Vietnamese America’s Pride at Smithsonian

March 20, 2007

Phil Tajitsu Nash, Jan 26, 2007
Thirty years ago, Vietnamese Americans entered the American consciousness as people climbing into helicopters to flee their country, refugees in camps scattered across Asia, or babies being airlifted to the United States. Today, they are legislators, scientists and every other profession imaginable. They live in large and small enclaves in California, northern Virginia and all corners of the country.

Last Thursday, Dr. Franklin Odo, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, and leaders from the government, corporate and nonprofit communities welcomed the Vietnamese American community to the opening of Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon, the first Vietnamese American historical exhibition at the Smithsonian.

The exhibit tells the story of the Vietnamese American experience, from the significant influx in 1975 to the present.

The exhibit, curated by Dr. Vu Pham, will be open to the public from Jan. 19 to April 1. It will then travel the country for three years. For more info, visit

Last Thursday’s gala opening was hosted by CNN anchor Betty Nguyen, and featured members of Congress, Vietnamese American community leaders from all across the nation, Vietnam War veterans, and some of the individuals who are subjects of the exhibition. The reception was held in the red sandstone Smithsonian Castle. It featured tours of the exhibition itself, which is located at the Concourse Gallery in the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Senator James Webb (D-Va.), and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) congratulated the Vietnamese American community for their achievements and in helping America become a richer and more diverse country. One of the most touching moments of the opening ceremony was when Senator Webb, a Vietnam War veteran, addressed the crowd in Vietnamese. Now married to a Vietnamese American, his victory last November could not have happened without the strong support of APA communities. Other dignitaries in attendance included James V. Kimsey, founding CEO of AOL, shoe designer Taryn Rose, famous Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh, Project Runway winner Chloe Dao, Frank Jao, founder of Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif., fashion designer Bao Tranchi, and Long and Kimmy Nguyen, founders of the Vietnamese American Heritage Endowment at the Smithsonian. Sheila Burke, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Smithsonian, praised Dr. Odo’s Asian Pacific American Program as leading the way at the Smithsonian to attract diverse audiences.

The exhibition pulled together the threads of history and mixed them with enough human interest stories, glitzy artifacts and heartwarming photos to appeal to a wide range of museum visitors.

A broad cross-section of the local and national Vietnamese American and APA communities wore formal wear and traditional Asian garments as they listened to the speeches, enjoyed the catered food, and wandered through the exhibition itself. A “Welcome to Little Saigon” highway sign, replica of a resettlement camp barrack and pho noodle shop counter, were combined with high fashion dresses created by Vietnamese American designers and life-size photo images of Vietnamese American pro football players, entertainers, entrepreneurs and public officials.

The spirit of community pride and determination to pass their story on to future generations was best exemplified by the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by the Vietnamese American Heritage Project’s D.C. Working Group. This money funded the costs of the 30th anniversary exhibition that just opened, and will be used to build a million dollar endowment fund to fund future programs at the Smithsonian that honor the Vietnamese American contribution to America.

So far, over $500,000 has been raised since the project started two years ago to help create the exhibit and to start the Smithsonian endowment. Leadership gifts came from Long and Kimmy Nguyen of Pragmatics Inc., the Viet Heritage Society Inc., Quan Hoang, the Citigroup Foundation, and I. Reid Inc. At the VIP opening reception, Frank Jao, real estate developer, pledged $100,000 toward the endowment. He was followed by others, including a $25,000 challenge grant from Long and Kimmy Nguyen. The crowd met the challenge in a few minutes and by the end of the evening, the project raised $170,000 toward the project and the endowment.

‘People told me that they were donating for the sake of their children and future generations,” said Dr. Vu Pham, project director of the Smithsonian Vietnamese American Heritage Project. “The project teaches youth about their rich heritage and helps create a more accurate and positive image of Vietnamese Americans for all visitors to the Smithsonian.”

“If the Vietnamese Americans are successful in raising the $1 million endowment, they will be the first of any Asian Pacific American community group to do so at the Smithsonian. This is remarkable given that they are also the most recent Asian Pacific American immigrants to this country,” said Francey Youngberg, development consultant to the Smithsonian APA Program.

To find out how you can make a donation, or to find out about educational materials and how you can bring the exhibition to your city, visit

Reach Phil Tajitsu Nash at


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