Hung Le: The Crappiest Refugee
Byron Writers Festival | 2–4 August | Elements of Byron
Hung Le is a Vietnamese boy turned refugee turned Australian turned violinist turned comedian turned writer, who will be one of the featured guests at this year’s Byron Writers Festival.
His memoir The Crappiest Refugee, published by Affirm Press, is his third book and it cleverly tells his story. Hung Le believes he falls below the ‘remarkable’ status often expected of new Australians given a ‘fresh start’, but that’s not entirely true. Incredibly humble and understated, Hung’s story is full of depth, trauma, danger, and lots and lots of hysterics. Perhaps humour is one of his survival tools, who knows, but it does provide a very matter-of-fact insight into what it was like escaping a burning city, spending three months at sea, and then ending up in a not particularly racially tolerant country where you don’t speak the language.
Hung wasn’t going to write this book. It started out as a joke satirising the popular work by Anh Do The Happiest Refugee.
‘I was on a cruise ship with Dave Callan,’ says Hung, ‘and I said after Anh’s done Happiest Refugee so I am going to do a book called The Crappiest Refugee. He laughed his head off and said you have to do it. I was going to do it as a novel about a Vietnamese guy who can’t play the violin, and then I realised that guy was me.’
Interestingly for someone who has written three books, you’d be surprised to know that he failed HSC English.
‘I can’t waffle. All my essays were short. One paragraph. It’s the way you write jokes, you don’t waffle. You get to the point. I did it naturally and failed English. I don’t get the explaining things and the adjectives. I just get to the point and move on.’
That’s probably one of the most engaging things about his book: he doesn’t dwell on anything, and he certainly doesn’t over emotionalise some of the more intense scenes like leaving Saigon. In fact, if anything, it’s written from a very matter-of-fact point of view, which almost makes it more hard hitting.
So after telling Dave Callan he would write this book, Hung is on another cruise ship and he’s in the Crew Bar. It’s a 14-day trip and he accidentally spills a glass of wine over one of the crew. He gets banned for 14 days.
‘I went oh my God, what do I do now? So every day I went to the gym at 10 o’clock, jumped in the pool, read a book, sat in the sun, and then wrote 1,000 words a day. After 14 days I had a third of a book. As soon as we pulled into Sydney my book agent rang and said, ‘It’s time for another book’. I pitched it, said here is a third, and got the deal.’
There’s a huge irony not lost on Hung that the idea for this book came to a man on a boat about a boy who arrived on a boat and now works on a boat. ‘I tell that joke on the cruise ship. I say, I came here by boat and I can’t get off it. People think it’s hilarious.’
‘When I came here, I learnt the Australian sense of humour. Aussies laugh at me more than anyone else. I hate working with the English; Americans can’t understand; in Asia they sort of understand, actually, I am way too Australian for most places… most of all I love working in Melbourne.’
Hung Le’s dad was a very famous Vietnamese artist. His sculptures are now featured throughout Saigon. The reason the family left was because his dad believed the communists wouldn’t let him express himself. ‘40 years later I get a letter from his friends saying we have all your dad’s artwork out in public.’ It’s strange now that the government wants his work in public. They love him over there. He was ready to go back and teach before he died.
Hung’s dad worked full time in a car factory painting cars. At night he worked on his art. Within two years of arriving in Australia he had an exhibition in Germany.
Things for Hung’s mum were a lot tougher as she is deaf and doesn’t use sign language.
‘We just yell at each other at home. We read facial expressions. She learnt from us watching Days of Our Lives. We would watch that with Mum and scream at each other. We have three women: my mum, two sisters, my brother, and me. My brother and I just kept quiet because the house is so loud. We would pull faces and mime to communicate.’
Kind of what Hung is best at!
‘I love silent comedy where nobody talked. When Mr Bean started talking that was it for me.’
Like all good refugee kids Hung Le took up an instrument of his new culture. ‘Dad made us all play the violin. I looked like I could play it as soon as I picked it up and put it on my shoulder. The teacher never should have said I was a natural. I knew by the time I was 13 or 14 I wasn’t going to make a concert violinist. I really didn’t have the patience for it; you had to be perfect.’
But it was the violin that took Hung towards comedy. Winners of Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s Red Faces with the Como String Quartet – it then took them all over the world, to Montreal and Edinburgh right in the thick of the world of comedy.
Hung ended up heading to Adelaide Fringe in the early 90s when he did his first gig. ‘I had a violin, four jokes, and a piece of plastic poo. I was a props comedian. I went into the Fringe office with a violin and a shirt that said ‘Trust Me I’m Greek’; I sat down and I said, I am a comedian from Melbourne give me a gig. In 1992 comedy in Melbourne was booming, everyone good came from Melbourne, so he said alright I’ll give you three gigs at the Festival Club. I turned up and found out I wasn’t on until 2.30am, but the beer was free. I kept drinking until 2.30am, all my busking friends turned up, we had shots, and the boss came over and said okay, you are on, you are headlining. Fleety was MC – I got onstage, had my Chinese violin blond wig and a suitcase full of crap. Everything I put on stage fell over. People thought I was hilarious. I talked for 20 minutes; I got an encore. My first standup gig I headlined and got an encore. I thought how easy is this job.’ He hasn’t looked back since!
Hung Le is one of the featured writers at this year’s Byron Writers Festival. Friday 2 August till Sunday 4 August at the Elements of Byron site. Tix and program info at byronwritersfestival.com.