Oscar win sparks debate over Vietnamese identity

March 17, 2023 - 12:37
People may want to acknowledge their personal Vietnamese heritage or not, but it is surely up to them and not for others to pontificate on. We, as observers, can only wish them good luck.
Illustration by Trịnh Lập

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

Before Monday, the winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Ke Huy Quan was known among cinema circles in Việt Nam as Quan Kế Huy.

Born in Sài Gòn (now Hồ Chí Minh City) to parents of Chinese ancestry who left the country in 1978, he was just seven when he left with his family on a boat.

There was a wave that drove hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority Hoa (Vietnamese people of Chinese origin) to leave Việt Nam following border conflicts in the southwest and north.

After spending a year in a refugee camp, he arrived in the US, where at 11 years of age, he was picked to play in Steven Spielberg's film Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom alongside Harrison Ford.

After two roles that shot him to child stardom in the US in 1984 and 1985, roles were few and far between. But he didn't sit there to wait for the roles to come. During the long acting hiatus, he worked as a stunt coordinator and went to the University of Southern California to study for a degree in acting.

Little did people know that he even came back to Việt Nam in 1996 to act in an action film called Hồng Hải Tặc, or Red Pirates, alongside other actors including martial artist-actor Lý Hùng and actress Trương Ngọc Ánh.

As people say, one cannot choose your place of birth, but you can choose where to settle. And for Quan and his family, their chosen destination was the US.

As soon as his name was voiced at the Oscars, several online newspapers in Việt Nam quickly uploaded the news, saying an American of Vietnamese descent became the first Asian man to win an Oscar in an individual category. Arguments over identity and ethnicity soon broke out online.

The overall sentiment was positive and happy for him. But many cinema fans were quick to say that Quan never tells the public that he is Vietnamese. His online biography only says he's American with Chinese roots and that he speaks English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese.

Others say he was born in Việt Nam and as a result he's Vietnamese by birth, which was true until he left the country. Today, many children of expats living in Việt Nam could be born to foreign parents, but they are not Vietnamese by birth as Việt Nam does not have a law giving newborns citizenship as a birthright.

In the US, where the "right of the soil" has been thoroughly followed, children born in the US have citizenship. It explains the reasons why many pregnant women from other countries want to give birth to their children on US soil. Leaving legal matters aside, one may apply to be a citizen of a certain country due to better living or working conditions, but a homeland in one's heart stays private to each individual.

Quan has not mentioned his ties with Việt Nam nor ties to his birthplace, yet his Oscar win is a huge deal to the Vietnamese community with Chinese roots even in the US. Some feel proud of him, saying he's making all the sufferings and contributions of the community worthwhile. Others feel that they only bear the Chinese surname, but they speak Vietnamese among themselves and consider themselves Vietnamese at heart.

Just last week, here in Hà Nội, we met one such person. He was one of the Vietnamese 'boat people' with Chinese ancestry leaving Việt Nam in 1978 at 19 years of age, just like Quan and his family.

Hồng Đức Thanh was born in Sài Gòn in 1958 to Chinese parents in a large family of nine children, he was doted on with everything a wealthy family could give to the youngest boy.

The difference between them is that Thanh was rescued at sea by a Norwegian ship and he ended up settling down in a small town near Oslo and has been living there ever since. Self-taught in the art of drawing on finished porcelain, Thanh unconsciously revived a school of painting, which he was later told by Chinese masters, belonged to a lost school of art known as Lingnan.

We should applaud those overcoming so many adversities to become successful like Quan or Thanh. Being Vietnamese or Chinese should not matter so much. It's up to the individual person to discuss his/her home country as he/she sees fit, and not for us to speculate.

It was coincidence that we spoke with Thanh, the artist who paints on ceramics and fine bone china, who now keeps coming back to Việt Nam to spread his craft and find new apprentices.

These days, Thanh splits his time between Taiwan and the Bát Tràng Ceramics village in the suburbs of Hà Nội. He was getting ready for an exhibition next week when he communicated with a Bát Tràng master artisan for the first time.

Thanh said that when he lived in Norway, he didn't miss much the life he left behind as a teenager. "I was the youngest and got all the love and care from my family, I didn't know how to care for others," he said.

Now his extended family lives all over the world, including in Europe and America, and he said he kept returning to Việt Nam to teach his art, and all of his three children have chosen a different way to earn a living.

Thanh's attempt to go back to Việt Nam to find peace of mind is not unique. Among those who would rather put the painful days at sea behind them, there are others who returned on a soul-searching quest, looking for some kind of closure, or peace perhaps.

One of our colleagues has reunited with her childhood neighbour, who now resides in the US; a musician came back to Hà Nội to take her loved ones' ashes to reunite with them in Canada; and another former 'boat people' returned to help disadvantaged children find homes. The stories of these people are all around us.

If people want to acknowledge their personal Vietnamese heritage or not, it is surely up to them and not for others to pontificate on. We, as observers, can only wish them good luck.

Finally, whether it is realising the 'American dream' like Quan Ke Huy, or searching for the meaning of art by returning to Việt Nam like Hồng Đức Thanh, these are their choices and we should respect them. VNS