30kms south-west of the Sydney CBD a roadsign bears the words “Cabramatta. A Taste Of Asia.”
Now known for its food tours and multicultural community, the suburb has previously been known as the heroin capital of Australia, and home to a modern political assassination in the 1994 death of John Newman.
Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta, a major SBS documentary, will now tell the tale of Cabramatta’s dark past and its changing face through the Vietnamese community, which began in the early 1980s.
“There was an incredible story to be told, and an important part of Australia’s history,” says producer Craig Graham. “The arrival of the Vietnamese coincided with so much that was going on at a national level: the abandonment of White Australia policy, the introduction of multiculturalism, the championing of this by the Fraser Government. All on the backdrop of an humanitarian crisis.
“Cabramatta now has such a strong, vibrant community.”
The three-part series charts crime and violence, fear and racism, a heroin epidemic and a political assassination, to the fight back as an immigrant community found its voice.
With a production team comprising members from Vietnamese community, Graham (Fredbird Productions) and co-producer Sue Clothier (Northern Pictures) set about winning the trust of their interview subjects, many of whom were suspicious or reluctant to share their stories.
“The Cabramatta story through the 90s had many dark patches and there were many families who didn’t want to look back. You survive escaping a country, you get on a boat that may not be that steady, you make it to foreign shores and a refugee camp, you survive that. Then through the process of settling you experience further difficulties, so that the sense we got from some people was that they don’t want to look back.
“But many did want to tell the story and without their co-operation the story just wouldn’t be told.
“We wanted to make a story from the perspective of the Vietnamese and those who were there.”
There are interviews with youths who got caught up in gang culture, politicians and police who were involved in Cabramatta’s critical moments, and the families who lived through it all.
“Those who talk are the same people who were there,” Graham explains.
“Families, counsellors, police officers, ambulance officers, social workers –all of those people who played a part in the transformative journey.
“The police officers were the ones stationed there at the time. The families were the ones living there. The social workers were the ones living there at the time.”
Patience and transparency were central to winning the trust of interview subjects, he says.
“We say what we want to do and we do it. I know that sounds really obvious but there is an element of trust that families have to take in us, and we have to fulfill that ever step of the way. When you meet the family member they’ll either decide to trust us and believe in the story or they won’t. With that particular person it usually begins or ends there.
“There was a bit of a flow-on effect. Not everyone knows everyone in the community but you start your interview process and I think everyone felt very comforted by the research we had done, our level of understanding and also our attempts to understand.”
Feature interviews include the Hoang family, who arrived by boat as refugees during the early 1908s. It was a time when the Fraser Government embraced multiculturalism effectively ending a White Australia policy.
“Chau Tho Hoang, the mother, says ‘We just didn’t know if we were going to live or die.’ Coming to Cabramatta for a new life, thinking that all of the troubles would be behind them, only to come here and struggle with fractures in the families,” says Graham.
But while the government opened the door to more refugees, communities were ill-equipped to support them. Language problems divided the Hoang family with son Tony shunning Vietnamese values for modern Australia.
“Tony broke away from the family and became a drug dealer, selling heroin before and after school at Cabramatta station. His mother was just beside herself. She struggled all the way to get here only to have her son abandon the family and sell drugs. He got caught, did jail time.
“He came out of jail, continued dealing and became a heroin user. His life hit rock bottom, the family’s life hit rock bottom. But he finds his redemption through a strange twist of fate when he discovered God and turned his life around.
“His journey is one of crushed hopes and dreams. About to throw his life away he finds some inner peace and now he’s a really strong person out in the community and he’s got it all together.”
Also featured is Joe Le, who became caught up in the crime gangs of Cabramatta.
“Joe Le was born in a refugee camp and grew up with 8 brothers and sisters and grew up in Cabramatta and, by his own admission, broke away from the family. His brothers joined gangs hanging out in a rundown house on the floor. He couldn’t find any happiness in the family but his brothers were involved in gang-related activities, he got a part of it, became a heroin user and lost everything through years of heroin addiction.
“He went to jail and found his moment of truth in jail when he realised ‘Ok I’ve got to stop.’
“His story is incredibly compelling because it’s told from the heart, as does Tony.”
The title of the series Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta reflects that many younger Vietnamese actually knew little of the past and the battles that had been won by elders.
“The title reflects the fact that here is Cabramatta now, a thriving beacon of multiculturalism and a food bowl of south-west Sydney and booming, but once upon a time it wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time this was a community in trouble, that emerged from an humanitarian crisis. Once upon a time it was called the smack capital of Australia. Once upon a time it was home to Australia’s only political assassination. So it reflected the transformative nature of the story,” Graham says.
Despite the issues confronted in the first two episodes, the series ends on a positive note as the people of Cabramatta transformed their community into the multicultural success story it is today.
“Episode 3 is finding the voice and turning the corner. It’s all about hope and recovery. Our story ends in 2001, so the journey is a fulfillment of where we end in 2001.
“I think the story is not a story for the Vietnamese community per se it’s a story for the wider Australia because it forms part of our history, and it’s a part that hasn’t been explored in any kind of depth.”
Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta begins 8.30pm Sunday January 8 on SBS ONE, with a Vietnamese subtitled version simulcast on SBS TWO.