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Catherine Văn-Davies found that her starring role in SBS’s Hungry Ghosts excavated intimate family histories. “For most of my life, Mum wouldn’t talk about the war. But with intergenerational trauma, even if they don’t tell us the experience in their own words, we’re so sensitive to our parents.” By Leah Jing McIntosh.

Actor Catherine Văn-Davies

Catherine Văn-Davies.
Credit: Ben Baker

Catherine Văn-Davies is familiar with spectral encounters. “I worked at an adult shop for a while, and people with a lot of emotional baggage would come into that space,” she says. It was late at night, and she was alone, when a ghost appeared. “It was a young man in his 30s wearing a red leather jacket, kind of smiling at me with this really weird, intense smile. He was quite close, maybe two metres from me. And I knew he wasn’t real.” When her boss checked the footage the next day, the computer shut down at the exact time stamp of her encounter, and when they checked again, the tape had glitched.

Văn-Davies, who is starring in SBS’s new series Hungry Ghosts, tells me she loves a good ghost story. “I grew up in a Vietnamese family, so ghosts, or honouring the dead, is not spooky to me,” Văn-Davies says, video-chatting from her Sydney living room, afternoon light streaming in behind her. “We have incense, we have food offerings, every day – so the concept of another realm, of dead walking amongst us – that isn’t that scary.”

Produced by Matchbox Pictures, Hungry Ghosts is a four-part supernatural drama series exploring intergenerational trauma, set in present-day Footscray. From a view of the golden Leeds Street welcome arch, to a chase through the busy Footscray Market, to a heated confrontation in the hot pink and lime green interior of restaurant Bo De Trai, director Shawn Seet showcases the familiar and rich imagery of a suburb that has been home to the Vietnamese–Australian community for decades.

The series circles around the Le, Tran and Nguyễn families, all of whom have parents or grandparents who experienced the brutality and devastation of the Vietnam War. When a Vietnamese amulet is broken on the eve of the Hungry Ghost Festival, ghosts begin to haunt survivors: a love lost in the line of duty appears, looking for his fiancée; a fellow refugee who survived the war, but died on a perilous boat passage to Australia, seeks a watery revenge.

Critics may be quick to draw parallels with the Asian–Australian casts of Benjamin Law’s The Family Law or Lawrence Leung’s Maximum Choppage, but Hungry Ghosts takes its audience to darker realms. The ghost of a Vietnamese translator, mouth still bleeding from mutilation, haunts an opportunistic Vietnam War photographer (Bryan Brown); a flashback finds a Vietnamese cult leader (Vico Thai) attempting a child sacrifice; a minesweeping NGO worker (Susie Porter) is possessed by a malevolent spirit. But Văn-Davies is quick to assure me that the horror isn’t gratuitous: “Shawn [Seet] made sure that even if we removed the physical manifestations of the ghosts, the story could still exist as an emotionally driven narrative.” In line with William Faulkner’s observation – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – history reveals itself in the present, and the supernatural elements illuminate the devastating and far-reaching reverberations of war.

Slated as one of the most diverse casts in the history of Australian drama, Hungry Ghosts employs more than 30 Asian–Australian actors and more than 325 Asian–Australian extras. Văn-Davies leads an ensemble cast featuring Jillian Nguyen, Ferdinand Hoang, Suzy Wrong and Gabrielle Chan. Văn-Davies admits that as an actor of colour “you feel this intense burden of representation when you are the sole representative [of your race]”. Yet in the variety of generations, experiences and personalities of its Vietnamese–Australian characters, the Hungry Ghosts script ensures that no single narrative is positioned as the Vietnamese–Australian story. Văn-Davies is relieved by this multiplicity: “Because there [were] so many [Vietnamese-Australian] characters … it never felt like one person was carrying that burden.”

Văn-Davies plays May Le, a second-generation Vietnamese–Australian chef, who must take her fate into her own hands when ghosts start to appear in the Vietnamese–Australian community. Estranged from her mother, May lives with her grandmother, who fled Vietnam as a refugee. Like Văn-Davies, May is mixed-race. “It was so rare, this role,” says Văn-Davies. “When I first found out about it, I was like, ‘I just don’t care who gets this role.’ I mean, of course I wanted it. But the fact that it existed at all…”

Playing May took on intimate meaning for Văn-Davies, whose mother fled Vietnam, arriving in Australia by boat in 1978. Văn-Davies is painfully aware of the gulf between first- and second-generation immigrant experiences. “At the age my mother was fleeing Vietnam – I was just fleeing my own bad decisions!” she says. “For most of my life, Mum wouldn’t talk about the war. But with intergenerational trauma, even if they don’t tell us the experience in their own words, we’re so sensitive to our parents.”

Writer and producer Timothy Hobart found inspiration for Hungry Ghosts in epigenetic trauma, the concept that trauma can be biologically inherited. Though still in its early stages, this research resonates with the psychoanalytic work of cultural theorists such as Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman, who consider the experience, representation and transmission of trauma.

Văn-Davies notes that when she and her mother began a conversation about the war a few years ago, her mother “was nervous about passing on her trauma”. But there is also familial joy, and a sense of pride. “My mum sent me a text the other day, because she saw me on the cover of a paper. She wrote, ‘I’m proud of you. Our family’s proud of you. And the Văn ancestors are proud of you.’ ”

Văn-Davies has been working as an actor for more than 15 years, but this is her first major screen role. Cultural gatekeeping by white writers, directors and producers is an industry-wide issue that harms the careers of non-white artists and also whitewashes the imaginative landscapes of Australian audiences. Often “diverse” artists are forced to find work elsewhere. Anchuli Felicia King, a Thai–Australian playwright who debuted three plays on the Australian main stage in 2019 – including White Pearl, in which Văn-Davies was cast – said in an interview with the ABC that she had to leave Australian theatre in order to conquer it: “Aussie theatre (at least mainstage theatre) was this largely white, male, auteur-centric space, with a lot of like – pretension, infantilisation and cultural gatekeeping.”

Văn-Davies had a similar trajectory; she says, somewhat ruefully, “Yes, I also had to leave the country.” For years after she graduated from Queensland University of Technology in the mid-2000s, her agent sent feedback from screen directors that Văn-Davies was “too exotic” or her look “just wasn’t right”. On why she decided to continue acting in the face of such racism, Văn-Davies is blunt: “There wasn’t anyone that looked like me. And I wanted that to exist.”

In 2010, she left Australia for New York and studied under artists such as Austin Pendleton at HB Studio. New York shifted something in Văn-Davies. “I met highly regarded actors and directors who treated me as a peer … [this experience] made me take my potential more seriously.” She came back to Australia more certain of herself; she now knew where she was working from. “I think the consistent thing in my craft is that I’m an empathetic actor. If I feel empathy for a character, that will give me everything that I need.”

As the industry has slowly became more aware of the need for wider representation, Văn-Davies has spent the past decade working in the theatre. In 2018 she was cast as Natalie Yang in Michele Lee’s Going Down at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. “That show was a complete revelation. To see a young Asian woman just sticking it to the man, saying, ‘Whatever you think the stereotypes are, I’m the opposite.’ ” Her career gained momentum in 2019 when she won best supporting actress for Angels in America, and White Pearl won best ensemble, in the Sydney Theatre Awards. She also filmed Hungry Ghosts, reprised her award-winning role as the Swallow in The Happy Prince and played the Clown in Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. So, for Văn-Davies, a static 2020 is strange territory: “We’re in a holding pattern … it’s a period of time in which you don’t have work, and you can’t look for work.”

Her starring role as Margherita in Sydney Theatre Company’s No Pay? No Way! at the Opera House was cancelled mid-season as Covid-19 started to hit Australia. The rest of her work for 2020, which in another world would have been “one of those extraordinary back-to-back-show years”, quickly followed suit.

She remembers the initial dissonance: “We’re trained as actors to do your job no matter what – unless you’re in hospital, you turn up. There are stories of actors who have a bucket side stage, because they’ll be vomiting, but still performing.” She laughs. “So, at the start, the idea of stopping work just because of health – that just felt extraordinary.” Văn-Davies and her partner, actor Fayssal Bazzi (of Stateless), are taking this moment to “nest”, to check in with friends; to learn, slowly, how to become “okay with not doing anything”.

Hungry Ghosts has been released in the midst of this strange suspension. In the theatre Văn-Davies is used to saying goodbye to a project as soon as the last curtain falls, but Hungry Ghosts was filmed in 2019, “four theatre shows ago!” But it is almost serendipitous; she’s excited it will finally have an audience.

I ask Văn-Davies why the stage has made more space for actors of colour than the screen. “To go to the theatre, you have to come with a level of generosity and suspension of disbelief,” she says. “Screen leans more towards realism.” Yet this realism is skewed: “You’ll see queer performers never allowed to play straight roles. But straight people will play queer roles, and you see a lot of white people playing ethnic roles.” Such as Scarlett Johansson? Văn-Davies laughs, “Everyone’s favourite Asian actor.” She becomes more serious: “The problem on screen is that there’s an unconscious bias towards what is ‘neutral’, or ‘the norm’. And that ‘norm’ is Caucasian Australian.”

Screen Australia’s 2016 report “Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama” illuminates the disparity between Australia’s multicultural population and their representation on television. Although an estimated 32 per cent of Australians have a cultural background that isn’t Anglo–Celtic, the report notes that from 2011 to 2015, of actors playing main characters in Australian TV drama only 15 per cent were actors of colour or Indigenous actors.

This historical bias towards white actors is far from benign; in centring the white experience, it becomes the default, and Australian culture has become weighted with what Văn-Davies describes as “an overrepresentation of stories which have dominated our cultural narrative”. As a result, she says, “any other story, any other body, becomes Other”. When non-white stories are continually sidelined, it creates a cultural hierarchy that affects the non-white actor, the non-white writer and non-white audiences. Diverse representation in a whitewashed world, Văn-Davies notes, “can change the way you exist in the world, can change the way of what you think is possible”.

Has she received backlash for advocating change? “You always run the risk, especially when you talk publicly,” she says. “There will always be resistance, if there is change. But you can only interpret this as a positive sign that something is shifting.” She finds strength in community, which helps her to feel less alone, and her years of experience mean that she is less afraid to speak out. She hopes that Hungry Ghosts can be a stepping stone for future projects: “I hope they don’t think, ‘Okay, we’re done with the Vietnamese story now.’ ”

Văn-Davies notes that this pause in her career means “a brilliant release of control”. “What does the future mean for any of us right now?” she asks. “I want to continue working towards a better future. In a way, I think that has kept me in this career because I go, okay, I’m in this for more than just myself. I think if it was just myself, I would have dropped out a long time ago.” She catches herself: “I’m so earnest!” Laughing, she mimes vomiting at the computer screen. “But – I definitely don’t want to wait another 15 years for a screen role. My part is to make the future as positive as possible, for myself and for others.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Spirits of progress".

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Leah Jing McIntosh is the editor of LIMINAL magazine.