It’s not long after Footscray By Night that I catch Hoang Tran Nguyen and David Cuong Nguyen at fauxPho artspace, where Hoang rents a studio space in a 1st floor warehouse which he shares with other artists. The warehouse is minimal, grungy, and a little run-down, belying the rich history of the now disbanded fauxPho collective that hosted numerous events ranging from visual arts exhibitions to piano recitals to Vietnamese poetry readings and Western-style spoken word events since 2001. The purpose of my visit is to chat with Dave and Hoang about karaoke, music videos and community cultural development processes – the composite elements that formed Footscray by Night, a one night event held as part of Big West Festival last year. My friends, partner and I were lucky to catch the gig. While an outdoor karaoke event isn’t a novelty, what I liked was the transformation of the Little Saigon Shopping Centre car park, from an unattractive block filled with metal boxes reeking of gas and petrol fumes to walking, talking, dancing and interactive human bodies. A stage area together with a dance floor had been constructed, and audience members were invited throughout the night to go up and sing karaoke to the seven videos which featured the communities that frequented the Little Saigon Shopping Centre. The karaoke singing was interspersed with a jiving Viet cover band and a hip hop break dancing group that moved like they had unbreakable plasticine bodies. While I didn’t feel brave enough to sing in public that night, my friends and partner did take to the stage. So did lots of other people – young and old.
Not all friends are great artistic collaborators, but Hoang and Dave have found the right chemistry for working together. Hoang’s background is in multimedia, his work spans across photography, video, projections and installations; and he created the karaoke videos that resulted from the project. As the community artist in the project, Dave’s background is in writing and community performance projects. Both of them have been lauded for their creative works and both have a complementary sense of humour and understanding and respect of each other’s work practices. One of their earliest collaborations was a fauxPho collective enterprise called “Karaoke Caravan” where Dave was MC and together with another friend, Scott Brook, set-up a mobile karaoke suite at the back of a 3-tonne truck travelling to the Footscray Mall, local high schools and also a Big West Festival at the time. The project was a way to engage various communities in a multilingual platform using a popular home-based entertainment like karaoke. While the fauxPho collective no longer exists, Karaoke Caravan had always been at the back of their minds over the last 10 years; however, they encountered a number of obstacles, which put the project on the backburner. Hoang reflects on one of these stumbling blocks, when one past Big West festival tried to re-stage Karaoke Caravan.
“When Jason Cross was still Artistic Director of Big West, he put in an application with us on board, but as a Big West application to the New Media board for Karaoke Caravan, that included making videos as well as this caravan. From what I heard, it almost got through until one guy said, ‘Oh, but that’s not really new media, that’s more community arts.’ Whereas I thought it was more interesting to put it into new media, because it was making a case for new media, being also about new audiences because it’s using this technology to take it to another new audience which was even more interesting than just about new technologies. Apparently, this one voice, this sentient voice, was enough to knock it back.”
While Kate Shearer, the current Artistic Director of Big West, did not want the caravan side of the project, Big West were keen on having Hoang and Dave work on a new project.
Says Hoang, “I think it was a marriage of convenience it felt like, because, you know, Big West wanted us as Vietnamese artists to work with the Vietnamese community. Very early on they wanted to do a series of rooftop events and Little Saigon has a rooftop car park and they also knew about this crazy project called Karaoke Caravan.”
From this Big West brief came the birthing of Footscray by Night, the name a pun on a popular diasporic Vietnamese entertainment variety show called Paris by Night, the format of which comprised an MC who hosted singers, hip hop dance acts, a comedy routine, some ballroom dancing and the show often had some reference to the war in Vietnam. For the Footscray by Night event, Hoang and Dave went round tables inviting audience members to go onto stage to sing karaoke-style to the tunes accompanying their videos. At the end of the night, participants received a DVD album of the Footscray by Night videos to take home to share with family and friends. Similarly participants in the Footscray by Night karaoke videos were also given DVD albums, a gesture which both Hoang and Dave felt was important. According to Hoang, the ability to make “new karaoke scenes” was one of the key reasons which made the karaoke format interesting for him.
Historically Big West had been criticised for its lack of engagement with the Vietnamese Australian community, by community arts group – Australian Vietnamese Youth Media’s (now defunct) founder, Tony Le Nguyen, an actor, writer, producer and director, whose acting credits include RomperStomper, Stingers and Sea Change. Criticisms from Le Nguyen and the community had resulted in Big West now covering their bases when it comes to Viet content in the program.
Hoang says, “In hindsight I think Kate deserves some credit for actually asking us and finding money for us to do this, because it’s not her world. She must have had some sort of leap of faith to think let’s give these guys some money to make some karaoke videos. Like who would do that?”
Dave agrees, although with a streak of cynicism. “It’s putting a lot of eggs in one basket, I think. We’ve got these guys, they’re Vietnamese and they’re making a project with Vietnamese people in a shopping centre that’s Vietnamese, so that ticks a whole bunch of criteria for Big West at the same time. I get the feeling, it was like we don’t have to stress about the Vietnamese side because we’ve got a project to deal with it.”
While it may have seemed quite easy for Dave and Hoang to recruit participants from their Viet-Australian community, the results were unexpected. Both of them launch into long chuckles as they recount the responses they received during the recruitment process.
Says Dave, “We didn’t have any participants until later in the process. If anything our engagement with the communities put our schedule back drastically, to the point where we were actually two weeks out from the showing. And it was the only way that it could have happened. Because it has to do with the cohort and the community itself, it being a commercial site of trade as well as the community not doing any of this sorts of projects before.”
“We actually went out and handed out flyers and like all good projects, do recruitment. We’d walk around, talk to people, they’d go, “yeah, yeah, that sounds good, I might come’. I’m like ‘Cool, be there at 4 o’clock today, huh?’ And they’d be like, ‘yeah, yeah’. So we sat there for two hours by ourselves, at 4 o’clock, going ‘that guy was supposed to come’. And walking through the market, ‘she said she was going to come too, and he did’, but no one turned up.”
While recruiting participants was a huge challenge, both Dave and Hoang were very sympathetic to the personal struggles of working and surviving that the communities faced. Says Hoang, “In defence of them, they do crazy hours. Like, their life is work. You can still get a bowl of soup on Christmas day. That’s the market. They never close. Seven days a week. They do 12 hour days. And so it was a really good learning process, to work out, how do you actually do CCD with people who haven’t volunteered to be involved? And how do you jump into their world? How do you disrupt their world in a way that still gives you some possibility of space to do something?
Questioning their own processes of engaging with communities was important in ensuring that their project would actually work.
“This isn’t going to be a process where I know it well in the sense of a community artist engaging participants, but it’s going to be something that we’re going to have to re-work the model. One of those was about having it much more artist-lead, and two is taking in all those factors – of the market, how they work, how late they work, what can we do in their space, that is not going to disrupt that too much where it was going to be an annoyance? It got to the point, I think I’m sure, where me and Hoang were considered rather annoying”, grins Dave.
Both Dave and Hoang laugh uproariously as Hoang remembers, “I definitely saw some people avoiding me.”
They finally broke the ice between them and the Little Saigon Shopping Centre communities when they finally started making their project with their one participant – Binh, the co-owner of the centre. Says Dave, “Because Little Saigon was our site, it was actually perfect, because we could then film on the site so that people could go, ‘Oh, those are the guys who have been asking us, and they are filming now and they’re doing that and it sort of looks fun and I’m laughing at it’. In that sort of observatory way they were starting to participate and that was also an opportunity while we’re filming to go ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing today, you don’t have to be in it, but check it out.’”
Hoang adds, “Luckily he [Binh] had a story that was relevant because he’s been fighting council on numerous fronts for years and recently they put up those surveillance type parking cameras and he actually fought council and won. I didn’t think he’d win, but he won and council had to take them down, and so that was his story. So we chose to tell that story, but you know, it was also very strategic that we used that first shoot of Binh to just show the shops what we were doing as well as the fan dance.”
Shooting tracky-dack wearing Binh doing a Rocky-inspired work-out routine along Footscray streets, alleys and the Little Saigon Shopping centre area was one carrot that worked for passers-bys. The second film they made was the “Fan Dance Off”, which again fulfilled their dual purpose of meeting their project aims while also attracting interest from passers-by.
“As you can see there’s all that footage of them walking through the market as well. So, that in itself was really strategic to show them we’re working with participants, people. They’re obviously not actors. They’re elderly peoples as well. Which makes it beautiful and funny and revered in a certain way. We’re going through all the stalls, and we’re going to be filming something whacky upstairs. It became a really good process to have those two films go through the site, and people would go, ‘OK, cool, you are doing something, so, I have a vision of it, but I don’t understand it, but ok you’re here’. And we weren’t leaving”, Dave recounts with mirth.
Despite having to improvise, examine and re-negotiate their community engagement processes, conceptually, Hoang and Dave had established early on that Little Saigon as a site of economic and cultural exchange underpinned all the videos that were made. Having this established, they highlighted how everyday occurrences, for example the act of selling the iconic pho soup became a performative event, a performance of culture. Hoang muses, “That element of performance, became really integral because we’re doing music videos – because music videos is about performance and karaoke is about performance”. Their choice of setting was also deliberate, the visual aesthetics were drawn from familiarity. “Let’s say the fan dance off, it’s using a very, very recognisable image – the shopping centre car park, everyone knows the car park and the loading bay forklift.”
Choosing the music for each video was also an important step in the process. Says Hoang, “The Paris by Night series is now, I think at Chapter 113. It used to be when laser discs were still around. You could buy laser discs karaoke album and you got 20 songs. And so the songs we made had to be thought about as interrelated, as an album. So even though each song is a distinct entity, I think they all interrelate in a sense, that they intervene into the market quite specifically.” Out of the eight music videos they made, three of them were bilingual. Says Hoang, “The bilingual thing was very important, even though it was the hardest thing, because we don’t know Vietnamese songs, we kept asking the participants, what songs do you like? I know we didn’t cross that threshold of engaging them in that way. We should have had more karaoke parties, to kind of get there,” Hoang says tongue-in-cheek, and continues, “that was one of my anxieties about not having enough Viet songs, or bilingual songs, and I don’t think we ended up as many as we could have, but it was also part of the process.”
In one of the music videos, “Seven Years of Happiness”, Hoang asked Nang (the man who built the boat) to write new lyrics to the song “Down Under”, replacing the original with a love song based on the love letters he exchanged with his wife back in Vietnam during their seven years apart. Says Hoang, “Although I was quite clear with him that it should relay his ‘love song’ the lyrics he wrote were much less ‘personal/love song’ and more literal of the migrant story and ended with his heartfelt thanks to Australia for giving him his ‘freedom’. He titled the song ‘Welcome Freedom’. After asking him to rewrite another version, this time with direction on the structural content of the song, he still wrote a similar song. I didn’t know wether he didn’t want to tell his personal story or that he felt a need to ‘represent’ the community story.”
However, when it came to the actual boat in the music video, Nang was very specific on the model having exact details of the original boat that brought him to Australia. Hoang on the other hand had another idea, “I was more interested in the boat representing a broader story, relating the iconic boat image to Australia’s history. I built the scaled model boat based on his drawing and when we presented it to him he started drawing the details back on with the intention of adding them for the film shoot. When I tried to explain to him why it was paired back he seemed very disappointed that it wasn’t ‘his boat’. After the film shoot we presented the boat to him as a gift for him to ‘reclaim’ his boat!” Hoang’s English language adaptation of Nang’s lyrics is more a ‘love song’ that also references a broader Australian ‘boat story’.
In the Forklift Island video, Hoang and Dave deliberately persisted in working with the South Asian community that formed part of the Little Saigon Shopping Centre community. Building trust with them was difficult as Dave observed that both Hoang and he, “represent their bosses”. After persistent visits from Dave and Hoang who both spent a lot of time in their space, asking questions about their lives which weren’t always welcomed, the workers gave in. Together with the decision that Hoang and Dave made to offer payment to participants in light of the longer and more involved process of creating and filming “Forklift Island” became key steps in winning the workers over. In the video, a very familiar space – the loading bay area where the workers worked was transformed into a performance stage. A forklift lifts a wooden pallet with the dancer poised to start. When the dancer starts moving, all eyes are on her, and her dance finishes with a worker helping her off the stage, and the stage becoming an ordinary wooden pallet again. Watching the video, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the workers, and I also wondered about their dreams and ambitions and what their fairytales would be. The idea of having a classical Indian dancer on a forklift came from the time spent with the workers. It was an image that was familiar and not too foreign for them, even though a little bit surreal. “I kept coming back to them, and I kept bringing it to them, going, what do you think of this idea?”, Dave says.
“The real clincher for me was the day we filmed, and part of the process is that we’d give direction with the dancer, ‘so this is what its about, this is what you’re going to do, consider ideas of what it feels like to be here after coming with all these hopes and stuff like that’. What we got the dancer to do, we asked her to show back to the participants, not on the forklift, in a rehearsal sort of way. So she talked through all the movements about what they represented to them, while they are eating food, and they stopped eating and they put down their plates and they started watching and realising that partly this is for them and with them. It was actually quite a palpable moment. You know those moments where you feel, and go, oh, awesome, they’re in it now. And after that they did everything we asked and more. Process wise that was probably one of the hardest. It took a whole bunch of different ways of doing it.”, Dave reflects.
Ironically, Big West weren’t too enthusiastic about having the South Asian community represented in the arts project.
“It kind of spoke to the identity politics that was already pre-existing in a way there was an expectation of us to just be Vietnamese. That in a way helped give us a kind of impetus to explore what are these cultural kind of images that relates to being Vietnamese and not run away from using it, but using it”, Hoang says.
Dave adds, “It was important for us to do it. They were important to the community and important to the change in the dynamics and status and all these things that were part of the market. The market itself was Bi-Lo before it was the Little Saigon shopping centre, it was one of those supermarkets.”
“That whole thing of early arrival migrant working class always doing those jobs – the factory jobs, the labour jobs and stuff like that. So, I sort of see it as, and read it, interestingly that sort of change, for the Vietnamese community their changing status as well, they are not doing those particular jobs anymore. There’s less taxi drivers that are Vietnamese. There’s obviously a lot more Indian and African, and all those late night jobs are done by the newly arrived working class than the established communities. And it comes with money, it comes with influence and being established. It was important to highlight that in some way.”
Not running away from using cultural imagery that related to being Vietnamese brought up a whole set of questions for the two. Hoang muses, “How do you use firecrackers in this context where firecrackers, or fireworks in terms of spectacle is overused in cultural celebrations? Every new year, every city is trying to outdo each other, in how much they spend on pyrotechnics and whatever. So it was like how do you use traditional cultural forms like Vovinam without it being cringey or without being scared of using it.”
One poignant way in which Hoang and Dave did transform an ordinary space and inject it with symbolism was the “Making Crackers/Finale” video. The video is a very subtle reference to the Vietnam War. Says Hoang, “A turning point of the war occurred in 1968 when the Northern forces attacked Southern cities on the first day of Lunar New Year, betraying a two-day ceasefire for New Year celebrations. Firecrackers are synonymous with Lunar New Year and places like Little Saigon. They are also unpredictable and transgressive whilst being spectacular. Here using firecrackers in an empty cavernous shopping centre is a way to activate the space with metaphor.”
Another poignant ending to the whole project was on the night of Footscray by Night, Hoang and Dave found out that Binh and the other Little Saigon shopping centre co-owners received council approval to develop a 12-storey apartment complex.
Says Hoang, “He said he was going to keep the market. How is he going to keep the market? Who knows? The way it’s been designed it looks like it could have come from Docklands or anywhere in the world with pre-fabricated concrete slabs. It felt quite poignant to be up there that night doing this as a kind of good bye but as a marker for where the community’s been and where it might be going. In a way the project is a kind of finale to Little Saigon as it exists now.”