Saturday 14 September would have seen 30,000 people making their annual pilgrimage to the Sydney International Regatta Centre to attend Defqon.1, a hard dance music festival organised by Dutch company Q-Dance. In May this year, however, Q-Dance announced that the festival was indefinitely postponed.
Last year, following the drug-related deaths of Diana Nguyen, 21, and Joseph Pham, 23, at the festival, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced in a press conference, “I never want to see this event held in Sydney or New South Wales ever again – we will do everything we can to shut this down.”
The concern is understandable. In December 2017, 18 year-old Hoang Nathan Tran also died from an overdose of what he believed to be MDMA at Knockout Circuz. From September 2018 to January 2019, another three young people died from drug-related deaths at music festivals across New South Wales: Callum Brosnan, 19, Josh Tam, 22, and Alex Ross-King, 19. These deaths are tragic, all the more because they are preventable.
When I think about the deaths of Hoang Nathan Tran, Diana Nguyen, and Joseph Pham in particular, I think about how Vietnamese-Australians are overrepresented in these highly prolific deaths, how close I am to the music communities that they were a part of, and how sheer luck has kept me alive today.
It was a visceral sense of belonging...helping us celebrate the happy coincidences that brought us together on the dancefloor.
I don’t think that ethnic makeup is a coincidence. Nor do I believe it’s an accident that Viets love electronic dance music. Our taekwondo mates gave us CDs burnt with files named ‘cOsMiC_gAtE_eXpLoRaTiOn_Of_SpAcE.wma’. We first tasted independence and got mad calves playing Dance Dance Revolution at Time Zone. And we laughed at each other’s Asian flush when work, study and home began to crush us. Electronic music subgenres trance, Eurobeat, happy hardcore, and hardstyle are the soundtrack to growing up Asian in Sydney and Melbourne; music festivals like Defqon.1 celebrate lonely pasts, carefree presents, and promising futures in excessive glory.
Yale academic Judy Soojin Park argues that Asian-Americans use EDM festivals (used interchangeably with ‘rave subcultures’) as spaces to celebrate their cultural belonging away from the baggage of expectations from their parents, or overt racism from white society, thanks to the rave ethos of Peace, Love, Unity, Respect (PLUR). In short, rave subcultures provide young Asian-Americans with spaces in which they may explore their identities and create new ones.
Park’s study focuses on Asian-Americans and rave cultures in the United States, so her conclusions don’t necessarily translate smoothly to an Australian context, but her arguments do provide food for thought: Just like Asian-Americans, raves offer Asian-Australians with social networks, tastes, independence, and stress relief.
My drug-friendly attitude today is at odds with my Vietnamese-Australian childhood in 90s Cabramatta, when it was infamous for its heroin-related crime. I remember kicking used syringes into drains before playing handball, stepping around people overdosing on the street on my way to English tutoring (which consisted almost entirely of reading passages from James Bond books), and visiting family friends who’d been paralysed from beatings over money they owed to gangs. It’s hard to disassociate drugs from the death and destruction I’ve witnessed, and Asian-Australian friends from Western Sydney express similar sentiments, particularly around heroin.
It’s hard to disassociate drugs from the death and destruction I’ve witnessed
Ten years later, I was out drinking with mates after work. We caught taxis to The Star, which was mysteriously untouched by NSW’s 2014 lockout laws. I paid $30 entry, $30 for a cap, and $48 for a round of gin and tonics. It was weird to be dancing to the music I heard at Anytime Fitness Cabramatta.
My eyes rolled back involuntarily. The distorted kick drum throbbed through my chest, the bass reverberated through my limbs, and my shoulders shuddered to Garng, garng, garng, garng, garng, garng, garng, ga-garng. Strangers moved in sync with me, as if a wire were tethered to the beat and threaded through our limbs. It was a visceral sense of belonging, music and molly helping us celebrate the happy coincidences that brought us together on the dancefloor.
What stood out to me was that communal feeling, being one and totally comfortable in a crowd of strangers. It was welcome after ending my first serious relationship, working a dead-end job and recovering, psychologically and financially, from getting evicted. The late cultural critic Mark K Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism names this phenomenon among millennials ‘depressive hedonia’, the inability to stop chasing pleasures, no matter how small or destructive, for the lack of hope elsewhere in life.
I’ve been lucky that I haven’t ended up as a headline. I’d rather it weren’t a matter of luck by having access to harm minimisation resources, including: on-site pill-testing, increased medical services, infrastructure, and education, and decreases in policing.
Defqon.1’s fate remains in limbo, but the future looks promising. On 25 September, the New South Wales upper house rejected Gladys Berejiklian’s festival licensing laws, where a NSW parliamentary committee considered placing financial pressure on ‘high risk’ festivals to reduce the likelihood of deaths, while a recent inquiry into ice and other amphetamines heard that there was sufficient evidence to introduce pill-testing in New South Wales.
Whether we end up with police dogs, pill-testing or pleasure-chasing for its own sake, young Asian-Australians will continue to connect with and through hardstyle, guided by a simple mantra: ceebs lyf.
Stephen Pham is currently working on his first book Vietnamatta, a collection of autobiographical fiction and criticism that explores life in and around post-gangland Cabramatta, in south-west Sydney.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.