ADRIFT AGAIN: The Vietnamese community of Versailles, in New Orleans, was hard hit by Katrina. For those who had fled Communism in northern Vietnam in the 1950s, then again as boat people in the 1970s, it was a third exile.
Catalyzed by Katrina
'A Village Called Versailles,' part of the Pacific Rim Film Festival, shows how an embattled community of Vietnamese fought off the city of New Orleans
By Richard von Busack
MANY IMMIGRANTS to the United States have had the experience of not understanding that they were really and truly American until that moment when someone suggested otherwise. Such a moment might be seen at the end of Leo Chiang's documentary A Village Called Versailles, one of the highlights of this year's Pacific Rim Film Festival. Six months after Hurricane Katrina, a small, insular community of Vietnamese immigrants has emerged to protest a 90-foot mountain of toxic garbage planned for the edge of their neighborhood. As they gather to picket at the gate, a dump security guard tells them, "This is not Vietnamese [sic], this is America ..." as if sticking up for your rights was only allowed elsewhere.
When Katrina struck, one district of New Orleans flooded out was the community of Versailles. Technically called Village de l'Est, the hamlet was nicknamed after a low-income apartment complex called the Versailles Arms where a few families settled in the late 1970s. They were Vietnamese Catholic refugees who had been kept after arrival at Fort Chaffey, Ark.
You could name a dozen Vietnamese enclaves in bigger cities, from San Jose to Falls Church, Va., to the central part of Orange County. But Chiang found in Versailles something different: a particularly tight, traditional and unassimilated town with roots in the old country. They survived by fishing in the swamps—"They didn't need English to be fishermen," says one observer.
A Village Called Versailles has some 1970s news footage of Plaquemines parish party boss Chalin Perez on television denouncing the Vietnamese fishermen as people who didn't understand the ways of the locals. To contextualize for a second, Chalin was the son of the infamous political boss Leander Perez, notorious for public pronouncements like "Don't wait for your daughter to be raped by those Congolese." By "Congolese," the elder Perez referred to those black Louisiana citizens who wanted to integrate in the 1960s.
Aside from this and other frictions, Versailles grew on the edge of New Orleans East into a village that was a kind of cross between Vietnam and America. The American-born children went to school and then returned to traditional homes; they shopped at a public Saturday market and attended mass at Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church.
When Katrina struck and the levees broke, Versailles was hit hard. Some of the locals actually took refuge at Fort Chaffey, where they'd been billeted 30 years previously. When they returned, they went through the whole sad business of salvaging and fungiciding their homes. The film underscores the sadness: these were people forcibly uprooted twice before, not just in the 1970s when they fled the Communists by boat, but before that from the villages in the north of Vietnam, where they fled after the U.N. partition in 1954.
Work went fast, and locals were ready to celebrate the Tet Festival in February 2006. Thousands showed up; New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was invited to the fest but stayed away. The locals found out why later that February: Nagin overrode his city council and decided to put a massive dump of Katrina wreckage right next to Versailles.
The mountain of garbage would contain an unknown quantity of toxins, stashed right over some soft waterfront soil just right for leaching. The dump was to be named after nearby Chef Menteur Highway. Perhaps some of the elder Vietnamese had enough French to know that name meant "lying chief;" the story goes that some Indian chief in the area used to mislead the settlers. Considering the actions of New Orleans' chief Nagin, it was a well-picked name for the Chef Menteur dump.
The community had to face down the possibility of being polluted out of their homes and gardens. In its concise and well-researched 68 minutes, A Village Called Versailles follows how they rose up. We learn how the effort to fight the dump knitted together the young people who were looking forward with the elders who looked back in the past. The effort to remove the dump involved African American New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis. Vietnamese-American TV journalist Mimi Nguyen joined in too, since she had come to New Orleans to translate for FEMA. (She tells Chiang's camera that she was as surprised as anyone to hear there were Vietnamese in New Orleans.)
Chiang, a San Francisco–based documentary maker, heard the story of Versailles village from a friend who was a professor in Arizona. "She had been down in New Orleans to study the recovery after Katrina of different communities of color," he told me by phone. "That's where I also heard about what Father Vien Nguyen was doing, leading the fight against the dumping site. The more I listened, the more I liked, so I tagged along with her and did some research."
As one can guess from seeing eight translators credited in the film, Chiang doesn't speak Vietnamese. "Actually, that's the beauty of doing documentaries, going into communities you don't know about and finding out about them," he says. "Anyone can relate to what the people of the town went through—the displacement and the sense of longing for home."
And yet Chiang was still an outsider.
"By the time I got there," Chiang explains, "they had realized that they had to talk to the outside world to achieve their goals and get their story heard. They were already talking to CNN and other major news outlets. In some ways, it was helpful to be Asian American—it made for a little bit closer of a connection. Of course, it's one of those communities where if the leadership thinks you're OK, everyone cooperates, and Father Nguyen gave me some help here."
A Real Career
Versailles' recovery now is mostly complete, in contrast to the majority of New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward. Chiang and his crew arrived a year or so after the storm.
"We were there a year after—a lot of the footage we used was from other folks, we actually weren't there when Katrina hit or right afterwards. To find the footage and acquire it took a year." Chiang was born and raised in Taiwan. His family immigrated to San Jose ("I used to go over the hill to Santa Cruz in the summers," he adds). He studied electrical engineering at UC–Santa Barbara and then worked for Apple for a few years. "It didn't stoke my passion, working there. I was fascinated with films and film watching. But being an immigrant from Asia, film didn't seem to be an acceptable career path. It wasn't that my folks were against it, it's just that I kind of internalized the idea that it wouldn't work as a real career."
Eventually, Chiang attended USC film school. "I studied both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, but I focused on documentaries, mainly because I don't have the patience to do the writing and the money raising. With documentaries you can just pick up the camera and go. I enjoy traveling and meeting people and studying the anthropological differences between us."
With the help of the Center for Asian-American Media, a San Francisco–based organization that funds and distributes films, Chiang will be commencing his next film about a man mentioned in passing here: Anh "Joseph" Cao, the first Vietnamese-American congressman. Cao is a surprising character: he was elected in a primarily African American district in New Orleans, and he's a pro-health care,global-warming-acknowledging Republican in a district that had been going Democrat for 110 years. Cao recently did something that could only be described as delightful. Lamar McKay, the resigned BP exec, turned up at Congress to explain himself last June. Cao had some words for McKay. Back in Asia where he came from, Cao noted, "We do things differently. During the samurai days, we'd just give you the knife and ask you to commit hara-kiri. My constituents are still debating on what they want me to ask you to do."
This was controversial, as well as unfairly baroque; likely most local fantasies had been simpler, something like the Mark Wahlberg torture scene in Three Kings. Drink up, boys!
"I heard that Spike Lee just gave Cao a samurai sword as a gift," Chiang notes. "I'll be following him through the election. Hopefully I'll be done next spring for TV broadcast, and maybe the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival if I can get it done in time."
A VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES (Unrated; 68 min.) screens Saturday, Oct. 16, at 4pm at the Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz and Tuesday, Oct. 19, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, as part of the Pacific Rim Film Festival. Filmmaker Leo Chiang will attend the Saturday screening. Free. www.pacrimfilmfestival.org.
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