• DIANE TRAN (Oakley Kwon) Photo Credit: Sarah Enticknap (SBS)Source: SBS
Playing Diane in 'Hungry Ghosts' meant looking back on Vietnam War trauma and what's in a multicultural school lunchbox.
Oakley Kwon

25 Aug 2020 - 5:41 PM  UPDATED 25 Aug 2020 - 6:09 PM

I grew up in Melbourne, studied and worked in Canberra for ten years. Now I live in Brisbane where we say “thank you” to the bus driver when we get off at our stop at Roma Street station.

I watched Play School when I was a kid and played Aussie Rules football in primary school. I still eat Vegemite from the jar and call Australia home, because there’s no place in the world like it. I am your stereotypical Aussie, perhaps with a slight twist.

There is this other side to me that I don’t personally pay attention to, but apparently others do: the way I look. I was born in Vietnam to Vietnamese parents and so, outwardly, I look Asian. I am small, I have black hair and dark brown eyes, and I have skin that apparently never really ages. That may be how I look, but really, I am Australian. The multicultural kind of Australian that we all know we are, even though sometimes we like to be a little coy about it.

And yes, like lots of other multicultural Australians, I have a sob story about how my family came to be in Australia.

I was two years old when Vietnam was in crisis. My parents and I boarded a boat with dozens of other people to try our luck somewhere else. Anywhere else. The boat’s skipper didn’t turn up. We had no choice but to continue, so we steered it ourselves. Then the engine gave way hours into the trip. We drifted at sea for days and days, with little food or drinking water.

To top it off, we were caught by pirates. They snatched my mother from the boat, but when they spotted another woman trying to hide her jewellery, they let my mother go and took that woman instead. Then my father worked quickly to hide us, concealing us under a tarp to avoid recapture.

My family and I were some of the lucky ones because we somehow survived. We were rescued by Thai fishermen and after two years detained in a Thai refugee camp, Australia granted us humanitarian visas. We arrived in Australia with nothing to our names, but with an opportunity for freedom.

My great aunt and uncle had fled before us. They witnessed friends being executed metres away by the Viet Cong. By some stroke of luck, they managed to escape, but it would be many decades before we could reunite.

I wrestled with boys when I was young, swung from tree branches in my home suburb of Springvale, and ate lots of meat pies and sausage rolls. Then there were the lamingtons, Anzac biscuits, and pavlova with fresh cream and passionfruit. I grew up like any other Aussie kid, with a little more fried rice and spring rolls in my lunch box (some of us are just born lucky).

This is the true multicultural Australian way. We deal with hard issues with humour and sometimes a bit of larrikinism, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. You smile through your tears. When the tears are gone, what’s left is a smile born of grit and filled with wisdom.

This week I will be starring in an SBS TV miniseries called Hungry Ghosts. At a time when diversity in media is under the spotlight, Hungry Ghosts is a beacon of hope for representation in Australian television. Led by a Vietnamese cast, showcasing Vietnamese-Australian stories about universal themes of trauma and reconciliation, Hungry Ghosts bucks the trend, bringing fresh, multicultural faces to Australian storytelling.

My character, Diane, is a mother and survivor who arrived in Australia as an asylum seeker on a boat, fleeing Vietnam. Plagued with dark memories of the past, she becomes the prey of a tortured soul seeking vengeance. As her sanity is slowly eaten away by the wandering soul, Diane must confront her demons in order to save her children before the hungry ghosts consume them all.

Diane’s journey parallels my own and I can’t help but feel that Hungry Ghosts serves as an allegory for complex emotional and psychological traumas suffered by refugees and survivors of war across the world. An allegory for how we can no longer run away and turn a blind eye to them, without ourselves or our children paying the price.

More than 30 Asian-Australian actors starred in the series, alongside 325 Asian-Australian extras. I am so proud to be part of Hungry Ghosts because of what it means for representation in Australian television.

The series is for all young Australians who might feel they are different, who haven’t had idols or role models who look or even speak like them, but who grew up swinging on tree branches and eating lamingtons like everyone else. This is a chance for them to see themselves on television screens, dream of the possible and not feel they have to cast aside their heritage or hide themselves in order to fit in. Australia is richer because of its diversity, and Hungry Ghosts celebrates this.

I am often reminded that trauma is universally experienced by all survivors of the Vietnam War, from veterans to their families, to the Vietnamese people who had to flee their own country in fear of persecution, or to simply survive.

I am no longer ashamed to admit that I still grapple with a sense of displacement – and that like many other survivors of the war, I have suffered from complex emotional and psychological trauma. In the past, I have ignored how I’ve felt, and tried to bury my experiences as a young girl.

Research shows that trauma can alter our genetics, changing and impacting our physiology. These changes can be passed down from one generation to the next. Thankfully, research also indicates that intergenerational trauma can be reversed.

Acting has allowed me to confront and acknowledge my trauma. As a Vietnamese-Australian, I am proud to be part of Hungry Ghosts, which has allowed me to heal my wounds. It is so important to tell these types of stories to raise awareness and embrace Australia’s diverse history. I hope it will open up a dialogue and allow others to heal as well.

Hungry Ghosts premieres Monday 24 August – Thursday 27 August at 9:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. Start watching below.

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