The Gold Coast is one of Australia's tourism hotspots – a massive stretch of beautiful coastline bordering a luscious rainforest and a city full of fun stuff, like five huge theme parks and a bunch of lovely canals. A modern utopia – or so the tourist board would have us believe.
According to photographer Ying Ang's forthcoming book, Gold Coast, beneath the blue sky and manicured homes is a city full of corruption, racism and murder – something the Australian police backed up when they called it the "crime capital" of the country. I called Ying up for a chat about his hometown.
VICE: Hey Ying, what's wrong with the Gold Coast?
Ying Ang: I moved to the Gold Coast from Singapore when I was ten. I had this fantasy of what life was going to be like in this new place. I was dreaming of being friends with all these blonde surfers, but when I got there it was vastly different. The state of Queensland has the most racist reputation – it's pretty redneck. There'd be Asian bashings at the school in town. It's sometimes labelled as the crime capital of Australia, but the only thing I've heard about it is that it's a beautiful place to go for a holiday.
When I was 13 years old I hung out with this kid, whose rich dad kept offering me drugs every time I went by their house. Can you imagine being 13 and being given drugs by middle aged land owners? Yeah, that's pretty weird. So are all the criminals in that kind of age bracket?
Yeah, it's basically middle aged white men. These older guys with shady morals came to the Gold Coast to reinvent themselves, and it ended up just becoming a playground to them. Suddenly it was OK to be a shyster, and that created a culture of sleaze that's generally accepted.
I suppose the name has connotations of wealth and prosperity, which might attract some of that.
Exactly. In its development, its beaches weren't friendly – the waves are big, the tides are dangerous and the shores weren't flat. It wasn't easy to market this place as being family-friendly, but they did it. It's sunny, though, and now the streets are clean and the houses well-kept – it's easy to feel safe around here. We've just been trained to believe in these icons of safety. What was your worst experience when you lived there?
I was 18 and at my friend's place, who lived in a really nice part of town. Yelling came from downstairs and we went to check it out. There was blood everywhere – on the ceiling, fridge, everywhere. Two guys lay on the floor drowning in their own blood. I ran out the door and another was on the floor with a knife sticking out of his neck.
After the attack there was a flood of photographers and journalists trying to get in touch. I was on the front page of the newspaper twice during my time there – once when I turned 18, because my mum was a local socialite and philanthropist, and then again after these murders. Everything I experienced there can be sandwiched between these two events; the false glamour and the murders.
That false glamour is present in your images, too.
Because that's really what people want to believe in. If you invest in an idea, it takes a lot to see past it. The friends I grew up with saw what I saw, but a lot of them decided to stay, and their kids are going to the same schools where all this shit happens.
The images in your book are pretty subtle. If you wanted it to have an impact, how come you didn't document the atrocity?
The Gold Coast for me wasn't at all about the terrible things that had happened there – it was about how these things are never talked about and never acknowledged. I wanted to document what it was that made it so hard for me to reconcile with this place. I also wanted my images to reflect its appearance. So, looking at these pictures, would you believe that all this other stuff happened as well? And if you knew this other stuff happened, would you just ignore it? Do you see a solution?
Not in the foreseeable future. I think the problems of the Gold Coast aren't unique to the Gold Coast. I think it represents a much larger issue in Western values – this idea of the suburban paradise. There's been a lot of discourse on suburbia and emptiness, which says to me that it's on humanity's consciousness, we are thinking about it. But I haven't seen work that puts forward a theory as to what it is that is wrong with it.
This book is in a way a larger hypothesis as to why it's not right. Because its manufactured, it's all just a facade. A veneer of health and prosperity – what happens underneath doesn't matter. It's like with plastic surgery; If everything looks good on the outside nobody cares if it's falling apart on the inside. This attitude concerns me because if the western world buys into it, the developing world will only follow.