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Making Waves Over Vietnam

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Surf Vietnam,” Simon Leung’s symbolic surfboard installation on display at the Huntington Beach Art Center, reflects his ponderings on a strange stew of cultural beliefs innocently revealed in a brief newspaper article six years ago.

The Associated Press report, published in the New York Times in 1992, described American participation in an upcoming international surfing tournament on China Beach in Vietnam, 21 years after the last U.S. troops left the country.

A photograph with the story showed a scene from the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film “Apocalypse Now,” in which a soldier surfs while warplanes strafe the village behind him. The caption reads “China Beach, where ‘Apocalypse Now,’ above, was filmed.”

Leung, a bicoastal 33-year-old artist whose work has been shown widely in Los Angeles and New York, was intrigued.

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Didn’t the caption writer know that not even the most powerful Hollywood director could have made a movie in Vietnam in 1979? The U.S. trade embargo wasn’t lifted until 1994, and further restrictions weren’t eased until this year. (The movie actually was shot in the Philippines.)

He also was fascinated that the delegation scouting for tournament sites in Vietnam were surfers from Orange County--home to a large Vietnamese population.

“You go up Beach Boulevard, and there’s Little Saigon,” Leung said on a recent visit to the center’s Gallery 1, where a convoy of surfboards printed with enlargements of the news story hang from the ceiling in a V-formation.

“You go down Beach Boulevard, and it’s Surf City, where they have international surfing competitions.”

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Leung also was struck by the parallels between the casually dominant attitude the surfers displayed (one is quoted as saying, “The Vietnamese are waiting for us to come”) and the mind-set of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

“My theory is that a lot of contemporary [American] representations of Asians are manifestations of working out [the loss of] the Vietnam War,” he said.

“So we have films like ‘Rambo,’ which is the most ostentatious example of the rehabilitation of white male masculinity. It’s about the silent, cowboy-ish figure. And all the Asians are completely interchangeable.”

On one hand, Leung said, the notion of young Americans returning to an area that was a popular recreational site for servicemen during the war “is all about good faith.” But, he added, “there is more than one type of ‘return.’ ”

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“Surf Vietnam” is Leung’s final piece in a series of works about the fallout from the Vietnam War that he has titled “The Vietnam Trilogy.”

In this piece, fiberglass long boards (dominant in the 1960s) become the chief vehicle for Leung’s metaphorical, open-ended meditation on the history and use of language and the significance of people’s loyalties to a community.

The V-formation of the surfboards for the first two weeks of the exhibit recalls the initial letter of “Vietnam,” “veteran” or (ironically) “victory.” They also suggest the shape of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the configuration of helicopters during an airstrike, as seen in “Apocalypse Now.”

In succeeding weeks, Leung will rearrange the surfboards in configurations that reflect his interpretation of quotes from the news story. And three videos, filmed on San Francisco’s China Beach and the Huntington Beach Pier, will deal, he said, with “the mythos and ethos” of surfing and the shifting meanings that words and phrases acquire.

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Then, in the final three weeks, the installation will reflect an unusual collaboration involving the Huntington Beach High School surfing team, four Vietnamese immigrants and members of a Monday evening veteran support group in Anaheim.

Leung, who was born in Hong Kong, said he deliberately asked “people who have more at stake than I do” to present their own interpretations of the article.

The surfers have elected to position surfboards in a circle and remove some of them at random intervals during the installation.

“The circle, for them, symbolizes friendship,” Leung said. The flower-like arrangement also reminds Leung of the “flower children” of the ‘60s who opposed the war.

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One of the veterans, Steven Bird, has sketched a memorial installation that will include camouflage netting hanging over an arrangement of upright surfboards. Other boards, covered in black, will lie on the floor.

Emigre Dinh Le, who was a wartime correspondent for the New York Times, will resurrect his piece published April 2, 1975--28 days before South Vietnam surrendered--that described how Cam Ranh, a coastal village renowned for its scenic beauty, became a “hell on earth” as people desperately tried to flee.

Artist Viet Nguyen, meanwhile, will base his piece on the little notebook he filled in 1975 with lyrics to Vietnamese songs and new vocabulary words (" . . . illness, convalesce, constipation”) that applied to his situation as a passenger on the naval ship carrying him to the West. He writes that after the physical battles, “There is a new war, a war of language and readjustment.”

*

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Like Nguyen, who is a veteran of the South Vietnamese army, several show participants have some connection to Vietnam. One of the surfers has a father who fought in the Vietnam War. Three of the surfboard shapers are Vietnam vets. Leung’s assistant, Lan Thao Lam, was a refugee. Some of the veterans are surfers.

“People usually think of communities as a lot of people with things in common,” Leung says. “But what I’m interested in is how, within a community, the one irreducible aspect is mortality--that you care about [someone else’s] death, and that the death is a loss to you.

“Immigrants and veterans actually share that [concern]. The very status of their communities depends on a certain fragility--that very close relationship to mortality. And I’d extend that to the kids on the surfing team, who [recently] lost one of their members.” (Sixteen-year-old Joshua Dean Hall died last fall in a surfing accident.)

Leung said some people wanted to know why he was asking people who didn’t even know what conceptual art was to participate in his project.

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“The way I look at it . . . they have such an intelligent grasp, both of the ideas and what it means to be called upon to represent themselves,” he said. “Their pieces are extremely powerful.”

* “Simon Leung: ‘Surf Vietnam,’ ” through Aug. 16, Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. Hours: Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; noon-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-6 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $3 general, $2 students and seniors. (714) 374-1650.


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