Little Vietnam // Discussion with Will Pham, Rosalie Bell & Natalie Bell.
A transcript of a discussion at the opening night of Will Pham’s Little Vietnam at Turf Projects, between Will Pham, Rosalie Bell and Natalie Bell.
Will: Out of that meeting I taught [Rosalie and Natalie] both how to use the same camera that’s in that room and they were filming each other. Basically, a lot of my previous work is about facilitating conversations and I think this another way except that this time I’ve given over the camera and the situation is a test.
Will: (to Rosalie and Natalie) Do you want to explain and introduce yourselves some more?
Rosalie: Yes! I’m sure you probably know now, but I’m Rosalie. I was born and raised in south-east London and I’m a contemporary dance artist. I’ve actually worked with Will twice before, once here very luckily, but in the old Turf space, and it was more on a physical level I worked with him coming from a dance background navigating space, claiming space which all came from his ideas and it was a really interesting collaboration. But then since doing this project – which is obviously a lot more vocal and discussion based and a lot more personal I guess – in a sense, it’s actually been really interesting to delve into that and realise that all of the physical stuff we were doing in previous projects really homes into this and claiming space and where I place myself, you know, identity-wise – especially in London – so it’s actually been quite a big revelation for me personally. So, yeah, super grateful to be here, doing this.
Natalie: So, my name is Natalie Bell and I’m Rosalie’s mother. I was born in 1967 in Essex, I was the only child that was not white, that I knew of, all the way through school. So, I ended up in a comprehensive school in the middle of Essex with one and a half thousand young people and children around me and I was always the odd-one-out. As soon as I realised Chinatown existed, I was obsessed with moving to London. It was the only place that I felt I could relate to people and I was really interested, I suppose, because there was this commonality that you’d discovered Westminster in California and you’d gone over a couple of times and taken a lot of images, and Rosalie told me, and that’s where my mother was living. So, there was this huge kind of, like, “how weird, we’ve got the UK, we’ve got America, we’ve got Vietnam”, it’s like this triangulation of culture and heritage and experiences. The film was really interesting to me because it was such an experiment. I’m really enjoying watching it because I didn’t know what it was going to be like, it was always very instant, whilst we were filming, I also bought in a big bag of press cuttings, which you see in the footage. The press are newspaper cuttings that my father had cut out in 1968 and 69. While he was in the house in Essex and things were happening about Vietnam he was collecting a lot of press cuttings which he put in a bag and left in a cupboard, and I only found them 5 years ago and they’ve never been looked at. So this footage is really interesting because it’s the first time that myself and Rosalie kind of just took it out of the bag, and I’ve now given the cuttings to Will to do what he sees fit to do with them! But it’s quite a special moment and emotional, and I think that, for me, I didn’t have much connection with Vietnam, I’ve been there once when I was three and I remember a little bit, but not much. I grew up not being able to speak Vietnamese, I spoke French because that’s what my mother and father spoke and now, I feel this huge hole in my knowledge and a hunger to really find out more about my family’s background, and yeah, it’s an exciting beginning of a new journey.
Will: I don’t want to put you on the spot, but what we could do is backtrack on conversations that we had, coz in this work there isn’t any sound, so the conversation I wanted to leave open for us, so, I guess what drew me to looking at narratives and community centres and looking at what drives that, so I was interested in, I suppose, I was reading ‘Coin Street’ – so maybe we should talk about Coin Street?
Will: And this community center, and what is this place, and where are we?
Natalie: Sure. So I think it’s a huge story I’m going to try to condense it! I currently work at Coin Street at the head of youth and community programs and it’s a huge social enterprise on the Southbank. We are in the Oxo tower wharf and a lot of properties along south bank were built for housing cooperatives. When they were built, Southbank was a really desolate area, and I lived in the cooperative that’s in the OXO tower called Redwood. So, I’ve been attached to Coin street for over twenty-five years and it’s been a life changing experience for me because I came in as a tenant, I used to be a fashion designer and I rented one of the shops in Gabriel’s Wharf and over twenty years ago it was dead on the Southbank. Nobody was there, you couldn’t even walk along the river, it wasn’t, you know, a pathway. There was no London Eye, there was no Tate Modern, it was pretty desolate. I lived in the cooperative and when I had Rosalie, I started volunteering a lot and I set up a project called Family Links, which then became my new career. So I came out of fashion and into community work and having children was a really huge piece of that, I just suddenly realised that I wanted a better life for my family and I wanted the area to be a lot more vibrant and a lot more community orientated because there was nowhere for families to meet, nowhere for children to go and play and gather. So, the Colombo Center was originally Sainsburys canteen and it had been kind of left to be a bit destitute and the community took it over a very long time ago, thirty-five years ago, the same kind of time the housing cooperatives where starting to be built on the Southbank. I cut my teeth on youth work in that centre and my children pretty much grew up in that centre, and that’s where Rosalie learned to dance in this hall. And it‘s very symbolic to me that she’s ended up being a professional dancer and that the seed of that was going to a community hip-hop class, that was free, that was for the local people to just come and it was more of a social thing, but it became [her] career. And I kind of went round in a big circle because I volunteered at Coin Street and set up some projects, then I got paid work as a youth worker, I did a youth work degree and ended up lecturing in youth work and I ran quite a large youth forum for eleven years which was really successful, it was one of the biggest youth forums in South London. Then I went freelance, and then again, because of family stuff I wanted a regular salary and I ended up working at Coin Street so I salaried at the place I kind of begun. So, I know the organisation inside out; I’ve been a tenant, a volunteer, I’ve been a shop-owner, and now I’m a salaried member of staff. So that kind of contextualizes Colombo and where I started and where I am now
Will: I guess what contextualizes it also, is the need for community centres in the context where these centres are closing down, so this is related to the previous work at An Viet foundation where I was looking at why these centres closing down. How have their missions changed or how have their values changed? When we met to talk about this we kind of talked about why we need these spaces and then you mentioned something that struck me, which is, to feel human? Or to feel… I don’t know… You don’t have to always get validation through buying and consumerism, people just hang out, and I think that’s quite an old value and I think it has similarities with what Turf wants to do as a community space. But, yeah, there’s a divide I guess, between trying to engage more with different audiences and younger people to use these spaces, and I think one tactic that I’m interested in is to basically get more stories out – by inviting you all. Basically just trying to understand society a bit more. Maybe my question is, could you speak more about that idea of trying to make yourself more human? Because that sounds quite difficult to explain. Or maybe it‘s similar to dance, because you mentioned about the thing that you enjoy when working here, is facilitating a space for people to come and instead of the feeling of the dance itself, it‘s also the space – the situation – you’ve created.
Rosalie: Mhmm, exactly. Yeah, and its super interesting, because as my mum said, the first time I started dance there was the first time I thought “oh I really enjoy this” and I actually feel like I’m quite good at it, and it’s kind of rare for you to realise that in your life I guess. I’ve now volunteered [there] and I’ve taught contemporary dance workshops, and even very simple movement-based, meditative workshops [there], all different ages. And it’s just super interesting on reflection, to see what is more important is just even having eye contact with someone that you don’t know and creating the safe environment where that’s allowed, or even just give someone a hug or walking past someone, rather than choreography and making sure you get the steps right. I think that’s what became so important for me on reflection of teaching these series of workshops. It’s definitely something I want to continue and share more because I realise that some of these people that were doing the workshops, they maybe were quite elderly and they might be a bit lonely, their family might be living in a different country. That may have been the first physical contact, just on a human level, that they would have had with someone that whole week. I found that quite striking, just to see it in this same space where I essentially felt I was part of a niche community, was really important for me.
Will: Maybe we could talk on the idea of Vietnam and speak more about how that reflects or relates to the community work in some way, or if it does? .
Natalie: I think for me, my family is all over the world, and the war fragmented it and a lot of my family will say the war’s kind of smashed the family to smithereens, we’re just surviving, we’re just trying to find our place somewhere else. So, some of my family are in Canada, some of them are still in Vietnam, some are in France – all over France – and there was only me who grew up in England. So I was always thought of as the ‘English cousin’ and it’s kind of strange as you end up feeling like you don’t belong – partly because I’m part Vietnamese and half English, that’s complex in itself – but then when I’m with my Vietnamese family, I don’t speak Vietnamese and I feel quite different and then when I’m with my white family, again, I feel different again because I stand out. So I’ve always really wanted people to feel comfortable where they are because I think in London it’s such a diverse community and I think always struggled as well to connect with people, who are Vietnamese, in the UK because I didn’t really meet anybody. I just think it’s important to have safe places where you can have conversations, you can learn about each other, you can make connections that aren’t necessarily connected to your background but is more about what’s happening right now. We’re all here right now and we’ve all got plenty of experiences that are interesting and things to share and things that connect. We do have a lot of things in common and instead of focusing on the things that make us different – that makes us interesting to each other – but there’s also lots of things that bind us together that are equally important for everybody. When we do a lot of the sessions and the activities, I think underneath it all it‘s about the social aspect of it and feeling like you belong somewhere. Even if it is momentarily and only at the session that you feel safe and secure, that you’ve got familiar faces you can talk to. Because I think London at the moment is a very lonely place. If you don’t know many people and your family is not here you can feel quite disconnected and it‘s quite depressing actually. We work with elderly people who might not speak to people for three days, there’ll be a whole three days they don’t talk to anyone, and nobody calls their phone, they only have a house phone, nobody uses house phones anymore… Their family might be in Australia or they might not have ever had children or their friends and their partners are now deceased and they‘re just getting lonelier and lonelier and that’s really sad. There’s some of the women that Rosalie has worked with and you encourage people to hold hands, and to stand in a circle, and to move, and to take away some of that awkwardness about “touch” which I think is really – it is humanizing. It’s incredible that you can walk around London and no one will speak to you, no one will look at you in the face because there’s a lot of fear and mistrust. People just would rather just look at the floor than look at you. Lift situations – for example – sitting on the tube, it is very robotic and people have got used to ignoring each other. So that’s some of the comments I would make around community, and particularly around having a Vietnamese background. I think it‘s something you said, Will, was around the ways Vietnamese people that came to the UK – and my mother was quite unusual because she was living in France and she came over to England. Her story is very different from people who came in the 80’s and the 90’s. It‘s quite different, so, again, you don’t even have that shared experience with other people who’ve come from Vietnam; everyone has had their unique story. But I think everyone has their story to tell, everyone has got a really interesting background, I think people should talk more about where they’re from and why they are the person that they are and reflect on that with other people.
Will: Could you speak […] more about when you were looking for material, the press cuttings, what you discovered or what you were trying to do? I haven’t had time yet to look through it. It’s quite a lot of things, it’s really, like… It’s pretty much the British perspective of the Vietnam war, and just little discoveries. […] Maybe it’s similar to the previous project with Mr. Vu, because working at the An Viet Foundation, he’s not there – because he’s kind of like this ghost that‘s kind of around – but then, looking for the materials, you’re in his head. So, I suppose it’s the same; “Why has this person collected all this material?”. And I think it‘s, now it’s the opposite, you’re now trying to find — trying to piece things together.
Rosalie: Yeah, definitely. I think, as well, my grandad is quite a stereotypical English-man of few words in that sense. I feel like maybe he would respond to it but I don’t feel like I have access to kind of ask him or discuss with him “why did you do this?” or “what brought you to do this?”. I had no idea he’s done this all these years ago. In a sense it made me think, “wow, gosh, maybe this was like a coping mechanism of chronological order.” Literally every single day there was a different story from the English perspective, and just reading through some of them, I mean, I’m still learning some of the smaller stories that were in the newspapers. It was super interesting for me to unravel. Just with our family that was really, really important for me because I had no idea that that had happened. There was so much material, as Will just said, we’ve barely scratched the surface but I would be really interesting to know what his mindset was.
Will: I suppose it‘s interesting to hear from you because, basically, I can kind of relate to what you are saying because with me concentrating on my family, then if you hear it from someone else, then you start to have a more nuanced idea of community, of what community means. […] It makes it more human. I wouldn’t say that its resolved with anything, it‘s more about just the act – of trying to carve a space and time to be able to reflect and to look back at quite dramatic events. I think we should all be able to do that and it never happens. And I think that’s a way to center yourself, to kind of give you a direction; of what you want to do, or what you find meaningful.
Will: If anyone has any questions… anything about the film, or just about anything?
Audience member 1: I think the thing that’s going through my mind from what you’ve been saying – the film speaks to me about family, and how works together with […] the community aspect. I could see where you’re coming from, the fact you’re interested in communities, and how they work, and especially community centres and what they offer, and I was just thinking it’s so not valued anymore, and at one time it seemed as if it was valued. When I grew up it was a bit impoverished – and family was important – but also there was this external thing about the community. I remember the schools were open, you could walk into a school in the evenings and they’d be art workshops, or pottery, or something. […] It was about being open, anytime, and you could connect with people. Now, my family, my children, weren‘t really exposed to that, we’ve turned it back to just being family and the family was doing everything without any connections. So I don’t think they went to them – it was stigmatized to go to a community centre. So, nobody would go to a community centre, and I wonder, now, with what’s happening with young people, with the elderly, they don’t really have anything, they’re on the streets. I used to be on the streets but I could pop into community centers, playgrounds, have that connections. I think it’s important to look at that, and maybe that’s what a “community” needs, that sort of kindness and generosity
Audience member 1: To be able to go in and interact with someone, where do you do that without the spaces? Just on the streets looking at other people…?
Will: Thank you for that. I suppose were a bit on the fence with trying to say something with [Little Vietnam] – the previous work was trying to push at this and the reason that it’s changed in that work there is because the question of having to ask that question… I can‘t actually explain it, I just realised I can‘t explain it! I just feel like… before even trying to arrive at that question I just had to take it back home, a bit closer to home, and just be like “how can I connect more to people, how can you even help anyone else if you can’t”. And you just end up having conversations with yourself, it‘s just all about you, really! So, the way that I framed my family just speaks a lot about me. So, my family aren‘t here you know, that say quite a lot and the work, it’s there. I think as an artist the work that you do is kind of like an ideal, maybe? […] I didn’t want to use the energy of anger to ask the question of “why this, why that” – it‘s more a question of gratitude – there‘s a lot to be thankful for already and there doesn’t need to be a demand. That demand is — I just feel that there‘s a different energy. Basically, I didn’t want a work that had a message, its more about an attitude and so the attitude is the work. I want to make work that’s about changing of mindset, not a message, if that makes sense?
Audience member 1: It was interesting just to look. It‘s easy to look at it – even just the title of the film was very good. I felt like could see what you were saying about the different people, who’s standing next to who, who’s working together. Just to look at it, it all comes out. At one point I was thinking, was that you when you were small or was that your nephew? That was a distancing thing, – history – and was it now or was it later? Is it recent? Maybe because of the type of film that you used, it sort of gives it a look as if it was shot in the past.
Audience member 2: It has a nostalgia and a romanticism which is quite interesting in relation to what you‘re saying about trying to change a mindset and trying to change your own mindset through a process. You’re always behind the camera so you have that distance, but you are trying to almost observe the personal from a more objective point of view.
Will: That’s an interesting perspective. So, the children in my film are my nephews and there is a moment where everyone goes through where – maybe it’s just my age – where my sisters had children at the same time as my parents when they had me, so were just looking at generational questions and I wanted to frame it with this idea of Vietnam. So, it’s quite a legitimate perspective that you’ve given, because, let’s just say that if you are a… put yourself in the position of a refugee… That sound weird, doesn’t it? You’ve gotta put yourself in the position of ‘OK what do you do to help your children’? One way is basically for them to study really hard, but then you kind of have to give up part of yourself, because you can’t balance between… Well, maybe that’s a false argument, so, yeah, I’m just thinking about — it’s a lot of reflection.
Audience member 3: There’s a big difference between coming as a refugee and coming voluntarily. I see that between my mother; my mother came as a refugee aged 12 on her own, and my wife came from France as part of a teaching degree and then she ended up dropping out and the difference between country and background is very… And I look at the difference between them, it’s quite interesting. There was also a thing that spoke to me quite a lot, is the thing about the cuttings. We’ve just been sorting out through my wife’s family history going back well over a hundred years – and some of the stuff we know what it is and others we don’t. We have boxes and boxes of photographs, and some of the stuff, people know what it is and we know precisely who it is, and other people, we know their family but don’t even know who they are. The French have this thing where, instead of birth certificates, they have ‘Livret de Famille’, which is like a sort of book like a birth certificate, it’s got everyone’s birth, marriage, and death certificates and we’ve got random ones of those going back a hundred years. As times goes on, you get more and more…. because you talk about recording it, but in some ways it’s a losing battle, you only record a little fragment of it. I saw someone who had a book on photography and selected random photographs and they said every photograph is an enigma and you don’t actually know what it is afterwards. Everybody’s got these boxes, and boxes, and boxes of photos and twenty years down the line even people in the photos don’t know what it’s about, never mind two generations down the line. There’s a very strong nostalgic feel to it, as you were saying.
Natalie: I think what strikes me about the film is that it’s really intimate. It’s an intirmate snapshot of your family and there’s so many people in there and there’s so much warmth and connection. I think the biggest compliment that I ever had in any of the community work I’ve done is when children, adults, older people say “I love coming to these activities or to these sessions because it feels like a family”, “this is now my adopted family”, and I think that’s the biggest compliment you can have – when people have replaced their real family with chosen family or a family that’s evolved over time around them in the community. I think human beings do have a desire to want to be with other people, you know, were not really good at being completely on our own; we need those social networks. The other thing about community centres is that they are like a safety net. It’s comforting to know that there are places around that are safe and I think that’s disintegrating around us really rapidly, it’s disintegrating and it does worry me that in ten, twenty years’ time people won’t know who a youth worker is, they won’t know what a youth club is. They won’t know what a community centre is because it’s all become a service – it’s become a service that you pay for with your taxes. It’s not something that is a fabric of your society or something that should be there for when times are hard, or when people are displaced, or when people arrive in a city with absolutely nothing but the clothes that they’re standing in and they need that human connection and that support. So, yeah there’s a lot of things in your film that evoke family.
Audience member 4: I wanted to ask you about Coin Street, its sounds like you’re very passionate, you’ve done an amazing job, what other challenges do you see in the future funding-wise?
Natalie: We are lucky at Coin Street because we own the land. Right now if you said you were going to open up a new community facility, would you do it as a charity? I would say no, because you have so little power over the future of it. I’ve seen too many charities and voluntary sector organisations just fall flat and local authorities have reduced their funding and they’re struggling. And they are led by volunteers essentially because trustees and directors on boards aren’t paid to be there, and when the going gets hard they’re often propping up things and they’re not skilled and they don’t have the experience or the time. It makes the whole sector very vulnerable. So, at Coin street we have three entities; we have the housing department, the commercial company which is not-for-profit but it does just commercial ventures, and then we have the charity that’s separate and they all feed each other. So we’ve managed to survive quite a rough financial ride, but what’s happened is the two youth centres either side of Coin Street closed in the last two years. In Waterloo there’s a thousand young people, they’re a quite hidden community because they are overshadowed by all the big business and the big skyscrapers full of lovely glass houses that no one can afford and someone needs to be supporting those thousand young people. So over the last couple of years I’ve been working really hard just to expand our youth provision. The youth provision started at the Colombo Center. We were getting ninety children on a Friday night within a few months – that was fifteen years ago I started that – and now on a Sunday morning we’re getting sixty-five children turning up on the Sunday morning, so there is a demand. No one else is open on a Sunday, when I took the job and did some consultation, on a lot of elderly people and a lot of families were saying that there’s nothing to do at the weekend. If you live in Waterloo, the whole of the Southbank is geared towards tourism – you go to the Southbank Centre its £12 for a ticket to see a family show and that’s not affordable. There’s no big library, there’s no affordable leisure centres – you have to go to Elephant and castle. It’s quite a weird place to be, and sometimes it makes it worse for people who live in council flats in Waterloo because everything is geared towards tourism or people who have a lot of money.
Audience member 2: And I suppose you’re surrounded by people who have got a lot of money, which rubs it in…
Natalie: Yes, it does! It makes it worse, it makes it worse. Fifteen years ago when I started up the youth work there was a lot of muggings going on and I knew exactly who was doing the mugging and exactly who they were mugging! Because people are wandering around in this area and kind of flashing all their stuff when mobile phones first started to come out, it was all kids snatching them out of tourists hands and they can get away with it because they’re not going to get caught and tourists don’t know to keep stuff safe, I mean that’s not the case now, but you can see how that makes it worse.
Will: Thank you so much for your time, I think it’s a good time to maybe continue the conversation over some food?
Will: And thank you, everyone, for coming.
Audience member 5: Can I say something, quickly? This is to you [Will] – my comment! I feel like you’re using art, film, curation as a way of deeply interrogating the concepts of a community and the concepts attached to it – that centers the dichotomy of safe and unsafe spaces – the function of community spaces and its diversity and its futures. And I want to congratulate you because I think it’s very profound. When you said “I didn’t want the film to be about a message but about the attitude”, erm, for me it’s fascinating to see your practice and research and your sincerity and ingenuity at thinking it through. From the micro to the macro political and the macro and the micro of the intimate… I feel like you’re really using all of the research potential that an artist can have, and I really loved to…
Will: Thank you very much.
Huge thanks to the wonderful Joseph Brown for transcription.