little saigon smithsonian

January 27, 2007

Smithsonian exhibit focuses on Little Saigon

“Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon” is new Smithsonian exhibit curated by UCI professor.

The “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon” exhibit opened last week at the Smithsonian S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C. The exhibit tells the story of the Vietnamese American experience in America, from the significant influx in 1975 to today.


The Orange County Register

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Vu Pham knew as he assembled an exhibit on the exodus of the Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon that he would be judged by the very people whose experiences he was documenting, including many in Orange County.

“It was a tougher one to put together, because you’re dealing with living, breathing sources,” who each have a different take on the events, said Pham, who is the curator of “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon,” which opened at the Smithsonian Institution on Jan. 19.

It is the first exhibit at the museum and in the nation to highlight the journey of Vietnamese who fled to the U.S. after communists took control of the country. In March, it will leave the S. Dillon Ripley Gallery and head out on a three-year tour across the United States.

Pham, 34, is a professor of Asian-American studies who teaches at UC Irvine and UCLA. He is also linked to the exodus personally: He was born in Vietnam and his family came to the U.S. after Saigon fell.

While he hadn’t assembled an exhibit before, Pham said his status as an expert on the event was what got him hired.

“There aren’t too many people with my specialty,” he said. “It’s not that I have this wealth of experience, but that I’m a rarity in terms who’s there and has studied this subject.”

Since 1975, more than 150,000 Vietnamese-Americans have settled in Orange County, making it one of the largest enclaves in the country.

A sense of this Vietnamese-American community is laid out on the walls of the quiet gallery that is part of the Smithsonian Institution. There are photos of immigrants being loaded onto helicopters – eyes filled with fear and uncertainty. In grainy film footage, emaciated immigrants wave for help from ships in rough seas – adrift and seeking a home.

Next to images of struggle are pictures of happier times in a new land. They show immigrants in well-known American settings: boys in Cub Scout uniforms, families marching in Fourth of July parades and a man in a cowboy hat waving an American flag.

It also highlights the sense of tension that can exist as younger generations are raised in a culture distinctly different from that of those who came before them. The exhibit showcases barriers such as language and the outside influences of a foreign culture.

“We wanted to show community building,” Pham said. “We wanted to show daily life and that forming a community takes many different people.”

Prominent community leaders from Orange County also have a place in the exhibit. On the wall are life-size cutouts of Tony Lam, the first Vietnamese-American to be elected to public office (he was a member of the Westminster City Council), and Frank Jao, a prominent real-estate developer.

Lam, who escaped before communist forces took Saigon, said he is happy that the exhibit documents the Vietnamese experiences, both good and bad.

“The history that is there will not be washed away,” he said. “We are a part of history. We came here as a mixed bag of people; however, we worked hard, raised children, and sought education to be successful.”

Jao said he took pride in seeing his story and those of others being featured.

“I am very humbled and proud that it was recognized to the rest of the country,” he said of his achievements. “That means that I have to do more to deserve such an honor.”

Contact the writer: 202-628-6381 or

Vietnamese America’s Pride at Smithsonian

Phil Tajitsu Nash, Jan 26, 2007

Thirty years ago, Vietnamese Americans entered the American consciousness as people climbing into helicopters to flee their country, refugees in camps scattered across Asia, or babies being airlifted to the United States. Today, they are legislators, scientists and every other profession imaginable. They live in large and small enclaves in California, northern Virginia and all corners of the country.

Last Thursday, Dr. Franklin Odo, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, and leaders from the government, corporate and nonprofit communities welcomed the Vietnamese American community to the opening of Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon, the first Vietnamese American historical exhibition at the Smithsonian.

The exhibit tells the story of the Vietnamese American experience, from the significant influx in 1975 to the present.

The exhibit, curated by Dr. Vu Pham, will be open to the public from Jan. 19 to April 1. It will then travel the country for three years. For more info, visit

Last Thursday’s gala opening was hosted by CNN anchor Betty Nguyen, and featured members of Congress, Vietnamese American community leaders from all across the nation, Vietnam War veterans, and some of the individuals who are subjects of the exhibition. The reception was held in the red sandstone Smithsonian Castle. It featured tours of the exhibition itself, which is located at the Concourse Gallery in the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Senator James Webb (D-Va.), and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) congratulated the Vietnamese American community for their achievements and in helping America become a richer and more diverse country. One of the most touching moments of the opening ceremony was when Senator Webb, a Vietnam War veteran, addressed the crowd in Vietnamese. Now married to a Vietnamese American, his victory last November could not have happened without the strong support of APA communities. Other dignitaries in attendance included James V. Kimsey, founding CEO of AOL, shoe designer Taryn Rose, famous Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh, Project Runway winner Chloe Dao, Frank Jao, founder of Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif., fashion designer Bao Tranchi, and Long and Kimmy Nguyen, founders of the Vietnamese American Heritage Endowment at the Smithsonian. Sheila Burke, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Smithsonian, praised Dr. Odo’s Asian Pacific American Program as leading the way at the Smithsonian to attract diverse audiences.

The exhibition pulled together the threads of history and mixed them with enough human interest stories, glitzy artifacts and heartwarming photos to appeal to a wide range of museum visitors.

A broad cross-section of the local and national Vietnamese American and APA communities wore formal wear and traditional Asian garments as they listened to the speeches, enjoyed the catered food, and wandered through the exhibition itself. A “Welcome to Little Saigon” highway sign, replica of a resettlement camp barrack and pho noodle shop counter, were combined with high fashion dresses created by Vietnamese American designers and life-size photo images of Vietnamese American pro football players, entertainers, entrepreneurs and public officials.

The spirit of community pride and determination to pass their story on to future generations was best exemplified by the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by the Vietnamese American Heritage Project’s D.C. Working Group. This money funded the costs of the 30th anniversary exhibition that just opened, and will be used to build a million dollar endowment fund to fund future programs at the Smithsonian that honor the Vietnamese American contribution to America.

So far, over $500,000 has been raised since the project started two years ago to help create the exhibit and to start the Smithsonian endowment. Leadership gifts came from Long and Kimmy Nguyen of Pragmatics Inc., the Viet Heritage Society Inc., Quan Hoang, the Citigroup Foundation, and I. Reid Inc. At the VIP opening reception, Frank Jao, real estate developer, pledged $100,000 toward the endowment. He was followed by others, including a $25,000 challenge grant from Long and Kimmy Nguyen. The crowd met the challenge in a few minutes and by the end of the evening, the project raised $170,000 toward the project and the endowment.

‘People told me that they were donating for the sake of their children and future generations,” said Dr. Vu Pham, project director of the Smithsonian Vietnamese American Heritage Project. “The project teaches youth about their rich heritage and helps create a more accurate and positive image of Vietnamese Americans for all visitors to the Smithsonian.”

“If the Vietnamese Americans are successful in raising the $1 million endowment, they will be the first of any Asian Pacific American community group to do so at the Smithsonian. This is remarkable given that they are also the most recent Asian Pacific American immigrants to this country,” said Francey Youngberg, development consultant to the Smithsonian APA Program.

To find out how you can make a donation, or to find out about educational materials and how you can bring the exhibition to your city, visit

Reach Phil Tajitsu Nash at


CNN Anchor Visits Smithsonian For “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon” Exhibit

On Friday, January 19, on CNN Newsroom, anchor Betty Nguyen reported live from the “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon” exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute. The exhibit is the first Vietnamese-American historical exhibit at the Smithsonian. “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon” tells the story of the Vietnamese experience in America , from their significant influx in 1975 after the fall of Saigon to the present. Nguyen, whose own family fled Vietnam and found refuge at Camp Pendleton , will be featured in the exhibit as the first Vietnamese-American anchor for a national news network. She is joined by other accomplished Vietnamese Americans who include actress Kieh Chinh (Joy Luck Club), Chloe Dao (winner of Project Runway), and Tom Lam (the first Vietnamese-American elected official).

Nguyen’s inclusion in the exhibit also highlights her philanthropic endeavors which include “Help the Hungry,” ( an organization she co-founded which provides humanitarian relief to poverty-stricken families. Her philanthropic work earned her recognition in the Philanthropy in Texas Hall of Fame. Nguyen will emcee the Smithsonian’s VIP opening reception on Thursday, January 18.


One Response to “little saigon smithsonian”

  1. Sad68 Says:

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