Vietnamese Americans Protest Art Exhibit in Santa Ana

Louis Sahagun and My-Thuan Tran, Los Angeles Times, January 18, 2009

Hundreds of Vietnamese Americans demonstrated Saturday outside a provocative art exhibit in Santa Ana that had featured Communist symbols that protesters claimed mocked their painful experiences as political refugees.

The protest–joined by people bused in from as far away as San Jose–came the day after one of the works was defaced with red paint and the owners of the building ordered the exhibit closed, saying the organizers lacked the proper business license.

Curators of the exhibit, which was commissioned by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Assn., said they wanted to launch a discussion about freedom of expression in the Vietnamese community, where talk of communism is a taboo.

A week into the exhibit’s run, Jim Nichols, a co-owner of the building at 1600 N. Broadway, acknowledged that he had been pressured by Vietnamese community members.

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“We have a huge investment in this building and a serious vacancy factor,” he said of the decision to order the exhibit closed. “They have factions in their community that go after anyone who in any way seems to put a positive light on communism.”

In the crowd Saturday, a man who unfurled and waved a large flag of Communist Vietnam was immediately surrounded by demonstrators shouting, “Communist!” and, “Go back to Vietnam!”

Yelling, “I have rights. I have rights,” the man was arrested by Santa Ana Police Department officers on suspicion of fighting in public.

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Kathy Phuc Nguyen, a demonstration organizer and spokeswoman for the human rights group Thanh Nien Co Vang, drew cheers when, speaking through a bullhorn, she said, “Surely, one would not display a photograph of a young Jewish person wearing a Nazi symbol and standing next to a bust of Hitler in a heavily populated community of Holocaust survivors.”

Nguyen was referring to a photograph in the exhibit by Brian Doan, associate professor of art and photography at Long Beach City College, showing a young woman wearing a red tank top with a yellow star–a representation of Vietnam’s official flag–and standing beside a small bust of former Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Doan said in an interview that the photograph had been damaged with red paint, which the exhibit organizers confirmed. He said he intended the work as a commentary on youths in Vietnam who grew up after the Vietnam War. Now, he said, he plans to display it as “a symbol of my freedom of speech.”

But Tina Dinh, speaking for the demonstrators, called the use of Communist symbols incendiary.

“They cannot use their freedoms of expression to hurt people with wounds that have not healed,” she said, noting that for many upset by the exhibit, “the Vietnam War never ended.”

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