Freedom-Free Little Saigon

Photo by Myles RobinsonElders:

Over the past decade, the first generation of Vietnamese-American artists—your sons, daughters, nephews and nieces—has created films, music, poetry, art exhibits and other efforts so imaginative that Little Saigon can transform into Harlem along Bolsa. “Can” is the operative term, though: it won't happen if you, their elder relatives, continue to obsess over Ho Chi Minh.

See, whenever a Vietnamese-American artist even broaches the subject of their ancestral country's tortured war, they run the risk of protests. Massive protests. It happened in 1999, when throngs decried a Bowers Museum exhibit because it dared include painters from Vietnam. It happens whenever a popular Vietnamese singer performs in Orange County. And it happened last month, when Westminster-based Saigon TV canceled the new infotainment program Vietnamese American Xposure(VAX) after just two episodes.

On Oct. 9, VAX profiled Saigon, U.S.A., an excellent 2003 documentary detailing the 1999 rallies of 50,000-strong outside a video store after the owner displayed a Ho Chi Minh poster and Communist Vietnam flag. During the segment, VAX aired CNN footage of the Ho poster. The shot lasted about five seconds, but it provoked a flurry of calls from outraged Vietnam War survivors who can't stomach Ho's goateed mug and took its showing as an intended insult. A small but vocal group of viewers threatened Saigon TV with the spectre of marches and picketing if the station didn't axe VAX; Saigon TV owners complied on Oct. 15.

I won't pretend to know or understand the pain Ho's acolytes caused your generation. My parents never suffered in re-education or refugee camps. I never lost loved ones to the unforgiving South China Sea. I didn't start a new life in a foreign land. But you can't allow the past to destroy your children's artistic inquiries into their roots. And howling with righteous anger every time they even discussVietnam's Communist history and reality does this.

“[Not being able to discuss the past] keeps us from telling the story of what happened,” said Sa Dao, associate executive producer of VAX. “When you don't talk about it, you get a clouded history. We're doing it because we're proud of who we are, yet it's the people who we love that are shutting us down. After a while, artists don't want to talk about it anymore.”

The funny thing is VAX is the lastartistic endeavor anyone should logically associate with disrespect to memory. It's pho-scented MTV: hosts Kathy Nguyen and Joey Nguyen are good-looking, too-enthusiastic hosts who explain Vietnamese-American life to the novice and Gnostic through pieces on notable Vietnamese-Americans such as Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen, man-on-the-street interviews asking tourists what they know about Vietnam, discussions of fashion trends and other such fluff material.

But that doesn't matter to you elders. All you saw was Ho. At a Nov. 4 town hall meeting organized by VAXat the Westminster Senior Center, Saigon TV president Larry Pham told the room he wouldn't air the show anymore because it created “problems.” When he said this, the look on the faces of the people behind VAX—none older than 30, all bilingual—was painful. “I find it ironic that the reason people escaped [Vietnam] was because they were experiencing the suppression we are now experiencing as a show,” sighed VAX producer Dean Hata earlier.

Other artists shared similar sentiments. Filmmaker Timothy Bui remembered the storms he faced after he and his brother Tony produced Three Seasons, a 1999 film dramatizing a Vietnam veteran's search for the daughter he left behind. “There's a scene in the movie that shows red leaves on a tree,” Timothy said. “A lot of people thought we were communists [because of the red] and protested. But I had to explain that those trees naturally blossom in that color.

“[Elders] see an image and act on impulse,” Timothy continued. “If I want to learn about what my parents went through, I can't. Inadvertently, then, you have to be sensitive, so that might limit artistic expression.”

Elders: suppression of your young's imaginations must stop. The new generation will never forget where they came from, but they want to examine it. They want to discuss it. And art is an incredibly powerful method of honoring the past by keeping the memory alive. If you leave Ho and the Vietnam War to the history books or the canards of the Little Saigon airwaves, this trauma will become staid and dehumanized. And if you don't let the younger generation speak, they will soon stop caring.

It's already happening. “When we started, we wondered what kind of base we wanted—Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American or more mainstream,” said Nguyet Le Thomas, a writer and editorial director for VAX. “Unfortunately, in our experience with the elders, they do not support us. It saddens me—no, it disappoints me. Those are our community leaders. But what people must realize is that [younger Vietnamese-Americans] are community leaders, too. What's more, our voices will be projected longer into the future than theirs.”

If you disregard your children's pleas, then at least remember the comments of a middle-aged white man who spoke that contentious Nov. 4 night. He approached the podium and looked at the VAX staff. “What the older generation fought for and died for,” the man said, his voice trembling as he waved his hand toward the young, “was this.”

—Gustavo Arellano


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