THE gathering had the feeling of a family reunion, a kind of homecoming for Orange County’s large Vietnamese community. They gathered in a Westminster newspaper office to welcome legendary artist Vinh Quoc Doan and view his collection of paintings, sculptures, wood-panel engravings and decorative arts on display for the first time in the U.S.
His family history was one familiar to much of the crowd. Doan is the son of South Vietnam’s famous novelist and social essayist Sy Quoc Doan, who was sent to prison by the Communist government for 13 years after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Despite this, Doan managed to climb to the top of Vietnam’s burgeoning art and design world.
While his childhood appeared turbulent, his art tells another story. Doan’s work overflows with serene images deeply rooted in Vietnam and its people -- colorful paintings of young women in ao dai, fitted Vietnamese traditional dresses that resemble long tunics with slits at the waist and worn with pants; astrological symbols often displayed in the traditional Vietnamese homes; images of the water buffalo, an animal seen as representing the work ethics of the Vietnamese peoples.
“Politics doesn’t appeal to me,” said Doan, 46. “Art is an outlet for me to express the quiet beauty of Vietnam, many happy memories from my childhood that touched my soul and life around us. “
Saturday afternoon, more than 300 people, including many from the Vietnamese-American print and television media, turned out to see Doan’s first U.S. art exhibit, called Ao Nha Lung Linh (The Shimmering Pond from Home), at Nguoi Viet News office on Moran Street in the heart of Little Saigon. Doan, wearing a black ao dai with a mandarin collar, moved swiftly about the room, stopping to pose for photos with guests in between interviews with reporters.
He is not unfamiliar with media attention. In the past decade, Doan’s art and interior design concepts were often showcased in Vietnam publications. “His work brings an authentic feeling of Vietnam,” said Joe Lubow, a travel writer from San Francisco who purchased Doan’s art when he visited Vietnam last year.
Doan’s own home life was nearly shattered after the fall of Saigon, when his father was abruptly taken from his large family, which worked at odd jobs to get by.
“I still remember him in those days walking around in tattered clothes,” said Thu Anh Do, a childhood friend of Doan’s. “We were all starving. Meals usually consisted of rice mixed with potatoes so that it would be more filling.”
When city youths had to go to the countryside to do manual labor, as part of the Communist government’s cultural revolution program, Doan was often Do’s chauffeur by way of his old bike, transporting his friend to various work locations.
“I think because we went through so much hardship together, his success is shared by many of us who know him and his family, and even those who never met him, but they grew up in our generation,” said Do, who came to the exhibit to support Doan and visit his family.
During difficult times, Doan turned to art because it brought back memories of happier times of his early childhood. His father’s friends, many of whom are well-known poets, writers, artists and musicians, would frequently stop by and fill their family room with conversation and laughter.
“Our home was filled with so many original artworks from my father’s friends,” he said. Doan said he particularly admires the work of Vietnamese artist Vo Dinh, a family friend who now lives in Virginia. He remembered watching Dinh engrave intricate designs on a cabinet that was also used as a prayer table by the Doan family.
“He once told me that art doesn’t have to be fanciful and complicated. It should always be natural and pure. That idea always stayed with me,” said Doan.
The elder Doan, now 84, said that while he was in prison during the years his children were growing up, thoughts and memories of his family gave him strength to survive.
“I was worried for them because I know my wife and children would have to struggle in life and I wasn’t there” he said while visiting the exhibit. “But somehow, I always had the conviction that my children would turn out as good people while I was gone because of the education and values we instilled early on.”
His son’s lucky break came in 1980, when he was selected to work as an apprentice for one of Vietnam’s premier architects, Truong Dinh Que. After his apprenticeship in 1984, Doan tried to find work but was repeatedly rejected based on his family being blacklisted by the government. He later worked as a truck driver, a taxi driver and then a tour guide in Saigon. By 1988, his father was released from prison.
In the early ‘90s, as the Communist government began promoting tourism in Vietnam, more restaurants and cafes began to open. Friends turned to Doan for help with art and interior design for their businesses. For each venue, Doan designed individual art collections to enhance the decor and aesthetic energy. The results of these efforts are on display, for example, at Nam An in Saigon. In 1992, Doan opened his first art gallery, HomeFlowers Design, which also serves as an interior design firm. Two years later, when the U.S. lifted the trade embargo with Vietnam, his business was one of the first interior design companies in Saigon with more than 40 employees.
His decision to come to the U.S. now was fueled by his desire to reunite with his family, he said. His three sisters in Vietnam are awaiting paperwork to join the rest of the clan. Doan is enjoying his new life in America but said he is surprised at the nonstop work pace here.
His siblings and friends were available only during weekends to help him set up his showroom, which will open Dec. 1 at DV Gallery & Interior Designs on Beach Boulevard in Westminster. Doan turned the small warehouse, often used for community events, into an art gallery. He built free-standing wall panels and makeshift shelves to showcase more than 200 pieces of sculptures, statues, vases, lamps, mirrors and room partitions with hand-engraved etchings. As for lighting, he transformed more than a dozen copper bird cages into ceiling lamps lighted with color bulbs.
“I’ve never had to set up a showroom by myself,” he said, laughing. “I’m very spoiled in Vietnam. I just speak to my staff on the phone and it’s done.”