Back in this savage city and the air is edible, a crunchy mix of asbestos, diesel and grit, drizzled with a 9-5 sauce and served with a side of 24/7 connectivity.
My attorney, with a wry grin, suggests I ditch the soft-edged romanticism of desolate expanses and pubs with no chrome and head to the arrhythmic heart of Sydney’s urban degeneration.
You know. To cheer me up.
I rope in the secretary. Notebook at the ready, a sharpened lead behind her ear, she has no intention of allowing me to dissect the urban rot from the darkened confines of the local pub. Which is bittersweet.
Tally-ho she calls, her bristling efficiency our standard bearer as we board the one-time Smack Express, our destination flickering in the distance like a neon flare.
Cabramatta is known affectionately as Cabra. To those who have little affection for it, it is known as an ethnic ghetto, a no-go zone that is the poster child for the perceived failure of multiculturalism in Australia.
At the end of the Vietnam war Vietnamese boat people bound for Australia acted as the crash test dummies of a new policy of multiculturalism.
It is a moment in history that finally buries the infamous White Australia Policy and transforms a nation. The years that follow are as dramatic as they are turbulent – a people struggling to find their place in a foreign land. In this one tiny Sydney suburb, the 80s and 90s see the arrival of street gangs, a heroin epidemic and the first political assassination in Australia’s history. The Vietnamese people are vilified and demonised. Cabramatta… represents all that is wrong with Asian immigration.
This social experiment created a culture of impoverishment, and became a case study for what can go wrong. At its heart was the institution of family and the crumbling of traditional familial roles – nurtured in a suburban hothouse this led to a generational and cultural chasm. The description of a 5T gang member says it all:
By the age of 11, he was arrested for carrying a sawn-off shotgun and in the next couple of years was suspected of the murder of two rival gang members.
(5T stands for the five Vietnamese words tuổi trẻ thiếu tình thương which roughly translates to childhood without love.)
But time has healed much of this pain and the streets of Cabra have always welcomed me, Today, in spite of an oleaginous hangover, the hot breath of Asia embraces me with the scent of scorched meat and sugarcane.
My liver grumbling rudely, I suggest a little snack, my longing for the sweet-sour-salty-crisp-smoky-tang causing me to salivate inelegantly:
We over-order and lose sight of natural caution, ending up with ‘broken rice with shredded pork chop’, a side of flash-fried goat’s intestines and cubist carrots.
But once high on the tart juice of Little Asia, we venture on.
The scrabble of life is raw here. Hawkers and vendors spruik and holler, a tangle of shops sell Korean, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese life, from the exquisite to the prosaic. Tiny arcades crammed with glaring, beeping, whirring, flashing neon bristle in competition with each other, while every other shop is a gastronomic experience, a market selling mock duck, chicken’s feet and beancurd, or a fabric joint that sucks you into a nylon vortex.
In this pumping heart the spiral of supply and demand is tightly wound, a bargain to be had at every corner. But as we step out into weary veins that sidle into the suburbia beyond, the manky scent of dystopia wafts towards us.
Lives are started, lived and lost on these streets, and here life is cheap. There is no obvious ostentation, rather a sparsity and neglect that howls of poverty and sad resignation. A woman at the bus stop eyes us up and down, a yelping kid climbing up bald ugg boots to reach a plastic bag full of coke and chips. Her expression says it all.
Towering over the Hughes Street playground, a notoriously septic site at one time that was devoid of children and haunted by addicts and dealers, the blank eyes of a block stare down.
A torn sign barricading a smashed window asks if this is my new rental home and I have to resist the urge to call L J himself to decline in staccato words of one syllable. There is bleak resignation here, hidden behind knock-down walls and empty windows.
The Secretary questions my myopia. Her mind like a steel trap, she asks whether the community here has a different set of ideals? What is aspiration? What has value?
I grudgingly admit she is spot on. I blame it on the hangover. Life in Asia often looks grimy and jumbled, a third-world to our first. Yet, I know that life to be one of the best – robust, exciting and filled with family and joy.
Flecked with satellite dishes the houses here hold flocks of families: aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, in laws and more. They are utilitarian and devoid of decoration, but they are crammed with life. Cars line front yards, swing sets and slippery dips are bright spots of colour and there is a sense of a hidden world.
There is no need for a spiky plant in a colourful pot to welcome you in, no requirement for twitching net and floral curtains. The houses are tired, sleeping on the job, backyards bald and scorched, but that cannot hide the vibrancy of the community behind the facade.
In 2000, a mob of first-school kids wrote a letter to the local Councillor about the Hughes Street playground. They said,
[The playground] is not a safe place because of the number of syringes lying around… We have been approached by addicts and have seen them in the yards of our units. Some of us have also seen addicts with knives and we are scared. We have come across people lying on the ground with their lips turning purple and stuff coming out of their mouths.
Today, the Cabramatta community gardens frill the edges of the park, verdant and deliciously alive. An elderly Italian Nonna, sheltering from the sun behind an advertising hoarding, eyes us indifferently, before peering over her leafy charges and settling back to the local rag.
The playground is now a green idyll, a meeting place that whispers of the future rather than a barren space lost to the past.
Around the next corner Buddhist flags entwined with the Southern Cross fly high, streams of colour adorning a huddle of temple-houses:
Gleaming in their devotion (and avid appreciation of concrete animals), the temples are the antithesis to the concrete blight, a lush appreciation of the natural and spiritual worlds. It’s as if they represent a communal backyard, filled with aesthetic beauty, adorned, decorated and proud.
Despite obvious poverty and hardship, Cabramatta is a rich pluralistic community that is proud of its culture and its heritage. If multiculturalism is about communication within an immigrant society and between this society and the wider population then the conversation here is getting louder by the day, a stream of insight into how it can be.