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Become a Cultural Navigator

Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Society embraces art to celebrate resilience and ancestral knowledge

Southeast Asian Heritage Society
Anna Nguyen (in red áo dài) is proud of the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Society's collaboration with the National Pilipino Canadian Cultural Centre on the devised theatre project, buto buto: bones are seeds.

One thing that sets Canada apart from the United States is the number of residents who were born in another country.

In the 2021 Canadian census, more than 8.3 million people—23 percent of the population—reported being either a landed immigrant or permanent resident in the past.

That compares to just 14.6 percent of the U.S. population having been born in other countries.

It’s why pollster Michael Adams concluded that Canada is at a lower risk of xenophobic Trumpism. This came in his 2017 book Could It Happen Here?: Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

Even though those born abroad might be a barrier to right-wing, immigrant-bashing populism, Canada has not always done a great job shedding light on their cultures and values.

Anna Nguyen, senior manager at the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Society in Vancouver, is trying to change that.

“It is often very easy for folks to connect to the surface-level attributes of a culture, like food, music, and those kinds of things that you can see,” Nguyen tells Pancouver by phone. “But I think what’s more important are the values that underline these cultures and underline the art that we create.”

Her family was part of the large exodus of people from Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Because we were in the refugee camp for so long, we didn’t arrive here until the ’90s,” Nguyen reveals. “I guess we were lucky because we eventually received asylum. Many families I know stayed there very, very long.”

Video: Watch this Novus TV report on the 2019 Banyan production at Granville Island.

Art forges community connections

The family landed in Medicine Hat, which is not a hotbed of Vietnamese culture.

Later when she enrolled at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, Nguyen delved into research on modern Asia, postcolonial studies, transnational histories, and intergenerational trauma. She views art as critically important in maintaining a sense of belonging and a linkage with ancestral knowledge.

“It’s quite visceral to know that the shared experience of our community is what connects us—the resilience that we’ve built and the ways we’ve been able to hang on and preserve our art to continue that legacy,” she says.

Art enables Nguyen and others to continue and pass on that ancestral memory, which is a reminder of their roots and how far they’ve come. “For me, it’s very therapeutic because I’m hearing and I’m seeing and I’m feeling that I’m not alone,” she says.

In 2012, Nguyen began volunteering at the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Society, a.k.a. SEACHS. For the past three years, she’s been the senior manager.

She emphasizes that SEACHS collaborates with many community partners. It has no interest in being a “gatekeeper” of Southeast Asian culture and is eager to share it broadly. She also cautions people to avoid making generalizations by painting everything with the same brush.

For example, in Cao Nhân – Thủy Nguyên, Nguyen’s ancestral village, the majority of villlagers are Catholic. Indeed, that was a requirement to be buried in the local cemetery. And even though Confucianism might have a big sway over many Vietnamese, she notes that both ideologies may be foreign concepts to Indigenous populations in Southeast Asia.

“They’re not going to know what Confucianism is,” Nguyen says. “There are separate ideologies and they have separate values.”

This is one reason why she doesn’t feel comfortable speaking on behalf of all Southeast Asian people in Metro Vancouver—nor does she want to be seen doing this.

Tecson collection at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC
SEACHS members, including Anna Nguyen, were photographed behind artworks donated by Miguel Tecson to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

Family ties at heart of culture

At the same time, she says that the notion of filial piety is deeply embedded in Southeast Asia.

Nguyen also recognizes that this sense of family culture or small tribal culture remains unfamiliar to many from outside these communities.

“We see each other at least once a week,” Nguyen says. “And we make an effort to do so—and it feels weird when we don’t.

“So, I think for people who are not Vietnamese, particularly white people, they can’t understand why we would need that—despite the dysfunction we might have with our family, despite distance,” she continues. “Some of us, we still make that effort.”

SEACHS focuses on performing arts, arts education, and cultural celebration. The organization has made connections with not only the larger Vietnamese and Indonesian communities in Vancouver, but also with people who trace their roots back to Laos and Cambodia.

“Our main goal moving forward as a society is to amplify other Southeast Asian cultures, other Southeast Asian artforms, and then give the community at large an opportunity to see and witness and have fun with them, as we do,” Nguyen says.

This has taken place at events such as Mai Dao (2018), Banyan (2019), and more recently, buto/buto: seeds are seeds (2022). SEACHS collaborated with the National Pilipino Canadian Cultural Centre on buto buto: bones are seeds, which is part of the multiphase CORRESPONDENCE: The Jose Rizal Intercultural Theatre Project.

Puppeteer Sutrisno Hartana
Master puppeteer Dr. Sutrisno Hartana, guest presenter at CAN ConverSEA, the first national symposium on Southeast Asian theatre, hosted at UBC by SEACHS.

Society embraces radical empathy

Nguyen credits Dennis Gupa, an assistant professor of theatre and film at the University of Winnipeg, for introducing SEACHS to “radical love and radical empathy”. This concept, she adds, is very challenging for government agencies to comprehend.

She elaborates by mentioning that funding bodies employ a very Western and linear approach, focusing on timelines and milestones.

“It’s very colonial,” Nguyen says. “We have to provide proof of the value of our people.”

In her culture, on the other hand, it’s not about how fast things can be done or meeting milestones as a measure of success for engagements.

“We don’t operate in a linear way like that,” she states. “We operate spherically, right? Our interactions are ongoing… We have relationships outside of Vancouver, outside of where we practise.

“We have connections in Victoria, in different provinces—Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario,” Nguyen continues. “We’re commissioning artists from everywhere.”

According to her, these relationships don’t end once a milestone has been met with a funding body.

As an example of how her culture operates differently, SEACHS recently requested money in a grant application for food sharing. She points out that it’s so important in Southeast Asia, yet it’s not something that a funding body would ordinarily consider.

“It is the gestures that we exchange during food sharing that are important,” Nguyen explains. “That’s the goal. It’s not the food. The food is surface-level.”

In other words, the activity is central to the creative process.

She advises other cultural organizations not to despair and not to be scared, but rather to keep pushing the parameters around funding. That’s because to her, Southeast Asian art is Canadian art.

“What has kept me going and allowed me to find fulfillment in my pursuit of the arts, especially Southeast Asian art and Vietnamese art, is the feeling of community and belonging that I cannot find elsewhere,” Nguyen says.

For more information on the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Society, visit the website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.