Living history at the Chinese American Museum

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The photograph on the wall shows a young family in Saigon in 1978, shortly before they fled Vietnam by boat. Museums often use such photos to humanize otherwise abstract moments of history, an idea that works really well here, especially when the woman next to me whispers, ‘Did you know I’m in that picture?’

Linh Duong is the public relations director of L.A.'s Chinese American Museum. We have stopped in front of a popular exhibit that describes different ways immigrants came to the United States. (You can read more about the museum, which just marked its fifth anniversary, in this week’s Arts & Books section.)

‘I was 5 months old,’ says Duong, gently pointing to the image of her tiny self. ''My parents tell stories. They don’t have a lot of money, so the most valuable thing they can give, tantamount to a family heirloom, is telling us about our time in Vietnam and about our journey here.’

After Saigon fell in 1975, she explains, people hoped to enjoy a happy peace. ‘Instead, the Communists took over and life was just impossible. If you worked, you had to share your money with the government. There was nothing available for purchase. My Dad began to worry about our future because other kids were beggars or doing hard labor.’


Duong’s father, a machine shop owner, paid 12 gold pieces each to secure himself, his wife, his toddler son and infant daughter spots on a fishing boat crammed with more than 400 people. They headed toward Thailand; however, vicious storms blew them into the South China Sea. ‘We were rocked in all directions. We were sick and fainting and throwing up. No one had water.’ After drifting for several days, the boat started to flood and its motor died. Sharks circled. ‘Everyone was crying and praying to Buddha for mercy.’

An American naval frigate, the U.S.S. Whipple, finally discovered the rickety vessel bobbing in the waves. ‘It was very emotional. There were extreme acts of kindness. They gave us clothes and food, and they gave us their beds.’ The Whipple sailed to Hong Kong, where the refugees were greeted as heroes.

The Duongs stayed for about a year and then emigrated to Florida, where an aunt lived. After a year there, they took a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles to join other relatives. Their first home was in what Duong calls ‘a very bad part of downtown.’ Her father, who had become a restaurant cook, eventually was able to move his family to Hollywood and, when Duong was in eighth grade, to Chinatown. ‘That was wonderful. We were right in the center of culture and tradition. My parents never learned to speak English, so they felt very much at ease.’

Duong graduated from UC Riverside and worked at a public relations agency for a few years. She heard about plans to create a Chinese American museum and signed up as a volunteer in 2001. Two years later, the museum opened at El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the downtown historical park.

Today, Duong’s parents still live in Chinatown. Her brother is an accountant. Her sister, who was born in the ‘80s (and named Nancy, as in Reagan), is a graduate student at Princeton.

A happy ending to a harrowing tale?

Yes -- with a few surprises.

‘An amazing thing just happened,’ Duong says. ‘After 30 years, we are having a very emotional and historic reunion between my Mom and her sister, who came here to visit. They thought they would never see each other again.’

She pauses, then adds: ‘My aunt had wanted my Mom to leave me behind because she didn’t think I would survive the journey. My Mom cried and said ‘no’ because she wanted the family to be together.’

Questions pop into my mind. What if Duong had been stranded in Vietnam? What if she had perished at sea?

Obviously, she has pondered all of this herself. ‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I wonder how my life would be different.’

Shortly after my visit to the museum, I email Duong about a website I found while double-checking the name of the Navy ship. It includes an essay by a man who served on the Whipple, as well as photos of haggard refugees being taken aboard. I assume Duong is aware of the site; I just want to let her know that I I might mention it in this item.

It turns out she knew nothing like this existed. ‘I’ve been reading/exploring all of its sublinks for the past hour,’ she e-mailed back, ‘and am speechless to know that the images I am seeing are most likely the raw images of our rescue -- the missing visual pieces to my family’s journey. It never really dawned on my siblings and I to further explore this story -- certainly not for lack of interest -- we always felt that hearing these stories from my dad and mom were fulfilling enough, we took them for face-value and honored it by sharing it with our friends....’


A few nights ago, Duong took a laptop containing the downloaded images to her parents’ home. ‘I wanted the first viewing to be a sort of ‘reunion of memory,’ ' she says. ‘My dad confirmed that the pictures were of our boat. My mom had a much harder time recognizing it because all she could remember was us boarding it at night in the dark and then not being able to move anywhere once we sailed because it was so crowded.’ Her aunt, who stayed behind because she couldn’t afford the fare, got her first look at what had happened to the rest of the family.

‘Seeing the pictures created a very spirited retelling of our journey,’ Duong says. ‘It helped fill in so many things for us.’

--Karen Wada

Top photo: Linh Duong works at the Chinese American Museum, which has on display a photograph of Duong’s family before they left Saigon.