Glamorous pictures of brides and grooms adorn the walls of Benjamin Photography, but for the portrait artist, no image he’s captured has seduced more eyes than the one of a yellow flag with three red stripes, waving in the evening wind next to a woman, her face angled in thought.
“See this? They tell me it captures a woman’s love for tradition and for the spirit of her country,” Westminster resident Benjamin Vu says. “This — this is Vietnam personified.”
Although it disappeared from the flagpoles in Vietnam almost 40 years ago, the distinctive South Vietnamese flag is all but ubiquitous in Little Saigon, fluttering alongside the American flag at the Westminster civic center, hanging from shop windows on busy Bolsa Avenue and paraded along the streets during festive Tet celebrations.
Politicians — regardless of ethnicity — own them or buy them by the dozens to pass out at functions as they court votes in the oldest and largest Vietnamese American district in the country. Anyone perceived as dishonoring the flag is subjected to harassment, protests, even boycotts. The unwritten rule here is that it can’t be stylized in the name of art, or satirized.
“The symbolism endures,” says State Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), who is regularly photographed with the flag in the background or on his lapel. “What the Vietnamese people feel for their flag is never-ending. It’s something beautiful to behold.”
Hung Vu, who sells medals and flags in multiple sizes and forms at his R.V.N. Uniform & Decorations shop in Westminster, said emblems are always in demand, regardless of the time of year. Some customers buy flags the size of a quarter for $1.50, others spend as much as $1,000 for one that could cover a roof.
“This is what represents us as Vietnamese people,” he says of what is officially known as the Vietnamese American Freedom and Heritage Flag, with its three horizontal stripes paying homage to the three regions of Vietnam. “We are proud of who we are, and no one can take away our beliefs.”
Hong Bui, who grew up in the Midwest, said when she made her first trip to Orange County in the early 2000s, she was surprised by the proliferation of flags in Little Saigon.
“I saw it everywhere. It’s still everywhere,” she remembers, ticking off her sightings — menus, store signs, trucks, book covers, gift boxes, backpacks. “It’s even printed on chopsticks.”
Benjamin Vu’s iconic photo of the flag was captured at a community gathering in 2011 when more than 1,000 commemorated the fall of Saigon, signifying the end of the Vietnam War. The woman in Vu’s shot was the event’s emcee, Uyen Diem, and when he posted it on Flickr, it rocketed around the world, used by refugee groups to bolster their ongoing fight against the Communist regime in Vietnam.
So entrenched is the flag of the fallen country that in Orange County — the capital of Vietnamese Americans overseas — it won formal recognition as the symbol for the immigrant community. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger later granted the state’s blessing to the flag.
Displaying today’s Vietnamese flag, or any icon associated with the Communist regime that overthrew South Vietnam, is a near-traitorous act in the patriotic community.
Picketers in Santa Ana forced the closure of an art exhibit featuring communist symbols, attacking a photo of a Vietnamese girl in a red tank top, with a star at the center, mirroring the flag of communist Vietnam. And residents famously armed themselves with the flag during the violent 1999 street protests in Westminster that were sparked when a video shop owner displayed the flag along with an image of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary communist leader.
“What can I tell you? The flag of our native country is as relevant today as it will always be,” said David Phan, a graduate student from Texas visiting the Vietnamese American War Memorial during December’s winter break.
Bui, who now works at a cafe in Los Angeles, has a simple explanation.
“We are faithful to what we love.”