Firebomb explores the lasting impact of a violent campaign in the 1980s against Asian Australians, which has been largely forgotten outside the communities affected. By Louisa Lim.

Firebomb and the legacy of hate

A man wearing a white helmet walks through a restaurant that has just suffered a firebomb attack.
The Man Lin restaurant in Perth after a firebomb terror attack in 1988.
Credit: ABC

It is 1988 and an eight-year-old brings to show-and-tell a blackened glass tumbler that reeks of acrid burning, the detritus from the firebombing of his family’s Chinese restaurant the night before. He had been a happy little boy who interspersed shouts of “Aussie! Aussie! Come on!” with Cantonese as he played cricket on the street, but the firebombing changed the world around him. Three decades later, the lingering heat of that memory prompted actor Crispian Chan to make Firebomb (ABC Audio Studios) for the new season of the ABC’s Unravel podcast, with investigative reporter Alex Mann.

It’s a hugely informative deep dive into a little-known episode of Australia’s recent history. Chan’s family restaurant, the Man Lin, was one of five that were firebombed in a homegrown terrorism campaign that has been almost forgotten. The attacks were spearheaded by a neo-Nazi organisation, the Australian Nationalist Movement, run by Jack van Tongeren, who is described as an “Adolf Hitler clone”. The ANM was also behind a five-year campaign plastering Perth’s streets with an estimated 400,000 racist posters featuring slogans such as “asians out! or racial war!”

The podcast was originally the brainchild of Alex Mann, who was dismayed by how little he knew about the ANM and its racist campaign. “This should be a part of our history that we are aware of,” he says in a Zoom interview. “If you’re going to learn the lessons of the past, you need to know what happened when turbocharged Australian nationalism twisted and corrupted to do something so awful.”

It was a smart and generous decision by Mann to step back from the mic to allow Chan to carry this series. Chan’s investment in the story, his ties to the Chinese community and his willingness to expose himself on an emotional level elevate Firebomb, turning it into both an investigation into the ANM and a dissection of the personal cost of racism.

Chan and Mann go in search of van Tongeren, who served 12 years in prison for the firebombing attacks before his release in 2002. They track down the detectives who worked on the investigation, an ANM informer, van Tongeren’s army friends, and they even stake out his compound. Although they fail to get any response from van Tongeren himself, they do turn up his deepest secret: that the man whose aim was to run Asians out of Australia was himself part-Indonesian.

In some of the more explanatory sections the dance between Chan and Mann can feel a little clunky, but their different approaches are complementary. The pacy soundtrack by Martin Peralta, one of the most seasoned podcast composers in Australia, adds drive and tension to the series. It is a great relief that sound designer Simon Branthwaite and executive producer Tim Roxburgh steer clear of using the clichéd plinky-plonky music that too often accompanies podcasts related to China.

Surprisingly the rise and fall of the ANM turns out to be the easier story to tell. The story of the victims of their firebombing is far harder, hampered by the reticence of the Chinese community. Back then, the restaurateurs simply cleaned up the damage, moved on and consigned the attacks to the past.

During the course of the podcast, it becomes clear Chan has never properly discussed the firebombing with his parents, his friends or any of the other families affected. And they’re still not keen to talk. When he tries to interview other restaurant owners, they hang up on him. Even his own parents are tight-lipped, audibly reluctant to speak about what happened to them. But those moments – the Cantonese accents and “Ai-yahs!” – are a reminder of how rarely we hear these voices on our airwaves, which remain overwhelmingly white.

It is left to the younger generation – the restaurant kids – to mull over the continuing impact of that race war. The ANM’s firebombings happened at night when the restaurants were empty, so they could argue there was no human cost. But the softly spoken Edward, whose family restaurant was a carbon copy of the Man Lin on the other side of town and was also firebombed, sums up how wrong that view was. “At no point did the ANM consider that there were other humans, people worthy of being listened to, people whose story was worthy of entertaining,” he says. “At no point did they consider that. That still makes me angry, a little bit sad.”

The podcast also reveals how the silence of the Chinese community ended up unwittingly devaluing their own story, allowing the race war to be almost entirely forgotten by those not directly affected. Although Firebomb covers a great deal of ground, it skates a bit too quickly over the lingering impact of the ANM on public opinion in Perth, police racism and the double standards applied to white terrorist groups.

In attempting a reckoning, Chan concludes the ANM ultimately failed in its aims since the restaurants recovered and prospered. But the psychological cost on the community was immense, undermining their sense of security and belonging. It is telling that Chan now lives in Singapore.

Firebomb is shot through with contained emotion, audible in the tremble of a voice, a throat-clearing, a long silence. But it all comes tumbling out in the podcast’s most powerful moment when, on hearing some details of a violent neo-Nazi fantasy, Chan suddenly breaks down. Sitting in a car, he sobs: “I’m not crying because I’m fucking scared. I’m crying because it’s fucking just stupid and I’m tired of it.” His words exactly sum up my reaction when I was the victim of a racial attack earlier this year. The posters may no longer be on the streets but racism has not gone away. One in five Chinese Australians experienced racial abuse last year, according to a Lowy Institute survey.

In a Zoom interview, I ask Chan how he felt about revealing such an intimate moment on tape. “I’ve spent my whole entire life trying to be stoic about all of this,” he tells me. “My whole family has been stoic. It’s all about pragmatism, it’s all about trying to just be the quiet model minority. Maybe in that moment, it was a chance to just kind of grieve.”

This is the same impulse that made eight-year-old Crispian take the blackened glass tumbler to show-and-tell. Look what happened to us, he was trying to say: pay attention, because this really matters. He can’t remember his classmates’ reaction back then. With this podcast, Chan is still trying to make other Australians pay attention to what happened – and is still happening – to his community. This time, perhaps, they might be ready to listen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "The price of hate".

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