Excerpt from the essay ‘Vernacular Cultures and Contemporary Art from Australia, India and the Philippines’ accompanying the exhibition of the same name at La Trobe University Museum of Art, 2011

‘...Hoang Tran Nguyen’s Like A Version (2009) takes as its subject the cultural formations of an earlier wave of immigration into Australia: that of first generational Vietnamese refugees. The work, an outmoded TV screening music clips complete with microphone, recreates the Vietnamese diaspora’s vernacular (because domestic) practice of the global 1980s phenomenon of karaoke. The disc playing in Nguyen’s karaoke set-up features three songs, Madonna’s Like A Virgin, Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Man and Starship’s We Built This City, all hit singles in 1985, or just after the first major waves of Vietnamese refugees had settled in Australia. The video clips accompanying each song have been replaced, however, with televisual references from the same historical moment: early episodes of Neighbours are intercut with Hong Kong martial arts films and scenes from musical variety shows, such as Paris By Night, produced by the then burgeoning Vietnamese entertainment industry in California. Furthermore, while the actual music remains unaltered, some of the verse lyrics have been substituted with quotes, of the same number of syllables, from Vietnamese refugees describing their early experiences of life in Australia. The work is thus a portrait of the first generation Vietnamese refugee diaspora, an immigrant community almost unique for its rejection of official (because Communist) culture from home, and the hybridised cultural identities they subsequently refashioned from global sources abroad. And by inviting the audience to quite literally sing-along with this culture (the work was first staged as a series of public karaoke scene), Nguyen uses karaoke as a means to shift mimicry from a colonial instrument of cultural camouflage and control, to a postcolonial medium for the celebration and generation of difference.’

Ryan Johnston