This article discusses the Vietnam War. Update: The venue has since issued an apology via its Instagram profile.
A new bar in Richmond has stirred controversy due to its Vietnam War theme.
Rickshaw Bar is helmed by owner David Anderson and creative director Stuart Neil (Black Swan Hospitality), and its Instagram account spruiked images of fallen helicopters, branded dog tags, and food and drinks on fire. The venue's Instagram profile (now deleted after a storm of angry comments) read: “comfortably numb”.
The original press release for the venue stated that the site was a “dark and grungy space reminiscent of 70s Saigon… exposed concrete floors, charred wood panelling and army green booths suggest what a post-apocalyptic future may have looked like in the 70s; with burnt orange and brushed gold details mirroring the fire that flashes from the kitchen and the bar. The suggestive glow of red-neon light leads to the dark depths of the 65-seater venue, while stickers and tattered posters adorn the walls and empty bullet shells are littered throughout.”
The biggest event to mark the '70s in Saigon was of course the Vietnam War, and when Time Out received the original release, we told the public relations agency that we were disturbed by the implications and found the bar in poor taste. The agency (which has since severed ties with Rickshaw) responded: “The venue certainly does not intend to appear centred around the Vietnamese war. We have spoken with our client and they are in discussions this week as to what improvements they can make on the space.”
Social media commenters directed their disgust at various war-themed photos, and the venue deleted scores of images, then comments, followed by the deactivation of its Facebook and Instagram pages. Time Out contacted Rickshaw by phone and Instagram, but our messages were not returned.
Thousands of North and South Vietnamese refugees sought safety abroad, including in many neighbouring Asian countries. For people like owner of Brunswick-based Vietnamese eatery Shop Bao Ngoc, Ngọc Trần, whose parents migrated from Vietnam, this venue stirs up a lot of raw emotions.
“It promotes war and PTSD that is passed on through generations. It doesn't end with our parents, and we are living the aftermath. We've been displaced because of the war, and we’re fed up of our trauma and pain being capitalised on.”
And as Trần points out, those of Vietnamese descent are not the only people who might be offended by the theme. “Not only have they excluded half of Richmond’s community, they’ve excluded Australian war vets too, as well as other refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn countries who can only expect their experiences to be trivialised."
A spokesperson from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs said of the venue: "The Department of Veterans’ Affairs recognises the effect of the Vietnam War on all those involved. DVA is committed to the commemoration of historic military events and encourages individuals or organisations to acknowledge our involvement in wars, conflicts and peace keeping operations in a solemn, respectful and dignified way."
Lan Anh Hoang, associate professor in development studies in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, was born in Communist northern Vietnam after the war and says a venue like this is divisive: “Among Vietnamese Australians, you know, it's quite mixed. But the people who were directly affected by the war, who lost their loved ones, and whatever they had, to the Communist government during the war, I think they have the right to be hurt. And I can understand why they feel hurt and offended by this.”
It's hard to escape the feeling that the bar's orange decor recalls Agent Orange, a herbicide mixture used by the US military during the Vietnam War that contained a dangerous chemical contaminant called dioxin. Dioxin is linked to cancer, birth defects, disabilities and diabetes, sometimes decades after exposure.
The Red Cross estimates that 3 million Vietnamese have been affected by dioxin, including at least 150,000 children born with serious birth defects, with millions of Americans and Vietnamese still affected, directly and indirectly, by the wartime US spraying of Agent Orange and other herbicides over southern and central Vietnam.
“What really got me was the burnt orange,” says Trần. "You could've used a different hue of orange that doesn’t represent Agent Orange. Americans played a role in releasing Agent Orange, and people are still suffering from it. On Instagram [the venue] quoted Apocalypse Now, a movie made for the Western gaze that romanticises war.” The director of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola, has also said: “An anti-war film cannot glorify war, and Apocalypse Now arguably does. Certain sequences have been used to rev up people to be warlike.”
The 2016 Census results show that 5 per cent of those who reside in Richmond were born in Vietnam, and you need only walk down Victoria Street to find some of the city’s best Vietnamese food. This is the same suburb that Rickshaw Bar has decided to call home.
"Stop appropriating Vietnamese or POC culture – war-torn orientalism and Asian fetishisation is not an aesthetic. Read the room and be aware of where you are, you’re in a community that's been suffering for so long that has been pushed out because of gentrification. You're pushing the community out that you're appropriating," says Trần.
In a day and age where social media is king and the internet never forgets, it’s wise to ensure you do your research when developing a concept for a venue.
“I appreciate the opportunity to go to places where my culture is celebrated in an appropriate way,” says Hoang. “If it's done appropriately in a sensitive manner, then I think I would welcome it. Because, you know, not all Vietnamese migrants open restaurants to celebrate our culture. We do different kinds of jobs such as being accountants, university professors and doctors. So yes, I mean, I don't mind as long as it's done appropriately.”
“Acknowledge the food you’re creating and the cuisine which it stems from, acknowledge your privilege in being able to do so, your social capital and your online presence, otherwise this will keep happening,” says Trần. “Do your research."