Artist-Turned-Editor Is Out to Make a News Start : Publishing: Trung Pham wants his VietNow, based in Westminster's Little Saigon, to serve as a forum for dealing with issues past and present.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trained as a painter and a graphic artist, Trung Pham was accustomed to seeing the world in cool and warm shades, soft and striking colors, airy and bold brush strokes.

But usually not in black and white.

Until now.

Pham is the founder of VietNow, one of the first magazines for a generation of Vietnamese Americans who grew up in the United States. It is published in Westminster's Little Saigon.

Working as a publisher, editor and writer, he now conveys his views in black type on white, glossy paper.

"By far, this is one of the most challenging projects I've ever set out to do," said Pham, 29, who admitted that he is still much more comfortable working with oils and canvases than subjects and verbs.

The first issue, with 5,000 copies released in February, was distributed at Vietnamese bookstores and newsstands as well as university campuses throughout California, Oregon, Washington and Texas.

Aimed at Vietnamese Americans ages 18 to 38, the English-language magazine addresses such issues as sex, career and interracial relationships. Pham plans to profile the Vietnamese gay and lesbian community in the next issue, scheduled to hit newsstands March 23.

"This is something that hardly ever gets talked about in the Vietnamese community," Pham said. "And like it or not, it happens, and we need to deal with it."

Several readers interviewed said they admire Pham's first effort and believe the publication will serve as a communication platform for young Vietnamese Americans.

"I think he's got courage to do what he did," said Tuan Le, 32, an administrator for a law firm who read the magazine at a Tet festival in Westminster.

Others believe that VietNow has the potential to build bridges between the older and younger generations of Vietnamese, and between the overseas immigrants and the people living in Vietnam.

"I see a lot of promise," said Tu-Uyen Nguyen, 22, a senior at UC Irvine who is majoring in biology and comparative literature. "Maybe in the future, the magazine can be an open forum where young Vietnamese can turn to for better understanding of our own identity."

The idea of a magazine for Vietnamese of his generation materialized after a trip around the world that took Pham back home to Saigon, he said.

When he left the United States five years ago to study painting, Pham thought of nothing but to get as far away as possible from his ties to the traditions of Vietnam.

"Back then, being Vietnamese, to me, meant giving in to the traditional beliefs of my parents," Pham said. "It is settling to be a graphic designer when you really wanted to be a painter, all because somehow, your parents thought that it would be the 'safer' thing to do."

After graduating with a visual-design degree at the University of Oregon in 1988, Pham decided to abandon the inhibitions dictated by his Vietnamese past to pursue the worldly whims packaged in a trip around the world that included stops in Pakistan, Egypt, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Hong Kong and Thailand.

Pham saw the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

But for all their majesty, Pham said, none of the monuments compared to the sight of his childhood home in Saigon, which he hadn't seen since he left at age 9 in 1975.

"It was like I was coming home and finding that I am a stranger in my own home," he said in a soft, undulating voice. "It felt like a home that I've somehow lost out on, a childhood that I've somehow lost out on."

It was at this trove of memories that he saw himself as a child for the first time.

"When my family left Vietnam, we didn't have room for the photos, so I never knew what I looked like as a kid," he said. "And in Saigon," where he tracked down childhood photos, "I finally got to do that."

It was also in Saigon where he realized that there must be many others like him, people trying to reconcile the conflicts of East and West, of traditional obligation and newfound freedom.

"I thought a magazine would be the perfect platform," he said.

Pham took $10,000 he made from selling his paintings in Europe and Asia and went to work on this new publication. He and a friend from college, David Edelhart, 28, designed the magazine on Edelhart's computer in Portland, Ore., and wrote a few articles "since we couldn't find writers."

Their work was done mostly in Portland, where Pham's parents live, then transferred to Westminster on discs for printing.

"We often worked all night," Edelhart said. "Then in the morning, I would shower at his house and went off to work in my wrinkled old clothes, unshaven.

"After work, I'd be back at his house again, working on the magazine and eating his mom's food. That was how I got paid--his mom's cooking. She's a great cook."

Edelhart has been working for an air-conditioner manufacturer in Oregon. But he plans to quit that job next month and move to Orange County with Pham to devote his time to the magazine.

"Trying to put together a magazine is already difficult," Edelhart said. "To do that from hundreds of miles away was crazy."

In January, Pham packed the software that contained the coded version of VietNow and enough clothes to last a week, and drove to Westminster, where the magazine was being published.

Pham ended up staying a month and a half.

"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," he said.

Kristine Pham, 24, who quit a lucrative position at CBS to work "almost for free" as an entertainment editor and writer for the magazine, said the discs he brought weren't compatible with the computers available in Orange County. It was difficult to put the finishing touches on the magazine.

"Every time we tried to insert anything on the disc, it would mess everything else up," Kristine Pham said. "Something that we thought would take 40 minutes to do would end up taking 4 1/2 hours."

Kristine and Trung Pham, who are not related, said they took turns working all night on computers borrowed from anyone who was willing to give them access, including "somebody at the print shop whose last name we didn't even know."

On Tet, the lunar new year, Trung Pham said he was so tired from a lack of sleep that he started to hallucinate about an earthquake.

"All of a sudden, he started yelling about an earthquake," Kristine Pham said. "I was so busy that I just ignored him and went back to typing."

The next morning, it was back to stuffing their clothes and computer discs into duffel bags and moving to the next available computer.

"We've been living out of his car, basically," she said. "We wear the same clothes over and over again and crash at (the homes of) our friends, whoever will take us."

Trung Pham is looking for an apartment in Orange County within reach of the cultural hub he is trying to service. With his equipment on hand, he anticipates he'll be able to spend less time producing future issues and more time developing the content of them.

That's just what some of his readers prescribed.

UCI student Nguyen said although she supports the magazine, her first impression of it was a Vietnamese version of such popular American magazines as Cosmopolitan, in which the general focus is relationships, entertainment and fashion.

"The articles were amusing, but they said nothing new," Nguyen said.

What she was hoping to find were more in-depth articles dealing with issues such as identity or even politics from her generation's point of view. Although disappointed in the first issue, Nguyen said she'll continue to buy VietNow in hopes that it will become what Pham promised in a letter to his readers--to become "a new voice," not merely a sound byte, for the younger generation of Vietnamese.

Said Pham: "It's not perfect . . . yet."

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