Long Nguyen fled South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, two hours after the Communists took over. He left by boat with a handful of possessions alongside his brother, two uncles and an aunt. He didn’t reunite with his mother until 10 years later, and not with his father until five years after that.
But in the United States, Nguyen became a successful artist and actor. He has appeared in a number of movies and recently had a recurring TV role in “NCIS: Los Angeles.” His artwork is in the permanent collection of the San Jose Museum of Art, and he has taught classes at art school. He’s now raising his own family in Huntington Beach.
Nguyen, 59, is one of dozens of Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese Americans whose stories and art are featured in “Viet Stories: Recollections & Regenerations.” The visual art, history and oral history exhibition is on view at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda through May 28.
“As an artist, it’s my chance to share the story,” said Nguyen, who has a painting and a sculpture in the exhibit. “I have two kids, 15 and 13. I’m glad they have a chance to see the story of how 2 million Vietnamese came to America, because they only know us (their parents). Now they know the story of a big group of people, and millions of Vietnamese worldwide.”
“Viet Stories” highlights works by 17 Vietnamese American artists, and includes photographs, clothing, travel documents and personal effects that the Vietnamese brought with them during their journey to the United States. Historical panels describing the lives and aspirations of Vietnamese Americans are also part of the exhibit.
“Most Americans may not know a lot about Vietnamese Americans,” said Linda Vo, an Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine and co-curator of the exhibition. “People know the Vietnam War, and most of the time, that story is told from the American side. We wanted to tell it from a different perspective and have the American public understand what happened to Viets who had to go through a civil war. We wanted to show who we were during the war, and in the 40-plus years since the war officially ended. It’s an American story, and it is about American history.”
More than 2 million Vietnamese live in the United States, according to 2016 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. The biggest population of Vietnamese outside Vietnam is in Orange County, totaling about 184,153, or 6.1% of the county’s population.
While many Vietnamese remember the odyssey of immigrating to a new, not always welcoming land, subsequent generations don’t always know about their parents’ journeys and struggles.
“For the younger ones, this exhibition is to expose them to this part of their history that they don’t always learn about,” said Tram Le, co-curator of “Viet Stories.” She also serves as an arts and culture specialist for the city of Santa Ana.
“They didn’t have to go through a war or hunger,” Le said. “They’re just blown away that their parents survived it.”
The idea for “Viet Stories” originated years ago, when Vo and Le were organizing a Vietnamese American oral history project out of UC Irvine. From that project came a book, “Vietnamese in Orange County,” released in 2015 by Arcadia Publishing.
“Viet Stories” also has roots in another exhibition, “Vietnamese Focus: Generations of Stories,” on view at the Old Orange County Courthouse from August 2015 through February 2016. Some of the historical panels and banners are borrowed from that show.
This iteration at the Nixon Library and Museum features many more artists, artifacts and objects, including two haunting collages of black and white photographs by Dinh Q. Lê; a dress custom-designed for Jennifer Lopez by Bao Tranchi; striking paintings of Amerasians by Thuy Linh Bennett Kang; and a red evening gown designed for actress Kelly Marie Tran by Huntington Beach-based designer Thai Nguyen. Tran played rebel Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and wore the red dress to the movie premiere.
Tiffany Le, who was born and raised in Orange County, has about eight of her mixed media works on display.
“To be alongside these other distinguished Vietnamese American artists is both a proud moment, and a humbling experience,” said Le, 27, a Garden Grove resident. “I’ve read, written [about] and followed a lot of these artists during my university days, and to showcase with them is an honor I didn’t expect, especially through the lens as a second-generation Vietnamese American.”
Organizers and some participants acknowledge that having “Viet Stories” on view at the Nixon Library and Museum does involve some ironic undertones. While American involvement in the Vietnam War officially ended during the Nixon Administration, the 37th president did approve secret bombing campaigns in North Vietnam and Cambodia, and ground incursions in Laos and Cambodia during the war.
“The Nixon Library approached us, and wanted to do it on a bigger scale with professional space and staff,” Vo said. “We expanded it greatly.”
“Politically, we need to be at that table,” Tram Le said. “We need to tell our side of the story. Nixon’s legacy is one side. We need to tell that other side. Never once did they tell us, ‘Don’t say that.’ ”
The organizers also believe that telling this story of Vietnamese immigration to the U.S. is relevant to issues confronting the country today.
“It resonates with what’s going on today, with Syrian refugees and other refugees around the world,” Vo said. “It’s an important historical moment when we are rethinking our policy. This puts a human face on it.”
If You Go
What: “Viet Stories: Recollections & Regenerations”
When: Through May 28; hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
Where: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda
Cost: $6-$16, children 4 and younger are admitted free; a free art and food event is planned May 19
Information: (714) 983-9120 or nixonlibrary.gov.
Richard Chang is a contributor to Times Community News.