Vietnamese and Blacks: How We Come Together




Nguoi Viet, Commentary, Ky Phong Tran, Posted: Nov 21, 2007

What are the ties between Vietnamese and African America?

In a sampling of today’s popular media, you’d think our two communities never come into contact with one another. And demographically it doesn’t help that the California cities of San Jose, Westminster, and Garden Grove — the epicenters of Vietnamese America — all have small percentages of African Americans. (San Jose 3.5 percent, Westminster 0.99 percent, and Garden Grove 1.3 percent.)

But in more urban, ethnically mixed communities like Long Beach, Oakland and San Francisco, we mix often and successfully.

I’m proof of that.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’d like to acknowledge three men — a coach, a journalist, and a teacher — who mentored me during my youth. By taking the time to guide me, they have changed me for the better. Body, mind and soul.

The fact that I am Vietnamese and they are African American only adds to the complexity and richness of our bonds.


In my ninth-grade year, Coach Larry Davis took a skinny, left-handed Vietnamese kid and made him into a basketball player. I remember trying out for the team at Long Beach Jordan High School, the only non-African American in the gym. I was intimidated. Scared. Short.

Not only did I make the team, I eventually became a starter and played all over Southern California. Can you imagine me, a Vietnamese kid breaking the press all over Long Beach, Compton and Watts? I’ve had a swagger ever since, on the court and off. How could you not?

My time on the squad also gave me a chance to become close friends with a number of my teammates and thus gain an intimate view of African American life that (I’m guessing here) few Vietnamese have ever had. I still cherish the times I slept over at their houses, had dinner with their families and laughed hysterically on our game trips.

But more than anything else, what I still keep from Coach Davis was his demeanor. He was not a demonstrative man who yelled at referees and players. At halftime, he would just remind us, ‘Play defense and make your free throws.’ If you missed a steal or lay-up, he wouldn’t berate you, he’d simply say, ‘Next time. Next time.’

Why did that little phrase stick with me?

Not only was it short and simple, it made perfect sense. It didn’t make you feel bad for a mistake, but encouraged you, made you believe that the next time you had the same opportunity, you’d make the play. It was brilliant because it looked to the future.


In the summer of 1990, Art Thompson III, a sports writer for the Orange County Register, was looking for a male African American journalism student to mentor. Unfortunately, there weren’t any at my school.

He could have gone back to his busy job covering the Los Angeles Raiders at the time, but when my journalism teacher suggested that he mentor an overenthusiastic, Vietnamese sports writer with a penchant for hyperbole, he did.

That same summer, Art took me to the Raiders summer training camp, an opportunity most sports fans would die for.

I interviewed then-head coach Art Shell. I met running back Marcus Allen, a legend in those days and now a member of the football Hall of Fame. I must have stood out because I remember Marcus razzing Art about the Asian

kid following him around. I didn’t care. Marcus Allen was acknowledging my existence.

What I remember about Art was his professionalism. I was not allowed to ask for autographs, for one. But I also vividly recall how prepared he was for his interviews. He had his questions and notes ready before interviews, a bunch of sharpened pencils, his note pad and a tape recorder.

It’s a testament to his journalistic integrity and respectful attitude that the players and coaches opened up to him and joked with him, even when part of his job was to critique them publicly.

As a writer now, I still apply the lessons I learned from him.


It’s hard for me to write about Tony Rogers, who passed away in 2002. He was so many things to me: high school history teacher, camp director, moral compass, confidante.

Other than my dad, he is the most influential male in my life. Many of his students consider him a father figure, and I’ve often and endearingly called him ‘my black dad.’

Mr. Rogers is probably most known in the Long Beach community for his work in building relationships while boosting diversity. He ran a human-relations camp at Long Beach Poly High called Poly North that brought together high school sophomores to learn about issues of race and interracial and interethnic friendships.

I still remember the night hikes and the dance, and I even have stayed in touch with some of my fellow campers, 17 years later. After camp, I enrolled in Mr. Rogers’ Black History class, again the only Asian in the room, which opened up my eyes to alternative histories. In college, he was good for advice at all hours and last minute letters of recommendation. With a wife and family of his own, he always found time for others.

When Mr. Rogers passed away, I woke up the next day and felt a physical void in the world. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt that way after someone’s death.

It’s taken me years of thinking to articulate what he meant to me, but it comes down to this: Mr. Rogers was a gateway to my core values of radical/progressive politics and my belief in social justice.

But what I respect so much is that he never forced his philosophy upon me or bored me with lectures. He showed them to me, he lived them. (For a while, when I found out that he had started the Black Student Union at Stanford University and protested for ethnic studies during the late 1960s, I looked at him like a superhero).

It’s funny to think that one man, a weekend camp, and a Black History class can have so much influence. But here I am today, 32 years old, a passionate advocate for social justice, a journalist and writer, and also an ethnic studies teacher.

One of the last times I saw Mr. Rogers was at a staff training for the human-relations camp where I had returned to volunteer. We had just completed a difficult team-building event. I stretched and stretched to complete a course 30 feet above the ground because I didn’t want to let my friends down.

When he returned to our cabin to debrief, Mr. Rogers told me, ‘You are one bad dude.’ It’s my favorite memory of him, but in truth, he was the baddest dude of them all.


Within Vietnamese America and popular media, there can often be negative stereotypes about African Americans, especially African American men. I’ve always had a hard time rectifying what I’ve been told and what I have lived.

In the past, Vietnamese and African America were most intricately connected through the lens of war. (Suggested reading: Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem ‘T? Do Street’ and the collection Dien Cai Dau).

But for me, it’s been through friendship and mentorship. That is how we come together.

Race Relations

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Ky Phong Tran’s stories

Honorarium for Vietnamese actors
09:37′ 22/11/2007 (GMT+7)

Truong Ngoc Anh was paid VND40 million for a role in You and Michael Jackson in 2002

VietNamNet Bridge – Vietnamese actors and actresses often don’t want to disclose their honorarium but according to published information, a leading actor or actress in a feature film receives around VND20 million ($1,250).


For a television film, often a series, a leading actor can earn VND2 million ($125) per episode and around VND40 million ($2,500) for a 20-volume series. Since the series is shot over several months, the pay is not enough.


Kinh Quoc, who has been in many TV series, said: “I’m invited for many films but I cannot live by honorarium. Whenever a film closes, I have spent the entire honorarium already.”


Along with the development of private film studios, pay for actors also rises. Previously Lasta was considered to offer the highest pay but it is now exceeded by M&T Pictures and HK Film.


According to inside sources, the highest pay for a TV series so far is VND5 million per episode for actor Huy Khanh in Wild Sunflower, 33 episodes by director Vo Tan Binh; and actress Ha Kieu Anh in 30-episode Love Game of Chess by director Tran Canh Don. Both films are invested in by M&T and produced by HK.


Luong Manh Hai and Minh Thu, leading actor and actress in Tropical Snow, also produced by M&T and HK, were paid VND100 million ($6,250) for 30 episodes.


Though the pay for TV actors and actresses is surging, their incomes are still too low compared with honorarium of singers.


While the pay for actors and actresses in TV series is on the rise, that for those in feature films is decreasing. In the golden age of “instant noodle” films in the ‘90s, movie stars like Ly Hung, Diem Huong, Viet Trinh were paid from VND20 to VND30 million per film ($1,250-1,875). Truong Ngoc Anh received up to VND40 million ($6,600) for You and Michael Jackson by director Luu Huynh in 2002. Over ten years later, My Duyen and Minh Thu earned just VND15 million ($900) for Bar Girls.


Justly, this is the law of market. In the ‘90s, Ly Hung, Viet Trinh and Diem Huong were considered the guarantee for success of any film. Now, the conception “movie star” no longer exists so the pay for actors cannot compare to the past.


For state-owned movies, nobody pays attention to revenue from the films so the names of actors, the number of viewers is unimportant and as a result, actors are paid poorly.


In the age of market movies, when private companies also produce films, honorarium for actors seems to be higher but it is not worthy of their sweat. Some films are invested in by overseas Vietnamese, but since these films are co-produced by state-owned film firms, actors are paid at the same level for state-owned films.


For example, Ngo Thanh Van and Hua Vi Van took VND20 million for their leading roles in Saigon Love Story by Vietnamese American director Ringo Le. However, according to Hua Vi Van, he received several thousand more USD to attend film introduction ceremonies in the US.


Honorarium is now paid on routine, not for the name and profit brought about by actors in the film. The revenue of Bar Girls is over VND13 billion ($812,000) but when actor Anh Vu asked for higher pay for the second part of the film, Street Cinderella, his role was transferred to another actor.


Pay for actors based on a certain percentage of film profit is popular abroad but in Vietnam it is not applied.


Professional movies needs fairness


A professional movie industry needs many factors but one of the most important things is having “movie stars” who can lure audiences. Pay for actors is not simply income but the measurement of their fame and professional level.


Minh Thu and My Duyen (right) received VND15 million each for Bar Girls



In Hollywood, the Republic of Korea or China, actors are paid for their names and their attraction and the pay is the result of fair bargaining between actors and producers. Sometimes, producers pay highly but their films are unsuccessful. However, the actors’ pay will be lower in the next film. That’s the rule of a professional movie market.


In Vietnam, the number of feature films produced each year is few so actors are not familiar or don’t dare bargain with producers. There are some workshops on how to professionalise the Vietnamese movie industry but with several films and unfair treatment on actors, the local movies cannot reach professionalism.


Actors have their say


Quyen Linh: Pay for actors has increased a little bit but I think it is still irrational if it is compared to income of stage players (VND500-700,000/night) or singer (VND10-30 million/show). Actors have to work hard but their salary can’t compensate them for their sweat. Pay must be higher so actors can devote their minds to films.


Quoc Thai


I can live by my career, playing in films, dramas and working as an MC as well. However, the gap between income of Vietnamese actors and foreign colleagues is extremely wide.


Viet Trinh


Salary of actors nowadays is lower than in the ‘90s and it is much lower than that of actors in neighbouring countries. In Singapore, pay for a leading role in one film is enough to live for several years but in Vietnam, a film is not finished yet but the actor is out of money. So all actors have to do other jobs to earn their living.


Minh Thu


Salary! Frankly, I suffer losses from film to film. It is easy to prepare costumes for a role of a poor girl but if I play a rich and fashionable one, I have to pay much for costumes. Though I’m paid higher than my colleagues, but with my carefully investment, it is not high at all.


Kinh Quoc


Actors, even stars, can’t live by their salary so most of them have other jobs to nurture their passion for movies.


Ly Hung


Vietnamese films have little investment so actors sympathise with producers and they accept the pay.


(Source: Nghe Sy)