Chi Vu is a Vietnamese Australian writer and director, and her award-winning works span genres such as the postcolonial gothic, horror and magic-realism. Her plays include ‘Vietnam: a Psychic Guide’, ‘The Dead Twin’ and ‘A Story of Soil’. But her most recent work, Coloured Aliens, is a critically acclaimed comedy. It was staged in 2017 at La Mama theatre as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
‘Coloured Aliens’ is about an interracial couple navigating their romance in the context of racism. Mai Nguyen, an Asian Australian playwright, soon discovers that ‘White Australia’ only wants her to write the ‘ethnic’ play. Her Anglo Australian boyfriend Kevin O’Sullivan is a security guard and ex-spoken word artist on hand to provide support – and advice.
The production features racially-reversed casting, with an Asian Australian actor playing the role of Kevin and an Anglo Australian actress playing the role of Mai. As one reviewer suggested, “this subversion was a great way to challenge the viewer about the perceptions and stereotypes we carry with us.”
The title of the play references a speech by John Christian Watson in 1901, a fierce advocate for White Australia. He would go on to be the third Prime Minister of Australia.
‘At the present time in Sydney, we have whole streets which are practically given up to the businesses conducted by Chinese, Syrians, and other coloured aliens, and one cannot go today into more than five towns of any importance in the country districts of New South Wales without finding two, three, or perhaps half-a-dozen coloured storekeepers apparently doing a thriving business.’
We feature an excerpt from the script below. The full play is now available at AustralianPlays.org.
MAI: As an Asian-Australian playwright…
Her mind drifts away and she is no longer writing. e.g. she is reading a gossip magazine. KEVIN enters. MAI quickly pretends she was writing just before he came in.
KEVIN: The velour koala.
MAI: Has done 200 words today.
KEVIN: Good words I hope?
MAI: Who knows. Listen…
She selects some text and plays it to him using the computer-generated voices.
KAREN (AUSTRALIAN) COMPUTER VOICE: As an Asian-Australian playwright…
VEENA (INDIAN) COMPUTER VOICE: I explore the horror of displacement…
AUDREY (FRENCH) COMPUTER VOICE: Using the postcolonial gothique genre…
KEVIN: Ooooh la la!
MOIRA (IRISH) COMPUTER VOICE: …allows me to present Vietnamese beef noodle
PETRA (GERMAN) COMPUTER VOICE:…Pho…
MOIRA (IRISH) COMPUTER VOICE: …as a metaphor
TING TING (MANDARIN CHINESE) COMPUTER VOICE: for the diaspora….
MAI: I like Irish Moira – seems to go well with my convoluted sentences.
KEVIN: Makes me want to stab myself.
MAI: You can talk Kevin O’Sullivan from Tipperary.
KEVIN: That was six generations ago.
MAI: Surely the music of the language must have stayed with you…
KEVIN: Nope. Just the riffing, like the Vietnamese…
MAI: Here we go…
KEVIN: Chet me! (Pause) Chet toi, chet cho, chet meo, chet ga, chet… (runs out of
Vietnamese words that he knows)
KEVIN: Ah yes, chet khi [Dead monkey]. Chet bo [Dead cow], Chet ca [Dead fish].
MAI: Anyone else dead?
KEVIN: Chet toi. (Gestures stabbing himself in ritual Sepukku. Pause). How come I only
know bad words in Vietnamese?
MAI: They’re the only words you wanted to learn.
MAI continues working on her laptop.
KEVIN: What are we going to have for lunch?
MAI: I don’t know, what’s in the fridge?
KEVIN: I don’t have time to cook.
MAI: Are you training today?
KEVIN: I have to be there for the guys.
Silence. MAI keeps working.
KEVIN: It’s nearly lunch time.
MAI: You eat, I’m not hungry yet.
KEVIN: I’m not eating without you.
MAI: I’m working.
Pause. KEVIN finds some Asian crackers/nori seaweed sheets and starts eating these. They
KEVIN: What will you eat later?
MAI: (Trying to remain focused) I don’t know.
KEVIN: We need to buy food…
MAI: There’s heaps of food in the fridge.
MAI: I bought it yesterday!
MAI: There’s carrots and tempeh.
KEVIN: Mai, this is not food.
MAI: Just boil some rice and wash a few veggies.
KEVIN: Where’s the cheese? And the ham? Where’s the chicken? (Silence) I’m so hungry!
I’m going to bite you!
MAI laughs at him.
MAI: When are you going?
KEVIN: I’m going to the gym at one. Ju-jitsu at four. Then night shift.
KEVIN takes one of the clean martial arts Gi’s hanging in the space and shoves it in his bag. An email arrives. MAI quickly reads it.
MAI: Fuck! I’m so sick of Asian actors.
KEVIN: (Ironic) They just want to play stereotyped roles?
MAI: Viet Cong.
MAI: Fu Manchu.
KEVIN: Ming the Merciless.
MAI: Boat person.
KEVIN: Drug peddler.
MAI: People smuggler.
KEVIN: Yellow Peril.
MAI: Sexy monk, Tripitaka.
KEVIN: (In character) The Nature of Monkey is irrepressible…
MAI: No. They’re so hard to find. There’s so few of them. And the good ones get poached!
He’s been offered a role in a mini series…playing a drug addict in an Indonesian prison. And now he wants to pull out of my play!
KEVIN: Find someone else.
MAI: It’s a week away! I can’t believe it! (Continues reading the email) “It is really the
casting agent who’s pressuring me – She even warned me: ‘You are making a terrible mistake! You silly, silly boy! Do you know how important this film Director is?'”
KEVIN: Okay Mai, who do I have to give a talking to?
MAI: …I’ve been working on this play for five years! And now she wants to poach my actor a week before opening.
KEVIN: (Trying to lighten things up) I could play the Pho customer being force-fed by Mrs
Ly. With enough make-up and some sticky tape.
MAI: (Types out her reply)…This puts me in an impossible position, and will cause the play
to be canceled. (Presses send)
KEVIN reads out the Email response: Yeah I’m really sorry about that.
MAI: You know the theatre world is very small, and based on reputations and long
MAI reads out the Email response: It’s nothing personal, film offers more exposure.
MAI: Really? Doesn’t matter if it’s bad exposure? (Types) Don’t forget that I know your
Aunty Zee, so if you don’t want her to know about your Facebook photos, then don’t cross
me! (Presses send).
They wait. New email arrives.
MAI: He’s foregoing the tiny role as a drug mule in an Asian country with four lines.
They both cheer!
KEVIN: There’s heaps of white actors. Just write plays with white people in them.
MAI: For white people?
KEVIN: For the audience…you know, people who pay money to see theatre…
MAI: What about the kid in woop-woop who’s never seen an Asian person before?
KEVIN: Why does he need to?
KEVIN: See an Asian person.
MAI: Ever? Or onstage?
KEVIN: Are you going to keep writing about being Vietnamese?
MAI: Yeah, I am, because in case you haven’t noticed, I am Vietnamese?
KEVIN: You’ve lived here since you were six! How Vietnamese are you now?
MAI: It’s hard to say what Vietnamese even is…It’s changed so much.
KEVIN: How about writing something that’ll get bums on seats.
MAI: ‘Asian’ doesn’t really exist in Asia. You’re either Thai or Cambodian or Hong Kong
KEVIN: How about drug-taking in football?
MAI: I don’t follow the footy.
KEVIN: Fly-in Fly-out workers during the mining boom? Destruction of the Great Barrier
Reef? (Silence). C’mon. What can you write about?
MAI: I can write about what it feels like to live as a ‘Generic Asian’ since I was six.
KEVIN: When you say Generic, I think of the Asian guy who does the dry-cleaning, or the
Asian girl who sells sushi, or the Asian girl in hot pants and love-heart glasses heading into
‘Far Eastern’. Or the Asian guy who cleans the sanitary bins in the toilets at my work.
MAI: (Not convinced) That’s sort of it…
KEVIN: Is it what you guys do that makes you all the same?
MAI: (To audience) We’re assumed to be the same because no matter whether we’re from
Hong Kong or Cambodia, we’re treated the same. An Indonesian person’s skin is different to a Thai person’s! A Filipino nose is different to a Chinese person’s. Do you get it?
MAI: You have no idea how it feels to be treated purely on your skin colour, on your race,
and not actually be an individual, for people to not actually see Kevin? For people to go, “Oh, there’s that white man, he must do that thing…he must eat heaps of burgers, and…and work…with a ‘white’ collar”.
KEVIN: Don’t exaggerate.
MAI: When I cross the road I feel threatened because I think if I don’t cross the road fast
enough I’m going to get run over. Where as, if I were Kevin, I would have all the time in the world. Because deep down, no one gives a shit about the Asian girl walking down the street – she probably doesn’t know anybody, she wouldn’t know what her rights are, she should feel lucky to even be in this country.
KEVIN: I don’t even notice you’re Asian anymore. You’re just Mai.
MAI: Thank you! But other people aren’t like that. When I call a large arts organisation to
follow up on an email, they’re surprised I can even speak English – like I just wrote my email from some fucking dictionary! That someone with a name like mine shouldn’t be able to ‘talk Australian, mate.’ Or when I’m at a fancy restaurant, people assume I’m the wait staff, because I’m Asian and female so I must be into serving and shit.
KEVIN: Give me a break. If you’re born in Braybrook, your father isn’t going to even be a
Driving Instructor, you know that? Don’t think you have a monopoly on disadvantage.
MAI: I write ‘Vietnamese issues’ because there were no books, or TV shows, or plays with
people like me when I was a kid. There was the odd Asian character written by a white man, but it was like reading about Unicorns!
MAI is doing an interview for her play.
MAI: My play ‘Pho Story’ is about how pho is a metaphor for the diaspora, how it travelled
from the North to the South in ’54, when Catholics and Intellectuals fled Communism, and
then to the rest of the world after ’75 when 2 million refugees left Vietnam by boat.
MAI: (Makes a correction) The “Reunification of Vietnam?”…it’s also called the ‘Fall of
Saigon’….Most people just say ’75.
MAI: What did my parents do in Vietnam? My parents were business people in Saigon – they had a little workshop.
MAI: Yes, of course I know about the moratoriums, and the way Vets were treated in
Australia…But you know, Vietnam’s not just a War. It’s a whole culture and whole history.
I’m trying to tell the story of the people who lived there, and left. We don’t know this story,
even though two percent of the Australian population are from there.
MAI: Why did my parents choose to…? Did Jenna send you the media release?
This is an edited version of the original play.
Chi Vu is an award-winning writer and director whose works span genres such as the postcolonial gothic, horror, magic-realism and comedy. Her plays include the critically acclaimed ‘Coloured Aliens’, ‘Vietnam: a Psychic Guide’, ‘The Dead Twin’ and ‘A Story of Soil’. Her prose works have appeared in various publications, including Joyful Strains, Growing Up Asian in Australia and The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (also published as The Literature of Australia). Chi’s novella Anguli Ma: a Gothic Tale was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. She lives in Geelong, Australia and is currently writing a musical.
This excerpt was curated and edited by our Contributing Editor for Australia, Sheila Ngoc Pham.