People

Perth's secret culture

NANCY SMITH

The intense smell of dried chillies fills the air and catches the back of the throat. Tables and tables of colourful, mouth-watering food captivate the eye.

The room is packed as people speak their native language while satisfying their appetites. Fiery curries, fish soups, aromatic samosas, fried noodles, and fresh coconut milk compete for attention.

In a small town hall in Perth, an Asian culture is coming alive. We are in Burma.

Perth is known for its popularity with many Asian cultures. Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian nationals have all gained a cultural strong hold. Achieving recognition through restaurants, associations, and cultural events.

When it comes to asking where to find anything Burmese, it takes a bit of investigation.

However, the 2011 census recorded that 23,230 Burmese nationals are living in Australia, 65 per cent more than in June 2006.

One third of all Burmese nationals (34 per cent) have chosen to call Western Australia home, the highest population in Australia. So where are they?

Denzil D’vauz is the president of The Burmese Association of Western Australia, which was established in 1965 to assist the ever-growing Burmese population.

“At that time [1965] there were very few Burmese coming over. However since the arrival of refugees we decided to go into welfare, immigration and education,” he said.

Map of Burma*

The Association has been running a food fete on the second Saturday of every month for the past 20 years to help generate income. Held at their headquarters on 271 Stirling Street, D’vauz says it is growing in popularity.

“Everyone wants to have Burmese food,” he said as another hungry crowd comes through the door.

“Burmese cuisine is so different to Indian, Thai, Chinese and so forth. All over Perth there are only two Burmese restaurants, so we are very lucky our food fete is so successful.”

D’vauz says that Burma consists of seven different ethic groups and many religious beliefs. This diversity has created around 11 smaller associations in the Perth region alone.

Western Australia has been the background for many Burmese nationals to start a new life.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection for Australia recorded that in the year 2012-2013 there were 2838 Burmese nationals granted a permanent visa.

Stephen Dobbs, Associate Professor of Asian Studies at The University of Western Australia, nominates some possible reasons as to why Western Australia has become the most popular place to settle.

“It certainty is closer to home, which has been the case for Singaporeans and Malaysians who choose to settle in WA and it is definitely a factor in Burmese migration,” he said.

“There would also be more prospects for employment in WA.

“However with the doom and gloom at the end of this mining boom that has kicked in more recently, it may have an affect on new employment prospects.”

The food fete is reaching its peak time, children are running around laughing with food on their faces, grandparents are gossiping over a traditional Burmese breakfast of Mohinga (fish noodle soup with as much dried chillies as you can handle).

In the background visitors are jostling to buy as much homemade food as they can carry to last them until next month.

Monhinga

D’vauz says he always saw Australia as the country which held the biggest opportunities for him and his family, regardless of what they were.

“After the Military Junta came into power [1962], my Dad advised me to the leave the country as there would be no future in Burma,” he said.

“So my wife, my young son and I packed up our life and left for Perth in 1970.

“I did it for my kids. At that time I did not know how brutal the Military Junta was going to be. Looking back I left when times were pretty good.”

The want for a better future is an all too common reason behind many Burmese nationals migrating to Australia.

Valentina Bailey is the founder of the Burmese Students Social Network here in Perth. Migrating directly to Perth from Burma in 1986 at the age of 12 she works to advise and assist Burmese students new to Australian life.

“Coming to Australia was difficult. My family and I were trying to migrate for almost 10 years,” she said.

“At the time many people were trying to go overseas. It was a case of a better life, better education.

“Burma was an underdeveloped country. There were not many opportunities and I already had family base here [in Perth].”

Bailey describes with pride how Burma is a community driven culture and environment. This is reflected in the hustle of bustle here at the monthly food fete. Burmese nationals from around Perth coming together to embrace this diverse and unique country.

Valentina Bailey

Although a largely unnoticed society here in Perth, D’vauz says that there is definitely a rise in the number of non-Burmese residents visiting the fete and taking an interest in Burmese culture.

Hidden down side streets and tucked away from the main view, the Burmese culture has always been established. However it is now seen to be rising in popularity and gaining recognition.

The Burmese Association of Western Australia is celebrating its 49th anniversary and as May’s food fete comes to an end, the tables are now bare and people leave with stomachs that are full and satisfied.

*Picture provided by the University of Texas and Wikimedia Commons.

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