Saigon brings an endless longing into play

By Hanh Pham   September 19, 2018 | 12:19 pm GMT+7
In four hours, four decades of Saigon’s history step on to the stage under French-Vietnamese director Caroline Guilela Nguyen.
The Director of Saigon, Caroline Guilea Nguyen. Photo by Institut Francais Vietnam.

Caroline Guiela Nguyen. Photo by Institut Francais Vietnam

Caroline Guiela Nguyen is a strikingly good looking hapa, a person of mixed ethnic heritage, but her roots were a mystery to her as she grew up in France.

Her new play, Saigon, is a poignant exploration of these roots.

Born in 1981 to a Vietnamese mother and French father, she didn’t get to know a lot about her family’s past because her parents refused to talk about her roots in the hope that she would integrate better into French society.

In fact, Vietnamese cuisine was the only link they shared and passed on to the next generation.

“The love for cuisine is a mark my parents left in me. I can’t speak Vietnamese, but I can cook Vietnamese dishes very well,” the director told VnExpress.

At the age of 37, Nguyen is now a permanent member of the Odéon National Theater with more than 10 years of experience.

Her latest work created a big stir at the Avignon Theatre Festival last year, and has since been performed in 14 cities around the world.

It will be staged in Vietnam on the September 21- 22 at Ben Thanh Theater, 6 Mac Dinh Chi, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

“The name of the play says it all,” said Caroline.

She said she feels especially emotional bringing the play to her mother’s homeland.

The Vietnamese identity

A scene from the play Saigon. Photo courtesy of Festival-Avignon.

A scene from the play Saigon. Photo courtesy of Festival-Avignon

The year 1956 was the deadline for the French troops to withdraw from Vietnam after their defeat in the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Along with the last French soldiers, many Vietnamese left their homeland. They left without knowing that they would have to wait decades before they could return.

In 1995, Vietnam and the U.S. re-established diplomatic relations. “At that time, in my family, there was the question of whether or not should we return,” Nguyen recalled.

Set in a Vietnamese restaurant with a kitchen on the left, and a karaoke room on the right, the stage set for Saigon takes the audience to 1996 in Paris and 1956 in Saigon. “These are two very important milestones in time,” she said.

Nguyen, then 15, followed her mother and grandmother back to Saigon. When she first arrived in Vietnam, she felt “completely out of place”. The feeling was so overwhelming that she didn’t dare to step outside for two weeks straight.

Inside, some parts of her felt Vietnamese, but somehow, that feeling was only obvious when she was in France. When she came to Vietnam, she didn’t feel Vietnamese because “I was much taller than Vietnamese, and I can’t speak Vietnamese.

“I met my relatives who have the same facial features as my mum, my aunt, but their life and living standards are much different, and that was what made Vietnam, a place supposed to be familiar, feel strange. For a long time, I felt uncomfortable, living with that conflicted feeling,” she shared.

An uncomfortable silence

Saigon is about the endless longing of those who live away from their motherland, like Nguyen’s parents. She said her father, a “pied noir”, white Frenchman who lived in Algeria before its independence, never talked about his time there.

Many people in France blamed the colonizers in the “Black Continent” for the collapse of French colonialism and did not welcome them back into the country. Meanwhile, these “pied noir” could not live in Algeria because of the hostility they received from the locals. People like Caroline’s father were torn between their homeland and the land they lived in.

However, the director emphasized that Saigon isn’t her family’s autobiography.

“This is not just a story about a group of emigrants, the Vietnamese community in France; it is also about a significant part of France’s history. This story belongs to everyone.”

Saigon tells the story of French and Vietnamese people whose lives were influenced by important historical events, stretching through 40 years.

It’s the story of separated lovers, Mai and Hao. In 1956, Hao had to leave Vietnam for France, leaving behind the biggest love of his life. Forty years later, Hao returns to Saigon with his daughter, thinking he would be able to catch a glimpse of the familiar figure somewhere.

It’s the story of Linh and Édouard. They met during the Indochina War. Then the French solider took Linh back to France with him. The young, innocent girl thought that a happy life was waiting for them there.

It’s the story the older Linh and her son, Antoine. Antoine can’t understand his mother’s language and her cold appearance, as well as her past.

It’s a story of Marie-Antoinette, a kind hearted restaurant owner named after the infamous French queen. Marie-Antoinette’s son died after joining the army in 1939. Behind the smiling face, she always cries alone in the dark corner of the kitchen. Every year, she wears her best dress on his birthday.

The four-hour long play not only takes audiences from one period to another, but also from one language to another. Even though the play integrates both French and Vietnamese languages, which can be confusing for viewers, it has been very well received in many countries where neither of the two languages are spoken, like Sweden, China and Italy.

Nguyen said international audiences with no connection to Vietnam can still sympathize with the stories in the play. “Saigon resonates with the audiences’ imaginations,” she said.

Road of tears

Photo courtesy of Festival-Agvinon

Photo courtesy of Festival-Agvinon

With a polished production and evocative storytelling, Nguyen subtly put on stage the hidden pains of ordinary people. At the beginning, the play was not intended to be a tragedy.

“That term came from the comments of audiences and the press,” she said.

“To me, perhaps it’s more an “emotional play,” because through the amazing performance of actors, the feelings are communicated to the audiences.”

She said that while looking for materials for Saigon, she felt that everything in Saigon “led to a road of tears”, like the love songs or sad stories she listened to. Thus, when writing the play, she wanted to recreate these feelings.

“This is the way to tell the stories of Vietnam, with a lot of tears,” one character in the play says.

After her first visit in 1996, Nguyen has returned to Vietnam many times, particularly during the two years she spent writing the play.

She said that while she was in Saigon, her understanding of the city, her grasp of the atmosphere here, and weighing of every detail she could observe, came from “listening to music, meeting people, eating Vietnamese food in the heat and humid weather.”

The sounds, lighting and design of stage and costumes were the result of her observation “... of everything not just with a normal eye, but an artistic eye, to recreate the play from imagination.”

She remembered the taxi driver who sobbed while listening to a sad love song, or the karaoke bars where people sing quietly with a lot of tears. “And we were infected by those feelings.”

The play sheds some light on the lesser-known part of French histories and untold stories during the not-often-mentioned immigration period.

Those two years preparing for the play also helped Nguyen gain a deep understanding about Vietnam, the “forgotten” country.

“My grandmother had nine children, and my mother was the eldest, but she always call her “Hai”, which means the second child (“hai” is Vietnamese for number 2). I didn’t understand why because she was clearly the first one. After a long time of living in Vietnam, I learnt that the reason for the name is that Vietnamese think everyone has a first child who is forgotten.”

(Editor’s note: There are several myths and superstitions that explain the mostly southern Vietnamese tradition of calling the first child “hai”)

On the stage of Saigon, Vietnamese and French actors as well as amateur Vietnamese actors living in France retell the stories of loss, the inner struggles of people who live away from their homeland, and fragments of memories of the Indochina War.

A Télérama review says: “The story is simple. There are no big words, no violence, no tragedy, no intense passion. It’s just a sad story, sadness that is so devastating but extremely beautiful. Caroline Guiela Nguyen has captured that spirit.”

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