From war to tough new frontier: the Vietnamese path to cohesion

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked about multiculturalism having failed, she could have been speaking about Sydney’s western suburbs and parts of Melbourne in the late 1990s, when Asian gang wars flared and the body count from heroin seemed to imitate the deaths of Australian soldiers a generation earlier on the battlefields of Vietnam.

A long curve of settlement, survival and adaptation has made today’s Vietnamese a ”model minority” in the eyes of many Australians.

Their story carries important lessons about how public policy, political leadership and community values can either contribute to the building of a creative multicultural society, or push a society to becoming a maelstrom torn apart by hatred, fear and self-defeat.

In 1976 there were fewer than 2500 Vietnamese in Australia, 300 of them in Victoria.

By 1986 the number had grown to 83,000, withVictoriahome to 25,000 of them, swelled by the nation’s intake under an ”orderly departure” program negotiated among nations as part of a regional solution to the refugee crisis.

By 1996 and the election of the Howard government, Australia had 151,000 Vietnamese, 55,000 of them living in Victoria, though the inflow would soon be effectively terminated by the new order.

The Vietnamese were the first significant intake of non-Europeans to be admitted in more than three generations, a period dominated by the defensive barrier of White Australia.

After being processed, many through the same immigration centres that had served the postwar recruitment schemes from Europe, they settled in Richmond and Springvale in Melbourne and in Cabramatta in Sydney.

With no framework of settlement or migrant resource centres (which stuttered into life from 1979), settlement carried with it a series of challenges for all sides: the initial shock of first contact, early conflict over access to scarce resources such as housing and jobs, the realisation among the newcomers that their cultural knowledge is not enough to ensure their security, competition for places in the local hierarchy, and the making of a community out of the early shambles.

Often the first aspect noticed is the most readily imported, extra-legal modes of survival, disorganised crime.

Then the organisation of the extra-legal world surges ahead as struggles within the legal world become bogged down in bureaucracies, economic deprivation, racism and exploitation.

The Vietnamese story pulls in two directions.

One is where the vulnerability of the emerging community becomes the focus for exploitation, extortion and criminality, where parents lose their children to the ”tough love” of gangs or the cruel silence of drugs, left to struggle with their own despair.

A second is where the strong values of parental commitment, the fierce discipline of traditional family structures, and the desperate passion for ”liberty” and ”democracy” (words inscribed on the gates of Cabramatta Mall) drive the parents and their children to use every scrap of educational opportunity to carve a pathway out of the ”jungle”.

It’s not just about community and personal ambition; it’s also about wider society and its response to the needs and aspirations of the newcomers.

During the 1990s, multiculturalism was effectively silenced by the Howard government and resources needed to keep it functioning were cut to the bone.

The Vietnamese turned inward, bereft of their own leadership (still too caught up in the emigre politics of Vietnam or too intimidated by the violence and aggression around them).

Cabramatta’s ALP state MP John Newman was murdered in 1994, by local business figure Phuong Ngo.

The community’s sense of hopelessness was fuelled by public inquiries that cloaked them with the label of criminality, and promises of government action that produced police raids but little else.

The self-proclaimed ”Generation 1.5” was to be crucial – that is, the generation comprising people born in the camps or inVietnambut growing up inAustralia.

They felt they had the Australian right to practise democracy and enjoy liberty in their own country.

Howard’s refusal to condemn Pauline Hanson led to a split in the New South Wales Liberal Party (Jeff Kennett was, in fact, the champion of multiculturalism during the Howard years) with key Asian figures departing and helping to establish the Unity Party.

A young Unity councillor in Cabramatta, Thang Ngo, seeking to discover more about his Buddhist roots, instead discovered the abandonment by the Carr government of Cabramatta’s Vietnamese.

Ngo and his supporters forced an upper house inquiry in NSW into the policing of Cabramatta, and for the first time the new Australian voices were arguing for their rights.

In 2002, local young people ran a celebratory exhibition called I Love Pho.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, crime hasn’t disappeared, gangs are still around, exploitation continues.

In Australia today, new generations of refugees from Africa, the Middle Eastand the Indian subcontinent face new versions of similar challenges.

New forms of racism plague neighbourhoods, and are manifest in the media.

NSW still spends far less supporting migrant communities than does Victoria, while the Commonwealth’s heralded new multiculturalism policy offers a jokingly pitiful sum to the challenges of our 130,000 new residents each year (far, far less than is spent deterring the arrival of a few thousand asylum seekers or detaining and processing an even smaller number).

The lessons of Sydney’s Cabramatta are extraordinarily important for the future of social cohesion and inclusion in Australia.

A moment spent considering what they are would be time well spent for all of us.

By Andrew Jakubowicz (*)

(*) Dr Andrew Jakubowicz is a professor of sociology at the University of Technology, Sydney, and features in the SBS series Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta, starting on 8 Janaury 2012 on SBS ONE.

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