Yes, they came as refugees, but on ‘Queen Sugar’ this family from Vietnam gets to be so much more

The World
Man at dinner table, surrounded by people

When Elyse Dinh first saw the rack of clothes that had been brought in for her character, Mrs. Phan in the OWN television show “Queen Sugar,” she thought the costume department had made a mistake.

She saw shades of coral, yellow and purple. There were pretty blouses with birds and elephants on them. There were even bright orange capris.

“Usually when I’m playing Vietnamese characters, they just throw a smock on me,” she says. “Because I’m a peasant, manicurist, cafeteria worker or maid. I get the the drabbest, plainest clothes, and they’re like, ‘Don’t even worry about going into hair and make-up. You look fine.’ But for ‘Queen Sugar,’ they said, ‘Word from the top is that you get to wear the brightest colors because the Phans bring joy to the show.’”

“Queen Sugar,” created by Ava DuVernay with Oprah Winfrey as executive producer, follows the trials and tribulations of the Bordelon family who inherit their late father’s sugar cane farm in St. Josephine, Louisiana, a fictional small town just outside of New Orleans. The Phans, new additions to the show’s third season, are a refugee family working in the fishing industry. The audience is introduced to them through Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe), who works for Mrs. Phan and often plays spades with her and her son, Khanh Phan (Tony Aidan Vo). Mrs. Phan’s daughter Trinh (Vivien Ngô) has recently came back from New York to Louisiana to help with the family business. She catches Ralph Angel’s eye as a potential love interest.

Woman shakes man's hand in front of shipping yard, young man smiling off to the side
Khanh Phan (Tony Aidan Vo) introduces Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) to his older sister Trinh (Vivien Ngô) for the first time in the third season of “Queen Sugar” on OWN.Skip Bolen © 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

“When I’ve seen Vietnamese characters in Hollywood, it seems like they’re always defined and centralized around the Vietnam War,” says Vo. “They’re always a victim of something, and what’s really refreshing about this storyline is that it’s a normal family living their lives.”

“I’ve played the sobbing mom clutching her child who died from the war multiple times, and it was nice to not have to cry and to have kids who were alive,” says Dinh. “I’m a refugee child [too], but there was always a lot of laughter in my family, even when my parents were working three jobs around the clock. Maybe it was part of our survival skills.”

Chloe Hung, a staff writer on “Queen Sugar,” says that creator DuVernay has wanted to create Vietnamese American characters for the show ever since she read Natalie Baszile’s book of the same name, which inspired the show. The novel “Queen Sugar” makes several references to Vietnamese immigrants co-existing with African, Mexican, Laotian and Cambodian Americans in their town, whether they were working on their fishing boats or gambling in the Indian casinos.

Hung says it was important for them to cast Vietnamese American actors to play the Vietnamese American characters, as well as to capture specific details of a Vietnamese American family from the South.

For example, though Buddhism is the most common religion of Vietnamese Americans, the Phans are Catholic because many of the Vietnamese refugees that arrived in New Orleans after the Fall of Saigon were sponsored by the Catholic Church.

“I was reading that Trinh, the daughter, returned home to help with the bookkeeping, and I thought, ‘Wow, someone did their research,’” says Dinh. “It felt familiar to me, because in 2010, my older sister, who’s an attorney, was one of the volunteers who flew down to New Orleans to help the local Vietnamese fisherman who were affected by the BP oil spill. They needed help filling out really complicated government forms in order to get compensation for lost wages, and it was a challenge because they didn’t keep good records. So that’s what my sister said — that they were very casual with their bookkeeping.”

In the episode Hung wrote, “A Little Lower Than Angels,” Mrs. Phan invites Ralph Angel over for a crawfish boil, which included a hybrid of traditional Vietnamese food and cajun cooking.

“I really wanted it to feel like a Vietnamese family gathering, [complete] with Grandma, who can’t speak English, in the kitchen feeding everybody,” says Hung.

In front of wodden kitchen cupboards, older Vietnamese woman speaks to young black man
In “A Little Lower Than Angels,” an episode in the third season of the OWN show “Queen Sugar,” Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe) meets Mrs. Phan (Elyse Dinh) and Khanh Phan (Tony Aidan Vo) at her home in Louisiana for family dinner.Skip Bolen © 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

“There’s a scene where Trinh teaches Ralph Angel how to make spring rolls, and it made me feel so at home, because I bring friends over and teach them how to do that,” says Vo.

Vivien Ngô admits that she got emotional watching that episode, especially when she realized it was airing on June 20, 2018 — which the United Nations has designated World Refugee Day.

“When I made the decision just out of high school to become an actress, I got most of my training in theater because I didn’t think there was a place for me as a young Vietnamese woman in Hollywood,” she says. “A lot of times, people don’t know to place me because when they’re looking for Asian actors, they’re really looking for East Asian. So it’s strange to be part of an important moment on television, at least for us. It’s rare that there’s such a spotlight on a Vietnamese family.”

But overall, the story is about hope and love.

“Ralph Angel is still reeling from the events of season two,” says Hung, referring to a sensitive romantic storyline involving deep betrayal and heartbreak. “He begins the season emotionally closed off, and Trinh needed to be a bright spot in his life at the moment — someone fresh and new that can bring him out of a funk.”

As Trinh and Ralph Angel spend more time together, they connect over their parallel desires and obligations to help their families in the farming and fishing communities. He brings her as his guest to his aunt’s 60th birthday party and introduces her to his young son Blue, to the distress of Ralph Angel’s ex-fiance and Blue’s mother, Darla (Bianca Lawson) — the third person in a love triangle that will certainly get more complicated as the season progresses.

Ngô, who began her acting career playing a bar girl in the musical “Miss Saigon,” thinks that things are changing for Vietnamese American representation in Hollywood. She points to a storyline on “Young Sheldon,” the CBS “Big Bang Theory” spin-off, that she was particularly moved by. Tam Nguyen, played by Ryan Phuong, is Sheldon’s childhood best friend — and his only friend.

2017 brought a few high-profile Vietnamese American characters in Hollywood: Kelly Marie Tran and Veronica Ngô played the Tico sisters in 2017’s “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” and Hong Chau was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ngôc Lan Tran in “Downsizing.”

“I never thought that Vietnamese stories would be told by anyone but us,” says Ngô.

Dinh still tears up when she remembers watching the scene in “Queen Sugar” where her character is introduced for the first time. After she shares some pleasant banter with Ralph Angel, he exits the scene and the camera stays on Mrs. Phan’s face for a few seconds.

“It was just me on the screen, and I started crying,” says Dinh, who has been acting in Hollywood for over 25 years. “I’ve done this type of co-starring role in the past and I know it’s not about me. I’m there to serve the scene, serve the lead, go in and get out. But the fact that the director allowed me to breathe and thought me worthy to take up space, it’s such a simple, subtle thing, but it was startling to me.”

“I don’t think I realized how I’m normally treated until that moment,” she continues. “I wasn’t there to serve anyone else, I was just able to be there and exist.”

The next episode of “Queen Sugar” airs on Wednesday, July 25 at 10 p.m. Eastern time, 9 p.m. Central on OWN.

Next: How ’90s Bollywood movies became cool again for two desis in the US

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.