I turned 14 in the spring of 1992. A year punctuated by a penchant for wearing hyper colour shirts, a growing obsession with Rugby League and school bus rides home, where unsolicited life lessons were given by mouthy senior kids. More significant is the fact that it tags me as a 90s teen. A Western Sydney 90s teen from Fairfield City Council to be precise. A place where the melting pot of ‘Skips’, ‘Wogs’, ‘Asians’, ‘Southos’ (South Americans) and ‘Lebs’ found a way to have a generally peaceful co-existence. Strangely bonded by the unfair stigmas attached to their postcodes.
Being a kid born in the Philippines, I fell right under the ‘Asian’ group. My family and I immigrated to this country in 1987, with no illusions of grandeur. A chance to start over was enough incentive for my parents to escape the turbulence of the motherland. The whole move was a big adjustment for my parents. But for eight-year-old me, the experience was the polar opposite. From that first ever plane ride to my first taste of the dollar hot chips at the corner milk bar, I was instantly sold. Aussie as. Dinky Di.
Being a kid born in the Philippines, I fell right under the ‘Asian’ group.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Filipino community in Sydney was still relatively small, compared to our fellow Asian ex-pats like the Vietnamese and the Koreans. Most of the Filipino migrants settled in the Blacktown area, known as ‘Filo Town’. But it was during the annual Sydney ‘Filipino Cultural Festival’ where I started to see the growth of our community with each passing year. Made a boy proud and connected with his heritage.
It was also here where I noticed how much of the Filipino-Australian youth’s identity was defined and fashioned by Black American culture. This seemed natural given the Philippines’ love affair and connection with all things American: R&B and Hip Hop music, the NBA, Air Jordan’s, Baggy Kepper pants, oversized shirts, flat tops and American accents were all easily adopted by my fellow Fil-Oz teens.
The 14-year-old me was confused though. Why? Because at home my fashion was dictated by a Lowes catalogue, my Walkman constantly played a rotation of Beatles, Bee Gees, Hendrix, Clapton and you will more likely find me playing or listening to the footy on AM radio, rather than watching a basketball game. Top that off with discovering ‘Grunge’ and Indie music and the onset of my first identity crisis had begun. So, as a fully-fledged clueless and insecure teen, I naturally followed the herd. For a few years I dressed like a member of Bel Biv Devoe, listened intently to R&B and fumbled my way through my first discos - but I’d always felt out of place. Finding that balance between what was culturally expected of me and accepting the person I was beginning to be became a hard task.
Finding that balance between what was culturally expected of me and accepting the person I was beginning to be became a hard task.
Then things shifted when I found starting out as a musician in the Sydney indie music scene. It was a heady time. Bands like You Am I, Smudge, The Clouds, Front End Loader and venues such as The Hopetoun Hotel and Annandale Hotel were driving the scene to greatness.
I loved how so many Asian-Australian kids were attracted to Brit-Pop and Indie music. Seeing so many of ‘us’ at the same gigs, indie club nights and record stores was exciting for me. Rubbishing the notion that Asian kids were all about their studies and apathetic to the culture shifts around them.
It dawned on me early on that I was a rare sighting on stage at those gigs - a gigging Filipino-Australian musician. Sure, there were a few other musos around of Asian descent, but I could have counted us all with two hands. My standout Asian-Australian heroes back then were Ray Anh (The Hard Ons) and Quan Yeomans (Regurgitator).
I was part of a predominantly Anglo dominated scene but never have I felt like the odd one out. No one gave a damn that I was a shade darker than my band mates. The music was the common denominator and I was just another musos sweating it out on one of Sydney’s beer stenched stages.
I was part of a predominantly Anglo dominated scene but never have I felt like the odd one out.
As extremely connected as I was to my roots, this was the first time in my life where I felt like I belonged to a community. One that represented my ideals and interests with little judgement. The teen identity crisis which stemmed from being affectionately called ‘Imo-Filo’ quickly disintegrated (Imitation Filipino - due to my stronger leanings towards guitar driven tunes and Rugby League over the Top 40 and basketball). Being part of this tribe invigorated and electrified me like no other. It made me grow up. I found my rudder.
It’s a different story now in 2020. I’m no longer an ‘odd’ sighting and this generation of Asian-Australian kids seems bolder and more fearless. Social Media has helped them become more connected to their heritage but not relying on it as a defining stamp of their identity.
I on the other hand have accepted my current tag of middle-aged family man, and over the past few years have grown even more attached to my culture and grateful for what this country has given me. I’m still the man who chooses to fill the same musical space that my younger counterparts tread on, minus any lofty ambitions other than writing a half decent song. Maybe find a half-filled bar somewhere to sing my heart out to. Little victories — and that is just fine by me.
Bryan Estepa is a Sydney, Australia based singer-songwriter, who has released six critically acclaimed solo albums and toured worldwide. Estepa's new single 'Admit Now, Pay Later' will be released on 18 September. Find him on Spotify here.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_