- By Jonathan Head & Tran Vo
- in Bangkok
In his moving acceptance speech after winning Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, Ke Huy Quan reflected on his journey as a young boy on a ship from Vietnam, via a refugee camp in Hong Kong, to California.
“I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow ended up here on the biggest stage in Hollywood,” he said. “They say stories like this only happen in movies. I can’t believe it happens to me. It’s the American dream.”
He is the first person of Vietnamese descent to win an Oscar, and one of two nominees this year – the other was Hong Chau in The Whale, whose family also fled Vietnam on a boat.
Yet in Vietnam, official reaction has been muted. Media reports, which are almost all state-controlled, said little about Ke Huy Quan or his past.
Some have pointed to the actor’s ethnic Chinese ancestry, rather than his Vietnamese origins. He was born in Saigon, the capital of southern Vietnam, in 1971, his family being part of a commercially prosperous Chinese ethnic minority, as seen in many Southeast Asian cities. None mentioned his flight from Vietnam as a refugee, in the mass exodus of the so-called “boat people”.
Thanh Nien newspaper only wrote that “he was born in 1971 to a Chinese family in Ho Chi Minh City [the official name for Saigon] then moved to the United States in the late 1970s.
Tuoi Tre wrote, “Quan Ke Huy was born in 1971 in Vietnam to a Chinese family, with a mother from Hong Kong and a father from Mainland China.”
VN Express wrote that the actor “has Chinese relatives in the Cho Lon area,” the commercial district of Saigon traditionally inhabited by ethnic Chinese.
No one in Vietnam’s government said anything, though perhaps less surprisingly from the usually taciturn Communist Party. Why this reluctance to embrace a successful and now globally recognized actor, who openly acknowledges his Vietnamese roots?
The exodus of boat people in the 1970s and 1980s was one of the darkest episodes in Vietnam’s recent history. More than 1.5 million people left, mostly ethnic Chinese, on often rickety boats across the South China Sea.
According to the UNHCR, between 200,000 and 400,000 people died, some at the hands of ruthless pirates. For a communist party that had just defeated the military power of the United States at the time, and which has more recently presided over spectacular economic growth, it is an episode they would rather forget. Ke Huy Quan’s Oscar brings it all back.
The tragic flight of the boat people is also a reminder of Vietnam’s strained relations with its giant neighbour, China. The two communist states were officially very close in their formative years after World War II, with large amounts of Chinese aid going to North Vietnam during its struggle against first the French and then the Americans.
But at the time of the North Vietnamese victory in April 1975 and the reunification of the country, relations were increasingly strained. This happened when Vietnam’s communist leaders sided with the Soviet Union over the Sino-Soviet split and Chinese rapprochement with the United States.
The large ethnic Chinese population, mainly in Cho Lon, including Ke Huy Quan’s family, were caught in this situation. They were already under pressure from the victorious Communists as the main capitalist group in South Vietnam, suspected of allegiance to the defeated regime. Many were sent to re-education camps.
Vietnam’s economy was in a dire state for many years after the war, afflicted by the colossal damage it had suffered, its international isolation, and the new regime’s inflexible socialist policies. Since they usually had the money to bribe officials and hire boats, ethnic Chinese began to leave in large numbers in September 1978.
The exodus accelerated after the Chinese attack on Vietnam in February 1979, a period of heightened anti-Chinese sentiment. It continued for over a decade.
The troubled relationship with China continues to the present day, but not so much with ethnic Chinese. Many Viet Kieu, as those who fled are called, were able to return to Vietnam and prosper.
But resentment over China’s aggressive policies on the disputed South China Sea islands and its growing economic clout is fueling strong anti-China sentiment among the population.
“He [Ke Huy Quan] is not of Vietnamese descent, he is just Chinese-Vietnamese and was born in Vietnam. We have to make it clear,” one person wrote on the BBC’s Vietnamese Facebook page.
“They should write very clearly that he is Chinese-American, that he had Vietnamese nationality! I don’t see any ‘Vietnamese origin’ here?” writes another.
But yet another poster wrote that “we should say he is Vietnamese, because he was born in Vietnam and is of Chinese descent.”
From Ho Chi Minh City, writer Tran Tien Dung suggested on Facebook that Ke Huy Quan’s identity is that of a “Saigon-Cho Lon” person: “For me, Quan Ke Huy draws his energy from his birthplace in Saigon – Cho Lon, and his fame from growing up in the United States, so I want to congratulate him and share the joy with the public on social media.”
“I think the way the state media has overlooked Ke Huy Quan’s story as a boatman is unfortunate,” says Nguyen Van Tuan, professor of medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and also a former boatman.
“The story of the boat people in the 1970s and 1980s is a tragic chapter in the nation’s history. Most Vietnamese refugees arriving in the United States at this time, whether they were of Chinese or “purely Vietnamese”, were very poor English speakers, but they survived and thrived.
“Today’s generation in Vietnam cannot imagine the hardships of refugees at that time, in part because they were not informed about this sad and painful time in our history.”
Jonathan Head is the BBC’s South East Asia Correspondent and Tran Vo is a Vietnamese BBC reporter based in Bangkok.