“During the Hungry ghost festival in Vietnam, my grandmother would tell me off if I hit the bowl with a spoon, because a spirit may think the sound is an invitation to eat together,” actress Gabrielle Chan recalls. As a Vietnamese Chinese-Australian, her childhood in Vietnam has given her an intimate knowledge of the central subject matter in the new SBS drama series 'Hungry Ghosts'.
The show follows the lives of Vietnamese-Australians who must reckon with the presence of a vengeful spirit and the dead during the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is celebrated on the 15th night of the seventh month in the lunar calendar.
According to tradition, the gates of hell open during this month and ghosts roam the earth. To appease the spirits, family members offer prayers, food and drinks to deceased relatives and burn fake bank notes and gifts while guiding them back to the underworld. “There are a lot of superstitions during this month,” Chan says. “You can't go out late at night, you can't turn if a stranger calls your name, you have to avoid stepping on the ashes of the burned paper money.”
Chan left Vietnam at 15 and emigrated to Hong Kong before eventually moving to Australia. Today, she has a diverse acting portfolio in theatre, Chinese opera, TV and film, and draws on her lived experiences in relevant roles. In 'Hungry Ghosts', for example, she plays Lien Nguyen, an older woman who survived the Vietnam war and is haunted by the past in her new life in Australia. Supernatural beings aside, this mirrors the experience of many Vietnamese-Australians who carry the trauma of the Vietnam war and the aftermath of displacement with them.
For Chan, this means a longtime battle with depression and panic attacks. “I’ve suffered from depression since I was 17 years old. The symptoms happen every six to seven years, like a ghost that keeps haunting me. I used to get panic attacks and anxiety. My psychiatrist always tried to dig deeper to understand why, but I can't [quite] explain it.”
The first time she came across the term intergenerational trauma was during a table read for a play. “The play [was] about three generations of women who are silently suffering. It focused on how people bury all their words and accumulate trauma, particularly post-war trauma. That’s when I wondered if I too [may] have intergenerational trauma. Some of these experiences I don’t even want to get close to because it’s just horrible.”
She recalls the physical trauma suffered by Vietnam war veterans in her community. “[I know someone who lost his legs] and earns a living by repairing bicycles [using only his hands]...I have seen my neighbour whose son came back with no limbs.”
Chan believes actively sharing and opening up about her past helps manage her panic attacks and anxiety. “If you have an illness, you can take painkillers. But with the panic attacks, I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat and felt like I was falling from a cliff 10 times a day. There [was] no medication [that helped], so I had to transform myself.
"I used to be very quiet and bury everything inside. I don’t think I had the opportunity to talk about my experiences and I don’t think we allow people to talk about it either. But we have to, because talking is all part of the healing process.”
She credits shows like 'Hungry Ghosts' for providing a platform for discourse and perhaps even closure. “There is so much I want to forget but sometimes the memories come back, like the smell of incense [on set] or when my character wore an Ao Dai.”
Interestingly, in the series, Chan’s character Lien encounters a ghost that is young and attractive while others fend off fearsome and scary ghosts.
“You see, usually spirits remain on earth because they have unfinished business. That unfinished business is not always revenge; it can also be love. Maybe all they want to ask is, hey, why did you treat me like that? The spirit that came to Lien came for love, so they must be in their best human form. Lien also missed this person dearly, so she sees them in the way she wants to, using the image of when they were together.”
Despite her involvement with the show, Chan is terrified of ghosts. “In Hong Kong, councils set up a makeshift bamboo stage for Chinese opera shows during Hungry Ghost Festival. On the last day they perform to an empty 'human' audience because the show is actually for spirits who are departing to the underworld...I [have always been] too scared to do that. I can perform for humans but not ghosts.”
Hungry Ghosts premieres 9:30pm Monday 24 August – Thursday 27 August on SBS. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand each day at the same time as broadcast.