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Hard man, healing hands


A former Saigon street-fighting tough who escaped to Australia, Duy Long Nguyen now uses his hands to massage celebrities and business tycoons


   "In my life I have seen too much death, and I arrived in Australia with a deep scar inside my heart. Twenty-three years later that    scar is still there, but it's no longer inflamed - it is healing."

   Duy Long Nguyen, whose given name translates as "There is only one dragon" but who is universally known as Longy, arrived in Australia in 1981 as a 16-   year-old refugee after escaping Vietnam at his 15th attempt. He and his brothers had been rescued by a Japanese tanker after their small boat had been    attacked by Thai pirates, its passengers robbed and assaulted and left helplessly adrift on the high seas. He was very lucky, he says, not to have died then.

   He was also very lucky, he says, to have survived until that time: "I should have been dead many times before." That's not hyperbole: his life of risk and    adventure reads like a Mittyesque fantasy, with dollops of Indiana Jones thrown in. Even in precis, the Longy life story is script enough for a Hollywood action    epic.

   By the time he was 14, this son of an Inspector General in the South Vietnamese army had explored jungle tracks alone, hung out with primitive hill tribes,    hunted with soldiers and killed a tiger, qualified as a tae kwon do black belt (at ten), and taught himself to shoot using a home-made gun. He had seen murder    and bombings and war, witnessed the gruesome aftermath of the Tet offensive, taught himself to swim in the turbulent waters of the Saigon River, rushed into a burning house to save a family overcome by smoke - and much, much more.

Having won respect in the brawling backstreets for his toughness, Longy had developed into a street hustler extraordinaire. He had also taken command of his own black-market gang. The Long Thien Ly Boys were older, yet fiercely loyal to their 14-year-old general; they also meant business, carrying an armoury of machetes, knives and heavy chains, and protecting their trade and territory with fervour.

In Australia, his escapades did not cease as he battled racism and bigotry with quirky cockiness; he became a much sought-after bodyguard/protector and debt collector in Sydney's Chinatown, and a problem-solver in the drug-ridden suburb of Cabramatta where so many Vietnamese immigrants had settled. But his path was taking him through some rough territory. And after surviving a Chinatown ambush in which he was shot three times, Longy began to reassess, seeking to balance the "breaking" aspects of his life with some "fixing" elements.

His change of attitude was accelerated when, less than a year after his father had been released by his Communist captors after 11 years in a Vietnamese prison, his beloved mother was murdered in a bungled home invasion in Saigon. "I've seen death, unfairness and indignity," Longy says. "I've been to prison, been a gang leader and a smuggler, been to martial arts school and in army camps - I was just a person who had so much energy and feeling and high spirits. Then one day I suddenly matured and resolved the uncertainties in life." For him, that "was when my mum died. All my life, the only thing I ever really feared was to see my mother die."

He began to teach self-defence classes and use healing talents he had first learnt from indigenous jungle tribes. He helped the Internal Affairs Commission uncover corruption in the New South Wales police force, and became a sporting masseur who tended the Australian rugby league Test team. Via word of mouth, his list of patrons expanded until today he is famed as the Mr Magic of healing massage, a miracle worker whose clientele reads like "a who's who of celebrity, from movie stars to millionaires, models to media magnates" - including such assorted luminaries as Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Pat Rafter, Brad Fittler, Linford Christie, Jimmy Cassidy, Anthony Mundine, Elle Macpherson, Megan Gale and Jimmy Barnes, among others.

Next week, The Dragon's Journey, a memoir of Duy Long Nguyen's life co-written with journalist James Knight, will be launched in Sydney by Lachlan Murdoch and Steven Lowy, the sons of Longy's respected "uncles" (and clients), Rupert Murdoch and Frank Lowy. And while many of the well-wishers at the launch will be social page A-listees, just as many will be ostensibly more anonymous. Longy prides himself on the egalitarian range of his contacts: "I have friends everywhere. It doesn't matter who they are - billionaires, taxi-drivers, criminals, policemen, sportsmen, bikers - I take people as they are."
In their jointly written introduction to The Dragon's Journey, Murdoch and Lowy note that Longy's life is a journal of recent history: "War, death, politics, violence, crime, refugees, integration, racism ... he has dealt with each in his own unique manner", always maintaining a positive attitude "when mental weakness would have undoubtedly destroyed many others". He is, they write, "a remarkable human being".

The Dragon's Journey came about following a conversation in 1997 with sports journalist Terry Smith in New York when Longy was assisting Australian welterweight Troy Waters in his world title bout at Madison Square Garden. "I was telling Terry some of the things in my past," Longy says, "and he was laughing and then he said, 'You should write a book about it.' I didn't think much of the idea at first but he wrote out a CV for me. And then I saw Uncle Rupert and [News Ltd chief executive] John Hartigan and I gave it to them, saying: 'Have a look at this'. And Rupert rang me later from New York and said, 'Longy, your story is fantastic, you should take it to HarperCollins.' So we had a meeting and James Knight moved in with me."
Not literally, it transpires, but they spent so much time together that Longy feels Knight "knows me better than I know myself". The book went through a false start or two before Knight signed on about 20 months ago after several Chinatown getting-to-know-you lunches. Knight is a nomadic story chaser who runs marathons for fun.

He has written biographies of cricketers Mark Waugh and the Lee brothers, but the Longy experience, he says, was "the most rewarding project I've ever worked on because it covered every possible human emotion - it taught me a lot about life".

Longy's biography, Knight says, is a true story "about self-belief and the power of love. I don't envy what he went through but in strange ways I feel he was an incredibly lucky child because of the love his family showed, particularly his mother". As for the man himself, he has "many more sides and combinations to his personality than a Rubik's cube. He has a large ego but it suits him. He's an incredibly loyal person, he lives by his own rules, and he lives according to Longy time - he'll phone at any ungodly hour of the day and if you complain that it's 20 past five in the morning, he'll say: 'All I can do is ring, it's not my fault if you answer!' "He has this charming, cheeky, endearing personality, yet there's a still a touch of Saigon street gang mentality to him. Put simply, he's a tough bastard who I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of. Yet even though we had very heated disagreements along the way, I know I now have a mate, a brother, for life."

AS A CHILD, LONGY WAS gregarious, daring, resourceful and occasionally callous. The family moved to Saigon from rural Vietnam when he was nine, already a confirmed rebel with attitude. Within a few months, his friend Truong has said, he "was the king. He had a very strong body. He was much bigger than many older boys. He frightened them. He walked the streets like he was the boss of Saigon." He was headed for full-time gangsterism but was fortunate to be mentored by two surrogate fathers: Uncle Ba, a solemn Saigon barber with street wisdom, and Uncle Nam, a loud and eccentric masseur and herbalist who passed on the secrets of his art. To the Vietnamese, calling someone Uncle indicates immeasurable respect and it is telling that he acknowledges only two other gurus - Uncle Rupert and Uncle Frank.

His free spirit sustained him, he says, and meant that he has always had close contacts across the social range. "As a boy, I had friends who were 20 years older, from the markets, from the soldiers ... and I had no shame in me. I was not a thug but it was a fine edge, and I was always fearless, whether in business or as a bodyguard. Which means you could easily become a dead bodyguard. I am so lucky I am here today, but the fact I am here is nothing to do with me so much as chance."

He was lucky, too, to have an instinctive gift for therapeutic healing. His introduction to massage came via Jarai tribesmen, mountain people who had settled in the jungle around Pleiku in southern-central Vietnam. The healers among them used bamboo sticks with balls of hardened sap attached to tap pressure points down the spine and neck, and a fascinated seven-year-old Longy would observe for hours, then practise on his mother. Later, he developed his techniques under the guidance of Uncle Nam, and later still he studied meditation, acupressure and acupuncture. His drive for perfection and knowledge has seen him work alongside Western medical practitioners and spend a self-funded stint in a Thai kick-boxing gym learning a secret "herbs and spices" recipe for conditioning the body. He also spent months studying Thai methods for hot and cold treatments, finger massage techniques and acupressure using meridians, and travelled to Hong Kong to study under a renowned master of reflexology.

None of which explains why he has such a distinctive reputation. "I think my fingers just feel that little bit deeper. I can make a map in my mind of your tendons and meridian points," he says, as he starts digging into my shoulders. "Here, normal, here normal. And then later when you come back with an injury, I can see what is different and fix it."

As much as he is Mr Magic, Longy is also Mr Mischief. At the Sydney Olympics, for instance, a client had given him an access-all-areas pass as a souvenir because he couldn't attend. Longy went to the stadium every day, his badge an open-sesame to every event. No security check noticed any discrepancy between his beaming visage and that of a Mr Rupert Murdoch. And when Manly won the rugby league premiership in 1996, the grand final crowd had a big-screen view of a grinning Longy hijacking the JJ Giltinan Shield and holding it aloft in triumph.

Mr Mischief also resurfaced on a trip with Lowy to Athens for the city's Olympic fiesta. While sailing the Aegean Sea, Longy's prank of Glad-wrapping the yacht's toilet bowls was discovered in time, but not so his smearing the rims with Deep Heat. "This guy, he was running around with his trousers down and a red ring on his bum," he chortles in recollection.

For all his tendencies toward tomfoolery, Longy, 40 next month and married with a young daughter, has never forgotten his mother Teresa's mantra of survival: "People live and die by their reputations," she used to tell him. "Be smart, be kind, and always repay your debts." Even as a wild-side walker, he maintained those principles. "It's very simple: you owe debt, you pay it. You use your brain and if you are smart enough, you don't have to prove how tough you are. And to be kind is to share what you have so that people respond to you without envy and with respect."

These days, Longy is almost solely employed by Lowy. "For Frank, I am a professional and I keep my roles private," he explains. "But for him, I am a personal therapist and trainer, and for sure, I make sure that he is safe." He then leaps to his feet, whips off his belt and winds the ends of it around both hands. "This is all I need to disarm three men with knives - feel how hard the leather is," he commands. I do, and it is. More lethal is the buckle point poking between the fingers of his right hand. "With this," he brandishes his left hand, "I can knock a man out. With this right hand, I could kill." I'm impressed, even more so when he goes through a lightning-fast routine of strikes and counter-strikes. Then he smiles with gotcha-going-then impishness.

"But I'm not interested in writing a book about how to kill or how to be a con man - no, no, my book is one that says free spirit is a very good thing, if you have a brain, good form, good movement and have good spirit, that's excellent. This is my life, if you can learn anything from it, then do so. But I will not force you to read it or listen to me."

It would be a missed opportunity not to do so. His narrative rollicks through 370 pages, most of which centre on his growing up. It is a story that humbles those of us who have never known war and want, and inspires with its never-say-die courage.

Tales of his time in Australia are somewhat more sketchy. "That's because of discretion," he explains, "and in terms of much that has happened in my life, that is the past, let it be. But even in my childhood, some things need not be gone into too much. I don't talk in detail about the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] - one and a half million of them died, at least. And the others, so many, Americans and Australians too, fighting in a country a long way from their homes."

Everything leaves a scar, he says. "The war, I was so young to see so much death - I was an altar boy and I did so many funerals, one day my best friend died from drowning, the next day a soldier was shot outside the church ... it becomes so common you get used to it. It's only when you grow up that you realise just how bad the situation really was.

"But I don't dwell on it, that's why I am still going strong, I use it as experience to make me stronger in my mind, I won't let it destroy me. It is the past, what is today is important, and tomorrow, that's up to God. I was brought up in a Catholic family and as a child I feared the mystery of God. But as a mature man I believe in karma - if you do the most right thing in life, it will come back to you."

That's why any censorship in the book is a censorship of sensitivity. His wife is a very private person, and their relationship is their own business. "She knows me and accepts what I am. She knew who I was when she met me, and understands I am a better person when I have a free life, when I am not tied down. I am not a selfish person, though, and I am always there if she needs me."

Beyond the family, information about his involvement with, say, underworld figures or uncovering police corruption has ramifications that involve privilege and government restriction. Beyond that again, he is a professional healer and his clients deserve privacy.

"Everything I can be sure of I have put down, and it is the truth, 100 per cent fact. I didn't write my book to say, 'Live like me, I'm a legend, this is Longy' - I have put it down to send a message to the kids out there about just how lucky this country is. In Australia, every person has a chance, they can triumph over adversity."

And who knows, one day they, too, might be able to read similar writing on their wall: "Longie [sic], where have you been all my life? Love Elle XX"

         The Dragon's Journey, by Duy Long Nguyen and James Knight (HarperCollins, $29.95)

This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright 2004 (c) Murray Waldren

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