Bụi đời – the dust of life

They’re called Bui-Doi
The dust of life
Conceived in Hell
And born in strife
They are the living reminder
Of all the good we failed to do
We can’t forget
Must not forget
That they are all our children, too

Miss Saigon [1]

Mỹ lai ‘Amerasians’

The children of American GIs and Vietnamese women

“Wisps of blonde can be seen bobbing and darting among the rivers of black haired women and children in the street markets.

“Round blue eyes peer out of thatched huts. Along dusty paths, some of the faces that beam up at strangers are black, others are fair-skinned.

“Contrary to some expectations, most of the mixed children have been accepted and cherished by their Vietnamese mothers and grandmothers, and many also by aunts and cousins and others in remote branches of their extended families.

“Relatively few have been totally abandoned to orphanages, and only a small number are available for adoption.

“The trouble comes outside the protective circle of the family, for when those youngsters step into the streets, enter the schools and seek new friendships, they are often met by teasing and ridicule from both adults and children.” [2]

New York Times reporter David Shipler wrote this from Saigon in 1974, the year following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on 27 January 1974, heralding the suspension of all U.S. combat activities. The Vietnam War, as it was known in the US, had become a political hot potato. American people were protesting. Troop morale was generally low. Drug use was prevalent. In Vietnam, “drugs were more plentiful than cigarettes or chewing gum” and attempts to suppress use was “almost completely ineffective” and would come only with the withdrawal of the American troops, a US congressional report concluded in 1971. [3]

The standard length of service in Vietnam was one year. The best morale-builder of all was that soldiers could actually count the days ‘til they returned home. ­

Image from: Pushing On, Bui Doi, The Dust of Life

Image from: Pushing On, Bui Doi, The Dust of Life

Bụi đời– the dust of life

Left behind after the removal of the US troops were one million orphans who had grown up to have families – and lose them – during the war. Included were those known as Bui Doi – the dust of life. Some 8000 of these were the offspring of American GIs and Vietnamese mothers. Many were harassed, many were left to run the streets. These children were generally rejected by Vietnamese society, yet for years, Vietnam would not let them out, and America would not let them in.

“They are of mixed race in an essentially homogeneous society, without a father in a patriarchal society, reminders of what is seen as lack of morality on the part of Vietnamese women and of a time in Vietnamese history that is not exactly viewed with joy and happiness.” [4]

Estimates vary as to exactly how many ‘Amerasian’ children there were in Vietnam. “The US Government has alluded to about 8,000, while the Vietnamese say there are in excess of 10,000, maybe up to 15,000,” said human rights lawyer Sanford Mevorah in 1985. At the time, only 131 had made it to the US.

“The US and Vietnam had agreed that the children, born of American servicemen and Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War, were a US responsibility, but the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries meant there was no machinery to bring them to the US.” [4]

Colour Makes a Difference

Saigon. In the An-Loi area of the town more than 15.000 refugees were housed including Eurasian and Afr-Asian orphans left behind by the departing of US army. Source: Magnum Photos.

Saigon. In the An-Loi area of the town more than 15.000 refugees were housed including Eurasian and Afr-Asian orphans left behind by the departing of US army. Source: Magnum Photos.

The illegitimate ‘negro-fathered’ children were doubly disadvantaged. New Zealand paediatrician Dr. Margaret Neave worked for the Save The Children Fund with the NZ surgical team in Vietnam, based at the Qui Nhon hospital in South Vietnam.

When asked about their future, she spoke plainly:

“Their future? None I can see.

“At the moment, most are protected in orphanages. But later on . . . well, they won’t get jobs. Discrimination, you know.

“The Vietnamese are disgusted by them.”

Dr. Neave estimated there were “some thousands” of these children throughout Vietnam – most of them left behind in moves to adopt orphans. She did not criticise the Vietnamese attitude towards these children, and said, “You need a few generations of food in your belly to afford generosity.” [5]

One former Vũng Tàu bar girl had three half-black children by three different GIs. The soldiers have all gone home, but she has “no regrets” she said, “Because at the time I

like to have money.”

“It was a happy life. A house to live in, you like with one American, that American gave you money and bought you things. With all that money it is you who made the decision to work that way or not. And if you happen to have a baby because you’re not careful, that’s your bad luck”. [6]

Generally speaking, the different children, the half-white as well as the half-black, were “doomed to ostracism.”

“But, of course, it is worse for the Afro-Asian children. Like many other people, the Vietnamese are very conscious of colour,” Mcrovah said in a 1985 interview, appealing to the United Nations for help to break the political impasse that existed preventing ‘Amerasian’ children from being brought to the United States from Vietnam.

“They consider dark skin undesirable, associating it with the Moi, or savages, the tribal people who occupy their mountainous rain-forest country. To them, light skin colour – as long as it is without the taint of foreignness – is highly prized.”

The Hairy Cow blogspot: Bui Doi - the Dust of Life

Image from The Hairy Cow blogspot: Bui Doi – the Dust of Life

Nobody Cares

It wasn’t just the Americans who had left their mark on a generation of Vietnamese children.

“In 1954, when the French military forces withdrew in defeat from Indo-China, they left behind an estimated 10,000 illegitimate Eurasian children and a scattering of Afro-Asians in Vietnam alone.

“By the end of 1967, nearly 4000 of these children were repatriated to France under that Government’s policy of recognising citizenship regardless of legitimacy”.

“Saigon’s streets, as well as the streets of Da Nang, Tuy Hoa, Bien Hoa, Vung Tau, and other cities occupied by foreign troops in Vietnam, are crowded with homeless children who beg, shine shoes, pimp, sell themselves, wait around for a chance to steal.

“These boys and girls have nothing, and nobody cares. Cuts, scratches, and abrasions on their dirty bodies become infected and scarred. Their flimsy cotton shirts and shorts go from dirty to filthy, and then rot into tatters until the children beg or steal money to replace them.”

“Every war produces illegitimate children, but under some conditions, the children are fairly easily absorbed into their society. How many illegitimate children were born in Europe during World War II will never be known, because, except for the half-Negro children, the youngsters’ parentage has gone generally unremarked.

”As the illegitimate boys of Vietnam have little choice but to beg or steal, so the girls mostly become prostitutes.” [7]

The Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon is at the Isaac Theatre Royal from 27 September 2019


Sources:

[1] Miss Saigon music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr, adapted from the original French lyrics by Alain Boublil.
[2] The GIs’ children grow up (1974, September 11). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 15. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[3] McDonald, Ian. “Over half of American Army have tried drugs.” Times, 29 Apr. 1971, p. 1. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 27 July 2019.
[4] UNITED NATIONS Help urged for Vietnam’s ‘children of the dust’ (1985, November 8). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 5. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[5]All Children Must Have A Future“” The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982) 9 August 1972: 6. Web. 28 Jul 2019.
[6] The GIs’ children grow up (1974, September 11). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 15. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[7] The forgotten waifs of the war in Vietnam (1969, December 17). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 68. Retrieved July 25, 2019.

Saigon Tea, Bar Girls and ‘Boom Boom’

The jarring reality of life as a bar girl during the Vietnam war

In the Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon, American GI Chris (played by Jack Fraser) and Vietnamese orphan Kim (played by Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio) meet in a Saigon bar where Kim works as a bargirl.

The French had designed Saigon to accommodate 300,000 people. By 1972 there were over three million people in the twenty-one square miles of Saigon proper, and another million on the outskirts. It had become the most densely populated city in the world. South Vietnam had transformed from 90% rural to 60% urban. “The French left three permanent features; boulevards, bread and brothels,” wrote Anthony Carthew for the Canberra Times in 1966.

During the American Vietnam war, the bars in central Saigon were the haunt for thieves, confidence men, beggars and gangs of children who’d rob soldiers as they left. Brawling was common.

“Le Thi Xuan, at 16, has already had considerable experience peddling cigarettes and prophylactics at the entrances to bars where Americans congregate, and she is just beginning to work as a bar hostess, Xuan asserts in her rapid pidgin English, ‘Someday of the war in Vietnam I get American husband, go States. I got American boy-friend work ship … all time go Manila come back Vietnam. He make beaucoup [big] money. He talk maybe pretty soon we marry, go States.’

“For all Xuan’s confident assertion, there is apprehension in her voice. She knows it is unlikely she’ll marry an American. She’s much more likely to bear an illegitimate child who will inherit her kind of life.”

“In order to enter the society of bar hostesses, she lies about her age. The police make a half-hearted attempt to see that the hostesses are at least 18, but abuses of age limits and activities far outstrip enforcement.” [1]

SOUTH VIETNAM. Saigon. A bar where GIs find prostitutes and heroin. 1971. Image: Magnum Photos.

Many of Saigon’s bar girls came from villages in the Mekong Delta – the vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands at the southern tip of Vietnam. Others were war widows with young families to support.

“One feels sorry, of course, for these men, many of whom die from wounds because their slender bodies have so little resistance to infection and shock. But their widows are in need of a deeper sympathy. In some cases, Vietnamese-fashion, they have to support the entire family, ranging from grandparents to obscure, penniless cousins. When her man is killed, a Vietnamese wife is paid one year’s salary by the army – about $220 (£110) for private. After that – nothing.

“If she is pretty she can become a bar girl and hope; to make enough money to open a little street stall in the market, which is every bar girl’s ambition. If she is not pretty, and does not have the education which would win her one of the few jobs open to women, she has no alternative but to become a prostitute.” [2]

All were ostracised from ordinary Vietnamese society. Yet their weekly earnings were reported to be more than that of South Vietnamese cabinet ministers. [3] “A prostitute earned as much as $180 per month. The average government civil servant earned roughly $30 a month, and even cabinet ministers and Assembly members had fixed salaries of $120.” [4]

Mai (20) works in one of the many bars in the area of To do Street in Saigon. She earns more keeping soldiers ‘company’ and keeping them drinking than does any member of the Vietnamese Cabinet or Assembly. Mai claims she supports her mother and 5 young brothers and sisters on her earnings. When she first went to work in the bar she cried all day, but later she got used to the job. Her biggest worry is that she will never find a “nice” Vietnamese man willing to marry her because of what she does. She hopes to move to another part of the country when the war is over and start a new life. She can earn as much as $180 a month. Source: Magnum Photos.

Australian troops were considered much tighter with his money than their American counterparts. They were nicknamed ‘Cheap Charlies’ by the bar girls who had a little ditty they used to sing to the tune of ‘This Old Man’:

Lester Mengel, The 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR) with Kim, a Vietnamese prostitute. Source: Australians at War Film Archive.

Uc Dai Lot. Cheap Charlie
He no buy me Saigon Tea .
Saigon Tea cost many, many P [piastres, the local almost worthless Vietnamese currency]
Uc Dai Lai, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He no give me MPC, [Military Pay Certificate]
MPC costs many many P,
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie
He no go to bed with me,
Bed with me costs many many P
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
Make me give him one for free,
Mamma-san go crook at me,
Uc-da-loi, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He give baby-san to me,
Baby-san costs many many P,
Uc-da-loi, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He go home across the sea,
He leave baby-san with me,
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie

Image from website: 24 pics of prostitutes of the Vietnam War

Saigon Tea

Saigon Tea bars were usually narrow places, with a bar and stools along one side and small padded booths on the other. The manager was called ‘Papa -san’ and he looked after the cash register. Middle-aged women, called ‘Mama- san’, kept the girls moving.

Once inside, the customer would sit at the bar and order a drink, paying around $2. The local brew, Ba Muoi Ba (33), was best avoided. It was low quality, unfit for human consumption according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and rumoured to contain formaldehyde – but it was cheap! [5]

About 20 seconds after sitting down at the bar, a girl would sidle up and introduce herself to the GI. The dialogue was unromantic and, to the uninitiated, incomprehensible:

“Hey, you. You No 1 (the best). Come here, sit down’, the bar girl begins as she spies a GI.

“How long you come Vietnam? How long you stay? Where you work? Work Bien Hoa, huh? You kill beaucoup VC (Big Vietcong) you No 1. You buy me one Saigon tea? I love you too much.”

If he showed interest, she would ask him to buy her a glass of Saigon tea, a one-ounce glass of almost colourless liquid costing $2 and tasting faintly of mint.

“With it comes a paper tab in two parts. The girl tears off her half of the tab, for which she will later collect $1.”

“By the time the customer has bought two glasses of Saigon tea, and had two drinks himself, he can be persuaded to sit in one of the padded booths. Once there, he is kissed, cuddled, tickled and petted — and encouraged to buy Saigon-tea — until he either regains his senses or runs out of money. Generally, these two things happen to him at the same time.”

“A tea-bar girl is slim, dark and fascinating. Her age is between 17 and 30. Working eight hours, she can earn up to $40 a day. Often her earnings provide food and lodging for her large refugee family who would otherwise be destitute.”[6]

Photo from manhhai on Flickr captioned: GI and bar girls in a bar during the Vietnam War in September 1967 in Saigon

Deluxe class joy-girls

Some bar girls will promise anything to sell another glass of Saigon-tea with no intention of giving the customer anything other than attentive company and superficial affection. Others, however, are prepared to go further. “They’ll bat their dark eyes like a schoolgirl and ask the GI: ‘How much you pay?’” [7]

From dingy back street bars to the ‘the de luxe class joy-girls’ on the verandah of the Continental Palace, ‘a relic of the French Colonial days’, bar-girls were everywhere. [8] There were between 100,000 and 300,000 girls who were prostitutes, bar girls and temporary wives of GIs, heavily dependent on the American presence. [9]

“The dignity of Vietnamese women has also suffered tremendously during these five, six years since the arrival of the American troops. The women who have been driven from the countryside because of the heavy bombing have to flock into the towns, can’t find any jobs, and so have to prostitute themselves. It’s the only way left to them—they are sold as sex objects. The families with daughters who have gone to that point suffer. Even the husbands have to shut their eyes when their wives have to prostitute themselves in order to feed the children. And it’s moral torture for the husbands”, said Madame Van of the People’s Liberation Government. [10]

With the wartime boom in prostitution, the courts no longer committed a girl solely for being a prostitute, as “that would be like trying to stop a tidal wave”, said Sister Mary, an Irish nun who ran a centre for delinquent girls in Vinh Long, South Vietnam, 50 miles southwest of Saigon. Girls from ages 10 to 18 were admitted to the centre founded in 1958 by the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem (1954-63) after a crackdown on vice. The girls had often been involved in more serious crimes, such as kidnapping other girls. Sister Mary pointed out some of the girls and spoke matter-of-factly:

“There’s Lisa, she’s 10. She was working in a brothel in Saigon. She still has marks on her body.”

“That is Rose — she used to steal 10,000 piastres ($A40) a day.”

“She [16-year-old Margaret] was kidnapped, drugged, and put to work in a Saigon bar”.

SOUTH VIETNAM. Saigon. A bar where GIs find prostitutes and heroin. 1971. Image: Magnum Photos.

The Economics of War

When the Americans withdrew from 1974, a significant source of income left with them. The new government found themselves responsible for “an unknown number of prostitutes, drug addicts and other social misfits whose existence had until then depended on the corruption generated by rich foreigners.” [11]

The Communist government claimed 350,000 prostitutes were left behind and set about a programme of ‘re-education’ establishing the ‘Centre of Rehabilitation for the Dignity of Women’ in Saigon. Between 1975 and 1985, over 14,000 women in the newly named Ho Chi Minh City were sent to these centres.

Sister Françoise, a French Roman Catholic nun and government advisor, spoke of the prostitutes as generally simple peasant women driven into the trade by the economics of war. The majority were common women forced to migrate into the city either because of the fighting or bombing or through the Strategic Hamlet Program, the plan by the governments of South Vietnam and the US to combat the communist insurgency. [12]

Like the American resort at Vũng Tàu where ‘boom boom girls’ serviced the needs of GIs on leave, the French, after 100 years of occupation, also had some experience in this area:

“After a 56 day siege beginning March 13, 1954… French colonialism died in Indochina after almost 100 years, in one of the 20th century’s crucial battles.

“There were women then, too, inside the French encampment. … There were also two ‘bordels mobiles de campagne’, French mobile field brothels, with 18 Algerian and Vietnamese girls. When the siege ended, the puritan Vietminh sent the Vietnamese girls and their madame for ‘re-education’, as happened to Saigon bar girls after 1975. Yet now, my hotel, like others in Dien Bien Phu, had its own willing courtesans in a large annex marked ‘Thai massage’. Puritanism has gone the way of state central planning as the free market flourishes. So much for ‘re-education’,” wrote James Pringle for Reuters in 2004. [13]

“In the French as well as in the American period, the ‘Flower Boats’ or sampans plied their trade. They were frequently family operations, with the daughter(s) working as prostitute(s) while the brothers pimped on dry land. Some of the larger junks, however, were professionally run, often by the Saigon underworld. Prior to 1975, statistics from the Ministry of Society of the Saigon government reported about 200,000 professional prostitutes. In Saigon alone in 1968, there were about 10,000 professional prostitutes. By 1974, the figure had reached 100,000.” [14]

Photo from manhhai on Flickr captioned: Saigon 1972 – Photo by Raymond Depardon – Rạp REX chiếu phim Love Story (Chuyện Tình) American soldiers and Vietnamese women in front of a movie theater.

Sightseeing and ‘sweet nothings’

When the American military withdrew from South Vietnam and Thailand, the extensive sex industry created for the rest and recreation of the troops had to find new markets. The Asian sex industry turned to other countries to find ways to continue to profit from the estimated 100,000 prostitutes who had been recruited to meet military needs. One route to profit was though sexual tourism. [15]

By the end of the 20th century Vietnam’s southwestern neighbour, the impoverished, corrupt and lawless Cambodia, had become the centre of the child sex trade – a favourite destination for sex tourists.

Poor Vietnamese parents caught up in the country’s thirst for consumer goods, sold their children for as little as £200, condemning them to torture, humiliation and disease in neighbouring Cambodia. They were joining the children from India, Thailand and the Philippines working as prostitutes in Asians squalid brothels.

“When I first met one of these children, 12-year-old Dah Vit, it was clear she had been tortured. Cigarette burns scarred her rest and hands. We were sitting in the back room of a brothel a few miles outside of Phnom pen, the Cambodian capital.

“‘She’s a virgin, fresh, no diseases’, the mother-san, the brothel’s madam, told me.

“Dah Vit’s mother, Trang, believe she had sent the Dah Vit and her other two daughters into the restaurant trade ‘for three months’. The money they would earn would help the whole family.”

“When they come home we will all be better off. Maybe, one day, we will even have a television,” Trang told reporter Nick Daniel in 1996. [16]

Ten years later, Deborah Orr reported in The Independent that Vietnam had become a primary source and destination country for forced labour and sexual exploitation.

“Criminal gangs operating in Vietnam are known to recruit children promising jobs or marriages abroad, or to purchase them from guardians eager to be rid of them.”[17]

Hagar New Zealand is a charitable organisation which supports the recovery of women and children who have survived severe human rights abuse in Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan. They said of Vietnam:

“Vietnam remains a significant target for traffickers. Vulnerable women, men, and children are at risk of sex trafficking and forced labour. Women are trafficked as brides to neighbouring countries, as well as further afield, with incidents of trafficking that reach as far as Europe.” [18]

The willingness for families to pimp their own daughters and for women to seek out prostitution as a career has been attributed both to greed and capitalism on the one hand, and poverty and war on the other. Combined with the ancient ethnic value called ‘phuc duc’ or merit-virtue- which can be created by women and handed on to future generations – and filial responsibility, these may help explain why prostitution was so prevalent during the Vietnam War.

The Tale of Kieu, a significant work of Vietnamese literature, is a poem which recounts the life, trials and tribulations of Thúy Kiều, a beautiful and talented yet tragic young woman, whose story is used to illustrate phuc duc. Like Kim in Miss Saigon and tens of thousands of other Vietnamese bar and ‘boom boom’ girls during the Vietnam War, she sacrificed herself to save her family.

Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky.
[19]

The Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon is at the Isaac Theatre Royal from 27 September 2019


Other stories: Mai Lan Gustafsson’s “The Warlore of Vietnamese Bargirls,” Part 1 | Part 2


Sources:

[1] The forgotten waifs of the war in Vietnam (1969, December 17). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 68. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[2] Weary Vietnam no future (1966, February 23). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 20. Retrieved August 3, 2019.
[3] ”Clean-Up Drive in Central Saigon Shifting ‘Tea’ Girls to Outskirts.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 14 Mar. 1972, p. 5. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013,
[4] http://www.sexquest.com/ccies-kinsey/vn.php.html Accessed 30 August 2019.
[5] The delights of Vung Tau (1972, March 9). Woroni (Canberra, ACT : 1950 – 2007), p. 7. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
[6] Tea for two in Saigon (1969, October 20). Papua New Guinea Post-Courier (Port Moresby : 1969 – 1981), p. 12. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[7] GI JOE LOSES HIS HUMOUR Vietnam- the very unfunny war (1966, November 3). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 27. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[8] “Vietnam: the empty promises.” The Listener, 6 Feb. 1975, p. 162+. The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, Accessed 27 July 2019.
[9] South Vietnam (1970, May 5). Tharunka (Kensington, NSW : 1953 – 2010), p. 10. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[10] Steinberg, Marsha. “Women of the South.” The Second Wave: A Magazine of the New Feminism, vol. 2, no. 2, 1972, p. 9+. Women’s Studies Archive. Accessed 28 July 2019.
[11] Indo-China’s first year of peace (1976, May 18). Papua New Guinea Post-Courier (Port Moresby : 1969 – 1981), p. 5. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
[12]Prostitutes Rehabilitated.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 29 Jan. 1976, p. 2. International. Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013. Accessed 6 July 2019.
Becker, Elizabeth. “French Nun Helping Vietnam to Rehabilitate Prostitutes.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 29 Nov. 1976, p. 4. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, Accessed 28 July 2019.
[13] Pringle, James. “Au Revoir, Dien Bien Phu.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 1 Apr. 2004, p. 9. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013. Accessed 29 July 2019.
[14] http://www.sexquest.com/ccies-kinsey/vn.php.html Accessed 30 August 2019.
[15] ‘Terror and Coercion: The Female Sexual Slave Trade‘ 1979. 1979. TS Grassroots Feminist Organizations, Part 1: Boston Area Second Wave Organizations, 1968-1998: Women Against Violence Against Women Records, 1972-1985. Northeastern University. Women’s Studies Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[16] Daniel, Nick. “Children sold into sex slavery on Street of Flowers.” Sunday Telegraph, 1 Dec. 1996, p. 26. The Telegraph Historical Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[17] Orr, Deborah. “The cruel hypocrisy that demonises the world’s most vulnerable people.” Independent, 19 Aug. 2006, p. 11. The Independent Digital Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[18] https://hagar.org.nz/vietnam/. Accessed 28 July 2019
[19]  From Lê Xuân Thuy’s (1968) Kim Vân Kiều, second edition, page 19

Cold nights and warm theatres go together like the costumes and music of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical

Amanda Atlas. Photo by Wendy Riley

Review by Kate Divett, Backstage Christchurch

Cold nights and warm theatres go together like the costumes and music of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – you know it’s something very special (possibly technicolor) and you know you’re going to be entertained. Showbiz Christchurch is bringing Broadway sizzle to Christchurch on a cold weekend.

The mid-season concert that is now a fixture of the Showbiz calendar highlights the ‘best bits’ of a certain composer’s body of work – this time, no less than the modern master himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber. There are 24 songs included, from Lloyd Webber’s best known (and some less well-known) musicals, including The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Whistle Down the Wind, Song and Dance, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sunset Boulevard, Aspects of Love, and Starlight Express. Performers include 14 soloists, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and a dazzling array of dancers and chorus members.

It’s a busy night. With so much happening on stage and such a huge body of work to cover, the pace is frenetic (and at times, humorously, the dry ice is a little overwhelming!). While the concert is once again very enjoyable, the nature of these ‘best bits’ shows also presents some challenges that I’m sure provides plenty of discussion for musical aficionados afterward. Are we in agreement about which is the ‘best bit’ of each musical? Is some context lost in translation when shifted into a concert setting, for example, does everyone understand why that cat just flew up into the sky? Does everyone know that those last people were trains? For the unfamiliar, the songs and the non-singing soloists have the potential to feel a little confusing.

But no matter – we’re here for the music, the singing, and the dancing, and we are not disappointed in this regard.

Highlights of the night are many but have to include Jack Fraser, James Foster, and Amanda Atlas. Fraser and Foster had several outings each, but Fraser’s outing as Judas in ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ was quite brilliant – a powerhouse performance. James Foster gave a beautiful, tender performance of ‘Music of the Night’ from Phantom of the Opera. Amanda Atlas only needed one song to make an impression on the evening – she delivers ‘With One Look’ from Sunset Boulevard with emotional depth and masterful vocal command.

Ashley Brown’s cello solo in the ‘Variations Theme’ from Song and Dance was mesmerizing. What an inspired inclusion, and a virtuoso performance.

Other worthy mentions include Donna Alley as a suitably outrageous ‘Prima Donna’, and Michael Bayly in various roles, most memorably for his sassy singing (and costume) as King Herod in ‘Song of the King’. He also provides a solid counterpart to Chuana McKenzie’s Evita numbers, my favourite being ‘I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You’. Jenna Baxter (‘Whistle Down the Wind’) and Karen Tewnion-Smith (‘Unexpected Song’) each had marvelous moments. The Children’s Chorus were delightful, particularly melting our hearts in ‘No Matter What’.

The dances elevate the evening. From the slinking entrance of the Jellicle Cats to the sultry tango that echoes McKenzie and Bayly’s courtship in ‘I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You’, they provide context and atmosphere in the concert setting.

Bravo to Richard Marrett and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. Theirs is, as audiences have rightfully come to anticipate, a reliably fabulous performance of unrelenting musical magic.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable, easy way to spend an evening. We have some outstanding talent in Canterbury, and these concerts are a very special opportunity to showcase their skills. Showbiz Christchurch is once again shining the light towards the end of a wintery tunnel with their mid-season musical offering.

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber: a nice way to finish the week

Photo by John Foster

Review by Patrick Shepherd, stuff.co.nz

This was a nice and easy way to finish the week with a well put together show that was just the right length and did a good job of covering the work of one of musical theatre’s most prolific and successful composers.

I have to say I’m not the biggest Lloyd Webber fan but I enjoyed this and felt that it represented some of his best work, drawn from 10 musicals, as well as including song choices that were perhaps not the most obvious.

Artistic director Ravil Atlas pulled together a good production, Showbiz delivering the high standard that we have come to expect, all under the expert musical direction of Richard Marrett and the accompaniment of the CSO.

Photo by John Foster

Photo by John Foster

I’ll get to the solo items shortly (if I can find my way through the slightly overdone dry ice) but I felt that what really brought the stage to life were the seemingly indefatigable dancers and the strong chorus. I also liked the children’s chorus, adding that extra dash of zest in uptempo numbers like Song of the King and pathos in the exposed cameos in No Matter What.

Standouts for me were Jack Fraser, James Foster and Amanda Atlas, all strong voices taking on songs that needed robust delivery. Fraser’s Heaven On Their Minds was gutsy and angry, handling the rapid-fire lyrics brilliantly, a definite contrast with the subtlety of his duet with Charlotte Taylor in All I Ask of You. They blended well.

Foster’s Music of the Night was perfectly executed, making for a suitably creepy but polished Phantom, hitting those formidable high notes confidently. He also took on Love Changes Everything, again nailing it.

Amanda Atlas only appeared once in With One Look, a song of faded glory and misplaced hope, and she gave it her all. Atlas always manages to get to the heart of a song and, boy, did she do that here.

Photo by John Foster

Photo by John Foster

Ashley Brown’s account of the Paganini Variations was a surprising and welcome inclusion, fiercely difficult and not made easier by the stage arrangement. I liked the inclusion of the dancers but felt that he could have held centre stage in his own right for the second set.

Donna Alley was superbly arch in Prima Donna, soaring above it all gloriously, and I liked Jonathan Densem’s take on Joseph. Michael Bayly hammed it up in Song of the King and provided the rock for Chuana McKenzie’s Evita bracket.

Unfortunately, his mic failed him in Hosanna but he gamely saw it through. McKenzie was suitably sultry and manipulative in I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You, following an energetic Buenos Aires, and Jenna Baxter’s Whistle Down the Wind was nicely done. I also enjoyed Karen Tewnion-Smith’s direct delivery of Unexpected Song and James-Paul Mountstevens handled Starlight Express well.

The show runs until 16 June.

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber is a night full of favourites

Photo by Wendy Riley

By Emma Dyer

Showbiz Christchurch’s mid-year concert, The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, is as delightful as a box full of chocolates. It is a perfectly sized taster, a wide range of pieces from one of the most renowned composers of musical theatre. If you aren’t familiar with his work, if you are familiar with his work, if you love it, if you don’t, whatever your feelings you will almost certainly find something to appreciate in this spectacular show.

James Foster and Charlotte Taylor. Photo by Wendy Riley

James Foster and Charlotte Taylor. Photo by Wendy Riley

Showbiz Christchurch have been given special permission, from Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, to make this show more than just a singer on stage and some musicians hidden away. Instead what you are treated to is a selection of fully staged mini productions from ten different musicals. Each given the care, costumes, choirs, full orchestras, expertly performed choreography, subtle but perfect lighting, and so on that make you feel instantly transported to that musical. Part of the genius of the evening (and of the composer himself) is really that there is such a wide range of musical styles and subject matter. With so many highlights throughout the evening it is indeed a hard task to pick just a few.

Evita transports you to 1940s Argentina.  Charming Evita (Chuana McKenzie) whether for love or love of power pushes herself as a perfect match for Juan Peron (Michael Bayly). She sings of her claims that she’d be “surprisingly good” for him, while the other half of the stage is given over to a couple dancing a tango to represent this verbal tango taking place between Evita and Juan Peron.

Photo by Wendy Riley

Photo by Wendy Riley

One of the absolute stars across many numbers from several different musicals is James Foster. He completely blew us away every time he took to the stage, appearing to be a natural actor who seems to embody every role he takes on, his powerful voice impressed most especially in “Music of the Night”. Another from The Phantom of the Opera, “Prima Donna” pairs laugh out loud comedy with breathtaking vocals when Donna Alley perfectly plays the demanding yet insecure personality of an early 20th century opera star. And what would a star be without their entourage, a trio of strong male vocalists imploring her to grace the stage with her presence. Oh go on.

Switching it up again, fans of Elvis will love “Song of the King” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Looking and sounding like something out of a show in Las Vegas the stage lights up with dancers clad in glittering gold Egyptian inspired costumes, this number is more than packed full of energy and pizazz.

Amanda Atlas. Photo by Wendy Riley

Amanda Atlas. Photo by Wendy Riley

You might not know the musical Whistle Down the Wind but if you’re a fan of 1990s Irish boy-band Boyzone, “No Matter What” is sure to fill you with delight. And if all of that wasn’t enough this number has some of the most adorable young performers take to the stage, they do Christchurch proud to have so much talent and grace at such a young age.

If you’ve always wanted to see CATS then you’ll be left wanting more as the stage is filled with perfectly costumed dancers leaping and flying about the stage as if they really were cats, while behind them the choir and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra tells a vivid story.

Photo by Wendy Riley

Donna Alley and Michael Bayly. Photo by Wendy Riley

This show is for you if you like any or all of the following; celebrity dancing shows, old school Hollywood glamour, ballet, contemporary dance, drama, comedy, flashy clothes, opera, classical music, escapism, love stories or really just a great night out. If you need a break away from the gloominess of a Christchurch winter then you’d really be sorry to miss this show. And while you’re at it make sure you get your tickets now for Showbiz Christchurch’s next production Miss Saigon because the people who brought you The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber really know how to put on a show.

“We have costumes; we have staging; and we have special effects”

The lMusic of Andrew lloyd Webber in concert. Photo by John Foster

When Showbiz Christchurch wrapped up the 2018 season of Broadway Hitmen they knew from audience feedback there was a great desire to hear more music from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The success of Broadway Hitmen has helped shape the format of the up and coming concert The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Even though the concert has been devised by Lloyd Webber himself, Showbiz were able to choose the pieces they wanted to include. With so many smash hit musicals to his name, it wasn’t going to be easy to choose just 24 songs to feature in the concert.

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Photo by Wendy Riley

James Foster and Charlotte Taylor. Photo by Wendy Riley

“In designing the show, I wanted to pick the music we hadn’t done [in the 2018 concert],” says Artistic Director Ravil Atlas who was the Musical Director on Broadway Hitmen. “This presented a challenge because this year we have approval from Lloyd Webber for the music to be staged as it would be in a show. We have costumes; we have staging; and we have special effects.”

Atlas’ approach has been to tie each of the different show numbers into mini vignettes – creating a nostalgic journey through some of the ‘best bits’ of each show. “It’s been interesting to work out where to cut and put things,” says Atlas.  “We only have two standalone numbers, Love Changes Everything from Aspects of Love, and With One Look from Sunset Boulevard, which set up the last vignette, Starlight Express.”

Showbiz Christchurch is renowned for producing shows that could easily be at home on Broadway or the West End. The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber is proving to be even more popular than recent Showbiz concerts, with the Grand Circle of the Isaac Theatre Royal recently opened for sale for those who weren’t quick enough to purchase tickets when they went on sale at the end of last year.

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Photo by Wendy Riley

Cello soloist Ashley Brown. Photo by Wendy Riley

Each musical vignette from The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Whistle Down the Wind, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Song and Dance, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and Starlight Express features between two and four songs performed by a full 33 piece on-stage orchestra – the CSO. They’ll be sharing the stage with 14 soloists from amongst Canterbury’s top performers – some well-known to Christchurch audiences and some new talent. There will also be a 30 strong on-stage chorus, 21 ballet, Latin and musical theatre dancers, and a children’s chorus from Impact Dance and Stage School who will perform numbers from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Whistle Down the Wind.

“Some parts of the show will have 90 people on stage at one time,” says Stage Manager Mandy Perry who will be supported by a team of Assistant Stage Managers to help co-ordinate such a big cast. The set will feature a series of asymmetrical raised platforms for the orchestra designed by David Bosworth of 4th Wall Theatre Services, and a concave cyclorama which will provide a canvas for lighting designer Grant Robertson of The Light Site. “Everybody that’s working on the show is really going to get a chance to show off!” says Atlas “It will be gorgeous.”

The lMusic of Andrew lloyd Webber in concert. Photo by John Foster

Photo by Wendy Riley

There are three choreographers working on the concert, each focusing on their area of expertise in Latin dance (Donna Frost), ballet (Hayley Watts) and musical theatre (Mandy Roberts). Whilst Atlas has a very busy time as artistic director, vocal and acting coach, and stage director, he will hand the baton over to renowned musical director Richard Marrett who will conduct the CSO.

The Showbiz Christchurch Saunders & Co Season of The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Concert is at the Isaac Theatre Royal for three performances only from 14-16 June 2019.

“We Will Rock You” keeps its promise, you will be rocked

We Will Rock You is the latest musical show to grace the stage of The Isaac Theatre Royal, and it keeps its promise, you will be rocked.

By Emma Dyer

We Will Rock You is a story about rebellion, set to the music of Queen, with outrageous futuristic or punk costumes, and an endless supply of music references and jokes. You don’t have to be a Queen fan but it definitely doesn’t hurt to be a fan of pop music culture because the jokes will be that much funnier. Exhibit Brit, a rather rough and tough male character who proudly identifies his full chosen name is “Britney Spears”. With gags like that you know that you’re in for a good time.

Listening to this show it isn’t hard to remember why they still call Freddie Mercury a genius. The range of songs that Queen has given the world is why the entire list of musical numbers [in the musical] can be made up of their work. There are 23 different Queen songs in this show, most of them so perfect a band would be lucky just to produce one in their career. While it would be hard to pick a favourite you could do worse than Killer Queen or the show closer (which they really make you beg for) Bohemian Rhapsody.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a bunch of jokes, excellent music, and more leather than a field full of cows. There is a serious message here. In a time where we are really questioning the massive amount of power that a few internet giants hold over our lives this really is a story of what the future could look like if we let it. It is outrageous and at times almost cartoonish, but it could be our future. The gags might take things to extremes, evil villain Killer Queen’s hair or the white and rather distressingly tight outfits of the “Gaga Kids”, but there is still a strong undercurrent of truth. For decades the music of Queen has been a part of our collective culture. The writer of this show, Ben Elton, knows a thing or two about pop culture, about making fun of it, and about becoming part of it. You might not be familiar with his name but you probably know his work on comedic classic TV series like “Blackadder” or “The Young Ones”. His joyful, playful, biting, and absurd sense of humour comes through in this show in a way that is delightful and eye-rolling at the same time.

Welcome to the “iPlanet” (Earth has been rebranded), where nobody communicates in real life, individuality is strongly discouraged, and live music is banned. On this planet we have the dreamer dude Galileo Figaro, played by Caleb Jago-Ward who looks remarkably like a young Bon Jovi. Then we have badass babe Scaramouche (and if you think that is a odd name or that you shouldn’t call her “babe”, well so does she) played by the fantastically talented Jane Leonard. What develops from here is a story of love story, of teenage rebellion, and of why it is important that music keeps being created for love not money. But where in another telling of this story Scaramouche could have been relegated to sitting on the sidelines cheering on the musical hero Galileo, that simply isn’t the case here. She’s tough, she fights for what she wants, she runs towards the danger, and she doesn’t take any condescending talk from anyone. Meanwhile Galileo spouts out musical lyrics that just appear in his head, with no idea what they mean, but excellent comedic timing (“Scaramouche will you do the fandango?” does not go down well with her).

For regular attendees to the theatre, used to seeing the orchestra or band tucked away under the stage, it might be quite the surprise to see them on a platform precariously high above the stage, as much a part of the show for the eyes as they are for the ears. Multiple electric guitars replace the usual violins or oboes. So that what you end up with is an awesome lineup of musicians playing  great songs in a very rock n’ roll way. Add to that the supporting ensemble singing and dancing to fill the stage with their energy and enthusiasm, not an easy feat in some of the skin tight costumes, and you have something that could easily be described as “a kind of magic”.

While the baddies are definitely bad they still are relatable. Who doesn’t want to be special? Killer Queen (played to nasty perfection by Naomi Ferguson)  just wants to be special by ensuring nobody else is. Her evil henchman Khashoggi (played by the excellent Jack Fraser), well he just wants to avoid having his brain fried by his boss. The usual office politics. And what about the goodies? Well they hang out in the run down beat up Hard Rock Cafe. They are a punk dressing group of bohemians including VHS wielding Buddy (as in Holly played by Aaron Boyce), outrageous Oz (as in Osbourne played by Catherine Hay) and her lover boy risk-taker Brit (as in Spears played by Tom Hart). So what do the Bohemians want? They want music, they don’t know what it is or what it sounds like or even how to play a VHS tape, but they know deep down in their souls it’s what they need. And in the end everyone needs that, we need music to keep us human, to make us think, cry, be angry, and to unwind. We Will Rock You is a promise kept of all that and more. Buy tickets, see the show, remember why you love music and life.

We Will Rock You, the Musical by Queen and Ben Elton, 29 March – 13 April 2019

Christchurch run of We Will Rock You a highly entertaining show

As a reviewer I often get asked by friends or colleagues, “Was it really that good?” or, even better, “Is it worth me buying a ticket?”. My pre-emptive strike on this one is a resounding, “oh, yes!”. If you’ve seen the show already, you know what’s coming; if you haven’t, I suggest you book your tickets now because by the time word gets out, they’ll be in hot demand.

This is a first-class production brimming with hi-octane exuberance from start to finish, super-strong leads, an energetic young ensemble cast and a cracking band. Add to that the visual spectacle of a huge video screen and the show reaches a whole new stratospheric level. The show is wall-to-wall great music from one of the greatest rock bands ever, threaded together with the pithy, observational wit of Ben Elton as he takes a poke at the absurdities of modern life.

OK, so it is all assembled around a daft, rather irrelevant plot, but I doubt if anyone cares beyond the obvious downside that when you have a Killer Queen as good as Naomi Ferguson, you don’t get much of her in the second half.

For a first night it was immaculate, especially given the technology involved, so if there were any glitches, they were of the sort that only the tech crew would notice. Lighting and sound were faultless.

As the hits just kept coming, so did the laughs and I couldn’t believe that the time went by so quickly. Caleb Jago-Ward and Jane Leonard were excellent as Galileo and Scaramouche respectively, both fabulous singers singing what sounded like their ideal roles, belting out the big numbers but also pulling on the heartstrings with a touching Who Wants To Live Forever. Jago-Ward and Leonard both relished being front-and centre, making for a highly entertaining pairing.

Similarly, Bohemian couple Catherine Hay (Oz) and Tom Hart (Brit) injected pace, humour and gutsy vocals. Oz’s big moment came in No-One But You and the pair really rocked the house with I Want It All. Aaron Boyce was a suitably Ringo-esque Buddy, his moment in the sun being a well-taken These Are The Days Of Our Lives, while Jack Fraser made the part of archetypal Bond villain Khashoggi his own, as well as Seven Seas of Rhye.

As I’ve alluded to earlier on, one of the highlights of the show was Naomi Ferguson, commanding the stage in all her scenes, singing absolutely superbly throughout and making for a truly fearsome Killer Queen. Covering a wide vocal range across her songs, she powered through the big numbers – an outstanding vocal performance but also a gripping stage presence.

The show runs until April 13 – the opening night audience was on its feet at the end and having an absolute ball so here’s hoping for full houses for the rest of the season. As the title of the show suggests they will, indeed, rock you.

WWRY: “an exceptional, high energy, full noise and lights opening night”

Reviewed by Kate Divett, Backstage Christchurch.

Friday 29 March

It is a deeply reflective time to be living in Christchurch currently, as we try to make sense of the events of Friday 15th March. We are a city in mourning and in shock. In the fortnight that has followed, we have gathered together in many ways – to grieve those who have been lost, to support those who remain, and in vigils for the peace and way of life we hold so dearly. Gatherings have been important.

Showbiz Christchurch thought deeply about whether or not to gather for the opening of their season of We Will Rock You. Their unanimous decision that “the show must go on” was the right one. I have personally found solace in the words of Leonard Bernstein this week: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before” and I held these words in my mind as I entered the theatre doors on Friday night.

So this is what the cast and crew of We Will Rock You have done: an exceptional, high energy, full noise and lights opening night, and an act of defiance against those who would want our lives interrupted. Bravo and thank you to all involved.

With the theatrical music of Queen woven together by the comedic writing of Ben Elton, it’s a winning combination. The story is set 300 years in the future, and the internet has destroyed any sense of community or individualism. Humans conform to mainstream, commercial ideals that are enforced, Big Brother-style, by Globalsoft Corporation. A small group of rebel Bohemians, however, are living counter to this tyranny, believing in a prophecy that a dreamer will come to help them find the last remaining musical instrument that has been hidden on the iPlanet. And there’s obviously a love story in there for good measure, which is brilliant.

Okay, the story might be a little bonkers, but we’re really here for the music – and we are not let down. At all. If the title of the show “We Will Rock You” was a promise, then Showbiz have definitely kept it. From the opening strains of ‘Innuendo’, we’re reminded that Queen’s music is intricate, lyrical, and incredibly well-known – especially in the recent success of 2018’s biographical film about Freddie Mercury, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The band set the tone for an epic night of rock immediately, and bravo in particular to Michael Ferrar and Heather Webb for their work on guitars. Brian May’s solos and breaks are some of the more recognisable in music history!

The night belonged to the two lead roles though. Caleb Jago-Ward (Galileo) is phenomenal – it’s actually difficult to adequately express how extraordinary his voice is.

It is a treat to see him throw himself into what must be a very fun role to perform and apply his vocal talent to. Every song was a winner. Jane Leonard (Scaramouche) is equally brilliant and a fabulous casting opposite Jago-Ward, bringing sass, feisty attitude and some great comic timing. I particularly enjoyed ‘Somebody To Love’, but the duet moments for these two singers – particularly in ‘Under Pressure’ and ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ were magical.

Naomi Ferguson (Killer Queen) and Jack Fraser (Khashoggi) had reliably good performances as the evil counterparts to Galileo and Scaramouche. Ferguson, in particular, had a big role with a big personality to play – and a wig to match – and the vocal range required of her songs would be a challenge for most singers. We have Freddie Mercury to thank for that! Her costumes were wonderfully outrageous, and this is a good opportunity to congratulate Diane Brodie QSM (Costume) and Sarah Greenwood-Buchanan (Hair and Makeup) and their teams for their incredible work once again.

Aaron Boyce (Buddy), Catherine Hay (Oz), and Tom Hart (Brit) played excellent parts and contributed even more mouth-dropping vocal performances. I particularly noted that Hart’s voice at times sounded incredibly similar to Mercury’s, particularly in ‘I Want It All’. Hay and Hart have some very funny on-stage chemistry and brought wonderful comedic moments. Boyce plays a fabulous futuristic hipster, a great leader of the Bohemian group.

The cohesion of direction, musical, production and technical elements of this production is evident for all to see.

The Showbiz Christchurch team should be incredibly satisfied that they are doing their bit to serve the Christchurch community with high-quality moments of escape into the Arts when we need it most. The themes of the show – standing up for what you believe in, acceptance of difference, friendship, and the power of music to unify people – hold an added poignancy that could not have been predicted. The response from the audience on opening night – whooping, hollering, and generous applause throughout, followed by a joy-filled sing-a-long and an emphatic standing ovation – were all confirmation that this is a show that will add to our collective wellbeing. Audiences should secure their tickets before the season sells out and get ready to rock (yeah!).

The Showbiz Christchurch Saunders & Co Season of We Will Rock You is on from 29 March – 13 April at Isaac Theatre Royal.