New exhibit combines art and history to tell Vietnamese stories

SANTA ANA – A suitcase from Vietnam. Black-and-whitela-2437116-me-0829-viet-focus-004-ik-jpg-20150829 photos of life in a refugee camp. A video panning the buildings along Bolsa Avenue in 1980s Little Saigon.

Those artifacts, and many more, are on display at the Old Orange County Courthouse until February for “Vietnamese Focus: Generations of Stories,” an exhibit celebrating 40 years of the Vietnamese community in Orange County.

The exhibit, sponsored by Orange County Parks and UC Irvine’s Vietnamese Oral History Project, opened this week.

“There is such a diversity of stories,” said Linda Trinh Vo, co-curator of the exhibit and a UCI professor. “We want to change the perception that there is just one Vietnamese story.”

The exhibit took more that six months to gather the pieces and set them up, with Vo and Tram Le perusing thousands of documents, photos and videos from the Oral History Project and from residents in the Vietnamese-American community.

“It was a labor of love,” Tram said. “It was painful to edit things out, but we had to be selective to highlight the stories of Vietnamese-Americans.”

The exhibit combines history – a pair of pants one Little Saigon resident wore the day he fled Vietnam after Saigon fell on April 30, 1975 is displayed and there are individual stories via videos, posters and banners – and conceptual, contemporary art.

The exhibit’s featured artist is Trinh Mai, a Vietnamese-American who grew up in San Jose and now lives in Orange County.

Creating the several art pieces throughout the old courthouse’s museum, she said, was an emotional undertaking: She was trying to honor the lives of those who “risked everything to come here. …

“I don’t know if I could do something like this again,” she said about the toll the project took. “I hope it helps people understand the stories in the best way they are capable of understanding.”

The exhibit’s centerpiece is a conceptual work in which 92 white-cotton sashes – traditionally worn by Vietnamese families during funerals – hang from the ceiling. Mai superimposed on them images of Vietnamese refugees who disappeared along with letters from their families.

There is also a suitcase with cubes in it. Each side of the cubes have different words and images – such as “money,” “food” and “family photos” – printed on them. Viewers are encouraged to pick up the cubes and place them back in with the things they cherish most facing outward.

“We want people to engage,” Vo said. “We want to tell the everyday stories of ordinary people. They have amazing stories.”

Contact the writer: 714-704-3707 or

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