Tony Le Nguyen believes freedom is a myth that some people spend their whole lives searching for. For someone who dodged machine guns bullets as a 10-year-old while his family fled Vietnam, the pursuit of freedom has been life-long. Today Tony has found a freedom he sought wildly and elusively in his youth. It comes through his work as Artistic Director for Vietnamese Youth Media, a professional community theatre, film and production company based in Footscray, Melbourne.
Tony, 32, recently won a $40 000, two-year Australia Council grant in recognition of his work in community cultural development. He is spending 12 months travelling to countries where Vietnamese refugees have settled, such as Canada, France and the US, using his community theatre background to look at the diverse experiences of assimilation. The second year will see him living in Vietnam and turning his experiences into a new work, a play or a film. The award is quite an accolade, because the Australia Council awards only four such grants every two years.
As a kid Tony hated school and rebelled against his family’s insistence on maintaining a traditional Vietnamese cultural heritage. Ask him how he ended up where he is today, and he smiles. “If I hadn’t got into the arts, I would be in prison or dead by now,” he said. “I did it firstly for survival, and secondly for the potential it gave me as an outlet to release anger and frustration. Theatre is an external way of releasing internal pain.”
Tony’s introduction to acting came with a bit part (“along with 200 other Vietnamese”) in a 1985 mini-series called A Sort of Honour. He was 15 and became intrigued with filmmaking.
He found a job as a production assistant, made friends, and fell so much in love with his new life that he left home and lived in a refuge for a while. Although his English was still not good, he won a role in a Handspan Theatre Company play that eventually toured Australia for two years.
“I was the youngest and most inexperienced cast member, but I got to see a lot of Australia and learned about live theatre. I also had to learn to deal with being a celebrity,” he said.
For the next 10 years, Tony worked in TV and theatre. His biggest exposure came in 1992 in the movie Romper Stomper, where he played Tiger, a rampaging gang-leader.
“After working as an actor for 10 years, I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing. I was playing Vietnamese roles created by Anglo writers,” he said.
So in 1994 Tony set up his own production company. “I realised theatre was a great platform to transmit views and ideas.” He founded the Vietnamese Youth Theatre – with the support of the Footscray Arts Centre – to create a space for young Vietnamese-Australians to meet and build self-esteem through performance.
Tony contributed a unique combination of skills: an understanding of being caught between two cultures and a decade’s experience in professional theatre. The venture evolved into the Vietnamese Youth Media because of the wide range of media, including film, which it embraced. He also runs workshops in western suburbs schools to encourage young Vietnamese-Australian students from years 7-12 to role-play real life issues, express themselves and gain confidence through performance. The end result is a performance in front of a large audience of family and friends.
The Le Nguyen family arrived in Australia as refugees in 1979. Tony was the second eldest of seven children. Their journey was one of inconceivable hardship. There were shot at as they fled Vietnam. Their first boat sank – the rescuers robbed them. There was little food. They lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for six months.
Eventually they settled in Broadmeadows, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, where they were a pioneering Vietnamese refugee family. “We were the first strange-looking people around,” Tony said. “We copped a lot of racism and verbal abuse.”
The family moved several more times, making it hard for the children to settle into school and make friends. “Dad was afraid we might lose our Vietnamese heritage and he fought hard to retain it. Freedom was more a political thing for my parents, but for us as teenagers it was vastly different.
Tony rebelled against his family’s strict traditions and the education system. “We left Vietnam because we wanted freedom. Here I was as a teenager without any freedom. It didn’t make sense.”
The rest of his story could have been very different if he had chosen to let the odds against succeeding overwhelm him, if he had stayed a street kid.
Today Tony has reconciled with his family and says he doesn’t have any resentment about the past. “Without it I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” he said. “The past is a combination of fairy tale, fantasy and illusion.
“Today I see myself as an artist, not just as an Australian or a Vietnamese. I tell people not to be afraid to be different. That’s what makes you unique.”