It’s an image rarely seen in Little Saigon: the red flag of Vietnam.
The last time the communist flag was displayed prominently in Orange County’s Vietnamese enclave -- when a merchant displayed the banner -- it ignited 53 days of angry street protests.
Today, an exhibit commissioned by a Vietnamese American arts group will open in Santa Ana, a display that purposely includes communist symbols, the flag of the fallen country of South Vietnam and artwork that has been banned in Vietnam. In the middle of the country’s largest Vietnamese population, the curators hope to challenge sensibilities and provoke discussion in a community where the topic of politics other than staunch anti-communism has long been taboo.
Organizers say the display is a direct response to the artwork of a UC Davis graduate student and Vietnamese immigrant who painted a foot spa yellow with three bright red stripes. She said it was to honor her mother-in-law’s years of labor in a nail salon, but some in Little Saigon saw it as a mocking reference to the South Vietnamese flag -- which is also yellow with three red stripes -- and branded it communist propaganda. When a photograph of the artwork appeared in Little Saigon’s leading newspaper last year, street protests erupted and the paper apologized and fired two top editors.
“We felt this prevailing fear around the Vietnamese community after the foot bath incident,” said Tram Le, one of the curators. “I felt the community was on this slippery slope, that we were not progressing toward having open dialogue and being more tolerant of different political viewpoints.”
The group hopes to change the mood in Little Saigon through art.
“I think that we were trying to confront that fear head on,” said Mariam Lam, a UC Riverside assistant professor of literature and cultural studies, and board member of the art group. “We are trying to say that the community should be a safe space for people, even protesters.”
The exhibit is extraordinary in this historically anti-communist community, where the memories of war and the communist takeover still smolder. Any hint of associating with Vietnam can spark accusations of communist sympathies that can ruin reputations and incite street protests.
Sponsored by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Assn., the exhibit includes paintings, photographs, multimedia displays and performances on topics including politics, war, sexuality and youth culture. Called “F.O.B. II: Art Speaks,” the name is a play on the pejorative moniker “fresh off the boat,” a term given to immigrants who came to the United States by boat, including hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who escaped after the war ended.
Art has a complicated past in Little Saigon, where the line between free expression and traitorous behavior is razor-thin. The protesters who demonstrated against the foot spa image said then that despite the abundant freedoms in America, artists should avoid images that could insult or inflame a community still reconciling its past.
The exhibit will test the Vietnamese American community, said Linda Vo, chair of UC Irvine’s Asian American Studies department.
“It has been difficult for the Vietnamese community to express their experiences,” said Vo, who also sits on the art association’s advisory board. “The war and what happened afterward, of being refugees and having to restart their lives, left scars that have never been dealt with. None of us know if the community is ready for this now, or if it will take another 10 years.”
One of the more provocative pieces is a photograph by Brian Doan of a girl in Vietnam wearing a red tank top with a yellow star, a representation of Vietnam’s official flag. On a table next to her is a small bust of former communist leader Ho Chi Minh and a cellphone.
“This piece uses the communist flag but isn’t celebratory of communism,” said Lan Duong, a co-curator and assistant professor of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside. “The communist flag isn’t used just as a political symbol, but of what is going on in Vietnam and the kinds of modes of consumption that marks youth culture.”
Another installation is an interactive voting booth where people can choose which flag represents them: the flag of South Vietnam, the official flag of Vietnam, or they can use crayons to create their own flag. Flags are important symbols in the Vietnamese community, where the banner of South Vietnam still hangs on lampposts and storefronts and the official Vietnamese flag is stomped on during protests.
The exhibit also features submissions from Chau Huynh, the artist who created the controversial foot spa installation. In one painting, she intersperses written lyrics of the anthems of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the former Republic of Vietnam.
The curators also created a sideshow of art that was banned in Vietnam and included audio recordings and writings of dissidents in Vietnam.
“I wanted to make the connections with Vietnamese artists that have been banned in Vietnam and this kind of repression that we face here in terms of voicing political opinions,” Duong said. “The forms of censorship are not equivalent, but they are similar.”
Choosing pieces for the exhibit was not easy. “We kept asking, ‘Are we being sensitive enough for the community, or will they be so hurt when they see this that they are not going to be part of the conversation?’ ” Le said.
Mindful of the pitfalls, the curators decided to have statements from artists explaining the pieces, along with panel discussions and a curator walk-through.
“We felt in the end,” Le said, “that we could not self-censor ourselves even at the risk that it may offend somebody.”
The curators are both part of the so-called 1.5 generation of Vietnamese Americans, who were born in Vietnam but immigrated to the United States at an early age. They see their role as bridging the gap between the first generation, many of whom lived through the war, and the next generation, who may not understand the experiences of their parents.
“We have this freedom of speech in this country that allows us to put on a show like this,” Le said. “If we can’t have a show here, where can we do it?”