THIS IS FOR MẸ: The Birth of Vietnamese Londoners

In this excerpt of this is for mẹJess Boyd speaks to Julia Thanh about Vietnamese Londoners, a passion project which has found life and legs as an Instagram page, creating community, representation and foundations for diasporic Vietnamese folks in Britain and beyond. You can follow Vietnamese Londoners on Instagram @vietlondoners.

Inspired by Ocean’s Vuong’s letter to his mother in the New York Times, this is for mẹ lives online as a borderless mailbox for Asian identified people to share stories rooted in mothers, motherhood, motherlands, mother-tongues and family.

The Birth of Vietnamese Londoners

A photo from the 2017 “Vietnamese Londoners” exhibit, the first photography exhibition dedicated to the British Vietnamese community.

What dishes remind you of home?

Shepherd’s pie with sriracha, and phở bò with all the trimmings.

Where is your favourite place to find Vietnamese food in London?

My mum’s kitchen, always.

Where do you go to connect with Vietnamese community in London?

At Vietnamese Family Partnership’s (VFP) annual Lunar New Year and Mid Autumn Festival. 

How do you identify, and has the way you identify evolved over the years?

I’m British Vietnamese but colloquially I refer to myself as a Vietnamese Londoner. Growing up, I felt as though I could only identify as Vietnamese as calling myself British didn’t seem valid enough. It took me going to Senegal, where I spent a year, to realise that I don’t have to be exclusively Vietnamese or exclusively British, my identities and values can co-exist.

Why and when did your parents immigrant to London? Where did they go for Vietnamese community?

My parents have two completely different migration stories. My Mum left Vietnam 11 years after the war ended as a refugee with my sister, whereas my Dad left Paris to London for a job. I believe at the time there was an informal, yet established Vietnamese community where my parents actually met. 

Julia Thanh introducing an event

Tell me about Vietnamese Londoners and how it was born. 

The inception was when I was living in Dakar, Senegal in 2013. I became hyper aware of my racial identity and found myself talking about both English and Vietnamese culture on a regular basis at work – I worked as an English Language teacher at the time. During my time there, I noticed many Vietnamese restaurants and street food stands selling spring rolls, and later found out there was a small Vietnamese community in Senegal due to the Indochina war with France. Anyway, when I got back to London and landed my first ‘real’ office job, I was at a stage in my life where I was asking a lot of questions about where I wanted to be. I then went on a spiral where I started to think about whether other ‘girls like me’ were on a similar path, so I started googling prominent and inspirational Asian role models and could not find anything.  At that very moment, Vietnamese Londoners was born.

What is your hope for Vietnamese Londoners in the long term?

Honestly speaking, my hope is that Vietnamese Londoners will provide even just a speck of inspiration for someone to start a project they truly care about and have the confidence to do so. 

What kind of community and events have been born out of Vietnamese Londoners?

I wouldn’t say events have been created off the back of Vietnamese Londoners, but I have been really fortunate to get involved and attend exciting events about the community. For example, Tuyen Do’s Summer Rolls – the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK, to Will Pham’s ‘Little Vietnam’ exhibition. Every time I hear about a Vietnamese related event, it is a truly heartwarming moment for me.

What do you want the Vietnamese British identity and community to look and feel like in ten years?

I want the British Vietnamese identity to own both identities and values with more ease and less burden than our parents’ generation faced.  I would like more British Vietnamese folks to really own who they are and be fearless in that. If the community could be as strong as our parents’ generation with a better sense of camaraderie, that is what I would like to see in the years to come. To think our parents did that without the use of social media and the tech that we have today is beyond me. 

Photographs from the 2017 “Vietnamese Londoners” exhibit

What is your favourite thing about the work that you’re doing? 

The people I meet both online and offline, hands down. Nothing makes me happier when I connect with like-minded individuals who share and celebrate the importance of building a stronger Vietnamese community across the diaspora. 

Which Vietnamese British community members and organisations inspire you?

The folks at Indigo Magazine are doing great things in bringing out new voices from Southeast Asian arts. 

Vietnamese Family Partnership (VFP), a London based charity which supports the Vietnamese community in South London and promotes a wider understanding of Vietnamese culture. 

VietPro is a network of Vietnamese professionals based in the UK. I have enjoyed attending their events over the years. 

  • Which Instagram pages do you get Vietnamese and diasporic inspiration from?

    • @dia_critics of course!
    • @xi__ng
    • @vietwordly
    • @theseadproject
    • @projectyellowdress
    • @weare_DVAN
    • @vietcetera

Julia Thanh was born and raised in London and has lived in Senegal and Vietnam. She has worked in International Education for 6 years and is passionate about supporting people to fulfil their potential. Outside of work, Julia is involved in empowering the British Vietnamese community as Founder of Vietnamese Londoners and as a Chairperson for Vietnamese Family Partnership. She also is a proud supporter for Ambitious about Autism.

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