Edition #7: Cultural Diversity Week

Three Vietnamese women in a large room, with joyous expressions and their arms in the air
Three Vietnamese women in a large room, with joyous expressions and their arms in the air
(L to R) Huong Ngo from the Australian Vietnamese Women's Association, Ky and P in rehearsals, photo: Ross Bird

Breaking the silence through theatre

Read this article in Vietnamese: Phá vỡ sự im lặng qua kịch nghệ

There were many reasons why Ky turned to gambling. Looking back, she can see the chain of events: her escape from Vietnam by boat to Malaysia, her two years in a refugee camp, her arrival in Australia in 1991, adjusting to a new life in Melbourne as a single mum, and working in a factory to make ends meet. Ky was struck by the loneliness and isolation of suburban life, compounded by the absence of family who had remained in Vietnam.

Ky’s spirits were lifted when she met another Vietnamese single mum. Their rapport was instant. Her new friend seemed happy. She invited Ky to the casino, for what she called an evening of fun. Ky revelled in the companionship and her early wins.

Inevitably, came the losses and the downward spiral into debt – the erosion of her savings, the sale of jewellery and borrowing money at exorbitant rates to support her habit. ‘Tomorrow you’ll be lucky,’ Ky’s friend kept assuring her.

She invited Ky to the casino, for what she called an evening of fun.

It was a phone call from her mother in Vietnam that turned it around. She urgently needed money for medicine. Ky decided she had to quit gambling immediately. She had to cut off her friendship and learn anew how to stand on her own feet.

Turning stories of gambling harm into performance

When Ky heard of the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association project to raise awareness of gambling in the community through theatre, she jumped at the chance to share her experiences.

Ky attended workshops run by community theatre director Catherine Simmonds from the Three sides of the coin project, an initiative of Link Health and Community. Ky was joined by P, who also understood, from personal experience, the complexities of gambling and the impact it can have on Vietnamese families.

‘The most important thing I do is remind the actors that it’s their story. The power is in their hands.’

Catherine Simmonds

The theatre component of the association’s ‘Don’t bet your life’ program was initiated in 2016 by project officer Hoa Phan, and funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. Hoa called for participants in Vietnamese newspapers and on SBS radio’s Vietnamese program.

‘We were lucky to find Ky and P,’ Hoa says. ‘We were looking for people who were committed, who had conviction.’

The play is performed in Vietnamese and Catherine ran the workshops with project staff assisting as interpreters. She listened intently to what the participants said, then scripted the story with them.

‘Once I know the storylines and the emotional journey, I am then free to direct,’ she says. ‘I don’t need to understand Vietnamese when they perform. I can see when they’ve got it through their body language and interaction with the audience. The most important thing I do is remind the actors that it’s their story. The power is in their hands.’

Actors and audiences open up

The power of the play was obvious at the first performance in November last year in West Footscray.

‘The audience of senior Vietnamese was very moved,’ says Hoa. ‘They saw how it related to their families and friends. It broke through the cultural norm to save face, which had kept the stories hidden. It inspired them to unlock the silence. They made suggestions for more scenes. They spoke of the loan sharks who preyed upon those who were experiencing gambling problems, of the domestic violence, and break up of families, and of those who had landed in jail because of efforts support their habit.’

The reaction was even stronger at the second performance, in the St Albans Community Centre.

‘The audience was in tears,’ says Hoa. ‘“My family has got that problem, too,” many said.’

‘That is the power of theatre,’ adds Catherine. ‘It motivates people to say, “me too.”’

‘They saw how it related to their families and friends. It broke through the cultural norm to save face.’

Hoa Phan

The process has also affected the performers.

‘I have never acted before,’ says Ky. ‘It was wonderful to touch the real feeling of my story, and to share it with my community. I feel different. I am more open now.’

‘I feel lighter,’ says P. ‘It has released my pain. It has relieved the burden which I carried for a long time. Even my closest friends did not know my story. I kept it inside.’

‘Eventually, the first group will become mentors for other groups,’ says Simmonds.

At one point in the play, Ky says: ‘I have been to the edge with gambling and I know how dangerous it is. I stopped. But I know I am one of the lucky ones. Many Vietnamese have gambling problems, but they keep quiet and can’t stop.’

Then, turning to the audience directly, she says: ‘Please don’t let shame and guilt keep you quiet, because it’s never too late to get help.’

More performances are scheduled in coming months.

Researcher Hai Doan talks about what we don't know about Vietnamese-Australian women's experience of gambling harm in this edition of Inside gambling.

If you are experiencing problems with gambling, or someone close to you has a problem, call Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858. You can ask to be referred to someone who can help you in Vietnamese.

You can telephone the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association on (03) 9428 9078 to talk to someone in Vietnamese or email info@avwa.org.au.

You can also telephone the Springvale Indo-Chinese Mutual Assistance Association on (03) 9547 6161 to talk to someone in Vietnamese or email sicmaa.bh@bigpond.com.

To find out more about how to get help in your language, go to gamblershelp.com.au.

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