23 May 2016

The South Will Rise Again: Rebels of the 4077th

There was a big kerfuffle in the centre of Brisbane last month when a Vietnamese restaurant called 'Uncle Ho' - a nickname for Ho Chi Minh, founder of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam - was the target of over 100 passionate protestors from Brisbane's Vietnamese community. They were angry about the seemingly affectionate reference to a man they see as a mass-murdering dictator, and things got ugly very quickly. The restaurant closed its doors after allegedly receiving death threats, and the (Swedish) owner has said she will be changing its name to something less 'controversial'.

The passion on display might have surprised many Brisbanites, but it came as no shock for those of us living in the heartland of 'Vietnamese Brisbane'. I have written before on the huge influence that Vietnamese refugees have had on the Inala/Darra/Durack/Richlands area south of Brisbane (mostly in the 4077 postcode area), noting the strong political undercurrent in these communities, which were established by people who fled their own war-ravaged country after the victory of Ho Chi Minh's forces in 1975. Communism and Uncle Ho are dirty words here.

While the Vietnamese of Brisbane are firmly settled here - compared to other migrant groups, the returnee rate to Vietnam is very low - and have integrated themselves into Australian society, taking advantage of all that the country has to offer, this is essentially a cultural community that has managed to recreate itself in another land. There is almost a sense of a 'country in exile'. The numerous third-generation families tend to stay in this area, which has become the most concentrated Vietnamese community in Australia, outside of Cabramatta in Sydney. The maps below - based on the 2011 census - shows the top-ranking immigrant birthplace for southern Brisbane suburbs, and the solid pink block from Pallara to Darra reveals the extent of Vietnamese settlement in the local area. Remember that this shows percentages by birthplace, and does not account for second-generation Vietnamese households.

(SBS)

The percentages (SBS).

Living within such a strong cultural base has allowed people to maintain old ways and pass them on to new generations. These include language, religious practices, clothing, food, cultural days in the calender, and a distinct perspective on history. Important organisations within the community include the Vietnamese Seniors Association Queensland, the Vietnamese Community Australia Queensland chapter, and the Vietnamese Veterans Association. There is a weekly Vietnamese-language newspaper, SS Tuan Bao, and Saturday School is a big thing here, when otherwise-empty State schools are hired out on Saturday mornings and children are schooled in Vietnamese culture and history. The days begin with a rousing rendition of the anthem of the old South Vietnam played over the loudspeakers. Then there is the Inala Civic Centre outdoor shopping area, effectively a 'Little Saigon' with around 80 Vietnamese-owned shops. 

This 'cultural enclave' has also enabled the survival of old political allegiances and grievances over the past 40 years. One thing you see a lot of around the local suburbs is the 'Heritage and Freedom Flag', which is the national flag of the former 'Republic of Vietnam', i.e. the old South Vietnam. The flag turns up outside Buddhist temples, local military memorials, primary school halls, on ANZAC Day, and at major cultural festivals such as Tet. It was also very prominent at the political protests outside the 'Uncle Ho' restaurant, The flag has become a symbol of defiance to the communist regime in the old country, in a similar (though less offensive) manner to the retention of Confederate symbology in the southern USA. The message is that 'we are still here and the South will rise again'.

In my experience, the local Vietnamese-Australian community is rarely involved in political protests, so the 'Uncle Ho' restaurant incident shows how deeply feelings run on that subject. I have also learned that North Vietnamese people are rarely welcome here. My wife once worked with a student from Vietnam who ended up migrating and moving to a house a few streets away from us. She received an unfriendly welcome from the local 'South Vietnamese' community that led to her moving away to another suburb. A friend of mine (who really should have known better) visited the Inala Civic Centre wearing a Ho Chi Minh t-shirt he had bought during a recent trip to Vietnam and found himself subject to a series of withering looks and clearly-hostile comments in Vietnamese from a few elderly people, wagging their fingers or shaking their heads at him.

It is now over 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War. It will be quite a few decades yet before the last of the younger refugees from that conflict have passed away. Until then, the Heritage and Freedom Flag will continue to have deep cultural meaning for Vietnamese-Australia communities. However, it is inevitable that as time passes, those communities will gradually dilute as people move away, memories of the war become less personal, and cultural wounds heal. Who knows, Vietnam itself might no longer have a communist government. As all Buddhists know, nothing lasts forever.

Wreaths laid on the 40th Anniversary of the 'Fall of Saigon' Day of Mourning, Freedom Place, Inala, 2015. (Milton Dick)

Brisbane 40th anniversary commemoration of the Fall of Saigon, 2015 (Newsbytes)

Procession at the annual Vietnamese Martyrs Mass at the Vietnamese Catholic Community Centre in Inala. (Catholic Leader)

Freedom Place, Inala, 2016 (C Dawson)

The Freedom Flag flies outside the Phap Quang Temple, Durack. (www.quangdoc.com) 

Procession outside the Phap Quang Temple, Durack. (www.quangdoc.com)

The yellow flag with three red stripes was first used as the national flag of Vietnam during 1890-1920, and of South Vietnam during 1955-75. The stripes represent the three main regions of Vietnam - north, central and south. It is now illegal to fly this flag in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

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