Life In 'A Village Called Versailles'

Hurricane Katrina made the many of the Vietnamese Americans living in Louisiana refugees for the second time. They came to the area first as "boat people" during and following the Vietnam War. Director Leo Chiang speaks about his documentary on their community, A Village Called Versailles, which airs nationally on PBS on May 25.

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TONY COX, host:

It was nearly five years ago that the city of New Orleans was forever changed. When Hurricane Katrina came ashore, it left the city in ruins and hundreds of thousands of its people, many of them Vietnamese-American, wondering just how to pick up the pieces and rebuild, including New Orleans' city councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis.

Ms. CYNTHIA WILLARD-LEWIS (New Orleans City Council): In the initial stages is what it was a discussion of the cart before the horse or the horse before the cart. Businesses didn't want to open because they said, are the people there? The people didn't want to come back because they said, are the businesses open? Many folks who are here now just said, I am returning because that is home.

COX: New Orleans East is home to thousands of Vietnamese-Americans. Many of whom came to Louisiana as boat people during and after the Vietnam War. After Katrina, many of these Vietnamese-Americans were experiencing loss for the second time in their lives. And in this case, with the added impediment of significant language and cultural barriers. Yet despite the odds, Vietnamese-Americans returned to New Orleans East in droves.

As a part of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month, we are taking a look at a new documentary "A Village Called Versailles." It airs tonight on PBS and details the return of the Vietnamese-American community to New Orleans East.

I am joined now by the director of that film, S. Leo Chiang. Leo, nice to have you.

Mr. S. LEO CHIANG (Director, "A Village Called Versailles): Thank you, Tony.

COX: Leo, you've done a number of projects since your days as a film student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. And there are so many, many stories surrounding what happened post-Katrina, including a very popular television series that's on the air right now. What for you, Leo, made the story of New Orleans East the kind of story that you wanted to tell?

Mr. CHIANG: I think that this particular story for me struck a chord because the post-Katrina time, most of the images that you see on the mainstream television are really this, you know, sort of black versus white conflict that was emphasized over and over again. And I think that there upwards of 30, 40,000 Asian-Americans along the Gulf Coast, whose stories really was not told.

So when I found out about this particular story, I felt like it was an important missing piece to the history about the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the floods.

COX: Why do you think this story went untold for so long? Was it the language? Was it cultural barriers? What was it that kept us from hearing about this before now?

Mr. CHIANG: The Vietnamese-American communities were pretty isolated. And a lot of that was self-imposed, coming to this country as refugees and coming to a region of the country that wasn't necessarily, you know, welcoming to outsiders, especially, you know, 35 years ago.

They felt like they want to sort of keep to themselves. They want to in many ways reconstruct a little piece of Vietnam right there in the Louisiana bayous. So folks didn't really know very much about them, and they were pretty much okay with that.

And I think that during the post-Katrina time, most folks had no idea they were even a Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans. And I think what had happened was because New Orleans East was so devastated since the Vietnamese-Americans came back as a group, probably prior than most other folks in New Orleans East, they were the only people to talk to, you know, for the journalists who were interested in stories of New Orleans East at that time.

COX: I'd like to play a clip from the film. Now, first, we're going to hear from Mindy Nguyen, who became a New Orleans transplant after Katrina. But here she is talking about the first mass six weeks after Katrina at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans East. And then we're also going to hear from Father Vien Nguyen who heads that church. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of documentary, "A Village Called Versailles")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MINDY NGUYEN: This was a very emotional oh my God a very emotional mass and 300 people showed up. Like, people drove, like, five hours from Houston on Saturday night to make it, like, to church at 10 o'clock in the morning for the mass.

(Soundbite of music)

Father VIEN NGUYEN (Mary Queen of Vietnam Church): And the next week it was 800. The third week, we invited the rest of New Orleans East and non-Vietnamese-Americans as well. It was around 2,200.

Mr. CHIANG: That's actually one of my favorite scenes in the film because you really see people who are in many ways, you know, had faced so many obstacles and even beyond that they still choose to come home. One of the big things about this particular community is the way that the church and the faith played in uniting the community after Katrina. And a lot of that had to do with the leadership of Father Vien and as well as other community leaders who uses the church both as a community center where people can always go to get supplies, to get help to gut their houses, you know, to get people to come over and help them clean stuff out.

And at the same time, it was a really great place to disseminate important information. That infrastructure was lacking in a lot of other neighborhoods in New Orleans post-Katrina. And that was probably the reason why this particular community was able to come back the way it did. So, in many ways these returning masses that the clip was talking about was essential to the community being able to come back.

COX: I got the sense that there was a cultural transformation within the Vietnamese-American community with regard to post-Katrina activity because a couple of things happened that you point out in the film. One, they came back together, as we've already indicated, but secondly, they came back together and took a different approach toward government involvement in their lives.

One thing in particular happened. Here's another clip that I want to play and get you to talk about this cultural transformation. It had to do with a landfill that they were opposed to that was set up just a couple of miles from where the center of this community resided. And they decided to fight city hall and in fact set up a roadblock. Here's Father Nguyen talking about that.

(Soundbite of documentary, "A Village Called Versailles")

Father NGUYEN: We invited the mayor to the lunar new year festival and we indicated that that's where we were going to unveil the development plan. He didn't come. He never responded.

(Soundbite of music)

Father NGUYEN: On the 14th of February 2006, he used emergency power to create a landfill connected to our body of water 1.2 miles from us.

COX: Now, protesting this landfill, that really brought the community together in a very different cultural, political way, didn't it?

Mr. CHIANG: You know, I think that Katrina made a lot of the first generation folks who arrived as refugees in the community realize that, hey, you know, we're no longer guests in this country. This is our home. Vietnam is not home anymore. This is our home. And I think that Katrina triggered that switch in terms of folks beginning to, you know, embrace and claim their unique American identity. And here comes this landfill that challenges that. And I think that it almost came at the right time for the folks to really kind of band together across generations and rise up and speak up and to decide to participate in a democratic process, which is to make their voices heard, to tell the city, to the tell the government that, hey, this is not okay what you're doing.

And that transformation, you know, was so incredible to witness and in many ways happened so fast, probably because a lot of that was brewing underneath and events that happened after Katrina sort of provided the perfect platform for them to express that.

COX: I suppose if you were going to add another scene or two, or chapter to this film that you have already put together, it would be about what has happened with the oil spill in the Gulf, wouldn't it?

Mr. CHIANG: I think a lot of folks don't realize that something like a third to a half of the fishermen along the Mexico Gulf Coast are Southeast Asians and a huge majority of that are Vietnamese-Americans. So as we speak, this particular community is being impacted really severely by the oil spill that is happening. So, once again, they're facing this really huge challenge and they're gathering together and addressing the issue and trying to figure out a way through this particular obstacle.

COX: Leo Chiang is the director of "A Village Called Versailles." He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Leo, thank you very much.

Mr. CHIANG: Thank you so much, Tony.

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