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Sydney Journal: How a Sydney ‘War Zone’ Became a Center of Vietnamese Resolve

Today there are few signs of the old Cambramatta. On the busiest thoroughfare, John Street, a recently opened canary-yellow bubble tea shop sits near a cellphone store, joining a hip burger joint and an array of sugar-cane juice stalls, fabric markets and ethnic grocery stores.

“Cabramatta has always been a good place for me,,” said the bubble tea shop’s owner, Quynh Nguyen, 31, who came to Sydney as a teenager from Ho Chi Minh City. “I feel very homey here.”


Playing xiangqi, also known as Chinese chess, near John Street in Cabramatta. The area was once notorious for violence and drug dealing. Credit David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

A mix of fresh ambition and the familiar has come to define this diverse neighborhood, where less than 10 percent of the population traces its ancestry to Australia or England. It is visible at places like the Usual Cafe, a modern coffee shop near John Street where baristas in denim pull shots against a background of lush plants and white tiles.

Corey Nguyen, 28, who grew up in Australia and owns the Usual with his partner, Jenny Ngo, said they wanted to introduce Cabramatta, which is dominated by traditional cafes selling Vietnamese-style coffee, to a more artisanal cafe culture.

“For us it’s never been a competition,” he said. “They do their thing, we do ours. I wish them all the best.”

It’s a good thing, said Andrew Nguyen, 24, who waited with a friend for his coffee after a traditional Vietnamese lunch. “All your Asian fixes are here,” he said. “It’s home to us.”

For many of Cabramatta’s first Vietnamese residents, it felt like anything but.

Before their arrival, the population was mostly working-class Australians and European migrants. A German-Austrian society center near the train station is one of a few remaining signs of that past.

During the ’70s, primarily American servicemen brought heroin to Sydney from Southeast Asia, said Prof. Andrew Jakubowicz, a professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. Cabramatta, with its links to Italian criminal groups and a new connection to Southeast Asia, would soon become a distribution point for the rest of the city.

For the Vietnamese, harboring the lingering trauma of war, the lack of an established Asian community in Cabramatta made it “a fairly desperate time,” Professor Jakubowicz said. “There was no history and structure available to respond to, and Australia was still very racist.”


Inside Pho Tau Bay, a restaurant in Cabramatta. The area is widely seen as having some of Sydney’s finest Vietnamese cuisine, drawing diners from across the city. Credit David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

One of those former refugees, Hue Kim, 75, now spends her weekends selling Kaffir lime leaves, rosemary and other herbs on the sidewalk just a few feet from Ms. Nguyen’s bubble tea shop.

She remembers attending her first English class shortly after arriving, pregnant, in Sydney 37 years ago. Her teachers, she said, noticed that her shirt was stained with milk. “They told me to nurse my newborn before coming back,” she said in Vietnamese. “So I didn’t go back.”

Many of the Vietnamese children who came during this time were unaccompanied. Others were left to their own devices while their parents worked long hours. Isolated culturally and economically, some of the young Vietnamese arrivals banded together, tapping into the drug trade and preying on the members of their own community.

Tony Hoang, 35, a pastor who spent his teenage years dealing heroin as part of a gang, recalled the time as marked with instability, anger and a need to belong. “It was attractive to be a part of a group that loved each other,” he said.

The violence took a shocking turn in 1994 with the assassination of John Newman, who represented Cabramatta in the State Parliament. A rival local politician who had immigrated from Vietnam was later convicted of the crime.

It was Australia’s first political assassination, and one that would further feed notions of a wave of ethnic migrant violence in Cabramatta.

Frustration over the area’s lawless reputation eventually prompted a parliamentary inquiry. The 2001 report led to the creation of drug treatment and intervention programs and the hiring of more police officers with wider powers to tackle drug crimes. Today, crime levels compare with those in other parts of metropolitan Sydney.


John Street on a recent Sunday morning. New waves of migration from the Middle East have raised the same kinds of tensions that confronted Vietnamese arrivals in the 1970s. Credit David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

Not all of Cabramatta’s problems have been solved. Housing prices, like elsewhere in Sydney, have risen into the millions of dollars.

And a new wave of migrants, including refugees from Syria the Middle East, are raising the same kinds of tensions that confronted Vietnamese migrants in the 1970s.

According to the 2016 census, Vietnamese is still the predominant ethnic group in Cabramatta, making up 33 percent of its roughly 22,000 residents. Chinese make up 24 percent, and Cambodians account for 8 percent. At least 40 other ethnic groups are also represented.

Frank Carbone, the mayor of Fairfield City, the western Sydney district surrounding Cabramatta, said that while 7,000 new refugees had been resettled in the region since January 2016, the federal government had not provided any financial support.

Today, though, the children of the initial wave of Vietnamese migrants are seeing a return on their parents’ persistence and creating their own legacy.

On a quieter stretch of John Street, patrons lined up outside Pho Tau Bay, a popular restaurant. Inside, Chi Giang, 36, a placid man in glasses, worked the register as waiters ferried bowls of steaming broth.

Born in an Indonesian refugee camp to Vietnamese parents waiting for Australian visas, Mr. Giang manages the restaurant, which his mother began in the kitchen of their home in 1980. Her closely guarded beef noodle soup recipe often tops critics’ lists of the best Vietnamese food in Sydney, and the profits from the restaurant are enough to sustain Mr. Giang’s entire extended family.

“Over the years, I’ve seen kids coming in as babies,” Mr. Giang said, gesturing to a young family at a nearby table. “And then years later, they’re taller than me, and they’re still coming for beef noodle soup.”

Source: NYT > World

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