The early morning of September 1, 1988 remains as a traumatic event for many Perth Chinese restauranteurs. Without any provocation or reason fire burned down 2 family owned businesses – both Chinese restaurants. From September 1988 to May 1989, 3 more Asian-Australian businesses in Perth were gutted by deliberately-lit fires. No motive. No closure. No suspects. It was a real head scratcher for cops who were investigating the case at the time. Many theories were floating around at the time – keep in mind the “Neo-Nazi” narrative wasn’t even considered at first. In saying all this, today, this incident which is an act of terrorism is not widely known and it is quite invisible in Australian history and/or in terrorist attacks history.
The question of why can be answered in many ways. Firstly, this incident happened pre-internet days, so the news cycle was more localised and slow in terms of becoming a ‘national headline’. Secondly, because it was the Chinese and the broader Asian Australian community and the 1980s, it wasn’t seen as important enough and of course the media bias/racism element exists. Thirdly, those affected being Asian internalised a lot of the pain and trauma that came with this incident.
Absolutely sad that this incident isn’t as widely known. However, an ABC podcast which talks about true crime – “Unravel True Crime” is embarking on talking about this. This award-winning podcast’s new season “Unravel – Firebomb” will unleash all the details of this almost forgotten incident.
Hosted by Crispian Chan (whose family’s restaurant was one of the firebomb victims), this season will investigate what really happened. Chan delves into his own family’s trauma and interviews others like him whose family’s restaurants were also affected. Teaming up with ABC investigative journalist Alex Mann, they both find clues, interview and investigate this issue from all over the country. A very good listen if you have the time and want to learn more about this dark past.
In saying all this, Being Asian Australian recently interviewed the hosts of the podcast – Chan and Mann about he podcast and why it has fallen into the category of ‘Australian forgotten history’.
“This podcast hopefully will shine light on an almost forgotten history. We have been asking ourselves the question of why this incident has remained invisible and this question persisted during our research and reporting of this incident. To answer your question as to why this has remained invisible and forgotten is because this happened pre-internet. In the 80s we could only rely on local media to report on things and considering WA is already quite an isolated state as it is so big, vast and far from the east of Australia, it is even more isolated. Also, the idea that this was an attack by Neo-Nazis was seen as a crazy idea at that time, and the racism card came in where “Asian gangs” were blamed. Finally, part of the fault also falls onto our own Asian Australian community, because we didn’t talk about the incident then and it is not something my parents could articulate at the time and even now, reflecting back”, Chan stated.
“I concur with what Crispian said. To add more, I feel there are a mix of issues that was caused due to errors and mis-reporting by the local media at the time, and also the fact this happened in WA. Today, people still see WA as isolated and on its own, so imagine WA during the 1980s – so the incidents happening in WA seem quite distant. The media landscape in the west of Australia is very different from the media landscape in the east of Australia – which is of course way more busier. As Crispian and I looked closer at this incident, and the actions of the police, the community and the media, we found that the story behind the incident is incomplete and hence this history isn’t finished. The incident was seen only through the eyes of the media, the police and detectives and the public who had no personal connections to the incident. The story through the eyes of the victims and those affected were invisible and this is a huge reason why this history has remained forgotten”, Mann expressed.
One challenge which presented itself during the research process for the podcast was to contact the families of those who were affected. Initially, Chan thought he could just contact someone who knew someone who knew the restaurant owners affected. This proved to be a difficult task, considering the time which has lapsed since the incident, and the fact that the restaurant owners are all now elderly like his parents.
“It has been 35 years since the firebombing attacks, and that is a lot of time in not talking about it all. Time has also seen the restaurant owners affected become elderly, just like my parents. My parents are now in their mid 70s and it is and always has been hard to get the story out of them because certain things get lost in their memories as they get older. I have turned to the children of the restaurant owners who were like me, and you will hear a lot about them and hear from them in episodes of the podcast. This incident was and remains as a very traumatic event, and hence getting those who have internalised the experience for 35 years to open up, is no easy feat. In any case, I hope everyone will enjoy and learn something from this podcast”.
The terrorist who committed all these firebombing crimes is Jack Van Tongeren – a white supremacist who is apart of far-right group spearheaded by neo-Nazi’s: the Australian Nationalist Movement (ANM). He served 13 years, one month, and six days in prison from 1989 to 2002. In the late 1980s it was revealed Van Tongeren’s father was of part-Javanese (Indonesian) ancestry. Nevertheless, Van Tongeren resumed anti-Asian activities upon his release in 2002, leading to further convictions, in 2006. Sad that he was never charged with terrorism considering he is a terrorist.
Images provided by ABC