Last night at the Canberra Theatre, the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam held a â€œCharming Vietnam Galaâ€ concert for politicians, dignitaries, media and members of the Vietnamese community.
Last night outside the Canberra Theatre, about thousand very loud and very angry people turned up to protest and "expose the atrocities of the regime and voice their demand for a free and democratic Vietnam".
Two weeks ago members of the Press Gallery received invitations to a Charming Vietnam Gala celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 1945 the North Vietnamese declared independance from their French colonial masters, which was formally recognised by the French a decade later following the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. To put things very simply, the South Vietnamese weren’t happy with the new communist rulers, which led to the separation into two countries and eventually what is generally known as the Vietnam War which we and the Americans were involved in. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as it is today, was formed in 1976 when the two halves of Vietnam were rejoined (if you want to know more about the history, this and this are a reasonable start).
Knowing nothing of this history or the continuing tensions I happily agreed to accompany Johnboy to the Gala, blisfully unaware that on arrival I would be confronted by angry mobs. It was quite an experience (JB says he’s used to being shouted at by angry mobs, but this was my first time).
Most of the protestors were carrying flags or balloons in the yellow with red stripes of South Vietnam. Interestingly there were also quite a few Australian flags being carried as well, probably in an attempt to say "look at us, we’re on your side".
All over the place people were being urged to boycott the show. Since the invitiation specified lounge suit or national dress as the dress code, it was fairly easy to identify those attending the show and they had to run the gauntlet of protestors, most of whome were held back behind a police line but there was one area where there were no barriers. There was also lots of propaganda being handed out, listing reasons why the show should be boycotted. JB and I came away with three slightly different versions of this flyer:
And the back of it (note the use of "Viet Cong" — this term only came about with the American intervention in the Vietnam War):
I heard two or three impassioned speakers, including this woman, who all whipped the crowd into a frenzy, accompanied by drums beating out time for chants. There must have been quite a few speakers lined up because they were still going when we left the show about two hours later.
The protestors were well planned and had covered both approaches to the theatre so none of the invitees could escape their message. This mob near the members’ entrance of the Legislative Assembly obviously weren’t as loud as the much, much larger crowd on the other side but their anger was possibly even more palpitable (I got shouted at when taking this photo, but whether in anger or encouragement I wasn’t quite sure).
Eventually we decided it was time to head up to the theatre, the invitation having said 7pm for 7.30 and it was nearing the latter hour. At the doors of the theatre (which feels very strange not having its proper entrance) we flourished the invitation (below) and received tickets. By this time we could hear the bells ringing to get everyone into the theatre but, just as we tried to go in, some large, suited security guards came and shut the doors with a particularly definite air. It sure looked like an end to our more-exciting-than-planned night out, but I used my developing elbow skills and got us through the crowd to the door where JB showed the tickets and we were somewhat reluctantly allowed in.
The first thing we were treated to was a tourist brochure in video format projected on the stage curtains and sponsored by Vietnam Airlines, who, along with the Thanh Nien newspaper, were major sponsors of the whole Gala. There was much confusion with the seating; although the tickets were allocated people seemed to be being allowed in without tickets and just sat in any empty seats they could find (I also noticed a huge number of people moved around during the show — quite a novel concept to me, having been brought up to sit down, be still and shut up in theatres and cinemas).
Then came three-quarters of an hour of speeches, in which the MC and the Vice Minister of Foreign Relations of Vietnam kept calling Peter Slipper (who is president of the parliamentary committee for Vietnam-Australian relations or somesuch) "the honourable Peeter Sleeter". For me, the most exciting part of the show was probably during the Vice Minister’s speech when a man clad in a South Vietnam flag ran into the theatre shouting, "Human rights for Vietnam!" and was tackled by be-suited security guards and manhandled out of the theatre (I was impressed by the guards; they were just like secret service agents in American movies, complete with invisible ear wires). A few minutes later another man jumped up from the audience and shouted similar slogans. He too was promptly removed.
And then the show began. I strongly suspect I would have gotten a whole lot more out of the show if I was a Vietnamese speaker or had any idea who any of the performers were. First up was a girl singing a song we were told set out the theme for the whole performance: Far and Near. She was accomapnied by dancers, some of whom had fairly impressive angel costumes. Afterwards our hosts for the night came out and back-announced the song. The man spoke Vietnamese and the woman translated for him (and wore a series of spectacular dresses).
Next up was a fashion parade by a designer who I’m reasonably sure I read in the CT set out to modernise traditional Vietnamese fashions. I quite liked some of the costumes which were generally brightly coloured and all sparkled (and which aren’t really done justice by JB’s in the dark photography). The models all walked with that loose-limbed gait of the supermodel but I felt they weren’t really sure what they should do once arriving at the front of the catwalk (or stage in this case).
After this were a series of singers, most of whom we decided were lip-synching — waving the microphone around everywhere except near your face is a dead giveaway really. The songs were all inoffensive to me in a pop kind of way and I had the distinct impression afterwards of having watched Australian Idol except in another language. My favourite performer was an ageing but apparently very popular (judging by the crowd’s reaction) rocker dressed in tight black leather pants, white t-shirt and leather jacket who proceeded to dance lustily with the microphone stand all across the stage while singing soemthing suitable rock’n’roll. There was also a girl in impossibly high shoes who had a troupe of boy-band dancers so she didn’t have to dance in them, a woman singing an operatic power-ballad, a man in a white suit who was then joined by a man in a black suit with a very ruffly shirt. This second man then performed solo, at which point I started to fall asleep and missed a large chink of the special effects in which the dancer in the background passed things back and forth to a girl projected on the round screen that made part of the set. I don’t know what else there was since we departed shortly after my concert-sleepiness kicked in.
As we left the protestors outside were still going strong with their chants and drumming, although the police appeared to have departed and buses that were in the carpark before had left.