Seeing Dad’s flagpole out the front of our house in Bankstown, you’d think the double-brick house belonged to rednecks – or a true patriot, depending on your political orientation.
The three-metre flagpole rises from the front lawn, crowned with a finial shaped like a red diamond. The flag hangs limp on the halyard, its royal blue far less regal than in former days, bleached over time by the sun. There’s the Union Jack in canton and a seven-pointed white star underneath: the Commonwealth Star – six points for each state of Australia and one for the territories. In the fly of the flag are the five stars of the Southern Cross constellation.
My dad, a 60-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, is immensely proud of this flagpole, which was a weekend DIY project. He welded together different components and made them fit. Part of the halyard’s mechanism comes from an old Hills Hoist; Dad’s ingenious repurposing of an iconic Australian invention. ‘There’s solid concrete at the base to weigh it down so it doesn’t fly away,’ he tells me.
The flagpole sits firmly in the middle of our front lawn, the centrepiece in a modest garden behind a row of banana trees, next to sculpted hedges, overlooking an artificial pond full of glistening koi. Dad’s abiding love affair with the Australian flag is evidenced by a large collection of objects emblazoned with it, the kind of Made-in-China tourist tat that inevitably turns up at the local Trash ‘n’ Treasure market my parents visit each Sunday. His new nylon shopping bag matches the rest of his cache: baseball caps, lanyards, stubby holders, iron-on patches, miniature flags. ‘So when I go overseas, people will know I’m from Australia,’ Dad says of his collection, as though going overseas is something he does often. [ ]
Towards the end of 2011, former prime minister Paul Keating was interviewed at the launch of his latest book, After Words, at the City Recital Hall in Angel Place, Sydney. As a staunch republican, he made it clear that while he greatly admired Queen Elizabeth II, there was certainly one thing he didn’t admire: our flag. Most of the audience was sympathetic, and many people around me nodded as he made his disparaging remarks: ‘Here we are covering a visit by the Queen…waving that embarrassing flag.’ At the time Keating’s book was being launched, Australia was hosting a rare visit from Her Royal Majesty and the streets were lined with children waving miniature flags to welcome her.
Keating went on to recall a question he put to his successor, John Howard. ‘When are you going to give the kids a new flag?’ he asked. John Howard smiled and said, ‘I think a new flag is probably inevitable… but not yet’.
The presence of the Union Jack on our flag testifies to Australia being a constitutional monarchy, as well as one of a small group of former British colonies that opted to keep existing symbols on their flags to denote their status as sovereign nations rather than develop new ones. Other Commonwealth countries, like New Zealand and Fiji, also have the Union Jack in canton. The official line is that it’s there to denote the historical link. In any case, it’s this same emblem that that led Jerry Seinfeld to describe the Australian flag as ‘England by night’.
The Australian flag as we know it today is the result of a joint competition between the government and Havelock Tobacco Company in 1901. The contest attracted 32,823 entries; there was prize money on offer, after all. Five people who submitted similar designs were chosen as winners and received £40 each, a considerable amount of money at the time.
The winning design garnered mixed opinions. The Bulletin stated that the new flag design was:
a staled réchauffé of the British flag, with no artistic virtue, no national significance… Minds move slowly: and Australia is still Britain’s little boy. What more natural than that he should accept his father’s cut-down garments, – lacking the power to protest, and only dimly realising his will. That bastard flag is a true symbol of the bastard state of Australian opinion.
More than a century later, however, our flag commands a great deal of default affection, the kind that’s reserved for old friends, if its prominence during Australia Day celebrations is anything to go by. Not to mention the existence of the Australian National Flag Association (est. 1983), with its aim to have the flag written into the Australian Constitution, to give it ‘iron-clad protection’.
In December 2005 I was living in London, a rite of passage that even I – an Australian without ancestral ties to Mother England – wanted to undertake. It was from a semi-detached house on the outskirts of East London that I watched the BBC news with horror, viewing the coverage of race riots on Cronulla Beach.
The televisuals of the ‘Cronulla Riots’ were theatrical, with news cameras filming mobs standing off on opposing sides: young men of ‘Middle-Eastern appearance’ on one side, and what seemed to be Anglo-Australians on the other side, with huge flags draped around their bare shoulders. Some of the Anglos also had visible tattoos of the Southern Cross, the ‘Aussie swassie’.
The Cronulla Riots were the unexpected manifestation of some dark undercurrents – racism, intolerance, hatred. They also raised more questions than they answered; was this a once-off confrontation, or would there be more to come as tensions continued to mount between different groups? The implications were disturbing to liberal Australia; that perhaps Australian multiculturalism had serious limits, and the riots on that were beach symptomatic of wider disgruntlement.
During that time I felt further away from home than ever, and it also completely changed how I saw our flag. Before the Cronulla riots, the Australian flag had made me cringe a little, mostly because of my allegiance to the republican cause, but now it seemed to be symbolic of that alienating aspect of Australia, where there was a deep-seated obsession with keeping out intruders like me. This feeling of not being entitled to be an Australian was crystallised after a childhood incident where a woman driving past our front yard shouted out ‘Go back to where you came from!’ while my brothers and I were playing cricket. Living in the melting pot of international London, it was rare if anyone asked me where I was ‘from’, and that unremarked difference was a relief.
In 2011, Professor Farida Fozdar from the University of Western Australia conducted a survey of 513 people at the Australia Day fireworks on Perth’s Swan River foreshore. She found that, overall, people who displayed car flags for Australia Day were more likely to believe that the White Australia Policy has saved Australia from many problems experienced by other countries, and feel that ‘Australian culture’ was under threat from multiculturalism. The story was picked up by media outlets at the start of 2012, and the article published in the West Australian attracted strong discussion on the website.
But the reader-responses on the website proved to be far more interesting than the story itself, ranging from comments like: ‘What a joke. Being able to show my countries [sic] flag is pride in my country, my home, my life. Sorry – but the flag is a representation of this nation, a way to identify ourselves and say “yes, I am Australian and I am very proud”’, to ‘Ever since Cronulla, I can’t look at it without thinking ignorance, rampant nationalism and racial intolerance. Young men who drape themselves in it exude malevalence [sic] to me.’
Australia’s flag was not always so prominent in my family’s life, despite its high visibility now. The flag of my childhood – the one that loomed largest – is one I don’t see much of anymore: the flag of Vietnam. Or to be more precise, the former flag, the flag of South Vietnam.
When the Communists took control in 1975 after the Fall of Saigon, they replaced the flag of South Vietnam with the one you see today. Around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City you’ll see a blood-red field with a single yellow star. The red represents blood and the Communist revolution, and the central five-pointed star represents unification, with each point representing the five pillars of a socialist society coming together: workers, peasants, intellectuals, young people and soldiers.
The flag of South Vietnam, or what was later called the Republic of Vietnam, had three red stripes cutting across the centre of a yellow field. It was first used by Vietnamese emperor Thanh Thai in the late nineteenth century. The red stripes also represented blood, but in the sense of the peoples of the three regions of Vietnam coming together: North (Bac), Central (Hue) and South (Nam).
This is the flag that Dad grew up with, the one that accompanied him through his formative years. On our living room wall is a photo in a gilded frame by the official war photographer for the Republic of Vietnam, Nguyen Ngoc Hanh. His classic image is of a woman with a single red thread between her teeth, repairing one of the stripes on the flag. She embodies the quintessential Vietnamese woman in traditional dress (ao dai) with penciled eyebrows and long, straight black hair. The title of the photo is Va Co, which means ‘mending the flag’. Underneath the image is a verse that translates as:
Hue, Phu Van Lau, the day we reoccupied
Raise the yellow flag high in the blue sky
You sacrificed, your body full of bullets
I’m mending our flag, I’m mending our country.
As a child I often saw the flag because it would be in plain sight at Anti-Communist League gatherings in Sydney. We would all stand, boisterously singing the old anthem, and stare at the three red stripes running across the yellow background. I didn’t understand the formal language being sung because of my limited Vietnamese vocabulary, but I could feel myself choking up all the same. The emotion in the room was so thick I couldn’t shut it out.
The older generations of Vietnamese–Australians have now lived more years in Australia than they lived in Vietnam, and the younger generations have grown up far away from the old country. The flag of South Vietnam has become more and more irrelevant over time but the ‘new’ flag of Vietnam is absent in Australia, because of an ongoing refusal to acknowledge the Communists as the rightful rulers of the country.
Remembering all of this helps me understand the power of flags, and the great loss many experience when they don’t have one to call their own.
Anzac Day is one of the occasions where the Australian National Flag must be flown. The day, especially in recent years, invites recognition of all war veterans, including allies from wars over the past century. This includes Vietnamese veterans, like Dad, who march alongside their Australian brothers-in-arms.
Part of Dad’s large flag collection includes custom- made metal pins that he wears so that people know where he’s from. Every Anzac Day he invariably dons a small pin depicting two flags on his jacket lapel: one with three red stripes across a yellow base, next to another with a royal blue field, a Union Jack and a constellation of stars.
Seeing the way Dad identifies with the Australian flag has softened my own feelings toward it. He’s helped me to appreciate another way of understanding the role of flags.
I can’t quite remember when the flagpole was erected in our front lawn. Dad enlightened me recently, saying that he used to only fly a flag from our balcony on national days like Australia Day. After the Cronulla Riots he was spurred into flying the flag all day, every day because he was incensed by the young Lebanese–Australian who set the flag on fire, which in his eyes was an act of ultimate disrespect.
He didn’t seem to recall the flags that were wrapped around those young men on the beach. Dad flies the flag because he believes it to be a flag for all Australians.