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What is Heritage? The complexities of British-Vietnamese communities

by Dr. Khoi Nguyen, University of Manchester & University of Vienna


ESEA Lecture Series - October 2023

What is Heritage? The complexities of British-Vietnamese communities

By: Dr. Anh Khoi Nguyen

Institution: University of Manchester  & University of Vienna


Abstract: While all ethnic and national groups are characterised by heterogeneity, the Vietnamese diaspora in the United Kingdom is highly divided even when compared to the overseas Vietnamese population at large. Due to historical circumstances, over half of the original cohort of Vietnamese refugees that came to the UK was from the Hoa people, the Chinese minority of Vietnam. Since Vietnamese emigration also followed shortly after the conclusion of the Second Indochina War, a conflict between North and South Vietnam, the regional origin of the refugees further interconnects with political and socio-economic differences. Questions of Vietnamese identity, particularly with regards to a shared Vietnamese heritage, thus acquire additional layers of complexity when examined in the context of the UK diaspora. This talk discusses these complexities and proposes a perspective for considering diasporic group identity. It is based on three years of research in the field of linguistic ethnography, exploring the continued use and intergenerational transmission of so-called ‘heritage languages,’ meaning immigrant minority languages which are used in limited and often marginal contexts, often resulting in their disappearance. The ethnographic data presented in the talk casts light on the inherent flaws of imagining heritage, and by extension heritage languages, as singular and bounded entities, in a context that is inherently multilingual and multicultural. Due to the high proportion of Hoa people among Vietnamese refugees and their descendants, and due to contact with the British Chinese population after arrival, Cantonese frequently features alongside Vietnamese and English in the communicative repertoire of the British-Vietnamese diaspora. Using several such examples, the talk proposes the alternative view of heritage language use, and all heritage communicative and cultural practices, in terms of shared knowledge, narratives and multilingual and multimodal resources. This shared symbolic vocabulary, it is argued, is employed by members of the Vietnamese diaspora to create fluid, temporary and highly contextual pockets of diasporic community. The participation in those community practices, and the socialisation into them, is a way to consider Vietnamese and general diasporic heritage as useful research contexts while acknowledging the heterogeneity of diasporas. 


A report on the Vietnamese community in the UK by Jessica Sims in 2007, written for the Runnymede trust

Nhà = Home, a video project containing interview clips from Vietnamese refugees who settled in Hackney in the 1980s

The Vietnamese oral history project, recorded in 2003, containing 98 interviews with refugees from Vietnam to the United Kingdom; available in the British Library Reading Rooms

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