No laughing matter
10 May 2009
Before he turned three, future stand-up comic Anh Do had communists fire rifles at him and his family and survived five days in a leaky fishing boat eight and a half metres long and two metres wide and packed with 40 Vietnamese refugees fleeing across the Indian Ocean. “We were crammed in like sardines,” he says.
It was 1980 and his father Tam and mother Hien escaped Saigon, nearly five years after the end of the war, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam having unified the south and the north in an oppressive knot. The couple secured a perilous passage for themselves and their two boys Anh and Khoa.
Less lucky was one fellow adult refugee on board who would became delusional one night and leap to his death. And 18-month-old Khoa, too, almost drowned at sea – and not by accident.
Today, as painters slap a fresh white coat on the lounge walls of Do’s family home he shares with his wife, Australian-born former lawyer Suzie and their two boys Xavier, 5, and Luc, 3, in leafy Beecroft in Sydney’s north-west suburbs, it’s another world. In the backyard sits a cute wooden cubby house opposite a small fenced-in swimming pool. The boys are spoken to in both English and Vietnamese, and are gradually being taught of their dad’s leaky wooden vessel arrival of almost 30 years ago.
Do’s wider family – including two uncles sprung from the infamous Vietnam hard-labour “re-education” camps after fighting alongside Australian and US forces – are natural storytellers when they get together; jokers who will reminisce and rib each other over memories of their panic, as though facing down danger is the most natural thing in the world.
So it’s little surprise Do can switch to storytelling, because he has heard the stories from his family so many times before, as firmly in the present tense as his neatly coiffed hair and crisp purplish-blue collared shirt, even if the story comes from others’ memories. “As we leave Vietnam,” says the 31-year-old, sitting at the backyard table, “communist soldiers spot us in the distance; they chase us and they shoot at us. We get far enough away, but the bullets spring leaks in the boat.
“On day four we run out of food and water. On day five, mum sees a boat in the distance. She calls for us all to wake up, and we start jumping up and down, and wave for this boat to come over. We’re Catholic, you know, she thinks, ‘Thank you God, they’re going to share with us their food and water’. As it gets closer, we realise it’s a boatload of Thai pirates.
“Nine men armed with machetes and guns jump in our boat and they take everything. One of them asks my father how come we haven’t got any jewellery, and my father says we have nothing left. One of the pirates picks up the smallest child in the boat – a baby – and rips open the baby’s nappy, and a tiny bit of gold falls out.
“He yells out something my father doesn’t understand, and he dangles the kid over the side of the boat. My father screams out, ‘We have to save the kid; we will die fighting’. It’s a standoff, but for whatever reason, in that moment, the pirate decides to spare the kid’s life, and throws him back in.
“That little kid is my brother, Khoa." Khoa, a filmmaker who was the 2005 Young Australian of the Year, has chosen to centre his latest project,
, on a tale of escape from Vietnam. The film is screening at the Sydney Film Festival next month.
A German merchant ship rescued the refugees, who were taken to a Malaysian refugee camp, from where Do’s family applied to come to Australia, arriving three months later. They settled in Yagoona and a third child, Anh and Khoa’s baby sister Tram, was born here in 1981.
A love of sport would be key to Do’s success in “fitting in” in Australia: he would play rugby union for his Milsons Point school St Aloysius and league for the Merrylands Rams, and his anglo team mates would round on anyone who subjected him to a racist taunt, which didn’t happen often.
Do longed to play halfback for the Parramatta Eels, but he eventually settled for playing a football star in the 2006 film
, shot in western Sydney and directed by Khoa. Do’s naturally relishing his latest gig, hosting a sports quiz show for SBS,
, which promises to show other sides to sporting names from Warwick Capper to Pat Cash.
Having appeared in TV shows such as
Dancing with the Stars
, jobbed as a stand-up for corporate gigs and won awards such as Sydney Comedian of the Year, one senses Do’s proudest achievement came at the age of 21 when he fulfilled a childhood wish and bought his mother Hien a “friggin’ enormous” house in Yagoona.
Does his mum think he’s funny? “You know, my mum’s never seen me do stand up. Ever. She’s just too lazy to come. She says: ‘Oh, I’ve seen you on TV; I don’t know what you’re talking about anyway,’” Do laughs.
He began doing stand-up at a pub in 1998. “A lot of my humour is based around family, childhood and just everyday things people can relate to,” he says. One corporate client lauded him for being “non-offensive” with his material, though he once engaged in more blue humour for a bikie audience.
He credits his father Tam – “a risk taker who got my uncles out [of the re-education camps], a big kid” – with a “very physical” sense of humour and the ability to be funny that rubbed off; Do’s own sons reckon their grandfather is “the funniest guy in the world; he’s like a human walking cartoon”.
Tam was a street vendor in Vietnam when he met Do’s mother Hien in 1977; she was selling fruit on a train. “The Communist soldiers hassle her,” says Do, switching to storyteller, “and my father, this young brash guy, comes to the rescue. And my mum and dad fall in love, you know.”
Although the family made it to Sydney, Tam and Hien's relationship didn’t last. When Do was 13, his mother asked his father to leave the family home; Tam moved to Melbourne. “I adored him, but he had lost three brothers and his own dad in the war, so Dad used to drink a bit,” says Do.
“I didn’t see him again for the rest of my childhood. I missed him very much, actually. That was a big impact on my life.” Hien was making $5.80 an hour working in a clothing sweatshop and the family used to have to hide from the landlord because of overdue rent. Do would never admit at school he couldn’t afford all the textbooks.
He resumed contact with his father at age 22 when he was intending to propose to Suzie, then a fellow law student. Do had fallen just short of completing his law degree when comedy beckoned, although he did gain a bachelor of business.
He drove to Melbourne to tell Tam he’d found the right girl. “I tracked him down, and the drive was the longest 12 hours of my life,” he says. They reunited, and within months had rebuilt their relationship.
What impact did his father’s leaving have on Do‘s own parenting? “These days I probably spend 80 per cent of my waking hours with my kids,” says Do, sitting contentedly among three clothes horses thick with his family’s wet washing. Then, laughing, he says: “We have an annual membership to the zoo. So far, we’ve been about 22 times.”