Imagine holding civilians at bay, when every last fiber of your being wants to bring them with you…Peter W. Owens, Marine Poems on the Fall of Saigon
I joked recently that I was going to make a list of my favorite things in Oklahoma City’s Asian District with Taco Mayo and the Masquerade Costume Shop topping the list. Neither reflect the culture you’d expect to see in a Little Saigon or Chinatown, and that would be my point precisely.
Ancient Pagodas, Exotic Spices
I live close to this area of town, which is located roughly between NW 23rd and NW 36th Street on Classen Boulevard. I’m in and out of this cultural enclave on a daily basis, and it sometimes leaves me wanting. Where are the crowded streets buzzing with motorbikes? The mystical alleys with ancient pagodas? The old women wrapped in magenta silk selling wild spices?
My husband Robert grew in the Bay Area of California a stone’s throw from San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was born in Los Angeles and although we moved away when I was about seven, we returned frequently. In 1983, my mother took me to Chinatown for the first time. I bought colorful scarves from a street hawker who operated her business out of a gypsy-like wagon. The streets were buzzing with people speaking foreign languages. The women wore straw hats and the men pedaled three-speeds.
The nail salons and strip malls in Oklahoma City’s Asian District are not unique. They can be found in every corner of the city and they contribute little to the artistic or cultural milieu. Having said that, there are some visual amenities we cherish. We like the bank on Classen and the building T-Mobile leases on NW 23rd, and we totally dig Super Cao Nguyen,
the big Asian market with all its colorful fish and exotic fruits and vegetables.
Streetscaping was completed in the District a couple years ago, and it was very exciting watching it all come together. Now, it’s up to individual property owners to take things to the next level.
Also, it seems worth mentioning that last summer when I was in Los Angeles visiting my brother we made a trip to Chinatown. (Click here to see photos of our trip on Flickr.)
I was disappointed to discover that it no longer boasts the organic sense of place I remembered it having as a young teenager. The street vendors, food and shopping were not that memorable. The best thing about it remains the gateway with the big golden dragons and the roasted ducks in shop windows.
I have this conviction that your soul is superior to your body and mind it will always carry you to the places you need to go even if you don’t know you’re going until you’ve arrived.
And, that’s what happened to me last night. Robert and I were catching a break from the kids when we stumbled upon a ceremony in Military Park, which is located in the Asian District. We could hear someone with a Vietnamese accent singing the Star Spangled Banner. This doesn’t happen every day, so we stopped to check it out.
On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to North Vietnam. Thousands of Vietnamese who ardently supported the U.S. effort to stop the Communist takeover of South Vietnam were rescued in the largest helicopter evacuation in history. They came to America, specifically Camp Pendleton, California. Later, thanks to Oklahoma activists who sponsored their journey to the Sooner State, they made their way to Oklahoma City.
All this took place 37 years ago, and last night former South Vietnamese soldiers and their families and friends remembered that painful and chaotic day. Some are quite aged now. Many of the men in uniform were former prisoners of war, tortured and held captive by the Viet Cong for years. I got to see them salute the flag of their boyhood and pay tribute to the U.S. soldiers who saved them. I heard them sing the Star Spangled Banner.
Today, six generations of Vietnamese can be found in Oklahoma City’s Asian District. About 100 people attended the ceremony, and only a small handful were Vietnamese youth, members of Generations Y and Z.
Whatever ghosts of the past that first generation of immigrants brought with them to America, they seem to be fading now. There are no rice fields, coconut boats or GI buildings in Oklahoma City. Just a memory bank of turmoil that belongs to aging generations.
And, so now I fully realize, the nail salons and the strip malls that leave me wanting are a verse in the song of redemption for U.S. soldiers who in the spring of 1975 set thousands of South Vietnamese people free. They brought them to America and their culture and entrepreneurial spirit strengthen the fabric of Oklahoma City.
Vietnam Memorial in Oklahoma
I came across a 2008 backgrounder about a proposed Vietnam War Memorial to honor heroic sacrifices of Oklahoma soldiers who served in Vietnam. Here’s an excerpt:
“…Some people have argued the Vietnam War was an irrational war with no ideal purposes. However, Vietnamese immigrants…believe the Vietnam War was a just and honorable attempt to to stop the Red wave from overwhelming the whole country of Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand American military members had given the ultimate sacrifice, together with two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. They did so for the ideal of freedom, not only for Vietnam, but for this nation and for the world.
The fallen and the tens of thousands wounded are examples of heroic sacrifices. The people of the former Republic of South Vietnam will forever be grateful to the United States of America for its efforts in trying to protect and maintain democracy in South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975.”
KOSU Commentary: Fall of Saigon
The following aired May 1, 2012.
In 1970, my cousin Raymond came home from the Vietnam War and we all went to K-Mart. I was three years-old and for the next 30 years my father repeated to me over and over again a story about that day. “Raymond wouldn’t let you out of his site,” he said. “He was so attentive, as if he was afraid something might happen.”
As a little girl, I loved to hear this story, and I carried Raymond’s love in my heart always, and I still do. Raymond, who told my father the only thing learned to do in Vietnam was stay awake in a tree.
On Saturday night, my husband and I were driving down Classen Boulevard in Oklahoma City, catching a break from our kids. We had the windows down and as we neared Military Park we saw a sea of yellow flags with red stripes blowing in the wind and heard someone with a Vietnamese accent singing the Star Spangled Banner. This doesn’t happen every day and so we pulled over and got out.
As it turns out we’d stumbled upon a ceremony commemorating the 37th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. On April 30, 1975 thousands of Vietnamese who ardently supported the U.S. effort to stop the Communist takeover of South Vietnam were rescued in the largest helicopter evacuation in history. They were taken to Camp Pendleton, California, and later, thanks to Oklahoma activists some they made their way to Oklahoma City.
Five generations of Oklahoma City’s Vietnamese community were present to remember that painful and chaotic day. Little girls waved flags of the former Republic and women my age bowed their heads in prayer. But, most stunning of all were the former members of the Army Republic of South Vietnam clad in camouflage and flight suits, green and burgundy berets, their uniforms decorated with ribbons and patches. They are graying and their ghosts are fading. Their turmoil now moderated by the hope of new generations.
This hope is a verse in the song of redemption for U.S. soldiers who in the spring of 1975 set thousands of South Vietnamese people free. They brought them to America and their culture and entrepreneurial spirit strengthen the fabric of Oklahoma City.
I came across a 2008 document about a proposed Vietnam War Memorial in military park. Members of the Vietnamese community want to honor heroic sacrifices of Oklahoma soldiers who served in Vietnam. Here’s an excerpt:
“…Some people have argued the Vietnam War was an irrational war with no ideal purposes. However, Vietnamese immigrants…believe the Vietnam War was a just and honorable attempt to stop the Red wave from overwhelming the whole country of Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand American military members had given the ultimate sacrifice, together with two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. They did so for the ideal of freedom, not only for Vietnam, but for this nation and for the world.”
The first and last time I ever saw my cousin Raymond was that day in 1970. Our families lived several states apart and we were never close. But, every time I see or hear about a K-Mart I think of him and I say a prayer for boys the world over who must stay awake in trees in order to stay alive.
I live in the Korean part of metro Atlanta, and the Korean-Americans here take Memorial Day and Veterans Day very seriously.
Thank you for sending me these links. The billboard for the anniversary is so touching. My dad was a Korean-era war veteran. Missed the war when he missed his ship.
Jennifer James says
@GRANBEE – Thank you for this very special comment. I think this is one of the most important things I’ve ever written. It all came together for me in that ceremony. The priceless sacrifice of America in bringing Vietnamese Refugees here. They make OKC better, I think. Their lives were literally transformed by the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army. And, they are so grateful, but they are such a tight-knit community, they don’t venture beyond it. Interesting, with my blond hair and camera, they were so happy to see me there with my big Nikon. It meant a lot to them to share this story, even if they don’t say it much publicly. They want so much for America to know the gratitude they possess. Rose, you are an amazing woman. I’m so glad to know you and the life experiences that you share in your comments always catch me off guard. You’ve lived such a full life. I relate to you so much. I worked for the AF for five years. Some of my best lessons from those days. I learned so much.
Jen, you have just given me a priceless gift, a huge lift in my self-esteem about having worked for the USAF during the Vietnam War and doing Red Cross work at the base hospital with severely injured war veterans. These current elderly residents singing the Star-Spangled Banner with a Vietnamese accent and living so thoroughly immersed in Oklahoma City life make the work we did back then quite honorable upon reflection! April 30th was the 37th anniversary of the evacuation out of Saigon by the Americans, who brought so many Vietnamese with them. I am SO proud!
Jennifer James says
Thanks, Karin. I remember standing in our living room in Colorado Springs watching this on TV with my dad. It would be many, many years before I would fully understand what was taking place and even longer to graps its enormity. In fact, I just grasped it Saturday night looking into the cherubic faces of Vietnamese-American children, third generation. My God, how has this escaped me. They are many a soldier’s legacy. Makes me want to weep.
Jennifer James says
Thanks, Andi! I appreciate your comments. I’ve written nearly 2,000 blog posts since I started this site. This is one of my favorites. That ceremony really changed something for me.
Great post Jen, I would probably look at the salons differently as well. I am sure there are pockets of Vietnamese all over the country, but I am only myself recently discovering how much of an influence they have had on such things as the shrimp fisheries in the south etc. Their journeys from Vietnam to the US were not easy and I can’t imagine that a lot of the communities that received them welcomed them with open arms (at the time) I am sure there are a lot of interesting stories.