“Focusing on a particular novel or film, discuss fictional representations of migrant and/or ethnic identity in Australia. What kinds of migrant and/or ethnic identities are being created by writers and how are they being negotiated and expressed?”
Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper, released in 1992, is a brutal portrayal of racism embodied in a fictional neo-Nazi skinhead gang based in the suburb of Footscray. Despite the depiction of a deplorable group of nationalist, ideological young men driven by bigotry and hatred, the film’s portrayal of group’s antithesis, the Vietnamese community, almost provides their extremism with a basis of justification. Because they don’t function as part of the film’s main narrative, the Vietnamese characters are offered little screen time. Notwithstanding the brevity, the depictions still manage speak volumes about ethnic representation and construction of a specific Vietnamese identity. I will offer contexts of reality, assess the varying degrees to which the portrayal is warranted or accurate, and also consider the ramifications of such stereotypical summations when placed in conflict with dominant racial anxieties that, in the case of Romper Stomper, are taken to the extreme.
To offer a historical context, the film appears to be set around the time of its release in 1992. Fresh from the impact of the early 90s recession, the socioeconomically disadvantaged working class struggle to exist within the “margins of a recession-burdened society” (Fried, 1993). The suburb of Footscray, emblematic of the notorious western suburbs of Melbourne, has always been seen as a working class region with a higher concentration of migrant settlement and is often associated with a susceptibility to crime and alienation. The early 90s was also a period directly following a peak in Vietnamese immigration, after the initiation of a family reunion scheme in the late 80s. In fact, the Vietnamese represented eight per cent of all settlers who arrived in 1992 and represented an outflow of 100 per million of the population of Vietnam at that time (ABS, 1994). Contrary to statistical increases in immigration and the government schemes helping to accommodate this, the attitudes on the receiving end were far less favourable. Simon and Lynch (1999: 460) reported that “between 1988 and 1991, when the Australian public was asked whether it favored admitting more, the same number, fewer, or no immigrants into the country, less than 10 percent of the Australian respondents favored admitting ‘more’ and about two thirds favored admitting fewer or no immigrants”. In addition a study conducted by Betts and Birrell (2001: 3) found that during the late 80s and early 90s, Australians were at the peak of dissatisfaction with the rate of immigration.
Romper Stomper reflects the anxieties harboured within the Australian social landscape, caused by the direct conflict between the perceived interests of the public and the interests of the government-supported migrants. Although I will not investigate the specific reasons why the Australian population had reached such an unfavourable stance, the portrayal of the Vietnamese community in Romper Stomper offers some insight into the types of representational issues that cause divisiveness amongst ethnicities. Because they are not part of the foregrounded narrative, the Vietnamese characters are left as a generalised antithesis to the film’s ill protagonists. The finite narrative space of the filmic medium leaves the Vietnamese characters underdeveloped, forcing Wright to trade substance for stereotype in order for the viewer to be able to digest the course of the narrative.
I will not assess or criticise Wright’s chosen depiction of the Vietnamese as a vehicle to drive the main narrative, especially as this is not his primary subject matter (which is, rather, the downfall of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang). In this regard, it is simply a matter of prioritised perspective—as the film is being seen predominantly through the eyes of the skinheads, it is sensible to reduce the role of the Vietnamese to a supporting entity merely there to contribute to the complications of the neo-Nazis’ plotlines. However, certain choices regarding Wright’s depictions of Vietnamese, brief or otherwise, still inevitably reinforce various anxieties between races within Australian society.
In the opening reels set at a fictional Footscray station, the notorious skinhead gang savagely bash two young, innocent Vietnamese men while a Vietnamese girl is forced to watch. Immediately following the attack, the brother of one of the victims, fuelled with adrenaline, storms into the kitchen of a restaurant where his fellow Vietnamese connections are working and demand that they go to seek retribution. “Come on,” he says in frantic Vietnamese, “we’ll go get some payback”. This short act, in the context of the film narrative, could merely be seen as a foreshadowing of the comeuppance received by the neo-Nazis at a later stage in the film. However, there are certain attributes that are immediately, albeit subconsciously, established about the general fervour of the Vietnamese characters. The desire for vigilante retribution, though shown here as a sign of strength, is indicative of a predisposition for crime and perhaps an unwillingness to turn to authorities.
Wright never focuses his judgment on either side, implicating the Vietnamese in this short introduction as much as the skinheads, showing that they too are capable of retribution and violence. His efforts are a balancing act between keeping his portrayals honest, yet leading them with a degree of simplicity for the sake of engaging the narrative (the skinheads attack the Vietnamese for their cultural differences, the Vietnamese want revenge for the violence inflicted on them). In the follow-up confrontation scene, and a pivotal point in the film, what begins as a skinhead ambush against several unsuspecting young Vietnamese brothers at the railway hotel transforms into the realisation of the ugly, overwhelming power of the Vietnamese community. Shortly after seeing two of his brothers being tortured, the remaining brother calls out for help from a group of nearby Vietnamese labourers (one of whom called for the revenge attack at the start). From this point, the constructed sequence of events that ultimately culminate in victory for the Vietnamese presents a series of disturbing, underlying implications about the nature of the Vietnamese community, particularly in Footscray. Each can almost be treated metaphorically in its symbolism of various cultural anxieties and paranoias.
The most confronting aspect of this scene is the sheer volume of reinforcements that the Vietnamese victims are able to beckon. Before the age of text messaging which was instrumental in initiating the Cronulla riots, a similar flash mob is able to form in a timely manner through what is assumed to be a verbal chain reaction signalling. Arriving in working class vans, sedans and even scooters, Ashlin (date unknown) says that “seemingly every Vietnamese male in Melbourne between the ages of fifteen and thirty converges on the pub and counterattacks, overwhelming the fascists”. The images show how rapidly disproportional the armies become, on territory that allegedly belongs to the fascists, metaphorically echoes certain political rhetoric in white culture.
By portraying such a vile subculture in Australian society, Wright offers a counterbalance in the perceived ugliness of Vietnamese gangs who are shown to be equally capable of wreaking havoc to society. The difference is that unlike the neo-Nazis, who are clearly a fictitious concoction, the Vietnamese community depicted in Romper Stomper reflect real and outspoken cultural anxieties. The scene at the railway hotel demonstrates an enormous shift in power, from the volume of the influx of Vietnamese reinforcements to the brutality of the retaliation itself. Byrnes (date unknown) states that “the sequence moves from the victimisation of a few, to the complete victory of the newcomers, which may be Geoffrey Wright’s way of avoiding a depiction of the migrants as powerless victims”. However, by opting for a depiction of power over powerlessness, Wright echoes the much more confronting and dramatic rhetoric of invasion.
Ross (2006: 89) speaks of and explains the predisposition for Australian narrative to tap into the invasion scenario, saying that the “compulsive retelling of the prophecy of Asian invasion suggests specifically white cultural anxieties stemming from Australia’s status as a relatively new settler society, itself born of invasion”. The issue of territory is at the crux of invasion discourse. In Romper Stomper, territory is symbolised by the railway hotel, a space that slowly shifts in its ownership and becomes the centre of a territorial battle. Early in the film, while at the hotel, the neo-Nazi gang interrogate the owner about having “gooks in here last week”, demanding he explain what they were doing there and then reminding him that “this is our place”. Later in the film, in a scene that acts as the immediate precursor to the railway hotel brawl, a middle-aged Vietnamese gentleman signs a lease on the hotel and amiably informs to the unfazed white owner that he plans on turning it into a “restaurant with bar” for his sons. The leasing is an immediate gesture of infringement upon the skinheads’ self-appointed territory, and so as soon as the neo-Nazi gang is alerted, it sets into motion the barbaric events that follow.
The inflow of a seemingly endless number of Vietnamese men during the railway hotel brawl scene plays a role in reinforcing the invasion paranoia, captured by the moment after the ambush when one of the young neo-Nazis, cowering in a hide-out that is being violently infiltrated, laments to his comrade, “There are fucking thousands of them! Where do they come from? There are billions of them!” His words sounding almost like the inevitable surrender that follows an invasion. Thomas (1998: 84) says that the “sense of anxiety associated with an Asian group in large numbers in one location mirrors the apprehension concerning the possibility of an Asian invasion in the post-second-world-war period”.
The rhetoric of invasion leads to a variety of other implications about the function and nature of the Vietnamese community. A few years after Romper Stomper, in 1996, Pauline Hanson said in a speech to Federal Parliament, “…we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1985, 40 per cent of all immigrants were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos, and do not assimilate” (emphasis added) (Mellor, 2004: 636). It is easy to view the infamous railway hotel scene in Romper Stomper as the depiction of a very literal ‘swamping’, the all-out brawl between the Vietnamese and the neo-Nazis slowly showing the latter group being rapidly outnumbered. However, how this came to eventuate; specifically, how the Vietnamese were able to immediately assemble themselves into such a sizeable offensive force has implications regarding the networking interactions and relationships within community.
Clark (2009: 29) found that “in terms of collective social identity, the nation was not as important as family and occupation for the majority of the [Asian Australian] respondents”. Furthermore, Gilbert et al. (2000: 11) states that “Asian Australian diaspora maintains allegiances and connections to homelands and/or dispersed communities elsewhere; hence its sense of belonging is partial and provisional, moving within and without ethnic, racial and national borders”. The extensive network of Vietnamese community is bound by a sense of cultural and familial unity, which can be derived in Romper Stomper from the fact that these men are arriving together and motivated by the same cause—to defend their fellow people. The cultural and ethnic causes that unite them as a community are also that which isolate them from the rest of society, witnessed to an extreme sense within the neo-Nazis (who ironically are even more isolated from society).
Many young Vietnamese men maintain their culture simply to be able to settle and obtain that sense of belonging, creating for themselves at the same time a notion of undesirable of ‘otherness’ with the non-Vietnamese. Jupp (2002: 93) states that Australian multiculturalism “grew out of a concern with settlement rather than with cultural maintenance, which has largely been left to the ethnic communities”. Language is a prominent example of this, with the Vietnamese characters in Romper Stomper communicating almost exclusively in their native Vietnamese tongue. This is reflected statistically; in the 90s, Vietnamese people recorded the smallest shift to English of any other ethnic group, with only three per cent of first generation and eleven per cent of second generation speaking English exclusively at home. Meanwhile, Vietnamese was among the leading five languages spoken at home, and the speakers constituted about 0.8 per cent of the population (ABS, 1999). In the film, the Vietnamese characters do demonstrate that they are capable of speaking English, notably when after a failed pursuit of the skinheads one of them utters “fucking next time, mate” (the use of “mate” an ironic addition of Australianism), indicating that their partiality to Vietnamese is purely a preference for cultural maintenance. The young Vietnamese men in Romper Stomper implicated in the vigilante retribution against the skinheads are evidently maintaining a specific culture and heritage out of necessity to stay together, perhaps even as a defensive mechanism, reflecting the paranoia of Hanson’s parliamentary speech.
Another issue is the product of having high geographical concentrations of Vietnamese people in few areas. The main fear is that it “mitigates against the possibility of much social interaction between Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese” (Thomas, 1998: 84), tending to sustain tensions between ethnicities and cultures. The media has played its part in perpetuating this notion of ghettoism amongst Vietnamese migrants and how there is a direct causal link to crime and antisocial behaviour. Thomas (1998: 84) criticises “the idea that a large number of Vietnamese people in one location may possibly be subversive or dangerous”, dismissing it as “a continuous theme in the reporting of Cabramatta in the press, as well as in academic debates”. Specific to her criticism is the implication that somehow the negative influences are attributable to the lack of influence from the dominant culture, that somehow “the media representations of Vietnamese have almost all come to portray the stereotype of Vietnamese as violent, as victims, or as acceptable only when appropriating Australian mainstream values which deny their ethnicity” (Thomas, 1998: 84). Romper Stomper certainly bears an element of this misconception, associating the ferocious retributive brutality depicted in the film as one of the capabilities of a large concentration of unassimilated Vietnamese migrants.
Geographical areas where Vietnamese populations are greatest have also become targets for notorious media representations, including suburbs such as the aforementioned Cabramatta in Sydney, as well as Vietnamese-populated suburbs such as Springvale and Footscray in Melbourne. Jakubowicz (2004) claims “the drug focus and the constant naming of Springvale and Footscray in Melbourne… has made the conceptual link between community and crime very hard to dissolve”. These preconceived notions of Footscray had evolved to the point such that it became the most appropriate setting for Romper Stomper: blue-collar, migrant-centric and crime-ridden, symbolised by the unsavoury underpass at Footscray station in the opening scene—an underpass which incidentally doesn’t exist and is depicted purely to enforce the idea of Footscray’s alleged notoriety and seediness.
In essence, Romper Stomper grittily chronicles the rise and fall of a despicable underground society motivated by hatred and antisocial ideology. In order for the ill protagonists to be able to spread their vitriol, the targeted Vietnamese community, however brief in their screen time or incidental to the plot, is forced to bear certain stereotypes in order to be characterised in their identity as the ‘other’. While this helps legitimise the narrative about a clash between misunderstanding cultures, it problematises the possibility of a progressive and cosmopolitan view of Vietnamese-Australians. Thomas (1998: 84) mentions the media “constructing Vietnamese people as homogenous and static formations [has] marked their otherness and their transgressive possibilities”—‘otherness’ still a device deployed in narrative despite its role in exacerbating cultural anxieties in Australia. Wright’s focus on cultural resistance and ghettoism in Romper Stomper feeds into an overall unsympathetic approach to the racial struggles of working class Vietnamese migrants, and it ultimately detracts from his critique of white nationalism since the critique itself provides a grounds to justify its anxieties.
Ashlin, S. (date unknown) ‘Romper Stomper’, 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, <http://www.1000misspenthours.com/reviews/reviewsn-z/romperstomper.htm> (consulted 3 Jun. 2009)
Australian Bureau of Statistics (1994) ‘Population Growth: Birthplaces of Australia’s settlers’, <http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/ABS@.NSF/2f762f95845417aeca25706c00834efa/e0a8b4f57a46da56ca2570ec007853c9!OpenDocument> (consulted 4 Jun. 2009)
Australian Bureau of Statistics (1999) ‘Population Composition: Languages spoken in Australia’ <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/94713ad445ff1425ca25682000192af2/D67B7C95E0E8A733CA2570EC001117A2?opendocument> (consulted 4 Jun. 2009)
Birrell, B. and K. Betts (2001) ‘Australians’ Attitudes to Migration’, Institute of Public Affairs Review 53(4):3-5
Byrnes, P. (date unknown) ‘Romper Stomper Clip 2: This is our place’, Australian Screen <http://australianscreen.com.au/titles/romper-stomper/clip2/> (consulted 4. Jun. 2009)
Clark, J. (2009) ‘Naiton-State Belonging among Asian Australians and the Question of Transnationalism’, Current Sociology 57(1):27-46
Fried, J. (1993) ‘Romper Stomper’ Cineaste 20(2): 49
Gilbert, H., Khoo, T. and Lo, J. (2000) ‘New Formations in Asian-Australian Cultural Politics’, in H. Gilbert, T. Khoo and J. Lo (eds) Diasporas: Negotiating Asian-Australia, pp. 1-14 Brisbane: University of Queensland Press
Jakubowicz, A. (2004) ‘Vietnamese in Australia: a generation of settlement and adaptation’, Making Multicultural Australia May 2004
<http://www.multiculturalaustralia.edu.au/history/viet.php> (consulted 4 Jun. 2009)
Jupp, J. (2002) ‘Multicultural Policy’ in From White Australia to Woomera Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 83-104
Mellor, D. (2004) ‘The Experiences of Vietnamese in Australia: The Racist Tradition Continues’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 30(4):631-658
Ross, C. (2006) ‘Prolonged Symptoms of cultural Anxiety: the Persistence of Narratives of Asian Invasion within Multicultural Australia’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 5:86-99
Simon, R. and J. Lynch (1999) ‘A competitive assessment of public opinion toward immigrants and immigration policies’ International Migration Review 33(2): 455
Thomas, M. (1998) ‘Estranged Bodies and Vietnamese Identities’, The Australian Journal of Anthropology 9(1):74-88
Romper Stomper (1992) dir. Geoffrey Wright, Village Roadshow