Fresh Division Appears in Little Saigon

A New Film -- Saigon, USA -- Shows Younger Vietnamese Americans Ready to Fight Their Own Battles

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Jang & Robert C. WinnIf the mainstream media are right, the seminal moment of the Vietnamese experience in America began in February 1999, when thousands of refugees protested for 53 days against a Little Saigon businessman who hung a photograph of Ho Chi Minh in his store. That businessman, video-shop owner Truong Van Tran, claimed it was his free-speech right to support the memory of the Communist revolutionary.

"Ho Chi Minh, I like him," Tran had said.

Outraged protesters—some dressed in military fatigues, others crying, chanting and waving handmade signs—said they would rally outside Tran's store until the Ho Chi Minh picture was removed.

There were enough fireworks to capture not only nightly TV news coverage but also national and international headlines that seemed to ask: Why such a fuss over a picture of a man who has been dead since 1969?

The answer is evident to anyone familiar with postwar Vietnam. Despite the promise of a healing brotherhood when Saigon fell in April 1975, Minh's disciples instead tortured or killed untold numbers of South Vietnamese and erected a barbaric, corrupt government and economic system that prompted more than a million people to flee their homeland in horror. Nobody knows for certain, but surely tens of thousands of Vietnamese who attempted to escape communist rule bravely died trying. Only in recent years have the communists—desperate for international economic assistance—loosened their control, but that's too little, too late for most refugees. Understandably, they'll never forget a bloody history symbolized by the smiling face of Ho Chi Minh.

The impassioned protests against Tran were an obvious lure for TV cameras. But they proved to be the last gasp of proud but defeated refugees. Refugees would never forget; the world had moved on. During the rallies, one older Vietnamese woman insisted to the Weekly that the youth of her community must join her fight. Holding a poster that read "Down With Communists," she said, "We have to win back our country."

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Painter VI LY
Photo courtesy of Lindsey Jang & Robert C. Winn

That woman is going to be disappointed. Saigon, USA—a new documentary by Lindsey Jang and Robert Winn in cooperation with Huntington Beach-based KOCE, the California Council for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—gives this country its first cinematic evidence of the profound generational gap in America's Vietnamese community. At the outset of their project, Jang and Winn sought only to document the protests against Tran. But after several interviews, the two Los Angeles-based filmmakers knew they had found a bigger, untold story. The result is a simple but brilliant portrait of the sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes comic rift between older refugees still obsessed with Ho Chi Minh and younger Vietnamese Americans dedicated to getting a decent education, finding a well-paying job and embracing the distinctly American concept of individuality. They are consumed more by Napster, Starbucks and South Coast Plaza than by napalm or the tunnels of Cu Chi.

For example, Vietnamese American painter Vi Ly, who escaped her homeland on an overcrowded boat in 1979, recounts in Saigon, USA her first reaction to seeing the Tran protests on television: "Oh, how embarrassing!" says Ly, "I think that it's silly that people make such a ruckus over a photograph." But former South Vietnamese colonel Ly "Leslie" Khac Le insists to the filmmakers that the rallies were necessary. "We had to show the people of the United States and of the world that we do not accept communism," he says. His refugee status has created an excruciating identity crisis for Le. After his commanding general fled in a helicopter, the colonel found himself the ranking officer at Pleiku, Vietnam, in April 1975 as communist troops overran the strategic city on their march to Saigon. In America, Le had to scrub a drugstore toilet for work, something he did to help his son become a doctor. He's succeeded here, but his heart is elsewhere. "Somehow, someday, we will go back, and we will continue the fight, and we will win the country back," he says with genuine seriousness.

Then there is Kathy Hoang, the Little Saigon beauty queen who sounds like a Valley girl. To her father's frustration, Hoang cannot speak Vietnamese fluently and prefers to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" at community events. She says the generation gap with her dad is immense. "Even though we come from the same blood and I'm Vietnamese, I could totally just see, like, how it has actually separated us and made me become someone else," Hoang says. "I am trying my best to actually break that barrier down, but I think it's impossible."

Chuyen Nguyen—a battle-toughened Vietnam War combat pilot turned Little Saigon refreshment shop owner and aide to state Senator Joe Dunn—helped lead the Tran protests. He weeps for the first time in front of his family as he tells the filmmakers that he wants his ashes scattered in Vietnam after he dies. That man's son, former Weekly contributor and now Seattle Times correspondent Vu Nguyen, appears sporting multicolored spiked hair and leather collars. "I grew up in such a different world from [my dad]," he says as he's shown strumming a guitar in a live, five-member band act at the Liquid Den in Huntington Beach. "Niko [the band's singer] and me are chock-full of soul!"

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