CHAPTER 1 VIETNAM
Previously: I interview former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who describes Australia’s signing on of the Refugee Convention as the first substantive assault on the White Australia Policy.
I fly back to Adelaide that same evening in order to attend a public lecture the following day – Understanding and responding to asylum seeker distress – organised by the University of South Australia, hoping that it will yield material for the book.
As the day progresses, various speakers describe the state of affairs for present day asylum-seekers. In the somnolent late afternoon heat, conference participants are invited to contribute ideas on what more can be done. Roving staff members hold microphones and hurry to raised hands in the audience: a grandmother who visited people in desert detention camps, Catholic sisters who provide legal services, teachers who create sanctuaries of peace.
As I sit in my chair, the thought comes that I, too, ought to speak, a crazy idea that won’t be silenced. I put up my hand. A staff member carries the microphone up those endless lecture theatre stairs towards me. Time slows. My heartbeat counts the seconds I have left to rehearse what I am about to say.
‘I am writing a book about refugees who have come to Australia. I am looking for uplifting stories from the 1970s to the present day. Could you let me know if you have refugees who would be willing to tell me their story? I am also looking for a Vietnamese person who came by boat to Australia because we didn’t lock them up back then.’
A hand down the front shoots up.
‘Our state governor,’ he shouts, gleefully.
‘Well, you can’t get better than that,’ I reply.
Others, too, offer help and suggestions. I practically float out of the conference, buoyed by a wave of goodwill. The good people of Adelaide will be the subjects; I will merely be the scribe. The book will be a record of the people who come here and survive in spite of everything and a record of the Australians who walk alongside them.
The State Governor of South Australia, His Excellency Hieu Van Le, did indeed set sail from Vietnam in a wooden boat in 1977. Around fifty people crammed into the small boat, including His Excellency’s wife, Lan. The boat was turned away six times by Malaysian and Singaporean coastguards. Finally, in desperation, they abandoned ship and swam ashore, ignoring angry shouts for them to desist, ignoring weapons trained on them.
When they made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia, it became evident that there was little hope of resettlement. His Excellency and Mrs Lan set sail again, this time in a bigger boat. After a month at sea, they sailed into Darwin where two fishermen in a little tinny raised a beer can to the bedraggled people in the boat and said, ‘Good day, mate!’
I learn all this from the Internet, material freely available after His Excellency was sworn in as the 35th Governor of South Australia on 1 September 2014. I write to the Governor’s office requesting for an interview. Although his Official Secretary replies to say that His Excellency would like to take up my offer of further information, which I duly send off, my subsequent emails go unanswered.
So when I hear that His Excellency is going to open the 2015 Australian Refugee Association Oration, I make my way to the Bob Hawke Centre in Adelaide to hear him speak.
‘Early days were hard – the language, how to catch a bus, how to find a doctor – all these can be sorted out, but what people need to have, in the first instance, is a friend, someone who will say, “Welcome, how can we help?”’ says His Excellency.
In that cavernous auditorium, his smile is so sincere, his manner so approachable, that I feel as if he is talking to me over a cuppa. Judging by the applause, his message resonates with crowd.
At the close of the lecture, His Excellency is ushered out with the official party for refreshments. I straggle out of that modernistic glass and concrete building, past His Excellency’s state car with the flag of Australia on one corner and flag of South Australia on the other.
I tell myself not to be disappointed. His Excellency is a busy man, a man whose uniformed chauffeur even now waits by his official car, a man very much feted and honoured, a man whose company is desired by many.
Eventually, it is my husband’s colleague, Truc, who agrees to tell me his story. I interview him in his kitchen. From the window, I see a vista of green, the rain at once intensifying the colour of the foliage and blurring the edges of the leaves. Two houses on the other side of the ravine perch precariously near the hilltop, their multistorey structures dwarfed by the vastness of the cliff face.
As we drink coffee and eat Greek date and walnut biscuits, I notice how quiet it is here, in this house nestled in the foot of a gully. Then, in the mid-morning stillness, Truc begins to describe the vague recollections he has of his first nine years of life in Vietnam.
The next instalment, Beachside Temple, will be published next Friday, 22 March. Catch up on previous instalments.