The documentary photography of Thuy Vy
Dan choi: the Fashion Show
It’s the last event of the 2005 Big West Festival, a community-based arts festival in Melbourne’s western suburbs. We’re all sitting around on plastic chairs beside the catwalk, waiting for the show.
Cuong Nguyen is at the microphone reading his famous ‘Footscray Punks’ story. The spoken word performance hails the mixed crowd of mostly Vietnamese and White Australians as locals and as ‘westies’.
Footscray, the west. Other side of the river, where the freaks have no shame. The culture: Footscray Culture. Which cannot be defined by fried rice, kebab or fish’n’chips … coz it’s changing. It never stays the same.i
My friend Tim is drinking with a woman in the front row. An aging rock musician, Tim is talking about how he grew up in Footscray in the 1960s and 1970s, then lived overseas before moving back again — soon enough to get interested in the return of debates about ‘fixing Footscray’ through changing the image. He asks the woman if she lives around here. She tells him yeah, she lives in this park.
Cuong reads; Occasionally you still see an original punk from the different communities … like in the 1980s when the first wave of young Vietnamese began playing on these new streets. Their long hair with black baggy pants that flared a white stripe down the side. The shirts always three times too big and never tucked in.
On stage two young Vietnamese Australian men head down the catwalk, their bodies making small flourishes as they move; a white tuxedo dropped-to-drag along the floor, a salmon pink t-shirt rolled over a flexed bicep. At the end of the catwalk they strike tough, street-level poses. I’ve heard Cuong read this piece a few times before but it suddenly occurs to me that his reference to ‘punks’ is more by way of Dirty Harry than any subculture that came out of the UK.
Once in a while, I see one. The real thing, a dan choi on the street, still running to stand still. And I nod my head in respect. For they knew they may never return to their soil. This was a new frontier for their roots and they were viewed as Bad Tourists.
The model on stage takes a cigarette from behind his ear and lets it hang from the side of his mouth. I sit forward and take a photo.
Dan choi: the exhibition
‘Dan choi’ (literally a man who plays, who wastes his time going out; or even ‘a player’, as in ‘hustler’) has become a famed figure for second generation Vietnamese Australians, mythic Older Brother types that Cuong’s writing pays homage to as a generation of ‘pioneers’. The fashion show was organised by the local photographer Thuy Vy to coincide with his documentary exhibition “Dan choi: Vietnamese street fashion of the 1980’s”.ii For the Dan choi series Vy re-photographed and enlarged pictures from photo albums of relatives that were taken during the late 1980’s. Here the visual language of the family album created an intimate space where, somewhat cheekily, the viewer might witness ‘real’ scenes of self-documentation and self-display. Vy uses a number of techniques to interlace his documentary pictures of subjects and sites with questions of their becoming public, addressing them to the viewer’s desire. Not just what do you see here, but what do you want to see?
The media response to his 2001 ‘Sewing Rooms’ series was exemplary in this regard (Centre for Contemporary Photography, 2003). Short-listed for the Leica Award for documentary photography, ‘Sewing Rooms’ documented the workspaces of Vietnamese Australian home-based garment workers. Eerily devoid of actual workers, the dim lighting of fluorescent tubes and severely formal compositions performed otherwise domestic work-spaces as sites of social intrigue; tense moments of revelation and concealment worthy of a western suburban gothic novella. After the CCP exhibition Vy was solicited by a journalist from The Age for an interview, but notoriously ended the interview after only a few questions. According to Vy the reporter wasn’t all that interested in the photos, but was hoping to glean information and pictures for an article on migrant workers in the clothing industry.
The Dan choi exhibition was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, a year of intense commemorative activity in both the overseas diaspora and Vietnam. Unlike other commemorative events and exhibitions during 2005, it is significant the focus of the exhibition wasn’t 1975. This is the year officially remembered by community organisations and news media as the genesis moment for a post-war Vietnamese refugee diaspora, while within Vietnam 1975 is commemorated as the year when south Vietnam was liberated from US Imperialism. In contrast, the Dan choi series recalled the late-1980’s, a time of (as the exhibition notes say) ‘massive change and restructure; in Europe the Berlin Wall came down, in China students led the revolt in Tiananmen Square, in Australia the first wave of Vietnamese youth were sewing the threads that would define an identity’.iii The dan choi of the exhibition’s title here operated less as a documentary social subject and more as a metonym for a moment in time, the late 1980’s, that permitted a broader exploration of 1.5 generation Vietnamese-Australian spaces of self-fashioning.iv
In terms of the hegemony that an ‘exile’ narrative has enjoyed within the diaspora, the dan choi series marks that fragile transitional moment; post doi moi (economic reform) Vietnam, when plans for the first tourist kiosks were being drawn-up, even as the last wave of refugees were embarking for camps in south east Asia. After this time the separate historical location of an overseas refugee diaspora would emerge as ambivalently entangled with the homeland.
‘Photo albums’ is the second series to utilise this method of re-photographing family pictures from the late 1980s. Like Detective Deckard at the visualiser in Bladerunner, Vy has uploaded more family albums in order to scan for evidence—bedrooms, weddings, family vacations—combing the archive for those telling details that might hazard the gap between personal and public fascinations.
The images are arranged in diptychs, their titles anchored in the second image. This tempts the viewer to ‘read’ each pair as a sort of Rorschach Test that book-matches the viewing subject with the object of their gaze (calender girl, waterfall, Gold Coast apartments).
Yet such a focused approach might miss the seriously casual way in which this device is used. Reminiscent of the go-nowhere seductions from a Wong Kar Wai film, the pictures are moodily playful. The images seem to suspend the viewer in a mildly anxious temporality which can be as expansive as a walk on the beach, or as compressed as the glint from a gold wrist chain. The use of severe crops, subtly skewed angles and a not-so-subtle reorientation of the original image (‘Skyscape’) applies a feverish dream-lens logic. Such distortions in scale seem to gesture to that historically foundational use of photography as itself a form of play with a new repertoire of magical effects.
After the eighties
I saw the decade in, when it seemed
The world could change at the blink of an eye
’Right Here, Right Now’, Jesus Jones 1991
Rey Chow’s now classic essay on the Sony Walkman and Chinese popular music (‘Listening otherwise, music miniaturized: a different type of question about revolution’) described how the meeting of popular media and everyday practices might sustain a ‘freedom to be deaf to the loud speakers of History’.v In the western context, such an argument is easily misread for a thematics of ‘the everyday’ as post-historical, a moment when a lived sense of history as Progress gives way to the celebration of the more mundane pleasures of consumption. A popular lyric from early 1990’s TV advertisements linked the euphoria of commodities with ‘watching the world wake up from History’ (Jesus Jones, ‘Right Here Right Now’), while western media coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall would dwell on East Germans heading straight for the department stores on the Kurferstendamm.
Meanwhile, the everyday is also readily assimilated with another language that works for criticism as well as marketing; nostalgia. As Meaghan Morris notes, almost from its inception the notion of the everyday was associated with that which vanishes, which escapes analytic capture.vi It’s not hard to see how the theme of ‘migrant nostalgia’ might be recruited as the exemplary subject of such a generalised post-historical experience. Here the migrant trajectory is given its terminus in the post-history of the Western shopping mall, while ‘actually existing Socialism’ with its public spectacles of history overcome is geographically left behind. For as some Social Theory critics like to suggest, the Western subject has their ‘postsocialist’ moment too, a time for which Vy’s pictures might be read as symptomatic of a general popular nostalgia for innocent consumption.vii
And yet, however seductive this sounds (and however much Vy’s photographs might court this sort of approach) I want to suggest such a reading is impossible here. For both the ‘Dan choi’ and ‘Photo albums’ series a sense of history, like its documentation, is ongoing. The past returns but with the temporal ambiguity of the ‘just-past’ (a bit like feedback).viii In the context of their retrieval from the family archive as figures for collective experience, the photos operate as so many reiterations of the present, rather than as a moment caught-while-fading (preservation) that would confirm the present in its temporal difference.
In the context of the 2005 public commemorations that sought to make the past monumental then, perhaps Vy’s intervention is not solely one of thematics, but of timing. However impossible it is not to look back at these pictures now, their strategy may consist in suggesting that a lived experience of ‘history’ is generated in its more mundane and intimate forms of documentation.
And that it might be too soon to know what to say.
i Cuong Nguyen, ‘Darwin’s Theory of Evolution’ in West of the West: writing, images and sound from Melbourne’s west, ed. Scott Brook, Tom Cho, Ying Gilbert and berni m. janssen (Altona, Victoria: Common Ground, 2003); CD track 5. Thanks to Cuong Nguyen for permission to quote from this recording.
ii The Dancing Dog Cafe, Footscray, Nov 18—Dec 4, 2005.
iii Big West Festival Program, (2005). Maribyrnong City Council, p. 9.
iv ‘1.5 generation’ refers to migrants who were born overseas and whose education took place both in their home and adopted countries. For popular media and government agencies, as well as for many first generation Vietnamese Australians, the figure of the 1.5 generation Vietnamese Australian subject condenses hopes and anxieties about the transposing of pre-adult bodies from one societal context to another: the hope such subjects will form a bridge between the ‘parent’ and the ‘host’ culture; the concern they might fall between. The figure of the dan choi focuses concern on the possibility that the 1.5 generation may adapt to the wrong host culture; say, an economic underclass whose survival tactics in the face of social marginalisation provide an ambiguous freedom from societal norms (dan choi as figure for downward social mobility). Or, alternately, a hyper-capitalist milieu that knows no ethical limits (the aspirational dan choi). The Dustin Nguyen character in the recent Australian feature film Little Fish (dir. Rowan Atkinson, 2005) is an exemplary figure of these intersecting anxieties.
v Rey Chow, republished in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During, (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 382-99.
vi Meaghan Morris, Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 2.
vii See Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the ‘Postsocialist’ Condition (New York and London: Routledge, 1997).
viii Thanks to Amelia Douglas for suggesting this metaphor.