‘I like Singapore. It’s very beautiful. We see it from the boat’

As she was ladling the rest of the stock into my bowl of Pho, Mrs Nguyen said, ‘I like Singapore. It’s very beautiful. We see it from the boat’.

I was at my first dinner over at Julie’s parents’ in the south-western suburb of Lakemba, where from then on, I was always guaranteed a bowl of the best MSG-free Pho in Sydney because Julie herself hated the stuff. As far as possible, Jules would sneak out for a sandwich or felafel or anything, as long as it wasn’t Vietnamese. Jules and I became friends at law school only because I loved Vietnamese food and she hated it, and she had brought me home that first time so I could finish everything her mother cooked.

It’s no surprise I was 10kg heavier than I am now when I hung out with Jules. Her mum cooked the tastiest Vietnamese food I’ve ever eaten. Apart from that, Jules was really fun to be with, especially when she was with her best friend, Nu, and the two of them would often put on Spice Girls skits on the train to Uni. But it was Jules’ hilarious ignorance of all matters Vietnamese that made it even more fun.

Once, when it was reported that one of the members of the notorious 5T Gang had been killed, she had said very innocently, ‘Now, they have to call themselves the 4T Gang’.

Things only got a little closer to home for Jules when Nu’s brother was arrested in connection with the murder of a NSW State MP. At that point, I felt that it was the first time either Jules or Nu had to confront anything Vietnamese. But Jules simply said, ‘Crime’s just crime and it’s got nothing to do with whether you’re Vietnamese or Lebanese’.

Of course, the popular sentiment at that time was that ‘ethnic groups’ caused crime, and children of ‘non-english-speaking-background’ were industrious and scored the best places at the best universities. Such that one of the jokes bandied about at that time (and bandied about by a stand-up comedian of Vietnamese origin called ‘Hung’) went:

How do you know when your house has been burgled by a Vietnamese?

Your dog is gone and your kids’ homework’s done.

It was at another, later Pho binge at Jules’ parents’ that Mrs Nguyen again said, ‘I like Singapore. Very beautiful. We see it from the boat.’, and I had looked up (from placing my face directly over the bowl) and asked what turned out to be the question that opened the can, ‘Oh, how long did you stay in Singapore?’

‘We did not go to Singapore. We only see from boat’.

‘Why not?’, I ventured further, realising only at the end of my question that she had meant seeing Singapore from their refugee-filled boat.

‘They did not allow us. They give us oil (fuel), give us food, give us water, then they pull the boat away from Singapore. Julie will not remember. She was only 18 months old’.

Further conversations with Jules’ brother and father revealed that their boat had been towed out to international waters, where they were picked up by Malaysian coastal police boats, and the refugees were placed in a camp somewhere on the east coast of Malaysia. The Nguyens were later accepted under an Australian resettlement initiative, and have been living in Sydney since 1977.

The last time I spoke with Jules, she had just quit her job as a tax lawyer and had taken on what she felt was a more fulfilling job as a family lawyer in a smaller firm. Over the phone, I could hear her mother interrupting her now and again, and she had shouted back in her typically Australian-accented Vietnamese. I wanted to ask her how her mum’s Pho master stock was doing, and whether she was still making Pho feasts from it, but I figured Jules wouldn’t have cared the least for it, and she’d have talked more about how the damned Starbucks and Borders outlets were taking over Sydney.

Jules, Sydney 1997
Jules eating Tom Yam soup because it’s Thai and not Vietnamese. Sydney 1997.

iTunes’ party shuffle is playing a copy of: Traum durch die Dammerung – Nai-Yuan Hu\Nelson Padgett – A chance of sunshine, of which I have the original CD and therefore didn’t steal music.
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38 thoughts on “‘I like Singapore. It’s very beautiful. We see it from the boat’”

  1. I’m sure the view from the open sea was lovely… our gummint’s kindness knows no bounds. Payback is that you can’t get a decent bowl of pho anywhere in Singapore.

  2. I’m sure the view from the open sea was lovely… our gummint’s kindness knows no bounds. Payback is that you can’t get a decent bowl of pho anywhere in Singapore.

  3. that was a good post about memory. kinda sweet, kinda sad, (hey i suspect there’s a word that combines those two). and i don’t know what gabrielle means because julie looks like a cutie from here.

  4. that was a good post about memory. kinda sweet, kinda sad, (hey i suspect there’s a word that combines those two). and i don’t know what gabrielle means because julie looks like a cutie from here.

  5. Heheh. I went to the surf stop and what do I read?

    “Plus summore I already have this image of a hamsup (but funny) Miyagi..”

    And the best,

    “At least you see, Mr Brown more wholesome. Got pics of his kids summore.”

    Heheh. Made my day.

  6. Heheh. I went to the surf stop and what do I read?

    “Plus summore I already have this image of a hamsup (but funny) Miyagi..”

    And the best,

    “At least you see, Mr Brown more wholesome. Got pics of his kids summore.”

    Heheh. Made my day.

  7. I still remember wandering around Cabramatta, and being amazed at being in a Vietnamese town in Sydney.

    That statement by your friend’s mom about Singapore says more than anything else about the strength and the determination of these people. I think we really need to learn from them about perseverence and to simply carry on instead of complaining about things all the time.

    Oh yeah, and your friend is quite chio.

  8. I still remember wandering around Cabramatta, and being amazed at being in a Vietnamese town in Sydney.

    That statement by your friend’s mom about Singapore says more than anything else about the strength and the determination of these people. I think we really need to learn from them about perseverence and to simply carry on instead of complaining about things all the time.

    Oh yeah, and your friend is quite chio.

  9. This particular post struck deep emotional chords with me… You see, my mother actually worked with the UN agency dealing with the refugees. She used to travel to Bidong (that’s the island) and interview them for repatriation, mostly to US and Canada. I actually met some of these refugees. One of them still sends us Christmas cards. Looking at them, you’d never have known the hardship they went through, both on the boat and subsequently in the camp.

  10. This particular post struck deep emotional chords with me… You see, my mother actually worked with the UN agency dealing with the refugees. She used to travel to Bidong (that’s the island) and interview them for repatriation, mostly to US and Canada. I actually met some of these refugees. One of them still sends us Christmas cards. Looking at them, you’d never have known the hardship they went through, both on the boat and subsequently in the camp.

  11. I have so much respect for those people. I’ve met the kids (much like your friend) and their parents, and listening to their stories is just so interesting and sad.

    you have to admit though, that in Australia at least, it’s the Viets who get the most crap out of all the asian ethnic groups.

  12. I have so much respect for those people. I’ve met the kids (much like your friend) and their parents, and listening to their stories is just so interesting and sad.

    you have to admit though, that in Australia at least, it’s the Viets who get the most crap out of all the asian ethnic groups.

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  14. I recently visited Singapore in 2008 July and its crap.. The weather was really humid and sticky and the food was shit.. I can’t understand how the locals over there aren’t fat with all the fat they eat.. I work in a hospital as a psychiatrist and believe me one day it will come back to haunt them.. Anyways potential tourists be warned I was there for almost a week and that wad 4 days too much… believe me when I say this you only need 3 days there tops, its small and you don’t need to see the whole country if you do like me you’ll hate it too..sorry but its true.. people over there think their country is great but they don’t know how to show it I never saw a smile on any ones faces depressed people I tell you, I would know I counsel patients all day..oh and the shopping..I was told by a Singaporen the shopping is great…yeh right…It was pathetic and made me even more depressed..I’ve seen better shopping at the reject shop (a shop with cheap goods and some variety)…the hotel we stayued at was freezing and there was pubic hair still in the bathroom…I mean I know Singaporen don’t have standards but really this was sinking to the standards of North Korea… The clubbin…What clubbin?? It was a room full of Asians trying to dance I felt I was at a skit for the comedy festival. My ex friend also told me not to worry abt anything well my health was an issue and the pollution was horrible…I was travelling with two young british and American couples and both were asthmatics and had attacks due to the heavy pollution…people say there isn’t any…open you eyes all of you have four of them (glasses) possibly due to the pollution and the harmful long term side effects on your brain and its wiring…wake up get some education and then tell me your country has no pollution…really… I know I may be bitching but trust me everything I said is true and if you don’t I don’t care go over and see for yourself then you’ll know im not lying…People who live in Singapore..Get out of their…You may as well live in China…you live in a communist country you just don’t want to use those words… I could give you examples but then your prime minister might try to kill me…booo hooo…Your TV is censored, you can’t talk abt your government, you can’t have gays or long haired people in your country to sing (rock group wasn’t allowed to enter due to the was the looked)…I mean really people I feel sorry for you all…Overall it was appalling, a waste of time and not worth wasting your money on, believe me that is one Asian country you do not want to visit more than once or ever…

  15. Are locals more likely to stay in hotels, or foreigners? It could make more sense to say that the offending strand of hair you were talking about belonged to a tourist who put up at that hotel room. Cleaner might not necessarily be local too, seeing how S'poreans favour white-collared jobs all the time.

    By the way, the psychology thing must have really damaged your brain and it thought processes – as evidenced by your narrative. Tsk tsk.. in any case, you sound very much like a naive little kiddo who holds on to notions of idealism. From someone younger than you, do pick up my little piece of advice, that it is an error to assume that all good things go together. Any country in the world named utopia?

    You seem so pessimistic, that everything you encounter is tainted with your special brand of misery and angst. Like Miyagi, I have spent a few years already residing in Australia, SG still ranks higher in my heart, I've simply lived in Singapore for so long, it is somewhere that I have a big sense of belonging…my home. I probably would take the homeward road too (like Miyagi) , after I finish my degree program, (and because it's a longer path to Oz PR in my field of study, hah!)

    Tell us where you're from, we can return the favour and travel there, and explore by seeing the bad in everything around. So stupid, can't be bothered to type more.

  16. Actually to answer all your questions I'm from Italy, lived in the US, New Zeland, Japan, Russia, France and now Italy. My experience over runs all of yours combined. Maybe you all need a quick lesson in hotel management and ettiquette.

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