‘Xin chao.’ Diana Nguyen greets her audience members then bullies them into taking a front seat. Even though she has shrugged off her Dragon Mum Kim Huong persona, Nguyen still comes across as loud. In feathers, corsetry, and figure-hugging pleather, she dresses like a prostitute gangster, sings with the confidence of Mariah Carey and shakes her booty like a Beyoncé.
In the Melbourne Fringe Festival cabaret show Viet Kieu, the No. 1 Australian Vietnamese Outcast, Diana Nguyen moves away from troubled mother-daughter relationships to explore the sliding scale of Vietnameseness. Through songs like ‘Milky Hips’ and stories about surviving Cho Ben Thanh roundabout, Nguyen reveals what it is like to be a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese): watching footy, growing up drinking cow’s milk and not understanding the nuances between ‘o, ô, and ơ’.
While Nguyen’s experience of growing up Vietnamese Australian is not unique, her anecdotes are fresh in both content and execution. ‘Milky Hips’ is particularly enjoyable to listen to with cheeky lyrics like ‘decades of war and no cows to show for it’.
Not all of the cabaret is autobiographical, however. When Nguyen runs out of stories, she pulls out her teacher’s ruler: the Vietnamese are 2.5cm shorter than other nationalities on average because they don’t consume milk; the last verse of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is kind of xenophobic; and Vietnamese has a lot more vowels than English. Such fun facts are perhaps due to director Felix Ching Ching Ho’s influence. It’s either that or Nguyen is growing sick of telling her life story.
Whatever the case may be, the show’s lessons in incorrect pronunciation of Vietnamese consonants and vowels are some of Nguyen’s gentler schemes at enlisting audience participation. In previous shows, Nguyen would ask for volunteers or demand communal karaoke. Her Vietnamese lessons in the shadowy top floor of the Butterfly Club are much more inclusive and less intimidating.
A discussion about being a Viet Kieu in Australia would not be complete without addressing the Australian perspective on Vietnameseness. To a non-Vietnamese Australian, there is no difference between a person living in Vietnam and a Viet Kieu. You are either Vietnamese or you’re not. Nguyen illustrates this point beautifully when she addresses her audience in Vietnamese. To those who don’t understand her, she sounds like a native speaker. In truth she is warning everyone that her Vietnamese is very bad. ‘But let’s pretend that it’s good, shall we?’
Other material about the Australian perspective is less original. This is in part due to recycled material. For instance, the song ‘Yellow Girl Dreams’ revisits the mother-daughter territory of Singing 5 Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother. Nguyen’s skit about being typecast in the role of a super prostitute/refugee/gangster-druggie is not exactly ground breaking for anyone familiar with her previous criticisms on the lack of opportunities for Asian Australian actors. And Nguyen’s growing resentment towards the questions ‘Where do you come from?’ and ‘Why are you here?’ has already been voiced by other artists: ‘I come from my mother’s c—!’ writer and dancer Raina Peterson once boldly replied at a spoken word event back in 2009.
Nevertheless, for someone who isn’t Viet Kieu or any other kind of ethnic outcast, Nguyen’s questions still come across as fresh as a Vietnamese rice paper roll.
Viet Kieu is currently on at the Butterfly Club until Oct 6, 2013 as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. More info please visit the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
More info about Viet Kieu on Diana Nguyen’s website: diananguyen.com.au/vietkieu