‘Colonialism Is Terrible, But Pho Is Delicious’ Is a Play About Food and Ownership

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Three actors in 19th century colonial costumes rehearse a scene in a play.
Actors Nicole Tung, Elissa Beth Stebbins and Anthony Doan rehearse a scene in Dustin Chinn's new play, 'Colonialism Is Terrible, But Pho Is Delicious,' at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. (Courtesy of Dustin Chinn)

If you ask playwright Dustin Chinn for his Joker origin story, he might point to that time in 2016 when Bon Appétit released a video entitled “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho.”

You might remember the one — the white chef in a backwards baseball cap confidently dismissing anyone who adds hoisin or Sriracha to their pho broth while, in the very next breath, explaining that he’ll squeeze as many limes into his broth as the restaurant is willing to give him (!!).

It was one of those classic internet moments: There was the swift backlash (much of it from Vietnamese Americans righteously peeved at some dude-bro telling them they’d been doing it wrong this whole time), the defensive non-apology and, eventually, a lengthier mea culpa. For Chinn, who is Chinese American, the incident helped spark a years-long obsession with questions of appropriation, colonialism and cultural ownership in food. Eventually, it culminated in his latest play, Colonialism Is Terrible, But Pho Is Delicious, which debuts this week at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley under the direction of Oanh Nguyen.

Headshot of an Asian man in a hoodie.
Playwright Dustin Chinn. (Courtesy of the Aurora Theatre)

“I think what struck me about [the video] was this particular brand of arrogance to suggest that there is a ‘right’ way [to eat pho]. And also for someone coming from the outsider perspective, who didn’t grow up in the tradition, to claim that they had ownership of it — wow, I don’t know where that comes from,” Chinn says. “Where do you cross the line to where you say, ‘I’ve got this. I’ve got this down’?”

The play is set up as a triptych, exploring the aforementioned themes of appropriation and ownership through scenes taken from three imagined moments in the history of pho. The first is a retelling of the dish’s creation story, which is at least partly apocryphal. Chinn’s version focuses on a French aristocrat living in Hanoi during the late 19th century, when the city was the colonial capital of French Indochina. He hires a Vietnamese cook, who has to learn how to prepare pot-au-feu, the French stew that some people believe is the dish that eventually evolved into Vietnamese pho (though this is widely disputed).

Sponsored

The second scene takes place in 1999 in Ho Chi Minh City, on the eve of President Bill Clinton’s visit — and right as Burger King was about to open the first American burger franchises in Vietnam. It focuses on two Americans visiting a pho cart, never having tried the dish before.

Finally, the last scene takes us to a Vietnamese restaurant in today’s rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn — a restaurant that, in a callback to the infamous Bon Appétit video, refuses to provide any sauce to accompany its pho.

Each of the scenes deals with colonialism and the power dynamics that come into play when one culture adapts or borrows from another culture’s cuisine. Each explores questions of what kind of food is considered “fancy” and who profits — and how much they profit — off the sale and popularization of that food.

Chinn, for his part, doesn’t consider himself a “hardliner.” He doesn’t believe there should be any one-size-fits-all rule about who is “allowed” to cook certain types of food. He says he’s more interested in questions than in messages. That’s also why he says he wrote the play as a comedy rather than a straightforward drama.

“I’m a Chinese American writing about Vietnamese themes,” Chinn says. “This play is not about what it means to be Vietnamese. This play is more about the gray areas within these discussions of authorship and cultural ownership.”

What he’s hoping is that the play will attract people who don’t typically go to the theater but who do feel invested in these kinds of issues around food culture. After all, he says, food is the one cultural topic that people get uniquely passionate about — to the point that there are some who consider it “hacky” when writers use food as a shorthand for culture.

For Chinn, however, it’s for good reason that food evokes those kinds of primal feelings in people. “It’s something you engage with every day, more than literature or even music. It encompasses things about family and daily needs,” Chinn says. “In lieu of religion, people get very religious about food.”

Colonialism Is Terrible, But Pho Is Delicious is in previews until Nov. 10 at the Aurora Theatre Company (2081 Addison St., Berkeley). The official opening night is Thursday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m., and the play runs until Dec. 4. You can buy tickets online.