves into the ocean,” he said. John’s dad died during the attack. After floating at sea for 11 days when the ship’s engine failed, they were eventually rescued by British ship Entalina, and brought to a refugee detention centre in Darwin.
His wife, my aunty Anita, said young girls were often raped and kidnapped by pirates on these boat journeys. She didn’t elaborate any further, and I didn’t have the heart to press her for more information, like I normally would as a journalist.
Sometimes I laugh at the absurdity of our situation with my siblings and cousins – if you don’t laugh, you really will cry.
My two older sisters Anne and Cecilia were four and two, respectively, when they left the coastal town of My Tho in a fishing boat in 1979.
My brother Luke was born at sea, somewhere near Malaysia. When the Malaysians finally let them into the country, my mum remembers placing the infant in a bucket and pushing him to shore.
When I asked my mum about Luke’s miracle birth and survival, she laughed and said, “I have no idea how I did it. My brain was foggy and I was so sick during labour. It just happened.”
No-one really knows how my brother survived that perilous journey as a newborn. We still, to this day, laugh at the fact that none of my siblings or relatives died on the journey. (I’m aware it’s an odd thing to joke about, but like I said, we’re not ‘normal’.)
Like the thousands of Vietnamese refugees who fled by boat, my family were towed back out to sea, shot at by coast guards in Malaysia and Indonesia, attacked by pirates, unwanted and turned back by neighbouring countries.
Somehow, my mum, dad, siblings and grandparents ended up at Kuching refugee camp in Malaysia. Around the same time, my aunty Anita and her brother Minh, made it to Air Raya refugee camp in Indonesia. Both parties had no idea whether the other had already left Vietnam, and whether they survived the journey at sea.
The radio was their lifeline and the only way to track down missing relatives. Refugees in detention centres would write letters to radio stations informing them of their whereabouts, which would then be broadcasted around the world. Relatives would then write back to the radio station if there was a match.
“No Facebook back then,” Anita said, laughing. “That’s how we knew your dad, mum and grandma and the children were alive.”
After months of waiting, my family were given humanitarian visas and flown into Australia. My sisters and brother don’t remember anything about Vietnam or the journey out. I became the first in my family to be born in the lucky country.
It’s been 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War, and the beginning of the Vietnamese diaspora. Though it’s taken decades, this community has gradually become part of the fabric of Australia; a country that so generously accepted a broken group of refugees and helped them heal from the trauma of their war-torn past, through their heroin-fuelled days, triad gangs and troubled youths.
So Australia, on behalf of my family, thank you.
And thank you for making Cabramatta, banh mi and pho something to be proud of – and trendy enough for Instagram.