Vietnamese Americans protest published photo

Times Staff Writer

For eight days, protesters paraded in front of one of Little Saigon’s leading newspapers. They carried an effigy of Ho Chi Minh and called the editors “traitors” for running a photo they said was so offensive that it had to be the work of communist sympathizers.

Two top editors at the newspaper were replaced several days later.

The offending photo was of a piece of art by a UC Davis graduate student and Vietnamese immigrant who saw the creation -- a yellow and red foot-spa tub -- as a salute to Vietnamese refugees like her mother-in-law who toiled in a nail salon after the family came to America.

But the protesters saw something far more menacing.

The tub was yellow with three red stripes, which the protesters said must be a reference to the flag of the fallen country of South Vietnam. And the spa’s yellow power cord was plugged into a red outlet, which seemed to resemble the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, now under communist rule.

“Why is the South Vietnamese flag on a thing that people wash their dirty feet in?” asked Uc Van Nguyen, 70, who attended some of the rallies, which began in late January.


Such loud and jeering protests are not unusual in the United States’ largest Vietnamese enclave, where the line between free expression and traitorous behavior remains paper-thin.

The controversy over the foot spa underscores how homeland politics and memories of a war that ended a generation ago continue to echo in the community, where reputations can be tarnished with accusations of being a communist sympathizer. Business leaders, politicians, radio personalities, even pop stars are mindful of the pitfalls.

At the recent rallies outside the newspaper, protesters said that despite the abundant freedoms in America, artists must practice self-restraint to avoid insulting a community where the memories of war and struggle still linger.

“This image is extremely offensive,” said Nguyen, who fought in the Vietnam War for the South Vietnamese military as a helicopter commander and now lives in Tustin. “It hurts the feelings of all Vietnamese refugees.”

The photo of the artwork, titled “Connection,” was printed in the Vietnamese lunar new year edition of a magazine published by Nguoi Viet, the largest daily newspaper in Little Saigon.

During the protest, which ended early this month, dozens of people marched around the newspaper’s parking lot, yelling, “Down with communists! Down with Nguoi Viet newspaper!”

Hang Dang, 58, of Garden Grove said the artwork suggested that the communist government was fueling the success of Vietnamese emigres in America.

Vietnamese Americans view the two flags as powerful symbols, one sacred and the other incendiary, said Jeffrey Brody, a Cal State Fullerton communications professor who has taught classes on the Vietnamese American experience.

Officials in Westminster and Garden Grove have banned the communist Vietnamese flag from official functions. And it is customary for merchants to fly the old South Vietnamese banner in front of businesses. Some non-Vietnamese politicians in the area pose with the flag on campaign literature.

So when the protesters gathered in front of Nguoi Viet, the paper hurriedly announced that it was replacing the editor in chief and managing editor. The new editors publicly apologized for the photo, saying the decision to print the image was a “mistake.”

“First, a mistake was made on judgment,” Dat Huy Phan, the publication’s chief executive, said at a news conference. “Secondly, a mistake was made professionally. Thirdly, a mistake was made in the newspaper’s checking mechanism.”

The editors said they would gladly give refunds to people who bought the $8 magazine.

“We continue to focus on the work we do in service to our readers and our fellow Vietnamese refugees, whose voices we respect and value deeply,” said Anh B. Do, the new editor in chief.

Meanwhile, the artist said she had no intention of offending anyone when she bought a foot spa from a nail shop, painted it yellow and red, and submitted it for a scholarship while she was a student at UC Berkeley. She is now a graduate student at UC Davis.

“People can think that I demean their flag, but that is not my intention,” said Chau Huynh, who was incorrectly identified in the article as Chau Thuy Tran. “When you talk about red and yellow, it’s the Vietnamese traditional colors that I fall in love with. Both flags are yellow and red.”

She saw the art creation as a way to honor Vietnamese women who have “toiled and sacrificed enormously for the future of their children and family,” she wrote in a piece explaining the art, which was translated into Vietnamese and ran next to the image in the Nguoi Viet magazine.

Huynh, 36, showcased the installation at a 2006 exhibit in Berkeley, along with seven other pieces that reflect her experiences growing up in Vietnam and moving to the United States nine years ago. She placed the installation next to what seemed a more provocative piece, a quilt she sewed that intertwined the South Vietnamese flag with the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

The art student said she was bewildered that an exhibit received with applause and praise in one part of the state could be denounced as communist propaganda in another.

Despite the reaction, Huynh said she believes her job as a Vietnamese American artist is to push boundaries and make people think.

“I don’t speak for the whole community. I speak for myself,” she said. “All my work is to honor the Vietnamese people. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to look at it.”