Santa Monica or Saigon?
More than three decades after the last American choppered out of Vietnam in defeat, the French-inspired three-hour lunch is alive and well in the town officially known as Ho Chi Minh City. (Only a handful of die-hard party cadres refer to this sprawling former capital of Indochine by its revolutionary title; all respect for Uncle Ho aside, it’s still Saigon.) People are clustered in groups at streetside coffee stands and upscale cafés all over the city, chatting and laughing through the hottest part of the day while watching their ca phe dripthrough tiny aluminum filters into glasses of sweetened condensed milk.
It’s noon on a steamy Friday in May, and District One’s Bambu Café is already filled with upper-middle-class office drones having the fixed lunch, priced at 19,000 dong ($1.20) and served by eager-to-please teenage waitresses on bamboo trays with delicate ceramic bowls of rice, fish or meat, sautéed vegetables, soup, fresh fruit and unlimited iced jasmine tea. One hard-working air conditioner struggles to combat the sun slanting through Venetian blinds onto the laptop screens of young professionals who have come to catch up on their e-mail and enjoy free wireless Internet — at least when the management remembers to activate it.
From my upstairs window seat I pick out Mike Do’s vintage Yamaha Virago emerging from the traffic maelstrom of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, or Southern Uprising Street, named for the 1940 revolt that gave birth to that provocative red flag with the yellow star. Do (pronounced Doe) is clad entirely in loose-fitting black cotton, with chin-length curls, tanned skin and a look that make you think he’s Mexican, Polynesian, Thai maybe. But surely not Vietnamese, and probably not American either — that is until he opens his mouth, and you realize he’s both of those. His “Hey, what’s up, girl?” betrays a California childhood, but the respectfully downcast eyes and gentle tone are the stuff of an Asian upbringing. He’s composed, deferential. The kind of guy your parents would probably like you to bring home, unless of course they have something against long hair.
Today, Mike’s got some good news. “Art House is about to become a reality!” he says excitedly, referring to his latest Vietnam experiment — a commercial, film and visual-effects house of his own. This success has involved a fair amount of sacrifice, coming after he ditched what most Angelenos would consider an enviable burgeoning career in motion graphics, traveled and worked with some of the top people in Southeast Asia, and endured a painful business failure that would have turned a lesser man bitter.
But Do is a confident, some might even say cocky, 33-year-old in one of the youngest nations in the world. (About two-thirds of the population were born after the war.) And in a city where the most popular motorbike models are Honda Dreams and Futures, there’s very little interest in harping on the past. Vietnam’s recent acceptance into the World Trade Organization and President Bush and Secretary of State Rice’s presence at last weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here make it pretty clear that for the country’s 84 million people, the future is now.
Only a year and a half has passed since Vietnam fêted the 30th anniversary of the end of the conflict that claimed 58,000 American lives and as many as 3 million Vietnamese. The atmosphere at the April 2005 festivities was one of gloating, of the underdog still flaunting its against-all-odds victory over the world’s superpower. Authorities festooned streets with red flags and boastful banners, put on ostentatious parades and dug up stories of war widows and heroic veterans who had their propagandistic lingo down and were willing to regurgitate it for the Western media corps.
The government’s official version of its history holds that on April 30, 1975, Northern soldiers freed South Vietnam from a puppet regime run by “imperialist captors,” effectively bringing an end to what people here call the “American War.” Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) and a fair percentage of residents in the former South Vietnam prefer the version that depicts Communists overthrowing a quasi-democracy and setting in motion a mass exodus of boat people, mostly Southerners who had been getting by under their capitalist (albeit corrupt) system and wanted nothing of the Northerners’ form of revolutionary government.
Most of these Vietnamese-Americans and those left behind commemorate April 30 as a “National Day of Shame” rather than one of liberation. They have had a hard time putting the fall of Saigon behind them, as was uncomfortably demonstrated by the 1999 uproar over a shopkeeper’s display of the Communist flag in Orange County’s Little Saigon and the chaos involving the same symbol at Cal State Fullerton five years later. Just try walking down the street in the O.C. wearing a bright red T-shirt with a yellow star and see what happens, especially after Huynh Bich Lien comes home next month.
Lien is allegedly associated with the Garden Grove–based Government of Free Vietnam, which the Vietnamese government considers a terrorist organization and has linked to several attempted bombings. Two weeks ago, along with two other U.S. citizens and four Vietnamese nationals, she was convicted in Saigon of plotting against the government. They faced anywhere from 12 years in prison to death by firing squad.
Luckily for the American passport holders, a U. S. senator stepped in. In an effort to rescue one of his constituents, Cuc Foshee, who was among the detainees, Florida’s Mel Martinez managed to block a key vote that would have normalized trade relations with Vietnam. (Martinez, a staunch anti-Castro conservative, last week was named the next chair of the Republican National Committee.) On November 10, the Vietnamese-Americans all received super-light sentences and are scheduled to be deported back to the U.S. in December. Foshee was released early for health reasons and promptly stated that she couldn't wait to sink her teeth into a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
Even though disorganized post-election Republicans failed to pass the House version of the trade bill — an embarrassment for President Bush, who hoped to deliver that victory to the Vietnamese in person — it is expected to come up for a vote again next month. Without it, American companies like Intel, which just tripled its investment in Vietnam to $1 billion, will not be able to take advantage of lower tariffs and subsidies the new WTO member will have to offer. Also last week, the State Department quietly dropped Vietnam from the “religious intolerance” list it’s been on since 2004.
While most Americans still equate Vietnam with the war, ask the average Vietnamese what he or she thinks about the U.S. and two names invariably come up: Britney Spears and Bill Gates. (The Microsoft chief was treated like a rock star during his spring visit to Hanoi, with mobs of university students clamoring just to get a glimpse of him.) The 35-and-under set here still reads the national papers, which bear titles like Youth and The Laborer and toe the party line. But they also have Internet access and friends in other countries, and aren’t too concerned with taking sides or hearing their parents’ war stories.
And neither are their Vietnamese-American counterparts, the well-educated sons and daughters of escapees who are coming back in droves and looking to develop the country while advancing their own careers. Even the term Viet Kieu, once synonymous with “traitor,” has started to lose its negative connotation, especially since overseas Vietnamese sent an estimated $16 billion in remittances to the country between 2001 and 2005. As The Economist has noted, “America lost, capitalism won.”
Perhaps, in the end, they’re the same thing. In the 20 years since the Party introduced doi moi, a perestroika-like restructuring of the centrally planned economy that has emulated China’s brand of market socialism, things have been moving fast. Foreign investment is up 41 percent. GDP has grown by 8 percent this year to more than $272 billion, putting Vietnam just behind Malaysia and ahead of Greece. The upshot of all this is that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam happens to be Asia’s fastest-growing market for American products.
Mike Do doesn’t hide his Americanisms as he makes the rounds in Go-Go café, shaking hands with the managers, smiling broadly at the female staff and saying “hello” instead of “xin chao.” It’s spring 2005, and I’ve just met Mike. He chose this spot in the city’s outlying Phu Nhuan District, sufficiently far from downtown to be off the expatriate radar but trendy enough to ensure it’s packed even before the lunch rush. The patrons are well-dressed working women and chain-smoking men conducting informal business or poring over the state-censored dailies.
Mike and his Uncle Ly have invested in the café, which recently won a national architecture magazine’s award for best interior design. Mike gestures for me to follow him, and we float up the back stairs into a yawning open-plan house. Its chef’s kitchen flows into a light-filled living room with a vaulted ceiling, empty but for a black grand piano that’s gathering dust.
“Can you believe nobody lives here?” Mike laughs. “I volunteered to move in, but he wanted to leave it empty.” “He” is the owner, also Viet Kieu, a friend and the architect’s brother-in-law, who spends the majority of his time in Sydney.
We have to blink to get used to the sunlight. A house like this, open to the elements and with windows everywhere, feels like it would be much more at home in Los Angeles than Saigon, where architecture and fashions tend to reflect the population’s efforts to escape the punishing sun. Respectable women cover every bare inch of flesh during the day so as not to develop the dreaded condition known as da den — “dark skin,” a sure sign of peasantry. On the street these would-be Asian dolls transform themselves into dowdy, second-rate gangster’s molls with floppy granny hats, saggy nylon knee-highs and pastel kerchiefs that extend from ear to ear and to just below their eyes. The middle-class men’s uniform rarely varies — long-sleeved white shirt tucked into belted black pants, shiny black shoes and maybe even a baseball cap.
Then there’s the pollution, which has begun to rival Bangkok’s. A Saigon street is the great equalizer, teeming with vehicles of every race and class, each focused on moving itself straight ahead at any cost. Noisy three-wheeled carts with ancient engines or rusty xich lo (cycle rickshaws) carrying towering burdens unimaginable elsewhere chug alongside shimmering BMWs and Mercedes with darkened windows. Although the majority of the traffic is of the two-wheeled kind, the ratio of cars to motorbikes is likely to increase in the near future, when heavy import taxes on automobiles (now at 100 percent) are eliminated.
Most of the city’s dwellings cannot be seen from the traffic-clogged boulevards, but are reached through a labyrinthine system of alleyways called hem, which sometimes stretch for miles off the main roads, far from the fumes and scorching sun. Some are as narrow as the length of a motorbike; more expensive homes are on the main streets or the widest hem, fenced in and even surrounded by gardens or swimming pools. Since land taxes are calculated based on width and not height, the city’s architecture often takes on dollhouse proportions, some houses having only one tiny room per floor.
The café owner’s house is worth more because of its location on a busy thoroughfare, where most high-stakes commerce takes place. And a substantial part of that worth has evidently been reinvested in making its inhabitants forget that they are in the country’s grimiest and most populous city. Sound-proofed windows, mossy indoor waterfalls and retractable shutters insulate us from the midday traffic and dust below. I reluctantly follow Mike out of the dream world and back down into the bustling café, where we get back to talking about his homecoming.
In Saigon for almost three years now, Mike describes his Vietnamese as “polite and childish.” Despite having heard the language spoken at home, none of his friends growing up were Vietnamese, and as a result he never developed a full vocabulary in his native tongue. English is the language in which he thinks, dreams and works. He gets by on the street but feels more like an actor who knows his lines well enough to get through a scene, nothing more. “I almost totally forgot Vietnamese and had to relearn it when I came back. Growing up our parents were always telling us to be American, whatever that meant!”
Back then, the Do family lived in poor, ethnic neighborhoods in San Jose, surrounded by other minorities who all called themselves American too. “I was confused,” he says, “because I was neither this nor that. My values were different from my parents, because I liked American stuff, but also different from my friends because my Vietnamese culture dictated that certain things were proper.”
Mike has few memories of the Saigon he left before he could talk. In 1975, his mother, who now goes by the name Yenha (Ngoc Yen in Vietnamese), was a translator for the American embassy, and was on the list of evacuees. Her husband, Huong Do, was an ARVN (South Vietnamese army) captain. With the Southern regime’s collapse at hand, they sent their three young sons, with other relatives, to the U.S. on a military plane.
Yenha, Huong, and her five brothers and sisters made it inside the embassy, up to the roof and aboard one of the last departing helicopters — those emblems of America's final, chaotic days in Vietnam. Once in the States, Huong tended bar and trained to be an electrical engineer. Yenha worked as a hotel accountant, social worker, draftsperson and electronics designer for IBM. In her free time she painted and sculpted, imparting to her children a sense of the art and culture of the country they barely knew. The eldest, Arthur, grew up to be like their father’s family: a line of rational engineers and lawyers.
“That side of the family goes after more attainable goals,” says Mike, “something that’s steady and reliable and makes you money. Chris and I dream of something more, something better.”
The squat red-brick exterior of Blind, Chris Do’s Santa Monica motion-graphics studio on an industrial stretch of Olympic Boulevard, contrasts sharply with the light and airy space I walk into on a summer afternoon. The minimalist-chic waiting area’s stocked bookshelves and foosball table bring to mind a TV sitcom office. The coffee table is stacked with the latest issues of Blender, Details and Electronic Gaming Monthly, and a variety of salty snacks are available. Before I can immerse myself in a graphic novel from the shelf, Chris’ assistant escorts me to his office, where Blind’s smiling president and chief creative officer is waiting behind an organized desk. The physical resemblance between the brothers is apparent, but Chris’ close-cropped hair, trendy sneakers and silver hoops glinting in both ears accentuate their not-so-subtle differences.
Although at 34 only a year older than Mike, Chris has already signed on for the full adult package: two kids, a business, home, responsibility. He befriended his future wife, Jessie Huang, who was born and raised in Taiwan, when they were both attending Art Center. “Initially, Jessie was doing all the design and animation work with me, when the company was just the two of us,” Chris says. “Now she’s like our CFO.”
Blind has grown to include a 15-member creative and production team, and the client roster boasts big names: Saatchi & Saatchi, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nike and Nissan. Recent work runs the gamut from the title sequence for the skateboarder flick Dogtown and the promo for Major League Baseball’s all-star game to the Black Eyed Peas’ short “Instant Def” and the kaleidoscopic animated video for Gnarls Barkley’s mega hit “Crazy,” which recently won a pair of MTV Video Music Awards for best direction and best editing.
Chris’ own work has been featured in magazines and trade journals like Adweek and RES. His recent artistic output comprises mostly animated shorts (two of which can be seen at www.blind.com). He has high hopes that his pet-project-in-progress, adapted from a friend’s short story, will find its way to the film-festival circuit. But what he most enjoys is teaching — at Art Center and Otis. “If I had the choice and could figure out the financial end of things,” he tells me, “I would probably just teach and create work for myself.”
I mention randomly meeting an old friend of his at a party in the Hollywood Hills a few days earlier. The guy, who has known Chris since he was a computer-lab assistant at Art Center, referred to him as the “embodiment of the American dream,” someone who helped everyone else and was constantly working to improve himself.
Chris just laughs off the compliment and starts talking instead about how this particular buddy, an Eastern European transportation-designer-turned-entrepreneur who made his fortune on a car-performance meter, was the true success story. “I’m the biggest nerd there is. I just do what I do, and try to do it a little bit better each day. I don’t have time to sit back and make subjective evaluations of how far I’ve come.”
Modesty aside, he’s come a long way from San Jose. While still at Art Center, he took a semester off and moved to Seattle to become an art director for the well-known Cole & Weber agency (now Cole & Weber: United), getting a taste for multimillion-dollar expense accounts. Although it was a cushy gig, Chris knew that he was a designer at heart.
In 1995 he went to work doing CD covers for Art Center alumnus Fred Hidalgo at Epitaph Records. The previous year the label had made it big with hit albums by the Offspring and L7, and during Do’s tenure there Rancid made an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Though he respected Hidalgo, Chris rapidly started to see the punk aesthetic as contrived. “People were so militant about how punk was supposed to be,” he says. “They criticized everybody and everything. It was like: ‘If you make money or are successful, then you’re not punk.’?”
His design soul was clearly craving its own shop. Enter another Vietnamese uncle — Hoang Do, one of his father’s younger brothers, who offered to bankroll a design studio with Chris in charge. Using his uncle’s $5,000 check, Chris cobbled together a network and started Blind. It was, he remembers, “super ghetto” — they couldn’t even afford a printer. Chris and Jessie did all the design and animation work on his computer for the first two months while waiting for Hoang and his partner to come up with the 100 grand Chris needed to buy more gear. But the cash never materialized. Chris phoned his older brother, Arthur.
Now 38, Arthur is a successful software engineer and partner in a tech company in Danville, east of Oakland. Arthur agreed to invest, and for a year and a half wrote a check whenever the fledgling company needed it. When Chris began to sense success was near, he asked if he could buy out his big brother. Arthur gracefully requested a simple loan repayment, without interest. “We’re not going to get into evaluating the company assets,” Chris remembers Arthur saying. “We’re family.”
Twenty-three-year-old Mike was still living at his parents’ San Jose home in 1996 when Chris offered him a way out. Mike moved into Chris’ Boyle Heights loft and started doing part-time IT work for Blind. The rest of the time he spent watching movies, sleeping and talking about maybe opening a hockey rink someday. After six months of watching Mike loaf around, the elder told the youngest to get his shit together. Through a series of formal exercises, Chris started teaching Mike a lot of what he’d learned at Art Center: typography, rules of proportion, space, contrast. Mike was a quick learner, and by the time they got to animation and he learned to use Adobe After Effects, he was ready to show off his talents.
“He did a couple of projects for me,” says Chris, “but he felt there was some kind of ceiling there for him because I was his brother, so I told him to go and see what it was like working for someone else.”
A few months later Mike was working 80 hours a week as a game consultant. With his brother making introductions, he started to get freelance work in what was then an emerging field called broadcast design, or motion graphics. Graphic designers were crossing over and learning to make their motionless letters and images come alive. In the same way that desktop publishing had reinvented print, new software applications created a sort of revolution in graphics.
“Before that you had to go to a very big production house to do this type of work, and pay a hell of a lot of money,” Mike explains. “Suddenly it became available to a lot of people. They weren’t even teaching this stuff at school at the time. The software took our work and displayed what was possible. Adobe actually put our stuff onto their CDs as demos.”
Mike started getting a reel together, and by summer 1997 he had landed a national spot for The New York Times. Chris remembers Mike insisting on wearing a suit jacket to that interview, despite having been warned that no one in the industry dressed formally. After looking at his work, the producer said, “You have the job, but don’t ever come in here wearing that jacket again!” The resulting television campaign ran for more than two years, giving him the exposure and confidence he needed. Mike began to meet the right people.
One of them was Garson Yu, who at that time was second-in-command at Imaginary Forces, a feature-film company that also handles marketing, branding, commercial advertising, architecture and experience design. (Teamed with United Architects, IF was one of six finalists competing for the redesign of the World Trade Center site.) Garson was preparing to launch a new company called Good Spot, and he invited Mike to join him. During the 10 months he was there, Mike worked on teasers and trailers for films like Saving Private Ryan, Deep Impact, Snake Eyes, 8MM and Amistad. After a company shakeup, Garson left to start his own, yU+co.
Mike then gave up a creative director position at Good Spot to learn visual effects with a man he calls a “phenomenal talent,” Alex Frisch, who was the lead artist at Method Studios. Together they made the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Around the World” video, which was the first clip featured on MTV’s Making of .?.?. His résumé from that time includes music videos like Garbage’s “You Look So Fine” and Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything.”
“I moved to L.A. with absolutely no education in terms of having gone to school for this stuff,” he says proudly. “And I became one of the highest-paid after-effects animators around.”
Maybe so, but three years into his L.A. stint, Mike was still driving a beat-up red Neon, which he holds responsible for his difficulty in meeting women during that period. And despite having made it into the business, he was burned out from 80-hour work weeks and started to wonder if that’s all there was to a life. He decided to take a three-month sabbatical, just to clear his head. That was seven years ago. “L.A. was very good to me in terms of work, finances, people, connections. I had all the things I thought I wanted — house, car, everything you could call the American dream at 26 years old — yet I was completely unhappy. So I gave it all away.”
His feelings are shared by plenty of 20- and 30-something voluntary émigrés, bored or even terrified by the prospect of getting stuck in the sort of cookie-cutter lives their parents led. But Mike also knows it’s easier to make an impact in Asia’s much smaller artistic community.
“If I stayed in L.A.,” he says, “all I would ever do is make money and join a list of other highly paid people who help the machine build the best work in the world. But here, I matter.”
Which is not to say that it has been easy.
“November 15, 1999!” It’s a rain-soaked afternoon in 2005 when Mike remembers — with the clarity of an ex-con citing his release date — the day he broke free from the world as he knew it. Since then he has learned to say “you’re beautiful” in six languages and made the acquaintance of not one but three Miss Worlds, all in India, where he worked for the world’s largest film studio complex, Ramoji Film City. He lasted six months in Hyderabad, subsequently traveling around India for an additional three. Then it was on to New Zealand (“a place old people go to die, not where young people go to live”), Canada, Singapore and Bangkok, where he spent most of 2003.
We’re at the headquarters of Toan Viet (All Vietnam), which he and his Uncle Ly have transformed from a bargain-basement recording studio into a state-of-the-art post facility. In contrast to most Saigon workplaces, which switch off their fluorescents for a two-hour siesta, Toan Viet seems to operate on an American schedule. Everyone takes an hour for lunch when there’s time but is expected to work into the evening for as long as it takes. The receptionist orders takeout beef and vegetables with rice and offers us Cokes from a stocked refrigerator while Mike indicates a Miami Vice–inspired glass-enclosed space near the front door, slated to become his personal office.
The rest of the building, on a shady stretch of Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street in District One’s Dakao Ward, is typical of modern Vietnamese architecture, with two small rooms on each level facing either side of the staircase, in this case housing not a family but animators, designers, producers, editors and a couple of accountants. The walls are covered with old movie posters and stills from commercials the company has produced, mostly for the local market. Except for two Belgian 3-D animators, a Canadian editor and a Filipino producer, the rest of the staff are Vietnamese, and most of the communication I hear is in that language, although Mike says he often has to switch into English to clarify a point.
It was during the year in Bangkok that Mike visited Vietnam and crossed paths with one of his San Jose uncles. He had known Ly Nguyen, his father’s youngest brother and only eight years Mike’s senior, as a kid but hadn’t seen him for years. Ly was 10 when his family was uprooted to the U.S. “I grew up trying to be a better American than everyone I met,” he says. He became that good American, working his way up from graphic specialist to lead press man for Cannon. At 30, already burned out on Silicon Valley life, Ly went back to visit Vietnam, realized how much he had missed it, and stayed.
A decade later, when Mike took some time off from the Bangkok job to rendezvous with his parents (who were making their annual visit to relatives in Saigon), Ly was married with two kids and a senior account director for Bates Worldwide. As Chris had done years earlier, Ly essentially told his free-floating nephew to stop bouncing around and get serious, maybe even consider opening a business together.
Ly’s friend Ton That Diep was running Toan Viet, then a small music video production business. The three decided on the spot to revamp the company and turn it into a top-notch commercial studio together. Diep would be the silent partner, while Ly, with his vast contact network, signed on as managing director. And Mike, with his scant knowledge of the business world, got to keep his desired title, “lead artist.”
Mike laughs at their unlikely partnership, especially since he had never really considered living in Vietnam at that point — until Ly took him around to the agencies and post houses, and said, “?‘Look — this is just the beginning. Look how far we’ve come, and imagine how far we can go.’ He had the clients and the work, but there was no one here that could do the work properly. I really believed we could come in and do something amazing, and make a difference for a lot of people.”
“We just went for it,” says Ly triumphantly.
But the triumph was short-lived. Although Toan Viet produced 46 commercials in just six months of Mike overseeing its creative work, and had taken the lion’s share of production jobs from competing houses, Diep suddenly pulled the rug out from under them, believing that with his new client base, he could go it alone. He hired a local designer for a fraction of what he was paying Mike.
The way Mike explains it, “Diep was much smarter than us. He’s a businessperson and we are artists.” The contracts they had signed were worthless without an official seal, and lacking recourse in the murky halls of Vietnamese justice, last November Mike ended up on the street, with just 10 percent of the profits (not including the company assets) to show for his year-long effort. By his own estimation, he lost a “hell of a lot of money.” Ly left the company a couple of months later, also empty-handed.
Soon after Toan Viet imploded, Mike came back to California to do some soul searching. After three months of meeting with industry people while shuttling between his parents in San Jose and Chris in Venice, he’d internalized the hard lessons of the previous year and started to formulate a plan. Part of that was being able to say out loud that Vietnam was where he wanted to build his immediate future. L.A. hadn’t changed, but he had. He was restless and eager to get back to Saigon, where, despite the chaos, he felt more likely to achieve his goals.
He also missed the sociability of a culture in which spontaneity rules and even celebrities are accessible. “In L.A., people go out and the first question is always ‘What do you do?’ It really warps your perspective .?.?. The work becomes more important than the people, and that’s not how life should be. They don’t just sit in a café and strike up a conversation with someone the way I can in Saigon. In America, for the most part people would rather be left alone,” he tells me after returning from California. “That sense of isolation and distance is not so much fun for me.”
Saigon life is not conducive to isolation. Everything Americans do behind closed doors takes place on the street here: cooking, eating, napping — even discreet sex on the back of a Honda Dream parked in the shade. “It either drives you crazy or you just can’t get enough of it,” says Mike with a flicker of his brow. “When I’m back in the U.S., I feel safe and ordinary. When I’m out here, I feel alive.”
Two weeks after our first meeting, I hook up with Chris again at Blind, where the office is only just starting to wind down at 8 o’clock. He’s wearing a T-shirt, cargo pants, black Converse and the same boxy glasses as last time, but sporting a scruffy goatee. “I can’t find my electric razor,” he says, reminding me that he’s just moved and has yet to unpack it all. “Anyway, Asian people .?.?. we’re not that hairy.”
He has just resettled his family from Venice to the Palisades, in “a nice, quiet neighborhood, where Jessie and my kids can go for a walk without being accosted by some homeless person.” The new house is a traditional Cape Cod, which is a radical departure from their landmark contemporary home in downtown Venice and reflects a phase in Chris' life when family needs have started to outweigh his penchant for ultraminimal modern architecture.
We step up into his black Mercedes G500, a Hummer-like box Chris says was originally designed for the Austrian army. I can’t resist asking if it’s more fuel efficient than its American cousin. “I hope so,” he says sheepishly as we sit in traffic on Venice’s Main Street, passing within blocks of some of Blind’s main competitors: Logan, Stardust and Motion Theory. He points out other visual-effects boutiques wedged in between stone and tile wholesalers. The area, I note, seems to be gentrifying overnight.
“Yeah, and Bruckheimer’s multimillion-dollar studio is right next to an automotive shop,” Chris says, laughing. But what he still likes about the area is its smaller-town feel. “I’m always running into guys from other shops. Or they’ll text me saying they just saw me walking down the street.” As if to illustrate his point, when we emerge from the parking garage, a guy wearing a yellow T-shirt that says “I hate everyone” yells out Chris’ name. It’s Joel Lava, a director at Transistor Studios, who explains that the T was part of the swag he just scored at a Little Miss Sunshine screening.
We enter the buzzing Chaya Venice. It’s only Tuesday night, but the high-ceilinged room is packed with a stylish yet somehow suburban crowd feasting on French-Japanese fusion and talking at top volume. I wonder if any of them are the “local artists, musicians and movie-industry moguls” Chaya’s Web site brags are frequent customers. No matter. The rainbow roll is fresh, and Chris gets loose after a few sips of lemonade. Not only does he not drink alcohol; he claims to have never even tasted it. “Not once,” he says, deadpan. Floored, I offer him a sip from my glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and he admits to being curious. “Wine is something I’d like to try, but at home, since I’m not sure what it’d do to me.”
We talk about the transformation of Venice and downtown — where Chris, Jessie and Mike once lived together at the Brewery art complex. He understands where Mike is coming from but doesn’t have the same issues with the city’s way of life. “I love Los Angeles, warts and all. It’s my adopted home and part of my self-identity.?.?.?. In terms of our industry, the heart of it is in L.A. My goals are a little more selfish [than Mike’s]. I want to work with the best people and be the best in the most competitive marketplace. And, from galleries, magazine stands, clubs, museums, restaurants, comic-book stores to films, we have it good. Within a half-hour drive I can find pretty much everything I want.”
Implicit in his statement, of course, is the confidence that that wouldn’t be the case in a backwater like Vietnam. But the guy who spends his free time watching Ultimate Fighting Championships on pay-per-view or playing games on an Xbox 360 with his 3-year-old gives his brother credit for doing things the hard way, even if Chris doesn’t completely understand it. “Mike’s happiness has always come from nonmaterial things. The intangibles and quality-of-life are what motivate him,” he says.
Chris is pleased that his nomadic little brother has finally found stability and been able to develop something on his own terms. “He’s doing things in Vietnam that are going to be groundbreaking, and I think that’s very inspirational,” he says. “He’s showing a generation of Vietnamese designers a world they were not previously privy to, and he’s helping to build an emerging post-production market there.”
Nevertheless, the older Do sibling won’t be going back to his birthplace anytime soon. Having not seen his country since he was 3, Chris hopes to do so before his youngest son reaches that age. For now, he’s content with the occasional journey to Monterey Park for a $5 bowl of pho. In the meantime he’s got a new arm of his company to oversee. In October, Blind opened an office in New York, and Chris and Jessie have even talked about moving out there one day.
Finally, as rarely seems the case in L.A. or New York, the conversation turns from the coasts to New Orleans, where thousands of Vietnamese were among the masses affected by Hurricane Katrina. Chris retells an NPR story featuring a Vietnamese lady there who refused to leave her home despite rising floodwaters. “When the water came up, fish started coming in the house,” Chris says. “So of course she saw it as an opportunity rather than a dilemma.”
We share a knowing laugh, visualizing the woman crouching in knee-deep living-room water while trying to catch a fish with her bare hands and browbeating her husband to hurry up and figure out how to cook the rice without power. Both Chris and I have witnessed Vietnamese people on either side of the Pacific turn hardship to their advantage.
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.
As the party wraps up, Mike comes over to say goodbye. After three stimulating years in this city, I’ve finally had enough of the noise, heat and bad air and will soon be moving back to the United States. He’s worried I’ll be bored — or, worse, lose sight of the important things in life.
“Being here,” Mike says, “is like hearing the song that was playing when you had your first kiss. You remember that moment for the rest of your life, and whenever you hear that song there’s this warm sense in your heart, and you feel good for a few minutes. That’s kind of what it’s like in Vietnam for me. It’s that song being played again and again.”
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