Fresh Division Appears in Little Saigon

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!"

The younger Nguyen was an infant when Saigon fell and his family fled to the U.S. As a teenager, he says, he "didn't care about where I came from because who cares? I am here. I was busy with all these other things: playing with my friends, playing football, going to the right parties, drinking—doing the things kids do." Now, he says, he understands the importance of politics—especially politics that make a difference in peoples' lives. Tran's flaunting of Ho Chi Minh was "repugnant" but not enough to alarm, he says. "The older generation protested [Tran] like crazy, and that's great and all, but what did it accomplish?" Nguyen asks. "It accomplished nothing. The Vietnam that my parents talk about is dead. It doesn't exist anymore."

Xuyen Dong-Matsuda, an Orange County therapist, saw the anger and the frustration during the Tran demonstrations and wanted to channel the energy into something positive. She helped organize a candlelight vigil to help "heal the community" and to "pray for the freedom of people in Vietnam." Footage of the event in the film shows her success. A news camera scans an enormous crowd that, at least temporarily, has set aside its exaspersation.

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Nguyen Protesting Sen. John McCain's use of the term "Gook"
Photo courtesy of Lindsey Jang & Robert C. Winn

But the most important figure in the film is Q. Bao Nguyen, a sophomore UCI political science major when he was interviewed. Nguyen tells the story of how his parents narrowly escaped Vietnam in 1975, how he was born in a Thai refugee camp and that among his most memorable childhood experiences was an American elementary school teacher who tried to get him to change his name to "Bob." His parents hated Tran's posting of the Ho Chi Minh picture, but their son shrugs his shoulders and said it was Tran's right. "My parents think we have too much freedom in this country," says Nguyen. "I don't think we have enough."

At first glance, Nguyen is easily underestimated. His lanky body and innocent-seeming smile belie a quick mind, fierce independence and a poise beyond his age. The sixth of seven children, he's not a stereotypical, apathetic youth. His ethnicity is a source of pride, he's active in community issues and it almost brings him to tears when he talks about his dream of someday visiting Vietnam with his mother. (He is visiting Vietnam for the first time now.)

"I think the older generation feels that the younger generation is losing its roots, is detached from their cultural heritage and is becoming American in a bad way," he tells Jang and Winn. "And I feel like we don't have enough dialogue."

It was Nguyen who spearheaded what truly is the seminal moment in Little Saigon history and who gave Saigon, USA its greatest image: an animated Nguyen holding a megaphone and leading about 15 other Vietnamese college students to protest Senator John McCain's calculated use of the term "gook" during the 2000 Republican presidential primary.

During the McCain campaign rally at Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, older refugees—as a rule, diehard supporters of Republicans, whom they see as most anticommunist—wanted their community to express nothing but cheers for the onetime Vietnam War POW. The students, however, didn't see anticommunist sentiment as a relevant electoral litmus test and weren't willing to blindly follow the Republican Party. They praised McCain's military heroics, but held him accountable for employing the racially derogatory term.

"We are Americans—not gooks!" Nguyen said repeatedly to the crowd of 3,000. "Are you a gook? No!"

Hoping that national media outlets such as the Washington Post, Associated Press and CNN would follow his lead, McCain ignored the protesters who wore handmade T-shirts that mockingly said "American Gook." Some older Vietnamese Americans did not appreciate the dissent. For more than 40 minutes, at least two dozen adults screamed at, spat on, punched, pinched and kicked the students. Nguyen was called a communist, told to "go back to Hanoi," and pushed violently into a busy street where smirking Westminster cops stood by.

But Nguyen didn't give up. "Dear people, we love our country like you do," Nguyen said in Vietnamese. "We hate communism like you do. But we don't agree with the word gook. It's wrong. It's hurtful. People need to be educated about that."

His explanation was ignored. Older refugees seethed. They described the students as patsies and claimed preposterously that "gook" means "communist." One irate man shouted that only communist sympathizers would say anything against McCain.

Vu Nguyen was there as a Weekly reporter and met Bao Nguyen (no relation) that night. He couldn't believe the violence he witnessed. "A girl [protesting with Bao] had her poster torn down," Vu recalls. "They kicked and punched her—like, 40- and 50-year-old men." Journalist Andrew Lam summed up nicely the older generation's behavior: "Those people who lost the war are full of hurt and angst and bitterness and there is a sense that this is still being worked out."

Although she wasn't part of the violent crowd at the McCain rally, Thi Ha Pham shared their irritation. "Young people, they don't know," she says. "Only old people know everything [about communist atrocities in South Vietnam]." A soft-spoken Bao Nguyen insists it was right to challenge McCain, but regrets upsetting the older crowd. "Maybe our message didn't come across right to them," he says.

This bit of film captures the precise moment when Little Saigon—to that point, a community ruled by Confucian harmony and deference toward elders—became more thoroughly American. More thoroughly, but not completely: spat on, punched and yelled at by their elders, Nguyen and his cohorts refused to retaliate but stood their ground; respected their elders even as they respectfully disagreed with them. It's the unforgettable image of American individualism meeting Confucian obedience in one generation.

"It was a very sad thing for me to see," Nguyen says. "Here is my community, and those people who pushed us out into the street—those older Vietnamese Americans—I see my parents in them."

* * *

There is a long list of older Vietnamese immigrants who endured the war and have made themselves unqualified American success stories. Other older refugees founder, however. They crave a life and a country that has disappeared and, while thankful to the U.S. for its hospitality, they are still angry that they've landed on the other side of the planet; they haven't bothered to learn English even though they've been here for years; they rarely leave the comfort of Little Saigon, where they can read, shop, eat and speak only Vietnamese all day. The Tran protests allowed them an adrenaline rush from a mental flight back to the days before the communists invaded their beloved Saigon. But like his peers who have spent most if not all of their lives in the U.S., Bao Nguyen awakens each day already at home. "I feel like I am the definition of an American," he says.

Vietnamese Americans rally against Ho Chi Minh poster
Photo courtesy of Lindsey Jang & Robert C. Winn

Although Bao is too polite to make the point, it's ironically the older generation and their emotional scars that are being pushed gently aside. Younger Vietnamese Americans appreciate their heritage and the plight of their struggling homeland, but they aren't going to refight the Vietnam War. They are too busy assimilating, too busy looking to the future.

"We found that the Vietnamese-American community is moving past its collective pain from the war," Winn told the Weekly. "People like Bao and Vu are showing us that there's going to be a new era of empowerment for that community."

OC Weekly—in conjunction with Regal Theaters, Nguoi Viet newspaper, KOCE-TV and the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations—is sponsoring a special one-time screening ofSaigon, USA—which is not appearing in theaters. The 57-minute film begins at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 8 at Edwards University, 4245 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-8818. Admission is free.


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