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'From Rangoon to Buranda': An extract from Andrew Boe's The Truth Hurts

Summer Reading

In today’s summer reading extract, Andrew Boe draws on his experiences as a child of Burmese migrants, to his evolution from a naïve law clerk into a straight-shooting lawyer, to investigate the fault lines of Australia’s criminal justice system.

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For much of my working life, first as a solicitor and then as a barrister, I operated from a converted warehouse on the edge of the Brisbane CBD, fifteen minutes’ walk from the central criminal courts. These days I work across several states, but mostly from an eighth-floor room in a set of chambers overlooking Sydney’s Hyde Park. It’s all a far cry from Rangoon, the former capital of Burma (now Myanmar), where I was born, and from which my family fled in the late 1960s.

Burma’s social fabric was at that time being assaulted by the totalitarian government led by General Ne Win, who may not have been as despotic as Cambodia’s Pol Pot but whose political objectives were much the same. Ne Win had sought the support of my father, U Shan Bo, who was a newspaper publisher, but Dad was determined that his five sons would obtain an education and learn to speak English, and he saw that, under the general’s reign, living standards in Burma would drop and corruption increase.

He decided to leave while he could, and settled on Australia after we boys drew slips of paper from his hat: three for Australia and one each for Japan and the UK, where a close friend of his had taken his family. How his young wife, Khin Khin Nu, who couldn’t speak much English, would fare in a place where there were few other Burmese people was of secondary concern.

But he did have a sponsor of sorts, an Australian businessman who had made his way to Rangoon after the Second World War in search of investment riches, and via telegrams he asked this man to find a house for us close to a primary school in Brisbane. Of the Australian ports, my father chose Brisbane because it had similar tropical weather to Rangoon.

And so we left our large compound in the prettiest lakeside street in Rangoon, where we’d had drivers, nannies and cooks, and boarded a BOAC 707 in our tailor-made suits, mine with a Prince of Wales weave to match my father’s. Khin Khin came in her best silk longyi and top, her cheeks neatly daubed with thanaka, a paste made from the root of sandalwood. I was not yet four.

The house that had been found for us was close to three schools in fact, the Buranda State School, which was a primary school; the Buranda Opportunity School, for those with intellectual impairments; and the Narbethong State Special School, for the deaf and blind. Our new home was wedged between a suburban railway line and land shared by these schools. My father’s sponsor hadn’t mentioned in his telegrams that the primary school was getting smaller every year and was literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

I’ve often wondered how our collective fate might have differed had it been London or Tokyo that my father opted for, or other places he had visited as a younger man. Buranda was a backwater suburb then, even though it was in the inner city. Unrenovated workers’ cottages, perched on stilts to provide cooling for the tight boxed spaces, housed mostly retirees, students and immigrant families, with some blue- collar workers.

Our place fronted a corner of a dead-end street, less than 20 metres from the railway line and separated from it only by head-high grass, behind which local kids sometimes stoned the roofs of passing trains. On the other side of the house, over the back fence, was the shared playgrounds of the three schools. Our family would pretend not to be annoyed by the trains, which got us up before dawn and kept us awake past bedtime.

We boys also knew that it was a special level of naughtiness to venture past the green buffer between us and the rail tracks, even if that was the quickest route to Logan Road and the city bus line.

The front yard of our house was littered with wrecked car bodies that my father, and later my older brothers, tinkered with, putting together barely roadworthy vehicles. These contraptions gradually crept onto the road, to the chagrin of our marginally wealthier neighbours, who complained to the local council about this ghetto-like blight on their view of the city skyline.

While my father wanted his sons to learn English, he insisted we speak our native tongue at home. Before he had a family, he’d travelled to many countries on business, including a stint studying for a diploma in Utah, and periods in the United Kingdom and Russia. He’d learnt the importance of speaking a universal language, but he wanted us to retain our Burmese sensibilities too. I was forever mindful of how poor we were, how rundown our cottage was, and speaking Burmese only served to reinforce our difference.

The house had patches in the floors, worn carpet in the hallway, and a toilet whose door always fell open unless latched from the inside. The dunny sat at the top of the rear steps, which became the front steps – the only access to the house – after my father built in the front verandah to create more sleeping space.

With such a large family, the existing bathroom had to be made into a bedroom too, and a new bathroom – never completed, one of many unfinished renovation projects – was put in downstairs. My brothers and I were made to paint the exterior of the house in salmon pink, the cheapest colour on offer that particular summer holiday.

I remember my mother’s cooking routine fondly. It started early each morning, with the same preparations every day. Brown onions were chopped and diced; bird’s eye chillies, garlic and ginger were crushed in a makeshift mortar and pestle that sat on wooden blocks on the linoleum floor. This mix was then sizzled in black-bottomed tin pots and spices were added: cumin, turmeric, paprika, garam masala, lem- ongrass, bay leaf and fishpaste.

This was the standard base for whatever protein she and my father agreed upon during breakfast: fatty pork strips and trotters, or cheap cuts of beef and chicken. And, every second Friday, lamb and sometimes prawns. The meat was always perfectly sliced or chopped, then sautéed to coriander-scented, oily perfection. It was accompanied by lots of rice; 30-kilogram bags of long grain Indian rice were bought each month.

During the week, my father worked long hours in relatively menial jobs, including as a printer at a cement-bag factory and occasionally as a sous-chef in a suburban Chinese restaurant. He left the house early, on a Honda CB125 motorcycle, and any fall from grace he might have felt was absorbed in the belief that his sacrifices for his five sons were well made.

On weekends he took over the kitchen, and when he cooked we had visitors. He was a showman. Anyone who came to our neighbourhood knew, as soon as they parked down the street, that foreigners lived there, such were the fragrant cooking smells that blew around.

This is an extract from The Truth Hurts by Andrew Boe, published by Hachette Australia, available now.

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