Narrating the Chinese Vietnamese Identity [Francesca Huynh] / by EMW Bookstore

Narrating the Chinese Vietnamese Identity is an interactive website created by Francesca Huynh that documents the oral histories of six first- and second-generation Chinese Vietnamese Americans from multiple sites and locals.  Combining interview transcripts with photographic portraits, the project investigates the histories, cultures, and identities that make up the diasporic Chinese Vietnamese community in the U.S.

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The Chinese Vietnamese American community has been overlooked due to its complex and unstable intersection of multiple narratives about the Vietnam War, Chinese Americans, and Vietnamese Americans.  “Immigration” in U.S. racial discourse is too often understood as unidirectional movement: emigration from one country of ethnic origin to the United States.  Refugees from Vietnam, for example, are often homogenously labeled as Vietnamese Americans.  Such U.S.-centric discourse however discounts the long history of community movements that have taken place prior to settlement in the U.S.

The Chinese community in Vietnam (also known as Hoa people, Overseas Chinese, or ethnic Chinese in Vietnam) boasts a long and vibrant history.  Records trace the first Chinese migration to Vietnam back to the 2nd century BCE.  Before the Fall of Saigon in 1975, which marked the end of the Vietnam War, Chinese entrepreneurs dominated a thriving business district in Saigon, commonly referred to in Vietnamese as Chợ Lớn (literally, “big market”).  After the Northern Vietnamese army took over Saigon and reunited Vietnam under Communist rule, many of these Chinese entrepreneurs were persecuted, identified as a threat to the Communists’ vision of ethnic nationalist liberation.  (They were interpreted as representatives of China, which has a long and complicated history of imperial intrusion into Vietnam.)  Many Chinese Vietnamese families thus left with the rest of the boat people fleeing Vietnam in the late 1970s and 1980s, hoping to find asylum and resettlement abroad.  Due to this complex history, it is little wonder that Chinese Vietnamese in the diaspora seek to retain their unique identity, challenging a too simplistic assimilation into either the Chinese American community or the Vietnamese American community.

Narrating the Chinese Vietnamese Identity thus fills a much-needed gap in conversations about the diversity of Asian American identities across the United States.  Scholarship on the Chinese Vietnamese community is already scarce; this project contributes to and enlivens that scholarship by highlighting the vibrant stories of Chinese Vietnamese individuals.  

But what about the person behind this important project?  Francesca Huynh’s own story is not portrayed on the website, and I was curious to learn more about her own family history and her motivations for creating this project.  On October 18, 2016, I interviewed Francesca at EMW, where she also works as the beloved Programs Director.  The rest of this piece is drawn from our conversation.  

Born and raised in Quincy, MA, 23-year-old Francesca identifies as “Chinese Vietnamese.”  This project was born out of a research opportunity that came up while Francesca was an undergraduate at NYU.  Upon self-reflection, she realized that one of the things that she knew the least about but wanted to most learn more about was her parents’ stories. Growing up, her parents didn’t talk much about the past: they sometimes shared childhood memories of the food market in Vietnam, but they hardly ever talked about the war.  Sometimes stories would come up around the kitchen table, but Francesca was left with many questions.  

Why, for example, did her parents insist so strongly on identifying as Chinese Vietnamese?  There was a clear desire to hold on to their Chinese identity and distinguish themselves from ethnically Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam after the war, even though their own Chinese family history is a bit unknown.  Both of Francesca’s parents were born in Vietnam to her grandparents who left China, though it is unclear what town or province exactly they came from.  Her family history is thus shrouded in a sense of mystery that nonetheless motivates a strong Chinese cultural identity, expressed through language, food, and customs.  

The story of how Francesca’s parents met is a fascinating one itself.  Francesca’s mom left Vietnam in her early twenties; her dad is ten years older.  They actually met not in Vietnam, but in a refugee camp in Malaysia.  Francesca explained: “It’s actually one of those cute refugee stories, where my mom was coming in on this boat and my dad noticed her at the dock, because it’s a very small island.  So whenever people arrived, it’s like ‘Ooh, I want to see who’s coming!’”  Her mom made quite an impression on her dad, but the two had to go their separate ways after Malaysia, due to their different refugee statuses.  Francesca’s dad served in the South Vietnamese army as part of the U.S. special forces and thus was able to acquire American citizenship.  Her mom went to Australia with her own family, though her parents kept in in touch, forging a cross-continental relationship.  After moving to Boston for a job opportunity, Francesca’s dad flew to Australia to marry her mom.  He took her back to the Boston area, where Francesca was born.  Both of her parents are fluent in Chinese and Vietnamese.

Growing up in Quincy, Francesca was fortunate to be surrounded by people who looked like her.  In 2010, almost a quarter of Quincy’s population was Asian, the largest percentage of which are Chinese.  Many Chinese businesses have popped up, creating somewhat of an ethnic enclave.  Francesca had a lot of Chinese American as well as Vietnamese American peers.  Although they didn’t discuss ethnic identity much as children, she does remember that “there were a good number of us” whose parents were ethnically Chinese but from Vietnam, who wouldn’t necessarily say that they were Vietnamese.  She recalls that it was pretty common for her mom while grocery shopping to bump into someone she knew from Vietnam or Malaysia.  This struck me as such an interesting, transnational story that again complicates the simplistic U.S. immigration narrative of a single country of ethnic origin prior to settlement in the U.S.

Motivated by these childhood experiences, Francesca decided to learn more about Chinese Vietnamese identity in college.  With the help of a research grant, she embarked on an oral history project the summer after her junior year.  She met her interview subjects through an open call, reaching out to different friends and publications to help publicize her project.  She was encouraged by the enthusiasm and curiosity from her respondents, which reassured her of the need for a project like this.  Armed with her camera and recorder, Francesca traveled to San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.  The final project archives the stories of six people that Francesca was able to speak with more in depth.

Rather than recount their stories here, I encourage you to check out Narrating the Chinese Vietnamese Identity to learn more about the interviewees’ individual experiences and reflections.  Instead I want to focus on the lasting impacts of this project.  It prompted, for example, a lot of inward thinking: “I asked them questions that people don’t usually ask them,” Francesca reflected, and they were “surprised at the questions I asked, but also the answers that they gave.”  One thing that Francesca found really interesting was how the different cities in which these individuals grew up affected the way they thought about their identity.

 Today, geopolitical tensions between Vietnam and China—contests, for example, over islands in the South China Sea—get articulated as static ethnic nationalist divisions.  Projects like Francesca’s remind us however of the complexity of human movement and identity.  They highlight those at the intersection of multiple narratives: Chinese Vietnamese Americans that cannot be reduced to any single component part of their complex identity.  By highlighting untold stories, this project helps Chinese Vietnamese individuals in the diaspora navigate their complex personal histories and articulate the multiple Asian origins that inflect their identity as Asian Americans in the U.S.  It is fitting that Francesca now works as EMW: she fits in well with EMW’s community of storytellers, who all create thriving spaces for marginalized communities to narrate their lives.

To listen to the full interview:

-Curated by Evyn Lê Espiritu