Walking around Cabramatta today, you could be forgiven for not believing its history. Where overdosing junkies with scab-infested arms were once littered, street vendors now sit on crates, peddling herbs and handmade jewellery. The train station, where drug dealers offered $30 hits of dope from the water bombs stashed in their mouths, is now home to hordes of day tourists, eagerly waiting for their food tours to start. Second-hand syringes and death were swept off the streets to make way for smiling and laughing families. This vibrant culture, a government initiative to patch up the businesses and lives torn apart by drugs, now cloaks Cabramatta. But tug at the loose threads of its past, and the exterior comes unravelling quickly.
These loose threads are as much a part of Cabramatta as the shouts of ‘Ðu má mày!’ and the smell of beef bones and ginger boiling in huge vessels in pho restaurants. And, like the swirling scents and cries, these threads can be followed to their sources. They are the stories of a dejected and dreamless past, Asian culture snaking through the parallel threads of poverty and crime, weaving the mangled cloth of Cabramatta, from the dark days of the ‘Smack Express’ to today’s tourist-friendly ‘Little Saigon in Sydney’s South-West’.
Cabramatta was a landing pad for first generation Vietnamese-Australians in the early 80s. With low levels of English proficiency, they were a source of cheap, unskilled labour. A typical mother in Cabramatta would toil at a sewing machine to make one hundred dresses a week, often working late into the night, and earning just sixty dollars; the father would work graveyard shifts at a factory two hours’ drive away. Family life was non-existent.
Youths became restless. They wanted to escape the monotony and poverty. They roamed the streets, were recruited by gangs. Most prominent were the 5Ts,1 led by the fourteen-year-old Tri Minh Tran. The 5Ts expanded the drug trade in Cabramatta, turning the suburb into Australia’s heroin capital. With the increase in crime, wealthier families moved. Drug addicts, chasing a cheap high, filled in the gaps.
Despite them providing a significant source of his gang’s revenue, Tran despised junkies, threatening to expel any 5Ts member who used heroin. You would have had to be there to know why. We’d see their overdosing bodies strewn all over the street, hear ambulances wailing as they rushed to aid the already dead, smell junkies’ shit and piss and puke and unwashed bodies and decaying breath everywhere we walked. They were the reason we hesitated before telling people that we were from Cabramatta.
A series of events crippled crime in Cabramatta. The 5Ts fell after Tran was murdered in 1995, leaving the gang without a leader, without direction. They became, as an ex-member put it, a ‘snake without a head’. A sudden shortage of heroin dried up gangs’ revenues. The police increased their presence, and dealt swiftly with corruption. Gangsters and junkies, knots in the threads of poverty and desperation, were torn out; the holes in the fabric of Cabramatta were stitched up quickly as Fairfield City Council cultivated Cabramatta’s image of a thriving Asian culture. The council supported anything deemed ‘culturally significant’, banning anything counter-productive, including fast-food chains. Over time, as businesses were established, living standards rose. For most, poverty faded from a daily struggle to a bad memory.
But those years of poverty gave us something positive as well. They brought unique experiences, instilling within us things that we could never forget: that we’d survived through it all with our parents, not understanding at the time how much they gave up to provide us with a life that they never could have fathomed; that our friends stood by us, despite their moving homes every few months, unable to keep up with the rising rent; that, in the absence of material wealth, we could always seek comfort in each other; that we could look past dirty clothes and hollowed cheekbones and see beauty, an understanding of a struggle attained only by going through it ourselves. It was the thread that joined us, the stitching that reinforced our relationships.
Poverty played a huge part in shaping who I am today. Back when we lived in one bedroom, there were nights where Mum and I would be less concerned with what we would be eating for dinner and more concerned about whether we would be eating at all. Most of the time, we did have a meal waiting for us, even if it was just plain rice. When rice started to thin out, so did our servings, and we would hope that we could scrape together enough money to buy a new twenty-five kilogram bag to last us another four months.
I was eight years old when I realised how poor we actually were. I was looking for a pencil to do my homework when Mum, who’d been sitting outside, called out to me, ‘Ti!’ She sounded excited.
I rushed outside. She met me halfway. She was holding something by its long ears, its fluffy white body twisting in a futile struggle to escape her grip.
‘Dinner,’ she whispered.
At the time, I didn’t give too much thought to whose pet rabbit had escaped. Instead, I was glad that I didn’t have to go to bed hungry or guilty for the three nights that it lasted us. Guilty, because Mum would often insist that I eat her portions, telling me that she had eaten more than enough during the day. I can’t even begin to imagine how far from the truth this was.
Years later, when we’d moved out of that bedroom, and dinner was no longer a question, we would find another white rabbit. Mum caught it in our backyard, and we brought it into the house. This time, we kept it in a box and fed it bits of carrot and lettuce. The next morning, we took it to the animal shelter in Austral, hoping that it would be back in its owners’ home soon.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Poverty was only humbling because we made it out alright in the end, because our resolve to rise above was strengthened by our hardships. The exceptions to this were much less fortunate.
Poking through Cabramatta’s cloak of culture, they are the threads of its dark past, threads broken by an era of futile struggling. We watch as, day after day, they frequent the same places, wear the same clothes, follow the same routine. They are the homeless, and the dreamless.
There’s the man in the soccer jersey with cargo pants. His skin dark, face scarred, teeth grey like pebbles. He was a dealer in the days of the Smack Express, and when he was arrested and sent to prison, he was called ‘chó‘,2 and beaten so often in the head by fellow inmates and guards that he went mad. Today, as every day for the past thirteen years, he dances in front of music stores, shuffling back and forth, wiggling his fingers. When store owners realise that he’s there, scaring away customers, they stop playing the music. He lingers, hopeful that the music will start again. When it doesn’t, he slinks away to the next shop.
But this man, one among a few, is just a walking relic from a rough beginning. He is a stray piece of string that will eventually catch onto something and be torn out.
Another kind of poverty has emerged from the Smack Express. A poverty of the spirit, of dreams, of human compassion. People sit around Cabramatta, hollow-eyed, dreary. They frequent cafes during the day, Gucci sandals dangling from calloused toes with cracked yellow nails. They scorn the toothless men with tangled grey hair lying on the ground a few metres away for leading lives that are stuck in cycles, like threads that loop back onto themselves in chain stitching, seemingly unaware of the cycle, albeit a longer one, in which they themselves are trapped.
Recently, a man leapt off the platform at the train station, sprawling across the rails as an interstate train charged towards him. A gust of wind, the sound of rattling metal, and the train was gone. The man lay in two pieces, his crimson blood splattered in a V formation. As I turned away, I saw others check their watches and click their tongues in annoyance. A man had died. They were going to be home late and miss their favourite television show. That was the real tragedy.
Tug away at the loose threads, unravel the cloak of Asian culture, reveal the lining of insanity underneath. This is the Cabramatta that I see.
1 The 5Ts were a Vietnamese-Australian gang based in Cabramatta and Bankstown. The name corresponds to five Vietnamese words starting with ‘T’: Tình (love), Tien (money), Toi (guilt), Tù (prison) and Tu (death)