From here to Katrina

March 15, 2006

From here to Katrina

Hit hard by the storm and abandoned by their government, some Gulf Coast residents have found themselves relying on a few unlikely saviors — Bay Area burners.

By Steven T. Jones


Pearlington, Miss. It’s hard to imagine the devastation until you see it. It’s even harder to fathom why so much wreckage remains almost six months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the richest and most powerful country on Earth, laying to waste hundreds of thousands of homes between Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans, La.

In the path of Katrina’s eye, buildings were ripped apart or crushed by trees, boats, or other houses. The homes that still stand are now freckled with black mold and awaiting demolition. The southern Mississippi coastline was wiped clean by the 30-foot storm surge, except for the ghostly, darkened hull of a pirate ship built as a casino. The New Orleans levee breaches knocked out almost all of the small homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The failures of the government to prevent this disaster or respond effectively — both during the storm and since then — are a national shame. The corruption and incompetence — some would even say greed and racism — that have hampered efforts to plan for the return of residents to poor urban neighborhoods is a tragedy that is still unfolding.

But there’s another story here on the Gulf Coast, a more hopeful story. It’s a story of people from around the country — including many from the San Francisco Bay Area — who have descended on the region, placing their lives on hold so they can help their fellow humans dig out of the muck and rebuild.

In New Orleans, community organizers and social justice advocates with roots in the Bay Area came together to form Common Ground, which operates a soup kitchen, a medical clinic, and a political and legal advocacy network. Emergency Communities forms a similar structure in St. Bernard Parish, serving 1,400 meals a day from its Made with Love Café domes.

Throughout the Gulf Coast, religious groups from around the country — from Salvation Army to Islamic Relief to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance — have settled into communities big and small, setting up in tent cities to rebuild church halls, distribute relief items, or lend a hand with the work. Other residents turn to the Red Cross, which distributes food and supplies, or to the subcontractors of the subcontractors actually doing work on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers, workers who will haul away their rubble if residents can get it to the street.

Many of these groups have a presence in Pearlington, a small community along the Pearl River, which divides Louisiana from Mississippi, a town the eye of Katrina passed over on Aug. 29, leaving only five of its roughly 2,000 buildings repairable.

But there’s another organization in town, one that’s a lot less conventional — and in many ways, a lot more effective.


Burning Man, the giant art festival in the Nevada desert, has a reputation in some quarters as a self-indulgent freak fest. And for a lot of the people who make the trip, it’s mostly a party. But behind the scenes, the event is a serious operation: Someone has to build from scratch and then take down what amounts to a medium-size city every year.

So Burning Man has spawned a large network of resourceful people with all manner of survival, construction, and cleanup skills — and when Katrina hit, during last year’s festival, some people decided to put their well-honed community-building skills to work on the Gulf Coast.

Thus Theme Camp Katrina, also known as Burners Without Borders, was born, an informal disaster relief crew that has been working out of encampments on the Gulf Coast since the first week of September, consisting of up to a couple dozen people at any one time and cycling more than 100 people through since it started.

Many took vacation time to come. Among those who have stayed for longer stints, most were at transition periods in their lives — between jobs or just getting out of romantic relationships — or the work caused them to create a transition. It seems easy to linger here. There’s no rent or other real living costs, and the three square meals a day from a well-stocked kitchen, made by a fantastic cook known as Spoon, are better than most people eat at home.

After spending four months in Biloxi — distributing supplies, doing home demolition and cleanup, and rebuilding a Buddhist temple — the group moved to Pearlington in early January, setting up camp where the post office had been before it was destroyed by Katrina, its pieces strewn among the trees and other debris in an adjacent bayou forest.

“We’re the only heavy-equipment operator out here,” said Richard Scott, 50, who works for Burning Man using cranes and other equipment in support of artists. He’s been on the Gulf Coast since right after the hurricane, and managed to get Daewoo to donate an excavator — a massive, dinosaurlike piece of equipment capable of ripping apart a house — and a large front-loader tractor, each vehicle weighing 28,000 pounds.

The donations joined the large trailer and smaller Kubota front-loader that Matt Linsday (who spearheaded the effort), his father, Phil Linsday, and other family members drove down from their construction business in Eugene, Ore., the first week in September. That was what started the influx of burners to the Gulf Coast, people ranging from low-skilled grunts to experienced carpenters, like Philip Zeitgold, a former San Francisco resident, and Mark Grieve, the San Rafael resident who oversees the construction of the temple at Burning Man.

“It became a Burning Man thing, but it didn’t really start out that way,” Scott said. “People came down here because they had a connection.”

And once they came, many simply stayed. Zeitgold planned to be here for a week but found the work so fulfilling that he’s stayed for two months and intends to remain until the group breaks camp April 1. Many share that story, including San Francisco resident Carmen Mauk, who came in late December and just can’t leave. “This hurricane could have rolled right through here yesterday,” Mauk said as she surveyed the debris around Pearlington. “That’s where they’re at.”

They work all day, usually every day except Sunday, in white neighborhoods and black, on soggy little shacks and a once exquisite Frank Lloyd Wright house, picking up debris by hand or doing skilled specialty work, and never taking money from the locals for their efforts. And all the while, they add a lively splash of color to this devastated community, with their tattoos and piercings, brightly colored cruiser bikes, and art projects they burn in a campfire that never seems to go out.

To say they’ve been welcomed here is an understatement, particularly given what Pearlington residents have been through.


Every project the crew has taken on comes with a story, and many of those stories involve the stately, gnarled oak trees that filled the region, perches that saved most of those who stayed to ride out the storm.

One photo from a surveillance camera conveyed the power of what hit Pearlington: It showed a surging wave of seawater as high as the 40-foot oak trees, a massive shrimp boat just a speck in the wave, the sea in the background just as high. Once it washed through town, the entire region was under more than 10 feet of water most of the day.

Samuel Burton and his 28-year-old granddaughter, Freda, came into the camp my first day there to ask for help removing two large pecan trees that had fallen in their yard. A couple of us went to check it out, driving into an African American neighborhood with a massive oak tree at its center.

“I was in that house there, and I ended up in that tree,” Freda Burton told me.

I hadn’t yet grown accustomed to the stories of people escaping from floodwater in the trees, so her story seemed almost unbelievable. The floodwaters came in the morning, when she was lounging around the house with her aunt and pregnant sister wearing just a T-shirt and boxer shorts. They all ran outside to try to get to high ground, but the water was rising too fast. Burton couldn’t swim, so she desperately clung to a car, then some vines that hung from the oak tree. Eventually, the rising water allowed the three of them to make it up into the tree’s branches, where they sat shivering for the next 12 hours. Samuel Burton, holding his dog, and a nephew were in a smaller tree nearby.

“I sat in the tree and watched my house go underwater,” she said.

The next job was over at Santa Looter’s, a nickname we’d given to a house owned by a guy named Buzzy, who’d placed a sign next to the Santa Claus figure in his front yard that read, “Keep out or all you’ll get for Christmas is SHOT!”

The two houses on the property were tear-downs, the floors full of dried mud cracked into jigsaw puzzle pieces, the walls pocked with black mold. To enter the house and hope to avoid the dreaded “Katrina cough,” one had to wear a respirator or a mold mask.

Buzzy and his wife had evacuated before the storm, but his son and daughter-in-law had stayed behind and ended up in an oak tree. Within a couple of hours, our crew of a half dozen had transferred a yard full of smelly debris into a pile by the street, and Buzzy dropped his good-ole-boy demeanor and fumbled for the words to properly express his gratitude, still seeming to not understand why all these strangers had helped him for free.

Across the street, the excavator was parked in front of Matthew Abel’s large, white house, his demolition permit number and “Tear Me Down” written in red on the walls. Richard Scott would attack his house in the morning, but that night Abel came by the campfire to have a few beers and share his story.

“I was sitting in my front room getting drunk, watching WLOX on TV,” Abel said. He grew up in New Orleans before coming to Pearlington, and he’d heard many hurricane warnings, none of which ever amounted to much. “But this time, it happened, man.”

He watched the rising water through a window and thought about making a break for it in his car until an oak tree fell across his driveway and blocked him in. Then the water started to rise through his floorboards, and he dove to save his cat: “I just wanted to make sure Nunu was all right.”

Abel put Nunu in a cat box and set it on his mattress, which was now floating. “It’s weird to see everything you own floating,” he said. The water level continued to rise, so Abel bailed out of the house and climbed an oak tree. That night, once the water level had fallen, he retrieved Nunu and saw that the waterline had come within a couple feet of his ceiling.


After dealing with Buzzy’s mucky mess, the group pedaled its bicycles over to a slightly more upscale part of town, Belle Isles, where many of the houses had private fishing boat docks along a man-made canal that paralleled the Pearl River, the bridge to Louisiana looming on the horizon.

It was a field trip to investigate the Frank Lloyd Wright house that had partially collapsed and been buried under a pile of debris. The owners, Billy and Sharon Graham, had contacted Scott in tears and asked him to tear it down. It had been their dream house, and they couldn’t even bear to deal with its wrecked remains. Upon inspection, it seemed a treasure trove to Burners Without Borders.

Built almost entirely of cedar and brick, with Wright’s signature double-cantilever design roof extending to the ground, it had clearly been a magnificent house. Indeed, much of it was still solid, except for the fact that the waterside columns had given way and collapsed half the roof onto the living room. That, and the water damage.

The more striking impact of Katrina here was the deep pile of wood and debris between the house and the water, the remains of destroyed homes, piers, and other structures from who knows where. Here was a massive pile of boards, many of them solid, usable wood — everything from 2-by-4s to 2-by-10 planks — from which the carpenters in the group could help other Katrina victims rebuild. After all, the burners were working for free, the camp surviving almost entirely on donations from other burners and outside groups. Plus, there was enough scrap wood to keep the campfire burning for weeks.

In the morning, Scott used the excavator to single-handedly tear down Abel’s house — and his oak tree perch — before lunchtime. Before that, he made an announcement. After demolishing dozens of homes — sometimes two a day, unleashing their mold spores in the process — and spending a solid five months on this devastated coastline, he needed a change.

“I’m getting really tired of wrecking houses. I want to build something. I need to leave something other than empty lots,” he told the group during the Friday morning meeting, proposing that the group focus much of its energy on rebuilding the house of Tony Vegeletta, a 71-year-old man who’d lost everything in the storm and had been one of the first Pearlington locals to befriend the group.

Some resisted. “If we were only building, I’d feel like we weren’t contributing as much,” said Lisa Benham, a volunteer from the South Bay who had arrived Jan. 7.

“Every day, we have three or four people ask for help,” Scott said, noting that the workload was endless and it was beginning to take its toll on his health, mental and physical, a statement his look and tone seemed to validate.

“I want to make my last month here as enjoyable as possible. I’ve done my commitment,” he said. “We all put our own expectations on ourselves.”


It had been a big workweek, so on Saturday, Feb. 11, Mauk, Benham, and Jim Jordan from Seattle decided to join me for a tour of New Orleans, visiting the major aid groups and seeing the devastation before watching the very first of the season’s Mardi Gras parades, Krewe du Vieux, in the French Quarter.

At the Emergency Communities site, I met Luke Taylor, a student from a Sebastopol high school whose senior trip had been moved from Mexico to New Orleans so the students could help with the relief effort. He said it had been an eye-opening experience.

“Nobody expected to arrive here and have it look like a third world country,” Taylor said. “We really feel good being here, and we wish we could stay.”

It was a common sentiment among volunteers on the Gulf Coast. It’s hard work in a sometimes emotionally jarring setting, but intensely satisfying. The volunteers at Common Ground — which operates out of the only restored and repainted house in the Lower Ninth Ward, among other locations in the city — said the same thing.

“Common Ground has been the great leap forward for the global justice movement,” Bay Area activist James Tracy, an early volunteer for the group, told me. “You had all these different factions of the US left actually working well together for a change.”

Former Black Panthers (including Common Ground founder Malik Rahim), labor leaders, community organizers, tenants rights activists, doctors from the Bay Area Radical Health Collective, antiwar protestors — they came together to do physical work on behalf of the displaced poor of New Orleans.

“It was on the ground, gutting houses. Every morning, Common Ground would marshal volunteers to help residents try to salvage their houses,” Tracy said. “We literally saved people thousands of dollars just by helping them out for a day.”

Over at the Parkway Partners’ Sun Don Organic Community Garden, we ran into noted San Francisco writer and activist Starhawk on her way to teach a class on bioremediation, which involves introducing red wiggler worms into the soil as a way of breaking down the toxins left by the floodwaters.

“It’s the kind of work that the EPA should be doing but isn’t,” Starhawk told us, noting that New Orleans is a good place to test this approach to cleansing the soil. “Then we want to go home and bioremediate San Francisco.”

Most of the city was abandoned; much of it was destroyed or mildewing, the most active signs of life being the new signs stuck to posts or displayed in yards: “We buy damaged houses,” “for sale by owner,” and advertisements for house-gutting and mold-removal services.

But the worst was the Lower Ninth Ward, a poor, predominantly African American neighborhood that had taken the most direct hit from the levee break — from the water, the debris, and a block-long steel barge that crushed houses and people and was still sitting right where it came to rest. And if the devastation wasn’t bad enough, a steady stream of tourists poured through taking pictures, the most life we’d seen in New Orleans all day.

I almost couldn’t bear to return to this neighborhood in the late afternoon, when local residents would be getting out of a community meeting Common Ground had called. But then I met Deborah Harris. She had lived there half her life, 26 years, and when I asked if her house was still standing, she replied with a sassy, “That’s about all it’s doing.”

Although people in Pearlington all seem to want their damaged houses torn down, in New Orleans there’s a different sentiment. Many seem to feel that once their dwellings are gone, the residents will be displaced.

Not Harris. “I’m going to rebuild,” she said. “I’m going to start small and build up.”

It won’t be easy. Her property and those of her neighbors had just been assessed at a ridiculously low $750. And even though she’d applied for both demolition permits and a FEMA trailer in early October, her applications were still pending. She believed New Orleans officials were trying to keep poor residents out so the prime riverside real estate of the Lower Ninth Ward could be turned into casinos and a golf course. Her reasoning rang true after my stay in southern Mississippi, where just about every standing house had its demolition permit number written on the side and a trailer in the yard.

“Everyone wants to make this a black or white issue, but it’s a human issue,” Harris said. “I’m 51 years old, how the hell am I going to start over again?”

The answer: She’s not. Harris said she’s going to stay in her community, on her property, no matter what designs corrupt New Orleans officials have on her neighborhood. “If I have the only tent that’s in the yard, I’m going to be here, and I dare them to try to get me out.”

This same resilient, defiant spirit was on display during the Krewe du Vieux parade that evening in the French Quarter — a part of New Orleans that didn’t flood and seemed completely intact. Floats and paraders mocked FEMA and the whole range of government entities, dressed in the blue tarps that are ubiquitous on Gulf Coast rooftops, and appealed for a reversal of the Louisiana Purchase with the slogan “Buy us back, Chirac.”

Along with the beads and other traditional throws to the large crowd, Krewe du Vieux handed out little life preservers with the slogan “C’est Levee.” Yet there was one parader who subtly offered the grim reminder not to let the grand distraction of Mardi Gras interfere with the work at hand.

“Seeds and deeds, not beads,” he said solemnly as he walked the route. “Seeds and deeds, not beads.”


No single deed performed by Burners Without Borders was more striking than its reconstruction of the Chau Van Duc Buddhist Temple in Biloxi. The Vietnamese American residents of this fishing village had spent more than 10 years raising money for the temple and 4 years on its construction — holding its grand-opening ceremony Aug. 28, the day before Katrina, which severely damaged the temple and surrounding village.

When the Linsday family, the construction workers from Oregon, arrived with their equipment, they set up camp in the temple’s parking lots, helping to run what became an important disaster relief center for Biloxi. Many of the burners who followed came from the Temple Crew, a perfect match for the temple reconstruction efforts that began almost immediately and was completed by Christmas.

Other groups helped. In fact, at one point Islamic Relief asked for supplies from the Mormon Church in Utah, which were delivered through the Salvation Army to the burners, who used them to help the Buddhists. But when we had tea in the temple — now a stunningly beautiful sanctuary — with a monk named Ti, he credited the burners with the temple’s restoration.

I was taken on a tour of the group’s former stomping grounds, and much of the Gulf Coast, by Tom Price, who more than anyone else was responsible for the transformation of Camp Linsday into Burners Without Borders, using the Burning Man networks and resources to increase the effort’s longevity, volunteer base, and impact.

Price, a former Washington, DC, lobbyist for environmental groups, is a contract employee for Burning Man, serving as the group’s liaison to political and law enforcement officials.

Price pointed out the Imperial Palace casino where FEMA workers stayed in Biloxi. “They were incredibly thoughtless, arrogant people living just blocks away from people who had lost everything,” he said.

The casinos figured prominently in the camp’s decision to leave. They were among the first businesses to reopen in Biloxi, creating a steady stream of traffic through devastated communities — an unsettling situation compounded by the fact that many poor renters were being served with eviction notices, the landlords preferring to sell their now-cleared land to build even more casinos.

“Yeah,” Price said, momentarily lost in memories of those days, “it was time to go.”

So they toured the devastated region, talked to other relief groups, sized up where they could do the most good, and finally settled on Pearlington, where local government didn’t exist and federal agencies and their contractors hadn’t even yet arrived to deal with the mess.


As we chain-sawed and hauled away the Burtons’ fallen pecan trees, parishioners from the adjacent First Baptist Church were gathering for lunch in a new hall that had been built for them by a visiting church group from Florida. It was one of the first new buildings in Pearlington, having hosted its first service just days earlier, and they invited us in for lunch.

Jacqueline Bradley and Johnnie Robinson, who rode out the hurricane in nearby Stennis Space Center, talked about how the storm aftermath has been hard to cope with, although they take hope from the outsiders who have come to help.

“It’s the best and the worst. My house went underwater, and it’s as tall as this,” Bradley, 51, told me, gesturing to her new church hall. Robinson, 60, added, “We’re just thankful for all that’s been done for us.”

It’s understandable why Scott wanted to leave behind something other than empty lots, something he was still off to create more of on Monday morning. “I got a house I have to demo today for a tugboat captain, and it’s a wet, stinky mess,” he said.

As the only one who could operate the excavator, he was having a hard time disengaging from the destruction. But he’d sown his seeds: Mark Grieve arrived on Sunday with a truck full of carpentry tools and others were on the way. “I throw fishing lines out there with a little bit of bait, and they come,” Scott said with a sly grin.

“My friends have come and told me about it,” Grieve told me, explaining his intention to work on Tony Vegeletta’s house during his planned week-long visit. “I’m going to get his house started, give him a little hope.”

While Scott tore down the tugboat captain’s stinky house, some of us pulled four large trailers full of good boards out of the Wright house, others used crow bars to rid the boards of nails, and others assisted Grieve as the frame of the new house started to take shape.

My week there was drawing to an end, and I had that same impulse to just stay, to keep plugging away at this unending task, that has grabbed so many.

In my last 24 hours, I’d met Bill Schierholz, 67, alone and disabled and reluctant to appeal for assistance; I’d listened to the Vietnamese owner of the only gas station and store in town ask for the help he needed to reopen; I’d watched Scott replace a crypt that had floated away from the cemetery.

And as I watched the sun drop into the Pearl River for my last time, on our way back from picking up debris in Schierholz’s yard, Price took me to the marshy banks of the river on the southernmost section. There, we saw more than a football field’s worth of wood and debris, who knows how deep, who knows how many houses worth, who knows how many people-hours it would take to deal with.

He surveyed the scene and smiled. “Where do you even begin?” *

'3rd Annual Golden Torch Award - Bridging Endless Possibilities'

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 22 /PRNewswire/ -- The Vietnamese American National
Gala (VANG) has now become an annual tradition and is actively seeking
nominations for the 3rd Annual Golden Torch Award on Saturday, May 6, 2006 at
the majestic Westin St. Francis Hotel in the heart of San Francisco, CA.
Six (6) Golden Torch Awards will be presented to America's best and
brightest in the following categories:

Honorary Vietnamese American:  An award presented to a non-Vietnamese
individual who has made a significant contribution to the lives of Vietnamese

National Leadership Award (Two Shall Be Presented -- One Vietnamese
American Organization and One Non-Vietnamese American Organization):  An award
presented to an organization for its efforts in assisting Vietnamese Americans
expand and realize their opportunities in the United States.

Golden Torch Award (Two Shall Be Presented):  An award presented to a
distinguished Vietnamese American for his/her extraordinary achievements in
his/her professional discipline and service to the community.

Student of the Year:  An award presented to an outstanding senior college
student whose services to the community, academic excellence, personal
achievements, and/or future represents the best and brightest of the next
generation of leaders.

Past honorees are as follows:
-- 2005 VANG Honorees
-- Dr. John B. Tsu, Honorary Vietnamese American
-- Lutheran Immigration & Refugees Services (LIRS), National
Leadership Award
-- Ms. Kieu Chinh, Actress, Arts & Entertainment (Garden Grove, CA)
-- Mr. Binh Nguyen, Pho Hoa, Business (Sacramento, CA)
-- Mr. Nguyen Nam Loc, Catholic Charities of LA, Community Services
(Los Angeles, CA)
-- Professor Chi Van Dang, MD, Ph.D., John Hopkins University,
Education/Medicine (Baltimore, MD)
-- The Honorable Tony Lam, City of Westminster, Government
(Westminster, CA)
-- Mr. Hau Thai-Tang, Ford Motors Company, Science & Technology
(Detroit, MI)

-- 2004 VANG Honorees
-- Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, Honorary Vietnamese American
-- Catholic Charities USA, National Leadership Award
-- Mr. Trung Dung, Fogbreak Software, Business (San Ramon, CA)
-- Ms. Ngoan Le, City of Chicago, Government (Chicago, IL)
-- Mr. Do Ngoc Yen, Nguoi Viet Daily News, Media (Westminster, CA)
-- Mr. Tran Dinh Truong, Carter Hotel, Community Services (New York,
-- Dr. Eugene Trinh, NASA, Science & Technology (Washington, DC)
-- Mr. Dat Nguyen, Dallas Cowboys, Sports (Dallas, TX)

Please submit your nomination online at

The 3rd Annual Golden Torch Award Gala dinner is part of a four-day
celebration that includes the VANG Celebrity Golf Classic and the San
Francisco City Hall Reception on Thursday, May 4, 2006; VANG Leadership
Conference, Napa Valley Wine Tasting & Tour, and VANG Welcome Reception on
Friday, May 5, 2006; San Francisco City Tour and Gala dinner on Saturday, May
6, 2006; and a Sunday Farewell Brunch.
The Vietnamese American National Gala (VANG) is a national annual
celebration of Vietnamese heritage and pride, which is held in conjunction
with the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a month-long celebration in
May of each year, which honors the achievements of Asian Pacific Americans and
recognizes their contributions to America.
VANG is the premier Vietnamese American gathering in the nation. The
black-tie dinner that Gala brings together is nearly a thousand Vietnamese
American luminaries, elected officials, corporate sponsors, and community and
business leaders to honor some of America's best and brightest, and it is
poised to be the preeminent West Coast celebration of the Asian Pacific
American Heritage Month.
Viet Heritage Society (VHS) is the host of VANG.  VHS is a non-profit
501(c)(3) organization based in San Jose, CA. Its mission is to preserve and
promote Vietnamese culture and history through the establishment of cultural
venues and educational programs that foster community understanding and
appreciation. VHS is currently developing the first Vietnamese Heritage Garden
in the nation. The ground-breaking ceremony is scheduled to take place on
Saturday, August 5, 2006 at Kelley Park in San Jose, CA.
For additional information on VANG, please visit or or contact Ryan Nguyen Hubris or Angie Pawlicki at
408-270-8000, or at

SOURCE Viet Heritage Society
Web Site:

Asahi to shoot documentary about centenarians 2006-02-22 14:38:08

HAIKOU, Feb. 22 (Xinhuanet) — A 17-member crew from Japan’s TV Asahi has arrived in Sanya City of the southernmost China’s island province of Hainan to shoot a documentary about centenarians living here.

In addition to Sanya, a well-know tourist resort, the crew of TV Asahi will go to Li-Miao Autonomous County of Baoting to cover the life of centenarians.

The Li and Miao are two of China’s 55 minority ethnic groups.

The TV feature will be broadcast in Japan on March 18.

Statistics showed that Hainan reported 420 centenarians by July 15, 2005, indicating an increase of 25 percent over 2002. The ratio of the centenarians on the island stands at 0.53 for every 10,000 people.

In China, if the ratio between centenarians and every 10,000 people reached 0.3 in a region, then it can be called a “region of longevity.” Enditem

Casinos target Asian Americans


Business is booming for California’s tribal casinos. National Indian Gaming Commission figures show that revenue for California tribal casinos —- there are now 55 in the state —- doubled between 2001 and 2004 to more than $5 billion a year.

Hoping to add more oomph to that boom, officials with several local casinos are trying to attract even more business by targeting particular ethnic groups when marketing their casinos. First on the list for many marketers: finding a way to maintain and boost the large population of Asian Americans who gamble at their tables.

Asian-American customers make up some 50 percent of the clientele at Pechanga Resort & Casino, a large casino near the Riverside and San Diego county lines, according to an official there. And officials at two other area casinos, while hesitant to specify how big a chunk of their business comes from Asian Americans, acknowledge that Asian Americans do make up a large part of their clientele.

“It’s no secret in the casino business Asians’ love for gambling and so we all have our own ways for going after that market,” said Pechanga VIP host Richard Slack, who while not Asian American speaks fluent Mandarin.

To attract those coveted Asian-American customers, Pechanga and at least two other area casinos are doing everything from advertising in ethnic publications and hiring multilingual hosts, to offering Asian-American entertainment and in one case, redesigning parts of the casino with Asian themes.

Maximizing chi
Pechanga Vice President of Marketing Michelle Schilder said last week that when the casino recently embarked on a major upgrade of its high-stakes room, it brought in a master of the Chinese art of feng shui to oversee the project. Feng shui means “wind and water,” and the ancient Chinese philosophy holds that the placement of certain objects in a room and the way the space is laid out can improve the flow of positive energy or “chi.”

“We definitely wanted to be sure that we were right on the dos and don’ts: the certain colors that mean bad luck and the placement of certain things that are no-nos,” Schilder said of the $4 million redesign project.

The entrance to the 14,000-square-foot, high-stakes room is guarded by pairs of fu dog statues, which many Chinese believe to be powerful, protective forces that bring good fortune. Earth tones dominate the room, table edges are all rounded and a waterfall provides a soothing soundscape to those who are betting a minimum of $100 a hand on games like pai gow poker or blackjack.

Slack said he regularly gives sensitivity lessons to casino employees on Asian cultures, even teaching them a few key expressions in Mandarin and other Asian languages.

“The customers really appreciate it,” Slack said.

One of the cultural customs employees have learned about is the Chinese custom of tapping one’s fingers on the table as a way of saying thank you to servers.

Pechanga also regularly features pop music stars and other artists from Asian countries. Filipino pop star Gary V, for example, recently performed to a packed house at the casino’s 1,200-capacity theater, said Ciara Coyle, public relations manager.

Competition fierce
Other local casinos also target Asian-American guests with their entertainment choices.

On Nov. 6, Harrah’s Rincon Casino & Resort in Valley Center had a Vietnamese show titled “Paris by Night.” The casino has been holding shows with Vietnamese artists for the past couple of years and a Chinese concert is scheduled for the coming weeks, said casino public relations manager Sheryl Sebastian.

She added that in the past year, casino officials have even started setting up prize wheels at Asian street fairs and festivals around Southern California, giving away prizes to winners and providing promotional information on the casino.

Asked what percentage of the casino’s business is made up of Asian Americans, she said: “That is proprietary information and we can’t really share that.”

She acknowledged however, that Asian Americans are the one group for which the casino has a specific marketing strategy.

“They definitely are an important target audience,” Sebastian said.

Harrah’s has a dedicated Asian host team with members who are fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese. The casino also runs advertisements in Asian-American publications, she said.

Pala Casino Spa Resort’s Chief Executive Officer Jerry Turk on Friday called the Asian-American market an important one for his business, although he declined to say how big a portion of the casino’s business Asian Americans represent.

He said that Pala also advertises in Asian-American newspapers and has billboards in Asian-American communities in the Los Angeles area. The casino also has a team of bilingual hosts and often features Asian entertainers, he added.

Pechanga, Rincon and Pala casinos also all have business arrangements with tourist agencies in the region that bus Asian Americans to their casinos.

Problem gamblers
Although Asian Americans are great for casino business, studies show that gambling is a widespread problem for Asian-American communities throughout the state, one that some health experts say may be growing due to the easy access of casinos and their marketing efforts to reach that audience.

Several studies in recent years appear to show a high incidence of problem gambling within Asian-American communities in California. A 1997 study by the NICOS Chinese Health Coalition in San Francisco found that as much as 21 percent of the Chinese community in that city could be identified as pathological gamblers, and that 16 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as pathological gamblers.

Another study by the same organization conducted in the same year surveyed 1,808 Chinese American adults in San Francisco. Respondents were asked to list what they thought were the greatest problems facing their community. At the top of the list was gambling, with 69.6 percent of respondents identifying gambling as a problem in the community.

An official with Chinese-American social-service organization Chinatown Service Center, based in Los Angeles, said Friday that early each morning, charter buses begin lining up along Garvey Avenue in the city of Monterey Park in the San Gabriel Valley, a city where Asian Americans make up 64 percent of the population. As soon as they fill up with passengers, the buses depart for casinos in Riverside and San Diego counties, he said.

And while the easy access to casinos does put more people at risk of problem gambling behavior, Chinatown Service Center Executive Director Lawrence J. Lue said it would be a mistake to blame casinos for simply following good business practices.

The solution lies in finding the resources to educate people about problem gambling, and “supporting them in correcting the problem,” Lue said.

UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program is currently conducting a survey of about 500 randomly selected adults in Asian-American communities in greater Los Angeles to try and measure the extent of problem gambling among members of those communities. The study is expected to be completed by June, said program co-director and psychiatrist Timothy Fong.

On Thursday, the program held a symposium on the issue with health care professionals, local community leaders and journalists.

In his presentation, Fong said that as a result of the increasing availability of legalized gambling in the state, “there is an increasing number of problem and pathological gamblers that have come to the attention of mental health professionals and community service providers.”

He went on to say that Asians and Pacific Islanders make up one of the most vulnerable groups for developing problems related to gambling.

“If you have more access (to casinos), then more pathological gamblers are the natural result,” Fong said Friday.

He stressed, however, that he doesn’t blame casinos for trying to attract more Asians, since casinos are simply going where the market is.

“It’s (about) personal responsibility; we all have the ability to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ ” Fong said, so he would not favor penalizing or trying to restrict casinos in any way.

Instead, as a society, we need to focus on prevention and treatment, and “raise awareness of problem gambling’s signs, symptoms and consequences,” Fong said.

Contact staff writer William Finn Bennett at (760) 740-5426 or

Korean Latchkey Kids Under Scrutiny in U.S.


New America Media, News Feature, Aruna Lee, Mar 08, 2006

Editor’s Note: In South Korea, leaving a small child home alone is commonplace and culturally accepted. Many Korean parents, however, are facing greater scrutiny for this custom in the United States. Aruna Lee monitors the Korean media for New America Media.
Child and toy
SAN FRANCISCO–Korean-American parents are facing increasing scrutiny for leaving small children home alone, a widespread and culturally accepted practice in South Korea, reports the Korean-language Korea Daily.

In Korea, it is common for parents to leave their children under the age of 10 home and unattended when they go out or to work. In the United States, however, such an action can lead to the parents’ arrest and a child being taken from the home.

The Korea Daily in Los Angeles reported on a recent case in the city. Two Korean parents frequently left their first-grade child at home alone when they went to work, locking the door from the outside. The newspaper also reported on an incident that occurred several years ago in which a working mother hired a Korean cab driver to pick up her daughter from a Los Angeles preschool. The driver molested the child and later held her for ransom.

“It’s difficult to keep accurate statistics on the number Korean kids who are left home alone,” says Sam Yoon, a social worker with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). He says that every month his office receives several calls from neighbors to report Korean children seen alone in the home, or to report accidents that occur in these homes.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, most states do not have laws that stipulate when a child is considered old enough for care for himself or herself. In the United States, many social workers suggest that children under the age of 12 should not be left at home unaccompanied.

Often many immigrant families cannot afford daycare for their children. They are also especially prone to leaving their children to fend for themselves because they lack the support of grandparents or other relatives nearby who might otherwise help in the care of the children. Cultural attitudes also can influence parents’ decisions.

Kyung Suk Lee, from Millbrae, Calif., grew up in Korea. She remembers a case in which Korean American parents were arrested for leaving their small children in the car while they were grocery shopping. As a mother working full-time, Lee says, she enrolls her 6-year-old son at an after-school program, which adds an additional $700 to her monthly expenses.

Hae Sun Shin, a counselor with the Korean Youth Cultural Center, says there are many detrimental emotional side effects for small children left alone. “Latchkey kids often suffer from emotional distress and other negative side effects,” she says in the Korea Daily. Latchkey kids, she says, often suffer from high levels of separation anxiety.

Jin Lee from Oakland moved to Northern California when she was very young. She recalls that when she was 8 years old, her parents often left her on her own. “I usually hung around with other kids because my mom had to go to work. There wasn’t much to eat around the house except kimchi, so when I accidentally broke a jar of it I remember crying for hours.”

Shin says parents often add to the child’s fears with their repeated warnings of “don’t answer the phone and don’t open the door for anyone.” More terrifying still is when children are told their parents could be arrested if the police discover what they’ve done.

Arrest of the parents or a child being taken out of the home is not always the ultimate outcome when children are discovered to be left alone, says Lori Lee, a social worker with Child Protective Services in San Francisco. “We try to assess the situation and uncover if what is happening is out of severe abuse or neglect or are their other issues at play such as a cultural misunderstandings.”

Such cultural misunderstandings have cropped up frequently in the Asian immigrant community. Traditional medicinal practices in the Chinese and Hmong community, which leave marks on the skin, have caused great concern among teachers and social workers who do not understand the practice. Also, corporal punishment, common in Asia in many forms, has been a topic of frequent discussion and re-education between parents and child advocates.

Often when it comes to these types of cultural misunderstandings, parents simply need to be informed of their alternatives. For example, Korean churches often provide childcare. When child social workers suspect cultural misunderstandings at the root of a problem, says Lee, “we frequently send in someone who can speak the language of the parents and explain to them some of their options for childcare.”

User Comments

Asians, Another ‘Crash’ Casualty


New America Media, Commentary, William Wong, Mar 10, 2006

Editor’s Note: Complex as the Oscar winner ‘Crash’ wants to be, it’s still pretty simplistic when it comes to Asian characters, writes William Wong, author of ‘Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America’ and ‘Images of America: Oakland’s Chinatown.’

OAKLAND–It may be churlish to insert a dissonant note in the lilting symphony of praise that the Oscar-winning best picture, “Crash,” is getting these days, but here it is. As impressive as the film is in showing the multidimensional humanity — the good, the bad and the gray in-betweens — of Los Angelenos of various ethnic backgrounds, the movie continues a Hollywood tradition of mostly one-dimensional portrayals of Asians.

Oh, no, you say, not another yellowish whine! If “Crash” weren’t about complex racial and ethnic relationships, then my complaint would, indeed, be inappropriate, paranoid even.

But that was exactly the point of the movie, to portray the nuances of Los Angeles’ — and by extension, America’s — racial and ethnic relationships. So why would it portray East Asians in such an inept and unflattering way?

The movie has won deserved kudos for how it shows different facets of white, black, Middle-Eastern and Latino characters. Many of these characters move from one set of attitudes to another during the course of the film’s limited timeline. All except the two principal East Asians, who by the way are minor players compared with Matt Dillon’s racist cop and Terrence Howard’s uptight junior executive.

Granted, one of the East Asian characters goes through a transformation of sorts, but his denouement is anything but flattering. The East Asian woman is shrewish throughout.

Not that there isn’t truth to the characterizations of these particular stereotypes. We know of shrewish Asian and Asian American women. We know of criminally inclined Asian and Asian American men.

But if the film’s director and screenwriters want to explore the depths of how people of varied racial and ethnic heritages behave toward one another, how come they didn’t add an East Asian or Asian American character who showed a modicum of humanity beyond the bitchy and evil?

It should no longer be a surprise or revelation that people of East Asian descent are a presence on the Technicolor American landscape. That’s been the case for more than a century and a half. Yet, it seems for some Americans, Asians are Johnny and Janie-Come-Latelies and may not deserve more wide-ranging media portrayals.

More to the point of Hollywood movies — the fantasy and mythmaking factory nonpareil — it’s rare that Asian characters, whether American or not, are shown as complex and multidimensional.

There have been exceptions, of course. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was one, directed, ironically, by this year’s Oscar winner (for the pioneering “Brokeback Mountain,” the early best-picture favorite) Ang Lee, who got his artistic start in Taiwan and who has now risen to Hollywood directorial stardom.

(As an aside, Lee may be a celebrated mainstream director now, but where was he in all those post-Oscar shows like “Entertainment Tonight,” “Oprah” and “Good Morning America?” Why didn’t the celebrity-salivating interviewers give Lee a few moments of post-Oscar glow?)

(One more aside: Lee’s closing remark as he accepted his Oscar in only slightly accented English were quite revealing in itself; he spoke a Mandarin phrase aimed at TV audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, the future of global media messaging perhaps?)

Another exception was “The Joy Luck Club” from Amy Tan’s blockbuster novel (that, unfortunately, painted a one-dimensional, nasty portrayal of East Asian men — ah-hah, a yellow gender war case study!).

A few other standouts are Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” and, perhaps, Eric Byler’s upcoming “Americanese,” which will headline the annual Asian American Film Festival next week in San Francisco.

I am old enough to remember the goofy Charlie Chan movies with the main “Chinese” character played by taped-eyelid white actors. Some Asian American intellectuals and writers have complained about the Chan movie portrayals, a point of view I generally share, except for the fact that the Hollywoodized Chan is a pretty smart guy — yet another stereotype about Asians and Asian Americans.

Younger Asian American artists and writers are repeating the refrain, asking why there are not more multidimensional mainstream media portrayals of people from their ethnic backgrounds. With the help of the latest technology, some are creating their own works that may, one day, capture the imagination of the mainstream Hollywood machine.

Till then, “Crash,” as good as it is, misses a golden opportunity to break some new ground in a fully multidimensional way.

Vietnamese Nail Businesses Prosper in Florida


Nguoi Viet, News Report, Dzung Do, Mar 15, 2006

FLORIDA – A special point about Ft. Lauderdale in particular and Southern Florida in general was that the weather was warm like summer, although it was winter. It was the reason why many tourists came to the Southern Florida to enjoy summer weather and keep away from winter from mountainous states.

These tourists were called “snowbirds.” Besides, most of the tourists were seniors, or retired, or very rich, (some people had a house in cold region and another house in South Florida) and couldn’t suffer the cold weather.

During the time to be “snowbirds” in South Florida, these tourists not only lived and enjoyed beautiful beaches with clear water, but also beautified themselves. One of the things to make one beautiful was nail, especially among the females.

It was the time that nail salons in the region were busiest.

I flew in from California and called Macollvie Jean-Francois of The Sun-Sentinel. We both got in a car and drove to visit a nail salon that Macollvie had made an appointment before. It was the First Nails in the neighboring Dania Beach city. The owner of the nail salon was a young Vietnamese lady named Brenda. Brenda is an eldest in a family of four sisters. Currently, each sister owns a nail salon. First Nails locates in a luxury business center with different stores of various services. The business center is belonging to Publix Super Markets.

Publix Super Markets has a chain stores, having its headquarter in Lakeland, a city in the center of the State of Florida. Publix Super Markets was established 75 years ago and is seen almost everywhere in 5 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee with nearly 900 supermarkets and 135,000 employees. Gross income of 2004 of Publix was almost 19 billion dollars and Publix is currently a strong competitor to Wal-Mart.

Like any other business center, Publix never allows two stores selling the same products or providing the same services in their center. With a large supermarket system, Publix occupies a large part in good business area, normally at the big intersection, in the five above states and is the place that customers who buy and need a service usually go. Therefore, if you are able to open a nail salon in Publix Business area, it is already a commercial success.

However, it is not easy to open a nail salon in Publix Super Markets. Mr. Kevin Nguyen, owner of Nail Jazz, in Estero city, said: “Publix almost didn’t rent a single space to a nail salon owner. They usually allowed big nail chains that had many salons, such as Lee Nails or Regal Nails, to rent a space because these chains have good credit. If you want to have nail salon in Publix Business Center, you should go through these “Labour Agents”, it means you have to pay them some money to buy back their business.”

Returning to First Nails, we were warmly welcomed by the owner, although she was busy doing a full set for one of her “favorite” clients. We observed that she was doing and talking with the client at the same time, she also assigned technicians, and she also had an earphone connected to a landline to answer incoming calls from clients. Brenda is competent in both English and Vietnamese.

Brenda has totally 6 technicians in her salon, in addition to herself and her 16 year-old daughter, who only comes to help her mother 2 day-weekend. There are altogether eight manicure tables and four pedicure spas. Brenda said that in order to practice nail in Florida, a nail technician has to get the state certificate. If the technician was trained in another state, he/she needs to enroll in additional 250 hours, pay $12 dollars and must pass an exam of the state to gain the certificate. Besides, the certificate holders have to extend their certificate every year, and have to pay $35 dollars each time.

About her story of being the owner of First Nails, Brenda said: “I came here by boat, and resided in United States for 20 years now. At arrival, I lived in Richmond, VA, and get my hairdresser certificate there. Sometime later, I moved to Denver, CO, and convert the hairdresser certificate to a nail certificate. Having been there for a while, I couldn’t stand the cold weather, especially in winter. One day, my younger sister, Lisa, visited me and invited me to Florida on a visit. When arriving in Ft. Lauderdale, I felt such a warm weather and liked it. Therefore, I arranged to move to Florida. I continued working as a nail technician and saved some money. Then, I bought back Fancy Nails in Lauderdale Lakes and worked with Lisa there. Eight years after that, I transferred the salon to Lisa who would take care of the business, and bought First Nails salon two years ago. The rent for First Nails is $2,500 dollars per month.”

While we were visiting First Nails, all technicians had their own clients, including Brenda, and at least 4 other clients were waiting. All of the clients were Caucasian. The salon was in a very busy atmosphere. However, Brenda told us: “Because today is weekend, so there are many clients. In this business, one day is different from another. However, on the average, we can live on it. In addition, with such weather in Florida, people can work in nail business year round.”

But Brenda also added: “Some recent years, it is a little bit difficult because many people are opening nail salons. Vietnamese owns 70% nail salons in this area. Some salons lower their prices. Besides, salons serving black American have low prices that drive the prices in the whole area lower. Last Hurricane Wilma also forced me to close my salon for a few days because of power outrage in the whole city; it has affected my income a little.”

However, when being asked whether First Nails lowered the price like others to keep the clientele, Brenda said: “No, we retained the same prices since our opening. The way to keep clientele of First Nails is not by cheap prices, but the way of service, to use good chemicals, and the cleanness of the salon. Besides, we have some special clients, who know us for a long time. These clients are usually very fastidious, but we tried the best of our ability to please them and keep them with us. Normally, I take these clients myself, because I know for sure what they want. Moreover, I am the owner, so I must please the clients. Technicians only work for the money, the salon is not theirs, so they don’t have to worry much.”

However, it is not easy at all to assign and to find technicians. Brenda said: “I must treat my technicians very well, otherwise, they will go away. Nail technicians in this area have high value. Sometimes, I have to give up my own clients to the technicians so that they can earn more for a living. We take turn to work with clients, unless some special clients who request me to serve them personally.”

The owner of First Nails added: “You can see there, I am working as a technician and at the same time, watching out to see if technicians have finished with clients. If one of them is almost finishing with a client, I must have another client ready for her. Sometimes, clients are not pleased, and complain, I must try to say something to please the clients without disappointing my technicians. Once the clients left, I would then truly talk to the technicians.”

The special point at First Nails was that we did not see male technicians. Explaining for this, Brenda said: “It is the Caucasian location here, it is uncomfortable for men, especially to do pedicure when the ladies and misses are wearing short skirts. The same to foot massage. Clients who want a pedicure like only female technicians. If we hire a male technician for only manicure, we waste one table. Moreover, in the tourism area, the profit is mainly in pedicure, because clients usually wear slippers, they want to show off their feet. Therefore, pedicure made more profit. And, it is better to hire female technicians.”

Chemicals used in the salon are also an important issue to keep the clients with us. Brenda told us: “I use only brand name chemicals, the good one, in the salons. Clients here are very well aware, they know what is good and what is not. We can’t fake them. Moreover, if we use poor quality products, there will be reaction on the skin or on the nail of the clients. When they know, they will not come again.”

Cleanness of the salon is not a less important factor. Brenda said: “I hire a janitor, who comes to clean by the end of the day. In fact, the owner and technicians can do this, but by the end of the day, we are all tired, can’t do much and may not clean it thoroughly. I’d rather spend a little more money, but it is more effective. I also prohibit technicians to eat in the salon. We eat only in the dinning room at the back. Besides, my salon rarely has children because the majority of clients are senior, or rich, they have few children or rarely take their children along. Therefore, when clients see a clean salon, not messy, they step in right away.”

To verify what the owner told me, I walked up to the end of the salon. On the left side is a clean and newly looked sink, with a mirror above on the wall. Besides, I also saw a fake flowers vase that looks so real, and made the area clean and beautiful. I saw a client there, Lorrick Hayward, who lives in Hollywood City, just finished washing her hands and was cleaning up the sink! I asked why. Ms. Hayward told me: “Seeing such a clean sink, after using it, I clean it right away. I don’t want to make it dirty!”

Clients come to First Nails also because of other reasons. A “favorite” client of the salon, Tara Tuttle, resident of Dania Beach city, said: “For me, First Nails is very convenient, I can come at any time. I like this salon and am ready to wait three hours to get my nails done. Even First Nails move to other location in the area, I will also come. Whenever I have problems with my nails, I only need to call Brenda and I have never been refused. I also recommended some friends here, too.”

About the language issue, Ms. Hayward had a rather generous opinion: “If technicians can’t speak English, it is really not a problem, I will find a way to make them understand me. For me, better service is more important. But I would prefer if they had both, good service and English. If they speak Vietnamese in front of me, look at me and laugh with each other, then I think may be they are talking about me. I will feel very uncomfortable!”

Some people think that the Vietnamese are controlling nail business in the United States. In a country that has lots of opportunities and the economic is considered to be important in human’s life, it is easy to understand. Vietnamese know their strong points, together with their ability and hard-working nature, they chose a business that only few other ethnicities can do.

Macy Moore, a client of First Nails who currently lives in Hollywood, does not believe: “I think that Vietnamese have a secret about nail business. I have learned to be a nail technician too, and I can see that what they teach at school is different from what they do in reality.”

But Tuttle thought that: “Caucasian Americans can’t be technicians like a Vietnamese because they are lazy, because they can’t learn to do nail and because they have no patient with the drawings on the nails.”

A client whose name was not revealed objected: “I don’t think that Vietnamese govern the nail business. But if they do, it does not matter, because the American don’t want to compete. Each has their own opportunities.”

Leaving First Nails, we came to visit Fancy Nails, located in Lauderdale Lakes city, owned by Lisa, younger sister of Brenda. Like we have mentioned above, Brenda had opened this salon before, then she sold it to her younger sister.

Fancy Nails is totally different from First Nails. Clients here are mostly colored people and prices are cheaper. There are both male and female technicians in Fancy Nails. Fancy Nails is located in an average business center, not as upscale as Publix’s. Geographically, Fancy Nails is more inland, not like First Nails that locates near the beach. This demonstrated that, the location of the salons also let us know who are the clientele of the salon.

When we arrived, there were four colored clients sitting on pedicure spas. Among four pedicure technicians at the time, three were male. One of the three was Mr. Van Nguyen, 43 years old, who came from California to work here just a week ago. Mr. Van was a teacher of a primary school in Tra Vinh province and was Lisa’s third grade teacher. He had tried to go overseas by boat and lived in Galang Island Camp, Indonesia, for 5 years. After being returned to Vietnam, he was not allowed by the government to practice teaching anymore. To earn a living, he had to work everyday in the field. More than a year ago, he was sponsored by his brother to come to the United States and work as a worker in a production chain for an electronic company in California. After being laid off because the company had no more jobs, he has enrolled in a nail class in the ABC Beauty School in Westminster, California. While waiting for a new job, Lisa invited him to Florida visiting and invited him to work at Fancy Nails.

Being asked whether life in Florida is different from life in California or not, Mr. Van said: “There are a lot more fun to be in California. We can eat Vietnamese food anytime. Moreover, my parents are living there. I don’t plan to work for long in nail business. I also don’t plan to live in Florida for long. I did not even bring lots of clothes with me on this trip.”

However, Mr. Van told me: “It is fun to work in nail business, we meet and know many people, to learn how to speak English and serve clients. Especially, I feel very happy when clients come back and look for me to do their nails.”

Compared with his past life in Vietnam, Mr. Van said: “Here, we have our freedom, and it is easy to find a job. Lisa helps me a lot. Compared with the life in Vietnam, working in the field under the rain or the sun, life is much better here. The only thing is breathing chemicals, and sometimes, it is a concern. But anyone has to work to live. Whatever you do, you have to like it to do it.”

Another technician, Thach Pham, whose American name is Jason, 30 years old, has worked for Fancy Nails for 3 years. He told us about how he came in nail business as follows: “After leaving Vietnam, I arrived in Hawaii and lived there for five years. I came to Florida with my wife, Christine, and my seven-year-old daughter, Daniel, four years ago. I lived and worked in nail business for an older sister in Miami. At that time, I only worked part time and went to school for my GED (equivalent to high-school for adult). I have worked for Taco Bell’s, Mac Donald’s and dealing cards in the casino.”

Mr. Thach continued: “I worked in every possible job to pay for the expenses of the family. However, I don’t feel stable, I did not have a clear profession. By chance, three years ago I read an ad that Fancy Nails needed some technicians, and then I contacted them and was employed. Currently, my wage is only 8,50 dollars an hour plus tips. In total, I earn about 100 dollars a day. It is less compared with what I earned when I was working as a card dealer, but I feel comfortable now, and I can live on it.”

Mr. Thach added: “I am saving money and hope that one day, I will be the owner of a liquor store, or a gas station or a restaurant. At that time, my life will be better.”

Afternoon the next day, I drove by myself to Ft. Myers, the fourth biggest city in the Western Coast of Florida. Like many other coastal cities of Florida, Ft. Myers is a tourist city. Besides, neighboring to Ft. Myers are many tourist points and famous beaches: Captiva Island, Sanibel Island, Bonita Beach, Vanderbilt Beach.

The first person I met was Ms. Van Phung, who was the owner of Little Saigon Market and a real estate broker of the areas. Compared with Vietnamese markets in Southern California, Little Saigon Market is very small, only about 1,000 square feet. But it is the only market of Vietnamese in Ft. Myers. According to Ms. Van Phung, there are totally about 1,000 Vietnamese living in Ft. Myers and most of them are in nail business.

Ms. Van told us: “I came to America in 1995 and lived in Concord, CA for about five years. I went to work like everyone else. To 2000, it started to be difficult to work in California, my family and I moved to Ft. Myers to try. I noticed that Vietnamese here had to come up to Tampa to buy Vietnamese food. I, therefore, opened this market so that our people don’t have to go far.”

About the business of the supermarket, Ms. Van said: “Most customers are known in the local. They come mostly at weekend or holidays. There are only few coming on weekdays, because everyone goes to work. Therefore, I have another job as a real estate broker to make more money.”

After driving for a while I saw another Publix Super Markets in Estero, a small city next to Ft. Myers. I stopped by and saw Nail Jazz, which was spacious and pretty.

I was astonished when stepping into the salon and saw about ten manicure tables. At the end of the salon, there was a row of five modern and newly looked pedicure-spas. The owner of the salon was a young man, about 30 years old. He revealed that a pedicure-spa cost about $3,000 dollars. Beside the hot and cold water washing system for the feet, the chair is adjustable up and down, backwards or forwards, and is covered by a type of expensive leather. In addition, the chair has a massage system controlled by many buttons attached to another system on the side of the chair. I must admit that, when I tried that chair and pushed these buttons, I did not want to leave it. It is so comfy!

Mr. Kevin Nguyen, the owner of the salon, revealed: “Nail salons here are competing mostly in pedicure, because pedicure makes better money, is faster and easier job than the manicure. Therefore, salons that have “luxury” pedicure spas will attract clients, especially senior clients who like sitting in a chair that has massaging system.”

Ms. Joan Johnston, 72 years old, a client of the salon for three years now, said: “I feel very comfortable when sitting on this type of chair. I usually read magazine and sometimes, when I feel so “comfy” that I fall asleep on the chair. Once I am done, the technician does not mind to wake me up.”

At the moment, I counted about seven technicians and 10 clients in the salon. Not many clients, but the number of clients in and out was very steady. The special thing here was that many clients were senior and but many others were very young, about eighteen or twenty years old. According to Mr. Kevin Nguyen: “Young clients are students from the close by Florida Gulf Coast University. They don’t have income or don’t have high income, but we have special prices for them to promote the business, at the same time, we serve them, because if we don’t serve them, only rich people can come to our salon.”

I looked on the door and saw a pretty big board: “Yes, we have discount prices for students.”

The next day, Macollvie and I continued our working trip. This time, we chose a city in the North of Ft. Lauderdale, Delray Beach City. We again came into another Publix Super Markets. We chose Nail Fever, owned by a Vietnamese lady named Dung.

It was a most beautiful nail salon and best location that we have seen during this trip. Nail Fever is located at the corner of the street in the business center, the side and the front are made of glass, and therefore it is very visible for clients.

When we came in, the salon had no empty seat. All the five pedicure spas and eight manicure tables were occupied. Ms. Dung, was working on one of the clients said: “I have a salon in Atlanta, GA, it was a good business before, but recently it becomes more difficult, so I open one more salon here. Most clients here are tourists, not only from other states but also from many other countries as well. However, most of them are coming from cold states.”

Looking at the price list, we noticed that the pedicure price was rather high, 38 dollars, compared with other salon that we had been to. But prices for other services were the same. I raised a question: “So, perhaps technicians like pedicure better because they can make more money?” Ms. Dung told us: “It is true, but we take turn, one will work whenever his/her turn is, including me. We have a board, each person has a different shape magnet bar that sticks on the board, when a client comes, whoever has turn will do the job and switch his/her magnet bar to the end.”

“If it is like that, technicians will work fast to have their turn again” I asked. Ms. Dung responded: “It may happen in other salon, but not here. Here, the price is high, clients are all upscale, and they are very well aware. If we do a fast job, poor quality, they will know immediately. Moreover, before anyone starting to work here, I agreed with them that we must work properly to retain long-term clientele, so clients will come back. If we do the job carelessly, clients will not be back, or if they are back, they will ask for another technician. If it happens, the technician who did a bad job will be sitting and playing (doing nothing). If the situation is like that often, I will fire this technician because he/she occupies the table and does not bring any profit for the salon.”

After leaving Nail Fever, we went directly to a city in the South, Pompano Beach, and we stopped by Elegant Nails, also in another Publix Super Markets. The owner of Elegant Nails was a rather young woman, single, named Rose.

Different from the nail salons we have been to, both owner and technicians of this salon wore white uniform, very professional. However, Elegant Nails was a little smaller and most clients looked more “working class” than clients from other salons. We were not surprised when looking at the price list because the prices here were lower than prices in other salons.

Miss owner was working and welcoming us at the same time. During our conversation, her telephone on the table kept ringing. I noticed a special thing that in the conversations to any clients, she addressed everyone “honey” very lovingly and friendly. Perhaps, this is one of the tricks to keep clients with her? I don’t know. But I must say that it is very sweet the way Rose addressed clients.

Besides being a customer service and a technician herself, Miss Rose was the supervisor and interpreter for the technicians. Different from other salons, most technicians in Elegant Nails did not speak fluent English. Ms. Rose told us: “Most technicians of this salon are new to the business, newly arrived from Vietnam and some of them came to America when they were already seniors. They speak limited English, and I have to help a lot. Sometimes, I must stop my conversation on the telephone to ask what the client wants and tell the technician what the client wants to follow. It is very inconvenient, but it happens often and clients get used to it, and they sympathize with us. The important thing is to do good job, and it is not really a problem with some language difficulties.”

While on the plane to be back in California, I recalled the past working days. Thank you Pacific News Service, Nguoi Viet Daily News, The Sun-Sentinel and the newly acquainted friend, young journalist Macollvie Jean-Francois, who gave me an interesting opportunity to write a report about people from my own country. Especially, people who “beautify the snowbirds” who help me to know many things about a business that many people have only heard of but haven’t known clearly about.

I remember exactly what a client at First Nails told me: “Talking about sushi, we must mention to Japanese, talking about kim chi we can’t not mention Koreans, and talking about nail, people think right away of Vietnamese.”

I had a question for her: “Do you think that you may offend Vietnamese? Nail business is not a honorable profession in the society?”

She answered: “In America, every profession is honorable! If Vietnamese don’t do nail, who will beautify us? It is not true that everyone can do this job. You have to be very skillful and patient to do this! And I think Vietnamese have some secrets in nail business, because they do a more beautiful job than any other ethnicities that I know. Wherever there is a nail salon, there are Vietnamese. Could you show me any American Business Plaza without a Vietnamese nail salon?”

Retlated Stories

Nail Salon Stories

Joint Project between American Society of Newspapers and New American Media

Time for Vietnamese To Be Heard on Vietnam War


New America Media, Commentary Immigrant Voices, Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa, Feb 23, 2006

Editor’s Note: American academics, politicians and journalists continue to pontificate about the Vietnam War without the input of Vietnamese. New America Media contributor Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa teaches social studies in the San Francisco Unified School District. He was a Vietnamese Advisory Board member for the Oakland Museum conference “What’s Going On,” from February 2004 to July 2005. He writes for the English-edition of Nguoi Viet 2 and is an editor of Dan Chim Viet, a popular online magazine.
Vietnam War
OAKLAND, Calif.–Thirty-three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the ensuing debacle, America has still not learned the lessons of the war. Despite its utter defeat in 1975, America loves to listen to its favorite sons and daughters rehash the war’s shortcomings in the pretext of finding wisdom and relieving future generations of angst and sorrow. But the voice of the Vietnamese people, here and in Vietnam, is always an afterthought.

Thus for two days (March 10-11), the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston will host a conference on “Vietnam and the Presidency,” under the auspices of the National Archives and all 12 presidential libraries. Conference organizers have invited an impressive list of political big-shots, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig Jr., Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), first Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Petersen, television journalist Dan Rather and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors David Halberstam and Frances Fitzgerald. President Jimmy Carter will speak via video. The organizers claim to address a wide range of issues and new information, yet curiously, not a single Vietnamese was among the invitees.

In politics, the media and academia, the voice of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans is rarely heard. From the “Vietnam as History” conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., to the (USC) University of Southern California’s “Vietnam Reconsidered” event in early 1983 to the recent Oakland Museum conference and exhibit, “What’s Going On: California and the Vietnam Era” to the upcoming JFK library conference, the Vietnamese voice has always been circumscribed and gagged.

“Vietnam was a complex war and they need a more inclusive view,” says Professor Doan Viet Hoat, a dissident who was released from jail in 1989. “The present situation in Vietnam demands it.” Hoat and professor Nguyen Ngoc Bich from the Washington, D.C., area were suggested by various Vietnamese forums, but were not invited. Bui Tin, the ex-colonel from the People’s Army of North Vietnam and the chief editor of Nhan Dan People’s Army newspaper was also bypassed. Quang Xuan Pham, a Marine helicopter pilot in the first Iraq war and author of “A Sense of Duty: My father, My American Journey,” says he contacted the JFK library to suggest Vietnamese speakers, “but to no avail.”

By purposely framing the conference around Vietnam and the presidency, the organizers have effectively shut the Vietnamese voice out of the historical debate and sidestepped the issue of why America went to Vietnam in the first place. In case the pundits have forgotten, the American promise and premise was to secure the blessing of liberty and self-determination for the (South) Vietnamese people.

Or, as John F. Kennedy pledged in his 1960 inauguration address, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

These words ring hollow today, considering the lack of liberty in Vietnam since the less-than-honorable American Congress decided to cut all aid to South Vietnam in 1975 and effectively foreclose the dream of democracy there. Will the conference juxtapose Kennedy’s “survival of liberty” with the Truman Doctrine’s call to “support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures”?

Have Americans forgotten that we Vietnamese were fighting for our independence almost a hundred years before the United States decided to side with France in her attempt to retake Vietnam in 1946?

It was convenient in 1963, on the heels of the Buddhist unrest in South Vietnam, for America to engineer the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem so it could have free rein in the execution of the war. How ironic for the United States to take over the war when, in the struggle for nationhood at the waning of French colonialism, the Vietnamese nationalists and communists had in common, at least, a shared struggle for their place in the 20th century.

How disingenuous, then, for Nixon to “Vietnamize” the war, when beginning in 1961 Kennedy had already set in motion an American-led war. How ironic for “Vietnamization” when Robert McNamara and Gen. Westmoreland kept pouring American troops into Vietnam, where, in April 1969, American troop levels had reached 543,400, giving a false sense of security to the Vietnamese and convincing them that only a reliance on U.S. military superiority would bring freedom to Vietnam. Was it “Vietnamization” when Kissinger forced President Thieu to sign the Paris Accords in 1973 (ineffective as he was, Thieu was prescient enough to resist signing a death warrant for South Vietnam), when Kissinger knew all along that the North Vietnamese were not going to honor the accords?

In the end, there was neither peace nor honor for Vietnam, only a sell-out agreement forged by the Americans.

The United States squandered 58,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese lives in its last betrayal of Vietnam, leaving more than 1.5 million Vietnamese-Americans and 80 million Vietnamese in Vietnam to sort out their fates in the 21st century. Now, more than 30 years later, those who consider themselves the top thinkers and the very conscience of America will sit at the JFK Presidential Library in judgment of America’s past action and once again leave out the most critical players of all: we Vietnamese.

User Comments

Bill Laurie on Mar 08, 2006 at 21:47:40 said:

Mr. Sidney Tran,
your comments most informative and thoughtful, and partially compensate for the nausea I feel at reading of the self-indulgent pseudo-Viet Nam conference you’ve so correctly called to task. I served three years in Viet Nam and the profound and ludicrous ignorance reflected in the so-called ‘conference’ only reminds me of US stupidity of yesteryear. Of course those of we native-born Americans who worked with the Viet Namese people tried, fruitlessly, to pass ‘lessons learned’ up the chain of command. Unfortunately, terminal bureaucratic mental vacuity dissolved the brain cells of what was supposed to be US ‘leadership.’
To Mr. Murtaugh: you come across as a very decent man but please, PLEASE, read Mr. Tran’s response…very, very carefully.
Tu Do, Dan Chu, Cong Ly!!

International Professors Project on Mar 03, 2006 at 07:26:50 said:

Invite graduate students,post docs professors and emeriti professors to apply for candidacy in our org:

( Email Subject Line: Development Office)

New professor; more or less peripatetic; more or less sovereign; an international ambassador of cultural understanding; a new way of academic living. Vietnamese and other Third & Fourth World academics may teach and research in their native lands or another poor, almost poor, undeveloping or developing country for 18 months to decades. All developed country profs only to teach in poor, almost poor, undevelpoing and developing countries. beginnning to build a list of applicants to send many profs in 2008. Seek 100 additional Project Fellows, and two new Board Directors.

We are an all volunteer educational nonprofit. While we seek funding to acquire a staff through grants and donations we wish to choose our Int’l, East Asian, and South Asian HQ.

Viet Nam strong possibility for the Int’l or East Asian HQ. HQ would begin as International Professors Project Chapter.

Lam Nguyen on Feb 27, 2006 at 15:53:41 said:

There are two possible explanations to why Vietnamse have never been invited to any similar conference:
1/The Vietnam Syndrom:American politicians from legislations to law makers and in past administrations during that era are still afraid to face the truth,afraid to face their so -called “allies” that they betrayed.
2/The arrogance attitude towards the Vietnamese people.The slangs that applies to them are:”jouer papa” or in Vietnamese is “choi cha”.

God bless America!

Sidney Tran on Feb 27, 2006 at 10:36:48 said:

This response is for Jim Murtaugh. History is important. It is through history that wisdom can be attained. A historic tragedy cannot be reversed but lessons can be learned from the past in order to avoid future tragedies. America has moved on. Present day Vietnam is still a one-party, police state. It does not respect human rights. It does not allow religious freedom. It still jails political dissidents. Communist Vietnam still paints the conflict as a struggle for independence against foreign domination. Yet the reality of the conflict does not suggest that this was the case. In this respect Vietnam has not moved on. Communist Vietnam gave new euphuisms to the world. Terms like the “boat people, re-education camps” are some of Hanoi’s handiworks. I wonder what “voices of the Vietnamese people living in Vietnam” Mr. Murtaugh is referring to? If the voices are coming from people parroting the party line, then they are hardly legitimate representation of the Vietnamese people. If Vietnam has truly moved on, then it should treat the people of Vietnam with the dignity and respect they truly deserve. Marxist-Leninism is a European political philosophy that was unjustly grafted on to Vietnam by self-styled social theorists. It has no moral, historical standing or justification in Vietnam.

binh tran on Feb 27, 2006 at 07:27:25 said:

It’s time to let people all over the world and American people knows the truth about the VN war and the Communist’s lies and their brutal reign over the VNamse people.Thanks for your article.

Thai Nguyen-Khoa on Feb 25, 2006 at 15:31:51 said:

Americans tourists can’t never gauge the depth of our despair. There is a wholesale effort and policy on the part of the Hanoi government to blank out the truth about the VN or American War in schools and colleges in VN.

Historical blindness is not an amnesia that won’t come back to haunt the youth future and culture of materialism.

While it may have shed its classless proletarian beginning, the new Red-capitalist rulers of Vietnam would like visitors to feast on an empty capitalist shell while pasting over its inequitable presence with promise for a brighter ubiquitous Party rule.


Jim Murtaugh on Feb 25, 2006 at 03:52:07 said:

Time for America to move on.
In light of what is going on in Iraq,the U.S. learned nothing from the war in Vietnam.Nothing will be learned at the J.F.K.meeting.
If my vietnamese friends in Vietnam could speak to the American people they would tell them that it is time to move on.The war was long ago and just one of many that Vietnam has had to
survive.What is important is
today and tomorrow.We can’t change the past.Those who died are gone and nothing can bring them back.But the future is wide open to change.
I have talked to many,many people in Vietnam and this is their message.While the bitterness of the war still is just below the surface here,it is rare to find it in Vietnam. I wish the American people could hear the voices
of the Vietnamese people living in Vietnam today.There is just so much we could learn from each other.
Jim Murtaugh

Post Your Comments

First/Last Name

Your Email Address

Your Comments

Final Destination 3
James Wong makes a horror fans delight


When Final Destination 3 (New Line Cinema – Rated R) opened nationwide on February 10, it was hailed as the “perfect” horror film, the best of a trilogy, by fans of the genre. It was also panned as one more in a long line of teen horror films, each succeeding in finding new ways to send teenagers to their final demise in the most improbably ways imaginable.

If there is anything to note about the supernatural thriller Final Destination 3 – it is the renowned partnership of lifelong friends and filmmakers, Glen Morgan (producer and writer) and James Wong (director, producer, and writer).

This is their latest and most terrifying installment in this popular, action-packed series, which marks the return of the filmmakers of the first Final Destination. James Wong (Final Destination, “X-Files”) directs from a screenplay by Glen Morgan (Final Destination, Willard) & James Wong. The producers are Craig Perry (Final Destination, the American Pie franchise), Warren Zide (Final Destination, American Pie), Morgan and Wong.

Director James Wong on the set of New Line Cinema’s fright-filled upcoming FINAL DESTINATION 3. Photo:  ã2005 Shane Harvey/New Line Productions


When your number’s up, it’s up!

“I think the idea of fate has always been in people’s heads. Are we fated to meet the one we marry?  How will we die?  These are questions that everyone’s thought about,” says director James Wong, who with producer Glen Morgan, wrote the screenplay for Final Destination 3, as well as the original Final Destination, which was released in 2000 (Final Destination 2 was released in 2002).

When two teens join their class for a graduation night at an amusement park, they receive a premonition of a horrific accident while in line for the roller coaster ride. As she and a classmate stand below, the nightmarish premonition is proved true – as the coaster careens out of control, and all those aboard perish.

But that’s only the beginning…

The fortunate survivors with the pre-warning are haunted with a message that they were meant to be with their classmates. One by one the classmates begin falling victim to the most bizarre and gruesome fate.

James Wong says he immediately knew that Ryan Merriman (Kevin Fischer) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Wendy Christensen), who previously had acted together in The Ring 2, were right for the roles. “The moment Ryan came in I thought he was the right guy to play Kevin,” says Wong. “Kevin needed to be the kind of guy you want to hang out with, your goofy best buddy, but also someone who could rise to the occasion and become a hero. He had to straddle that line, and also have an all-American, boy-next-door quality.”

“Mary brings a kind of soulfulness to her role as Wendy,” Wong continues.  “She is deeply affected by the accident, but she’s strong, and fights to maintain control.”

Morgan and Wong’s script is like an intricate jigsaw puzzle, with each small piece fitting into the next to reconstruct the fractured image. “Jim and Glen both love playing with text and imagery – with film trickery, a kind of connect-the-dots,” Freeborn continues. “In the midway scene that opens the film, there is imagery that connects to the events that occur later on. There’s an illuminated sign for one of the rides called the ‘High Dive’ in which the letter ‘v’ goes dark. At one of the midway games, a sign reads ‘Test Your Skill’, but the way the camera sees the sign the letter ‘s’ in the word ‘skill’ is obscured.”

“Jim Wong’s movies are very action-driven and the sheer logistics of what has to happen in a scene has been a major influence in how we approach lighting and shooting it,” says director of photography Rob McLachlan.

James Wong moved to California from Taiwan at age ten, and became friends with Glen Morgan in an English class at El Cajon Valley High School, San Diego. They became famous with their breakthrough success writing for television (“X-Files,” and “The Others,” and “Space: Above and Beyond.’) Their films together include “Willard,” (2003), “The One,” with Jet Li (2001), and many more.

Forget the white-bread ’80s MTV. Now MTV Chi and other outlets cater to Asian Americans.
– Jeff Chang, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, February 24, 2006
Click to ViewClick to ViewClick to ViewClick to ViewClick to ViewClick to View

On a recent afternoon in the darkened basement conference room of the Chinatown Community Development Center, 10 San Francisco teens are gathered around a noisy little box to watch MTV’s newest incarnation, MTV Chi, a channel designed strictly for them, young Chinese Americans.

Queena Chen, a 16-year-old from Burton High School, hates “24,” loves “Malcolm in the Middle” and can tell you what happened on each of the “CSI” episodes last week. Jake Nguyen, a 17-year-old student at Washington High, keeps three Xanga blogs and a Myspace account, and watches TV online. The group’s musical tastes are intriguingly eclectic — hip-hop, R&B, alternative, K-Pop (Korean pop), J-Pop (Japanese pop), Vietnamese pop. They know where to tune in to the hottest Cantopop on local radio (and won’t hesitate to call you “vintage” for calling it Cantopop) and, like generations of Asian Americans before them, they know the names of every token Asian actor or actress on network TV.

They and their other ethnic Asian American peers have quietly become the target audience for a growing number of media outlets, including Imaginasian TV, AZN TV, American Desi and MTV. “Asian Americans are the third-largest ethnic group in the country. They happen to be the fastest-growing group in the U.S.,” says Nusrat Durrani, the 45-year-old general manager/senior vice president of MTV World. “More importantly, though, it’s a very influential audience. It’s the most educated, it’s also the most tech-savvy, and it is an underserved audience.”

To fill the gap in the market, the past two years have seen a flurry of firsts. In August 2004, Imaginasian TV became the first 24-hour, seven-day-a-week Asian American channel. Comcast soon followed, transforming its International Channel into the primarily English-language AZN TV. American Desi, aimed at South Asian Americans, premiered in December 2004 on the Dish Network. Durrani’s efforts at MTV World include MTV Desi, which launched in July, and Chi, which launched Dec. 6. MTV K, for Korean Americans, will premiere later this year, and a fourth channel is in development.

What distinguishes these startups from the average network venture is a sense of urgency. Emily Chang, a 27-year-old Imaginasian executive and the network’s main “face” as the host of “The Lounge,” says the network is about “giving a voice to Asian America.” It’s a mission she continues from her previous stint as a member of the fiery, acclaimed Pan-Asian spoken-word group I Was Born With Two Tongues.

“This is not just the next new promising market of people of high income or something,” she says. “We’ve gone through those very experiences of being Asian American and not being able to see Asian American faces on TV reflected. There is no one who is going to provide this to our kids unless we do it ourselves.”

During the ’80s, an MTV commercial showed the network’s logo as a sandwich cut in the shape of its distinctive “M,” loaded with mayo, mustard, mystery meat and tomatoes, then ketchup-squirted with its “TV.” It made sense. Back then, the network was pretty much white bread. Twenty-five years later, MTV is on the menu in 429 million homes in 169 countries on every continent. “We have made it our business to connect with young people in their language and tell their stories around the world,” says Durrani. “Look, we’re not curing cancer, but (MTV World) is a historical project.”

A native of Lucknow, India, raised on the sounds of Begum Akhtar and Osibisa, Cliff Richard and Little Richard, Durrani embodies a casual sort of progressive cool. He dresses in black-on-black high-end denim and keeps his hair in a fashionable George Harrison mop top. A poster for D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan film “Don’t Look Back” that hangs in his office seems to have been chosen not just for what it signifies but also because its black-and-white op-art design nicely matches his outfit.

Durrani describes his first encounter with MTV in 1993 as something of an awakening. Although he had a comfortable job in marketing at Honda in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, he uprooted his family and moved to New York City in order to land a job at MTV. He started as an unpaid intern. At the end of 2004, he was named the head of MTV World.

He spent 2 1/2 years researching the Asian American channels, doing the requisite number crunching, but also convening house parties and focus groups. He refers not just to “the need” but to “the hunger” for Asian American-targeted programming. In one internal video screener he assembled for MTV Networks Chairman Judy McGrath, a young Asian American woman says, “A forum like this will really help us become unified, and then that will make it a lot easier to kind of bring a lot of what we stand for to a mainstream audience.” Says Durrani of the channels, “The emotional component is always palpable.”

MTV personality and San Francisco native Suchin Pak produces and hosts “My Life (Translated)” for MTV Chi, an intimate look at issues affecting young people of color. In a recent episode, Pak examined Asian Americans’ desire for eyelid surgery. Karen Lee, a 22-year-old Danville native, was hired straight out of New York University as MTV Chi’s first employee to produce news segments on Asian American artists and community issues. (Full disclosure: I was the subject of one of them.) In one of her short clips, one young Chinese American talks candidly about how she perceives beauty and desirability. In another, slam poet Beau Sia declares, “There are no Asian American role models.”

But clearly the channels hope to create role models, to shape how Asian Americans see themselves and, just as importantly, how others see Asian America. The hosts for MTV Chi are the picture of Chinese American diversity. There is the petite 19-year-old firebrand Angel Tang, the 20-year-old metro fashionista Xiao Wang, the 29-year-old comic from the Pacific Northwest Simon Yin and the mixed-plate Chinese/Pacific Islander 23-year-old actor from Texas, Gregory Woo. Taken together, they do not merely reflect Asian America, they represent the breadth of Asian America to non-Asian Americans.

Because of this, the channels may represent a major shift in Asian American media. Until now, “ethnic” newspapers such as the World Journal, the Rafu Shimpo and Asian Week have been the dominant media in the community. Written largely by and for Asian Americans, they were particularly powerful during the social protests of the 1980s — whether the issue was anti-Asian violence, Japanese American redress and reparations, or discrimination in college admissions.

A turning point came with the 1994 premiere of Giant Robot, a zine put together by two Los Angeles hipsters, Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong, that presented a bento box of Asian American culture. Alongside good old “yellow rage” were compartments for Hong Kong cinephilia, Japanese anime and toy fetishes, U.S. indie-rock and art-school bona fides. The magazine — which has spawned destination boutiques in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — defined a generation. “It was ‘Here’s all this cool stuff,’ not ‘Look at all of our problems,’ ” says MTV Chi’s Karen Lee. Giant Robot celebrated how fun it was to be a young Asian American. It was an open invitation. The magazine’s Web site notes that its readership is “about half Asian, half not.”

Durrani argues that Asian Americans have become powerfully influential on popular culture. It’s not hard to see his point: Take the b-boy/b-girl revival, rice-rocket car culture, even Gwen Stefani’s Orientalist turn. With Latino pop icons crossing over and African American hip-hop becoming the mainstream, the young execs believe Asian Americans’ time has come.

But building from boutiques to big business is difficult work. The upstart Imaginasian has had to carve out cable contracts city by city, and is still available in San Francisco only on Comcast Channel 28 on weekday evenings and late-night weekends. Even with MTV’s muscle, both MTV Desi and MTV Chi are sold only as part of ethnic-specific “international” packages. In a more troubling development, parent company Comcast fired most of AZN’s staff a day after MTV Chi’s launch. The network still broadcasts a trickle of new content, but many insiders worry that Comcast officials have already decided that a network-scale business model is premature.

None of this seems to matter to the young people at the Chinatown Community Development Center. They are transfixed by MTV Chi. Once the launch welcome by Zhang Ziyi is over, they lean forward in their chairs, scribble down the names of artists, excitedly talk back to the television. They believe what they are seeing is unlike anything they have yet seen in their media-saturated worlds.

They take in music from Beijing punkers Brain Failure, Southern California-raised Playboy model Kaila Yu, and Mando-rockers the Flowers. They cheer for Chinese American rapper Jin and Taiwanese heartthrob Jay Chou. They know all plot turns in Jin’s “Learn Chinese” video, and sing along with the melody of Chou’s “Qi Li Xiang.”

The Top 10 Chi Countdown — determined by online voting on the network’s Web site and not exclusive to Chinese and Chinese American artists — matches the group’s eclecticism. This show, which originally aired in December, includes New York-via-Austin indie rock from Johnny Hi-Fi, a Mandopop ballad from Jolin Tsai, sunny Singaporean pop from Stephanie Sun, and Madonna’s “Hung Up.” (Chi’s current top 10 features UC Berkeley escapees Putnam Hall, Cantopop singers Andy Lau and Nicholas Tse, Kelly Clarkson and the inescapable Jin.)

Seward Yu, a 16-year-old Lowell student, thinks Countdown host Angel Tang is hot. Chen is annoyed by Tang’s over-emphatic gesturing. “Can we tie up her hands, please?” she asks. During the “Making of MTV Chi” news segment, everyone groans when William Hung flashes onscreen.

After the lights go up, they passionately debate poet Sia’s contention that there are no Asian American role models. For her part, Betty Wong, 15, a student at Galileo High School and the youngest of the group, is nonplussed by all the identity politics. “(That segment) was boring. If I was watching and they kept showing those, I’d turn the channel,” she says.

The conversation turns to programming. Chen wishes MTV Chi would air Hong Kong personality Edison Chen’s “Punk’d”-style show, “Whatever Things,” from MTV Asia. She hates “D-Tour,” a reality show featuring five supermodels from South America and Asia on a “Road Rules”-style trip. Wong loves it.

Tammy Yan, a 16-year-old Galileo student, wants programs such as MTV’s “True Life” series that feature “regular” Asian Americans, depicting “the true us.” Her brother Calvin notes, “The only way for Chinese or Asian recognition is through pop culture. When you see a movie, you might see Jackie Chan, but there’s always another funny non-Asian guy along with the Chinese guy.

“Chris Tucker,” adds Yu.

“Yeah!” Calvin Yan says. “It would be nice if there’s only Chinese by themselves.”

“No, but like,” interrupts Queena Chen, “society isn’t up to that yet.”

“Especially America,” adds Yu.

Nguyen speaks up from the back. “Maybe this isn’t the solution. The channel is not going to provide the answer, but what it can do is provide a steppingstone to the answer.” Everyone nods in agreement.

Queena Chen then asks, “Can we see the other 4 1/2 hours you have?”

Jeff Chang’s book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” is out in paperback. He is working on a book on the future of American identity.

Page E – 1

©2006 San Francisco Chronicle