Monthly Archives: May 2011

Nhi T. Lieu’s The American Dream in Vietnamese

Another new book on Vietnamese American culture! Check out Nhi T. Lieu’s groundbreaking book, available now. 

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I can’t actually review this book, since I wrote the blurb that appears on the back. So instead, I’ll just quote myself: “Nhi T. Lieu insightfully demonstrates how important popular culture is to the self-fashioning of Vietnamese Americans. Her ground-breaking book validates what many Vietnamese Americans demonstrate in their everyday lives: that the pursuit of leisure and the rituals of entertainment are as crucial to community formation as political advancement and economic empowerment.” And I mean it!

The book is an enjoyable read and covers topics of interest to both academics and non-academics–Little Saigon, beauty contests, Paris by Night, the idea of diaspora, the influence of war on Vietnamese American culture. I highly recommend it.

What’s more, the book comes out an opportune moment, only months after Isabelle Pelaud’s this is all i choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature. A new generation of Vietnamese American scholars is beginning to make its mark.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen

In her research on popular culture of the Vietnamese diaspora, Nhi T. Lieu explores how people displaced by war reconstruct cultural identity in the aftermath of migration. Embracing American democratic ideals and consumer capitalism prior to arriving in the United States, postwar Vietnamese refugees endeavored to assimilate and live the American Dream. In The American Dream in Vietnamese, she claims that nowhere are these fantasies played out more vividly than in the Vietnamese American entertainment industry.

Lieu examines how live music variety shows and videos, beauty pageants, and Web sites created by and for Vietnamese Americans contributed to the shaping of their cultural identity. She shows how popular culture forms repositories for conflicting expectations of assimilation, cultural preservation, and invention, alongside gendered and classed dimensions of ethnic and diasporic identity.

The American Dream in Vietnamese demonstrates how the circulation of images manufactured by both Americans and Vietnamese immigrants serves to produce these immigrants’ paradoxical desires. Within these desires and their representations, Lieu finds the dramatization of the community’s struggle to define itself against the legacy of the refugee label, a classification that continues to pathologize their experiences in American society.

Nhi T. Lieu is assistant professor of American studies, Asian American studies, and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

256 pages | 20 b&w photos | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | 2011

Table of Contents

Introduction: Private Desires on Public Display

1. Assimilation and Ambivalence: Legacies of U.S. Military Intervention

2. Vietnamese by Other Means: The Overlapping Diasporas of Little Saigon

3. Pageantry and Nostalgia: Beauty Contests and the Gendered Homeland

4. Consuming Transcendent Media: Videos, Variety Shows, and the New Middle Class

Conclusion: Transnational Flows between the Diaspora and the Homeland


Trâu, Cọp, và Trí Khôn Con Người – Buffalo, Tiger, & Human Wisdom

What do a tiger, a buffalo, and a farmer have to do with being Vietnamese?  Read on and find out!

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Viet Nguyen, editor-in-chief of diaCRITICS, had earlier criticized what it means to (not) be Vietnamese, and challenged the notion of authencity.  He mentioned some markers that people use to determine Vietnameseness: phở, fish sauce, Khánh Ly, etc.  The list can certainly go on so where does one draw the line?  What does being Vietnamese include?

Viet was also right in asserting that these are the wrong questions to ask because ethnic identity is amorphous, changing from individual to individual. Anyone can claim any identity, whether others believe it or not.   What we should be asking instead are the “Why” of being Vietnamese.

Why do Vietnamese people do/believe in the things they do?  These questions are more exploratory and will often lead to a better understanding of the Vietnamese identity because they attempt to look at Vietnamese people from the inside out, rather than outside in.

When we ask these questions, though, we inevitably run into Truyện Cổ Tích.  Truyện Cổ Tích are the folklore, legends, and tales of Việt Nam that reveal and explain our mores and day to day lives, like the one about the origin of the Vietnamese people.  Truyện cổ tích  literally means ‘old collected stories’ and some of the stories we tell today will, in the future, be old and explain again why it is that Vietnamese do the things they do now.

Until that time, we hope you will enjoy this feature where we will present English-translated truyện cổ tích so you can catch a glimpse of why it is Vietnamese.

Trâu, Cọp, và Trí Khôn Con Người – Buffalo, Tiger, and the Wisdom of Human

This original piece by Julie is available for your non-commercial creative use.

Long long ago before any can remember, when animals and humans still talked with one another, there sat a bird in a tree watching a farmer struggle to lead his water buffalo with ropes tied to its horns.  Bemused, the bird said aloud to itself, “I wonder why the rope is tied to the horns?  Why not lead the buffalo by the nose-nose-nose?”  The farmer understood the wisdom in these words so he pierced the buffalo’s nostrils and from that day on, led the buffalo by its nose.

Meanwhile, a tiger was sitting in the cool shade at the edge of a pond, admiring its golden coat of fur. This was part of its daily ritual for the tiger was quite proud of its spotless appearance and thought itself not only the most beautiful creature but also the strongest.  By now, it was nearly noon and the tiger was hungry. It came upon the farm hoping for an easy meal but stopped at the spectacle of the hard-working duo of farmer and buffalo streaming with sweat as they pulled a heavy plow through the mud.

His curiosity tinged with greed but as is the nature of cats, he couldn’t help but say first, “It’s so strange Buffalo…you toil for this puny human and let him lead you by the nose, but you are so much bigger and stronger! Why do you listen to him?”

The water buffalo was undisturbed.

“He may be small, Tiger, but he has wisdom,” said the buffalo, flicking his tail in the direction of the farmer.  “Ask him and he will show it to you.”

Wasting no time, the tiger approached the farmer, whose face darkened at the sight of sharp fangs and long claws. Tiger said to the farmer, “Buffalo tells me that you have something called wisdom that makes even a great creature as he obey you, will you show it to me?”

“I’ll…I’ll have to g…go and fetch it,” the farmer said, trembling.  “But I don’t dare leave seeing how hungrily you eye my buffalo.  If you allow me to restrain you…say…tie you to that tree over there, I’ll gladly go and get my wisdom to show you.”

Tiger hastily agreed, for he so wanted to see this thing called wisdom and the hunger was becoming quite unbearable.  The farmer proceeded to tie the tiger to the tree with several spans of rope and ran off.  When he returned, he carried with him only a torch, the fear on his face had disappeared.

“You call that wisdom?” the tiger demanded.  “What nonsense!  Now untie me so I can get my meal.”

Tiger bared his fangs, as if to make the point clear, but the farmer said nothing and lit the tree on fire before leading his buffalo away.

The tiger howled and flailed wildly but the ropes held fast.  The flames bit deep, the rope charred.  Finally, Tiger managed to free himself and ran back into the dark of the jungle.  It was a long time before he would emerge again and what a sight he was!  Great black stripes now marred his golden body, burned into his fur by that thing called wisdom.

Buffalo saw the tiger and laughed.  He laughed so hard that he fell over and broke his front teeth on a rock.  Thereafter and always, water buffaloes have no front teeth and tigers stay deep within the jungle, not wanting others to see their shameful black stripes.

Read versions of this story in Vietnamese at Vietfun, at e-cadao.
Listen to it in Vietnamese at nhaccuatui.

by Bảo Nguyễn and Julie Nguyễn.

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Open Thread: Your Chance to Participate

This is a new feature: the open thread! Here you get to bring up your own topics and musings, initiate the conversation and generate your own discussions. This dialogue is open to non-Vietnamese topics so feel free to bring up others.

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Is there something worth mentioning in current events? Something interesting happening locally? For instance, I just figured out that Macs have an innate ability to type Vietnamese. How come nobody tells me these things? (if you’re interested, here’s a walkthru)

Vui quá! (“Too much fun!”) or, as I’ve seen some kids online write… Vui wá (where is an incorrect spelling of quá, but it expresses the Southern Vietnamese dialect using English phonetics as there is no “W” in the Vietnamese alphabet). Enough rambling from me. What’s on your mind? Type into the reply box below.

And yes, I/we will be reading and responding our best to anyone who posts here.

–Julie Nguyen

Julie Nguyen likes toads a lot but only eats vegetables. She’s still wondering how she got picked up as a contributor on diaCRITICS. She enjoys drawing and creative writing, and has been self-educating herself on Vietnamese history, both the documented and the mythological, as well as improving her comprehension of the language so she can pass it on to her funny daughter. She resides in NYC.

The Long Bien Picture Show // Buổi Chiếu Bóng Long Biên

Long Biên is a district in the city of Hà Nội that is home to about 170,000 inhabitants.  For the last year, it has also been under intense scrutiny from a group of photographers and filmmakers who tried to capture the district’s everyday (and night) rhythm of life and now their experience is on display. Welcome to Long Biên!

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Introduction by Jamie Maxtone-Graham

In 2010 the city of Hanoi observed the anniversary of its founding in the year 1010. A thousand years later, the twelve months of official celebrations, exhibitions, and public entertainments reflected nothing if not unity of message: Hanoi is arrived as a modern, urban Asian capitol. After many decades of political and economic isolation, this was an important message to project even if it only reverberated internally; it is unlikely that the anniversary was noticed much beyond the borders of Vietnam or even the city limits. Hanoi is a far different city than it was both in 1010 and even as recently as a decade ago – and it’s a far more complex urban environment than the state-approved observances would ever indicate.

Distinct from all this, in July 2010 the British Council in Hanoi funded my proposal to commission several photographers and filmmakers to make a loosely structured visual document of the Long Bien neighborhood, an area I have photographed in often during the last several years. Long Bien is the kind of community every large or small city has – marginalized, poor, and filled with people who have either always been there or have nowhere else to go. It’s at the edge of the Red River and is bisected by the French-built Long Bien Bridge, heavily damaged by American jets decades ago. For many who live in Long Bien, the year of celebratory concerts, the new lights around the city, the infrastructure improvements – these things happened somewhere else in the city. Not in Long Bien. Whose thousand, then?

I called the culminating four-month long project – in the form of four portfolios of photographs and four short films – The Long Bien Picture Show // Buổi Chiếu Bóng Long Biên. I set out to produce something simple and open ended. With no question to answer or theme to impose, I chose three other photographers besides myself whose past work I admired and whose commitment to making their own work meshed with my own. This was the central conceit of the project – each photographer (and filmmaker) would simply make the work they wanted, respond to the idea and the area in the way they wanted, with the thought being that the confusion of perspectives might better reflect the place. The place simply is and the people are simply there; it is enough to set out to show this without trying to create meaning. Whose Long Bien anyway?

Boris Zuliani is a French commercial and fashion photographer who has lived in Hanoi as long as I have – since 2007 – and makes a great deal of his personal work on Polaroid film. I met Khanh Xiu Tran, a young Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) woman in late 2009 shortly after she moved to Hanoi and, after seeing her quiet and devastating images of the unrest in Bangkok in early 2010, I knew I wanted to involve her. Barnaby Churchill Steel made a remarkable series of panoramas in Hanoi for a separate British Council project in 2008 and it took little to convince him to return to Vietnam to make more. The four filmmakers (whose incredible contribution to the project cannot be spoken of enough) were Trần Thị Ánh Phượng, Phạm Thu Hằng, Đỗ Văn Hoàng and Trần Thanh Hiên, all young Vietnamese from Hanoi DocLab – a documentary and experimental film center.

Two further ideas were at play – the first was to show the work in a popular context. The notion of producing a ‘picture show’ – with all the relevance of a Saturday matinee – appealed to me as a context for exhibition. And then too, at one time in Vietnam, there were ‘buổi chiếu bóng’ – literally, projected shadow session; mobile film units would travel to rural towns and villages where no cinema existed and project films outdoors. These two ideas sat well with my interest in not initially exhibiting the finished works in a gallery context, in a stark white box, as seemed customary, expected even. Instead, all of the portfolios and films were shown in a public, outdoor projected exhibition on five large screens made of sheets of cheap graphics plastic, in the heart of the Long Bien neighborhood in a single, Saturday evening show in December, 2010.

(Click on thumbnails for the full-sized version.)

Khanh Xiu Tran



The first image of the top of a man’s head was originally censored from the public exhibition of Xiu’s portfolio. By law, all work shown publicly within Vietnam must first be vetted by government censors, and we were informed that this and two other similarly framed images of Xiu’s couldn’t be shown because “they would make Vietnamese people feel uncomfortable” in the way the incomplete human figure was portrayed. After an appeal, all her images were eventually permitted to be shown.

Xiu’s parents are originally from Hue in central Vietnam and she grew up in Minnesota. She was living in Long Bien while she worked on this project.

Of this series Xiu wrote: I am interested in photography as a medium for this kind of self-expression where years of collected moments could form a whole and make a quiet statement without ever using words. I used to say that the content of my work was random. It was interesting, then, to see the pattern that formed in what I chose to photograph. I saw that the photos reflected my relationship with the neighborhood, and feelings about being isolated in my parents’ native land.

Do Van Hoang

The quiet island in the middle of the Red River is a place where swimmer’s bodies are cooled in the waters rushing by and lives mingle in unexpected ways. A community of men finds a natural place away from the city’s pressures to swim and exercise in the nude, a young couple celebrate an anniversary in a unique way and a woman seeks redemption through the filmmaker’s lens. In Vietnamese with English subtitles.

Jamie Maxtone-Graham



I have been making portraits at night in the streets of Long Bien for over a year. When I began, I was interested in making work that required creating some kind of relationship and collaboration to produce an image. As a westerner living in a very homogeneous Asian society, I am very distinct and very noticed wherever I am. As a photographer here, there is only the illusion and rarely the actual possibility of being an invisible observer. In making these portraits I’ve endeavored to work noticed.

Given my background as a cinematographer, it seemed natural to bring in lighting as an element in this work – a studio in the streets. I also had in mind to embrace a middle distance with the camera while at the same time looking for some small nuance of the person, the place and the time within the frame.

Tran Thi Anh Phuong

In the streets beneath the Long Bien train station, in one small intersection, four people labor in small sidewalk businesses to make a daily living. Some leave at sundown, others arrive in the evening to take the vacated patch of sidewalk and set up shop. Each shares a small history both unique and too familiar. And through it all, the trains arrive and the trains leave. In Vietnamese with English subtitles.

Barnaby Churchill Steel



With a technical background in high-end animation and digital visual effects, Barney wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice for a social documentary project. Even so, his technically brilliant and aesthetically remarkable panoramas belie their simple appearance. Each long image is constructed of dozens of individual photographs which are seamlessly stitched together. The resulting photographs are endlessly unfolding dramas of the ordinary which are both wide and deep.

Time is also an essential, though less obvious element of these wide slices of space. Each of the individual frames of the completed final image was photographed numerous times; selected elements were then combined with other selected, final elements to create a clarified whole from a confusing assortment of possible choices. Clues to his process are visible to the careful observer when, at times, a person will appear more than once within the same photograph.

Tran Thanh Hien

Eyes open, I listen to stories told by the people living beneath the bridge.
Eyes open, I look for the shadows rushing across the bridge into the city.
Eyes closed, I try to remember them.

Hien’s short experimental film is vigorously observational – both pushing the viewer to reconsider the everyday and pulling us into the unfamiliar.

Boris Zuliani



The death of Polaroid as a format has been foretold often. But it persists. Boris makes nearly all of his personal photography with any Polaroid film he can obtain. For this series he made light paintings using outdated Polaroid film. With an unpredictably shifted color spectrum, his images seem at once slyly commercial and instantly antique.

Boris photographed young couples who regularly gather at night by the dozens, sometimes hundreds, on the Long Bien Bridge where the air is cooler in the summer. With exposure times of typically one minute, the people in Boris’s photographs had to hold completely motionless as he stepped into the frame with a Xenon flashlight to place the light precisely where he chose. The original, one-of-a-kind Polaroids are scanned and exhibited with the border intact.

Pham Thu Hang

Minh is a bridge guard stationed on the Hanoi side of the Long Bien Bridge. His official responsibility ends halfway across the river at section number 8. But his personal responsibility extends beyond to the lives he and the filmmaker encounter next to the tracks, the people who come to get away or because there’s nowhere else to go.

–The Long Bien Show is curated by Jamie Maxtone-Graham, on display at Trans Asia Photography Review and published by Hampshire College.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Have you ever been to Long Biên? Do you know anyone there? What are your thoughts on the lives of its residents?

Drifting Towards 25 Hawkins Road: Sonny Le’s Story of Escape

diaCRITICS will periodically post blogs from other places. This reposted review is by guest blogger Sonny Le,  and recent diaCRITICS subscriber drive winner, from his blog 25 Hawkins Road. Here, Sonny opens up to talk about his escape from Viet Nam and the beginning of his journey towards the United States.

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Escape from Viet Nam

My life in America began on a frigid Thanksgiving’s eve 29 years ago. Not unlike tens of thousands of Vietnamese escaping Viet Nam at the time, my journey to America began on May 12, 1980, and ended in Oakland, California, on November 24, 1981.

It was a 19-month journey to hell and back and through two refugee camps – 25 Hawkins Road, Singapore, and Pulau Galang II, Indonesia. It also put me in touch with my Chinese half, taught me the ethics of hard work and how to live off the kindness and compassion of strangers, and completely turned me off from sleeping outdoors for fun and pleasure.(A former refugee resident of Singapore, Lam-Khanh Nguyen, who has resettled in Germany, has created a wonderful Facebook site dedicated to 25 Hawkins Road.)

The victorious North Viet Nam may have won the war and reunified the country, but governing the former two estranged halves proved to be above and beyond the skills and experience of former soldiers and generals. By 1980, Viet Nam was crippled by the US-led economic blockade and boycott, the 1978’s epic floods, failing in its effort to integrate the former North and South Viet Nam into one country and post-war reconstruction, all the while fighting two wars – one in the north against the Chinese border incursion and one in the south against the Khmer Rouge rampaging massacres along the border.

In the mean time, political persecution and purges against those associated with the old regime, combined with a campaign to wipe out capitalism by shutting down ethnic Chinese-owned businesses, the backbone of Viet Nam’s economy, had left southern Vietnamese living in fear, paranoia and on the verge of starvation. People were whispering among themselves that “if street lamps had legs, they would have tried to escape as well.”

All kinds of boats, from canoes with outboard motors to coastal fishing boats, from river-going passenger boats to cargo haulers, were used in the desperate attempts to escape Viet Nam by sea. Others chose to cross into Thailand on foot, hacking their ways through the jungles of Cambodia, often fell victim to the Khmer Rouge en route.

Photo taken from the archive of the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which operated the refugee camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.

The sea routes were not much better. The majority, if not all, of those who were escaping by sea had no idea where we were headed. The boats were not sea-worthy. There was neither the fuel nor expertise and experience to get us to the other side of the South China Sea. We just aimed for the open water. It was a mad dash for survival.
Thai, Filipino and Malaysian pirates preyed upon us like a pride of lions stalking an injured gazelle on the African savannah. If not fallen into the hands of the pirates, the mighty but deadly Pacific would swallow us whole with waves as tall as ten-story buildings. Others would die from dehydration and starvation adrift at sea days on end. It has been estimated that as many as 1 in 4, and possibly higher, escapees never made it.

Going Through Hell Seeking Life

My voyage began in early May, 1980, in the small Mekong Delta town of Tan Chau, a stone-throw away from the Cambodian border. My father, his two younger brothers, and some business associates had been running a people-smuggling ring, selling passage to those who wanted to escape Viet Nam.

Since the exodus was in full swing, both the United Nations and Viet Nam’s Southeast Asian neighbors protested with Viet Nam, demanding that it must stop the waves of boat people that had begun to overwhelm their capacity to house the arriving stateless refugees. In response, Viet Nam banned all fishing boats from going out to sea and impounded the remaining ones that could be used to smuggle people. If it had not been for the corrupt and disorganized new government, hundreds of thousands would not have been able to escape.

My father and his associates had modified river cargo carriers, masqueraded as long-distance passenger boats, hundreds of miles away from outlets to the South China Sea to escape the authority’s watchful eye. Three boats were used in the operation. One had left in 1978. Next up was the boat I was on, and another was planned for 1982.

My boat looked somewhat like this one, perhaps smaller.

 The boat had been plying its supposed passenger route for months. Late January, 1980, my father sent for me. I was 16, turning 17, approaching drafting age. The stealth operation was known to only a few, so I was oblivious, assuming that he simply wanted me to join him, working on the boat as a helping hand with my two cousins who were about the same age and two other teenagers, one of whom was a gifted marine engine mechanic.

During dinner one evening, my father brought out beer and handed each of us a can to toast. The meal ended with a cigarette break where I was also invited to join in. It was a shocking, but a pleasant surprise because until that night I was never allowed to drink and smoke with my dad and uncles, at least not in front of them.

That evening, the first event of many more to come that changed my life forever, my father and I had our first father-son adult conversation on the boat deck. He gave me my life manual with a few parting homilies thrown in for good measure. Needless to say, no sleep was to be had the rest of the night. Because of the secretive nature of the operation, there was no goodbyes for my mother, my younger brother, and two sisters, whom I had not seen for almost five months and not again twelve years later.

The most devasting news of all was that I would be escaping Viet Nam alone. My father promised that the rest of our family would go later on the 1982 boat, which ended in failure.

We left Tan Chau on Monday, May 12, plying our usual route that would take us past a major outlet to the South China Sea. To escape detection, the scheduled stops were meticulously planned where small groups of passengers would be embarking and disembarking.

Three days later, the last group of passengers came aboard in a small coastal town of Binh Thoi, about an hour away from the open water of the South China Sea. Three hundred and four people had cramped into a boat about 20 feet by 70 feet, three deep. More than standing out like a sore thumb, raising suspicion among the locals, was the overwhelming number of Chinese-Vietnamese passengers and families that seemed to carry no luggage.

All along the route at each stop, there were so many tell-tale signs that this boat could not have been anything else but a boat about to escape. However, silence had been bought with the local police and authorities and the coastal marine police along the route.

We left Binh Thoi around 10 pm, timed to coincide with the receding tide and a moonless night. When we arrived at the opening to the sea, instead of crossing the channel and up another river to the final destination of Bien Hoa, another 5 hours away, we aimed for the sea full throttle, all lights off.

With the exception of the crew, of which I was a member, the passengers were told to stay down close to the floor and be quiet. Though there had been many trial runs in the river waterways, nobody knew how the engine or the boat would perform in open water at full capacity and maximum speed. The oversized engine sounded as if it was tearing the boat apart; the nuts and bolts seemed to have been rattled loose.

Soon we were sighted by a coastal patrol boat, which gave chase and ordered us to stop over the roaring engine. Shots were fired, hitting the top cabin. The ensuing chaos in pitch black condition outside and with no lighted markers, our boat ran into and became entangled with fishing nets planted in the open channel; cables strung between wooden poles to hold the nets down ripped the steering house off of the boat, injuring a few, including the skipper and almost pulling those of us inside with it.

We ran over some of the poles. Smaller boats would have been broken up and sunk. Not knowing if the coastal police were still chasing us, we kept on going at full speed until morning. Without charts and a proper working compass, we had no idea where we were in the vast open ocean.

Surveying the damage the next morning, we discovered that the hull, which stored fresh drinking water had been cracked, rendering the water undrinkable. Furthermore, the damage to the engine, which was pushed beyond its limits the night before, was beyond repair.

As a son of one of the owners, I was made aware of the situation, but the majority of the 304 people on board were not aware of our impending doom. Furthermore, sea sickness had immobilized most of the passengers. Unable to get up and move, most relieved themselves in-situ.

By the end of our first full day at sea, the sense of hopelessness had begun to set in, partly due to the lack of drinking water and food, with which we could have cooked rice. We soon settled in for our first night in the open water. Being that far out with no land in sight, our boat was like a grain of sand on a beach. The water, with its deep clear blue color, reflected off the lights from our boat, was sparkling and shimmering. When a coin was dropped overboard, its descent was visible for a long time.

By the second day, some had either recovered or gotten used to the motion of the sea, but most had already become lifeless. Making matters worse, the shear humanity – 304 unwashed individuals confined to a space the size of a Boeing 737 – combining with the baking sun, which had heated up the cabin to an intolerable condition. The few hundred pounds of jicama, a root vegetable that is mostly water, which had been on board as part of the charade-cargo, the only source of drinking water, were now being rationed with children and the elderly having priority.

Though the sea was quite calm, the rolling, undulating waves could have destroyed the boat in an instance if the weather had turned for the worse.

The vast empty ocean with no sights of land and ships, which we had been told there would be numerous about now, began to wreack havoc on our mental state. Furthermore, a few of us spotted what looked like bodies and boat debris, floating in the water. We surmised they probably belonged to the unlucky boat or boats that had run into a storm few days prior. We did not want to think about the unthinkable. Maintaining calm and optimism, however, had become an impossible task.

Things began to unravel the second night. People could be heard crying and wailing in the dark corners of the boat. Small children began to suffer – diarrhea and vomiting – crying uncontrollably.

The third day seemed to have spelled the end. The stench from the vomit and human waste had become unbearable. More and more adults now demanded water or slices of jicama. Gold bars and hundred-US-dollar bills seemed to spill out from everywhere; unfortunately they could not quench our thirst or stave off our hunger, nor could they guarantee our safe passage. Death seemed inevitable.

The first casualty occurred when a two-year-old boy stopped moving, unable to be woken up from his sleep. His mother became distraught and began to wail. The child’s father, though not crying, became crazed. Sometime later in the afternoon, he made his way to the top deck and jumped into the ocean. We were now down to 302 lifeless bodies nearing the gates of hell.

We stumbled upon a busy shipping lane on the third night, which we later learned was the main sea route between Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, We began to see very large ships passing by. We screamed. We banged on pots and pans. We flashed our lights. None stopped. Each passing ship caused panic because our tiny boat nearly capsized in its wake.

A large pot that was used for cooking rice was brought onto the top deck. We started burning the rags off of our bodies and anything we could find in the hopes of attracting attention from the passing ships.

Sometime after midnight, a night that had our hopes dashed again and again with each passing ship, suddenly a hulking ship stopped and appeared to go in reverse towards our boat. All those who still had voice began to scream more loudly. More people took off their shirts and pants and threw them into the rice cooker to stoke up the fire again.

The ship stopped. We kept on screaming and burning more of our clothes. We did not know what was going. It may not have been very long, but it seemed to have lasted an eternity. The ship began to move closer to our boat, which nearly rolled over in its wake.

Blinding floodlights were shone on our boat and a ladder was dropped down. We began to cry with happiness, knowing that we had just escaped death. It took another 3 hours before all 302 of us tired, hungry, sea-sickened, lifeless Vietnamese to come onboard what turned out to be an oil tanker named George F Getty II. The sea unworthy boat that had miraculously carried us across the South China Sea was filled up with water and sunk.

About to be rescued by the US Navy. Photo courtesy of the US Navy.

By morning most of us were huddled together in an open area on the top deck of the tanker. Some were able to get washed and a few even managed to learn about who our saviors were. It was an oil tanker en route to Hong Kong. She was Liberian-registered with an Italian captain and a Filipino crew. She belonged to the Getty Oil company of California.

I had my first Italian meal of spaghetti and meatballs on May 18, 1980, aboard the George F Getty II, somewhere on the South China Sea.

Before we settled in for another night on the behemoth oil tanker, a familiar Vietnamese voice came on the loudspeaker announcing the good news that the ship had turned around, heading back to Singapore, but the somewhat bad news was that we weren’t sure if the island-state would allow us to come ashore and grant us temporary housing while waiting for resettlement in a third country.

Amidst cry of joy and silent sobbing, though still not quite comprehending what it all meant, we all knew that our ordeal, for the time being, had ended. We now had been fed, washed, and no longer adrift on the South China Sea, but the uncertainty was palpable because we still had no idea where our home would eventually be.

25 Hawkins Road

We arrived in Singapore on the night of May 19, 1980, anchoring among hundreds of ships and oil tankers in the busy Port of Singapore. Gleaming highrises could be seen in the distance. A truly modern world most of us had never seen coming from war-ravaged Viet Nam.

As night fell, this island-state lit up like a sparkling jewel, surrounded by twinkling lights that were the ships in the harbor. It was like the Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, a DNA-altering experience for someone who came from a country where old combustible-engine automobiles had been converted to run on coal and city and street lamps had become a dreamy distant past.

As day light broke, allowing us to see an even more amazing Singapore’s cityscape, the good news came over the loudspeaker that we would be coming ashore sometime before lunch. More crying of joy broke out. Amidst smiles we also learned that somehow one of us had gone missing, may have fallen off the ship. We were now down to 301, from the original 304 leaving Viet Nam.

One by one we boarded ferry boats that took us into Singapore harbor, then each was given a bag lunch of sandwich, soft drink and an apple.

From boarding the ferry to waiting in the harbor to boarding the busses that eventually took us to 25 Hawkins Road, Sembawang, in the northern suburbs of Singapore, we were all in a daze, marveling at everything we saw. How clean. How modern. How orderly everything was. And to top it all off, almost everyone around us was Chinese with whom some of us were able to communicate. It was a revelation.

Your truly, at 16, taken 2 or 3 days after arriving at 25 Hawkins Road, still with the shirt, on my shoulder, that I left Viet Nam with.

We arrived at 25 Hawkins Road about an hour or so later. It was quite a sight to see hundred of Vietnamese lining the road welcoming our arrival. At this point boat people rescued from 2 to 4 boats were brought into the camp every day, averaging anywhere between 40 and 500 people. Our group was among the largest rescued from a single boat. It was May 20, 1980.

Sonny Le: A news junkie since the age of five – thanks to my father and the BBC and Voice of America shortwave radio – born and raised in the Mekong Delta of Viet Nam, but home has been Oakland, California, after a stop at 25 Hawkins Road, Singapore Refugee Camp. A communications strategist with over twenty years of experience, started out with half-tone and carbon copy that actually left stains, then moved on to fax and e-mail and now happily embracing microblogging.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What did you think of Sonny’s personal narratives? What are the other stories of escaping Viet Nam do you know?

From Viet Nam to Japan…via France: Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood

While the acclaimed adaptation of Murakami’s novel has yet to be released in the United States, diaCRITIC correspondent in France Ly Lan Dill gives us a sneak peak at Trần Anh Hùng’s Norwegian Wood and some insight into Trần’s evolution as a filmmaker and his cinematic sensibilities.

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Tran Nu Yên-Khê and Trần Anh Hùng.

The tale of Trần Anh Hùng and his rise to cinematographic acclaim is as carefully rehearsed and precisely dispensed as any of the scenes in his movies. When questioned, he offers a controlled version of his story as immigrant boy who succeeded in crafting an international name through a handful of shorts and his Vietnamese trilogy. Born in Mỹ Tho in 1962, he and his parents left for France in 1975. As tailors, both his parents found work sewing uniforms for the French army upon arrival in their host country. Trần Anh Hùng completed two years of a Philosophy undergraduate degree before switching to cinema studies at the Ecole Louis-Lumière in 1987. Drawing on Vietnamese folk tales, he directed two student shorts: La Pierre de l’attente in 1991 and La Femme mariée the following year. He met Tran Nu Yên-Khê, his muse and future wife, during the shooting of his first short in Paris; she has starred in almost all of his films since. The Guardian reports that he dropped out of film school during finals: “I didn’t want to have a diploma because I knew that if I had it my parents would ask me to work. And then I would be a cameraman for television, then I would earn a lot of money and have an apartment, a girlfriend.” Instead, he took a job at the Musée d’Orsay bookshop and wrote five scripts over the next four years.

He would continue to explore his ties with Vietnam through recurring themes of innocence, war, moral consequences, separation, broken families, sorrow, and mourning in each episode of his Vietnamese trilogy: Mùi đu đủ xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya – 1993), Xích lô (Cyclo – 1995), Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng (The Vertical Ray of the Sun – 2000). Caméra d’or at Cannes, César for Best Debut, a Golden Lion at the Mostra of Venice, the trilogy established the young director as a major force in Asian cinema.

His choice of themes, the fact that Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng competed as a Vietnamese production in international festivals, and the ever-present backdrop of an idealized Việt Nam had the French media comparing him to Wong Kar Wai. The pressure to be the next big Asian director may have been part of the reason he chose to expand his range in his fourth feature after an eight-year hiatus.

In 2009, he delivered  I Come with the Rain, a baroque thriller, spinning his version of the Western cinematographic trinity: the serial killer, the private eye, and the lamb led to slaughter. The French production used Hollywood and Asian actors, was filmed in English, and yet had only a very limited run in Japan, Korea, Brazil, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Russia.

The stars, the novel, and the director of Norwegian Wood.

His latest project heralds a more acclaimed comeback as he tackles Haruki Murakami’s coming of age novel, Norwegian Wood. Though he has expanded past Việt Nam, he remains an Asian director to his own advantage. It is rumored that Murakami had refused many offers to turn his cult novel into a movie, waiting for an Asian director to project the region’s aesthetic. After having met several times and having seen the beginnings of Trần Anh Hùng’s script, Murakami told the director to go with the movie in his head. The important thing was to make the most beautiful movie possible. Trần Anh Hùng’s movie of the same name debuted in 2010 in Japan and has been garnering nominations for best movie, best screenplay, and best director at several festivals, starting with the Venice Mostra 2010.

The eternal innocence of  Mùi đu đủ xanh, destroyed in Xich Lo, and reconquered in Mùa hè is once again scrutinized in Norwegian Wood.  The film, like Haruki Murakami’s book, is set in Tokyo in the late 1960s. Watanabe, played by Kenichi Matsuyama, is a young university student who must choose between two loves: Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend who committed suicide, and Midori, a lively, vibrant woman begging to lead him into the future. We follow the three on the brink of adulthood as they experience the awkward fumblings of first love, as they come to grips with first grief, and as they decide whether the strength of being adult is worth losing the innocence of youth.

Though Watanabe is the central character in Murakami’s novel, it is the many female characters that are the movie’s true strength, as in all of Trần Anh Hùng’s films. In one scene, Midori comes out of the swimming pool, water streaming over her face. In her, the public sees a slightly older sister of Mùi, from Mùi đu đủ xanh, washing her face in the courtyard of the pianist. In another, Midori and Watanabe walk through her home in a subtle game of hide and seek with the sliding doors. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Liên and her brother, in Mùa hè, going back and forth through the arch that separates their bedrooms. The three women we see with Watanabe all offer at one point or another their innocence to a man-boy who can only say, “Of course.”

In an interview with Arte, Trần Anh Hùng talked of the importance of gentleness and fragility in his actors. He underlined the importance of delicate gestures and soft voices to lend a certain preciousness to their acting, a certain sence of respect for the public, to offset the stark nature of the sexual dialogue and bring it all back to the innocence of first love.

This led him to reject Rinko’s request to act in his movie several times over. After having seen her award-winning performance in Babel, his aversion to what he calls “too expressive” acting in American films made him believe she could never be his Naoko. After much  insistence, she managed to audition, and from that, he knew he had found his heroine.

This search for the precious, the delicate, the fragile, can also be seen as the visual proof of his own search to shed the obvious exterior signs of cultural knowledge, which he considers baggage; he strives to shed external pressure in order to invent his own, highly personal, visual language.

Norwegian Wood takes us through the seasons with the vibrant greens of spring when the three friends – Naoko, Toru, and Kizuki – are together in high school. With the death of Kizuki and the subsequent deepening of Naoko and Toru’s friendship, we enter the golden tones of summer, only to arrive at the harsh, steely hues of winter in the sanitorium. It is here, in Naoko’s sanitorium, where she battles for her fragile mental health but eventually melts away into its misty landscape, that some of the starkest and yet most strikingly beautiful scenes take place.

The lighting is almost a supporting character, helping the storyline forward. Mark Lee Ping-bing, the movie’s Cannes-winning Taiwanese cameraman, has shot with Trần before. Here, their artistic choices diverged during the love scenes. Trần Anh Hùng insisted on a digital HD camera with tight close-ups of the actors’ faces, to focus on the emotion. The result is a surprising change in texture from one scene to the next, but one where it does fully expose the actors. We see it all at once: their youth and desire as well as the flaws that age will bring if they allow time to flow its course. The raw, brute images cuts a swathe through the beautifully perfect youth of the characters.

The love story was filmed with an entirely Japanese cast despite the fact that Trần knows not a word of Japanese. He created a meticulous and painstaking process to achieve the dialogue he imagined. He wrote the script out in French, had it translated into English, before getting it adapted into Japanese, and then listened to it spoken to make sure it was melodic and not too clipped: “I wanted it to be longer than usual . . . to have the music of the lines. I don’t like when sentences are short and going very fast . . . Even in my Vietnamese movies, it does not sound natural like in life.”

For many, Norwegian wood is Trần Anh Hùng’s best film yet. His themes of youth and lost innocence are supported by Murakami’s storytelling that teeters on the edge of oneirism and buoyed, some say crushed, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s score that heavily features the 70s German band, Can. Most of the songs in the movie come from their classic years when their lead singer was the Japanese Suzuki, adding to the fortuitous charm of the entire film. The Beatles eponymous classic however makes little more than a cameo in the film. “It’s only that the song is too soft, too cute, too sentimental. What happens with the characters is really stronger than that song,” Trần said. “I put the song at the end of the movie because it works like the beginning of the book.”

Trần has said that this story about new love easily transcends borders. “It’s about the pain you feel when you are in the process of love. Love is growing and suddenly something stops it.”

Many thanks to the articles in the Associated Press, Arte, The Guardian.

Ly Lan Dill was born in Viet Nam, she grew up in the US, and is now a Paris-based translator.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Excited to see Tran Anh Hung’s newest film? What are your feelings on cinematic adaptations of novels? What do you think of Tran’s departure from films centered on Viet Nam?

A Voice that Sings: Spoken Word Artist Bao Phi Performs at USC

When Bao Phi steps on stage, he is in command of the audience’s experience in every aspect.  He instructs listeners exactly what they need to learn.  He projects exactly what they need to feel.  He even induces exactly what their reaction should be.  Jade Hidle learned this first-hand.

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Nine shots fired. Nine stanzas written.

In his poem “8, 9” Bao Phi—acclaimed Vietnamese American spoken word artist who has appeared on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam—remembers Hmong American teenager Fong Lee, who was murdered by Minneapolis police office Jason Anderson last fall. The title of Phi’s piece represents the number of bullets that hit Lee’s body (five of which entered after he was on the ground) of the total number of shots fired.

From left to right: Kelly Tsai, Bao Phi, and D'Lo performed at State of the Word, a spoken word event put on by USC's Visions and Voices

Performed in April at State of the Word, an Asian American spoken word event organized by USC’s Visions and Voices  and hosted by diaCRITICS’ editor-in-chief Viet Nguyen, Phi’s “8, 9” sharpens the focus on continued violence perpetrated against Asian Americans and the discourses that attempt to justify such state-sponsored racism. As you can see in the video below, Phi called upon Kelly Tsai, who also gave an engaging performance at the event, to illustrate and critique these discourses that, in the courtroom and mainstream media coverage, declared Lee a “gang member” and Anderson a “hero.”

In addition to commenting on and spreading awareness of current events pertinent to Asian Americans at large, Phi’s poems call for multiple voices to testify to the heterogeneity of Vietnamese Americans. This is especially important as we continue to be reduced to refugees or “model minorities” and our artistic productions are still expected to conform to one melancholy tale of war or “THE Vietnamese American experience.” His poem “The Nguyens”—titled to critique the view that we are all the same or that we all know each other—introduces  a series of Vietnamese American characters of varied religions, sexualities, places, voices, and levels of “Vietnameseness,” in however many meanings that term may bear. Phi prefaced his performance of this piece with the point that when one story is imposed upon a marginalized people, many “get lost in the shuffle.” To combat this loss, Phi aims to “embrace the contradictions.” To witness how Phi’s voice moves from poignantly measured in this preface to downright powerful in his reading of the poem, view the video below. (This clip also features a performance of “Love, Angel, Music, Baby,” a commentary on Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku girls.)

The pauses, pitches, and power of Phi’s voice are further exemplified in his performance of “Prince Among Men.” An homage to the music of Prince, this poem follows Quincy Nguyen—loyal Prince fan, eyeliner and all—in his violent encounters with racism and homophobia growing up in the Midwest. Resonant here is how Phi articulates generational differences through music. The father figure is focused on the past in his love of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” (Phi asks, “What Vietnamese person doesn’t understand that shit?”), while Quincy is, in true Prince fashion, “destined for future sexy.” This generational gap, though, is bridged as Phi screams the father’s anger when he finds that his son has been beaten. The force and veracity of Phi’s performance allows the following line to reverberate, to inspire:  “When it feels like no one lets you live at your own volume, you sing.”

Phi is no doubt a captivating performer. Throughout his set, he took pictures of the audience and engaged their voices with his call-and-response “Wow” piece featured at the beginning of the first video above. And, as I revisited his performance through the video footage of the event, I was able to more fully appreciate another layer to Phi’s relationship with his audience. Phi has cultivated the ability to both elicit laughter and command silences when warranted, sometimes navigating the audience between the two emotions in only a few lines of his poetry.

Then I remembered how, at the performance, I sneaked peeks at my younger siblings’ faces in the darkened ballroom. Both students at a high school where budget cuts have eliminated the time and materials for any significant reading of literature, let alone contemporary poetry, let alone a poet who looks like them or who speaks like/to them, my siblings smiled in discovery—in understanding—of Phi’s words.

Keep an eye out for Bao Phi’s upcoming book, Song I Sing, to be released by Coffee House Press this fall.  diaCRITICS will keep you posted!

Jade Hidle

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! After watching Phi’s performance through the magic of YouTube, do you connect to his poetry? If so, to what and why? Of what contemporary Asian American/Vietnamese American issues do you sing?