Vietnamese American artists explore ideas of beauty and identity


Thinh Nguyen remembers coming to America from the tiny Vietnamese village of Bao An in the early 1990s, when he was 11, and not fitting in.

Back then, he was the only Asian student in his school and didn’t speak any English.

His feeling of separateness was almost indescribable. That he didn’t look like any of the other students only increased his sense of isolation.

A decade later, he paid a visit to Bao An and was shocked to see that residents there were trying to look like the people he had been trying to socialize with at school in the U.S. as a child.


“I was walking around and saw a bunch of Vietnamese kids with blond hair running around,” said the 31-year-old Hawthorne resident. “I noticed many women were covered. Everything was protected. I asked why. They said white skin was beautiful. They didn’t want to be tan. That meant they were poor because it meant they were working out on the fields. White skin was more beautiful than dark skin to them.

“I was so shocked. It just got me thinking what beauty means to certain people and how they are willing to change their looks to fit in.”

Nguyen translated those feelings into photographs of his face covered with different features clipped from magazines. In one, a picture of plump lips is taped over his mouth. Eyes with long lashes and well-defined eyelids replace his own.

His melding of East and West aesthetics is on display in an art show at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. “Constructions of Disquiet,” which features other Vietnamese American and Vietnamese artists, runs through March 16.

“This explores what it means to be Vietnamese and what it means to be American and how people see beauty differently,” he said. “It’s cultural ideology.”

The works of California-based Vietnamese American artists Ann Le and Dat Vu as well as two artists living in Vietnam, Quang Pham and Linh Phuong Nguyen, are also in the exhibit.

Le’s artwork, which she calls wallpaper portraits, explores the struggles refugees faced as they were leaving Vietnam after the war.

Her parents and sister, who was 2 at the time, were the only family members able to leave their home country for the U.S., said Le, who was born in this country years later.

One of her portraits, created from a photo taken by Le’s father, shows her mother. Her facial features and arms are covered with digitalized wallpaper, created using Photoshop, of yellow lotus flowers and people on boats, symbolizing her journey to the United States in a boat with about a dozen other people.

“It’s all about identity, and the wallpaper reminded me of this idea of home,” Le said of her artwork. “I was also thinking of this idea of separation. I was born in the States, and I wanted to talk about that divide in family and separation that happened during the war. Looking at this portrait, you would never know that’s my mother. I just felt like these should be anonymous because this could have been anyone during the war.”

Le said her mother doesn’t understand why her face is covered up, and her father doesn’t understand why his photos have been changed. But Le said the symbolism is important, and she hopes the pieces start a dialogue between older Vietnamese people and their children, who may be more Americanized and not know much about their heritage.

Like Thinh Nguyen, as a Vietnamese American, Le said she had trouble fitting in in her hometown of San Diego, where she lived until relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago.

“Growing up, I had no idea why Vietnamese people were so different from other families,” she said. “San Diego was a huge military place, and I didn’t really understand our disconnect.... I felt like I was making human connections with my friends, but I was also very Americanized and didn’t really understand my Vietnamese culture.

“It wasn’t until college when I decided to work on this wallpaper project that I really began questioning things, like why the rest of our family was in Vietnam.”

Richard Turner, who is curating the exhibit with Brian Doan, said they didn’t want to “pigeonhole Vietnamese artists by virtue of their subject matter” but saw a reoccurring theme in the work.

“We saw some artists had a sense of discomfort with identity or with the places that they were living physically or with family history,” Turner said. “There was this sense of being ill at ease with where they were, what they were and who they were, and that seemed to be the thing that held everything together. That’s not exclusively Vietnamese. Anyone can feel that.”

Doan said he knew the five artists personally, which made it easy to compile the theme.

He said that because Vietnamese people aren’t traditionally artists, the community is small.

“There aren’t that many Vietnamese American artists,” he said. “They’re all pharmacists or lawyers or things of that nature. It’s a small, close-knit community.”



What: “Constructions of Disquiet”

Where: Golden West College’s art gallery, 15751 Gothard St.

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays through March 16

Cost: Free