Minh Bui Jones came home last year.
After the previous decade living across Indo-China and Thailand, most recently in Phnom Penh, the serial publisher and editor of journals and magazines decided it was time for his two children to learn about high school in Leichhardt.
It was also timely to bring home his youngest baby, the literary quarterly The Mekong Review, which has just celebrated its first birthday with burgeoning sales at bookshops like Readings in Melbourne and Gleebooks closer to home.
When we met again for the first time in over a decade, it made sense that we’d chat over traditional pho and have that polished off with the somewhat newer phenomena of craft beer along the same stretch of Marrickville’s Illawarra Road.
The last time we talked about the media, Australia, and the neighbourhood just north of this vast island, Minh was helming the regional current affairs magazine The Diplomat. He had co-founded the magazine with two friends from university in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks in America. Back then, the media landscape we’d traversed seemed more confident about Australians engaging with a Southeast Asia in the twilight of the American century. Today, we wonder how there’s an Australia tentative about its restive neighbourhood, the headlines about the Census warning of some ‘Asian invasion’.
Maybe we’re back at that beginning, Minh suggests. Australian sales of The Mekong Review have been “good, and selling out”. And he has been hosting a series of talks since his return from Phnom Penh called ‘Ideas From Asia’ at Marrickville’s Addison Road Centre, which has featured Australians from Saigon and Bangkok to Bankstown and Waverley sharing their ideas, writings and projects over the hubbub of the Centre’s night markets.
“Australia’s always been well located,” grins Minh, with a nod to Sydney’s real-estate obsessions. “But the ideas of Asia today are still hard to find in our conversations, beyond the usual poverty and grime. It’s about time we got comfortable in our ‘hood, and the cultures that thrive in it.”
The 48-year-old still vividly remembers how home felt when his parents and four siblings landed in Melbourne as Vietnamese refugees in August 1978. “It was the heart of winter, it was so cold. Our skins were cracking up, like there was white powder on our brown skins,” Minh recalls. It was only a transit stop to Adelaide, where Minh spent his teenage years. By the time Minh graduated from Adelaide University and landed his first job as a producer at SBS television in Sydney in 1990, the whole family moved with him, first to Cabramatta and later to Marrickville.
Today, his Leichhardt home is wired to the region, with video calls to printers and distributors in Cambodia, voicemails from Bangkok, and espresso meetings with Mekong Review contributors at nearby Bar Italia.
The journal has grand plans for its second year and beyond, partly built on Minh’s long-standing faith in Australians curious about their geographic neighbourhood. The insightful, well-edited and sometimes elegantly written essays and reviews in recent issues tackle not just recent books about the Mekong region’s vexed 20th and promising 21st centuries. There’s also a good sense of the local and its global eye, in poetry titled ‘A Haircut’, ‘Khmer Krom’, ‘Mother Tongue’, and ‘To Emily Dickinson’.
Home, says Minh, is now his journal, wherever it’s crafted.
The Mekong Review is available online here.