Globalisation and the Live Performing Arts Conference 23-24 June 2000
Organised by Circus Oz and Monash University Centre for Drama and Theatre Studies
North Melbourne Town Hall
My family and I arrived in Australia in 1978 as refugees from Vietnam. In 1985, I got my first taste of the arts by playing a Viet Cong Boy in an Australian mini series “The Sword of Honour”, about the Vietnam War. Since then, I have had many exciting parts, playing many different Vietnamese Boys, Minh, Dinh, Thanh, Phan, Nam and Loc. I also got to play a Vietnamese Gang Leader in “Romper Stomper”. Then moving from there I got to play a Chinese in Paradise Beach, and a Japanese in Fast Forward. Then one sunny day, I was asked to play “George”. Wow, I thought this was going to be exiting, a non stereo-type character for a change. As it turns out, “George” is a Vietnamese criminal, but because the show was Australia’s Most Wanted, they weren’t allow to use his Vietnamese name, so they used George instead. So to sum up my acting experience in Australia; I am a Vietnamese/Asian/Criminal character expert.
When I hear of the word Globalisation, two things come to my mind. The first thing is to do with the environment, something about protecting certain endangered species, either plants or animals. We are lucky because we are living in a country that gives us many choices and options. These choices are often at someone else’s expense, in particular those living in third word countries.
The other thing about the word Globalisation has something to do with economics, something to do with market shares. My senses tell me that, there is a fear out there amongst the major arts organisations. They are afraid of the large multi-nationals, the multi million dollar, mega-productions. They are afraid because they don’t know how to compete with these companies and at the same time their traditional support based is dying, literally.
Whether they are the ABC, MTC, Oz opera or the Ballet, they are struggling to win over new audiences. The Australia Council also recognizes this by introducing programs such as audience development. You see, in my opinion this is a waste of Taxpayers money. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on advertising, if you don’t have the right product, people will not come to see your show. What is the right product? You may ask. The right product is a product that is relevant to the people, to the community. And if this community is made up of Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese and Aborigines, then that’s what they have to do. Produce work that is relevant to the Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese and Aborigines. So why don’t they? Why do they keep producing work that is more relevant to the White Anglo middle class audience and then complain about the lack of audience from other ethnic backgrounds. I don’t know.
So for myself and other artists from non-English speaking backgrounds, what should do we do? If we keep hanging around here we are classified as an “ethnic artist”. If we go back to our country of origin, refuse to speak English and wait till they bring us back here, then we will be seen as an international artist. Anyway, I am currently shopping for a crappy fishing boat so that I can go back to Vietnam, if anyone is selling one please see me after this session.
Five years ago, I decided to established Vietnamese Youth Media, with the support of the Footscray Community Arts Centre. This was to be our own company, a place where young Vietnamese-Australian can come and make arts, tell our own stories and create our own characters. The work that we do ranges from theatre to documentary making, from music production to karaoke performance nights. We make our own work, because we don’t want to wait for Anglo writers and director to give us work because they feel sorry us or because they think it’s the most political correct thing to do.
The arts is not and should not be about money or charity, but it should be about humanity and our relationship with one another. So my warning to those who are involved in this industry for the wrong reason. I think they should get out.
So what do the live performing arts provide for young Vietnamese people? In Vietnam there are very few opportunities because the adults are too busy trying to make money. Vietnamese people still see the arts as a hobby of the middle class. In Australia, most Vietnamese parents only want their kids to be doctors, layers or accountants. Vietnamese young people do not have the aspiration to become artists, and why should they, when they learn about the reality about life of an artist with an average income ot about $14,000 a year. Would any logical normal people want to be artist? The answer is no.
When young people ask me why am I an artist, I often tell them, arts is like a disease, you either have it or you don’t, and the minute when you are cured, you cannot make arts.
I have been back to Vietnam twice, once in 1995 and again in 1998. I tried to see as much theatre as I could. Again there are similarities. Theatre in Vietnam is also a form of entertainment for the middle class. A ticket price to see a typical play is $50,000 dong, which is about $5 dollars US, while the average annual income is about $250 US dollars. This is the commercial/professional theatre scene. Another theatre scene in Vietnam is government funded theatre, and since Vietnam is a Communist state, you can all guess what is in the content of these plays. Another type of theatre, called “Vietnamese Water Puppets”, has been poping up recently has proven to be quite popular with Western tourists.
Like many minority cultures in Australia, the Vietnamese people are still trying to work out what it is that they want to preserve. The problem with trying to preserve cultures is working out which one is yours and which one is not, because you can end up preserving the wrong thing. To understand what I am talking about, It is important to have some understanding of Vietnamese history. Vietnam was ruled by the the Chinese for 3000 years, a hundred years by the French, and 30 years by the Americans in the South. The North has had 50 years of Communism. Today, Vietnamese kids in Vietnam can watch American MTV and soccer being played somewhere in Europe but have little understanding about life elsewhere in Vietnam.
In Australia, traditional Vietnamese performing arts are less popular than table top dancing. Vietnamese community leaders try very hard to preserve them by incorporating or inserting them into Vietnamese Karaoke competitions or beauty contests. One of the many reasons why Vietnamese people don’t like these traditional performances is because they are being performed by inexperienced amateurs. There are experienced professionals around, but because they realise that they can’t make a living in the performing arts in Australia, they prefer to work in a factory instead.
Sometimes I just wonder why the Australian government sends Anglo artists to Vietnam on cultural exchange when they can just send them to Cabramatta or Footscray. Again I want to ask, why don’t they acknowledge us Vietnamese-Australian, aren’t we Vietnamese enough? But if we are not Vietnamese enough or if we are too Australian, then why aren’t we in Neighbours, Home and Away or Sea Change or Blue Heelers. That is what I don’t understand.