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As a new millennium beckons, the streets of Cabramatta remain in the dark ages, infested by drugs and crime but slowly the Vietnamese community, so quiet for so long, find their voice.

The History of Vietnamese-Australian Migration

Cabramatta is the tiny Sydney suburb that changed Australia forever. Now a thriving example of multiculturalism, Cabramatta’s story is a dramatic and turbulent tale of the Vietnamese community finding a voice and overcoming the odds. These are forty of the key days in the Vietnamese community’s history and some thoughts and reflections from their members. Scroll through the years and click on the notes button for an in-depth insight into the events.
Tri Minh Tran is murdered

Police search grounds of "Boronia Gardens" block of units in McBurney Street, Cabramatta, after Tri Minh Tran’s murder, 1995 (Newspix).

7 AUGUST – In August 1995, Tri Minh Tran, leader of the most high-profile ‘street gang’ in Cabramatta, known as the 5T, was murdered in his apartment in McBurney Road, by unknown gunmen.

The 5T’s main activities consisted of extortion, home invasion and heroin dealing.

With the death of Tri, the heroin problem in Cabramatta worsened. The number of dealers multiplied and street violence increased, as they fought each other for control of the heroin trade.

August 1995
Refugees begin arriving in Cabramatta

Park Rd looking toward John St, Cabramatta, 1970 (Fairfield City Library).

AUGUST - In August that year, a further group of refugees arrived in Australia, having fled by their own means from Portuguese East Timor to Darwin. By September 1975, this group had swollen to 1355 persons, many of whom were accommodated at the Cabramatta Migrant Hostel17.

The area around Cabramatta contained three migrant hostels where many Vietnamese refugees stayed until they got on their feet. Most found their first jobs in Western Sydney’s manufacturing sector and once they were able to move into homes in the private rental market, stayed in the area18.


17 Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (1976) Australia and the Refugee Problem. December 1976.

Howard government introduces tougher immigration measures

John Howard on the campaign trail, 1996 (National Archives of Australia).

By 1996, Vietnamese immigration had effectively ceased, following tough new rules on family re-union made by the Howard government (elected in 1996)44.

Meanwhile, the CCC Needle & Syringe Exchange Program was distributing clean needles to an average of 80-100 drug users per day45.

45 Collie, J. (2005) History of the CCC. Cabramatta Community Centre, NSW.

Official end of ‘White Australia Policy’

A British mother and her son stand outside a row of Nissen huts at Cabramatta Hostel, circa 1960 (Fairfield City Library).

The ‘White Australia Policy’ (Immigration Restriction Act 1901) intentionally restricted the migration of ‘non-white’ people to Australia from 1901 until the early-1970s.

It was gradually abolished after the Second World War, but an emphasis on European migration remained until 1966, when the government allowed the migration of ‘distinguished’ non-Europeans3. These migrants were expected to ‘assimilate’ and to shed their existing cultural identities when they came to Australia.

In 1973, the Whitlam government removed the last vestiges of the policy by dropping all references to race as a criterion for immigration4, and replacing the policy of ‘assimilation’ with that of ‘multiculturalism’. However, migration rates at the time were kept low and the new policy had yet to be tested by large-scale migration5.


4 5

How strange to know that the White Australia policy wasn't fully removed until 1973. That's 2 years after I arrived in Sydney from Saigon, and 2 years just before the Vietnam War ended and the arrival of Vietnamese refugees began. But Vietnamese are now a deep part of Australia's richly diverse landscape, contributing so much. Two former Young Australians of the Year have been Vietnamese. We bring much social and cultural richness, through our stories, working lives, creative explorations and charity work. We might have lost much, but never our courage and heart.
Australia becomes involved in the Vietnam war

Troops of 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment move though paddy field after, being dropped by American helicopters during a search and destroy mission Vietnam, 1967 (National Archives of Australia).

The Vietnam War (1955-75) was fought between communist North Vietnamese forces and the American-backed South Vietnamese government1. This conflict was preceded by the First Indochina War, which ousted French colonial rule (1946-54).

Australia was involved in the conflict from 1962 until 1975 (although its role was predominately diplomatic after 1971), and it was to be the longest war in Australia’s military history. Almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam; 521 died as a result of the war and over 3,000 were wounded2.


I remember 1954 as the year that my country was divided into two. My family migrated from North to South. I was only 6 years old but what happen in Vietnam affected the rest of my life. In my 20s I was fighting in the army for 6 years, caught by the communist and suffered another 6 years in the re-education camps. I always dreamed of becoming a teacher but, like I others, was a part of a lost generation.
Pauline Hanson forms One Nation Party

Pauline Hanson at the Shamrock Hotel, Bendigo, Victoria, July 1998 (National Library of Australia).

11 APRIL – In April 1997, right-wing politician, Pauline Hanson together with her senior advisor David Oldfield, formed the controversial ‘One Nation Party’. Their main platform was anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism. In particular, she mobilized the discourse around Asian gangs and criminality to justify her position that Australia should put a stop to Asian immigration46.


Pauline Hanson, a supposedly hardworking fish and chip shop from Ipswich in south east Queensland, inserted herself in the national political picture of Australia by demonising Asians and their hard work ethic. In the process of racialising whole communities and playing on the politics of fear, Hanson actually ironically strengthened the resolve of communities in Cabramatta to show a different side to her flawed narrative.
April 1997
Fall of Saigon signals beginning of Vietnamese immigration

In late March 1975, the Australian goverment used seven RAAF C130 aircrafts to evacuate more than 100 South Vietnamese civillians from the refugee camp at An Thoi (Australian War Memorial).

30 APRIL - Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam) fell when the North Vietnamese Army invaded the city, capturing the presidential palace. This action marked the official end of the Vietnam War10.

The fall of Saigon initially triggered the flight of up to 150,000 South Vietnamese to overcrowded refugee camps in surrounding countries11. In the years that followed the war, two million people sought to escape the country as conditions worsened12

The scale of the crisis prompted the Australian Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, to begin an investigation of how Australia should respond13.


11 Hawthorne, Lesleyanne, 1982 Refugee, the Vietnamese experience / edited by Lesleyanne Hawthorne Oxford University Press, Melbourne

1975 was when the communist took over Vietnam. I was 20, I was still studying and we knew we lost when the soldiers charged into the Saigon city and told over the all the buildings. From that point our future was uncertain.
Operation Babylift

RAAF crew feed Vietnamese orphans during second flight of ‘Operation Babylift’, 1975 (Australian War Memorial).

4 AND 17 APRIL - In the last month of the Vietnam war, as American forces were leaving Vietnam, more than 3000 Vietnamese babies were airlifted from orphanages and adopted by couples in the US, Canada, Britain, Europe and Australia.

Some 270 of these children were brought to Australia on two RAAF flights on the 4 and 17 of April8. Although many Westerners saw the operation as a humanitarian necessity, some Vietnamese saw it as kidnapping, as some of the children were not in fact orphans9.


9 Film Australia National Interest Program (2005) Operation Babylift: Teachers Notes. National Film & Sound Archive, Australia

Operation Babylift was Australia's greatest humanitarian project of all time, I am proud to be part of it, without it my life would be somewhat different. Despite the challenges I faced growing up & still do today, I am proud to be an Australian Vietnamese!
Phuong Ngo arrested for murder of John Newman

Phuong Ngo, during his period of service as a Fairfield City Council Alderman, 1991 (Fairfield City Library).

13 MARCH – In March 1998, former Labor MP Phuong Ngo was arrested for the murder of John Newman. The arrest sent shockwaves through the Vietnamese community, as Ngo was largely seen as a community leader48.

Ngo had come to Australia as a refugee from Vietnam in 1981 and become a prominent businessman in the Cabramatta community.

He had established the Mekong Club, a community club providing employment opportunities for local Vietnamese.

In 1991, he became an independent councilor and, in 1993, joined the ALP, but he was not eligible for pre-selection in 1994 election.

48 Priest, T. (2010) On Deadly Ground: The Assassination of John Newman MP. New Holland Publishers Australia

Racial Discrimination Act 1975 passed by Parliament

Proclamation of Racial Discrimination Act by Immigration Minister, Mr Al Grassby, 1975 (National Archives of Australia).

11 JUNE - The Racial Discrimination Act was finally passed by Parliament after three failed attempts - subsequently allowing Australia to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), to which it had been a signatory since 19666.

This Act outlaws discrimination and or vilification of an individual on the grounds of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, and immigration status7.


6 Making Multicultural Australia Key Events and the Racial Discrimination Act. Race Discrimination Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission State of the Nation 1995 - A Report on People of Non-English Speaking Backgrounds Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995, pp 289-292.


Australia pledges support to Vietnamese refugees

Australia provided aid to Vietnamese civilians both during and after the war. In this picture Australian soldiers watch young boys eating food donated to the Dong Chua Orphanage, Saigon, 1967 (National Archives of Australia).

The Vietnamese refugee crisis prompted an international humanitarian response, to which Australia committed support. Australia’s treaty obligations and involvement in the war meant it had a moral obligation to assist the refugees14. However, the government was initially reluctant to accommodate large numbers of refugees, choosing instead to provide aid.

In 1975, Australia gave refuge to 748 Vietnamese people selected from camps in Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia15. These were mostly elite Vietnamese, Chinese Businessmen and Catholics who faced severe reprisals from the new government16.


15 Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (1976) Australia and the Refugee Problem. December 1976.


Cabramatta Police LAC ranked 51st out of 80 in the state

Cabramatta Police Station, 1992 (Fairfield City Library).

16 JUNE – In 2000, Cabramatta was ranked 51st out of 80 Local Area Commands using the police reporting system known as the Crimes Index, supposedly making it safer than North Shore commands like Roseville, which ranked 38th.

This was largely due to the fact that the Crimes Index did not include drug offences or violent crimes, and was therefore misleading. The figures resulted in the Cabramatta police department being seriously under resourced during one of the darkest periods in its policing history49.

49 New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council. General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 (2001) Report on Inquiry into Cabramatta Policing. PARLIAMENTARY PAPER NUMBER 864. July

Senate Standing Committee publishes refugee report

Steve Carter, Migrant Officer at a Malaysian Vietnamese refugee camp, deals with applications from those seeking refuge in Australia, 1979 (National Archives of Australia).

DECEMBER – In 1976, the Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence published its report, ‘Australia and the Refugee Problem.’ The committee found that the Department of Immigration had failed to adequately assist the refugees.

The reports 44 recommendations marked the beginning of a new thinking which transformed the national refugee program22.

The census that year, the first to record Vietnamese born people separately, showed there were 2,427 Vietnamese foreign-nationals living in Australia23.

Over the next ten years, 94,000 refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam settled in Australia24.



Anti-immigration group ‘National Action’ stages demonstrations

Ross May, dressed in a Nazi uniform attempts to disrupt a Labor party rally at Hyde Park in Sydney, 1975 (Newspix).

As the numbers of refugees arriving on boats increased, a group called ‘National Action’, under the leadership of self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, Ross May, organized demonstrations at migrant centres in the Cabramatta area, protesting against the ‘Asian invasion’27.


Thang Ngo receives a letter from Year 6 students about Hughes Playground

July 23, 2000, Drug Paraphernalia at Hughes Street Park in Cabramatta (Newspix)

26 June – In June 2000, Thang received a letter from Year 6 students at Cabramatta West Public School, drawing his attention to the playground in Hughes Street near which most of the kids lived50.

They told him that they couldn’t play there because there were too many syringes on the ground, they had been approached by addicts and had seen addicts overdosing on the playground “with their lips turning purple and stuff coming out of their mouths”.

Thang sent out a release to the media and the response was immediate.

Following the incident, more people in the Vietnamese community began to come to him with their grievances and the community began to find a voice.


A small group of year 6 students, from a variety of backgrounds, wrote to the local council as the result of a unity on Government. Students spoke of their concerns of drug activity near their homes and in the local park.I validated their concerns and we spoke about possible solutions. Students were told that they or their parents were able to talk to their politicians and that it was safe to do so. They decided that they would like to write a letter to the local council and this became the focus of their lessons. We spent a great deal of time discussing their fears and worries. Their letter was posted to the local council and one member took the time to reply to the students. They felt proud that their letter was the catalyst for action. They came in excitedly when they saw the changes that took place in their park.
First Vietnamese refugees arrive by boat

Four fishing boats bring refugees to Darwin, 1977 (National Archives of Australia).

26 APRIL – On 26 April, five Vietnamese refugees came directly to Australia by boat to seek asylum. Landing in Darwin Harbour in a 17-metre fishing vessel, they were Australia’s first ‘boat people’19.

Another 55 boats would follow in the next six years, carrying about 2000 Vietnamese refugees, a small proportion of Australia’s overall intake20. Many others died making the perilous journey on unseaworthy vessels, in severe storms or were attacked by pirates21.



The Orderly Departure Program begins

Vietnamese refugees arrive in Canberra, 1979 (National Archives of Australia).

In Geneva in 1979, following negotiations between the Government of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Vietnamese Government agreed to forcibly constrain unregulated boat departures, but permit an Orderly Departure Program (ODP) in which Vietnamese were permitted to apply to migrate to specific countries28.


My family stayed back in Vietnam. We had little choice and freedom and I dreamed of leaving to Australia to join my husband. I finally came and settled into Cabramatta. It was a new place but with familiar faces. I was still homesick and longed for my daughter left in my country to join me.
Bob Carr introduces special police powers to combat the drug trade in Cabramatta

Bob Carr at Cabramatta police station (Newspix)

MARCH - In March 2001, Bob Carr announced expanded police powers aimed at combating the drug trade, including powers of search and arrest that would assist police to penetrate the drug houses.

Police could now arrest people for being in the vicinity of a drug house or for being on a premises where drugs were sold. Using these powers police was able to make significant arrests and gradually dealers began moving out of Cabramatta.

Australian Refugee Advisory Council is established

Women and children in cabin on the boat from Vietnam, Darwin, November 1977 (National Library of Australia).

OCTOBER – The ‘Australian Refugee Advisory Council’ was established to recommend improvements in the way the country dealt with an increasing number of refugees29.



The foundation meeting of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) was held on 19 November 1981. The meeting was convened by Major General Paul Cullen, then president of Austcare, and included representatives from Austcare, the Australian Council of Churches, the Federation of Australian Jewish Welfare Societies, Lutheran World Federation, Save the Children, St Vincent de Paul and World Vision. The following afternoon, RCOA’s Constitution was presented for adoption at a public meeting with 41 people present. On 25 November, a delegation of four RCOA members met with then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Ian Macphee, in the first of many meetings between RCOA and senior Ministers to discuss the community sector’s ideas and concerns about Australia’s approach to supporting refugees. Today, RCOA has around 150 organisational and 550 individual members and continues to promote the development of humane, lawful and constructive policies towards refugees and asylum seekers by Australian and other governments and their communities.
SEACA becomes Cabramatta Community Centre

These signs point to the range of services made available to the community by the centre, 1981 (Fairfield City Library).

In 1981, the work of SEACA was formally recognized by the Department of Youth and Community Services and it was funded as a Migrant Neighbourhood Centre, the first in NSW.

The organization continued to expand its services and changed its name to Cabramatta Community Centre.

Over the decade from 1981 to 1991, the average Vietnamese intake stood at around 8,000 per year32.


Inquiry report on Cabramatta policing released

The changes implemented by Cabramatta police following the report’s release, have improved the relationship between police and the community (Fairfield City Library).

JULY – In July 2001, the Inquiry published its findings in a report that heavily critiqued the Crime Index reporting system and highlighted the police’s failure to engage with the community.

It made 25 recommendations on Policing in Cabramatta, these included providing interpreters, raising the proportion on non-English speaking officers and undertaking cultural training55, which has improved the relationship between the Cabramatta community and its police force.

55 New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council. General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 (2001) Report on Inquiry into Cabramatta Policing. PARLIAMENTARY PAPER NUMBER 864. July

The South East Asian Community Assistance Centre (SEACA) is established

The Cabramatta Civic Centre on Railway Pd, 1971 (Fairfield City Library).

By the end of 1979, the Carramar Activity Group had realized that the needs of recently arrived refugees required the establishment of a formal organization.

They made an application for funding to the Department of Immigration, which was granted in 1980, and the group moved into an office in the Cabramatta Civic Centre30.

During 1980, 12,915 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Australia - the second largest intake of any year31.


31 Collie, J. (2005) History of the CCC. Cabramatta Community Centre, NSW.

Australia accepts refugees under the Orderly Departure Program

Vietnamese refugees board plane for Australia, 1979 (National Archives of Australia).

By 1982, 55,000 Vietnamese refugees had been resettled in Australia33.

In that year, the Australian Government began admitting Vietnamese refugees under the Orderly Departure Program, largely focusing on reuniting refugees with their relatives who were already in Australia.


Khoa Do becomes Young Australian of the Year

Khoa Do becomes Young Australian of the Year

Khoa Do is a film director, screenwriter, professional speaker and philanthropist.

In 2005, he received the Young Australian of the Year Award for his services in drama and working with youths in south-west Sydney.
A Vietnamese refugee, he arrived in Sydney with his family in 1980.

He has made five films, including a film about three youths in Cabramatta, called ‘The Finished Peoples’, the subject of much critical acclaim56.


Cabramatta CBD begins to take on an ‘Asian character’

Park Rd, Cabramatta in the early 1980’s (Fairfield City Library).

Between 1981 and 1986 the number of Vietnamese refugees living in Cabramatta more than doubled, from 3,800 to 9,40035.

An increasing number of Vietnamese and Chinese businesses began operating in Cabramatta, largely to service the needs of the growing migrant community and the suburb began to take on an ‘Asian character’.


Over the years, many migrants from south-east Asia have made Cabramatta their new home. Our residents and businesses have proudly brought with us our distinct culture, variety of different food and unique way of life from Vietnam, China and across Asia. We invite you to come to the Cabramatta CBD and see for yourself!
Restructuring of the manufacturing sector causes unemployment

Refugees were employed by lawn mower manufacturing firm Victa in Canberra, 1979 (National Archives of Australia).

After initial success finding jobs in the manufacturing sector in western Sydney, Vietnamese Australians were hit hard by the restructuring of the 1980s, particularly in the auto and garment industries.

Subsequently they suffered some of the highest rates of unemployment of any group in the nation through the 1980s and 1990s (over 30 percent)34.


Community members form the Carramar Activity Group to assist refugees

Ulla Bartels, founder of the Carramar Activity Group gave the refugees free English classes in her home. Here she is pictured receiving the Australia Day Citizens Award in Fairfield, 1982 (Fairfield City Library).

In 1978, 5,400 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Australia25. Many arrived having suffered severe trauma from war, torture, starvation and family separation. Most spoke little or no

As the numbers of refugees increased, the limited welfare services available at the time were unprepared to deal with their needs.

Cabramatta community volunteers formed the Carramar Activity Group to provided basic support services like childcare and English classes to the new arrivals, without government funding.


26 Collie, J. (2005) History of the CCC. Cabramatta Community Centre, NSW

Dai Le runs as the Liberal candidate for the seat of Cabramatta

Dai Le runs as the Liberal candidate for the seat of Cabramatta

In 2011, Vietnamese born, Dai Le, ran against Labor MP Nick Lalich for the Cabramatta seat in the NSW state election.

The former ABC journalist mounted a formidable challenge in the normally safe Labor seat and lost by a very small margin – receiving 47.9 per cent of the votes after preferences57.

Le left Vietnam with her mother and sister after the Fall of Saigon, when she was only 11 years old. They eventually came to Australia and settled in Cabramatta58.



Dai Le transformed the political landscape in Cabramatta. Cabramatta was a very safe Labor seat, with a swing of more than 30%. As a Vietnamese refugee, Dai Le connected with the local population, she shared their story, their concerns and their hopes. Dai Le showed that no seat is inherently safe and that no voter is inherently Labor or Liberal. Dai Le crossed the political boundary and captured the imagination of a community. Dai Le achieved a 29% overall swing since the October 2008 by-election, making Cabramatta one of the most marginal seats in New South Wales today.
Zaya Toma | AGE 30
John Newman wins the Cabramatta state seat

John Newman (centre) during his time as an Alderman for Fairfield Council, with Mrs Kathy Collins (left) and Mr Bernie Creach (right), Fairfield, NSW (Fairfield City Library).

In 1986, Labor MP John Newman, won the State seat of Cabramatta and would hold it for three successive elections.

Newman, a migrant of Austrian-Croatian descent, changed his surname from Naumenko by deed poll in 1972.

He grew up in the Cabramatta area and was elected to Fairfield council in 1977, where he remained an alderman for 10 years.

He was also Deputy Mayor from 1985-86 and served as Acting Mayor in 198637.

37 Priest, T. (2010) On Deadly Ground: The Assassination of John Newman MP. New Holland Publishers Australia

“Blainey Debate” takes place in Australian media

Historian Geoffrey Blainey at a Constitutional Convention, 1998 (National Library of Australia).

At first, the Australian public was sympathetic to the cause of Vietnamese refugees, but as their numbers increased, so did fears of an ‘Asian invasion’.

In 1984, Melbourne University's Professor Blainey initiated a debate in the media over the scale and pace of Asian immigration and its potential detrimental effects on social cohesion, which has become known as the "Blainey Debate".

However, the refugees continued arriving at a steady rate and between 1986 and 1991, 44,984 Vietnamese arrived in Australia36.



Liberal party launches One Australia Policy

Portrait of Opposition Leader John Howard, 1986 (National Library of Australia)

AUGUST – In 1988, the Liberal party, under the leadership of then Opposition leader, John Howard, launched the ‘One Australia Policy’, which urged that Asian immigration be reduced for the sake of social cohesion38.


August 1988
John Newman is assassinated

The front page of the Telegraph Mirror newspaper shows Newman’s wife as she talks to police after the shooting (Newspix).

5 SEPTEMBER – In September 1994, John Newman was shot outside his home, in what would come to be known as Australia’s first political assassination.

From that point on, Cabramatta found itself perpetually in the shadow of negative publicity. The tabloid press began calling it ‘the heroin capital of Sydney’, referring to the Cabramatta train as the ‘junkie express’.

His controversial death sparked a four-year investigation – during which many assumed he had been the latest victim of Cabramatta’s ‘Asian gangs’.

Reba Meagher was appointed to replace Newman in the seat, later winning it in her own right at the State election in October43.


43 Priest, T. (2010) On Deadly Ground: The Assassination of John Newman MP. New Holland Publishers Australia.

It was like a real turning point for Cabramatta. The 80s and early 90s saw law and order issue problems developing in Cabramatta and Newman was the only one getting attention from parliament. He was constantly trying to get action done and trying to clean up Cabramatta. All the efforts after was a bandage solution.
September 1994
Newman warns State Parliament of the threat of Asian gangs

Two suspected drug dealers, known as 'Chinas', sit in Cabramatta shopping mall waiting for customers, 1995 (Newspix).

In 1989, John Newman warned the NSW State Parliament that ‘Asian gangs’ had a foothold in Cabramatta.

"The Asian gangs involved don't fear our laws. But there's one thing they do fear and that's possible deportation back to the jungles of Vietnam, because that's where, frankly, they belong"39.

Newman would become a frequent spokesperson on the issue ‘Asian gangs’ in the media, however little changed for the local community which was increasingly affected by street crime.


Police launch “Operation Puccini”

Senior Constable Chris Hughes arrests suspected 5T gang member, Van Ngoc Nguyen of Granville, after a chase in Cabramatta, during “Operation Puccini”, 1997 (Newspix).

JULY - In 1997, Bob Carr announced that his government was going to ‘clean-up’ Cabramatta. Under the new police commissioner Peter Ryan, “Operation Puccini” was launched in July, with the intention of swamping Cabramatta’s streets with hundreds of police officers applying ‘zero tolerance’ to crime47.

In the short term, the operation appeared to be a success producing a high volume of arrests. However, such policing was expensive and could not be maintained indefinitely.

In response to the operation, many dealers moved into highly-fortified drug houses, making it more difficult and more expensive for police to make high-profile arrests because they needed warrants.

It also meant some residents were now surrounded by drug houses and were living in fear of their drug-dealing neighbours.



Iconic Pai Lau gateway is built in Cabramatta’s Freedom Plaza

The Gateway in Freedon Plaza, Cabramatta, 1991 (Fairfield City Library)

The iconic gateway or Pai Lau is built in Freedom Plaza, a pedestrian mall between the main shopping areas of John Street and Arthur Street, and opened on Chinese New Year by then Premier of New South Wales, Nick Greiner.

It is a symbol of the South-East Asian communities in the area and reinforces Cabramatta's image as western Sydney's Chinatown. The gateway has since been Heritage listed because of its significance to the whole community40.


Thang Ngo is elected to Fairfield council

Fairfield Council Alderman, Thang Ngo (Fairfield City Library).

MARCH – Vietnamese refugee Thang Ngo was elected to Fairfield council as an Independent, in March 1999. Ngo was disappointed at the indifference toward Cabramatta’s drug issue in the council and decided something needed to be done.

He and Ross Treyvaud, President of the Cabramatta Chamber of Commerce initially formed a group called ‘Cabramatta Against Crime’, which they used to highlight issues to the police.

Ngo also began compiling a series of media releases about drug related problems in Cabramatta that attracted media attention and put pressure on the police to take action and make the streets safe again.

Heroin dealing in Cabramatta increases dramatically

Drug deals were being carried out in the open at Cabramatta Station, 2001 (Newspix).

While heroin had been in the area prior to the arrival of the Vietnamese, new links to South East Asia meant supply lines to Australia had improved41.

In the years between 1990 and 1992, there was a major shift from low-level to high-level dealing of heroin on the streets of Cabramatta.

High unemployment rates among young people, coupled with financial disadvantage and the existence of a large group of young men without adequate familial support meant that dealers had a large labour pool to draw from.

Locals noticed an increasing number of non-Vietnamese people coming to Cabramatta to score, where the available heroin was purer and cheaper than other parts of Sydney.

41 New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council. General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 (2001) Report on Inquiry into Cabramatta Policing. PARLIAMENTARY PAPER NUMBER 864. July

NSW Upper house inquiry into Cabramatta police resources

Helen Sham Ho at the launch of the review of inquiry into Cabramatta policing, 2002 (Newspix).

27 JUNE - Following intense lobbying by Thang Ngo and Legislative Council Member Helen Sham-Ho, the NSW Senate announced a parliamentary inquiry into Cabramatta policing51.

The inquiry began taking submissions in December and continued to do so for a year.

The State MP for seat of Cabramatta, Reba Meagher, refused to support the inquiry.


51 New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council. General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 (2001) Report on Inquiry into Cabramatta Policing. PARLIAMENTARY PAPER NUMBER 864. July

Cabramatta Community Centre (CCC) opens needle exchange service

Drug addict in Hughes Park in Cabramatta, 2000 (Newspix)

As the heroin problem escalated, the CCC began operating a low-key needle exchange program, which became busier and busier in the years that followed.

The CCC later also established an Outreach Needle Exchange van that operated in Cabramatta on Friday and Saturday nights42.

42 Collie, J. (2005) History of the CCC. Cabramatta Community Centre, NSW.

Phuong Ngo convicted of John Newman murder

Phuong Ngo being led away by police after the trial (Newspix).

21 JUNE - In June 2001, after two mistrials, Phuong Ngo was convicted of ordering the killing of John Newman, and was sentenced to life imprisonment52.

The prosecution in the case argued that John Newman was a political rival of Ngo and that Ngo had killed him to get his seat in

However, senior Australian Labor Party figures, including John Della Bosca, testified that Ngo was in fact seeking a different seat in the Legislative Council.

In June 2008, an inquiry into the conviction was conducted, which addressed several of the concerns raised about the validity the conviction, but the conviction was upheld54.



One Day in Cabramatta

Inspired by the series, this collective voice captures the spirit of Cabramatta and serves as a time capsule for future generations to read and share stories from the past, and understand the journey that has shaped their suburb.

In Our Own Words

Immerse yourself in the stories of the community through this thematic video wall featuring the series’ contributors. Explore and understand the issues at the heart of each contributor as they try to find their place in Australia.
Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta
DVD / iTunes Digital Download

The untold story of how the Vietnamese community overcame the odds and found their place in Australia.