the Vietnamese Community in Melbourne.
Nguyễn Quang Duy
In the second term of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, the Indochinese refugee policy had been brought up and debated by the Parliament, and was only enacted until late 1978.
After the Conference on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South East Asia was convened in Geneva, July 21, 1979, and during the time of the Minister of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs Ian MacPhee (1979-82) the number of Vietnamese admitted from refugee camps had increased.
In 1980, there were 12,915 people, in 1981 and 1982, each year about 12,000 people were settled in Australia so that Vietnamese refugees were no longer risk their life sailing their boats direct to Australia.
Minister Ian MacPhee was also the initiator of the Orderly Departure Program and negotiated with the Vietnamese communist authority to allow Australian refugees to sponsor their family members remaining trapped in Vietnam.
The first Vietnamese family arrived in Australia in mid-1982 under the sponsorship program. It was possible they first arrived in Melbourne.
According to ABS statistics, in June 1976 with only 382 persons in Melbourne, by the end of 1978, it was estimated that there were nearly 2,000 people, by the end of 1982 over 20,000 Vietnamese settled in Melbourne.
The period of 1978-82 was exceptional in the efforts to establish the Vietnamese community. After quickly settling down with their daily life in their adopted country, the Vietnamese refugees have started to focus more on supportive activities, social, cultural, and Vietnamese ethnic school, to advocating for Vietnamese politics and establishing an Australia community organisation.
Happy settling and secured jobs
Vietnamese refugees often started life at the migrant hostel, received special benefits which were equivalent to Unemployed benefits, learnt Basic English, received help from social workers and their children were taken to and from school daily.
They began to participate with various Vietnamese community activities such as elections, demonstrations, and religious activities outside the hostels with free shuttle buses provided.
Refugees staying at the hostels needed to pay up to 3/5 of their Special Benefits for boarding and meals. Their daily meals provided by the hostel were not suitable for their taste, and daily life at the temporary accommodation hostels was not suitable for the privacy of their families. So they quickly rent private accommodations and moved out.
In the beginning, everyone relied on each other to pass on experiences and to provide information, to introduce jobs and especially to share joys, homesick and sorrows.
The suburb of Richmond is in the outskirt of the city centre, next to the church of Father Huynh San, the rent was cheap, with many high rise government buildings providing subsidised rents to social welfare recipients. So Richmond has quickly become our Little Saigon.
Footscray, Springvale and Box Hill were close to hostels Midway, Enterprise and East Bridge, so a large the number of Vietnamese refugees has moved out of these hostels and settled there initially.
The Vietnamese refugees were diligent, non-demanding, willing to do any jobs. In the 1970s, factory jobs were abundant, so most Vietnamese refugees who settled in Melbourne could find jobs immediately in the next few days after their arrival.
Most refugees tried to work soon after settling in; not only to care for themselves and their families in Australia, they also had to support their families still being trapped in Vietnam by sending gifts and money back home.
At that time, house prices were quite affordable, and if anyone had a job, the banks will lend them money right away. Many Vietnamese quickly paid off the housing loan within about five years. Then they moved to bigger and better houses or built new houses in other areas.
Some people took tests for government jobs such as tram drivers, tram conductors, Post Office officers or low-level public servants.
Some people with small capital bought from Vietnam or saved from working in factories ventured to open small shops, restaurants or small workshops.
Others continued to study English so they could have enough English language skill to enrol for higher education at Universities, College or Professional, Trade education Institutions.
By the early 1980s, the economy was in recession, but many more refugees continued to come. At the same time, there were fewer factory works, so many refugees had to stay at home to sew garment parts delivered by contractors working for large tailoring companies or went to work on farms.
I arrived in Melbourne in April 1983, the time when the economy was still in recession, it was too difficult to find a full-time job, I had to take full-time study, as well as worked on the farm during weekends, and worked at night as a restaurant waiter. I will write about my own experience.
Do not want to be called "Việt Kiều."
The term "Việt Kiều" previously meant the citizens of the Republic of Vietnam living in Australia.
After April 30, 1975, the Vietnamese Communist Embassy in Canberra publicly invited overseas Vietnamese - "Việt Kiều", especially students to join their side.
Mr Nguyễn Hữu Thu had this bitter memory in the middle of 1978. Embassy staffs from Canberra held a public meeting in Melbourne, to talk their policy for expatriates (Việt Kiều), several Vietnamese students and alumni attended.
Outside the meeting room, Vietnamese refugees staged the protest, pinpointed and identified those attendees - henchmen of the communists.
At least one student named L. who had attended the meeting was later recognized and being menaced in Richmond.
Then an article in “Trắng Đen”, a Vietnamese newspaper published in the United States, reported the meeting, detailing a list of Vietnamese supposedly attending the meeting and liking them to "cỏ đuôi chó” (dog tail grass traitors).
Mr Thu, who was studying at the University of Melbourne, had not attended that meeting but did not know the reason why his name was listed in that article.
At that time, Mr Thu was doing work experience for his study at the Ecumenical Migration Centre (EMC), he informed this incident to the Centre’s manager. He was advised by the Centre to pass on that article to the Ministry of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.
Officers of the Ministry invited him to their office to investigate about the case. He told the Ministry officials that if they wanted to know, they would ask the student named L. He did not attend that meeting and did not know anything about what had been going on in that meeting.
His friend later told him that some people wanted to go to the (Melbourne) University House where he was staying to look for him. However, his friend told them that he was a refugee and a former Vietnamese Army officer of the Republic of Vietnam, so they stopped to look for him.
At that time, the Australian and Vietnamese leftist group often held exhibitions and meetings promoting and propagandizing the Vietnamese communist regime to the public. These activities exaggerated the hatred and anger toward the pro-Vietnamese communist group and forced the newly arrived Vietnamese refugees not to ignore them.
The protests led to scuffles and the search for "retribution" against leftists and communist circles, frequently occurred.
Father Bùi Đức Tiến told us there were two incidents in which some people were beaten because they were thought to be Vietnamese communist sympathizers. They had to run into the church for refuge and asked Father Tiến to help them to avoid being assaulted.
In Canberra, the confrontation was more serious. An incident in which a Vietnamese refugee and a number of Communist Embassy officials fought against each other in the middle of a second-hand open weekend market. The scuffle was brought to the local court. The Vietnamese refugee won the case, thanks to an Australian witness who had seen many people packed attacking him.
The most violent incident was the incident about the "National Emblem" of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam hanging in front of the Embassy that had been shot with some bullet holes. Australian media reported as headline news, but the police could not arrest anyone.
As far as I know, the Embassy did not want to make a big deal out of it, because they were afraid the Australian press would turn it into a political football that was not in their favour.
To avoid further attacks, the Embassy had to quietly to move to a new location in the corner of a suburb O'Malley street with few passers-by and easy to protect.
I remember that the leftist Historian Professor David Marr, on an occasion appearing on the local television answering the interview about this incident, he stammered, uttered not a single word for fear of the safety of his family.
The incident was quite controversial at the time. Until now, many people still believe that during this period, and it was the right action in order to prevent the influence of the communist Vietnamese Embassy in the activities of the Vietnamese refugees and to create a better chance to develop the Free Vietnamese community.
Some of the stories mentioned above show that from the very beginning, Vietnamese refugees rejected and disowned the communist Vietnamese Embassy. They deeply hated the Vietnamese communists and felt the word "Việt kiều" not the appropriated term for them to be identified with. Therefore they insisted this phrase should be scrapped and renamed as Vietnamese refugees, Vietnamese nationalists or free Vietnamese.
The English name of the association after 1978 was also changed from Vietnamese Friendly Society to Vietnamese Association in Victoria.
Mr Hoàng Phương, a member of the Democratic Social Party of Vietnam (Dân Xã Đảng), came to Australia on June 19, 1978, and stayed at Midway hostel, Footscray. He informed at that time residents at the hostel elected a representative who was fluent in English to work with the Directors and Staff of the Midway hostel.
Also at that time, all activities from meetings to the New Year's festival all used the Vietnamese yellow with three stripes flag to hang up alongside with the Australian flag, and everyone sang the National Anthem of the Republic of Vietnam after the Australian National Anthem.
Brother Hùynh San was ordained a Catholic priest On August 18, 1979. He wore a ceremonial vest embroiled with the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, a unique event in the history of the Yellow flag.
Mr Nguyễn Bình, a former Republic of Vietnam Naval officer, came to Australia in December 1978, told us during that time the leftist groups had been very active. Hence, the refugees nominated Major Nguyễn Khắc Ngà as Head of the anti-communist action group and Bùi Văn Cao as Deputy Head of the Committee.
Later Mr Ngà had been nominated to be the President of the Vietnamese Association in Victoria, but within a few months, Mr Ngà resigned.
The Vietnamese refugees nominated Brother Huỳnh San as Head of the organizing committee for the 1979 Lunar New Year, and at the same time nominated Professor Tôn Thất Ngữ, Saigon University of Agriculture and Forestry, to become the President of the Vietnamese Association.
Soon after Mr Trần Ngọc Thọ came to Australia on January 13, 1979, he was invited by Professor Tôn Thất Ngữ to take on the role of Vice President External Affairs. The Executive Committees had two more people: Mr Võ Doãn Ngọc, Vice President Internal Affairs, Medical Doctor Trần Văn Đông, General Secretary.
Mr Ngữ had held the position of President only for a few months, then announced his resignation in March 1979.
Mr Thọ was urged by the local Vietnamese community to set up a new Management Committee for the Association. He would only agree on two conditions that: the former board must continue to help him, and there must be must a free and democratic election to choose the Committee of the Association legitimately.
Free election and the first Vietnamese New Year Festival
By June 1979, the free election took place, and the candidate group led by Engineer Trần Ngọc Thọ was elected by the Vietnamese refugees.
This was the first general election of the Vietnamese community in Victoria and probably also the first in Australia.
In addition to Engineer Trần Ngọc Thọ as President, the Executive Committee members were also Professor Nguyễn Văn Nha Vice President External Affairs, Mr Võ Doãn Ngọc Vice President Internal Affairs, Mr Hồ Xuân Thu, General Secretary and Mr Trần Trọng Khương, Treasurer.
Mr Trần văn Ni was chosen as Head of Social Affairs Section and Mr Đỗ Phát Thanh was Head of the Arts and Communication Section.
The Office of the Association was located at 40 Rae Street, North Fitzroy.
During the one year term 1979-80, the Association performed the following tasks:
1. Social activities: Mr Ni and Mr Khương hired vehicles to help people moving from the centre to their new houses and mobilized the Indochinese Refugee Association (ICRA) to help to sponsor Vietnamese refugees from refugee camps;
2. Entertainment activities: Mr Đỗ Phát Thanh contacted Australian Government Agencies to borrow pre-1975 Vietnamese films for screening to people at the hostels to entertain;
3. Organized a huge Children Mid-Autumn Festival at Dallas Brooks Hall East Melbourne with many foreign guests invited to attend; and
4. Successfully organized the first Vietnamese New Year Festival in Melbourne as well as in Australia. The 2-day fair at Camberwell Civic Centre with the contributions of many well known people in the community like Father Bùi Đức Tiến, Sculptor Lê Thành Nhơn and Singer Đăng Lan. Vietnamese volunteers donated all financials needed to organize the Fair.
After the Vietnamese New Year Festival, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser sent a letter to congratulate the success of the Festival and best wishes for the New Year to our Vietnamese community.
Unfortunately, Mr Trần Ngọc Thọ no longer kept this letter nor did he keep the lively photos of the activity of this Festival.
Since then, each year the Melbourne Vietnamese New Year Festival has been held. A few years later, Sydney and other cities in Australia also started to organize the Vietnamese New Year festivities.
Just in Melbourne nowadays, in addition to the Festivity organized by the Vietnamese Community, there are six others Lunar New Year Fairs organized in Richmond, Footscray, Springvale, St Albans, Sunshine and Box hill.
Previously, all festivals were of British and European descent; the Vietnamese New Year Festival became the first ethnic festival to contribute to the formation and development of Australian multicultural policy.
Mr Thọ said that cultural activity is the link between Vietnamese people and other ethnic groups and between the first generation and the next generations. So he was very interested in cultural activities.
Within just one year of community service, the contribution of Mr Thọ and his Executive Committee was significant. It opened up Vietnamese free election activities and organized Vietnamese New Year Festival. These works have created the foundation for the Vietnamese Association to be recognized as the official voice of the Vietnamese community in Victoria.
Almost all of the information about our community I have obtained is not mentioned before 1980, and now many pioneers passed away so their efforts should be acknowledged.
Mr Trần Ngọc Thọ remembered that when Father Bùi Đức Tiến ran for election, many people attended and supported him.
The Executive Committee was composed of Father Bùi Đức Tiến, President; Vice President Internal Affairs, Mr Võ Doãn Ngọc; Vice President External Affairs, Mrs Kiều Renaud; Dr Nguyễn văn Hưng, General Secretary.
Father Tiến told us the Executive Committee held two one-year terms, 1980-81 and 1981-82. His Catholic chaplain office was also used as the community office. Activities such as Vietnamese New Years and Children Mid-Autumn Festival were held at St John’s Churchyard, East Melbourne.
The main contribution of the Association during this time was to help Vietnamese living in migrant hostels when they moved out to private rental accommodations to make room for new arrivals from refugee camps.
When the hostels had vacancies, the Association advocated with the government to accept more people from refugee camps to Melbourne.
At the same time, the Vietnamese Association lobbied with the Indochina Refugee Association (ICRA) to sponsor Vietnamese directly from the South East Asia refugee camps.
During that time, each year there were over five thousand people settled in Melbourne.
The Association, together with other members within the Vietnamese Association in Australia, also lobbied and supported the Fraser Government in negotiating with the communist Vietnamese authority on the family reunion issue.
In mid-1982, Australia reached an agreement with the Hanoi authority to let Vietnamese refugees in Australia sponsor their families who were still stuck in Vietnam to reunite with them in Australia.
Many people told us that thanks to the work of Mrs Kiều Renaud, an extremely energetic and enthusiastic lady, in assisting Vietnamese people settling in Melbourne.
Father Bùi Đức Tiến (1980-82)
Father Tiến was the first Vietnamese refugee to be ordained a Catholic Priest in Melbourne, and the first priest who created the Vietnamese Catholic Community in Melbourne, as well as built St Vincent Liêm Catholic Center.
Father Tiến was a veteran of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, of Class 4/1970 Thủ Đức Military Training Centre. However, halfway through the military training course, he was allowed to return to the Seminary.
On June 19, 1981, while Father was the President of the Vietnamese Association in Victoria, he helped to establish the Vietnamese Veterans Association in Victoria.
During the General Conference of Vietnamese Veterans, held at the St Vincent Liem Center which was administered by Father Tiến, on January 4, 1987, Father Tiến attended and helped to set up the Vietnamese Veterans Association in Australia (Federal level).
He also participated in the Committee for the Rescue of People Cross the Sea. When he was on leave, he took part with a boat sailing to the Gulf of Thailand to rescue people who had escaped by the sea, looked for boat people who had been kidnapped and imprisoned by Thai pirates on Thailand’s remoted islands or mainland, and helped compatriots in the refugee camp.
In 2007, Father Tiến and Venerable Thích Phước Tấn founded HOPE - AVHWA a Charity Association that brings together many eye specialists from around the world to treat blind people in rural areas of Vietnam.
Father Tiến said that as soon as he came to Australia in 1978, he published the monthly journal Quê Hương. However, it only lasted a few months.
In 1980, Father Tiến collaborated with Father Việt Châu in the United States to publish Dân Chúa the Australian Vietnamese Catholic version. The magazine is still being published monthly.
He also wrote and published 10 Catholic Religion books in Vietnamese.
The Association officially became Community
In Australia, only two communities have established a national organisation: the Jewish and the Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese community was established on December 26, 1977, in Canberra, under the name of the Vietnamese Association in Australia.
At the National Conference in Adelaide, South Australia, on April 12, 1982, the Association has renamed the Vietnamese Community in Australia. All States directed to change their name to the Vietnamese Community in their States. The Vietnamese Community in Victoria has been using this term ever since.
In general, the Association is governed by its membership. Only registered members could attend the Association's meetings, nominated and be elected to the Executive Committee, and to cast their votes in an election.
In fact, all Vietnamese who have Australian permanent residence and live in Victoria are automatically members of the Vietnamese community in Victoria, hence have the right to nominate and to vote for the Community Executive Committee as well as to participate in all activities, meetings and voting.
At the State level, the Community Executive Committee plays the role of coordinating the Vietnamese Community in cultural, social and political activities.
At the federal level, the Vietnamese Community in Australia plays the coordinating roles with the State Communities in political advocacy and community politics as a unity of voices.
To have a better understanding of political activities within the Vietnamese Community, a next article will explore more on the Australian national wide organisation; there are memorable activities which have been coordinated by the federal body in the past of more than 40 years.
Nguyễn Quang Duy