In Bleu Néon, Kim-Sanh Châu, 35, uses dance and song to navigate the fantasy of nostalgia, loss of language and sexual objectification – three themes that are widely experienced by Asian diasporic populations.
The lights dim as Châu enters the small theatre at Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI). She stands in the center of a circle made of neon lights, an image typical of south-east Asian countries and the inspiration for the name of the show.
Châu dances low to the ground.
She performs her solo dance entirely in a squat position. “Is’s a typically Asian posture”, she explains. Vietnamese 70’s pop music plays on cassette tapes, interspersed with moments where Châu sings Vietnamese rap.
Châu is a Vietnamese-French contemporary dancer, choreographer and cultural worker based in Montreal. She graduated from UQAM with a masters in dance and attended the Aarhus School of Business in Denmark, Harvard’s business school and the Australian Catholic University. She has presented her art and performances at l’Arsenal, Tangente, MAI, and Accès Asie; as well as internationally at SIDance in Korea and Krossing-Over in Vietnam, among others.
“I’m interested in nostalgia that’s broken,” she began. “I’m a second-generation so I’m addressing my work to disparate kids – diasporic people. And I’m interested in how we try to stay connected with the homeland but it’s imaginary. It is a part that has been transmitted to us through parents or family and community.”
Singing in a language that Châu doesn’t speak
Châu doesn’t speak Vietnamese.
While Montreal is her primary residence, she visits Vietnam a few times a year. Unable to travel due to the pandemic’s restrictions, she turned to Vietnamese television and rap music to practise the language.
She said that learning the lyrics allowed her to connect to her family.
Sound artist Chittakone Baccam created the music and Toronto-based rapper JONAIR wrote the lyrics. Châu spent a year memorizing the lyrics and working with teachers and other industry professionals before performing the piece.
“My language was not taught or transmitted to me. I would try to hide any mark that I was Asian, even though it’s very obvious on my face,” she said.
As a teenager, Châu had no icon to look up to and there was a lot of shame around being Asian. Despite lacking a similar role model, Châu said that she’s enthusiastic about the fact that today’s younger generation of Asian youth have rappers as inspirations.
“And I’m also very touched by how we can have solidarity among different communities. Vietnamese rap is, of course, very inspired by the Black American culture.”
Writing the lyrics
There are six parts to the rap. The lyrics discuss everything from nostalgia, stereotypes against the Asian community and violence against women.
“I think that every ethnic community carries this burden of having to live with a certain stereotype and I think the one for Asians is silence,” she said.
She explained that she sang in Vietnamese because it would have been harder to express such topics in English or French. In addition, she comes from a lineage of women who have experienced abuse which she says is deeply anchored to the fact that she, and her family, are Asian.
“When I rap in Vietnamese I feel like I do it for the woman of my family who didn’t talk, and who – if they would have talked – they would probably have talked in Vietnamese,” she said. “So I am honouring them through the language. And also, I think it’s only through rap music that I could say what I wanted to say. I don’t think I would have done it through another type of music.”
Choreographing Bleu Néon
The most notable part of Châu’s performance is her position: squatting.
Working with Louise Michele Jackson and Be Heintzman Hope, Châu took inspiration from images that made her connect with Vietnam to choreograph her performance. At the beginning of her performance, she’s low to the ground, waving her arms in a fluid motion that mimics working followed by gestures that represent strength and fighting.
“The squat position is so unusual,” she said. “It’s very different to dance in a squat versus standing up because there’s a lot of movement you can’t do. It’s about how you find the strength in your lower belly and you rise from that spot.”
She explained that she also chose to dance in this position to represent objectification.
“I think in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia there is always this idea that women are very docile and very delicate and soft,” she said. “It’s through many different ways. I’m thinking about the image of a Geisha, the image of prostitution during the Vietnamese war…”
She explained that, while not all Vietnamese women may feel this way, she feels a sense of disappointment from people when she doesn’t serve them.
“I chose this position because it’s very deeply Asian…,” Châu said. “I wanted to honour this position. I think it’s also very symbolic of domination and the low profile that Asian people carry.”