Denis Do: Creating a bridge for all Teochew communities in the world

The Forest of Miss Tang (陳小姐的森林) is a 40-minute Teochew language animation film produced in France. It tells the story of a Teochew family over six generations in Swatow, China, asking the question, to leave or to stay? The Forest of Miss Tang is the first Teochew language film to be produced in the West. It was broadcast on ARTE channel in Europe on 10 June 2023 and it has since been screened in a number of film festivals around the world.


The director of The Forest of Miss Tang is Denis Do, a Teochew born and raised in Paris. His parents migrated from Cambodia to France as refugees in the 1970s. Denis previously directed in 2018 an earlier animated film, Funan, which was about a Cambodian woman and her search for her child, during the beginning of the Khmer Rouge revolution. The Teochew Store managed to speak with Denis to find out more about his feelings towards the Teochew identity and the creation of his film.

The Forest of Miss Tang film director Denis Do 杜来顺


The Teochew Store (TTS): France is half the globe away from China and Southeast Asia. Can you briefly introduce the Teochew community in France to our readers? How strongly do its young members identify themselves as Teochews?

Denis Do (DD): There may be about ten thousand or more Teochews living in France. No one knows the exact number. French laws do not permit the survey of people by ethnicity. Moreover, many early Teochew immigrants registered themselves as Cambodian, Vietnamese, etc, according to the country they arrived from. We also have Teochews from Laos and Thailand.

Based on the memberships of our Teochew association, Amicale des Teochew en France, and youth association, Les Jeunes Teochew de France, the great majority of the Teochews here came from Cambodia. With regards to our place of ancestry in Teochew, we are diversified with some families from Gek-yor (揭陽), others from Teo-yor (潮陽), and Swatow (汕頭), etc. However, we do not differentiate ourselves in these terms. We see and emphasise ourselves as Teochews. Having said this, we are conscious of our legacy and heritage from Cambodia and other countries, which make us different from Teochews in China.

For the new generation of Teochews born in France, we see ourselves as French but identify ourselves very strongly as Teochews. Our community was established in Paris in the 1970s. About 20 years ago, more mainland Chinese, especially from Wenzhou, began to appear. They started their own businesses where there were restaurants and shops owned by Teochew people and changed the identity of these districts. This made us conscious that our identity, language, culture and heritage might disappear or evolve.

We want to actively preserve our identity and try our best to transmit it to the next generation, making it more vivid for everyone and helping the French understand us Teochew people better. The young Teochews, some of the second generation but more of the third generation, really feel the need to explore our origin and identity. It is not enough just to say we are Chinese. We have our specificities and the main one is our language. We want to promote it, make it known and practice it between us.


TTS: Did you grow up seeing yourself as a Teochew?

DD: I was born and raised in District 19 of Paris. There were several Teochew families around mine. At school, I spoke a mix of Teochew and French with my Teochew friends. I identified myself as Teochew since young.

My parents sometimes conversed in Cambodian. It became obvious to me that our language, Teochew Ue, and Cambodian, do not have the same roots. At one point I asked my mother, what is it to be a Teochew Nang (Teochew person)? She replied that Teochew Nang are people who migrated to Cambodia from “Kok Lai”. I searched a world map for a place called “Kok Lai”, but found nothing. One day at the age of seven, my mother brought me to learn Putonghua (Mandarin) and explained it is the language of “Kok Lai”. I suddenly realised “Kok Lai” meant “in the country” (國內) and the Teochew people came from China.


TTS: What was the inspiration for the story in The Forest of Miss Tang? Why the focus on the question, “to leave or to stay”?

DD: Many of our family members faced the choice, of whether to leave or to stay, according to the situation in different periods in Teochew. My grandfather from my father’s side and my mother’s family left Teochew between the 1920s and 1940s for different reasons. Migration is a point that is very relevant to all Teochews living outside China.

A strong motivation was planted in my heart to make this film after I discovered a link on Facebook to a documentary called “Teochew Letters”. I was so happy to watch something like this because we all know a film on Teochew and with Teochew Ue is quite rare. The subject of the documentary, its music, rhythm, and everything in it, pushed me to make a film about a family struggling with the question of “to leave or to stay” through many generations.


TTS: The Forest of Miss Tang was screened in Swatow and it received strong positive reactions from many viewers, especially the young. Do you see this as the start of conversations between Teochews living inside and outside mainland China about our community identity?

DD: The Asian premiere of The Forest of Miss Tang was in Swatow. The original plan was to screen the film first in South Korea. However, I received a request from the organisers of a Swatow film festival asking if they could show my film and of course I could not refuse them. My only condition was that they interview the audience after the screening to get their feedback.

I spent almost half a day watching the audience interviews. I was so touched by the things they said. I wanted this film to remind our entire community that even though some of us decided to stay, and others decided to leave, all of us share experiences as a family at one point in history.


TTS: What were the biggest challenges faced by your team during the production of the film? What advice can you give to any aspiring filmmaker who wants to do a film on the Teochew people and our history? 

DD: The voice dubbing was quite complicated. I wrote the film’s screenplay in French and got people from Swatow to translate it into Teochew Ue. However, the expressions and accents they used for the dialogues were different from how we speak in France. The vocabulary of the Teochew currently spoken in Swatow is influenced by Mandarin. On the other hand, the Teochew we speak in France is influenced by Cambodian. Thus some of us could understand them, but it was difficult for most of us. Accordingly, we had to re-work the translations.

Besides this, most of the people we hired for voice dubbing were not professionals and they were not fluent in Teochew. We had to simplify the dialogues for them, translate the script back into French and add peng’im (phonetics), in addition to carrying out practices and rehearsals before we did the final dubbing.

Anyone who wishes to produce a Teochew animation or life-action film in future has to take into consideration the challenges of language and set aside time and money to overcome them. Partnering with production firms in Teochew may be a solution.  

A local language film, such as Teochew, may not be easy to promote across the whole of mainland China. You may have to dub the film in Putonghua. The chances for the film to reach Western countries may also be low. 

My initial plan was to make The Forest of Miss Tang in Putonghua to share it with a wider audience in China and the world. However, someone at a French institution supporting the film asked why I was not making it in Teochew Ue since this is about explaining the Teochew identity. I had my doubts about finding people for voice dubbing and also because I had never been to Swatow. In the end, I decided to use Teochew Ue to make the film more authentic and I got help from members of the Amicale des Teochew en France to cast and hire people. 

You can hear from the film that the voice dubbing can be improved, but I hoped for this film to create a bridge for all Teochew communities in the world, and the Teochew people overseas and in China. I believe the film has achieved its goal.


TTS: What changes has the completion of the film brought to the Teochew community in France?

DD: Working on the script, the dialogues and through the casting and rehearsals in the voice dubbing, it became apparent to me that it is getting more and more difficult for our youths in France to practise and speak Teochew Ue. For the next generation, it will be even more challenging. The language might disappear in France in one or two generations.

That is why after producing this film, we decided to form the Jeunes Teochew de France in March 2023 to preserve and promote the Teochew language. We also want to connect with like-minded associations across the world to share resources for our heritage.


TTS: How can our readers who have not watched The Forest of Miss Tang do so?

DD: The Forest of Miss Tang was shown in Swatow again on 2nd December at a film festival honouring a Teochew-born Chinese film pioneer.

There have been discussions to screen the film at events in various cities in Asia, including Singapore, in the early part of next year. The film may then be made available to the wider public at the end of 2024.


Watch the trailer of The Forest of Miss Tang:


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