Tony began his acting career in 1986, coinciding with his expulsion from high school. Among many film and theatre credits one of Tony's more controversial roles was as Tiger, the leader of the Vietnamese gang in Romper Stomper.
In May, 1994, he established the Vietnamese Youth Theatre and with a grant received from the Queen's Trust, staged the company's first production, Chay Vong Vong (Running in Circles), which he wrote and directed with young Vietnamese people at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.
I'm not used to speaking into the microphone because as an actor you're trained to project yourself so this is all like a bit of a cheat actually. I arrived in Australia in 1978 and I didn't speak a word of English. I grew up in a suburb called Broadmeadows. I don't know if anyone knows Melbourne, Broadmeadows. In those days we were the first of everything. We were the first Vietnamese there. My dad was the first person to go work in this factory called Ford up there. It was considered to be one of the roughest suburbs of Melbourne and the people who were living there were the sort of Pauline Hansons these days that you see.
I had a very violent, angry, and educated father. My dad was very angry and violent and educated. He used to be a teacher in Vietnam and during the war he was an interpreter for the South Vietnamese government so he was considered as an enemy of the state, so that's the reason why we were on the hit list. If I hadn't gone I would have been in Cambodia and if I were in Cambodia now I would be about two metres under the ground, so I wouldn't be here at the moment.
We were constantly moving all the time. After we came over from the refugee camp in Thailand the first place was this place called a hostel, migrant hostel that we all had to live in. It's nothing like the Carlton Crest across the road, I can tell you that. It's very different to that. Then we moved out because we didn't like this. We were not allowed to cook in the hostel because they forced us to eat Australian food, like steak and my parents didn't like to eat pies. They didn't know what was in it and they really wanted to cook. What happened is my mum went out and tried to buy some stuff and tried to cook at home and we got sprung basically. Somehow the smell of the fish sauce didn't go too well with the authorities. They told us off for that and because my dad is really into Vietnamese food, he can't live without that, we had to move out. We got this place because we couldn't wait to get this Housing Commission place so we moved out to a place called Burnley.
They asked us, "Which house would you like to live in?" We didn't really know any area in Melbourne at all so we said, "Give us anything, anywhere." Broadmeadows came up so we said, "Yes, okay, let's go out there." It was probably the last suburb in Melbourne at the time and everything was dead, you know. There were hardly any houses around there. So we moved out there and this is where my life turned upside down. I wasn't that good at school at all, maybe because my dad was really smart so he took all the knowledge from me. I was one of those, what you call a dumb nerd at school. We know what a "nerd" means. A nerd is smart but you're a bit of a loser at school. I was worse than that, I was dumb and I was a bit of a loser at school so thatıs why it was really hard.
Another problem was that I was trying to sort out who the hell I am. My parents didn't understand that and there was a lot of pressure from my family because my parents had a lot of fear and they had a lot of phobia about the society. They didn't want us to muck around with the Vietnamese kids because they're going to become too Westernised and they didn't let us muck around with the Australian kids because they didn't trust them. So we were very much isolated from the rest of the community in a way. All these different pressures, it sort of affected me and I got kicked out of school eventually. I did a lot of other things but you have to come and see my play to get the rest of them.
When I left school I started hanging round with the Hare Krishna for a while and then after that I moved over to the Moonies. I hung around with the Moonies for a while too because they offered me free accommodation and all I had to do was do what they were doing, like praying and all these other things. I thought, "Jeez, you know, Iım good at this. They believe me." So maybe that's where my acting skills came from. I had just left home and I had no money with me and I needed a place to stay and stuff like that. It worked for a while and then this movie came up, a miniseries called The Sword of Honour. They were looking for hundreds of Vietnamese to build up this town called Vung Tau. This is a town where a lot of GIs and Australians hung out during the Vietnam war. They wanted to recreate this town called Vung Tau in South Melbourne.
I had nothing to lose so I went along and I got a part as a VC boy. This guy had to plant a bomb and kill these GIs and Australians in a bar. VC stands for Viet Cong so I was a Viet Cong boy. It was a time when the Vietnamese community was very angry because they had just recently arrived and they were anti-Communist, so that was my first breakthrough. My first part was to play the enemy. I didn't really know about the industry at all so I asked a lot of questions. The next thing I knew I got offered a job as this false, unofficial assistant director because they had a lot of Vietnamese people and they were doing things like eating the props. They had all these spring rolls, like prop spring rolls and you're not supposed to eat them. My mum was working on it as well and you get all these old people who didn't know and there was food and my mum is a cook, you see. They were hungry. That was one of her roles. She had this little thing selling food on the street so that was her role. She had an extra part so she was actually giving food to people. The first assistant director said to me, "No, no, Tony, no, you canıt eat the prop. You wait till lunch-time."
A year later I received a phone call from Handspan and they asked me, "Would you like to audition?" I didn't know what the word "audition" meant let alone what you do at an audition but I went along anyway and got a part. That's weird. But I didn't have a clue about what this whole thing is all about. Initially I had a contract for about six weeks and then I ended up touring with them for two years, so that's how I got into this crazy business. It was good. It's funny, I went back to my old school and performed there and these girls came up squashing phone numbers into my hand and I said, "What do you do with them?" you know. It's really weird for me, bizarre, because a year before they wouldn't even talk to me. That really confused me. It was just really hard to understand how people change because now you're an actor and they have seen you on TV. Actually I did an appearance on, I'm not sure whether it's Cartoon Connection or Come on Kids, it's one of those cartoons, the kiddies show. That's what they saw me on.
Then I got myself an agent and I got lots of TV work. I played Vietnamese. I played Cambodian. I played Chinese. I played "Asian." That's a hard one because what's an Asian? It's like playing a thing. It is, it is very hard, honestly it is very hard. For 10 years I played this thing called Asian. Then the way that they actually write the script, this is how clever a lot of script writers are. To write a part for an "Asian," so-called Asian character, you just leave out every second word. That's how we speak. That's what I had to work with, these scripts with words that have been left out deliberately just because that's how we speak.
In a way the industry has been good for me. It's good and it's bad. It's good because I get work because there's not many of me around. A lot of people are really smart, they don't want to hang around too long because they don't want to do that sort of stupid part. But I'm the stupid one so I will do them. So I have got credits about five pages long because I have got half a day of work here and one day of work there. Many people here are actors so you know what it means. It's great at first because then you fill up your CV. My CV, what have I got, GP, Fast Forward, Altogether Now, Romper Stomper, Paradise Beach. Paradise Beach was good because that was like a free holiday for me because I had never been to Queensland before, first time, so thatıs how you get to go around.
But I got sick of that. Now I come to the reason why I work with the community. I didn't look at the community because I loved the community, I looked at it first because I didn't have an option. The real community doesn't accept me yet. They don't think that I'm Australian yet even though I have been here 20 years now. If someone has come off the plane from New Zealand yesterday they're more Australian than I am; so there's a real problem. Another problem is that you have Vietnamese kids who turn on TV and say, "Wait a minute. We don't exist," because nothing on TV has any colour in it. Itıs all white. Whatıs going on? Isn't that a form of exclusion? Isn't that a form of alienation? What is it? Isn't that the way that we exclude people? Isnıt that the way that we reinforce something which is not true?
We tell young Anglo kids that this is what our society looks like and this is what Pauline Hanson believes. She watches Neighbours and Home and Away and this is Australia for her because there's no Aborigine and there's no Vietnamese in Neighbours and Home and Away and she thinks this is what our society looks like. That's the most dangerous thing about television. At the same time not only does it reinforce a myth that Australia has got no colour apart from white it makes kids, Vietnamese kids think that they don't belong. It alienates them. It says they're not Australians. Then who the hell are they? So that's the reason why I have to work in what I do at the moment. I work with the community. I will talk a little more about that later on in that other session. I don't want to talk too much about the work with the young people I do at the moment. I will talk about myself and my work and why I'm on a track to this area of work.
Cultural development for me is about going in there and changing the culture, changing the habits, changing the way people live, changing the way people think, changing perceptions, changing attitudes. I have to work with the Vietnamese community to help them to understand and recognise and feel proud of who they are, to know the rights they have for being citizens of this society because no-one is going to do it for us. You have a look at the moment, no-one. So I have to work with them to help them. I feel privileged in a sense that I have been to places that they haven't been to, being able to go into all these green rooms in all these TV studios. That was a privilege, I think, for me but it's not all that exciting. All green rooms look the same at the end of the day. They're just green.
But It's something that allowed me to continue to work with young people. They think, "Wow, Tony has been in TV. He has been in GP and Paradise Beach." They look up to those sorts of things and think TV is something incredible. Being in Romper Stomper, Romper Stomper is not the best or most important work I have been in. Unfortunately it's the first film that actually acknowledged the existence of Vietnamese people in Australia. That's all it did but just in one particular way. Unfortunately no-one else acknowledged our existence even though we have been here, me personally I have been here close to 20 years now and we're not recognised yet. We're not really recognised as citizens of this society, this country yet, so there's lots of problems. That's the reason why there's a real need for me myself, I have taken on this responsibility to work with the community.
Since my work with Footscray Community Arts Centre at least three young people have gone on and studied drama. Two are doing second year at Ruston at the moment doing drama dance. Another guy is doing media production at Deakin, so it's about nurturing and supporting and saying that people like me actually care and want to support them, because when I first started no-one really supported me, but also at the same time to provide an outlet for the Vietnamese kids.
What I say to them is, "If you want to use the four-letter words like the eff words and you go and stand in the middle of Footscray screaming and yelling and telling everyone to go and get effed and all that, no-one is going to listen to you. But if you trick them, if you do a nice poster and you get them to come into a theatre and you put a bit of music and a bit of colour and lighting and you make them pay for it, they'll come and listen and they'll tell you how good you are," so that's what you do and you can actually do it bilingually as well. You do it in Vietnamese as well as in English, so it's a win-win situation, not just in theatre but you can do that with music and film and video and that's what I try to do. That's what my work is all about.
Constantine Koukias Artistic Director, IHOS Opera also made a presentation at this session.