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Back at Saigon’s Bambu Café, Mike details his plans for Art House, which opened in July. For now, it’s a commercial-production shop specializing in visual effects, but as it expands he plans to make movies there and eventually open a film school. That would be ambitious anywhere but is especially so in Vietnam, where the government exerts strict control over the industry, or what there is of one. Until recently, the Vietnamese film business was entirely state funded and still turns out mostly anachronistic, patriotic fare. But a new law now permits private companies to make films, provided their major partner is ethnically Vietnamese.
Toan Viet, the company that ditched Mike, is still in business, but without him leading the creative team, he says, it has resorted to producing exclusively low-budget TV commercials. When it comes to his new staff, many of whom he hired away from Toan Viet, Mike’s philosophical: “My people may not all have experience, but they have heart.” Unlike his brother, he’s not a natural leader and hates telling people what to do. For Mike, dissemination of knowledge is the key to developing not only his business but the fledgling film and TV production industry in Vietnam as well. His main competitors, Créa TV and Sud-Est, do high-end work and have years more experience in Asia. But because they have yet to truly invest in building the necessary infrastructure in-country, he says, they still farm out a lot of their jobs. Art House’s objective is to bring more high-budget commercial and film work to Vietnam, in a sense spreading the wealth.
“The industry here is so far behind the rest of Asia, not to mention the world. Vietnam has been in a time warp for so long. We have been pushed back 30 years or more, and I know that if I can make a difference to bring it back, to give it the opportunities it should have had, then I’ll feel really good about my time here,” he says.
It’s refreshing to hear a Viet Kieu talk about giving back to the society that spit him and his family out a generation ago. He may wield power here, but the bitterness and sense of entitlement or bottled-up injustice that peppers the speech of so many in his parents’ age bracket is absent.
Mike hopes those estranged overseas Vietnamese will eventually make their peace with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which is, like our own country, so much more than its government. “A lot of Viet Kieu have come back here and offended people by acting like they are somehow better than those who never left,” he says. “I consider myself lucky to be living among the people who were strong enough to stay and survive.”
That's not meant to be a political statement or rebuke to those who left, but merely a call for both sides to leave the us-versus-them approach in the past. The Little Saigon hardliners may scoff and say this kid didn’t live through the war or its aftermath and doesn’t understand history. And that may be true. But his enthusiasm for the future of this country is indisputable, his determination unlimited.
“I want Viet Kieu to become a term we can be proud of, and I don’t want this place to be remembered as the war country,” he says. “I want it to have a new, strong identity. I feel very proud that I’m doing something not just for myself but for a lot of people.”
His experiences in Vietnam and other countries have also made Mike, like many before him, mindful of the opportunities and freedoms to which most Americans pay lip service but fail to truly grasp. And he doesn’t grapple with his own identity issues. “I’m red, white and blue. I bleed American. I only play a Vietnamese on TV,” says the good boy from a hard-working immigrant family, laughing.
On the street in front of Bambu Café, Mike offers me a lift, saving me from having to respond to the chorus of persistent xe om (moped taxi) drivers, with their repetitive questioning: “Where you go, miss? You go motorbike?” He drops me off and we hug goodbye, knowing we’ll run into each other soon. This town of 7 million inhabitants, only about 20,000 of them expatriates, is that small.
Two weeks later, I bump into Mike at a birthday party in a French lounge decorated to resemble a boudoir. The revelers, mostly foreigners, are sprawled on canopied beds, low sofas or the floor, helping themselves to bottles of gin and tonic and devouring lavish plates piled high with mangosteens, custard apples and rambutans. It’s after 10 and Mike’s just come from work, again dressed in his signature black.
Professing exhaustion, he works the room anyway, at ease in the predominately Anglophone crowd. When introduced to a group of timid Vietnamese girls, he picks up a piece of birthday cake with his fingers and urges them to join in the fun. They don’t know what to make of him, playfully uttering sentences half in their language and half in English. His goofiness is disarming. The bravest in the group, a classical long-haired beauty, leans in for a bite, giggling when she gets frosting on her nose.