O.C Register | May 4, 2018 | BY LOUIS CASIANO
Hung Viet Nguyen tried several times to flee Vietnam before finally squeezing onto a boat six years after the fall of Saigon.
In 1981, he joined 25 strangers for a seven-day voyage to the Philippines to escape what he describes as an oppressive Communist regime.
The then 24-year-old Nguyen guided the packed vessel using nothing but a compass as he attempted to flag passing ships for help. A Taiwanese fishing boat finally stopped, giving Nguyen and the other passengers water and guiding them the rest of the way.
Nguyen, 62, of Torrance, documented the trip through sketches to preserve the memory of his journey.
“I really don’t express my feelings by talking,” Nguyen said. “It was just to remember one of the very important stages of my life, because that changed my life.”
The drawings, along with a refugee camp ID card and receipts for a paid trip to America, are on display as part of “VIET STORIES: Recollection & Regenerations,” an exhibition at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum that focuses on America’s Vietnamese population following the end of Nixon’s presidency.
At the Yorba Linda museum, the past and present of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants are told though personal artifacts, oral history interviews, artwork and photographs.
Some of the displayed items include travel documents, clothes and the pieces of luggage many refugees arrived with.
In America, stories about Vietnam usually center on the Vietnam War, often omitting the experiences of those who lived the conflict before and after U.S. intervention, said Linda Vo, an Asian-American studies professor at UC Irvine and co-curator of the exhibit.
“It’s about Vietnamese-Americans, who they were in Vietnam and what happened to them during the war and what’s happened to them since,” Vo said. “People have some perception of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, but often times it’s a very negative perception or it’s just associated with war.”
From an immigrant perspective, the Vietnamese experience is often overlooked in favor of other immigrant groups, said Olivia Anastasiadis, the supervisory museum curator for the Nixon Library.
“There’s other exhibits about immigrants, but I hadn’t seen any about the Vietnamese and the struggle that they went through,” she said. “The Nixon Library tells the story of the Vietnam War, we go through the entire struggle that Richard Nixon went through in bringing peace to the nation, but we never talk about what happened after.”
Taryn Rose was 7-years-old when she and her family packed what they could and fled South Vietnam in 1975, days before North Vietnamese military forces captured Saigon.
“I remember the night before we left, writing messages on the walls of our house so that if relatives came looking for us they would know that we had left,” Rose said.
After making their way to Arkansas, the family moved around before settling in Anaheim Hills. A graduate of UC Irvine, Rose, 51, now a resident of Beverly Hills, practiced medicine as an orthopedic surgeon before diving into the fashion industry and creating a shoe line.
Several shoes designed by Rose are displayed next to family photographs donated for the exhibit.
Photos of Minh Ho, 72, of Garden Grove, show him working for a telecommunication company in Anaheim. Ho raised his children and nephew as a single father while attending Fullerton College after his arrival in Orange County.
“I took any job when I arrived here,” Ho said.
A family portrait of his wife and four children and a nephew sit in an enclosed glass case.
His wife and two children stayed in Vietnam. His wife died several years later, but Ho was reunited with his remaining children in 1991.
Mentioned in the exhibit are Vietnamese-Americans working in industries such as film, art, politics and business.
“I think these stories give a human face to the war,” Rose said.
The exhibit also touches on the resistance some of the immigrants faced in their new communities.
In a June 1981 press release displayed in the exhibit, Westminster Mayor Kathy Buchoz stated her support for Vietnamese residents and businesses after the City Council received a petition with 100 signatures asking that business licenses be denied to any “Indochinese refugee” wishing to operate in a certain part of town.
“My personal opinion is that the petition was unconstitutional and discriminatory,” the release stated. “The circumstances that led to their seeking a new life in America were not unlike yours.”
More than 9,000 Vietnamese businesses have been counted in the Garden Grove and Westminster – part of Orange County’s Little Saigon – and residents of Vietnamese origin number more than 188,000 in Orange County.
Prominent Orange County business leader Frank Jao and his Bridgecreek Group have invested $400 million into local shopping centers, including the two-story Asian Garden Mall in Little Saigon.
Jao escaped Saigon on the second-to-last American transport plane, as those fleeing were being fired upon by Communists machine gunners.
The Nixon Library exhibit is as much for the public at-large as it is for second and third generations of Vietnamese-Americans who may not know or understand the struggles of their parents and grandparents, Jao said.
“This is giving some guidance of where the first generation came from and what they had to go through,” he said.
Viet Stories will be on display through May 28.