(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War

Vol. 6, No. 2


Curators’ Correspondences

Ghosts / Specters

Sylvia Shin Huey Chong


Some may believe that the specter of the Vietnam War has been buried in the sands of the first Gulf War and, now, the War on Terror. Yet these ghosts still walk among us. It is difficult to even pin down the number of war dead who make up these spectral ranks. By conservative estimates, about a quarter million South Vietnamese and anywhere from 500,000 to over one million North Vietnamese and Vietnamese Communist military personnel perished in the war. Often invisible are the military deaths from other U.S. allies, including over 5,000 South Koreans, over 400 Australians, and 351 Thais. As of 2010, 58,286 U.S. names are listed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.—a number whose specificity may seem to speak to certainty and closure, yet even these digits shift every year. Yet even these statistics leave out the countless civilian casualties in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos, not only during the years of armed conflict and bombings during “the American War in Vietnam” from 1964-1975, but also through subsequent upheavals, starvation, genocides, political purges, forced migration, and the war between Cambodia and Vietnam. All told, perhaps three to five million civilians died as a result of this conflict. [1]

But in a less literal sense, the ghosts of the conflict also persist in the form of images, projected onto movie screens, flickering on television sets, even staring out from the pages of newspapers and magazines. If film and photograph are, following André Bazin, akin to embalming, then all visual culture bears a trace of mourning the dead. In their play with light, these two media are themselves spectral substances, broadcasting the elusive presence of bodies and objects, places and histories, that have long since faded. The American mass media has been particularly invested in images of the Vietnam War, from the footage that fed the newly formed nightly TV news broadcast to the photographs that garnered many a photographer accolades and awards to the repetition compulsion that is the Hollywood Vietnam War film. In this final section, we’ve set out to explore the afterlife of the wars in Southeast Asia in these visual forms, as artists of images as well as the written word dwell with and respond to these ghosts of the Vietnam War.

Thi Bui, "Sai Gon, 1968". Excerpt courtesy of the artist.

Thi Bui, “Sai Gon, 1968”. Excerpt courtesy of the artist.

Graphic novelist Thi Bui opens this section with a bang, intertwining her account of her parents’ memories of Sài Gòn in 1968 with the overwhelming cultural memory imposed by the American media, in particular the shocking image of the “Saigon Execution” photographed by Eddie Adams. In a similar fashion, actor and activist Bee Vang and anthropologist Louisa Schein confront the erasure of Hmong lives (and deaths) through a more recent image-ghost, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008), whose white male savior recalls a number of tragic heroes from Hollywood’s Vietnam vet pantheon, including Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979). The flipbook by Sylvia Shin Huey Chong literalizes the links between all of these works by showing the transformation of “Saigon Execution” into Gran Torino, The King and I into Apocalypse Now—blurring the lines between 1968 and 2008, fiction and fact, history and myth.

Indeed, Apocalypse Now appears as an Ur-text of Vietnam fictions throughout this section, featuring in Cathy Linh Che and James Che’s “Extras Commentary” to the film, as well as Bryan Thao Worra’s poem “My Secret War Within.” Che and Che’s mock-DVD extra takes the form of a conversation with their parents, who were among a number of Vietnamese taking refuge in the Philippines when Francis Ford Coppola recruited them to play Vietnamese villagers, soldiers, and guerillas in Apocalypse Now. The conversation, at once mundane and extraordinary, runs counter to the usual breathless auteur-worship of the genre, and reveals as much about the processes of diaspora-making as it does about film-making. Worra’s poetry interpellates the presence and absence of Lao faces in both the history of Hollywood and the history of the war. Searching for himself in this spectral history, Worra is as likely to find refuge in space aliens and sci-fi monsters as he is in the Orientalist shadows of Kurtz’s compound.


Nguyen Tan Hoang, excerpt from “Brothers: A Pornographic Love Story,” 2015. Image courtesy of artist.

Two screenplay excerpts offer something of an antidote to the mock-epic aspirations of the Vietnam War film, albeit from different angles. Huong Nguyen’s “Is This Trash?” re-envisions the Vietnamese diaspora from Che and Che’s work as a television sitcom family, lovingly sifting through the detritus of both their immigrant dreams and model minority failures. In Nguyen Tan Hoang’sBrothers: A Pornographic Love Story,” a “rediscovered” scene from a gay Japanese American filmmaker Jason Sato (aka Norman Yonemoto) draws a line between Asian America anti-war politics, Third Worldist solidarities, and pornutopic queer desires through the homoeroticism of military and colonial ventures.

Jai Arun Ravine, “I feel as though I already knew Siam”

Jai Arun Ravine, “I feel as though I already knew Siam,” 2015. Mixed media assemblage including letterpress, sticky notes, and a Fodor’s Citypack Bangkok Street Map (2000)

The overlap between Orientalist and queer desires also animates Jai Arun Ravine’s two excerpts from their manuscript, The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide. Part love letter to Yul Brenner, part travel guide, Ravine’s prose poems point to a different pre-history of the Vietnam War that draws British colonialism and Thai nationalism together with the French and American neocolonialism and Vietnamese decolonization that typically dominate this narrative. A more elegiac love note arises from Ocean Vuong’s hand-written poem “Aubade with Burning City,” as the lyrics of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” form the soundtrack to a lovers’ tryst in the midst of the evacuation of Sài Gòn—another scene unseen against the blinding projections of the Fall of Saigon in the news media.

Davis and Kang

(left) Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Me So Horny 3, 2015, 9” x 11”, woodblock print. Image courtesy of artist. (right) Simi Kang and Bao Phi, “Oriental Flavor,” 2015. Image courtesy of Simi Kang.

While this entire issue has emphasized the intertwined lives and histories of Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and other Asian and Asian American groups, the affinities between Southeast Asia and African America are also important to highlight. Sylvia Shin Huey Chong and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis’ collaboration imagines the co-mingling of black and yellow and brown lives and desires through the collision of Full Metal Jacket (1987) with “Me So Horny” (1989). As with the exploration of sexuality in Jai Arun Ravine and Nguyen Tan Hoang’s works, Chong and Davis posit these U.S. racial overlaps both as moments of revolutionary promise and as sites of racist conflation. Bao Phi and Simi Kang’s collaboration similarly casts a wide net, commenting on Lutheran sponsors of Vietnamese refugees, the maiming of toddler Bounkham Phonesavanh in a DEA raid, the murder of Iraqi immigrant Ahmed Al-Jumaili, and the long history of American racial violence from indigenous conquest to Michael Brown. The sweeping reach of Phi and Kang’s references show that the wars in Southeast Asia, far from being exceptional in U.S. history, are merely variations on a familiar theme. Perhaps these are not the ghost stories usually associated with the Vietnam War, but they are the ones that occupy and haunt those of us gathered here today.


[1] Casualty numbers are controversial, and difficult to estimate with much certainty. I offer these rough estimates taken from Wikipedia as a starting point. In addition to the civilian casualties from the Vietnam War (587,000), I have included casualties from the civil wars in Laos and Cambodia (200,000 and 300,000, respectively), as well as between 400,000 and 2 million casualties in Vietnam after the end of the U.S. war. An estimated 2 million people died in the Cambodian genocide.

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