Recently VanThanh Productions got in touch with daikon* to give us tickets to go and see Summer Rolls, in their words the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK. Written by a Vietnamese woman, Tuyet Do, and produced by a team of practically all Vietnamese women and women-of-colour, it’s the story of how a family, the Nguyens, and daughter Mai, the play's central character, live and navigate resettling in the UK from Vietnam. Last night I went to see it along with Jess and Hanna from daikon* and was very touched and captured by the story, and quite frankly borderline called out at how much it seemed to resonate with my own experiences coming from an immigrant family (!) (despite also being aware of differences in what brings different groups to migrate, and the extent that this is chosen). I put together some of the following thoughts, and spoke with Hanna to give you this little recap and review of the play, which is showing at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park until the 13th July.
It wove in some histories and experiences of the Vietnam war but subtly and in ways that grappled with trauma, and how this trauma was passed down to their children.
The story follows Mai from her early teenage years growing up in Epping in London, where she supports and attempts to cope with the expectations of her family, to her journey in discovering their history and struggles, to how she deals with these unresolved issues and figures out her own path in life. Hanna said of the play, “I found it really engaging and cleverly done how it wove in some histories and experiences of the Vietnam war but subtly and in ways that grappled with trauma, and how this trauma was passed down to their children.” Thinking back now, over the two-hour play I found it amazing that it covered so many relevant issues without them ever feeling shoe-horned in, instead capturing the ways that historical traumas shape the different characters' approaches to different issues. For example, each character’s experience is reflected in how they react to how they're racialised in the UK. Hanna points out how "there’s the ‘you’ve got to be better than the white man’ type attitude of the mum”, who imagines shining futures for her children regardless of hardships they continually have to confront, “the frustration and sense of resignation of the son,” Anh, who faces racism as an obstacle to the career he initially envisions, “and the daughter feeling like she wasn’t part of the community where she lived” – as a teenager, Mai desires to fit in with others and seeks independence from her family. These experiences are brought in sharp relief in the parents’ perpetuation of racism towards Mai’s boyfriend, who is black. Hanna felt this was “an interesting and accurate take on intra-racial dynamics,” and I agree.
[The play] captur[es] the ways that historical traumas shape the different characters' approaches to different issues.
Another really nice part of the story for me was Mai’s passion for photography as a teenager, which manifests in her later career as a photographer and an exhibition in which she creates an archive of her local community. Often many “third culture” kids feel that their inherited cultures are an uneasy fit, feel weighed down by familial duties and want to forge their own paths. This pressure is really well captured by Mai’s scripting, as she’s the only character who has lines delivered in Vietnamese, (it’s implied that the other characters speak in their native tongues throughout the play, but we hear them in English). We feel her struggle with language, which is limited to short lines of mostly deference to her elders and practical speech, as a reflection also of her struggle to communicate her ideals and her desires to her family. At the same time as this struggle, there’s often a realisation in younger diasporic communities that our histories and narratives will not be preserved by anyone in the white mainstream, and there’s a need for us to document and celebrate them. Hanna said, “I thought Mai’s exploration of herself, her ‘community’ and attempts to understand her family history and inherited trauma through photography and oral history collection was interesting and draws parallels with some things we do in daikon*.” At this point it’s worth shouting out Carô Gervay, photographer and community darkroom facilitator, who is the real-life doppelganger of Mai, who shot "Mai's" exhibition portraits which are projected in the play! Two other people who do amazing work in archival research and compiling oral history around East London Vietnamese heritage and community spaces are curator/researcher Cuong Pham and artist Will Pham - check out their projects for more!
There’s often a realisation in younger diasporic communities that our histories and narratives will not be preserved by anyone in the white mainstream, and there’s a need for us to document and celebrate them.
The play handled class and work in a nimble way, which I found especially relevant coming from a background personally that I find difficult to codify in the terms we’re accustomed to using in the UK. For example, Mai’s mother grew up well-off, but after the war and fleeing to England, Mai’s mother has to come to terms with being working class, working as a seamstress, possibly cleaning toilets, and later in a restaurant. Mai’s mother (who is the exact style of proud/strong-willed/kinda-mean immigrant maternal figure that we all agreed we recognised painfully well) admonishes Mai for comparing herself to the other girls from the neighbourhood. They would never have hung out with her in Vietnam. She looks down on family friend, North Vietnamese Mr Dinh, even though in London he starts out as her boss at the garment supplier – in Vietnam things would be completely different, we’re told. But in Epping, this community is all they have, and they often have to put away pride in order to get by. It's hard not to read your own family history into stories like this. My mother also sewed clothes for a living when my family first came to London, from 1991–2. My brother has a joke that to this day he sleeps best in rooms with low-level consistent noise because of all the nights she spent chugging away at the motorised sewing machine... When Mai’s father stays home on Anh’s graduation day to unpick Mai’s sewing mistakes, I felt that emotion hard!
It’s the idea that people love "different" cultures and food but don't necessarily respect the people who produce it
Elaborating on the theme of work, Hanna praised how the play presented labour “as racialised and gendered within the house, within the clothing and restaurant industries and the importance of food businesses, which represent palatable forms of acceptance into British society.” The brother, Anh, struggles finding a “profession” even though he's university-educated due to the way he is racialised, but Dinh makes a killing with beef and black bean sauce – “it’s the idea that people love 'different' cultures and food but don't necessarily respect the people who produce it – reflected by the success of their restaurant yet the inability of the son to find employment despite his first class Maths degree,” as Hanna says. Mr Dinh’s subplot, running a restaurant business to varying degrees of success, and the impact this has on relations with the Nguyen family is a really interesting part of the story. It made me think of a book which @wei_siyang brought to our attention which included a study into how Thatcherite policies that encouraged competition between small businesses in the 1980s in the UK sabotaged political solidarity amongst East Asian migrant communities (one of many ways Thatcher made life difficult for migrants TBH). It's called The Chinese in Britain, 1800-Present, by Benton & Gomez. Another thing to check out if you’re interested (link TBC!).
In terms of our criticisms, one thing we questioned was the resolution of the family's racism towards Mai's boyfriend, as the result of a long period of what seems like a monogamous relationship, and their decision to start a family, which Hanna felt was “a bit too tying up loose ends-y”. Hanna pointed out it's a pretty tired narrative how mixed-raced babies are often used as a symbol of progress, "bridging gaps of difference," "and as proof of a post-racial world". It’s true I think, that there’s room for the story to be more explorative in calling communities to account on antiblackness. Hopefully people enjoying this play can use such stories as a starting point for further discussions. (We have a limited list of resources here!)
In all, I came away from this play feeling glad that productions are being made by people of colour, exploring issues with nuance and care, with the result that we get to see narratives genuinely reflecting the more complex real lives of our communities.