For many years, the Australian film, TV and entertainment industry have used the excuse that they had to cast white actors and tell white stories because there is not enough Asian/Asian Australians auditioning for roles to play the characters and to tell the stories. For us advocates in pushing for change, we know that the “not enough” excuse is just a cloak shadowing issues of racism, unconscious bias and white privilege in the industry itself. Over the last few years we have witnessed glimmers of hope in shows like Maximum Choppage, The Family Law, Masterchef AU, The Heights etc, but it is still minimal in comparison to the changing demographics of Australia. This is why SBS drama mini-series “Hungry Ghosts” which premiered on Monday is a game changer in that it has an almost ALL Vietnamese/Asian Australian cast and the story centres on an Asian one – more specifically traumas of war coming back to haunt members of the Vietnamese Australian community in Melbourne.
Catherine Van-Davies who prides in her Vietnamese Australian identity leads an awesome cast. I had the opportunity to interview her just before “Hungry Ghosts” premiered. Our interview was pretty casual in that we had a discussion more than a structured interview and we discussed a whole range of issues, such as how she feels playing the main role, the significance of the series itself and stuff around representation and authentic story telling. We also had a lot of random chatter and laughs in between.
From our chatter, Van-Davies asked the question on how can we as Asian/Asian Australians get more work in the entertainment industry based purely on talent as actors, writers, directors, producers etc and not just be recruited/cast when “Asian specific” roles are needed to be filled. Just like how white actors, writers, directors, producers etc can play anyone and anything, why are Asian/Asian Australians not afforded the same opportunities and be recognised for their craft? I think this is an interesting premise as news articles talking about “Hungry Ghosts” predominantly focuses on representation, identity, visibility etc and that is very important, but what about the craft of acting? or writing? or directing or producing etc? Clearly there is a diverse pool of talent from the series itself, and I think the key question from this is whether we can talk about both spheres, and not just one or the other. Anyways, just something to think about and tease out more ( which I plan to in later articles).
One thing, I have learned about Van-Davies from meeting her in person (pre-COVID) and having a number of chats online and then this interview and chat over zoom, is that she is extremely passionate about being an actor and she is proud of her Vietnamese Australian identity and if you have already watched the first 2 episodes of Hungry Ghosts, it is these traits which make her character “May Le” so real as an embodiment of the rawness in understanding the idea of standing in between 2 cultures.
And finally – to the interview itself. I spoke to Van-Davies on a number of issues ( asides from what has already been mentioned) including playing the main character “May Le”, some intrigue from the series itself and yes – the importance of cultural representation, focusing on South East Asian Australian representation, and the craft of acting itself – so here it is, enjoy!
You play the main character “May Le”, can you tell us about your character and how she journeys into understanding more deeply her Vietnamese heritage and identity?
May Le leads us through the series, briefly intersecting with the other major storylines. There are a few second-gen characters represented in the series, but May is perhaps the embodiment of actively navigating our way between both worlds and piecing together fractured narratives that have been left behind. When we meet her, she has lost everything she had to identify herself with, and her independence in the world – her business, her long-term relationship and her home. While her relationship with her mother is strained and her father non-existent, her relationship with her grandmother is a tender portrait of love and care, fraught only by a complete cultural divide. She barely speaks the language, she’s embarrassed to be living with her grandmother again and feels like an outsider to both Australian and Vietnamese culture.
From reading blurbs about what “Hungry Ghosts” the story is authentic, but combines drama, supernatural and mystery genres. How was the experience working on a project like this, which centres on the experiences and lives of Vietnamese Australians?
Ghost stories and veneration of the dead has always just been a part of life in Vietnamese culture – as well as many ethnic and Indigenous cultures around the world. Prior to Catholicism, my own grandmother practiced a religion that focused primarily on ancestral worship. And in most homes, you’ll find photographs, incense and food offerings. So, in terms of cultural authenticity, it’s not like genre was just laid on top, but rather expanded on pre-existing mythology. I think that’s what also made the shoot really special – that the cast, particularly those that had a cultural connection to the content, treated the supernatural elements with complete sincerity and reverence. The material was also close to Shawn Seet, our director and fellow Asian-Australian, so the gaze of the show allowed the characters to be humorous, but the content be treated with sensitivity. We had a chat early in the shoot that the emotional experiences should still hold true even if the embodiment of the “ghosts” weren’t physicalised. Of course, there are scares in there, but it isn’t to exploit the audience – or our story. The Vietnamese migration story is such a huge part of the Australian story, and yet so few stories about this particular war focus on the survivors, those like my family, that live in our community – rather than soldiers amongst a Vietnamese backdrop. I’m thrilled that the audience will get to witness something that we don’t normally get to see, even within our own families.
Working with a predominantly Vietnamese Australian and Asian Australian cast – how was the experience and how important was it to showcase our community’s talents on the screen and behind the screen?
It’s feels overused to say it, but we’ll keep saying it until we don’t have to – representation matters!! The cast in this show is EXTRAORDINARY. What I love is we see brilliant veterans or familiar faces on the screen, alongside those who rarely get the air time – and they HOLD THEIR OWN. I felt so emotional watching it all back just to see this sheer breadth of talent. Part of that is having Shawn Seet behind the camera recognising those magic moments and giving these actors the focus they deserve. We also had incredible writers Michele Lee (whose play Going Down I was in) and brothers Alan and Jeremy Nguyen contributing to the script. And Debbie Lee as EP. Each of these artists hold incredible integrity and skill and of course, a respect for the work we were creating. I want these names, and the names of the incredible cast to be as well known as the other great actors we had working with us. I want to see them in a myriad of roles, respecting that they are skilled at their craft and not pigeon-holed. Plus, the cast span 3 generations, so you’ve pretty much got every age group covered.
If I had a magic wand to change both past and future, this would be my dream: that the brilliant Vietnamese and Asian Australian talent on this show were names and faces we were already familiar with on screen – through a diverse range of fictional stories. And that Hungry Ghosts was an opportunity to understand them on a more personal level. So often Anglo actors get known by their various characters before having a more intimate understanding about them, but so often, the case for underrepresented actors is they must prove themselves by revealing so much about themselves, their trauma and their personal lives first. In the future, I want the reverse of this to be true.
In your personal opinion and experience do you think shows like “The Family Law”, Hungry Ghosts’ and “Masterchef AU” is proof that we are at the peak of showcasing cultural representation and visibility? Have we reached the peak or is this just the start? What more can be done to see even more representation and diversity in Australian media?
It can only be the beginning. One story is not enough to represent an entire group of people. I think what we’re seeing is a confirmation of the desire from audiences to see these experiences normalised and on our televisions. To be recognised as Australian without the condition of assimilation. But a single story is not enough. Vietnamese Australians aren’t defined by the war in the 1970s. These stories are of course important to tell, but it’s far from all there is to say. We are on the land of the longest living culture and storytelling runs so deep in this earth. I think we need to keep pushing to have structural change and support within our industry, but we also as a country need to do a lot of healing and reckoning with our past so that ALL of our stories, led by the legacy and continued existence of incredible First Nations storytellers, makes us proud of what Australia actually can and should be.
It’s important that all cultures have their stories shared. But not only that, to show the diversity within what is categorised as Asian. We may have cultural crossovers, but it denies particular demographics their own rich and distinct histories, languages and practices. Australia, with a huge Asian population and existing in such close proximity to Asia – particularly South East Asia, can often suffer the blanket treatment of seeing it as a homogenised mass. You feel this acutely when you get asked to deliver an “Asian accent” and other similar situations. We’re seeing a shift, people using Lunar New Year instead of Chinese New Year and other less generalised vocab. And we should also encourage this in our mainstream story telling. Not only that, but it opens up the potential for a whole other area of exploration, such as inter-Asian relationships and dynamics – the closest I’ve witnessed (and had the privilege of performing in) is Anchuli Felicia King’s play White Pearl, that looked very astutely at race politics between 6 Asian women, each from different countries and very distinctly contrasting personalities. I would love to see that on screen.
Did working on this project push you to be more interested and invested in understanding your Vietnamese and Asian Australian identity? If so, what are some of the “understandings” you have come across?
My relationship to my mixed cultural heritage has been a part of my life long journey and one I have learnt to deeply nurture and treat with care. For me, there’s been a process of reclamation because my identity was put upon me before I was even aware of it myself. And so rather than a label that the dominate culture has given to “other” me, it is something that I celebrate and use with pride. As for the specific content in the show, thankfully I had already begun the journey with my mum in understanding her horrific and traumatic journey of survival years ago – something she’d always resisted sharing with us. She shared the stories with myself and my siblings for the first time when I was 30 and we were in Vietnam together, exploring her childhood streets of Huế.
I think if I was just arriving at it now, through the prism of work, I would have been way too out of my depth and just simply wouldn’t have had the perspective to understand the psychological state, particularly within my character. Or been able to create boundaries about what was up for grabs throughout the working and publicity process. What it did create was another thing my mum and I could share – even if it was clarifying pronunciations, or just getting excited about this story existing, and a framework for those conversations that she has a hard time having.
Episodes 1 and 2 have already aired and can be watched and re-watched on SBS On Demand. If you are overseas, you can access SBS On Demand anytime to watch “Hungry Ghosts” with a VPN ( as it is geo-blocked for those outside of Oz) – though it is definitely worth it! I have watched episodes 1 and 2 and I can say that I couldn’t sleep because of some of the scary scenes but I also had good chills seeing my fellow Asian/Asian Australian peeps showing their acting skills on the screen. Keep an eye out for my personal review on the drama series, out soon. Part 3 and 4 will air tonight and tomorrow night on SBS at 9:30pm AEST, so don’t forget!
Header Image Credit: Sarah Enticknap