The Vietnam War commenced in 1955 promptly on the back of the French Indochina War. The war was fought between communist North Vietnam and the government South. The US got involved, in support of the South, to help prevent the spread of communism. The excruciatingly bloody conflict spanned 20 years until 1975 when the North conquered Saigon. Sound simple? Not so. This is the bottom line of an extremely intricate and gnarly succession of events. The overall death toll is still disputed but is thought to be in the region of at least 3 million. In the late 1970s early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, as well as Cambodians and Laotians, fled as the North took over.
Khanhthuan’s father was one of around a million people who were imprisoned with no formal charges or trial in one of the new government’s “re-education” camps.
On his eventual release he was reunited with his family who became one of millions of ‘boat people’ who faced deadly storms, diseases and starvation while in transit to one of several overseas refugee camps. Around 2 million people died in their attempt. From the camps the displaced became part of the Orderly Departure Programme 1979 – 1994 to North America…
Vietnam 1979 – A father has been in incarceration for a year. His wife visits as often as permitted, precariously balancing her tiny young son on her lap as she steers her moped through the swarming, sweating, war ravished streets of Saigon. The air is thick with the stench of life, post war life. But even though decades of muddled, manic, bloodshed are at an end, a wickedness continues, the kind of wickedness only war can muster, stirring within the hearts and the minds of the souls that lived through its horror. Jail term at an end, it’s time to go, into an indeterminable abyss. The father clutches his children’s hands, his wife’s hands and hope’s dangling chains. At the end of those chains is Maritime Canada.
Fast forward to 2013. Meet Khanhthuan Tran – film maker, skater, sushi chef, Vietnamese refugee, Canadian citizen. Khanhthuan is an exception to the rule. He has carved a law unto his own, knocked back banal expectation, his aspirations fit no straight jacket. Ask him to define himself though and wrinkles start to scribble across his skin. Then he laughs. Then hesitates. Then looks at you funny a bit more.
Kanhthuan was born in Vietnam 35 years ago. When he was two, he thinks, he and his family were secreted to a refugee camp in the Philippines and ended up on the blowy shores of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“In my youth I gravitated to the misfits and outcasts,” he admits. “The skaters, the artists – because they were different. And as a kid I felt like this is where I belonged. Nowadays if an Asian kid grows up in Nova Scotia, does he or she end up identifying the same way? I don’t know.
“I started skating in high school because I thought it was interesting. But later it became kind of addictive and therapeutic. There is nothing that compares to bombing hills or the seconds you suspend gravity.”
Skateboarding, Khanhthuan says, defined him, though not so much anymore it’s an identity that he closely associates with his artistic one. “It’s an identity that’s hard to lose,” he adds, assenting that because skating still hasn’t permeated far Eastern culture the way it has the West, it probably wouldn’t even have registered on a young Khanhthuan’s radar had his family never upped and forsaken the Orient.
“I doubt that skateboarding has reached far enough into Vietnamese culture that a boy from the jungle could have stepped on a skateboard,” he says. “That would be cool if there were people who acid-dropped coconut trees. Maybe I could have stepped on a surfboard though.”
Six years ago Khanhthuan won the coveted Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival for, Vietnam 1997, the story of his one and only return to the mother land. A tourist in his own country, his footsteps spawning a memory of home.
His work has commanded a string of grants which have facilitated their production. Distributed by Vtape, his catalogue includes a melee of short films made to leave an impression. Through the medium of cinematography in Self Portrait, Good Luck Counting Sheep, Emily Hates Dogs and Flash, Khanthuahn dexterously weaves factual and fictional themes which prod at self-reflection, repetition and leaving.
His work includes art films, dramatic films and documentaries which have been screened at numerous national and international festivals and galleries including each of the top venues in his home province: The Dalhousie Art gallery, the Atlantic Film Festival and the Halifax Independent film Festival have all hosted Khanhthaun’s films.
When I met Khanthuan something about him compelled me to delve into and unravel his story. Lurking behind a handsome countenance is intrigue. I knew attempting to poke into every facet, every crease of his existence in the middle of a Tim Hortons in the suburbs of Dartmouth, being peeked up from all sides – people having picked up on the English girl with the Vietnamese boy – was a big ask. Khanhthuan is modest. He arrived on his scooter, an all black machine that looks like it’s from the year 3,000 – his friends love it, but when he offered them a go when we were hanging out another time, they all made excuses. I broached the subject of racism. He brushed it off. It was a while later when I ventured there again.
“Obviously I’ve experienced racism” he says. “I grew up with racism. But not because I was a refugee. Because I’m different. It’s just the way it is. If you look around how many Asian people can you see? It’s always been that way. Standing out, that’s the thing about racism. It’s a hard thing to talk about. Especially growing up in a small city like Halifax where racism can be more about ignorance than hate. I would never wish it upon anyone but I have come to accept that as long as I live in Canada I am a minority and I will experience this.”
Khanhthaun’s been a sushi chef for a while, somewhat creative, and a profession that pays the bills. But this career is not Khanhthuan. His film making is.
In 1999 he graduated with a degree in media art from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, top of the class, moved to Ottawa where he was contracted by SAW Video Media Art Centre as part of an employment initiative to give youth at risk an opportunity to work in video. Khanhthuan qualified as ‘at risk’ because he was homeless and unemployed. But because of his proficiency, in less than a week of showing up in town, he was made director of a documentary being produced by the video co-op while continuing to freelance in video and editing. This is where he became a sushi chef.
After a two year stint, the blooming talent moved to Toronto attending what was then called the Centre of Creative Communications, now Centennial College.
But he remains secretive about his current untitled project which has again, attracted a development grant to make. All he’s willing to disclose is that it’s a book, an “elaborate storyboard”, which he hopes to find further funding to make into a film.
“At college I was studying painting and ended up taking a couple of elective courses so I opted for video,” he tells me. “I evaluated how I wanted to paint and realised I didn’t want to be in that field. I just thought, I don’t want to paint right now.
“I was learning about video at this point and it was all so new, whereas painting has this long history that had to be challenged or something. But with video, people were doing anything they wanted to do, which is what I liked about art, doing whatever you wanted.
“I remember I was at an art show in Ottawa, and these two really established artists said to me if I really wanted to make it as an artist I had to move out of Canada. But I never wanted to do that. So they said if you don’t leave Canada you have to live in Toronto. I was kinda getting bored of Ottawa anyway so went back to school at Centennial College for a year there to learn more about programmes I had no idea how to use. I had to retrain myself to keep up with all these other new media artists, and worked there as a media editor and videographer for the research department.
“I came back to Halifax because I had a grant for my latest project and I was tired of Toronto and needed a break. And then coming back I realised I’d been away from my only family for 10 years, only seeing them once a year. My only family are my parents and my two brothers. And I thought, wouldn’t it have been great if I had grown up in Vietnam where I had like 30 or 40 relatives.”
Khanhthuan’s father made the decision to journey from the tropics to the frozen north for his sons, Khanhthuan, his older brother, 38-year-old Khanhthong and Khanhthuc, who’s 34. He has never wanted to watch a Vietnam war movie.
“My parents told me they moved to Canada for opportunity, for me, my two brothers – to have something more than being a farmer,” he says. “My dad was a farmer before being a soldier for the south. And he told me if the north won the war, they would never have allowed us to get to a higher position. It was just never going to happen.
“As a kid, I didn’t want to know much about Vietnam or the war. I guess because it was negative. I never wanted to see American Vietnam war movies. I was like naa, I don’t want to see this. There’s a bad association there that I want to block.”
After the war Khanhthuan’s father was contained in a “re-education” camp for a year. When he was freed he set about getting his family out in the hope of securing them a brighter, less volatile future, overseas. But first the exodus.
“The North put a lot of people in prison if they caught them, that was part of war right?” he continues. “I remember my mum telling me she would drive on a moped with me in her arms to visit my dad.
“Once the war was over the Americans and South Vietnamese were fleeing. It was a huge exodus of people leaving Vietnam and the Americans were helping people leave.
“There were a lot of refugee boats. My dad fought in the war in the navy and operated a ship so he was able to get us on one. It was really hard to get on a boat and supposedly even harder to get your family on.
“The story is, my dad had two chances to leave, but he could only to go by himself. So he waited.
“A lot of refugees come over to Canada first and then got the rest of their family over later. But he didn’t want to leave his family.
“So when he got the opportunity to bring us over, we hopped on a boat and went to the Philippines where there was a refugee camp. I think we were there for a year. I don’t remember it. And there, there were people trying to get us sponsors to get us out.
“A church group from the south end of Halifax sponsored us. That’s all I know. My parents keep in touch with them. They’re very grateful to them, right? Canada opened its doors to Vietnam refugees.”
Khanthuan’s visit back aged 20 hit him hard. As well as being the inspiration to his award-winning film piece, it made him question his whole existence in North America. His biological roots are not where his shadow falls.
“I wish they had never left,” he admits. When I went back, it was beautiful. Stepping out of the aeroplane and this getting a blanket of hot air engulf me, I was like, this is paradise. I hate being cold and in Canada I’m cold a lot.
“Biologically that’s where I’m built to be. But at the end of the day I still think I’m Canadian. But going back, there was something that registered, in a biological way – the air felt right, the water felt right. There was something was physically right.
“But my head is somewhere else, my mind is Canadian maybe.
“And at the end of the day, the most important thing you’re going to get in this world is family.
“I know my parents left for a reason but if I had to choose I think I would rather have stuck it out. I think my family would have been happier. My dad is never going to say that. I would guess that my dad had these other ideas, his family is so big. He was the first to bring family over to Canada. But I’m not my dad. And if I had to make that choice maybe I would have stayed and been a farmer, or a motorcycle repair man?”
Khanhthuan confesses that had his father not been so determined to leave Vietnam, life would have been poles apart from what it is in North America – he might not have ever stepped on a skateboard granted – but his creativity, his essence, would still be the same.
“Ever since I can remember I have loved the arts,” he said. “So maybe my expression or creativity would show in the crops I would grow, or the motorcycles I would repair.
“Vietnam has film schools and a growing film movement now that is making waves internationally, so who knows?
“But if I were to make a bet I would say that I would not be a film maker in Vietnam. Which I would be fine with.”