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Vietnamese American artists on Gulf Coast honor their community's success and struggles


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: The two million Vietnamese-Americans in this country often find their stories are still told through the lens of the Vietnam War, which ended almost 50 years ago.

But as I learned on a recent trip to the Gulf Coast, a new generation is trying to tell a different story about their lives today. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

For artist Christian Dinh, almost everything he makes contains a tribute to home and community. At the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art of art in Biloxi, Mississippi, Dinh's memories of growing up in a large Vietnamese-American family are embedded in his ceramic work, like this porcelain vase, where he inscribed his grandmother's recipe for steamed fish.

Christian Dinh, Ceramic Artist: My favorite out of the directions is towards the end, when she explains: "You will know when the fish is ready when the eyeballs turn white."

And I remember her telling me that, and I was just like, what does that mean? Can't she give me a temperature or something else?

William Brangham: Or this enormous rice bowl, a giant replica of the small plastic longevity bowls that are ubiquitous on family tables.

Christian Dinh: These -- in a way, these plastic wares are the fine china of Asian American culture. So I wanted to emphasize that, one, by its size, right, just making it a more monumental piece, scaling it up, two, by changing it back into its original material, which is ceramics.

William Brangham: In another series, Dinh reimagines the white display hands that are typically seen in Vietnamese-American nail salons. He casts them in porcelain, an homage to his people's success in that industry.

Christian Dinh: The nail salon series was a project that I started in 2020, really around the height of the Asian hate crimes.

I knew that I wanted to make this body of work to counteract a lot of the negative energy and the stereotypes and stigmatization that was going on. Over the past five decades now, they have really turned that industry into a multibillion-dollar industry. Besides kind of like the monetary figures, I kind of see it as this beacon of success that trickles down to the entire Vietnamese-American community that can be celebrated.

William Brangham: And the writings and the symbols that we see on there, what are those?

Christian Dinh: On each set of hands are my different ideas of success within the community.

It can be as simple as having a meal with your family, so sharing food, cooking, setting the table. Ultimately, that's what I'm getting at with the work, is that, though I'm coming from my own background, my own experience of Vietnamese culture, it's not too different from any other cultures.

And I always look at the work as not necessarily being Vietnamese or Asian, but it's American work just as much.

William Brangham: As the child of immigrants raised in the U.S., Dinh want it to expand what it means to be Vietnamese-American today.

Christian Dinh: When you hear stories about the Vietnamese community, it usually revolved around the war. And that's kind of where it ends. The war doesn't define these people. It is very important for them in their lives and what they have experienced, but they have also experienced a whole new life and established a whole new community here in the United States.

William Brangham: About an hour-and-a-half west from Biloxi, many forged that community here in New Orleans. The city's Village de L'Est neighborhood has been home to several thousand Vietnamese-Americans, including Cyndi Nguyen.

Cyndi Nguyen, New Orleans Resident: People came down to New Orleans because of the weather, because of the possibility of working immediately because of the Gulf. Many Vietnamese immigrants were fishermen by trade.

William Brangham: Nguyen and her family came to New Orleans as part of that wave of refugees fleeing the chaos after the fall of Saigon in 1975. She too planted roots in America, becoming the first Asian American to serve on the New Orleans City Council.

Cyndi Nguyen: My father say would: "Well, we're going to New Orleans."

I would say: "How -- where is New Orleans?"

"Well, that's where all the Vietnamese people are going to."

"Well, how did you know this?"

"Well, we just got word."

So we moved to New Orleans, where we saw people that looks like us. It was definitely comforting, especially in a new country, right?

William Brangham: But just 30 years later, many of those immigrants had to flee their homes again when Hurricane Katrina drove them away.

Cyndi Nguyen: We had a lot of conversation with many of our residents. And they said, well -- when Katrina here, it was just kind of like, where am I going to go? This is only home I know.

William Brangham: But in a show of resilience, Nguyen says her community was one of the first to return and among the fastest to rebuild.

Five years later, though, another blow. The BP oil spill devastated the Gulf's fishing industry and the livelihoods of many Vietnamese-American shrimpers. But again, Nguyen says, there was rebirth, a shift to farming in community-owned cooperatives like this.

Dylan Tran, Composer: It's something to do with resilience and community. It's something to do with family. It's something to do with love. Those are the big things.

I happen to tell them through a Vietnamese-American lens, but they're themes that we all relate to in some kind of way.

William Brangham: Vietnamese-American composer Dylan Tran's first instrument was an old hand-me-down guitar passed from older brothers. But it was working in his father's laundromat where he was first inspired to weave his family's heritage into his own work.

Dylan Tran: It was a couple years after my dad had passed. And I was working at the laundromat that he owned, sitting in his office, smelling his smell. And while I was in there, I would be listening to classical traditional court Vietnamese music. And I had my manuscript paper.

And in between mopping the floor and cleaning out the dryers and everything, I would go to the office and just transcribe. And I would write down everything I was hearing and try to get it as close as I -- as I possibly could.

William Brangham: Those ideas were central to his string quartet composition called "No. 1 on Viet Themes."

It became the score for the documentary "Uncle at Sea" about the struggles of a Gulf Coast Vietnamese-American fisherman. And it was later performed at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.

Dylan Tran: I cried countless times throughout it and afterwards thinking about it, because the response from the Vietnamese community was -- it just felt so huge, people who just heard about it on the street or saw a poster in a cafe and were just excited to see a part of their culture presented and elevated in this way.

When I write music that is influenced by my Vietnameseness, it's to express myself and it's to connect with other people who share that. And anyone is welcome to come and enjoy that. But it's something that I do for us. It's something I do for us, you know?

William Brangham: And while this younger generation innovates, the timeless theme of resilience is threaded through their work.

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