THE CRAPPIEST REFUGEE
Affirm Press, $29.99
When comedian Hung Le was growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s and '80s, he had a eureka moment when he realised some Vietnamese refugees were good at maths and some weren't. He recognised he sat firmly in the latter camp.
"I went to school with migrant kids who seem to breeze through school and uni and here I was failing HSC English. D'oh …"
He planned to write a novel about a refugee who ends up working on cruise ships, telling jokes about coming by boat, who is bad at maths, is hopeless with computers and can't even play the violin in tune. "Then it hit me: that's me. So instead of making up a story, I'll just write my story," says this self-confessed Saigon-born bogan with an Aussie accent, whose mischief with a fiddle and ukulele would get him performing around the world.
The Crappiest Refugee (an obvious nod to Anh Do's The Happiest Refugee) is Hung Le's third book. In some respects it is a traditional rags-to-riches trajectory of the second-generation child who eventually makes good after being transposed in an alien environment, but only after having to deal with cultural-clash hiccups.
But this memoir, written in a rambling manner that matches Le's own peripatetic path in entertainment, maintains a jokey stand-up tone throughout. Even when the situation is dire, he tries to defuse the grimness with levity, ("The ship had set off with no food, water, fuel, karaoke … nothin."). His love of puns is there throughout – "Wok and roll", "Now and Zen" "Hollywoodn't" are some of the chapter titles. That one of the first Vietnamese boat people ends up telling jokes on luxury cruise liners many moons later is a punchline in itself.
Le was born in 1966, with the name Le Trung Hung – Vietnamese for Renaissance Man. He has fulfilled that grandiose promise in his decades-long career as a musician, comedian, actor and documentary-maker.
He grew up with a lychee tree and an enormous Buddha, sculpted by his artist father, in the family front yard. But the house was behind the Presidential Palace, "which in 1970s Saigon was a very stupid place to live … That's where all the shooting was aimed."
On April 29, 1975, when he was nine, the tanks rolled in and Le and his family were forced to escape in a prawn trawler. It felt like being on a "wafer-thin piece of wet cigarette paper blowing in the wind".
After surviving storms and the captain abandoning his own ship, they were rescued by the US Navy and sojourned at Guam before being flown to Melbourne in the middle of winter. Le's first home in Australia was a one-bedroom flat that had to accommodate nine people; his relatives worked in a succession of blue-collar jobs to eke out a precarious living.
But Le wasn't one to conform to parental and societal expectations of being the good Asian refugee and following the pathway of secure employment. Though he and his siblings were pushed into being music geeks, Le was a smart-arse rebel who credits Charlie Chaplin's slapstick, Bruce Lee's physical chutzpah and his mother's deafness (necessitating face pulling and sign language) for his own performance style.
He deliberately played his violin out of tune for his own (and eventually others') amusement. "I wanted to be the Jerry Lewis of the fiddle, causing chaos and mayhem behind the facade of classical music," he says.
After his string quartet (which actually consisted of five members) won Red Faces on Hey Hey It's Saturday, Le found himself on an extraordinary career that led him to perform not just music, but also stand-up comedy at festivals globally, including a gig with The Muppets in London and on Weird Al Yankovic's TV special in the States.
"Being versatile is the aim. You watch those old vaudeville acts and old movie stars, they can all sing and dance and tell jokes and clown and play instruments and write music – everything," he says.
When asked about his thoughts on the number of Asians in the entertainment industry today, Le is optimistic. "The flood gates have opened. Great to see a couple of Vietnamese actors in the new Star Wars. And now with Black Panther, next would definitely have to be an Asian super hero … by day a mild-mannered pho chef, but by night … Kikkoman, whose super power is that he shoots soy sauce in baddies' eyes. Now that would really sting."
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter