Managing in the Face of Adversity
Zainab Kadhim from Stories of Strength interviews Kevin Ngo
One of Western Sydney’s most prominent artists, Kevin Ngo has overcome the challenges of being raised in commission housing by a single mum from Vietnam. Spurred on by her belief that her son should be able to pursue his interests, and his unique ability to analyse hardship without being overwhelmed, Kevin, despite his small stature, has made big waves in the local arts scene.
What is your name?
Where were you born, on what date, and in what year?
I was born in Camperdown hospital, I believe, 1993.
Describe the place you spent your childhood.
Well, mostly what I can remember from my childhood is that it’s where I’m living now, which is in Riverwood. It was a public housing commission but, you know, most of my time as a child wasn’t really spent at home. It was spent around the surrounding areas like other huge apartment complexes and parks. Riverwood is also situated very close to nature reserves, so a lot of my time was spent at Salt Pan Creek, as well. It was as if the bush was still kind of there; I don’t know any other place in Sydney where you can still hear kookaburras and see echidnas.
And so you’d just hang out with your friends?
Yeah. Mostly it was spent hanging around with friends. There were these two high rises up from my street; everybody called them ‘the twin towers’. I don’t know why, but it was just called that. They were really huge and we’d just play hide and seek around there, mostly. We liked walking around and just hanging out.
Do you see many kids hanging about way that you and your friends used to?
Sometimes, but I feel like, since I’m an *air quotes* “adult now”, I feel like the kids in my area are kind of like invisible to me. I don’t really seem them, but I feel like they should be still around, out and about, doing stuff.
Describe a sensory memory from your childhood (favourite meal, most memorable smell as a child). If you think about it, it could be any kind of memory
There was this one time, I can’t remember how old I was… [I] think I was, maybe, five years old. And I think it must’ve been a couple of months after we just moved into the place at Riverwood. And I think it was summer, because I don’t know why [else] people would be out at night; must’ve been warm as well. But, all of our neighbours – the street I was in had six blocks, so three on either side – kind of knew each other. So, everybody was just down, hanging in front of the flats, parents as well as their kids. And they were just sitting and talking and whatever. But what I remember is that one of the older kids, and he lived in the building across from mine, along with a few other older kids who had, I think, like three skateboards altogether. And there were and lots of little kids. And I was one of those little kids. My house kind of goes up on a hill, so all the older kids would take the three skateboards to the top and all the little kids would follow them. And then all the little kids would get a turn sitting on the skateboard with one of the bigger kids as they went down the slope.
Because when you’re 5 years old – and I’m a tiny person already, so imagine what a five-year-old Kevin looked like – a skateboard would have been, like, this huge thing. Like, I’d take up a tiny bit of the skateboard sitting down, then just having this older kid just going down the slope. And feeling the air – that’s a sense, right? Feeling the air through your hair?
So you said you moved to Riverwood when you were about 5; where were you living before then?
Before then, I believe we were Wollongong; I am not too sure how long for. Before Wollongong, it would have been Marrickville. And before Marrickville it would have been Lakemba. And there may have been a place or two before that, but I don’t remember.
Where do you live now?
In Riverwood – I’ve been there since I was five. So, it’s been about… 19 years? Yeah, 19 years.
Does it feel like home?
Yeah, I’d say so. For me, it would be really weird trying to imagine living somewhere else.
What dreams do you have for your future? What dreams did you have for you future when you were young?
When I was young, like, five or six years old, I wanted to be a doctor or policeman. You know those are kind of, like, the stock answers for little kids to go to when asked what they want to be [when they grow up]. A policeman, a doctor, a fireman, etc. But now, I don’t know, man. I’m trying not to think too much about [the] future. It freaks me out too much; too much anxiety. [I’m] just trying to take it one day at a time. Whatever happens, happens.
I am sure you have dreams though, goals, visions?
See, if you don’t plan, you can’t fail, you know *laughs*. So then, if you happen to achieve something then, like, “hey, there we go! Didn’t plan this good thing!”
Now I know how Kevin works…
No, dreams [per se]. I don’t know. Just as long as I have enough money to keep a roof over my head, and my stomach full, then I’m pretty happy.
What does strength mean to you?
I think strength means… in the face of adversity, [to be able to] still manage. To push through, even though you know, sometimes, you feel kind of hopeless and desperate. But if you manage to get yourself over that hump, even if that little hump might be a big, huge hill, despite everything else, I think that’s strength.
What is the most difficult thing you’ve had to overcome?
Probably one of two things. One would be having to have deal with personal family matters. I think it was very tough, especially that I think I might of been fourteen or fifteen? Yeah, that was a bit tough.
And another, I guess, would have been me growing up [with a] single parent, as well; without my father around. I think I dealt with that a very long time ago.
And do you feel like you’ve overcome that?
I don’t know if I overcame it by choice. But you make an active decision, where you know it’s like, “oh, I have this terrible thing happening to me and I’m going to push through it!” It’s more like realising that I had this terrible thing happen to me, [and that] it is as it is. And you know, one day, you just realise “hey! It’s not that bad!”
How did you turn that into a personal strength?
For me, it’s a personal strength. I don’t know if other people may see it as a personal strength, though.
But [about my] personal strength… I got my Ps *laughs*. For me, it’s kind of like, I’ve been able to not let things affect me directly. I take it in, I assess the situation, and know what it is that is in front of me. But I don’t let it get to me as much as things have before. Where it’s kind of like, you know, this exterior shell, where the initial impact of whatever situation happens to you first, and then you get the residual effects of it; where you don’t let it overcome you too much. I think most things don’t bother me anymore, even if they were terrible things. [I’d recognise it’s] a bad thing [and go] deal with it, but emotionally I would be disconnected from it, in a sense. Emotionally detaching yourself from situations, when you need to.
So trying to think logically about situations and not getting too emotionally affected by it, is that what you mean?
What does freedom mean to you?
Oh geez, what does freedom mean to me?
I think, just the ability to pursue whatever you want to do. I think, for me, I’ve been incredibly lucky in that way. As in pursuing and doing stuff in the arts. I found that most other people in my situation, where they are children of immigrants, especially Asian immigrants, know there is this, kind of, strict [outlook]. Or there’s this perceived vision where, you know, you’ve got to go to school, do good in school; go to university, do good at university; get a good job, get good money, buy a house, raise a family, whatever etc. etc. And I think, in a way, that’s understandable. A lot of families coming from war torn countries are like “I’ve have had such a bad experience in my life that I want the complete opposite for my child.” But I think, on the other side of that coin, and this would [have been] what my mum felt, she realised [that] having come from such an oppressed life, she realised that [she didn’t] want that for me. [She wanted] the opposite for [her] child. Just doing whatever I want as long as I’m happy doing that. And my mum has never had any issues with me doing acting stuff, or whatever. She’s like “yeah, just do it! It’d be good if you get a job that pays well, but otherwise, it’s your life. Do what makes you happy.”
And does she come out to see your shows and stuff?
Yeah! She came to ‘The Way’ two years ago, and yeah, she comes every now and again.
So how is it that you got into the arts? Or what about it appealed to you?
I think I was kind of forced into it, but I’m glad I was. I think my first venture into the arts was back in high school – Sir Joseph Banks High School. I think it would’ve been in year 8 or year 9 [and] drama was compulsory. Then, I think in year 9 and year 10 you pick your electives. I really enjoyed drama a lot, and I was a really shy kid. I just found drama so different to the other subjects. It wasn’t learning, it was just like doing fun activities and all that kind of stuff. So that was my into the arts.
Ms Conte, who was my drama teacher, always pushed me to do all of this stuff. She’s been very supportive in that way; she was able to get the school to pay for my drama camp, which would have been like $500 dollars, or something. That was an insane amount of money for my mum. And she always found opportunities for me to do stuff. Then from there, I got involved with Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) when I was in year 10 or 11. That was my first paid acting thing. The rest is, kind of, just history.
Was that when you were out of high school?
No, that would’ve been back in year 10 or year 11.
Oh, so you were still in high school! Are there any performances that you’ve done that have just stayed with you or seem really profound?
You know the School Spectacular? I did that when I was in year 8, I think. It was a dancing thing. I think it was the first time that the School Spectacular had a section for hip hop dancing. So, performing as a part of that, [and] also performing in a venue… I [was just] a 14-year-old kid, performing in front of, like, a thousand people. Lights everywhere, and being on national television on the ABC… it was like “woah!”
Where was that venue?
It’s the one near Darling Harbour. The Entertainment Centre? Near Paddy’s Markets. That was very cool.
So, it was sort of like a break dance thing? Hip hop?
Hip hop, yeah. I think there were fifty other boys performing this routine, and in the weeks leading up to it, we were practicing at the Sydney Dance Company. It was pretty cool.
So what is it about break dancing that appeals to you?
I think it’s dancing in general. If anything, it was a way of fitting in. Because all the kids were doing it, and I was like “that looks cool, I want to do it!” Also, the dance style that was popular, at that time in Sir Joseph Banks, was krumping. There were all these big Islander boys doing it and, in the middle, you see this tiny, little Asian kid just krumping as well! That was pretty funny! But yeah, it was just a way to eat up the time, I guess. [There was] nothing to do at recess or lunch, so [it was] good to do drama or just practice [dancing].
Are there any different forms of expression that you’re interested in?
Dance was something I used to do quite a bit. But I’m learning how to fly right now, actually. I’ll get back to you when I figure that out *laughs*. I really enjoy acting. Writing is another one that I like. Parkour too, I guess. I do a lot of that now; getting back into it. Travis Bush is forcing me to try and get back into it. But I think, for me, it’s mostly acting and writing; two big outlets for me.
Edits by Naveen Krishnasamy
Photo by Christopher Woes