Celebrating Vietnamese America
March 20, 2007
WASHINGTON— Gleaming faces, glittering dress. A gala last week celebrating a landmark Smithsonian exhibit — focusing on Vietnamese refugees and the richness they bring to America — gathered hundreds of supporters to the capital, once refugees who brought with them shared stories, shared joy, united in making their mark at the largest museum complex in the world.
“Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon” took 18 months to come together, the result of marketing and fund raising by dozens of men and women passionate about highlighting 30 years of immigrant experience in the United States. Their goal: To better reflect the past and to highlight modern achievements from one of the youngest Asian communities in the country.
The “dramatic retelling” of the Vietnamese exodus to the U.S. “is a vital part of American history and contemporary culture,” said Franklin Odo, director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Program. He called the gala “a grand tribute” to those “who have worked so hard to secure a place in American society” as well as an occasion “to remember those who did not or are not faring so well and inspire us to struggle for a more just society.”
Nguoi Viet 2 mingled at the black-tie event at the Castle Building, and later at the exhibit inside the S. Dillon Ripley Center, to offer highlights and voices:
The VIPs: Guests from the Hill mixed with community leaders, investors, Congressional staffers, entrepreneurs and exhibit honorees — from Kiều Chinh, actress, to Tony Lâm, the first Vietnamese American elected to political office in the U.S. Men and women wore tuxedos and silky traditional aó dàis, hugging and sipping from sparkling wine glasses. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and James Webb (D-Va.), on hand with his wife, Hồng Lê Webb, congratulated them from the podium, with Webb talking about his interactions with refugees since the 70s. “What strikes me is almost every single person in this room began their life in America as a result of tragedy…” and from that there were “enormous successes.” You, he noted, indicating the invitees, “are one of the greatest success stories of all the groups that come here.”
At the helm: Emcee Betty Nguyễn introduced the politicos, and as the first Vietnamese American anchor at CNN — a role that has catapulted her into fame as well as winning her a life-size cutout on the exhibit wall — offered her usual encouragement: “Americans all over the world can see what the 2 million Vietnamese Americans have done in just three decades… just how far we’ve come. Really think about that. Take that in. Give yourselves a round of applause.”
In the beginning: The exhibit emerged from conversations with a group of Vietnamese Americans in the Washington, D.C.— Metro area back in September 2004. The men and women met with Odo and Francey Youngberg, a development consultant, and in six weeks, they appealed to their contacts as well as made their own donations to pull in $107,000 to get the ball rolling. The band of activisits, dubbed the D.C. Working Group, now includes: Hậu Mai, CEO of Retina Studios; Bích Nguyễn, educator and board chairman of National Congress of Vietnamese Americans; Châu Nguyễn, executive director of the Vietnamese American National Gala; Hùng Nguyễn, president and CEO of National Congress of Vietnamese Americans; Mỹ-Chãu Nguyễn, senior vice president of XM Satellite Radio; Thanh Nguyễn, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery commissioner; Thanh-Thúy Nguyễn of the National Minority Supplier Development Council; Bàn Trần, senior financial adviser at Merrill Lynch; and Renee Hà Trần, techinical director at Perot Systems Inc.
Divisions: The display itself is organized by themes. A bright green Little Saigon sign greets visitors entering the gallery, and there’s a picture of then-Gov. George Deukmejian of California unveiling a similar sign in 1988 at the official dedication of the city of Westminster, Calif., as the home of Little Saigon.
Who are Vietnamese Americans, the show goes on to ask.
“Imagine living through decades of war. Death stalks your neighborhood as guns blaze and bombs explode. Soldiers advance, nearly unstoppable. Do you stay, or do you flee, perhaps never to return — provided you survive?” it continues. “If you had to start all over again — in a foreign country with only the clothes on your back, not knowing the language — what would it be like?”
From highlighting the early arrivals, narrative panels on the wall trace the Vietnamese who came to the U.S. as early as 1900, most scholars or military trainees. During the Việt Nam War, it said, war brides journeyed to America, with those who stayed becoming the first Vietnamese Americans.
More historical trivia and trauma are detailed under headings such as “Exodus and entry from Việt Nam to America,” with scenes from Guam and the makeshift showers refugees set up within days of their landing; to images from the four refugee camps stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Fort Chaffee, Ark.; Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; and Indiantown Gap, Pa.
There’s a wealth of information categorized under “Refugee shelter,” “Refugee Act of 1980,” “Lives in transition,” “From camps to cities” and the unforgettable saga of the “Boat People.”
Theme to theme, photographs line the brightly lit walls, culled from media and sources around the country. Powerful quotes attributed to those who said them, among them authors Andrew Lâm and Kiên Nguyễn, offered food for thought next to a staging of food itself — in particular, phở, the original beef noodle fastly becoming a mainstream staple, and bánh mì, baguette sandwiches fulfilling to generations of immigrants — both products now sold at by thriving businesses such as Lee’s Sandwiches and Phở 75.
Immigrants “Displaced again,” another theme, reflects what happened following Hurricane Katrina, and “Generations: gaps and bridges” illustrates a slice of life, featuring images of Vietnamese Cub Scouts and seniors playing Chinese checkers. Other reproductions zero in on religion, humanitarian aid, Paris by Night — the music and variety show watched by tens of thousands of Vietnamese Americans —along with fashion.
Question and answer: This part is cool, according to visitors. Sprinkled between signs, artifacts and photos are oval-like lids lifted with a knob, positioned for a child’s height, with Q & A outside and inside.
They concentrate on such matters as: Why did the U.S. government scatter refugees across 813 ZIP codes? Response: Small groups in many towns may adjust faster, some officials believed. Others disliked the idea of resettling them in one place, referring to the Cubans and saying, “We don’t want another Miami.”
Also, once settled, are we safe yet?
Response: Maybe not. Some countries tried to force refugees to return to Việt Nam, where they faced prison or persecution. Those who escaped from camps risked violence from camp guards.
Playing on screen: Videos attracted viewers with picture stories, told through the eyes of a nail technician and a student ambassador, among others. One taped feature focused on how you might be considered a Vietnamese American: If “win” is spelled N-G-U-Y-E-N; if your wedding has a “cash only” sign next to your guestbook; if your paycheck comes with deductions such as those for FICA, Social Security… and your mom.
Pulling out the checkbook: During the night’s pitch for donations, Frank Jao, the California developer behind the growth of Orange County’s Little Saigon, promised a donation of $100,000 to add to the museum’s first million-dollar Asian American endowment. The An family, owners of the upscale Crustacean restaurants, led by daughter Elizabeth An, offered $15,000, with an extra $10,000 — if someone would match that amount. Taryn Rose, an orthopedic surgeon who left medicine to launch her now mega-successful comfortable and stylish shoe line, accepted the $10,000 challenge, telling the crowd how her parents reacted to the change in her career. They stopped speaking to her, a situation that’s since been resolved, urging listeners to “follow your dreams.”
The founder of the Vietnamese American Heritage Endowment, Long Nguyễn, kicked things off with his initial $100,000. “This is our chance to leave something lasting to our children,” he said.
A February 2006 Tết dinner in the D.C. area netted nearly $250,000, and Thursday’s gala with more than 300 collected another $170,000. A middle school curriculum and a Web-based guide to what’s on show have already been developed. Annual interest generated from the endowment may be used for public programs — from lectures, film festivals and community events — along with fellowships, oral histories and other materials promoting cultural heritage.
What’s missing: “I just wish there was more information, concretely, about how young Vietnamese Americans integrate into the Vietnamese community,” said Hoàng Thị Thụy Cơ, a Ph.D. candidate in French literature at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. She strolled through the presentation the morning after the gala, noting: “What I’m looking at here is we left Việt Nam” in the opening panels of the display, and at the end “we see through images that we are going back to Việt Nam” to do charity work. “What’s the link between the two?”
Other reactions: “To have a bridge between the two cultures like this is terrific, especially in my hometown of Washington,” says James Kimsey, founding CEO and chairman emeritus of America Online who works with the Vietnam Children’s Fund to build rural schools. “It’s a real thrill to have something I’ve been so involved in highlighted. The Vietnamese community has been on the map for a while now, and this visual representation confirms it.”
A word from the youngest volunteer: Ashley Trần, 12, volunteered with sister Melanie, 14, to pass out sheets of the reception’s program. “Where I go to school, it’s very diverse,” said the student at Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary in Alexandria, Va. “But when you go around the area you don’t see much of that. You see that tonight,” said the seventh-grader. “I think it would really help D.C. very much, and the young Vietnamese very much, to know how their ancestors arrived here.”
And a word from her father: Bàn Trần, a member of the D.C. Working Group, wrote in the program, “Life is full of choices. Devoting time to our jobs and our family claims the bulk of our waking moments and that’s called living. Yet, it’s important to invest in the future. Volunteering my time on such an important project like VietAm lets me contribute towards building a legacy for the next generation.” He and group members say the exhibit will travel, intent on sharing its message with more audiences, nationwide.