Vietnam: a psychic guide

Rachel Fensham

Chi Vu

Chi Vu

Chi Vu

Migrant writing, as Sneja Gunew pointed out some years ago, is often shaped by nostalgia, that psychic force that requires the subject to return repeatedly to the place of origin in the hope of recovering an identity that connects body, self and homeland. For the child of migrants, or those whose own memories are immature, the remembered country is secondhand, more or less a product of their parents’ nostalgia. If she returns to that place as an adult visitor, she must put together the childhood stories lived on the inside with a jumble of new languages, rhythms and sights that represent a different outside.

The premise of Vietnam: a psychic guide is that Vietnam can only be an imaginary location, as seen through the eyes of a young Vietnamese-Australian woman writing postcards back ‘home’ to Australia. “The journey of importance is not the physical one. The real journey is in the heart and in the mind.” Written backwards in a strange red book that becomes her tourist guide, this instruction is given to Chi Vu by a postcard seller. Her departures, her returns, from the City of Lakes, Halong Bay, Café of Babel, Hanoi or the City of Face generate poetic rhapsodies that attempt to capture fleeting impressions, to take snapshots or make song like the melodic tune of the plain brown birds. Indeed this performance began as a series of prose poems published in Meanjin. Although now in a stylish theatrical production complete with multimedia projections, the vignette-like format remains as the postcards are delivered–winged through the air by 2 chorus members at the beginning of each scene. Received by her father, played by older Vietnamese actor Tam Phan, and Jodee Murphy, as best friend Kim, Chi Vu herself appears as the narrator or as other kinds of cultural transmitter-postcard seller, motorbike rider, train traveller, café customer. Through them she carries the action—of discovery and excitement—whereas the other characters re-enact this different Vietnam, or with Murphy’s mime-dance style, animate the sensations of this new world.

In this committed bilingual performance, I enjoyed the musical, sometimes competing, layers of Vietnamese and English particularly when Tam Phan sings like an old crooner in both languages. A Vietnamese spectator noted that the Vietnamese was antiquated, far from the contemporary mix of North-South dialects and popular expression one hears in postmodern Vietnam. Perhaps the script reflects the proper speech of translator Ton That Quynh Du—also a long-term Australian resident—or that of the older male actor and thus its linguistics stand in for the 1950s voice of the father that Chi Vu knows. Rather than visiting a new Vietnam, it seems that the text oddly revives a traditional symbolic order.

By way of contrast, the computer graphics (Ruth Fleishman) project abstracted images of ponds, birdcages, or Oriental architectures as iconic shapes that slide up or down or open like barn doors. They flatten the landscape, leaving more space for the gap between a Vietnam lost and a Vietnam reconstructed to appear. This place remains overly idealised, and although we witness a momentary electrocution and the old man swallowing papers, it is difficult to locate this trauma either in her father’s history or in the young traveller’s streetscape.

While there is much experimentation with form, the performance never breaks from the circuit of nostalgia. Its structural repetitions give us too many beginnings and the endings tail away. I wonder if more speed or intensity could be accumulated by seeing where one image collides with another or whether the messages from Vietnam could psychically and physically disrupt the neat separation of ‘home and away.’ As a writer Chi Vu commands a delicate poetic register but this production makes me think that for each generation of migrant experience, the Greeks and Italians in the 1980s or the Vietnamese in 2000, the pleasure of returning might always be left in deficit rather than in credit. Particularly unless writing becomes a theatre of the present.

Chi Vu, Vietnam: a psychic guide, text Chi Vu, director Sandra Long, North Melbourne Town Hall, Aug 22-31

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 30

© Rachel Kent; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2003