Vietnamese artists’ exhibit shut down by threat of protests

“Thuc Duc, Viet Nam” (2008) by Brian Doan. It’s no longer on view at the VAALA Center in Santa Ana.

Anti-communist protesters helped shut down a group art show in Santa Ana today (1/16).


A protester at the VAALA Center in Santa Ana on Friday.


A protester holds a sign at the VAALA Center on Friday.


A protest sign.


a protester holding a South Vietnamese flag.


A protester holds a South Vietnamese flag at the VAALA Center on Friday.


A protester explains his point of view to the media.

Click on images above to enlarge.

The exhibit, titled “F.O.B. II: Art Speaks,” contained about 50 varied works by Vietnamese American artists, including a photograph by Brian Doan depicting a girl wearing a red tank top with a yellow star in the middle (see above). The shirt resembles the current, communist Vietnamese flag, and she is standing next to a gold bust of former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.

The protesters, mainly older Vietnamese residents of Orange County and Southern California, chanted slogans and denounced the curators and organizers of the exhibit at a news conference today. They said the image was pro-communist and threatened a larger protest over the weekend. “F.O.B. II” was due to close on Sunday.

The protesters brought pictures of a girl in a bikini with the yellow star on her butt and a Ho Chi Minh bust in the toilet. They called that “real art.”

Meanwhile, the organizers also said they didn’t have proper permission from the city of Santa Ana to use the space as a gallery. That was another reason cited for the shutdown.

At the protest/news conference, Doan’s own father, Doan Vi Han, said he was angry about his son’s photograph and that he had spent 10 years in a communist prison.

Many of the protesters were the same folks who demonstrated against the Nguoi Viet Daily News after that newspaper published an image of a foot spa painted with the colors of the South Vietnamese flag (also known as the heritage flag). Utlimately, the protests caused the firing of two of the paper’s top editors.

While I’ve written some stories about Vietnamese protests in the past, I don’t know the whole history behind the protesters and their concerns. Yet, it seems like they have a lot of power if they can shut down an art exhibit that featured a lot of different kinds of work, much of it non-political, plus get two editors at a local paper fired.

I thought the United States was a place where freedom of speech and expression are protected by the Constitution. But apparently, those rights are not fully protected or respected in certain communities here.

In the meantime, the Vietnamese Arts & Letters Association will continue with two spoken-word performances tonight and Saturday night at the VALAA Center, 1600 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

And Brian Doan, the photographer attracting all this attention and controversy, will have his own photo exhibition Jan. 20-Feb. 21 at Cypress College’s Photography Galleries, 9200 Valley View St., Cypress. It is in the Technical Education 1 building, second floor.


January 13th, 2009, 1:22 pm · 34 Comments · posted by Richard Chang

“Thu Duc, Viet Nam” (2008) by Brian Doan.


Two paintings, “Untitled” and “By Land, Air or Sea” by Steven Toly.


Attendees create a “circle painting” Friday night.



From the “Children of the Orange Field” series by Binh Danh.

From the series, “Children of the Orange Field” by Binh Danh.

Click on images to enlarge.

Over the weekend, the Vietnamese Arts & Letters Association opened a group exhibition, “F.O.B. II: Art Speaks” at the VALAA Center in Santa Ana. It’s a large, diverse show, with about 50 artists, but one image in particular upset some members of the local Vietnamese American community and caused some tense moments.

Brian Doan’s photograph, “Thu Duc, Viet Nam” (2008), actually part of a diptych, contains imagery that some viewers think is pro-communist. More on that later… let’s give you some background on the show.

“F.O.B. II” picks up where “F.O.B.: A MultiArt Show” left off six years ago. The exhibit is housed in an interesting location — an old bank, now vacated, on Broadway in downtown Santa Ana.

“F.O.B. II” features an assortment of media, from painting and sculpture to photography, film, and performance art. HIghlights include Binh Danh, whose photosynthesis works are cleverly burned onto the surfaces of leaves; Nguyen Trong Khoi, whose paintings reflect the suffering of fleeing one’s homeland and becoming a refugee; and Steven Toly, who has combined yellow acrylic and red barbed wire to create a symbolic expression of the South Vietnamese flag.

Friday was the press and V.I.P. opening, and Saturday night was the public opening. On Sunday, during a panel discussion, several folks from the local Vietnamese community showed up and demanded that the photograph by Doan be taken down. The photo depicts a Vietnamese girl with a star on her shirt, standing next to a statue of Ho Chi Minh. The star is similar to the one that appears on the current Vietnamese communist flag.

Apparently, the folks who showed up Sunday felt the photo was insulting to those who have fled Vietnamese communism over the past 30 years. They urged the curators to take it down, but they refused. An hour and a half panel stretched out to more than three hours. Some visitors reportedly scratched at the photo’s glass surface and spit on the image.

It’s fascinating that one photo can evoke so much emotion. Last year, an image of a foot spa painted the colors of the South Vietnamese flag (also known as the heritage flag) was published in a special edition of the Nguoi Viet Daily News. The publication sparked protests and caused the firing of two top editors of that newspaper.

Those who oppose the Doan image have pledged to come back and protest, possibly this weekend. Likewise, the curators have pledged to keep the image on display.

“We will not take it down,” said Tram Le, a co-curator. “It’s actually a critique of communism. That’s what the artist himself is also saying about this particular piece.”

We’ll keep you posted on what happens out there at the VALAA Center. Meanwhile, you can check out the exhibition yourself. The center is at 1600 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Jan. 18. The Web site is

Arts on the cheap: “F.O.B. II”


Vietnamese artists’ exhibit shut down by threat of protests

‘F.O.B II: Art Speaks’ closed today after Little Saigon community members protested a photo with image of Ho Chi Minh.

The Orange County Register

SANTA ANA – A Vietnamese artists’ group announced today that it was closing a controversial exhibit after Little Saigon community activists threatened to launch a large-scale protest this weekend over a controversial image of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam’s flag.

Their decision coincided with the city of Santa Ana’s decision to close the exhibit, part of the show “F.O.B II: Art Speaks,” because it was being done in a space that did not have permission for gallery use, said Ysa Le, executive director of the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA).

“This was an attempt to get a dialogue started,” Le said. “Our intent was not to hurt or offend the sensibilities of our community. We are part of this community.”

About 50 protesters shouted anti-communist slogans outside the patio where a press conference was held today by Le and the exhibit’s curators. The exhibit opened Jan. 9.

The controversy was over a photo that showed a Vietnamese girl in a red tank top with a star in the middle, resembling the flag of communist Vietnam, sitting next to a statue of Ho Chi Minh.

Protesters who gathered outside the Santa Ana building where the exhibit was held said they are offended by artist Brian Doan’s and VAALA’s open support of the communist government in Vietnam.

“That girl in the photo was wearing a T-shirt with what we here call the “bloody flag,'” said Kim Vo of Los Angeles, one of the protesters. “We fled Vietnam because of that flag, because of that murderer Ho Chi Minh. We do not want to be bothered by those images again.”

A majority of the Vietnamese American community in Orange County and Southern California consists of refugees who fled the communist regime in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Many of the protesters also participated in demonstrations against Nguoi Viet Daily News when the paper published the photo of a foot spa with the red and yellow heritage flag colors. That foot spa was created by an artist from UC Berkeley as an expression of thanks to her mother-in-law, who worked in nail salons to put the family through college. But protesters saw it as an insult to the flag.

Hao-Nhien Vu, Ysa Le’s husband, lost his job as the paper’s top editor after protests raged over the controversial foot spa photo.

Lan Duong, one of the co-curators, said the exhibit’s purpose was to facilitate a dialogue and a debate in the community.

“We believe we were successful in doing that through this exhibit,” she told a group of emotional community members and members of the Vietnamese media, as she screamed over the voices of the protesters who were still yelling out slogans as Duong was speaking.

Brian Doan’s father, Han Vi Doan, and sister Huang Vi Doan also came to the press conference. Han Doan spoke emotionally in Vietnamese saying that he was angry about his son’s photo as well, and that he, too, had spent 10 years in a communist prison.

Doan’s sister said her brother did not mean to offend anyone.

“He has a lot of respect for the suffering we have all gone through,” she said.

Brian Doan released “The Forgotten One,” a photographic documentation of the last of the Vietnamese boat people in The Philippines, about two years ago.

“Brian is not a communist,” said Tanya Trung, a friend of the artist. “And the people at VAALA are not communists. It’s important to have diverse voices and different ways to express art.”

But protesters, who were waving the red and yellow former South Vietnamese flag that is now the local community’s Heritage Flag, said they don’t believe the exhibit is art.

Tiffany Nguyen, a community member, said the controversial photo was nothing but “fake art.” She brought in a photo of a young woman wearing a bikini with the image of a star on her back, facing a toilet with a bust of Ho Chi Minh in it.

“This is real art,” she said, to thunderous applause from the audience and the protesters. “Art should tell the truth.”

Tram Le, one of the exhibit’s curators, said VAALA’s board members “agonized” over the decision to include Brian Doan’s photo in this exhibit.

“We felt like this is a conversation that needs to be had,” she said.

Tram Le also said the urge to have this dialog is not symbolic of a generation gap in the community.

“It’s not as simple as that,” she said. “There are young people who don’t want a dialog either.”

Ysa Le said her group will continue to feature diverse art.

“Our goal is to promote a diversity of voices,” she said. “But we want to be sensitive to the community and engage in a conversation with them so we can have all voices heard.”

Staff writer Richard Chang contributed to this report

Contact the writer: 714-445-6685 or


3 comments on “Vietnamese artists’ exhibit shut down by threat of protests

  1. Peter
    January 17, 2009


    What if…to answer your question, it would be in poor taste, and it would be offensive, but any American has the right to do so. I think all the protesters are letting their emotions get in the way of their logic. It’s really pathetic that the newspaper editor got fired for a similar situation a few years back.

    I say, just wait until all the old people die. Then try to do art. You can wait 20 years can’t you?

  2. DeadCat
    January 17, 2009

    What if some German model posed for the same photograph, with a swastika imprinted on her tank…and a bust of Hitler on a table…I’m sure that will go quietly…or if Fidel Castro’s bust was presented in Little Havana: great right? Let’s all see the Nazi side of things too! we shouldn’t run away from the past, let’s all embrace the wondrous deeds that the Hitler brought to the world! I think these “artists” are misunderstood…however, they don’t seem to understand the other side either.

  3. the pain
    March 21, 2009

    give justice and freedom to those victims of the communist revolution they herd it like an animal ruthless killers down the communist rise the democracy visti my website here you can see about my campgign angaints the communist in my country let us help support the anti communist movement around the world

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