"Because I looked like the enemy"

Veteran Phillip Chin Quan reckons with his time in Vietnam

Composite image of young Phillip in the Army and Phillip today

Warning: the following article contains racial slurs.

“In the Vietnam War… my first 36-hours in country, I attended two funerals… that’s what made me wake up, that we’re really in Vietnam.”

Phillip Chin Quan’s service in the Vietnam War is a stirring example of the ‘ANZAC spirit,’ a Chinese-Australian soldier winning the trust of his comrades while a deadlier foe waits in the jungle. The 71-year-old now lives with a diagnosis of “full-blown PTSD,” yet another legacy of the youth he sacrificed for his country.

But to look at him, you wouldn’t know about the demons he battles inside. Chin Quan, who has a blackbelt in karate, appears to be in the best shape of his life.

Image of Phillip today in RSL shirt, looking at the camera
Title: Darwin Beginnings

Chin Quan Road, a 300-metre stretch of asphalt dividing Darwin’s lush inner-north is a permanent fixture to the grit shown by generations of Chin Quans. It was named after Phillip’s grandparents who opened a piggery, market garden and mango plantation in the 1920s. The area would soon see war as close as Phillip has – during the Bombing of Darwin some two decades later.

“My father and his four brothers stayed behind to help with the military evacuations and defend the harbour, and they stayed there during the entire bombing raids of the Japanese,” Phillip said.

Re-establishing themselves in St Kilda, Melbourne the family opened one of Chinatown’s first commercial kitchens – the Weng Sheng – operating until the mid-1960s.

In a tri-generational household, Phillip was the youngest of six kids.

“Growing up in Australia, I'd always had a degree of racial taunting in school.”

“I wanted to defend myself, I was sick of getting punched around the school yard or having my older sisters following me around defending me," Phillip told Insight.

Phillip dove into the centring world of Gōjū-ryū Karate – a traditional Japanese karate with controlled breathing at its core.

“I turned up and started training in footy shorts and a T-shirt, in two years I was the assistant instructor.”

In a twist of fate, his first mentors, Sal Ebanez and Tino Ceberano, were Vietnam Era military men themselves.

The pair wrote to Phillip while he was deployed, encouraging him not to waste his life when he returned, but to recommence training at the dojo immediately.

Family photo of the Chin Quan family
Chin Quan family standing in front of house
Young Phillip in karate outfit with black belt
Images of Phillip in karate competitions
Images of Phillip in karate competitions as a young man
Title: 'Deployment and Racisim' and quote from Phillip: "because I looked like the enemy"

“Within eight and a half months from the time I got called up, I was on a Qantas flight heading for sunny Saigon.”

In 1969 Phillip was conscripted as a national serviceman. He was 19 years-old when he received the notice.

“I signed it and didn’t think about what it meant, then I did my recruit training at Puckapunyal and we were given three choices: infantry, dentistry, infantry – I’m not a dentist,” Phillip joked.

Never one to shy from a challenge, Phillip’s selection of the infantry was as good an excuse as any to “grow up” and see the world – even if that was through the sights of a rifle.

Like many “Nashos” sent to Vietnam, Phillip had little idea of what they were fighting for and at the time he “couldn’t find it on a map”.

“My first 36-hours in Vietnam, I attended two funerals for a couple of mates that were killed outside the wire overnight,” Phillip recalled.

Image of letter from when Phillip started his national service
Images of Phillip in army uniform, with his parents
Image of Phillip in army, holding a gun
Darkened image of army camp in Vietnam with tents and weapons
Darkened image of army camp in Vietnam with tents and weapons

He was assigned to Australia’s longest continually serving infantry company in South Vietnam, the Defence & Employment (D&E) Platoon.

He made his way to his assigned tent, finding that the rest of his unit were out on operations… and that the quarters were filthy.

“As a typical good Australian Chinese, I started cleaning the tent out, and pulling the mosquito net back,” Phillip recalled smiling.

“At that point I felt hungry, outside each tent there’s a scrape hole for your boots, I cleaned out the scrape hole and started a fire. I was cooking instant noodles and I had a pair of chopsticks I brought from home. I had my shirt off because it was stinking hot.

“So here I am, I’m squatting over this hole with no shirt on, cooking my noodles with chopsticks, then the rest of the blokes came back, they were shocked.

“They saw me squatting, one bloke said ‘What’s that gook doing down the lines?’

“He said it really loud, everybody stopped walking and talking, they were staring at me.

“I stood up and I turned around, I growled and I said ‘hey you ‘effin idiot, I’m not a gook you wanker.’

“That’s when they realised I was a reinforcement, and not an enemy.”

Not long after, an officer would ask Phillip to become the unit’s new forward scout, if he wore a “straw hat” and “black pyjamas”.

“Because I looked like the enemy, because I was Chinese,” Phillip said.

It’s a command that would place Phillip directly into the crosshairs of his comrades, and it’s something he refused.

“I was tail-end-Charlie for the rest of my tour… the guy at the back of the platoon, eating everybody else’s dust,” Phillip recalled.

Title: Winning Hearts and Minds

It was that resolute Chin Quan grit that hoisted him above adversity and kept him alive during a gruelling tour.

“Just to get back from an operation unscathed physically maybe, mentally maybe not, it was hard.”

“You’re shocked, you’re nervous, you’re confused … the main thing was always trying to get through it in one piece.”

Countering the anxieties of army life, and the looming fear of the enemy, Phillip’s Gōjū-ryū Karate was a grounding force for his wellbeing.

Between operations and unauthorised escapades to the Peter Badcoe Club in Vung Tau, Phillip’s martial arts training was a constant in a chaotic war.

After his time in the D&E platoon, Phillip was transferred to the First Australian Psychological Operations Unit where he’d live for weeks at a time in villages amongst the people.

“I felt close when I was in the villages and hamlets, because I empathised with the people,” Phillip said.

“During the day, they were harassed by the Americans, Australians and the Kiwis and at night-time they were harassed by the VC, and you can understand why they are so upset about how the war was affecting their lives.

“I was living in amongst them, they would actually come and give you a month supply of their food to feed you. We would eat it not thinking that gee, they’ve got nothing else to eat for the next three weeks.

“We would go back to the camp, raid the mess and ask the cook for some extra veggies. Pack a box and we’d take it back out and distribute it. You know that they might only ever get that once.”

Image of helicopter and servicemen in Vietnam
One of Phillip's photos of a house in Vietnam
Phillip's photo of a street in Vietnam
Title: Discovering PTSD and the solace of martial arts

On the 30th of September 1971 Phillip was discharged and began the arduous transition to civilian life. He found himself shut off emotionally and socially, and was unable to express the things he’d seen and done in Vietnam in ways that others would understand.

He and many other Vietnam Veterans felt shunned by the broader community, from those who felt the conflict was unjustified, to other veterans who thought Vietnam wasn’t a real war.

“We couldn’t talk about our experiences or share the problems that we encountered, because the people back home didn’t understand,” Phillip said.

“To the point that a lot of us have suffered from PTSD as a result of our war service, but we were never told about how it would affect us once we came home.”

A 2015 study found Australian Vietnam Veterans and their partners were at least six times more likely to take their own lives – with PTSD being a key risk factor.

A longitudinal study published in 2009 that looked at the physical and mental health of Australian Vietnam Veterans over three decades, found that rates of lifetime PTSD increase over the decades following deployment. For Phillip it took 33 years for the full extent of his PTSD to be revealed. In 2004, Phillip visited the Vietnam Veterans Museum on Phillip Island, finding the walls covered with pictures of soldiers he’d served with and units he was attached to. 

Later that night, Phillip’s infant daughter found him on the floor having a convulsive panic attack – the first in a series of collapses that would lead him to a diagnosis of “full-blown PTSD” and early medical retirement.

“I didn't realise that the traumas would affect me in the long term. None of us did.”

“We talk about serving for your country, but at the same time, there's a cost. You can't just walk away from it.”

News images of bombings in Vietnam and US planes

With years of treatment and medication under his belt; Phillip finds solace in his dojo in Sydney’s north-west. Dedicated training and teaching in Gōjū-ryū, with eldest son Adrian, helps him manage his symptoms the most.

“Martial arts is a big part of my life, as well as the veteran community that I'm now fully committed to.”

Image of Phillip today in karate outfit
Title: ANZAC Day: reconciliation and pride
Darkened landscape of mountains in Vietnam
Darkened landscape of mountains in Vietnam

It has taken Vietnam Veterans like Phillip decades to overcome those feelings of abandonment after returning home.  He’s now on his local RSL sub-branch committee, and has said it’s been a process of reconciliation.

“It’s taken a long time trying to heal those periods of pain.”

“I never wore medals until 2015, I never put them on my chest… they were in pieces and they sat in a closet in a drawer for decades before I took them out.

“I was just another one of the lost boys coming back to the fold.”

With commemorations in their 106th year, and as a custodian of the Hornsby War Memorial, Phillip spends ANZAC Day with his kids – proud as they rise at the crack of dawn, his medals pinned to their chests.

“I stand there, and they watch and then we go to the club for a gunfire breakfast with all the community, three, four thousand people, it’s beautiful.”

“We all have close affinity to the spirit of ANZAC. We have our way of using that commemoration day annually to think of our mates."

If this story raises any issues for you, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or
1800 628 036 for ADF members and families.

More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.

Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Photos: Phillip Chin Quan & The Australian War Memorial
Video: Gavin Blyth
With thanks to the Hornsby RSL Sub-Branch