Young Czech Vietnamese artists open the doors to isolated community

Trang Luong, Diana Nguyen, photo: Masha Volynsky

Probably the first generation of Vietnamese who have grown up in the Czech Republic is now coming of age. Although students and immigrants from Vietnam have been coming to this country since the 1970’s, the face and lifestyle of the Vietnamese minority is changing, with the younger generation helping to build a cultural bridge. A Prague studio called Družina is hosting a month-long series of events entitled “Czech Vietnam” that tries to bridge the gap between Czechs and their Vietnamese neighbours.

Trang Luong,  Diana Nguyen,  photo: Masha Volynsky
For many Czechs, Vietnamese vegetable stands, clothes shops and nail parlors have become part and parcel of city life. Communication may be at times tough for some, but most appreciate the hard-working attitude of this very distinct group. Today, though, being Vietnamese in the Czech Republic does not only bring to mind shopkeepers who can say ten or fifteen words in Czech.

Jan Látal, a co-founder of the cultural studio Družina in Prague’s Vrsovice neighbourhood, says this realization came to him in a Vietnamese grocery shop. Realizing that the older generation of shop owners are no longer the only face of this community, he and his colleagues at Družina decided to discover what is.

“For me, their world was unreadable, because all I had seen were the workers. So the only thing I knew about them is that the Vietnamese just work, work, work and have no leisure time. And I had no way of finding out about their culture and habits. So I am really glad that were able to meet these two girls and find out a bit more about their culture.”

The two girls Jan mentioned are Trang Luong, a college student and Diana Nguyen, who is still in high school. Both of the young women are artists and are both of Vietnamese descent. The series of events “Czech Vietnam” at Družina started off with the launch of an exhibit by Trang and Diana. Diana, who was born in the Czech Republic, says that the same stereotypes about the Vietnamese have been around for decades:

“I think that Czech people see the Vietnamese people only as shopkeepers, but they don’t think about us as students, that we were born here and we are growing up with their children. I think that the older generation doesn’t see that.”

For the young Vietnamese who were born or grew up in this country, Europe is their home, even if Vietnamese culture and traditions are still a prominent part of their lives. Their appearance may be deceiving to the older generation, but their classmates and peers usually accept them as one of their own. Trang says that Vietnamese youngsters have different goals from their parents.

Jan Látal,  photo: Masha Volynsky
“When our parents came here, their main goal was to provide for the whole family. But our generation is different, we are influenced by the European lifestyles, and we don’t want to be and work the same way that our parents did.”

For Jan Látal, both the exhibit and all of the April events are about getting to know more about this young generation of Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic. They are the future of this community, Jan says, and they will be the ones able to change the traditional stereotypes.

“I think it will change when the new generation of Vietnamese will grow up, because I think they are very smart and self-confident and they will show us what they are capable of in the future and we are waiting for that to happen.”

Speaking with Trang and Diana, I wondered, though if it wasn’t difficult for them to choose the path of artists. After all, even though their parents brought them up in Europe, as immigrants they must worry about job security and the financial future of their children. Diana admitted that although her parents had no problem with her studying art, most other Vietnamese parents want more lucrative prospects for their sons and daughters.

“Surprisingly it was fine. When I told them in grammar school that I want to go to an art high school and be an artist, they said ‘okay if you think you can do it, just do it’. And I was really surprised, because normally Vietnamese parents are not like that, they want their children to study economics, law or medicine.”

For Trang the situation with her parents was a bit different, but it hasn’t deterred her from choosing to study art both in high school and now at university.

“Before I entered an artistic high school my parents had very little time to pay attention to us, so I had quite a lot of freedom. Once they realized though that I’m studying art they got really worried and said that maybe I should go study economics, or something, so I would have more security.”

"Dinner" Photo: Masha Volynsky
I asked Trang and Diana to show me their artwork, which is featured in the front room of the Družina space, with a large store-front window facing a quaint Vršovice street. Although both said they see little distinction in lifestyle between themselves and their Czech peers, their art reflects their Vietnamese background very clearly.

“The fact that I have roots in Vietnam does make me different from other Czech artists. I often, for example, include in my paintings Vietnamese symbols that, for example, represent luck or prosperity.”

Trang has two artworks displayed at Družina – one is a framed painting and another piece was drawn right on the wall. The painting shows animals sitting around a table, while the other is a series of small cartoon-like pictures with scenes from Vietnam. Although they may seem different, Trang explained that there is one common theme linking the two works.

“In my art, I like to work with what I know well, with themes that have a strong influence on me, which in this case is family. This painting is called ‘Dinner’. It is a family dinner where the animals represent people and around them are dishes that show their character traits, their stories, their whole lives. This other work is a series of illustrations. I was inspired by a family album. They are a kind of looking into the past from the present.”

Curiosity about the past, particularly to their parents’ own, is also an inspiration for one of Diana’s works, which is a series of drawings – also on the gallery’s wall – of what the artist thinks when someone says the word Vietnam. The pictures are idealized, Diana admits, an example perhaps even of immigrant nostalgia, even though neither of these artists had spent much time in Vietnam.

Diana’s other work, on the opposite wall of the Družina space, goes back to the main theme of the whole “Czech Vietnam” week – the two generations of Vietnamese people in this country. In almost textbook-like images it shows daily routines of the parents and their children. – from an image of an alarm clock, breakfast, off to work, and so on.

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
“It shows the first and the second generation of Vietnamese people in the Czech Republic. The first generation is our parents, and the second is us. So I drew the daily schedule of two people. Our parents work very hard every day, and they are doing the same thing all day long. They have dinner and lunch at work. But our life is like that of Czech children. We wake up later, we have breakfast, we go to school, we have hobbies, we go to parties, and so on.”

Looking at the drawings and paintings, I found it interesting that these young artists, who in their choice of profession and lifestyle are making huge strides away from their parents, place family at the very center of their art.

“I want to show with my work that family is most important for me. Everything that my parents do is for us. And I also feel that in the future I want to take of my family.”

At the end of our conversation I asked Trang and Diana if they felt that there should be more exhibits exclusively featuring Vietnamese artists in the Czech Republic, which is currently all but missing from mainstream galleries. Both ladies, for whom this was the first almost-solo show, seemed a bit embarrassed and felt that their art does not need special attention and is very similar to that of their Czech peers. Jan Látal, though, has a very strong opinion on this matter:

“I think it is very important to have this artistic message from the Vietnamese community, because Czechs known Vietnamese culture only from the side of business. So this artistic message is very important in order to get to know their culture better and I think that art has this power to communicate across borders. And that’s why it is possible to change opinions through art. But it is true that the people who need to change their opinions usually don’t go to galleries.”

In addition to the exhibit, Družina hosted a viewing of an original documentary about the young generation of Vietnamese in Prague, a meeting of Vietnamese and Czech people from the neighbourhood and will still be hosting a common dinner. Trang’s and Diana’s art will up in studio until the end of April at least, and hopefully will be able to change long-held and narrow preconceptions about this blooming young generation of Czech Vietnamese.