See how the leaf people run

 

The following text is an extract from Michele Lee‘s radio play See how the leaf people run which was broadcasted on Radio National in late August.  The playscript will be published in full by The Australian Script Centre.  The script looks at the early settlement of Hmong people in Melbourne and explores the multi-layered realities of the characters – Hmong-Australian men of different generations, one of them also a shaman.  The narrative haunts with the voices of ghosts dead from wars who still permeate the present of the characters, set in Fitzroy in the 90s.  See how the leaf people run is a poignant exploration of diasporic Hmong identity and spirituality.

Text taken from Michele Lee’s script ‘See how the leaf people run’ – image by Lian Low

* * *

See how the leaf people run

© 2011 Michele Lee

CHARACTERS

CHARLIE, 17

Hmong (born in Laos, raised in Australia). Quiet.

VICTOR, early 20s

Hmong (born in Laos, raised in America). Brash. Street type of accent.

NHIA, 40s

Hmong (raised in Laos). A quiet voice, articulate, soft Asian accent.

LE SENG, 60s

Hmong (raised in Laos). Sage voice.

And a chorus of VOICES. VOICES 1-3 are men. VOICES 4-5 are women.

SETTING

Fitzroy, Melbourne.

TIME

The early 1990s. There is also a flashback moment that gets replayed.

PRODUCTION NOTES

Casting: Charlie and Victor have accents that are not uniquely ‘Hmong-English’. It’s an accent related to class and not just race. For Charlie, I could imagine casting someone from another migrant background but from a similar area where Asian migrants have settled (for example, the western suburbs in Melbourne). For Victor, I could see casting this role with a professional actor who can adopt an American accent, which purposely mimics African-Americans.

It’s important that Nhia and Le Seng are read by Asian men of that generation, as Nhia and Le Seng have an accent that is uniquely South East Asian. Le Seng speaks some lines of Hmong.

Regarding the chorus of Voices, they take on several ‘characters’ throughout the piece. They also speak lines of Hmong.

Sampling: There are a few samples, from the 1990 film Ghost and from the video game Mortal Kombat, first released in 1992. The Voices stand in for the actual voices in the original samples.

SC 1. EXT. MEKONG RIVER. NIGHT

A memory: it’s faint. A deep splash, and bodies flail in the water, people gulping for air.

VOICE 2:    Here.

VOICE 3:    Here.

VOICE 5:    Let me touch you.

VOICE 4:    It’s fine.

VOICE 1:    I’m going to make you feel…

VOICE 3:    Good.

VOICE 4:    Let me slip in…

VOICE 1:    Here.

VOICE 2:    Here?

VOICE 3:    Are you aching here?

VOICE 2:    What happened here?

VOICE 5:    What dug in here?

VOICE 1:    Rest here.

VOICE 5:    You’re with friends.

The water choppy. This fades down and merges with…

 

SC. 2. INT. LE SENG’S APARTMENT. MORNING

…The present: LE SENG hums. Outside, in the b/g, the sleepy rumble of early morning traffic. Rain falls on car-tops.

VOICE 1:             (As radio presenters.)

And it’s a moody morning in Melbourne.

VOICE 3:             And you’re listening to the morning mix.

VOICE 5:            And there’s rain, and there’s rain.

VOICE 2:            There are rivers in the sky…

Sounds of a kitchen waking. Pot boiling on the stove.

LE SENG:            (Speaking over the noise.)

There’s a saying my father taught me:

Le Seng, kuv tus me tub”

“Noj mov sawv ntxov es thiaj yog txiv neej yawg.”

Pot lifted off the stove, hot water poured into a bowl. LE SENG blowing on his food to cool it down.

LE SENG:            (Eating.)

Which, of course, means

“Le Seng, my son”

“An early breakfast makes the man.”

Wise man, my father. I’ll give him that.

I’d like to add to his wise words, yes.

“Le Seng, old man, an early breakfast will make the man.

But a mischievous mosquito will undo him.”

VOICE 4:             (As a radio presenter.)

Sit back, relax…

VOICE 5:            We’ve got a whole day of easy listening water.

 

SC. 3. INT. NHIA’S FLAT/CHARLIE’S BEDROOM. MORNING

Rain in the b/g. A tram too. The TV on inside. The infamous scene from ‘Ghost’: Demi Moore (Molly) at the potter’s wheel, Patrick Swayze (Sam) behind her.

 VOICE 1:    (As Sam.) You notice Carl’s eyes today? They were all over you.

VOICE 4:     (As Molly.) What? Are you jealous? Sam, let me tell you something. He’s not even looking at me. It’s you he idolises –

CHARLIE:            He doesn’t see me at all.

VOICE 4:            He doesn’t see me at all…

The sounds of the film playing in the b/g.

VOICE 1:            Shit.

VOICE 5:            Sick.

VOICE 4:            (In the b/g) Sam?

VOICE 1:            (In the b/g) Molly?

VOICE 3:            Charlie.

VOICE 5:            Sit.

VOICE 2:            Lie.

VOICE 3:            Sleep.

CHARLIE:            I…

VOICE 1:            Charlie.

CHARLIE:            I’ll do it. The ua neeb.

Pause.

CHARLIE:            Ghosts.

I believe in them. Spirits.

‘Ghost’. Movie.

Heard about it. Came out last year.

Thought about it. Sounded good.

Now. Watching. It is good.

See this? Seeing two people in love

Make love. Touch. They touch.

VOICE 2:            (Outside, distant.) Stop the fuck. Stop the fuck.

VOICE 3:            Shhhhhh.

VOICE 5:            Sick.

VOICE 1:            Charlie?

Curtains scoot across the rail.

CHARLIE:            Crazy Drug Guy.

VOICE 3:            Sick.

CHARLIE:            Drugs. Must be. Heroin.

Seen him buy something.

Last year. Like a movie. Drug deal.

You weren’t here yet.

I was…out. Outside. Going to the milk bar.

Crazy Drug Guy. He was there. Drug deal.

Dealer. He was walking up.

I got spooked. Went in the milk bar. Quick.

Vanessa. Vanessa Vang.

Wasn’t working that day.

Pause.

CHARLIE:            Her cousin. Victor. Sent out from Wisconsin.

Everyone says. He was in a gang. A real gang.

Scalped a guy. ‘Magine that. Full on.

Like a – ‘magine that, like a gangster.

His parents didn’t know what to do.

Victor. Stared at me.

I said “Hey those Aussie guys are selling drugs out there.”

But quick: “HeythoseAussieguysareselllingdrugsoutthere.”

He shrugged. Said nothing.

He didn’t see me at all.

From outside, in the distance but all-surrounding, a tiger growls.

CHARLIE:            You. You see me.  I’m gonna do it.

VOICES 1-5:            (As the Righteous Brothers.)

Oh my love

My darling

I’ve hungered for your touch

A long lonely time.

The music swells to its concluding crescendo. The tiger roars.

 

SC. 4. EXT. MEKONG RIVER. NIGHT

The memory, in more detail: People panting as they walk through the jungle. From within this emerge three sets of feet trying to pad ever-so-softly over the ground.

A younger CHARLIE whimpers.

CHARLIE: (As his younger self.)                     VOICE 3: (In Hmong.)

I’m tired.                                                                           Kuv nkees

VOICE 1:  (Whispered, as the father.)             VOICE 3: (In Hmong.)

Be strong, my son.                                     Ua tawv qhawv, kuv tus me tub.           

NHIA: (in the b/g.)                                             VOICE 3: (In Hmong.)

..pay you when we get

to Thailand.

…Relatives there.

Thank-you thank-you.                                           Ua tsaug ua tsaug.

VOICE 1:  (as the father.)                                 VOICE 3: (In Hmong.)

Come on.                                                                Los, kuv tus me tub.

Into the boat, quick.                                     Los rau hauv nkoj, tsuag.

 

Feet splashing into water. And a boat pushing off from a shallow shore. Oars cutting through reeds, through water.


SC. 5. INT. NHIA’S APARTMENT. MORNING

The record button is pushed on a tape recorder. The tape reel winds.

NHIA:             Nyob zoo brother. Nyob zoo Chu.

Apologies, it’s been a while since my last cassette. Can I blame it on capitalism, brother? It’s busy at the factory, working tirelessly for the cause. Another sedan, that Falcon model. “Ladies and gentleman, in 1988, Ford gave you the Ford EA Falcon. Now ladies and gentleman, welcome to 1992, the era of the…Ford EA Falcon…take three”.  It’s busy, they want us to be as quick as machines but as meticulous as humans. It’s women’s work too – colour and trim – but I bow my head and pretend I don’t know.

I’m grateful, of course. We all are. Decades in Phonsovan and we never saw anything like these cars. But then you and me, Chu, we were always too genteel for any fighting, for commandeering any of their old trucks. Too educated, if a village education down in Vang Vieng counts.

If Aunty were here, I’d get her fitting the trim and I’d stay at home. Charlie…he looks more and more like you. He really does.

Aunty tells me life is hard. She wonders if she should have fled Laos, crossed the Mekong. Should I tell her? That it’s too late. The Bangkok officials will soon stop interviewing in Ban Vinai. Chu, promise me you’ll use your charm to bully your way to the head of the UNCHR queue.

Pause.

NHIA:  I knocked on his door the other day. So dark in there. I stumbled. Does he shower? When I’m out at work, does he shower? It stinks. I was stern, told him the ua neeb was going ahead. This weekend. For a moment, I saw your face in his, then it was gone, he turned over.

Early start for me, Chu. I’ll go.

Your little brother, Nhia.

The stop button is pressed.

 

SC. 6. INT. DIXON’S VIDEO ARCADE. DAY

Cacophony of a video arcade. Electronic sounds, machines buzzing, house music playing.

VOICE 2:  (A computer game, a monotonous but God-like commanding voice.)

Scorpion. Sonja.

VOICES 1-2:      MORTAL KOMBAT.

VOICE 1:            Fight. Excellent.

Johnny Kage. Kang Lia. Sub Zero.

VOICE 2:            Finish him.

VICTOR:            Fight. Me. Victor Lee.

Me. Top score. Me.

VOICE 1:            Victor Lee

You have been chosen

To defend the realm of Earth

In a tournament called

VOICE 1-2:            Mortal Kombat.

VICTOR:            You fucking betcha.

Yo. Guys. Smoke. Come on.

 

SC. 7. EXT. DIXON’S VIDEO ARCADE. DAY

The door opening.

VICTOR going outside to the street into the drizzle, followed by foot-steps. A crack of lightning out there, far off.

Cigarettes lighting up. Someone else walks by.

VICTOR:            Yo whatchya lookin at?

Huh? Never seen yellow bruthas light up?

The gang laughing. The person walking away quickly.

VICTOR:            (Yelling out, laughing.)

You fucking betcha!

H-M-O-N-G!

VOICE 4:            H.

VOICE 3:            M.

VOICE 5:            Oh. Bro. Yo.

VOICE 3:            Cuz, you was –

VICTORI:            A soldier. Told ya. This one time –

VOICE 4:            Cuz –

VOICE 5:            Was –

VICTOR:            A street soldier. Wisconsin.

VOICE 3:            Wisss.

VOICE 4:            Consss…

VOICE 5:            That’s-a?

VOICE 3:            What’s-a?

Laughing.

VICTOR:            What’s-a Hmong? This one time. Back in Wisconsin

Stationed on the corner, Wiltshire n 53rd.

Down by them projects.

No shit, called them the Beanstalk

‘Cause a guy named Jack ran a crew down there.

I was the first Hmong he put on that corner.

Didn’t call me Hmong though –

VOICE 5:            What’s-a ?

VICTOR:            “What the fuck is a Hmong?”!!

Called me Chinese, Chinese like Wong, like Wu.

VOICE 3:            H. M.

VOICE 5:            O.

VOICE 4:            N. G.

VICTOR:            Ain’t no-one else gonna sing it.

This one time. Had to tell Jack. I ain’t no ching-chong.

I’m a muther-fuckin Hmong.

I was a soldier before you learned to walk, Jack.

No disrespect, Jack, but it’s in my blood.

My Pa went to military school, Jack.

Jungle military school with the C.I.A.

Back in Laos, yellow bruthas like us was high-rollin with the C.I.A.

You feelin me Jack? I’m a Hmong.

Be glad. I gotchya muther-fuckin back.

A cop car sidling up.

VICTOR:            Cop. Cool.

Me. Victor Lee.

VOICE 1:   (From within the car, as the police officer, speaking into a radio mic.)

Gruber here. Code 1. B&E, three D&Ds. Code 12. Code 16.

Atherton Gardens.

VICTOR:            (Calling out.)

Yo nice to meetchya officer.

VOICE 4:            Cuz –

VOICE 3:             Was –

VOICE 4:            Is a gangster. Soldier.

VOICE 5:            Wannabe?

VOICE 3:            Maybe.

Laughter.

VICTOR:            Ain’t seen you before. You new around here?

Lemme introduce myself.

Got my crew here. My boys.

My cousin, Vanessa Vang.

Me? Victor Lee. Nice to meetchya.

Lemme introduce ya to the streets. The flats.

It’s messed up. Has been the whole year I been here.

We gotta spend our time keepin ourselves safe!

‘Cause you boys ain’t doin your jobs!

Yo I ain’t blamin you. I’m feelin you, officer.

It ain’t a pretty place around here.

Every night I gotta get my Pa on the phone

Back in the States. Tell him I’m survivin in Melbourne.

Yo I am makin that man proud!

He might have kicked me out, flown me here.

But I am makin my whole family proud.

You feelin me? You seein these streets?

VICTOR laughs.

The police car driving away. And down the street.

VOICE 1:   (From within the car, as the police officer, speaking into a radio mic.)

Code 1. GBH. BOP. Gertrude Street.

VICTOR:            Yo. (Laughing.) See his face?

VOICE 4:            You.

VOICE 5:            Victor.

VOICE 4:            Lee.

VOICE 5:            Great.

VOICE 4:            Victor.

The laughter.

VICTOR:            Yo.

VOICE 3:            Bro.

VICTOR:            You feelin me?

VOICE 5:            Cuz he was.

VOICE 4:            He was.

VOICE 5:            He was-a. Wis-sa. He used-ta.

VOICE 4:            Sold-ier.

VOICE 5:            Ha!

The door to the arcade opening.

VOICES 1-2:     MORTAL KOMBAT.

VOICE 1:            Fight. Excellent.

VOICE 2:            Finish him.

Sounds of the car on the street, driving away. The rain pours.

 

SC. 8. INT. LE SENG’S APARTMENT. MORNING

Rain in the b/g. Focus on the low buzz of a lone mosquito in LE SENG’s kitchen.

LE SENG:   Three days.

Since this Wednesday.

The mosquito flaring up.

LE SENG:            You, my friend

You wait, tenacious, and wait.

But –

LE SENG putting down his spoon onto the table.

LE SENG:            Today will be the day –

LE SENG pushing back his chair.

LE SENG:            A good man brings you to your end.

A stinging clap.

LE SENG:            Ha ha!

A pause. Then the mosquito buzzes, triumphant.

LE SENG:            Cheeky!

You come in, singing again, hungry

Flying low over my rice and pork.

You’re cheeky, aren’t you?

 The mosquito leaves the room.

LE SENG:            (Sighing.)

Suppose you’ll want me to chase.

LE SENG walking out of the kitchen.

LE SENG:            Yesterday I thought you died.

I thought I’d worn you out.

Children pass by giggling.

LE SENG:            Watch it now, children!

Respect for your grandpa please!

Didn’t my daughter teach you manners?

And the children rush off.

LE SENG:            And look where you’re going when you run!

Their footsteps fade down the hallway.

LE SENG:            One day, my friend

I’ll bet my grandkids will push me down the stairs!

That’s what kids will do to their elders here.

We Hmong, 350 meager families in this country.

Does scarcity breed respect for one’s culture?

Ha! It’s all Mario Brothers and Ninja Turtles!

LE SENG walking again.

LE SENG:            Do our burdens breed respect? Our gifts?

I didn’t choose to be a shaman.

I was standing by the road, on my way to a market.

I looked over the paddy, far away, at nothing in particular.

And just my luck. Tree spirits. In the jungle.

Dozens. Peeking out. Sealing my fate.

I was sick for days afterwards. A real mess.

You think that meant I didn’t have to go to the market? Ha!

Stern, my father. Stern man.

A shaman too. My teacher.

The mosquito buzzes.

LE SENG:            Perseverance, my friend, is something I learnt from him.

Oh the ways in which I would avoid my lessons!

And the ways in which he’d force me into them!

I suppose you could have called me disrespectful.

Lazy? Afraid, perhaps. Tenacious in my fear.

As tenacious as him.

And as tenacious as you!

You returned today with that little smug buzz.

And now, maybe, my friend, you’re down the stairs.

There are puddles there.

Dark urine, from the drug users.

You like the moisture, don’t you?

The mosquito buzzes again, closer up. A bite, suctioning on the skin. Blood drunk.

LE SENG:            Ow! You just bit me! You just bit a shaman!

 

SC. 9. EXT. MEKONG RIVER. NIGHT

The memory: a stampede of footsteps, now overwhelming, mixing with the sound of gunfire. Bullets. Bombs. Splashes. More. And bodies flailing in the water. More bodies.

VOICE 1:             My Dad heard someone yelling. Black muscles. Big arms, thighs. Lying across the ground, like a horse. His guts were spilling out.

VOICE 4:             We had three Americans live with us. Big. White. One had hair the colour of a pumpkin.

VOICE 3:             One had lost his leg. He didn’t look too good.

VOICE 1:            My sister looked after him.

VOICE 5:             He was like a baby is. The way a baby is when they can’t walk and talk.

VOICE 2:             The ones who know they will die, they don’t speak.

VOICE 1:             They wish for home. They wish for their blood and their bones and for everything –

VOICE 4:             To stay inside.

VOICE 1:             Ah! Listen!

VOICE 5:             Turn up the radio. My father says we’re winning! They say we’re heroes!

VOICE 3:             They’re telling stories.

VOICE 2:             They say that we’re friends.

VOICE 4:             They even have our pictures.

VOICE 5:             A trustworthy face. A hand to shake.

VOICE 1:             And a head always looking over its shoulder.

VOICE 3:             Strong legs for landing, for running.

VOICE 2:             My Dad says we were just born like this.

VOICE 1:             This is why when our people, the leaf people, run…

VOICE 5:             You can’t see it.

The water overwhelming. Cut to a hollow silence.

Author: Michele Lee

Michele is an Asian-Australian writer. She is currently working on the first development of Chaste with Platform Youth Theatre. Chaste explores the relationship between Asian Australians and Indigenous Australians, and ideas of cultural purity. She is also working as the writer on a new documentary physical theatre piece, The Colour White, with Gorkem Acaroglu as the artistic director of the project. The work is commissioned for a first-stage development by Westside Circus. In early 2013, Michele will continue her work as the writer on the second development of Moths, a documentary play about sexuality and Asian Australians, with Australia Council support. She recently presented Talon Salon, an audio theatre work, as part of Next Wave Festival 2012. Michele developed the work through the 2011 Next Wave Kickstart development program. Radio National commissioned Michele’s radio play See how the leaf people run for production, and it was broadcast in August 2012. Michele developed the work through the 2010 Ian Reed Writers-in-Residence program with Radio National. In 2013, courtesy of an Australia Council Arts Start grant, Michele will visit America to meet with and learn from Asian-American theatre-makers and playwrights. Michele went to Laos in 2009 on an Asialink residency.

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