‘Mr Tulloch, my students love your book and it would be great if you could come to meet them.’
It was 1988, and I’d just written my first children’s picture book, a collection of very simple stories for young children entitled, unimaginatively but honestly, Stories from our House. It had the advantage of wonderful illustrations by Julie Vivas, famous for her work in Possum Magic, Australia’s best selling picture book of all time.
I was flattered by the teacher’s invitation and arranged the visit, a little nervous about what would happen when I got there. Reading the stories would take five minutes. What could I offer after that?
‘Where is your school, exactly?’
I’d heard of Cabramatta, and what I’d heard was not good.
Cabramatta, about an hour’s drive or train ride south west from central Sydney, was the site of a migrant hostel. Since the 1950s, new arrivals in Australia had settled there before moving on to other parts of the country. Shortly after the end of the Vietnam War most new Cabramatta residents came from that country, along with immigrants from neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. Social dislocation and isolation, not to mention the scars many must have brought with them, led unsurprisingly to social problems.
Cabramatta became synonymous with crime, drug dealing and gang violence.
If we’d had a Donald Trump in Australia he would have put up a wall around the area, and Ted Cruz would have sent in the bombers to flatten everyone inside it. Too many Australians would have cheered them on.
The kids I was expected to be entertaining for an hour would possibly speak very little English and come from troubled backgrounds. Their teacher had probably only invited me out of desperation.
I arrived early and walked the streets, slightly annoyed that I couldn’t find anywhere to buy an English language newspaper or a double shot cappuccino. I couldn’t even read the signs on many shops.
Eventually the appointed hour arrived and I drove over to the school. As I parked my car, a small Asian face appeared at the window. ‘You Missa Turrock?’
‘I’m Richard Tulloch, yes.’
The face ran off, yelling, ‘Missa Turrock is here! Missa Turrock is here!’
A crowd gathered. I was mobbed like a rock star and ferried, it felt like crowd surfing, to the classroom and introduced to the teacher/librarian by dozens of screaming voices. The pattern for the day was set. Though their English was limited, the kids apparently knew my simple stories by heart, and their eager, thoughtful questions about the writing process easily filled the allotted hour and more.
I’ve written many books since, and often talked and told my stories at schools in the Cabramatta area. I’ve seen it change.
If it ever was seedy (and I stress that even when it was at its most notorious I never once felt in any personal danger there) it is now a fascinating, relaxed place to live and work.
And the food…that’s why a group of us went down there today, led by Mevrouw T who knew the best restaurant to take us to. (Bau Truong, for superb green mango salad, fried anchovies and grilled calamari – see bautruong.com.au) All for under $23 a head.
We followed up with a stroll through the covered markets.
Our friend Trevor remarked on today’s trip that Cabramatta used to be the only place in town to source interesting Asian ingredients. That’s changed; there’s a wide range of south east Asian vegetables, herbs and spices to be found all over Sydney now. But somehow they look better, fresher and spicier in Cabramatta.
As inevitably happens, the south east Asian immigrants some so resented 20 years ago are now well accepted as members of the Australian community, as of course are the children and grandchildren of those who arrived from Europe in the 1950s and 60s. Being accepted is not the same as being assimilated. I enjoy the fact that Cabramatta is different from where we live in Marrickville, itself an ethnically diverse melting pot.
Meanwhile the fearful and bigoted, including those wielding political power, have turned their attention to muslim refugees…