In the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, white cotton sashes hang from the ceiling in files. There are Vietnamese faces printed on them in black. The lack of a breeze keeps them motionless and, as Long Beach-based Trinh Mai has named the installation, quiet.
The installation, part of an 8-month exhibition called "Vietnamese Focus" presented by OC Parks and UC Irvine's Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP), was inspired by letters written by Vietnamese families looking for missing loved ones during the Vietnam War. These letters were preserved in UCI Libraries' Southeast Asian Archive, which Trinh Mai had been invited to use for this exhibition.
"The idea is to lift these people up," says Mai. "In these letters, the people trying to find their family members are still healing. Forty years after the Fall of Saigon, the whole Vietnamese community is still healing. I want to bring missing family members to life so we can honor their lives and, at least for me, mourn with them."
Based on the new book Vietnamese in Orange County by Thuy Vo Dang, Linda Vo, and Tram Le, this exhibition–which includes photographs, documents, oral histories, and ephemera along with Trinh Mai's artwork–aims to use interactive art and programming to showcase the complexities of the Vietnamese experience before, during, and after the war. Starting in 2011, co-directors and co-curators Vo and Le and their team have been devising ways to share the history they've been collecting to the community at large.
"We have thousands and thousands of photographs and artifacts we couldn't include in the book and we wanted to include them in the exhibit," says Le. "People think we have one story whether it's the 1975 story or the boat refugee story," Linda Vo adds. "I hope this exhibition breaks a lot of the stereotypes people have of the community. Also, it's a way for people to deal with the other painful struggles the community faces. For example, there's an intergenerational gap in which many of the younger generation don't know this history for them to have the life they have today."
"We're very pleased to host this exhibit developed by UCI at the Old Orange County Courthouse which highlights such a vibrant and important part of Orange County's heritage," says Justin Sikora, Historic Resource Specialist at OC Parks. "It is stories like these that come from the different communities in Orange County which are crucial for all residents here, no matter where you come from, to understand as part of our collective history and identity."
One of the major artworks of the exhibition is "The Stars Will Tell Us," which is based on a map that belonged to Tran Van Dung, who navigated a boat from Vietnam to Thailand invaded by pirates four times. On the fourth attack, the pirates stole Dung's compass and wrote "you go 230 degrees" on his map. Dung and the people on the boat waited until nighttime to use the stars for navigation and they made it to their destination. Mai, inspired by Dung's story, recreated the map with coffee stains and ballpoint pen and pencil marks.
For Mai, this project has been a journey of discovering the beauty of her roots. "When I was younger, I remember getting angsty at Bolsa Mall and Asian Garden Mall because there was so many people," she says. "But now I've matured and am in awe of what the Vietnamese community has been able to build. I'm not just talking about the businesses but also these amazing organizations like the Vietnamese American Arts N Letters Association and UCI Libraries' Southeast Asian Archives. To be able to celebrate that with the community is an amazing feeling. We as the Vietnamese community are one of a whole and I am reminded I am one of a whole. This project and this show has been such a beautiful reminder of that."
"Vietnamese Focus" is now open and will run until February 2016. It is open on Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and select Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on August 22, September 19, November 14, and December 19. The official grand opening celebration will be on Saturday, August 29 from 10:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the official ceremony will start at 1 p.m.
Old Orange County Courthouse, 3rd Floor Exhibit Gallery, 211 West Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 973-6605