Hung Up Down Under
Despite all the hoopla about Asian immigrants, Australia's hottest comic may well be a Vietnamese boat person who gleefully plays on the fact that many people consider him a Yellow Peril
By Ron Gluckman / Melbourne
PSSSSST. DON'T TELL PAULINE HANSON, but Vietnamese immigrant Hung Le actually likes being a Yellow Peril. In fact, thats the title of his new book.
Its also his favorite place to pose for photographs. "Yellow Peril" is the local nickname for the ugly yellow sculpture in front of the enormous casino complex in Melbourne, where the worlds only boat-person comic lives. Crowds gather to watch Le, who is dressed in black tuxedo and trademark black runners, his hair a tangle of twisted knots of braided black hair.
Almost on cue, a car passes, and a young Australian leans out the window and shouts: "Hey Chong. When youre done there, theres a cold tinnie for you here!"
Le grimaces. Even after a years of battling racism with his biting laugh routines, the racial retorts still sting. "Racism is one thing," he says, recovering quickly with yet another quip. "But at least get it right. Aussies can be such idiots. They cant even slag off a slope properly."
Saigon-born Le has worked hard to set the record straight. For years, he worked six nights a week in "Wog-A-Rama," Australias long-running stage revue that probed the prejudices endured by Australias legion of immigrants (wogs) from post-war Europe to the latest waves from Asia. Yet Le isnt too optimistic about the educational aspects of the ethnic humour. In fact, theres bittersweet irony to his casting in the role, as the stereotypical squinty-eyed Chinese worker. Le knows that jokes alone wont end racial hatred. However, some things are already changing. With his career on the rise, the days of mistaken identity are nearly over for Hung Le, who is one of the stars of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. One of the worlds largest comedy fests, it offers over 1,000 shows in countless venues around town from March 27 through April 20. Le is an old favorite at the comedy festival, where will mount his first one-man show, "Now and Zen." Past appearances drew rave reviews for the 30-year-old comic, who performed a violin-rap version of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," and his bizarre, knuckle-cracking accompaniment to "The Adams Family Theme." But the days are gone when the lanky, classically-trained violinist has had to rely on mauling his instrument for laughs.
Le is fresh back from London, where he is promoting his book, "Yellow Peril," out this month on Penguin, and lining up a series of stand-up bookings. After a short stint with Circus Oz, the young star is also looking to television and film after a small cameo in the upcoming "True Love and Chaos."
The success still surprises the university drop out who rapidly rose from street busking to headlining comedy clubs. Even more remarkable is that Le has achieved so much with an act that relies almost entirely on the racial stereotype schtick. He gives credit where it is due. "Pauline Hansen is really old news, but she really helped my career with all that garbage. I got tremendous media attention. People used to joke that she was my publicity agent."
He also modestly sums up his act: "People like to hear this big Vietnamese guy in dreadlocks, with the Aussie accent. Its corny, but it cracks them up."
Others arent so quick to pigeon-hole Le. Trevor Hoare, who runs the Esplanade, among Melbournes oldest comedy venues, has watched Les act evolve from a few nervous minutes of stage patter to a polished performance. "Hes a natural," Hoare says. "Theres no doubt in my mind that Hung Le is going to be big. Very big."
The media has also jumped on the bandwagon, which is easy to understand. The cleancut, handsome comic is a headline writers dream. "WELL HUNG" and "Tu Well Hung" are some of the more obvious puns. Some even referred to him as "a Vietnamese Paul Hogan."
While Le is unquestionably riding high on Australias renewed fascination with ethnic humour, there is no masking a deeper meaning. British author Angela Carter observed, "Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people." Les got enough scars to bring smiles to the entire planet.
He was born in Saigon during the Vietnamese War. Les father had been, at 26, the youngest professor at the Ecole de Beaux Artes. The son received his liberal education on Saigons mean streets.
"We left in 1975, three hours before the commies rolled down our street," Le recalls. "It was mad. Everyone just started running.
"We went down to the docks. There were ships of all kinds everywhere. People were desperate to get away, to anywhere. You just jumped on, and the boats left when they were full. It was madness."
The family escaped on an old tanker, overloaded with refugees. There was no water or food. People held sheets over the elderly to protect them from the sun. After a few days, the ship ran out of fuel and started drifting.
"We jumped out and onto a passing barge that was being towed by a Navy boat that was also fleeing," Le says. "Then it ran out of fuel. We floated for ages in the sun. Old people were drinking urine. People were dying all around us."
Such terror would traumatize most nine year olds, but Le has merely mined the horror for material. American forces took the survivors to a huge refugee camp in Guam. "It was like Club Med with barbed wire," jibes Le. "It was good fun, sleeping in tents, fishing. I pretty much had no idea what was going on."
Le often recounts the boat journey on stage. "We had to hurry, so we packed our bags and fed the dog to granny," he says. "There were 10 of us, my parents and grandparents, and Maryanne, plus Gilligan, and the Skipper, too..."
At sea, he jokes, "we had nothing, not even karaoke."
Real life was not as amusing. After four months in refugee camps, the family was offered asylum in France and Canada. Instead, they picked Australia, where an uncle already lived. They settled in St. Kilders, then a magnet for artists and musicians. Instruments lay around the house. Hung Le started playing violin as a youngster, attending - and dropping out of - Melbourne University.
"I was basically kicked out," he says, with punkish pride. "I was busking around a lot and generally taking the piss out of classical music."
The school parodies evolved into successful street performances with the Como String Quartet. "We did all kinds of silly things, like Ravel done Hendrix-style." The rag-tag troupe gained an enthusiastic cult following, as well as grand prize at the zany Melbourne International Busking Competition in 1987. Other awards and theatre bookings followed, but band members bickered about direction, finally splitting for good in 1992. Many returned to straight classical music. But the lure of laughter proved irresistible to Le.
"I went out the first time with nothing more than a few jokes," says Le, dimly recalling his stand-up debut. An afternoon appearance was unexpectedly postponed until 9 p.m. "But the manager was cool; he gave me free beer. I was completely pissed by the time I went on stage."
Although envious colleagues say Le has benefited from an unbelievable string of lucky breaks, Le actually spent two years on the dole while struggling to put his act together. However, there is no question that his racial routines have rocketed the Vietnamese comic to the top in record time.
The biggest break was a central role in "Whats So Funny?" a TV documentary about comedy. His ascent to prime time started with a short spot on the talent show, "New Faces." A few days later came the casting call from hit show, "Wog-A-Rama." The ethnic revue had lost their Chinese member, and couldnt find another. "I was the only other Asian comic around," he says.
"Now, Im an actor," he recalls thinking. "But I didnt have a clue. I never acted before, I didnt even know what blocking was. Sure, I had done some stand up, but I didnt think I could walk and talk at the same time."
Actually, Le was a natural-born cut-up. Soon, he was entertaining 1,000 people per night, from Perth to Sydney. The show, which began as "Wogs Out of Work," toured Australia several times, spawned a television series and wound up as the countrys top theatrical attraction.
The production featured Greek, Egyptian and Aboriginal comics, yet Le increasingly played a bigger role. The long run allowed him to perfect his ethnic patter. "How can you tell when your house has been robbed by Vietnamese?" he asks, then answers: "Your homework is done and the dog is missing."
The show, directed by Nick Giannopolous, contained one extremely insightful routine, perhaps unintended. At one point, one of the other dimwit wogs chastises Chin Chong, played by Le: "You Chongs are everywhere. Youre taking over the whole country. Who do you think you are - wogs?"
Truthfully, there is a changing of the guard in laughter Down Under, and Le stands at the vanguard. With Asian immigration spiralling upwards in Australia - the Vietnamese population alone is 150,000 - the face of Australian comedy is quite rightfully acquiring Asian characteristics.
" I play on stereotypes a lot," Le admits. "You know, the Vietnamese eating dog, all of it. The racial humor brings understanding. Most of my jokes are aimed at Anglos, stories they never heard before. It helps to break down the barriers."
Hoare, for one, praises the racial rainbow of Australian comedy. "Its good group therapy," he says. "Comedy tends to break down stereotypes. It confronts our deepest problems and fears, and, once they unfold on stage, they tend to dissolve. Once we can laugh, they just go away."
Le isnt sure. "Right now theres all this political correctness, so you cant call short people short people. Now, theyre height deprived. That gets to me.
"I think Im really lucky right now. Things started rolling and, two years on, theyre still rolling." His ambition is to continue rolling, right to the top. "Id like to do movies, hang out with Eddie Murphy. You know," he says, with that mischievous grin, "just him and me, a couple of black dudes, hanging cool."
Ron Gluckman is an American journalist based in Hong Kong, who travels widely around the Asian region for a variety of publications, including Asia Times, which ran this story in March 1997. Ron Gluckman has also written about Hung Le for Asia, Inc., and Mode. For additional stories on Australia, please click on Comedy Festival or Coober Pedy.
Photos on this page were taken by David Paul Morris, an American photographer based in Hong Kong who often travels with reporter Ron Gluckman. For additional examples of Mr Morris' work, please see Melbourne Comedy Festival, Back to China Beach, the Urge to Merge, or When the Worms Turn. Or visit: www.davidpaulmorris.com
Special thanks also to Mr Morris, who did much of the scanning for this site.