A son’s loyalties tested
Brian Doan was rushing to the photography class he taught at Long Beach City College when his cellphone rang. It was his father.
The two had barely spoken in weeks. He slumped against the wall and picked up the phone.
“Ba,” he said in Vietnamese. “Dad.”
Doan could hear his father crying.
“You are my son,” his dad said. “Listen to me.”
He pleaded, “Take down the photo.”
“Son,” he said, “don’t you know that I am dying? Take it down.”
Then his father hung up.
In the first days of 2009, hundreds of angry Vietnamese Americans marched outside an exhibit in Santa Ana featuring Vietnamese artists. Some arrived by bus from as far away as San Jose.
The object of their fury was a 2-foot-by-3-foot photo featuring a young woman sitting next to a brass bust of former Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. She wore a red tank top with a large yellow star, the color of the official flag of Vietnam.
The protesters shouted into bullhorns and raised pickets skyward. Here, on the edge of the largest Vietnamese community in America, the image of the hated Communist leader and the flag of a country that was no longer theirs stirred painful memories.
Vietnamese newspapers likened the image to a swastika appearing in a Jewish community, a deep and hurtful insult.
The photo was called “Thu Duc,” the Ho Chi Minh City suburb where Doan had posed and shot the picture.
A few weeks later, after the photo had been scratched, spit on, sprayed with red paint and denounced by politicians, a defiant Doan hung a smaller version at a solo exhibit at nearby Cypress Community College.
The 40-year-old artist from Long Beach insisted he didn’t mean to hurt anyone. The photo poked fun at communism, he repeated in a weary voice during interviews with Vietnamese and American media. It was comical that the bust was no longer held up in reverence, that the flag was worn as a tourist knickknack. Doan saw the photo as a modern Vietnamese American point of view.
The anger only spread. Dozens picketed on the campus after Cypress College administrators declined to remove the photo, citing freedom of expression. The anger boiled up in e-mail messages on Doan’s iPhone. “How dare you, kid!!” one read. "…seeking fame at others’ grief,” read another.
But it was the voice of his father, Han Vi Doan, that cut the deepest.
His father had taught him to be tenacious. It was tenacity that helped his father survive the brutal Communist prison camps and drove him to America, where he hoped to finally touch freedom. That, Doan reminded himself, is why he’d been able to become an artist.
“As a good son, I have to take it down so my dad feels better and makes peace with the Vietnamese community,” Doan said. “Do I play the role of being a good son, or being a good artist and believing in my work?”
Doan was 16, playing soccer in the fields of rural Long Khanh in southern Vietnam, when a friend ran up to tell him the news: Your father is home!”
His father had been an intelligence officer for the South Vietnamese Army and was thrown into a Communist “re-education” camp after the 1975 fall of Saigon. It had been 10 years since they took him away.
Through the gathered crowd, Doan saw a thin man sitting in a chair, stooped over with an ashen face, already an old man at 55. He wore the haunted expression of someone whose terrors could not be spoken. He looked nothing like the tall, strapping man in an army uniform that Doan remembered from old photos.
His father noticed a photo of his youngest daughter, placed next to a pot of incense, and then glanced out at the crowd. Doan knew that his father understood. His daughter — his favorite child — had died while he was in prison.
Doan hated Communists. He hated being forced to relocate with his mother and six brothers and sisters to a rural New Economic Zone, set up by the Communist government to boost agricultural output, where they barely had enough to eat. He hated having to salute a photo of Ho Chi Minh that hung in his classroom. When his mother went to visit his father in prison camp, the tip of her middle finger was severed by a thief trying to steal a ring. Doan blamed the Communists.
When Doan was 23, the U.S. allowed former South Vietnamese soldiers and their families to immigrate. After arriving in Garden Grove, Doan drove his father to a gathering of former South Vietnamese soldiers. He saw the flag of his fallen homeland — yellow with three red stripes — and heard the notes of South Vietnam’s anthem lifting from a stereo.
His eyes welled up. He glanced at his father and saw tears. Together, they mouthed the lyrics.
Over time, Doan began sensing a rift with other Vietnamese. When he became president of the Vietnamese Student Assn. at Cypress College, he hosted an event showcasing Vietnamese literature, much of it drawn from a magazine with writers from Vietnam. Members of the organization voiced opposition because they did not want to associate with a country still under Communist rule. Another time, Doan’s classmates protested a play he attended that showcased singers from Vietnam.
Doan saw his father excitedly joining protests against communism, including a massive 53-day demonstration in 1999 denouncing a Little Saigon merchant who hung the Communist flag and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in his store.
His father frequently reminded him of the time when Doan was 14 and a Communist guard broke his jaw. “Never forget,” his father would say.
But Doan had no scars from his wound. And he no longer wanted to fight his father’s battles.
Doan’s father picked up a Vietnamese newspaper. Once again, his son’s name was in the headlines.
When he walked around Little Saigon, he felt the disapproving stares. His daughters worried that he wasn’t sleeping at night. The phone rang with calls urging him to do something about his son.
Han Vi Doan knew his son was not a Communist, but he did not understand why he couldn’t take down the photo to make peace with the community.
“Especially for those who were imprisoned and those who fled the country, when they see the symbol of Ho Chi Minh and Communists, they are very angry,” he said. “There are many pictures to choose from. Why choose the ones that remind people of their loss of freedom?”
Perhaps his son did not understand the legacy of older Vietnamese, Han thought. Perhaps he didn’t understand that freedom has its limits.
Doan loved his father, but he felt he was being treated like a child. Did his father not understand that it was time to move on from the war?
“Sooner or later, our parents have to understand that the younger generation needs their own voice,” Doan said. “If I took down the photo, that would set the rule for every artist after me.”
Still, his father’s words weighed on him. Doan called his friends for advice. He asked his mentors what to do. He talked to his wife. He changed his mind after each conversation.
Doan’s older sister Huong urged him to listen to their father, to show compassion for the older Vietnamese.
“Brian can have many exhibitions, but he only has one father,” Huong said.
As the daylight faded one day last summer, Doan sat in his studio and faced a blank computer screen.
“Ba,” he began to write.
It had been more than five months since he’d decided against taking down the photo and he knew his father no longer wanted to see him. A letter, he thought, would be the best way to reconcile.
He began to write about his father’s fight for South Vietnam, about how his courage to withstand prison camp had given his son the strength to stand up for his own beliefs, his art.
Tears began to well up behind his plastic-rimmed glasses. He took his fingers off the keyboard.
Maybe he wasn’t being a good son. He had embarrassed his father. Lost his trust. And for what? His notions of challenging ideologies seemed small and distant now.
He left the letter unfinished.
“People like my dad will carry anti-communism with them until they die,” Doan said. “I just feel sorry that all of this happened. I thought that I was doing the right thing, but somehow it wasn’t helpful at all.”
The photo had been displayed at the community college for only one month, but the furor seemed relentless and continued to show up in angry Internet postings and in his e-mail.
He decided he would no longer showcase in exhibits near places like Little Saigon. “My work is useless in the Vietnamese community,” he said.
Earlier this year, they stood together feeding the koi in Doan’s backyard pool and ate noodles for lunch.
It had been slow making amends with his father. Doan visited him in the hospital when he was sick, brought him wine for Father’s Day, invited him to a barbecue.
Now, after Doan’s wife cleared away the noodle bowls, Doan pulled out a photography book called “Vietnam” and set it down on the dining table. His father flipped through the pages, stopping at a photo of Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, considered the first lady of South Vietnam. Her harsh stance against communism turned her into an icon, but she also stirred controversy with her anti-Buddhist ideology.
“I disagree with what she said,” Doan told his father.
“She is very bold and frank when she talks,” the older Doan responded.
Once, Doan would have bristled and told his father how wrong he thought he was. Instead, he watched quietly as his father brushed his wrinkled fingers across the images of their homeland, accepting the fact that a war that had ended more than 30 years ago still smoldered within him.
Later, after Doan drove his parents home, he rummaged through his garage, now a makeshift photography studio.
On the floor was a pile of army fatigues, used by soldiers from both sides of the war. A model of an AK-47, used by the Communists, leaned against a wall. Lying nearby was a model M-16, the weapon of American and South Vietnamese forces. The props, Doan knew, could be emotional kindling depending on how they were used.
No matter how he tried, the war still bedeviled him.
His mind began to whirl, imagining how he would use the props in his next photo.