BA Thesis



  13. Bibliography


This dissertation discusses the gendered relationship to exilic spaces and identities within the Vietnamese American diaspora. I will touch upon the experiences of both genders, with a focus on the male experience. To do this, I will hone in on the culture of male exilic bonding within the Vietnamese diaspora of Garden Grove in Orange County, California.

I define the term ‘Vietnamese diaspora’ using Monique T.D. Truong’s definition of Vietnamese Americans:

“Americans of Vietnamese descent: including immigrants who may have arrived prior to 1975; refugees who started arriving in 1975; those who entered the U.S. as immigrants, starting in 1979, through the Orderly Departure Program; as well as the preceding generations who have been and will be born in the United States.” (Monique T.D. Truong as quoted in Lieu, 2000, 82-84)

Firstly, I will explain my focus on Little Saigon and what this space symbolises. Secondly, I will look at gender rules and relationships as dictated by Confucianism and how this contributes to a contemporary gendered relationship to space and identity. I will then discuss the effect that the war had on male identity, highlighting the impact that the loss of the war had on those from the South of Vietnam and how this was compounded by social stereotypes which emasculate Asian men. I will then introduce the culture of quán nhậu (pubs) and communal drinking, in order to trace the transition of this male pastime to the exilic bonding that is so prolific within the Vietnamese diaspora. I will follow the flight of the Vietnamese to Little Saigon and discuss coffee shops and karaoke bars, places of homo-social bonding. I will also analyse the space created by cultural productions such as karaoke and Paris by Night, in order to understand how hybrid Vietnamese American relationships to space and identity are negotiated on screen, and then disseminated to the masses. I will conclude that space and identity are inextricably bound and both imperative to creating a hybrid lifestyle. Little Saigon, coffee shops, karaoke bars and cultural productions are integral parts in the establishment of a new identity, helping men in particular to redefine their masculinity, and their identity. These exilic spaces form the diaspora’s (re)imagined home and country: a Vietnamese America in Little Saigon.


I have chosen to focus my dissertation on the diaspora of Little Saigon in Orange County, California, because it is the “most renowned and only officially recognised Little Saigon.” (Lieu, 2000, 574) The creation of this Vietnamese hub is my first example of a space carved out by the diaspora, a space in which they have redefined their sense of self and home.

In an excerpt from ‘Song’s of the Refugee’s Road,’ (1988) the singer laments that “though they have changed your name/Saigon, I’ll never forget you.” (Reyes, 1999, 102) The creation of Little Saigon represents the preservation of, and transplantation of pre-war, pre-Communist Saigon to California. As the singer states, the diaspora will never forget Saigon. Pham Dong Long Co, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce reiterates this sentiment more explicitly:

“Many of us still remember vividly the touching moment…where a freeway sign of Little Saigon was unveiled. Some…could not hide their tears. For them, being thousands of miles away from their homeland, they could still associate their beloved City of Saigon with Little Saigon. Ever since Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, we all felt that we had lost the old name for good and that we needed to revive the name in one form or another. That is the reason why the Vietnamese community had chosen [to] rename the so-called “Capital of the Vietnamese Refugees in America” Little Saigon…Only by adhering to our tradition will we [be] able to retake our beloved city and rename it Saigon.” (Reyes, 1999, 102)

Long Co’s words powerfully and emotively portray the diaspora’s deep longing to return to a time and space that no longer exists. “Little Saigon”, however is the answer to the exilic question of home. It acts as an anchor for these nostalgic longings.

Therefore the (re)creation of Little Saigon not only represents the Vietnamese American “struggle to form a uniquely Vietnamese American identity” (Lieu, 2000, 559-560), but also the Vietnamese American triumph in (re)building a country and a home.


Vietnamese Confucianism continues to gender relationships to space and identity. Traditionally, Confucianism dictated the basic tenets of all relationships, and simultaneously positioned men and women in strict gender boxes with clearly defined roles.

“The core set of values and attitudes towards gender and sexuality in traditional

Vietnam is set out within the Confucian paradigms of a patriarchal society with

tightly prescribed patterns of male dominance and female submission, indigenous

Vietnamese culture.” (Healy, 2007, 40)

Whilst women suffered, not only “confined…to their family roles as daughters, mothers and wives,” they were also restricted by “socialist virtues [which] positioned woman in a double confinement as responsible for both family and nation.” (Healy, 2007, 42) Men, on the other hand, enjoyed Confucian ideals of “male domination” (McLeod & Nguyen, 2001, 56), whilst simultaneously being bound by obligations of “filial piety.” (Rydstrøm, 2012, 286)

In the context of today’s Vietnamese American diaspora, these Confucian rules still effect the traditional Vietnamese understandings of what it means to be a man or a women. “Residual effects” of Confucianism are visible “in the continuing importance placed on the family and education.” (McLeod & Nguyen, 2001, 56) Andrew Lam writes about his contemporary experience of these Confucian virtues, describing how “for a Vietnamese child who was once ruled by rigid Confucian mores there is nothing so thrilling yet fraught with guilt as learning to disobey.” (Lam, 2005, 35) As suggested by Lam’s talk of disobedience, these once static Confucian virtues are slowly changing, particularly within the space of America. This is evinced by Lam’s mother’s “complaint against America…that it had stolen her children, especially her youngest and once most-filial son.” (Lam, 2005, 6) Despite this progression, men are commonly caught in the cultural crossover. Vo describes how “migration often transforms immigrants’ notions about gender for a range of groups, [but]…men often stall in the ‘gender transition’.” (Vo, 2003, 67) Men therefore seek ways to create their own spaces, outside the realms of the American, and within the realms of the familiar.


Vietnam has a history of war that dates back some four thousand years (Lam, 2005, 4). In order to better understand the Vietnamese diaspora’s gendered relationship to space and identity, I will look at this history of war and the weight of the military identity, referencing Dương Thu Hương’s No Man’s Land, Nam Le’s The Boat (2008) and Andrew Lam’s Perfume Dreams.

It is important to highlight that due to my focus on Little Saigon, the majority of the men in question are from the South of Vietnam. It is so accepted that those in California are from the South of Vietnam that when Lam speaks of “Vietnamese”, he is in fact referencing Southern Vietnamese people. He writes that “among Vietnamese, a collective understanding assumes that we have all suffered an epic loss.” (Lam, 2005, 59) This “epic loss” speaks not only of the loss of the war and their country, but also the loss of identity that occurred when men lost their role as soldiers, providers and protectors.

The painful effect of this identity loss is portrayed by Huong in No Man’s Land (2005) through her protagonist Mien. Mien is trapped in her own private no man’s land, haunted not only by her choice between the past and the present, but also haunted by her first husband’s trauma. This metaphorical purgatory represents

“going through a process of reassessment…reflecting its volatility through descriptions of the present-day Vietnamese female as being torn between, on the one hand, the lingering outdated obligations of the past and, on the other hand, alternative ‘non-traditional’ femininities locating them…somewhere ‘between sacrifice and desire’” (Healy, 2007, 42).

The heaviest weight that Mien carries is the literal and metaphorical weight of her first husband Bon, himself also an example of the “lingering outdated obligations of the past” described by Healy. Bon, is a man that has been broken by war. Without his military uniform, he no longer recognises himself. His masculinity did not escape the war unscathed. Unable to support his family and country, he is emasculated by his inability to be a ‘good’ husband and man. Rydstrøm supports the idea that men no longer recognise themselves outside of the context of war; he adds that “men who joined the army changed completely. They are influenced by the army style and want order and discipline. They behave as if they were still in the army.” (Rydstrøm, 2012: 287) Nam’s description of his father in The Boat (2008) demonstrates this military mentality – “my father was drawn to weakness, even as he tolerated none in me. He was a soldier, he said once, as if that explained everything.” (Le, 2008, 13)

After the war, the male bonding that was an integral aspect of military life left behind it a gaping hole where men craved the shared masculinity and homo-social bonding of army life, and the masculine identity afforded them by the old Vietnam. The effect of this loss is exemplified by Bon, who returns from the war desperate to rekindle his relationship with his wife. He drives himself to near insanity fighting for the love of his wife, before ultimately realising that the only true love he still has is for his dead commander who often visits him as a ghost. “This…was the face that was dearest to him, the only one that belonged to him, that would now accompany him.” (Hương, 2005, 401) Helle Rydstrøm reaffirms this longing for male bonding, stating that “combat experience is disturbing for local veterans, but many of them miss the male bonding so unique to military life” (Rydstrøm, 2012, 289).

Similarly, in Andrew Lam’s Perfume Dreams (2005), Lam discusses how his father was also incapacitated by the shock of no longer being a military official. In a new country, without his uniform and rank, he looses himself and what he perceives to be his manhood. Whilst Lam’s father’s voice “had once caused his soldiers to tremble…in america…it turned into a voice that gradually struck [him] as nostalgic and, despite its bravado, full of regrets.” (Lam, 2005, 29) When Lam describes his father’s military past, his words become imbued with childlike awe. The decorated man he knew as his father was a hyper-masculine solider-cum-warrior. Writing as an adult, and reflecting as a child, Lam describes the way in which his notions of masculinity were shaped by watching his father, and as such, were closely tied to solider-hood. Lam writes,

“In South Vietnam, my father was a proud general, a warrior fighting in a civil war…As a child born in the middle of that war, I had looked up to a man who seemed more like a deity than a father. Hadn’t I imagined myself as an adult walking in his soldierly footsteps?” (Lam, 2005, 23)

The military persona and uniform are deeply embedded into Lam’s father’s sense of self, as well as his understanding of what it is to be a man and to be masculine.

“Nearing Subic Bay in the Philippines where they asked US authorities for asylum, [my father] folded away his army uniform, changed into a pair of jeans and a shirt, and, now a stateless man, tossed his gun into the water.” (Lam, 2005, 24)

With this changing of clothes, Lam’s father changes his identity and loses a part of what he conceives to be his masculinity. He throws his gun, often a phallic symbol in literature, into the sea, simultaneously losing his soldierly identity and his manhood. The combination of leaving behind his identity as a solider, as well as his country, leaves Lam’s father at a loss. Immigration to America and the subsequent change in culture compounded Lam’s father’s already precarious masculinity. Lam is left questioning what happened to the father that he knew. Lam’s Americanisation combined with his reflections on his father’s military and masculine past force him to reassess the Vietnam war and the masculinity it bred which he once found so admirable.

“What happened to the brave, brilliant, handsome husband and father and exemplary son? Who was this quiet man who, at forty-three, only talked when he drank?” (Lam, 2005, 23)

Lam later answers his own question, asserting that “to grow up Vietnamese in to grow up with the legacy of belonging to the loser’s side and to endure all that entails.” (Lam, 2005, 57)

In Nam Le’s The Boat (2008), he too writes about his father losing his military identity. However in this case, it is Nam, the son, who feels the loss of this masculine identity most painfully. He does not understand his father without the masculine code inherent to the solider’s identity. He describes how his father, with “bowl and chopsticks in his hands…appeared somewhat childish squashed between two men trading war stories.” This description suggests that he associates these war stories with masculinity. As his father shrank with age, Nam found it increasingly difficult to locate his father in a body that stopped resembling a solider and acting like a soldier. Later in the book, Nam comes back to his father’s physical size, describing his father in his bed, “his body engulfed by blankets and his head so small among [the] pillows.” (Le, 2008, 17) When Nam’s father tells a story of the war, Nam says that “it took [him] a while to reconcile [his] father with the story he was telling.” (Le, 2008, 15) His father also describes his experience of the reeducation camp, and the torturous positions that he was forced into. When his father adopts the positions, demonstrating the torture that he endured, Nam saw “a skinny old man in Tantric poses” and says that he looked “faintly preposterous.” (Le, 2008, 26) Nam no longer sees his father as a solider or masculine. The two are disconnected by age and culture.

The loss of this military masculinity and fixed male identity, as described by Lam (2005), Rydstrøm (2012) and Le (2008), can be understood as contributing to the rampant culture of male exilic bonding in Garden Grove. The loss of a perceived identity and role, combined with emasculation, has resulted in a type of cultural alienation which pushes the Vietnamese diaspora closer together, in their individual and collective search for the Vietnam and the self that they have lost.


Quán nhậu, literally translated as ‘pub’ or ‘bar’, in fact holds broader connotations of the male past time of communal drinking and bonding. This male culture of homo-social bonding has been reinforced by the multiple experiences of war in Vietnam, bringing men closer together and further away from home. This safe space allows them to navigate their sense of self, express emotions, enjoy common company and revel in nostalgia.

In Catfish and Mandala (1999) Pham teaches us what he learnt: that it is not acceptable to openly display feelings of sadness as this is emasculating. He writes: “My tears made my relatives ashamed for me…My aunt said to her son ‘he’s got dust in his eyes. It’s painful. Nghia, go upstairs and fetch him a bottle of eyedrops.’” (Pham, 1999, 109) Following this incident, Pham describes his “shame” and “unmanliness.” (Pham, 1999, 109) However, under the guise of male camaraderie and homo-social bonding, these “unmanly” actions become acceptable.

Varying degrees of inebriation create a safe, and masculine space in which men can pass hours, talking openly and enjoying male bonding. This activity is neither confined to a pub, nor a bar, and often takes place in front of shops or people’s homes. In Catfish and Mandala (1999), Pham says that “as long as the booze flows, we are free to talk about anything we want. Free to confide our hopes and fears.” (Pham, 1999, 84) Pham explains how it is known that “women and children always keep clear of the men when [they] drink.” A friend of Pham’s proudly repeats: ‘We are dealing in men’s business. Let us be.’” (Pham, 1999, 84) Pham justifies this male pastime, explaining that this “is how Vietnamese men bond. We only talk when we drink. Two nights a week, the three brothers and I drink at home on the floor, a bottle of Johnnie Walker in the center of us like a campfire.” (Pham, 1999, 84) Nam Le echoes these words in The Boat (2008) when he describes his first experience of being invited into the fold. “It was just another story in a circle of drunken men. They sat cross-legged on newspapers around a large blue tarpaulin, getting smashed on cheap beers.” (Le, 2008, 14) Nam’s use of the words “just another,” suggest that similarly to Pham, this type of male bonding is common. When Nam’s father is in the midst of retelling war stories, Nam describes how his mother “came out from the kitchen, squatted behind my father, and looped her arms around his neck. This was a minor breach of the rules. ‘Heavens.’ she said, ‘don’t you men have anything better to talk about?’” (Le, 2008, 16)

This need to remember the past and share old stories is why many men of the diaspora, displaced and physically disconnected from the past, crave homo-social bonding and the memorialisation of the past in order to (re)create a connection to what may have been lost. In the diaspora, they have sought to create communal male spaces where they can partake in familiar activities in unfamiliar environments.


In addition to the emasculation men experienced when they lost their military identity, their immigration to America added another dimension to this identity crisis: cultural alienation. The Vietnamese arrived in a country which knew them primarily through the war. Films from the Vietnam war era painted a picture of Vietnam and the Vietnamese as “a nation that was foreign, rural, tropical, vast, and undeveloped.” (Lieu, 2000, 273-4)

I will begin with a quote from Linda Trinh Vo, who deftly critiques the cinematic portrayal of Vietnamese people, and then I will briefly discuss Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Apocalypse Now (1979), Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) to demonstrate how Hollywood contributed to Orientalising and simplifying the Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese war to predictable stereotypes. I will then touch upon how the Vietnamese presented themselves to themselves.

Vo argues that

“Vietnamese American men and women are represented as faceless refugees, prostitutes, and gun-toting Viet Cong. Moreover, the cultural alienation that Vietnamese American men experience is compounded by a loss of authority resulting from having migrated to the U.S.” (Vo, 2003, 103)

In Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Apocalypse Now (1979), we see this facelessness. Hollywood perpetuated imperialistic stories of the Vietnam war – these stories had little to do with Vietnam, and everything to do with America. In John Mueller’s aptly named article, Dead and Deader (2008), he exemplifies the facelessness of the Vietnamese by categorising and collating the number of deaths that occur in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). I have summarised these figures in the table below:

(Mueller, 2008)

As shown in the above table, despite being a film about the Vietnam War, the film’s main focus is on the character of Rambo and all of the faceless “bad guys” whom he kills. Lam expands on this, describing a Vietnamese friend and actor who is often cast  to play such roles:

“I know a Vietnamese man who makes money acting in Hollywood. He had survived the war and the perilous joinery on the South China Sea to come to America, and he plays Viet Cong, ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers, civilians. He is a great actor but no one recognises his face. Time and again he dies, spurting fake blood from his torso and heart. At other times he screams in pain, reinterpreting his own past. ‘Hollywood loves me,’ he jokes. ‘I die well.’” (Lam, 2005, 95)

Lam’s friend described above presents an interesting question: how do the Vietnamese present themselves to themselves? Lam describes how his friend reinterprets his own past and identity in order to satiate a very narrow and stereotyped view of the Vietnamese. By playing such roles and perpetuating biased histories, the Vietnamese self-Orientalise and in fact aid the growth of damaging stereotypes, particularly those that draw Vietnamese men’s masculinity into question, both within the diaspora community and within American society.

In addition to lacking a storyline that connects authentically with the Vietnam war, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) also lacks geographical authenticity – shooting took place in Mexico. In a New York Times film review, Vincent Canby wittily describes the Vietnam portrayed in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Of the setting, he says it “seems to be somewhat smaller than Central Park, though rather more thickly planted. It’s the sort of place where, if you stand in one spot for 30 minutes, everybody you have ever known will eventually walk by.” (Canby, 1985) Furthermore, Rambo’s Vietnamese lover is played by Julia Nickson, a half English, half Singaporean actress (Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985).

Similarly, Apocalypse Now (1979) exploits Vietnam and the Vietnam War. The film is peppered with references to drugs, sacrifice, tribalism, and increasing insanity, all of which culminate with the meeting of the elusive and mentally unstable Colonel Kurtz. The film purports to be about the Vietnam war, yet there are no Vietnamese characters. Instead, Francis Ford Coppola used the Vietnam War as a backdrop upon which to project Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, exploiting and manipulating the country’s turbulent history as a metaphor for the slow degradation of mental stability and morals. Conrad’s novel, in fact, is based in Africa, and follows the sailor, Marlow, up the Congo River (Conrad, 1899).

In Good Morning Vietnam (1987), when Adrian Cronauer, the newly appointed radio presenter, lands in Vietnam, every Vietnamese woman looks the same to him. The words he uses to describe the local women are inherently Orientalising. In the same way that the aforementioned films depict Vietnamese men as faceless soldiers and civilians, here all Vietnamese women are indistinguishable from one another. The film puts the vast majority of young Vietnamese women in white áo dài, with long, straight black hair – two aesthetic traits  which represent traditional notions of Vietnamese femininity. This creates a a sense of exoticness and nostalgia. The following quote taken from the beginning of the film illustrates this.

Adrian Cronauer: “Mayday! Mayday! Dragon lady with incredible figure…Stop the car…Oh! There she is again! How’d she get ahead of us?”

Edward Garlick: “That’s another person, sir.”

Adrian Cronauer: “Ah, she’s beautiful and quick. This is incredible! Oh, my God! They’re quick, they’re fast and small. I feel like a fox in a chicken coop.” (Good Morning Vietnam, 1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987) is another American production which reduces Vietnamese women to prostitutes and faceless civilians. The following famous quote from a woman cast only as “Da Nang Hooker”, exemplifies this.

Da Nang Hooker: Hey, baby. You got girlfriend Vietnam?

Private Joker: Not just this minute.

Da Nang Hooker: Well, baby, me so horny. Me so HORNY. Me love you long time. You party?

Private Joker: Yeah, we might party. How much?

Da Nang Hooker: Fifteen dollar.

Private Joker: Fifteen dollars for both of us?

Da Nang Hooker: No. Each you fifteen dollar. Me love you long time. Me so HORNY.

Private Joker: Fifteen dollar too beaucoup. Five dollars each.

Da Nang Hooker: Me sucky-sucky. Me love you too much.

Private Joker: Five dollars is all my mom allows me to spend.

Da Nang Hooker: Okay. Ten dollar each.

Private Joker: What do we get for ten dollars?

Da Nang Hooker: Every t’ing you want.

Private Joker: Everything?

Da Nang Hooker: Every t’ing.

Private Joker: [to Rafterman] Well, old buddy, feel like spending some of your hard-earned money?

(Full Metal Jacket, 1987)

The quote “me love you long time” from Full Metal Jacket (1987) has since become a common saying; one that not only degrades Vietnamese women, but Vietnamese society. The focus on sexualised interactions between American GI’s and Vietnamese women, and the perpetuation of  such base stereotypes, degrades and insults women whilst Vietnamese men were forced to question their Vietnamese masculinity, challenged by the influx of American culture, foreign GI’s and the inescapable ‘Americanness’ and new American masculinity.

The war represented a shifting identity in more ways than one. As demonstrated by the above cinematic references, not only did men face an internal dilemma over their masculinity, but also an external one. Hollywood created and projected Orientalising stereotypes, and then Vietnamese men supported this inaccurate portrayal by playing these parts.

In the novel Catfish and Mandala (Pham, 1999), the protagonist, Pham, is also forced to come to terms with the friction between what is conceived to be Vietnamese masculinity, and American masculinity. Pham’s views on masculinity are both conflicted and confused.

Pham’s “defensive attitude toward White America is not unilateral. If he despises White racism, he is also attracted by what he sees as the masculinity of white men. The space he calls his own is largely constructed in accordance to romanticised images of the legendary lone and rugged adventurous men of Hollywood movies. Pham defines his ‘riding out [of his] front door on a bicycle for the defining event of [his] life’ as ’so American, pioneering, courageous, romantic, self-indulgent.” (Vo, 2003, 226)

This clash of masculinities that Vietnamese men encountered during the Vietnam War followed those who fled to America. Nazli Kibria argues that as foreigners, Vietnamese men in America experienced a loss of economic and social resources which made it difficult for them to interact with institutions outside of the Vietnamese community.

“Within men there was a profound sense of alienation from social institutions of their new homeland. Being able to provide for the family in a time of economic insecurity was central to the formation and maintenance of Vietnamese families in post-migration survival.” (Kibria, as quoted in Vo, 2003, 103)

In Catfish and Mandala (1999), Pham experiences this alienation and generalisation when entering the workforce. His reaction demonstrates his attempt to reestablish his wounded masculinity and male identity as a Vietnamese American man. Vo writes that

“Pham finds a world that refuses to see him as a full human being. Perceived as an Asian American man, he faces the model minority myth. ‘I like you people. Orientals are good workers. Good students, too. Great in math, the engineering stuff…I think you’ll do just fine here. We won’t have any trouble at all,’ Pham’s boss tells him on his first day. But Pham refuses to become a ‘meek’ Asian American engineer. Frustrated by his lack of power, he quits his job in an extravagant gesture: ‘When I finally resigned, I was no longer a ‘good Oriental.’” (Vo, 2003, 225)

Within the Vietnamese diaspora of California, this legacy of war within the context of an American society compounds emasculation and the nostalgic search for brotherly camaraderie and what is familiar, creating a void. In the context of the politics of space, I argue that the men of Garden Grove have therefore created their own space: coffee shops and karaoke bars.


In this chapter, I will discuss the diasporic politics of space. I will concentrate on gendered and communal sites that Vietnamese Americans have created for themselves in the wake of their flight from Vietnam, an experience which Nhi T. Lieu describes as the “pleasures and pains of exile.” (Lieu, 2000, 156)

Firstly, I will contextualize the Vietnamese American creation of alternative sites of leisure within the diasporic community. Secondly, I will focus on homo-social bonding and community spaces, providing four examples  of spaces which facilitate Vietnamese immigrant desires. The first two spaces I will discuss are physically located  entities which exemplify the male relationship to exilic sites of leisure: coffee shops and karaoke bars. The second two examples are spaces which have been created within the technological world: karaoke and cultural productions, with a focus on Paris by Night. I will conclude that these sites of desire and nostalgia are crucial to holding onto traditional notions of gender, particularly for males, whilst simultaneously forging hybridized Vietnamese American identities.

For those that fled the Vietnam war and the Communist government, they carried with them scars of Vietnam’s history of war, “alleged to be four thousand years old” (Lam, 2005, 4), the burden of a military identity, and the loss of the South of Vietnam, all of which combined to create unshakable historic baggage.

“The war physically seared Vietnamese bodies and psychologically imprinted their minds with horror, rage, denial, and repression to an extraordinary degree…These memories and wounds-be they physical or emotional-still powerfully permeate the private lives of those who survived the war and fled Vietnam. As time passes, these scars and recollections crystallize to form the raw materials used by people of the Vietnamese diaspora to construct their new identities.” (Lieu, 2000, 324-6)

Expanding on this baggage of military identity, Helle Rydstrøm argues that “combat experience is disturbing for local veterans, but many of them miss the male bonding so unique to military life.” (Rydstrøm, 2012, 289) With no geographic space to return to, the Vietnamese diaspora created their own hybrid home, “carving out spaces for post-refugee gender, ethnic, and class identities,” (Lieu, 2000, 123) and constructing “for themselves new ways to make sense of their experiences.” (Lieu, 2000, 21) Duong reaffirms this, writing that coffee shops and karaoke bars are born out of a desire to house these yearnings for exilic male bonding and to feel a sense of belonging. “The performance of communal memory in the cafe space can further concretise the bonds that take place between men, especially those who first migrated to the U.S. and served in the military or Southern Vietnamese army.” (Duong, 2003, 104)

In an American space which alienates Vietnamese American men and other Asian American men (Duong, 2003, 102-103), coffee shop and karaoke bar sites are exilic claims to space and identity where men of the Vietnamese diaspora “become subjects of their own making.” (Duong, 2003, 112) The safety and familiarity of these spaces are cultural reinforcements that “confirm viewers in their ideological positions and reassure them of their membership in a collective cultural body.” (Lieu, 2000, 129-131)

Andrew Lam describes the diaspora’s communal ethos as a “culture of nostalgia” (Lam, 2005, 33). Within this culture of nostalgia, familiar Vietnamese sites were infused with hybrid Vietnamese-Americanness. In Little Saigon, karaoke bars and coffee shops exemplify the filling of this cultural void by providing Vietnamese American men with a place to reaffirm their masculinity, play out their nostalgic longings and partake in homo-social bonding.

Lieu argues that

“the collective consumption of Vietnamese American videos has enabled Vietnamese exiles in the contemporary moment to do what Benedict Anderson argues print culture did in sixteenth-century Europe – create ‘imagined communities.’” (Lieu, 2000, 129-131)

I argue that the carving out of communal spaces, such as the coffee bar and karaoke shop, gives these ‘imagined communities’ physical locations.

I will use my experience of coffee shops in Garden Grove, alongside Duong’s work on four coffee shops/karaoke bars in San Jose, to illustrate these exilic sites that cater to the male diaspora.

All of the coffee shops that I visited, as well as the cafés Duong describes in her research, are of similar design. All such sites have tinted windows and doorways that lead into smoke filled rooms where multiple televisions screen a melange of American sports and Vietnamese cultural productions. Loud music is played and scantily clad waitresses serve familiar drinks such as cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee) and sinh tố (smoothies). “The sights, sounds, chatter, games, and music of Vietnamese people, as well as the display and mastery of technology….is used to express a distinctly ethnic and diasporic identity.” (Duong, 2003, 97) This barrage of images and sounds combines to satiate nostalgic longings and also reinforces concepts of masculinity via hyper-masculine sports images and sexualized female waitresses whose role is to confirm their patrons’ masculinity. Duong puts forward a similar impression of the café spaces, describing her experience of

“a spectacular display of technology reflecting a unique ethnic identity. With their darkened windows, smoky air, and lots of music-which constitute some of the space’s exclusionary tactics-the appeal is obviously some of the space’s exclusionary tactics-the appeal is obviously the presence of other Vietnamese men and the sense of being ‘at home away from home.” (Duong, 2003, 99)

This cookie-cutter café template, serviced by cookie-cutter women, creates a trend of familiar spaces which prioritises “homo-social bonding and the reclamation of male identity.” (Duong, 2003, 97)


Within the diaspora, the coffee shop and karaoke bar are “sites and cultural practices that powerfully articulate ethnic identity, gender, class and (hetero)sexuality.” (Duong, 2003, 97) Here, men reassert traditional masculine identities. Central to this reclamation is the cafe dynamic, which provides multiple pleasures and affirmations of masculinity: the middle-class aesthetic, male-bond and the (re)establishment of traditional gender norms – this is most visible through the loaded interactions between male patrons and female waitresses.

The reclamation of the café space is an assertion of male privilege (Duong, 2003, 112), a theme that is reinforced by the male domination, male/female interactions, the way the female waitresses present themselves to the male patrons and the exclusionary tactics of the space. As Duong writes,

“it is the interactions between the men that matter. Men play chess, talk to one another over the din of the music, watch the videos, look at the TV images, and smoke. Cafes…are meeting points to congregate and engage in a communal atmosphere…this tradition of homosocial bonding not only works to exclude women, but also stigmatise those women who work and/or frequent the same cafes.” (Duong, 2003, 108)

Within the café space, damaged Vietnamese masculinity is (re)constructed. In “A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation (Peverse Modernities), Nguyen Tan Hoang discusses the detrimental ways that Asian masculinity is (mis)perceived. He writes that in the West there has been a “failure to take Asian American masculinity and explicit sexual representation seriously.” (Hoang, 2014, 321) Instead, he describes the “deep anxieties surrounding asian American masculinity, which has been historically marked by feminization and emasculation.” (Hoang, 2014, 327) Duong expands on this, writing that “the loss of authority, the lack of subjectivity and representation found in the media, and the disintegration of gender roles contribute in part to the steady patronisation of karaoke bars/cafes for Vietnamese American men.” (Duong, 2003, 103)

The re-establishment of Vietnamese masculinity, and subsequent diasporic male identity, is aided by the construction of Vietnamese femininity. These “constructions of Vietnamese femininity are embodied by the Vietnamese female waitresses and visualised in karaoke videos. The reconstructions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ images.” (Duong, 2003, 96)

Vietnamese female waitresses model traditional feminine ideals of beauty, with pale skin and long, straight black hair, “the most traditional sign of their femininity.” (Duong, 2003, 106-7) Duong recounts that most of the “waitresses at these cafes are all young women, whose ages range from eighteen to twenty-five, and who wear revealing clothes.” (Duong, 2003, 106-7) During my visits, I found that many of the young women chose to wear sheer áo dài (the Vietnamese national dress), beneath which they either wore underwear, or were nude. The choice of áo dài is a clear nostalgic nod towards the Vietnamese feminine ideal. Linda Trinh Vo states that “there is great symbolic and cultural value attached to the áo dài on Vietnamese women…The áo dài is indeed emblematic of Viet Nam itself as well as being a symbol of Vietnamese womanhood and femininity.” (Vo, 2003, 110)

Despite the importance of the female presence in servicing “notions of Vietnamese femininity,” (Duong, 2003, 112) women are simultaneously excluded from these male sites of leisure. Instead, they become exploited tools, used to service patrons, whilst serving “a role in the ideological process that figures them as representatives for the nation and as symbols for a communal past.” (Duong, 2003, 112)

In an interview Vo conducted with a Vietnamese American man in Little Saigon, Vo recorded the following quotation:

“It’s important to keep our Vietnamese tradition, to keep the sense of who we are…Vietnamese men and Vietnamese women should know their place [cho] in the family.” (Vo, 2003, 67)

It is clear that traditional Vietnamese notions of masculinity and superiority tie into men’s sense of self and their identity. Therefore, in order to cater to this loss of identity, coffee shops and karaoke bars become a sort of time warp in which the dynamic between male patrons and female waitresses regresses back to traditional Vietnamese gender roles where men and women ‘know their place.’ “Vietnamese men are seen as honourable gentlemen and women are valued for their beauty.” (Duong, 2003, 107) The voyeuristic gaze that men place upon women reinforces male entitlement – “the gaze as many theorists have pointed out, is imbricated in notions of power and authority.” (Duong, 2003, 107)

In conclusion, these male dominated spaces of homo-social bonding are incredibly popular as they heal a wound that has been caused by immigration to a country that does not meet its cultural needs and continually emasculates them. Coffee shops and karaoke bars are familiar sites which echo an identity, a status and a country that has been lost. They “continue a tradition of male-centered coffeehouses already established in Vietnam, with karaoke and prostitute features as core elements.” (Duong, 2003, 103-4) The rather overwhelming mix of hyper-feminine women, hyper-masculine men, nostalgic Vietnamese tastes, sights and sounds and middle class American aesthetics create a hybrid sense of home. A home that (re)affirms men’s gendered status, and (re)establishes their identity as not only men, but Vietnamese American men.


As karaoke bars and coffee shops are spaces carved out by the diaspora, karaoke and cultural productions are similar cultural and communal spaces within the world of technology and media. These cultural productions have become “repositories for desires and the collective consumption of media, electronic technology, and videos the primary mode for the Vietnamese in diaspora to imagine themselves as a community.” (Lieu, 2000, 77-78) In the midst of an American society which revolves around American spaces, these diaspora productions focus on, and prioritise, the Vietnamese experience.

Due to the nature of modern day technology, this communal space is open to everyone, making the communal hybrid Vietnamese American identity not only accessible, but a purchasable commodity. In essence, Vietnamese American cultural productions have become an industry, supporting those looking to find and understand a new identity that speaks to their nostalgic longings.

In order to demonstrate this, I will begin by discussing karaoke and the ways in which it powerfully evokes nostalgia and reinforces notions of lost Vietnamese traditions by romantically echoing the past. I will then look at media productions of the diaspora, with a focus on Paris by Night, a variety show which Lieu argues is “the most popular cultural product circulating throughout the Vietnamese diaspora.” (Lieu, 2000, 1249-50) I will look at how these widely accessible technological spaces help the diaspora to negotiate their hybrid Vietnamese Americanness, and deal with “issues including gender, sexuality, acculturation, assimilation, and the generation gap.” (Lieu, 2000, 1262)


Amongst Vietnamese Americans, karaoke has become a popular and powerful medium to remember the past and define the future. “Adelaida Reyes has poignantly noted that music, in the context of forced migration, functions in ways that not only trigger memories of a past life experience, but also work as an ideological tool that challenges the repressive state from which the refugees were forcibly expelled.” (Lieu, 2000, 113-114)

In her work on Desire and Design: Technological Display in the Vietnamese American Café and Karaoke Bar, Duong (2003, 109) cites a karaoke song called Ngày Đó, the full name of which is Ngày Đó Trên Chiếc Cầu (That Day on the Bridge). As I found this particular song to be very popular in coffee shops, karaoke bars and shops and restaurants throughout Garden Grove, I shall be examining it. Through its lyrics and accompanying video, this song immortalizes a former period of time by creating an imagined space which houses idealised notions of pre-Communist Vietnam, particularly traditional concepts of the feminine which simultaneously represent the purity of old Vietnam.

The song holds the memory of a man’s past, and his (re)imaginings of the home space. The singer says that the song is “a picture of his everlasting love” (“Một bức tranh tình còn mãi nơi anh”). The singer’s memory of the moment when he first met his lover on a bridge, the white áo dài that she wore, and the love that ensued is therefore preserved in this “picture” of love. The love he romantically recounts not only describes his love for a woman, but also his love for an idealized, pre-war vision of the motherland and the Vietnameseness which this encapsulates. Duong describes this as a “fetishisation of a frozen moment in time” (Duong, 2003, 110).

This “fetishisation” carries the viewer back into an imagined reality of the past, a space which gives voice to nostalgic longings. Rather than mourning the loss of Vietnamese traditions, like Lam’s mother in Perfume Dreams (2005), who continues to long “for the ancestral alter on which Grandpa’s faded black-and-white photo stared out into our abandoned home” (Lam, 2005, 4), the space of the karaoke song breathes life into fading memories of the past. The diaspora can therefore revel in, and relive, traditional concepts of Vietnameseness. As Thomas argues, they are able to experience “connections and disconnections to several worlds at the one moment.” (Thomas, 1996, 7)

“The nostalgic desire for home and the past is embedded in the contraction of the video setting, wherein we are placed in some idyllic place of re-creation, far from the exigencies of war and politics that marked Viet Nam before the war and in its aftermath.” (Duong, 2003, 110)

The lyrics of Ngày Đó Trên Chiếc Cầu are extremely pertinent, for they are not only imbued with nostalgic longing for the homeland – the song poetically describes the “fragrant homeland” (“quê hương”) – but also represent iconic markers of diasporic nationalism, such as the classic image of a young woman wearing a white áo dài. Indeed, bodies in general are powerful anchors. Thomas puts forth that “bodies are marked as being associated with another place, for both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese people.” (Thomas, 1996, 12) 

We see an example of the female body as a gateway to the past in the opening lines of the song, which describes a young woman, and her endearing white áo dài (Một chiếc áo dài, màu trắng xinh xinh”).

“There is great symbolic and cultural value attached to the ao dai on Vietnamese women…The ao dai is indeed emblematic of Viet Nam itself as well as being a symbol of Vietnamese womanhood and femininity. A white ao dai, which is still worn today by young Vietnamese women as a school uniform, is imbued with notions of youth, purity, innocence, and schoolgirl charm. For an overseas audience, the ao dai is potently affixed with the idea of national purity and wholeness, linked with memories of a period before the war. The desire for the homeland is thus integrally tied to gender ideologies.” (Duong, 2003, 110)

The weight of diasporic nationalism is often carried by women. Ideas of the nation, purity, tradition and virtue have been located on the female body, as demonstrated by the female protagonists in Nguyễn Du’s The Tale of Kiều (1820) and Dương Thu Hương’s No Man’s Land (2005). Vietnam itself is often described as a woman. In Catfish and Mandala (1999), Pham controversially describes Saigon as a woman and personifies Vietnam’s turbulent history, locating these disturbing images both on, and within, Saigon’s body.

“My Saigon was a whore, a saint, an infanticidal maniac. She sold her body to any taker, dreams of a better future, visions turned inward, eyes to the sky of the skyscrapers foreign to the land, away from the festering sores at her feet. The bastards in her belly – tainted by war, pardoned by need, obscured by time – clamored for food. They laughed, for it is all they know. She hoped for a better tomorrow, hoped for goodness.” (Pham, 1999, 109)

In Ngày Đó Trên Chiếc Cầu, the gender stereotype carried by the young woman, and the singer’s love for her delineates “love for the nation in heteronormative terms and in so doing reif[ies] traditional gender roles. It encapsulates a sense of ‘how things used to be’ and implicitly of ‘how they should be.” (Duong, 2003, 110)

The song ends with the words “he dreamed of former days of love” (“Và anh mơ, tới những ngày yêu xưa”), suggesting nostalgia not only for the youth that he spent with his lover, but also of ‘how things used to be’.

In Perfume Dreams (2005), Lam too describes ‘how things used to be’ when remembering the family servant’s wife bury her newborn baby’s umbilical chord in the garden (Lam, 2005, 3). His mother later explains to him that “it was the Vietnamese way to ask the land to bless and protect the newborn.” (Lam, 2005, 3) Lam tells the reader that “our ways were very old and sacred.” For those who, like Lam, are a “child of two worlds”, is there space for these Vietnamese traditions and rites in the diaspora’s Vietnamese American lives? I conclude that the “fetishisation” (Duong, 2003, 110) of the past, relived through sentimental karaoke songs, creates space for these traditions to survive, fossilised in songs and videos.


I will now discuss Paris by Night, and how this cultural production has, and continues to broaden the space of the Vietnamese diaspora, helping facilitate Vietnamese Americans’ understanding of their identity. In my analysis, I will demonstrate the ways that the video series has importantly contributed to the diaspora’s individual entertainment space, creating more room to negotiate and promote the Vietnamese American hybrid identity.

Paris by Night is “a series of commercially produced videotapes of Vietnamese variety show performances consisting of elaborate musical and dance numbers, comedic skits, and fashion shows featuring Vietnamese women in traditional dress,” which was established in 1983 by To Van Lai. (Lieu, 2000, 1247-8)

In lieu of stereotypes such as that of the refugee, the model minority and the gang member, Paris by Night reinforces the “new hybrid bourgeois ethnic identity” (Lieu, 2000, 215) by using “the variety show form to construct song and dance spectacles to invoke memory, nostalgia, and an idealized, utopian nationalist vision of a community advancing under capitalism.” (Lieu, 2000, 213-4)

In keeping with the hybrid identity of the diaspora, the Paris by Night show demonstrates similar hybridity in drawing inspiration from “former military USO shows, MTV, and other variety entertainment from Hong Kong as well as American film and television.” (Lieu, 2000, 1296-7)

The success of this cultural blend has created a thriving community space that introduces aspects of the American and foreign, whilst retaining familiarity by using Vietnamese language and guests, and discussing issues topical to the diaspora.

“In reconstructing Vietnamese cultural elements and selectively poaching from American popular culture, producers and entertainers used this hybrid cultural terrain to create and sustain a fantasy of “Vietnamese America,” reinterpreting history and molding new cultural identities through the strategic marketing of desire.” (Lieu, 2000, 1328-9)

The success of this commodification of desire is evident in that the video series has “entertained nearly 2.5 million overseas Vietnamese audience members worldwide and 72 million via a semi-legal “gray market” in Vietnam.” (Lieu, 2000, 1250-1) The high demand for the show has in turn led to the birth of rival production companies: Asia (Asia Entertainment), Van Son (Van Son Entertainment), and Hollywood Night (May Productions) (Lieu, 2000, 12556). This growing sphere of entertainment designed specifically for the Vietnamese American diaspora not only helps establish and reinforce their identity, but also makes it appealing to those outside of the diaspora.

Another main reason for the success of these cultural productions is that they parade and preserve exilic cultural heritage. In a predominantly white and affluent county such as Orange County, patriotism equates to Americaness and mainstream media is broadcast in English. Paris by Night, and other such cultural productions disrupt this trend. These video shows make space for the burgeoning Vietnamese American identity, reinforcing their sense of self. Lieu recounts a Vietnamese American describing how

“as a viewing option that featured Vietnamese language, music, personalities, and overall entertainment, the videos offered an alternative that placed the Vietnamese experience at the center amid multiple marginalities.” (Lieu, 2000, 62-63)

Despite its nouveau hybridity, Paris by Night retains aspects of Vietnam’s gendered past. The choice of the two presenters alone is loaded with political and gendered undertones.

“Nearly every Paris by Night event is hosted by the prominent poet and political writer Nguyen Ngoc Ngan and his female sidekick Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, a young lawyer-turned-performer, who is also the daughter of Nguyen Cao Ky, former vice president and airforce force commander of South Vietnam.” (Lieu, 2000, 1443)

Nguyen Ngoc Ngan represents the male scholar, an important and much respected role revered since the Confucian era. The Vietnamese proverb “một người làm quan cả họ được nhờ” (“a scholar is a blessing for all his relatives”) (Le, 2008, 25) reflects this. Lieu suggests that he represents “the views of Vietnamese men and the “traditional values” upheld by the elders of the community.” (Lieu, 2000, 1445)

Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen plays a similarly important role in establishing the show’s gender norms and how the audience relates to the show. Her family ties and career choices paint her as an admirable daughter of (the old) Vietnam. With a high ranking military officer from the South of Vietnam as her father, she is closely tied to a traditional understanding of military masculinity, pre-Communist Vietnam and the old ways, yet her career in law demonstrates that she has embraced the new Vietnamese American identity. This modernity is balanced by the retention of her Vietnamese beauty, which she displays on stage as a presenter and performer. Lieu argues that Ky Duyen “seeks to embody a vibrant youth culture and speak on behalf of Vietnamese women. Sometimes referred to as “the role model for Vietnamese women for the twenty-first century,” Ky Duyen is respected by both young and old women alike.” (Lieu, 2000, 1446-7)

The two presenters often playfully debate “issues of power in gender and social relations” (Lieu, 2000, 1448) within the context of the diaspora, each representing the interests of their respective gender, yet ultimately never failing to reach amiable conclusions. An example of one such animated discussion centred around the question “what makes a good husband?” (Lieu, 2000, 1449)

“Ngan: In the olden days, most men were the heads of their households except for the few men who went astray and became addicted to gambling and alcohol or committed adultery. Thus, men who do not commit these vices are good husbands.

Ky Duyen: You mean men do not have to help with the laundry, wash dishes, or help with the house chores? You are asking for too much. That is, a husband who does not take in a concubine is good enough. If you ask him to do housework and vacuum, that’s too much. We have migrated here and we see that this society is different. Women here have noticed our American neighbors are so different from our own husbands. For example, if an American man were to see a Vietnamese man driving his wife home from the market and it is raining outside, the Vietnamese man is expected to open the car door for his wife. I don’t know about you all, but this is not a practice that Vietnamese men are accustomed to doing …. The American man would be surprised to see that the Vietnamese man walked out of the car with umbrella in tote while his wife soaked in the rain.

Ngan: In their transition from Vietnam to America, of course there are certain old habits that are deep-seated. We will change gradually but we can’t instantly become gallant like American men because it is not a practice that men of my generation are used to. Perhaps it will be possible for my children’s generation to do this.

Ky Duyen: This is the first time I have heard it explained to me in this manner….The fact is, men do have faults, but the faults are minor. If a man forgets to buy a present for his wife, or isn’t gallant or meticulous, that’s actually fine. However, I think there are certain things that men should never do. If men ever do these things, we should leave them. First, never hit a woman, and second, do not ever drink excessively. Moderate social drinking is fine but drinking too much is bad, right?” (Lieu, 2000, 1452-1471)

The above discussion is an interesting example of Paris by Night’s gendered relationship to identity – more specifically, masculinity. Despite the hybrid Vietnamese American identity being rather more malleable than the gender norms experienced by Dương Thu Hương’s Mien in No Man’s Land (2005), the debate around what it is that makes a good husband does not stray far from traditional notions of masculinity, which in turn reinforce traditional notions of femininity. For example, Ngan argues that any man who is neither adulterous nor an addict is a good husband. (Lieu, 2000, 1452-1471)

Some of Ngan’s arguments also challenge American notions of masculinity. For example, he says that Vietnamese men cannot “instantly become gallant like American men,” because men of his generation carry “deep seated habits.” (Lieu, 2000, 1452-1471) He goes on to suggest that fixed notions of Vietnamese masculinity will perhaps bend with time, demonstrating that the hybrid Vietnamese male contains traditional notions of the male, and Americanized notions of the male.

It is important to have this alternate space to provide both genders of the diaspora with another space to discuss their identity and relate to others within the Vietnamese American community.


In conclusion, the coffee shop, karaoke bar, karaoke, and cultural productions all interact and reinforce each other, creating more room for the diaspora to negotiate how they relate to space and identity within the sphere of Little Saigon.

“The creation of Little Saigon as an ethnic enclave not only brought new possibilities for imagining community, but also resurrected the old capital in a new physical space, complete with the cultural institutions to foster this imagined community.” (Lieu, 2000, 1302-3)

These layered spaces play their part in building an imagined community, identity and country, all of which provide safe sites necessary for the diaspora’s negotiation of their new and changing identities, as well as notions of the self.

For men in particular, I have shown how the masculine identity has been ‘caught in the crossover’; their experience of America and the diaspora community gendered by their sex. Vietnamese men have been effected by counterintuitive forces of tradition, culture and location. The male tenets of Confucian filial piety, the male drinking culture, the military identity, war and loss of the war, and traditional Vietnamese masculinity were not wholly accommodated in America. In order to create a safe space to negotiate burgeoning male identities and hold onto traditional male identities, coffee shops and karaoke bars became hubs of homo-social bonding and spaces for the temporary (re)imposition of traditional Vietnamese gender roles.

Outside of these male sites I have shown how karaoke and cultural productions such as Paris by Night have helped to catalyse the hybrid Vietnamese American identity. This has been achieved by pulling together aspects of Western entertainment and American thought, whilst maintaining essentially Vietnamese roots. The two presenters, Nguyen Ngoc Ngan and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, firmly locate the show within the realms of the Vietnamese by using the Vietnamese language and embodying familiar gender roles. Most importantly, Paris by Night has created a safe, Vietnamese American space within the American media, broadcasting the hybrid diaspora identity to millions and therefore initiating important discussions about how people relate to themselves and their home.

I have used literature from the diaspora (Le 2008, Pham 1999, Lam, 2005) to demonstrate that compromised masculinities and the hybrid identity of the diaspora is often at odds with normative concepts of both the American and the Vietnamese identity. However, the hybrid Vietnamese American identity does not require ties to a typical nation state. Instead, it continues to create its own spaces, both real and imagined that safely locate these trials and tribulations in the country of Vietnamese America: Little Saigon.13. BIBLIOGRAPHY

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