Sanitized for Your Consumption

Photo by Jack GouldIn Saigon, USA, a pair of non-Vietnamese producers and directors try to capture the excitement and turmoil surrounding the settlement and growth of the exiled Vietnamese community in Orange County's Little Saigon. Unfortunately, Lindsey Jang and Robert C. Winn's documentary comes up infuriatingly incomplete, with sins of commission and omission.

Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Saigon, USA is replete with footage from Southern California media outlets, including Little Saigon news sources. There are vignettes—loosely and incoherently linked—of several leaders of the migr community as well as profiles of several younger members who, stereotypically, are largely opposed to their elders' politics.

Saigon, USA's greatest sin is not that it resorts to such a tired format—the traditional immigrant arc of making it in America against all odds—to tell the Little Saigon story. It's the inaccuracy and incompleteness of that portrayal.

For example, Vu Nguyen—the former OC Weekly contributor turned Orange County Register reporter turned current staffer at the Spokesman Review of Spokane, Washington—is depicted as a typical American young person, strumming on his electric guitar and sporting a variety of hairdos, including glowing orange/red spikes. Of his homeland, he declares, "Who cares? I'm here!" and dismisses as useless the prolonged 1999 demonstrations against Hi Tek video-store owner Truong Van Tran for displaying Vietnam's flag and a portrait of its late leader Ho Chi Minh. At one point, Vu says flatly that the 53 days of strident protests accomplished "nothing."

However, even superficial research (e.g. on uncovers that Vu penned for this paper an article titled "Why I Hate Ho Chi Minh" (Feb. 19, 1999—with Ho Chi Minh on the cover). It served as the counterpoint to Weekly colleague Nick Schou's article in the same issue portraying Ho as more a nationalist and anti-colonialist than a communist. Vu was a Weekly intern enrolled at Cal State Fullerton at the time he wrote the story. Far from being an Americanized and apolitical college student disinterested in his country of origin—after all, Vu's father, Chuyen Nguyen, works for California state Senator Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana)—Vu wrote why he and his compatriots view Ho with more than disdain:

"Most Americans live with luxury—not just material, mind you, but also the luxury of historical amnesia. . . . I don't have that luxury. My family—like many Vietnamese American families—can't forget why we are here. We are refugees from a regime Ho has come to symbolize, a regime that brutalized and murdered our people because of our beliefs."

Despite the Weekly's ripping local rep, one might try to argue that Vu's article was obscure to a national audience and, perhaps, the Saigon USA filmmakers. But his story was widely circulated and talked about in Little Saigon and even reprinted in Vietnamese in a publication there.

That's not the only place where it was reprinted. "Why I Hate Ho Chi Minh" is included in a 2002 anthology, The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience, edited by the Smithsonian Institution's Asian Pacific American program director, Franklin Odo, and published by Columbia University Press. That's a publication you'd expect serious film researchers to at least crack open.

* * *

Saigon, USA does correctly depict another key youth figure, Bao Quoc Nguyen, who just completed his undergraduate studies at UC Irvine several weeks ago, as completely Americanized. Bao organized fellow UCI students to protest presidential candidate John McCain's visit to Asian Garden Mall in Westminster in 2000 after the former Vietnam War POW used the derogatory term "gook" to describe his Vietnamese captors. Among the most striking images in Saigon, USA is news footage of Bao wearing a self-made "American Gook" T-shirt and exhorting the crowd, "We are Americans, not gooks. . . . Are you gooks?" McCain supporters, who insist that "gook" means communist, push Bao onto Bolsa Avenue. Vu notes that the mob kicked and spat on him, even though he was covering the protest as a journalist.

Yet, even here, the footage leaves out some of the more obnoxious things the McCain side did. Interviewing Bao on my Subversity radio show on KUCI the following day, he told me that some counterprotesters urinated on student protesters.

The film downplays more high-profile ugliness in Little Saigon. Although video-store owner Tran's civil rights attorney, Ron Talmo, is shown leaving the scene of the Hi Tek protests with a police escort after one encounter with demonstrators, the filmmakers leave out the fact that it was the mainstream reporters there who surrounded and protected the lawyer from the anti-Communist protesters who were kicking him. Talmo recounted on Subversity that protest leader Ky Ngo seized a microphone and pointed out to the mob that Tran's lawyer was there. This also is not in the film.

Depictions of such well-known figures as outgoing Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam (the first Vietnamese American elected to public office) also leave one wondering about the thoroughness of the filmmakers' research. Shown promoting Little Saigon as a tourist attraction and later at a cemetery declaring he wanted to be buried here in America, Saigon USA never mentions that Lam became a protest target after, on the advice of the city attorney, he did not attend the Hi Tek demonstrations. Lam's restaurant, Vien Dong, was besieged by some of the same Hi Tek protesters for so long that he ended up suing them and eventually moving it to another location. He ultimately withdrew from politics when he realized he could not win another election—a point that's also missing from the film.

Frank Jao, the Chinese Vietnamese developer who owns much of Little Saigon's commercial real estate, is also depicted favorably, coming off as almost apolitical despite his ardent support for the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq. The film makes no reference to the controversy stirred up by Jao's plan to build a "Harmony Bridge" across Bolsa Avenue in Westminster to link two malls he owns. The bridge was scrapped after protesters deemed its design "too Chinese."

Saigon, USA does deserve praise for being the first film to highlight the contributions of Chinese Vietnamese to the community, treating Jao and local artist Vi Ly (from Saigon's Chinatown, Cholon via Cincinnati) like any other Vietnamese. And the film does manage to profile, if fleetingly, Suzie Dong Matsuda, the community activist who organized what she called a "healing" demonstration at Hi Tek, where 15,000 participants made up the largest gathering there. She is most funny when describing Asian drivers as bad and poignant when pointing to a map of bus routes and saying how to take a bus was the first thing immigrants like herself learned at St. Anselm's refugee center in Garden Grove.

But given the continuing turmoil in Little Saigon, most recently over the flying of the flag of the defunct South Vietnam, Saigon, USA gives little historical analysis—or even a serious point of view—to help us understand current events. View it instead as a fleeting, tiny, made-for-TV capsule of local history.

You'd be better off renting or buying the DVD version of Green Dragon (2001), Timothy Linh Bui's far-more-excellent fictional and dramatic look at Little Saigon's origins.

Saigon, USA was directed and produced by Lindsey Jang and robert C. winn. It screens at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film & Video Festival at David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles; Mon., 7:30 p.m. $7-$9.

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