GABRIELLE CHAN (Gabby Chan) is someone who I have personally known for almost 10 years and it is so awesome to be able to see her career go from strength to strength. When I was first introduced to Chan through a mutual friend, I only knew her as someone who was passionate about acting with a love and talent for Chinese opera, after seeing a performance of hers. After that I would see Chan at various Chinese community events and it wasn’t until I saw her in 2 plays – “The Quiet Brother” and “Chimerica” that I went wow at her performances.
For over a decade, Chan has acted in a number of roles in both theatre, Chinese opera and TV/film roles, and all the work she has done is extremely diverse. Chan is of Vietnamese Chinese heritage and is a great representative/ambassador for SE and East Asian representation in Australian film, theatre and TV. More recently, Chan was cast in SBS new mini series “Hungry Ghosts” and recently performed in theatre production “Golden Shield” produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company. I had the opportunity to speak with Chan, and get to know more about her career and gather some of her thoughts on what cultural representation and visibility means to her as someone who has been in the industry in Australia for quite awhile.
Firstly we touched on what interested her to get into acting at the start and what was her acting journey like going from Chinese Opera to acting in mini series “Hungry Ghosts” and in a few large theatre productions.
CHAN: I think my interest in acting was nurtured since I was a little girl and attending primary school in Vietnam. I was always handpicked by teachers to perform in various school performances. There was a long pause to this acting due to the Vietnam war and my family ended up migrating to Hong Kong. So forward some time, and I was now in Australia and attending university and living the life of a student ( studying something unrelated to acting). Once I completed my studies I wanted to maintain my Chinese language skills, so I got into learning about performing in Chinese Opera. This all started as a hobby but soon turned into a passion and I had the opportunity to be coached and mentored by a talented Beijing Opera teacher Duan Qiu Xia.
To make things even more exciting my husband, Michael also had this same passion and this took us to perform in more than just local stuff, but we had the opportunity to perform overseas in Hong Kong, China and New Zealand. I truly believe that this Chinese opera performing experience has really shaped a solid foundation for my acting career. In 2007, myself and one of my Chinese Opera performer friends was approached by director Heng Tang to act in a short film called “The Last Chip”, and since then I have taken parts in a number of small film projects.
Since then my acting career has taken huge steps forward and I was casted in supporting roles in films like “Home Song Stories” by Tony Ayres, a guest role on City Homicide, and the role as a mother in SBS TV series “Kick”. I also scored roles in “Jasper Jones” where I played an early Vietnamese migrant settling down in Western Australia and facing racism. In addition to TV and film I have also been part of a number of theatre production such as “Silence” written by award winning writer Hoa Pham, “The Quiet Brother” produced by the Australasian Art & Stageworks, Chimerica and Australian Graffiti at the Sydney Theatre Company. In the past year I was cast for the role of “Lien Nguyen” in SBS 4 part mini-series “Hungry Ghosts” and performing as an imprisoned activist’s wife “Mei Huang” in “Golden Shied”, produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company.
So next we got into a discussion about her character “Lien Nguyen” in SBS upcoming mini-series “Hungry Ghosts”, which is phenomenal in that it is a story focused on the lives of Vietnamese Australians and features a majority SE Asian Australian cast (despite the mainstream Australian media only talking about the “white actors” in it).
CHAN: “Lien Nguyen” is a very juicy role! She is an elderly and married Vietnamese woman who is haunted by her first husband – a soldier who was killed during the Vietnam war. I have a few romantic moments with a younger man who is 25 years younger than my character in the series ( watch it to find out). There are also a few ghosts in the series. They are mainly angry, scary and vengeful spirits. They all come back for revenge except the ghost haunting “Lien”. He is romantic, young, handsome, brave and most importantly his ghost came back for love. When there is a ghost, there will be a haunted victim. The ghost and its victim will of course carry the significant story line.
Amidst her TV and theatrical schedule, Chan has also worked on short film projects. The most recent one is “The Egg” by Jane Cho – a short film which has received a number of accolades including winning the “Best Short Film” Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival, a nomination for an AACTA Award for “Best Short Film” and a “Finalist” at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival. I checked out the trailer and despite it being a “silent” film (meaning there is no verbal dialogue), it totally intrigued me that it was filled with many important social issues as well as highlight the lives of immigrants.
CHAN: The story is very unique and interesting. It is about a young girl who is dropped off at an elderly Korean woman’s house each day to be babysat whilst her mother works. Bored, lonely and mistreated in this muted world of foreign suburbia, the girl looks for anything to break the monotonous routine of congee ( Asian rice porridge), old Korean movies and mandatory naps. What keeps the young girl going everyday was an Easter egg which sits on top of the fridge, and she becomes infatuated about the day she will find the courage to claim her prize.
The story reflects a situation which many Asian migrant families experience when they first move over to Australia or another country totally different from their own culturally where the parents work several jobs and forced to leave their children with strangers or family members. The lead character is played by 8 years old Vietnamese Australian Kim Doan, and I definitely felt a connection with her because I too am Vietnamese background. The film is one with no dialogue so therefore it relies totally on a good script, good acting and lots of other elements to tell the story.
Finally we discussed issues of representation and visibility in Australian film, TV and theatre and more specifically focusing on the issue of SE Asian Australian representation. SE Asian/Australian stories are still very much underrepresented with mainstream Australian media thinking that an “East Asian” story is enough to keep the entire Asian Australian community “satisfied”. “Hungry Ghosts” is a great example of SE Asian representation, and this is an issue which needs to be discussed out in the open within out own Asian Australian community.
CHAN: With a half Vietnamese female – Catherine Van – Davies as the lead in “Hungry Ghosts” and 80% of the entire series cast being Asian, this is extremely significant. “Hungry Ghosts” purpose is to tell the Vietnamese story/Vietnamese ghost stories and this is a major breakthrough in Australian TV history. Australia is one of the most successful country in maintaining cultural diversity so it really should provide a big support in pushing for diversity in the performing arts world. Such support is extremely important towards building social cohesion and inclusion.
Shows like “Hungry Ghosts” will not only increase the understanding of the Vietnamese culture, but it will also stimulate creativity and innovation from other cultural diverse groups whose stories are underrepresented. Currently I feel that the Australian media and performing arts industry is shifting towards becoming more diverse, but there is still a lot of work to be done in understanding that the Asian diaspora in Australia is different from culture to culture and that Se Asian Australian stories are still underrepresented.