Since becoming a father I think a lot about what it means to be a man. I also think about the very short list of things I wouldn’t do to protect my family. Sung Be was a Chinese father I knew. ‘Be’ is pronounced bay, and means ‘horse’ in the Teo Chew dialect. People say Mr Be lived three lives in one. He was the quintessential man of few words. He knew how to grow vegetables. He taught me how to make Chinese tea. And he let me marry his youngest of eight daughters.
Mr Be’s first life was in China. He was born in Swatow in 1931. This was a time of great political unrest in China. It was a generation before the founding of the People’s Republic, but only a generation since the fall of the Qing Dynasty’s two thousand year rule. His mother died when he was 5 and his father migrated to Cambodia in search of a better life. He was left behind in China and raised as the youngest child in his Grandmother’s household – the wrong side of the family tree in Chinese culture. He was last in line to be served at the dinner table, was beaten by his uncle and forced to work long days in the rice fields. He tried to better his circumstances by going into the countryside and buying eggs, selling them at a small profit and investing the money in rice, which held its value better than the hyper-inflating currency. Imagine that, a 14 year old starting a business to lift himself out of poverty.
Mr Be’s second life was in Cambodia, where he joined his father in 1949 at the age of 18. Cambodia at the time was a French protectorate and along with Viet Nam and Laos part of French Indochina. It was an era of relative stability, leading to Cambodia’s independence in 1953. Mr Be worked in his father’s textile business and at 22 married Muy-I Kour, the daughter of a Chinese pharmacist. She tells me Mr Be wasn’t as tall or as good looking as her other suitors, but he had a good heart and was a hard worker. Together they raised a family and their business flourished in agricultural trading, cooking charcoal and rice milling. By 1975 they had a comfortable life. Their family had grown to 11 children: eight girls and three boys. Imagine that, living with a cricket team in the house.
Then one day the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and sent Mr and Mrs Be and their eldest children to agricultural labour camps. Jason, their 11 year old son was taken into the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier. Their youngest children were left in the family home to fend for themselves, foraging for fruit and collecting drinking water from the muddy Mekong River. My wife remembers eating grasshoppers. Imagine that, soldiers from North Queensland arrive one morning and take you to a farm, leaving your young children behind in your house without electricity or running water.
There’s not much I can add to what’s been said about the Cambodian holocaust. A few years ago I was at the Be’s house in Springvale and there was a TV documentary on the Khmer Rouge. Mrs Be sat on the couch transfixed. At the end I looked over to her and she was weeping. Among the painful memories unearthed by the documentary was the death of her sister in a US bombing mistake. “Why? She was so gentle. Why did she have to die?” she kept saying. In 1979 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge fled. Mr and Mrs Be saw their opportunity to escape. With his eldest son Jason and two of his sons-in-law Mr Be built a raft and escaped with his entire family up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. They stayed on the raft for a few weeks trading stolen rice and dried fish. When the time was right Mr Be led the family overland to Battambang in the north-west of Cambodia where they took some time to choose a man to guide them through swamp and jungle to Thailand, dodging Khmer Rouge patrols and bandits. Other families chose the wrong guides and were led into the jungle and robbed, or worse. Eventually the family made it to the Khao-I-Dang Holding Centre, a camp run by the UNHCR and a coalition of international aid agencies. At its peak Khao-I-Dang housed over 160,000 people in bamboo and thatch huts. Mrs Be says it was a lawless place where, “people try to rob you. We had nothing but still they rob you.”
If you dig into many great stories you’ll find an Irishman. In 1981 Ciaran Macken was living in Melbourne and driving a taxi. Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, Gallipoli was on at the cinema and the Australian dollar was buying US$1.48. Ciaran had a visit from his cousin Mary who had just spent 9 months as a nurse in a refugee camp in Thailand. She worked for the charity Irish Concern, one of the many NGOs providing medical and humanitarian services to around 1,500 people arriving daily at the Thai-Cambodia border. Mary asked Ciaran if he would sponsor into Australia a young Cambodian student who had been her translator in the camp. The Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs advised Ciaran he needed to set up a support group which he did with his friends Kate McMahon, Christine O’Dwyer, Billy Connely, Eugene O’Rourke and Graham Anderson. Officials from the Department came to meet the group at Kate’s flat in Brunswick and ultimately approved them as sponsors. When the sponsorship of the Cambodian student fell through, the Department proposed the Be family – all 13 of them. Imagine that, a group of Irish and Australian friends getting together with the Department of Immigration to work out how to support a refugee family about to arrive in Australia.
The first job for Ciaran and his friends was to find a house big enough for 13. After many false starts they found a run-down house in the south eastern Melbourne suburb of Gardenvale. The owner agreed to rent it for half the normal rate and the support group put up the first three months’ rent. The house needed a major working bee and about $3,000 in urgent plumbing and electrical work. The group organised a plumber to unblock the drains and an electrician to rewire the house. Neither of these tradesmen asked for payment. Imagine that!
Mr Be’s third life was in Australia. On Valentine’s Day 1981 after two years in refugee camps the Be family flew to Australia from Bangkok on QF-2. My wife remembers the strong smells of orange juice and beef on the Qantas 747. They moved into the Gardenvale house and one of Mr Be’s first requests was to dig up the front yard and plant a vegetable garden. Ciaran bought him a garden hoe. Christine was on hand to help the older children with English. Christine’s mum, a woman in her 80s used to drive an hour every week to teach Mrs Be English using Woman’s Day magazines. Mrs Be is the only Chinese woman I know who uses the word, “exclusive”.
My wife was put straight into Grade 4 at Gardenvale Primary School. They buddied her up with a Japanese boy who didn’t speak English either. She remembers being horrified at the prospect of school camp – after 2 years in Khao-I-Dang, how could camping be considered fun? She went on to university and eventually become a finance manager. We have two girls, 7 and 4. They are the wonders of our world. We have a lot of vegetable gardens. Some of my wife’s heirloom seeds are from her father.
In 1983 when Ciaran left Melbourne to return to Ireland he sold his Volkswagen beetle to Jason for $60. The former child soldier now has two kids in high school and runs a business that employs 70 people. One of Ciaran’s favourite sayings Jason remembers was “when you drink the water, remember the spring”. It turns out the Irishman was quoting a Chinese proverb to him. Jason doesn’t make a big deal about it but I know he is the patron of an orphanage in China.
Recently the Be family got together for the wedding of Kon, the youngest boy and the last of Mr and Mrs Be’s 11 children to be married. He was four when they arrived in Australia. He’s an optometrist. Kon’s real Chinese name is Kok. One of Ciaran’s first bits of advice was that the name “Kok” mightn’t get him off to such a great start in Australia. The day before the wedding we organised a family photograph. There were 40 people in it: 11 children and their spouses, 21 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Forty Australians who wouldn’t be here without a brave father, a strong mother, a small group of dedicated friends and a welcoming community.
Mr Be taught me how to make Chinese tea: you place a scoop of green tea leaves in a small clay teapot and fill it with water at 96 Celsius. Then you pour the brew down the sink, twice. It’s the third pot that tastes the sweetest, just like his third life in Australia. Mr Be suffered a stroke in March 2011. A few days later in the Epworth Hospital, he called for the Buddhist monks from the Springvale temple. They began their rhythmic chanting and sometime while they were there his tenacious spirit left his body. Mr Be was a refugee. He did everything you could ask a father to do for his family. I could only hope to be such a man.