Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 9 No. 2 | Summer 1987 (Portland) /// Issue 34 of 41 /// Master# 34 of 73

Le Vinh’s work is representative of the sorting out and stabilizing process typical of displaced people. As an artist, hej works on behalf of the entire community, resurrecting their lost heritage while chronicling the stages of resolution through which refugees must pass. His situation is ironic in that his intense involvement with the work separates him from the community whose cultural identity it preserves. Another irony is that Le Vinh, formerly a naval officer, might never have developed as an artist in his own country. Although educated as a painter, he was wholly absorbed in his naval career before his flight from Vietnam at the fall of Saigon. His idea of preserving the cultural heritage he saw being destroyed by the war and the diaspora of his people emerged during his period of escape, compelling him to take up his painter’s brush once more. DISTILLED PASSION Kim Mai Hong, who operates the Saigon Express Restaurant in Northwest Portland, is another Vietnamese artist whose reset- t le m e n t has d r a s t i c a l l y changed her life and mode of expression. A poet and musician since childhood, Hong now invests her artistry in her cooking and creative entrepreneurship. Far from withdrawing into an artist’s solitude, Hong has chosen the path of involvement in both old and new cultures, bringing them together through the most intimate and accessible of media, food. In her restaurant, she becomes the hostess for the people of her host country with cu linary creations intended to please eye, palate and imagination. On one wall hangs a picture she painted and on another a musical instrument she once played. In Vietnam, she was the author of a best-selling book of poetry, The Brown Eyes. She still composes poetry, in Vietnamese, English and French, and has plans to write a novel based on her experiences. But now she is squarely in the business of feeding people, from the 84-dish menu at the Saigon Express or with her several specialty sauces, spring rolls and other items she has begun to market. Her medium of expression has changed, but the quality of her performance has not. Kim Mai Hong’s story of hardships and survival will indeed provide material for a novel. Triumph over adversity seems a natural process with her. After an especially brutal ocean crossing and struggle to keep her young children from starving in the camp, she began life again in Salem as a French tutor, gardener, piano teacher and data processor. Coming to Portland, she opened the Blue Swan Restaurant and French Patisserie which was destroyed by an arsonist along with her home just as it was beginning to flourish. She remembers watching everything she owned go up in flames, and smiling. She had passed through fire and water. “Once you’ve been through that,” she says, “ you can do anything. I am a Robinson Crusoe, a Tarzan, and, don’t laugh, a Bionic Woman.” Working from twelve to twenty hours a day in her restaurant, Hong also teaches cooking classes and dreams up new schemes in her spare time. Her recipe for success: ambition, passion, talent, accurate judgment and money. She has all but the final ingredient. But it is the other four that are crucial; with them the money will come. Passion is undoubtedly the key ingredient, the quality that keeps her an artist in whatever enterprise she undertakes. She recalls her debut as a poet when her teacher asked her elementary school class to write a definition of passion, an assignment she ignored, setting to work on a love poem instead. Seeing her scribbling away while her classmates were staring blankly into space, the teacher picked up her paper and read the poem aloud. She was from then on the acknowledged poet of her school, expected to present something every day, a performance she kept up. Hong borrowed a pen and began to write from memory; I am shy to say 'thank you ’ When you give me A handful of words Enough to braid a laurel A The thank yojuAr J / £ Hides in my heart J Brings tears to my eyes Enhances my smile Not for one day, HF fNot for one mile. . . . Here she expresses the refugees’ gratitude to America for giving them an opportunity and a future, particularly for their children. These artists are as different in their personal aspirations as in the ir approaches and media. While Le Vinh holds to the hope of returning someday to Vietnam, Hong sees her family’s future in America. Le Vinh’s art avoids his immediate environment, until, at his own chosen time, he bestows his collection to the American people as a gift and departs. Hong interacts with the people around her and bestows her gift every day, on demand, as when she was the Hong remembers watching everything she owned go up in flames, and smiling. She had passed through fire and water. “Once you’ve been through that, you can do anything. I am a Robinson Crusoe, a Tarzan, and, don’t laugh, a Bionic Woman.” poet of her school. If she goes anywhere it will be to visit her sister in Tokyo, another market for the business schemes always expanding in her head. The greater attraction, however, is the only copy of The Brown Eyes known to exist outside Vietnam, which her sister secreted out of the country. These two artists, in both their work and their lives, provide deep insights into the complexities and ambivalence of the refugees’ experience in America. Both have used adversity as a tool for growth, making their displacement the occasion for an astonishing degree of concentration and productivity. WOMEN WARRIORS phrase the Vietnamese use to describe themselves is tanh can cu—“ the willingness to do things the hard way if that is the only way they can be done” — the same quality that enables water tt^w ear down stone. Over time, quiet persistence and patient effort in the face of obstacles will accumulate into power. What Le Vinh and Hong demonstrate quite dramatically, many others carry out in more quotidian ways. « The designation lects the well pul S i tarn jn r s lall W i i ty , where they operate £ leery stores, auto repair nufacturing firms, and a nodel minority” reed success of Viet- idochinese in the . hoWof other Enterprises. Typically these businesses begin as capital-poor, labor- intensive projects in which members of community and kinship networks pitch in, contributing labor and funds from other jobs, increasing the security of all participants and motivating the organizer to repay obligations to those who helped. This circle of mutual responsibility is the essence of reciprocity, a traditional value of Southeast Asian culture, and characteristic of the first generations of all immigrant cultures. John Llewellyn, Business Consultant at IRCO, observes that the Indochinese are “ re-enacting the American Dream, making the original sacrifice which will benefit generations to come.” In th is in itia l e ffo rt women often emerge as strong figures, one of the unique characteristics of this population when compared with other immigrant groups, whether Asian or European. In most earlier immigrations men came alone or with their families, preserving traditional authority structures and emphasizing male organization. Southeast Asian refugee families, however, were almost inevitably fragmented by the dispersal process. In many instances the men were retained in prison camps while the women fled alone with children and other relatives. The dominant culture has generally been more receptive to women’s skills. Men who were professionals in their country often lack the English proficiency to obtain comparable positions here, while women fit more easily into the sectors of employment most open to newcomers. Few women have prior career identification to uphold. Through involvement in public service jobs and the schools, they tend to learn English more quickly. They simply have proved more flexible in adapting to the possibilities at hand. Former journalist Tony Bonsky has stated that “Vietnamese women are the toughest in the world.” This reputation is a long-standing one, according to IRCO’s Vominh, tracing back to the decades of war. Men were constantly called to battle, leaving women with all of the responsibility at home. Girls were raised to be prepared for the worst and taught to do everything for the family in case they would be left alone, a repertoire of skills and attitudes ready to be used whenever required. Bach Tuyet Minh Hai, who operates the Yen Ha restaurant, is a case in point. When her physician husband was unable to practice here, she borrowed money from relatives and put the family to work building up the failing hole-in-wall restaurant she bought on Sandy Boulevard. For the first few years, Yen Ha— “ mist on the river at twilight” —was a project employing other relatives as well as the immediate family All shared work, food and living quarters but drew no salaries. Minh Hai learned English talking to her customers, expanded, remodeled, and to- day has a stable enterprise that pays salaries to al) workers while remaining the nucleus of family life. Her daughters, model students at David Douglas High School, help in the restaurant on weekA phrase the Vietnamese use to describe themselves is ‘tank c^n cit— “the willingness to do things the hard way if that is the only way they can be done”— the same quality that enables water to wear down stone. ends. Last Mother’s Day even her six- year-old son contributed by presenting her with $51 he had secretly saved from his lunch money. Vominh te lls the story of another strong Vietnamese woman knowns as “Aunty Four,” who operates a successful market in Salem. Vominh describes her as a shrewd business woman who has used the model of the extended family to full advantage. Not only is she “ aunty,” the generic term of respect for older women in Asia, but her workers are “ nephews” and “ nieces,” designations that turn a collection of individuals into a working unit resonating with centuries of history. Aunty Four was one of those who left a husband behind in a prison camp when she fled. Summers she sent her C an da ce B ie ne m an Clinton St. Quarterly—Summer, 1987 13