Reflections on Dân Chơi in Australia

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  • Literature & Arts
    Scamps & Cigarettes: Reflections on Dân Chơi in Australia

    Written by: Scott Brook



    That Dustin Nguyen and Cate Blanchett took a shower together was not the only highlight of Nguyen’s 2005 sojourn to Australia to co-star in the film Little Fish. As tenderly erotic and emotionally intelligent as that moment in Australian cinema was, an engaging aspect of Nguyen’s performance was that he convincingly brought to life a recognizable social type in the Vietnamese diaspora. I am thinking of the styled, shoulder-length hair, the 1980s casual suits, the “roguish good looks,” at once youthful and experienced—this culminates in the figure of the dan choi. The phrase dan choi refers literally to a man who “plays,” who wastes his time going out, as well as player, as in hustler The dan choi is also—as Nguyen’s performance reminds—a lover. When used sympathetically, the figure of dan choi focuses on a particular way of performing Vietnamese masculinity. When badly represented, it becomes a stereotype.

    It is something of an uncanny coincidence that Nguyen’s visit coincided with the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. It is perhaps testimony to the power of Nguyen’s performance in that film that later in the year the figure of the dan choi would be used by Melbourne-based documentary photographer Thuy Vy as a way of exploring community heritage.


    Footscray, November 2005
    It’s the closing event of the Big West Festival, a community-based festival in Melbourne’s western suburbs. We are all sitting around on plastic chairs, waiting for the show. On stage, local writer Cuong Nguyen is at the microphone, reading his famous “Footscray Punks” story. His spoken word performance hails the mostly white and Vietnamese Australian crowd as locals and as “westies.” He reads: “Occasionally you still see an original punk from different communities … like in the 1980s when the first wave of young Vietnamese began playing on these new streets. Their long hair with black baggy pants that flared a white stripe down the side. The shirts always three times too big and never tucked in.”

    On stage, two young Vietnamese Australian men head down the catwalk, their bodies making small flourishes as they move; a white tuxedo dropped-to-drag along the floor, a salmon pink t-shirt rolled over a flexed bicep. At the end of the catwalk they strike tough, street-level poses. Nguyen has read this piece a few times before but it suddenly occurs to me that his reference to “punks” is by way of Dirty Harry, rather than the subculture that came out of the UK.

    The writer continues: “Once in a while, I see one. The real thing, a dan choi on the street, still running to stand still. And I nod my head in respect. For they knew they may never return to their soil. This was a new frontier for their roots and they were viewed as Bad Tourists.” At that moment, the model on stage takes a cigarette from behind his ear and lets it hang from the side of his mouth.

    The fashion show was organized to coincide with Thuy Vy’s recent exhibition; “Dan Choi: Vietnamese street fashion of the 1980s.” Vy studied photography at RMIT, Melbourne, and has had numerous exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney while also working in fashion and wedding photography. For the “Dan Choi” series, Vy re-photographed and enlarged photos from family albums that were taken during the late-1980s. His somewhat cheeky use of the visual language of the family photo album allowed viewers to witness “real” scenes of self-documentation and self-display. Fashion clothing, bedroom posters, stereos, hairstyles, cars, and sightseeingwere aspects of life that testified to the prolific incorporation of objects, spaces and practices by young Vietnamese Australians in the 1980s.

    Reminiscent of the go-nowhere seductions in a Wong Kar Wai film, the pictures are moodily playful. Vy’s photos seem to suspend the viewer in a mildly anxious moment that can be as expansive as a walk along the beach, or as compressed as the glint from a gold wrist chain. Like Detective Deckard at the visualizer in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, we are invited to scan for evidence, comb the images for details that might hazard the gap between private and public fascinations.

    Vy employs a number of techniques to interlace his pictures of “real” subjects and sites with questions of their becoming public, addressing them to the viewer’s desire. Not just what do you see here, but what do you want to see? The media response to his 2001 “Sewing Rooms” series at the Center for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Melbourne, 2003 was exemplary in this regard. Short-listed for the Leica Award for documentary photography, “Sewing Rooms” documented the workspaces of Vietnamese Australian home-based garment workers. Eerily devoid of actual workers, the dim natural lighting of fluorescent tubes and severely formal compositions performed otherwise domestic work-spaces as sites of social intrigue; tense moments of revelation and concealment worthy of a western suburban Melbourne gothic novella. After the CCP exhibition, Vy was solicited by a journalist from The Age for an interview, but ended the interview after only a few questions. It turned out the reporter was not interested in the photos, but was hoping to glean information (and pictures) for a planned article on migrant workers in the clothing industry. Vy’s refusal to continue the interview demonstrates a genuine concern to maintain the integrity of his treatment of the subject, even if this requires, scandalously, forgoing mainstream exposure.

    The “Dan Choi” exhibition was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon last year, which was full of intense commemorative activity and discussion across Australia. Unlike other commemorative events and exhibitions during 2005, the focus of the exhibition was not the events of 1975 (which is officially remembered by community organizations as the genesis moment for a Vietnamese Australian community) but the late-1980s This is a time of, as the exhibition notes say, “Massive change and restructure: In Europe, the Berlin Wall came down; in China, students led the revolt in Tiananmen Square; in Australia, the first wave of Vietnamese youth were sewing the threads that would define an identity.” The dan choi of the exhibition’s title here operated less as a documentary social subject and more as a window onto a moment in time that permitted a broader exploration of 1.5 generation Vietnamese Australian spaces of self-fashioning.

    Representing this historical moment in terms of the figure of the dan choi directs attention away from a monumental sense of community history. It reminds us that memory and community heritage can be shaped around more everyday images. There is the marking of history here, sure, but of a more playful and intimate kind. Somewhat cheekily, it suggests that 2005 may even be remembered as the year Dustin Nguyen came to Australia and took that shower.


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