Opening this week is what’s being presented as the first British Vietnamese play. Summer Rolls at London’s Park Theatre shows the younger generation embracing cultural change – and unsettling their families who arrived as migrants 40 years earlier.
Tuyen Do’s play is itself illustrative of this change. Its cast was chosen from the growing pool of British Vietnamese actors – something which would have been impossible just a few years ago.
In the late 1970s, most people in Britain would have been hard-pressed to identify a Vietnamese presence in the country at all. Today the community has grown but it’s still not huge – probably just over 50,000 people nationwide.
Do’s play gives a rare insight into what life has been like for British Vietnamese families since their perilous journeys from home after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War.
Though her story takes place mainly in Britain, it starts in 1979 on the Mekong river. A mother sends her 11-year-old son off on a boat to what she hopes will be prosperity elsewhere.
Do says the term Boat People isn’t much liked by today’s British Vietnamese community. But she knows it’s what will come to mind for many audiences.
“After 1975 people around the world saw TV pictures of Vietnamese leaving the country on these unsafe boats. Some came to Britain, normally by way of Hong Kong. Really it was the first Britain knew of Vietnamese people.
“But what I’m trying to do is get away from the cliche that the British Vietnamese now all work in restaurants and in nail bars.”
Do says the story is fictional. “But a lot of the detail and the characterisation comes from my own lived experience,” she adds. “Mai is a younger daughter and she has to negotiate her own way through life in Britain as a second-generation immigrant.
“So partly it’s a very personal story about love and tension within a particular family and how far parents can intervene in a young woman’s life. But also there’s a bigger picture about the status of refugees.”
Do says when writing the play she was conscious of parallels with political events today. “The terrible situation of many migrants was just the same as now. Where were they going to find homes and safety? Which nations would take them? I think the problems go on and I’m sure people watching the play are going to pick up on that.”
The numbers who came to the UK immediately after the Vietnam war were quite small – more Vietnamese left later following border disputes with China. The best estimate is that around 23,000 people had settled in the UK by the late 1980s.
But Do says she wants the play to work mainly through its depiction of family life. The importance of food is central, as the title Summer Rolls might suggest.
“Eating together around a table is a celebration and it’s a way of connecting. And of course over the past 15 years Vietnamese food has also had a real impact on British culture. It’s exploded onto the scene and, though I’m not keen to deal in stereotypes, that’s part of the story of British Vietnamese people too.”
Though she’s not appearing in her own play, Do has been acting for several years. Last year she was in The Great Wave at the National Theatre, set in Japan and North Korea. She’s pleased Summer Rolls boasts a wholly British Vietnamese cast (apart from Keon Martial-Phillip, who plays Mai’s Black British boyfriend).
Michael Phong Le is another member of the cast. He left drama school in Birmingham five years ago and says for an actor being British Vietnamese has proved a two-edged sword.
“It’s rare that there’s a specific role to go up for. But on the other hand, if there is one it’s likely I’ll be called in to audition. The category of actors I fit into is very small and I spent a long time thinking there just wasn’t a group of British Vietnamese creatives out there. I was wrong – but in terms of actors you could probably count us on the fingers of both hands.”
So does Phong Le find himself considered for other Asian roles such as Chinese or Korean? He smiles.
“I think I used to be but it’s become more difficult. The industry as a whole has become very worried about casting and it’s trickier than it was.
“When I first came out of drama school I was seen for specifically Chinese roles. But everything is now so sensitive that casting directors and producers sometimes feel only people of Chinese descent should be seen for Chinese roles.
“On TV I’ve been in the Catherine Tate Show, DCI Banks and Hooten & the Lady. Two of those roles were Vietnamese but one was Chinese. The day before we shot they phoned me up: they were worried I was Vietnamese and we had to talk the whole thing through. I think maybe now I’m seen less often for Chinese parts.
“But I’m a bit of an optimist so overall I’d say things are getting better for ethnic minority actors. But Vietnamese people are often seen as a minority within a minority, which creates its own problems.”
But there’s a bigger question which casting directors and writers now face. Why should performers be limited by their ethnic background anyway? There will never be a huge number of specifically British Vietnamese roles on stage or TV – but why can’t actors such as Phong Le and Do be considered to play, say, an administrator or a doctor where a specific ethnicity is irrelevant?
Phong Le says his dream is to be cast as “‘Dave the normal guy at the office’. Yes my heritage is completely Vietnamese but I was brought up here in Britain and I could play a range of British characters. We’re at the point now where we need to persuade the industry to see us that way. We’re not there yet.”
Do is as ambitious in her acting career as she is as a playwright. “I want to be Sandra Oh and have an Emmy award in my hand. I want to be recognised as an artist more than for being British Vietnamese.”
Summer Rolls is at the Park Theatre in London until 13 July.