The bamboo steamers were a dead giveaway.
Shawn Seet, the director of miniseries Hungry Ghosts, which started last night on SBS and goes for another three nights, knew as soon as he walked onto the set that the presence of bamboo steamers was wrong.
“I said, ‘no Asian family would have bamboo steamers there, they’d all be stainless steel!’,” Seet told news.com.au.
It’s a small detail but what viewers now see on screen is more authentic to how Asian-Australian families actually live. And it’s Seet’s lived experience as an Asian-Australian filmmaker that gave him an insight an Anglo-Australian director would not necessarily have.
Set in the Vietnamese-Australian community in Melbourne, the four-part Hungry Ghosts is named after the festival of the same name in which it’s said the spirits of the dead walk the Earth, trying to work through their unresolved issues with those still living.
The series stars stalwarts of Australian screen including Bryan Brown, Justine Clarke and Ryan Corr, but also an ensemble of actors whose names are not as well known, even if their faces are familiar, including Catherine Van Davies, Gareth Yuen, Jillian Nguyen, Ferdinand Hoang, Gabrielle Chan and Suzy Wrong.
It’s that diverse cast which makes Hungry Ghosts, produced by Matchbox, such a groundbreaking series. Not only does it feature so many Asian-Australian actors but it tells a story that is undeniably theirs.
The series is woven around the experiences of four families – three Vietnamese-Australian and one Anglo-Australian – who are haunted by literal ghosts from their pasts as the festival kicks off.
Using the genre trappings of supernatural movies and TV shows – a drowned ghost at the bottom of the bath tub, spirits possessing humans – it explores the themes of generational trauma, family bonds and the blowback from suppressing the history and identity that makes you who you are.
Seet said he’s not a believer these days but growing up in Malaysia, he knows all about the Hungry Ghost festival.
“It’s one thing to understand what it is and another to have grown up in it, to really feel it in your bones,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe it, but Asian superstition is very different to Western superstition. It’s so much a part of you.
“You don’t grow up thinking, ‘Are there ghosts?’. You grow up thinking, ‘Yeah, there are ghosts and this is how we live with them’. I’ve become a nonbeliever but at the same time, there’s a part of that which is still in your DNA.”
While Hungry Ghosts is an ensemble piece, it’s Van Davies’ character, May Le, who glues everything together.
Like May, Van Davies (The Letdown) is a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian. She grew up in Brisbane but her mother is from the former imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue. For her, working on Hungry Ghosts wasn’t just a job, it was personal.
“Growing up, I wasn’t really surrounded by the Vietnamese community other than my mum,” she told news.com.au on a frigid night last year while shooting on location by the water at the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria.
“I feel like I couldn’t have done this show if I hadn’t done the kind of personal homework in my own life before this opportunity came along.
“It’s really taken a personal effort in my adult years to reconnect with my mother’s story – not just her story of war but her story of who she is and the lineage of family that we come from, which is so much a part of me.”
Van Davies said that her mother, like many of the characters in Hungry Ghosts, didn’t talk about the war or her experiences in her homeland.
“There’s a very private thing around it, it’s this feeling that they overcame so much that they don’t want to pass that trauma onto us or inflict that sorrow onto us. But the reality is you have that in you and you recognise it, even if it’s subtle behaviour from your parent or just in your genetic make-up.
“The need to understand it is really important for the generation removed from the actual event.”
That exact sentiment manifests in Hungry Ghosts when Van Davies’ character May must deal with a vengeful spirit from her grandmother’s past, a history steeped in the atrocities and trauma of war.
We don’t just inherit genes, we also inherit trauma.
Even for Vietnamese-Australians who have started a new life in Australia, raised families and become part of the communities they helped build, the spectre of the past is a living thing, for them and their children.
“We need to understand our shared history,” Van Davies continued. “It’s a Vietnamese story but it’s being told with an Australian context – and you can have those two things.
“I there’s this idea that assimilation is the best form of integration but actually that’s not true. Cultures and individuals can sit side-by-side – you don’t want two of the same people. Cultures can sit in harmony and still retain what makes them what they are – whether it be their trauma or their resilience.”
For the Anglo-Australian actors on Hungry Ghosts, being part of it was an opportunity to reflect on their own interactions within the multiculturalism of Australia.
Clare Bowen plays Liz, the daughter of Bryan Brown’s character Neil. Like her father, Liz is also a photographer, but she takes photos of people in the community at their best moments, something she feels her war photographer father doesn’t respect.
Bowen has a string of Australian TV and film credits but is perhaps best known for her work on American series Nashville, and for her music.
Hungry Ghosts lured her home, a project she called “beautiful” and said being on set with a plethora of Asian-Australian actors gave her “the feels”, a reminder of her school days in Sydney.
“When I finally went to school, it was this beautiful multicultural school in a place called Dulwich Hill,” Bowen said. “I think I was the only white kid in the school for a bit there and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”
Bowen told of children from many different backgrounds swapping school lunches.
“Multiculturalism is what makes Australia so beautiful, it’s what makes my home country beautiful to me.”
For veteran actor Brown, he’s glad there’s a series being told about the “significant” Vietnamese community in Australia, while tying it back to his youth when the war reigned in the public consciousness.
“I remember all that,” he said between scene changes on set. “Folks of my generation, you either went to the war or you got out of it. The word Vietnam was huge.
“As I’m sitting here, it’s made me remember coming home when I was 18 after a weekend away with my mother, coming home to the letterbox and an envelope from the Australian government.
“We opened it to see what it said and it said you’re indefinitely deferred. Now it could’ve said report for active duty – and if that had been the case, I may not be here, or I’d be scarred in a certain way.”
But it was the actors from an Asian background that was really excited about a series like Hungry Ghosts.
“It was quite telling when most of these actors knew other,” Seet explained. “But they mostly knew other from having sat in the same waiting room for the same role – and knowing it was going to be only one of them who gets to play the nerdy student or the shopkeeper, or the Vietnamese drug dealer, all the caricatures and stereotypes you’d expect.
“So it was great to see something that had real characters, rounded characters that aren’t all good or all bad.
“The cast has been in the industry doing good work but they’ve never had something this meaty.”
Van Davies added: “You often feel like sometimes there’s only room for one of you, and I think women experience that as well.
“Hopefully with more stories like this, where it looks at various generations and the different responses to the same problem, [people will remember] there isn’t a homogenised voice just because everyone’s Asian or everyone’s Vietnamese.
“In the same way that all Australians aren’t the same. And we can understand people more as people and less as ideas.”
Cast member Gareth Yuen (Party Tricks, Head Start and Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries) splits his time between Australia and the US, where he finds the diversity in LA “electrifying”.
“What we’ve been hearing in the states for a long time is this constant idea that we want to hear diverse stories, we want to hear something different. I think for Asian artists who grew up in the West, we feel as though we’re on the precipice right now.”
Seet, who has helmed episodes of The Secret Life of Us, All Saints, Love Child and Underbelly, said he’s been working in the Australian TV industry for quite a while and that the involvement of people of Asian background had been “very, very peripheral”.
“I’ve been working in this industry for so long that one of the ‘truisms’ that was accepted was that ‘Asians can’t act’.
“It was very hard to cast anybody from a diverse background in a role that wasn’t specifically written as being from that culture,” he said. “And we tried to, many times. The great casting directors in Australia were always trying to put people forward and it would still be knocked back.
“Nobody would ever say ‘I’m racist’ – they’d freak if you ever told them they were – but it was the general feeling. It was mostly the producers [that would react this way].
“I think it’s driven by their fear of the ‘other’. They fear that their audiences will switch off, they over-estimate the racism of their audience.”
Seet said that a show like Hungry Ghosts could’ve easily been on a commercial network such as Channel 7, 9 or 10, instead of on SBS, which is dedicated to serve multicultural audiences.
“A show like that should be on any of those channels. It’s got everything they would want – great drama. And you don’t have to be Asian to enjoy it, it’s good to delve into someone else’s culture.”
Hungry Ghosts starts tonight on SBS at 9.25pm, and continues at the same time this week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
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The writer travelled to Melbourne as a guest of SBS