Hai Au Huynh, left, and future congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao protest
outside of city hall in 2006 in New Orleans. A screening of "A Village Called Versailles" will play at 7 p.m. on May 25 at the Starz FilmCenter in Denver.
(Photo by James Dien Bui/Provided by Walking Iris Films)
'A Village Called Versailles' comes to Denver
Free screening of documentary about Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans plays May 25
By Joe Nguyen, AsiaXpress.com
May 20, 2010
Thirty years after the first group of Vietnamese refugees settled at the Versailles Arms Apartment – a housing project in east New Orleans – the area became an enclave to approximately 8,000 Vietnamese Americans. But in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina brings in floods and devastates the city, destroying homes and businesses.
The people of Versailles returned six weeks later and began rebuilding their homes.
During the community's Lunar New Year Festival in February 2006, they unveiled an ambitious redevelopment plan for Versailles. But to their dismay, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, using his emergency power, opened a landfill to house toxic debris from Katrina's aftermath less than two miles from their homes.
The community protested, coming together – both young and old – to fight for the safety of their home and finally bring a voice to their community.
Director S. Leo Chiang follows the plight of this community in his documentary, "A Village Called Versailles," which will be shown at free screening at 7 p.m. on May 25 at the Starz FilmCenter. The movie is also available on DVD for $24.95 on its website.
"One of the influence to make this film was the fact that after Katrina, you really didn't see any Asian-American images during the whole media coverage of the whole Katrina experience," Chiang said. "I think there are 30,000 to 40,000 Vietnamese Americans who are affected by the storm all along the gulf coast."
Chiang said he was out of the country when Hurricane Katrina hit, but a friend who had worked in New Orleans to study the recovery process told him about the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church and their efforts in working to rebuild their community.
"She just started telling me about ... the Vietnamese-American community and how they are returning faster than anyone expected," he said, "and also the city decided to build the landfill right next to them and how they came together to fight against it.
"It sounded like an incredible story."
In the film, Chiang follows the story from the viewpoints of different people in the community and examines how the challenge with the landfill has helped to bridge the generational gap. He said it is a common scenario in refugee communities where the older generation sees the youth as not understanding their roots and losing their culture. While the youth see their elders as living in the past and unable to navigate in American society.
"The elders, for the first time, recognize the importance of the young people and how they really are vital to the survival of the community," he said. "And the young people look at the old folks, who they thought were kind of useless, and realizing that these people can live without running water and electricity. They are determined to come back and rebuild.
"They were just really impressed by their elders and how they were so resourceful and how they were so empowered."
By coming together, he said, the community was able to unite and stop the landfill, as well as develop a stronger voice in the greater community.
"According to Father Vien (Nguyen), after the events with the landfill, the city was much more responsive," Chiang said. "The mayor's office was much more responsive to the requests of the Vietnamese-American community.
"I don't think (Mayor Nagin) was ever maliciously trying to ignore the Vietnamese-American community. I think that because the community was so voiceless prior, nobody even thought about them."
The stronger voice they developed helped lead to the election of Rep. Joseph Cao, R-La. in 2008, the first Vietnamese American elected to congress, he said. Cao's 2010 election will also be the subject of Chiang's next documentary.
"In many ways what they've done is an archetypal American immigrant story," Chiang said. "I think that over the history of the U.S., a lot of the groups went through one version or another of this particular experience and now a lot of the Asian Americans are going through it.
"It's really not about immigrant or native or whatever, it's about the universal feeling of wanting to belong and fighting for your home – united with the people who you love, fighting for the common good. I think everyone can relate to that."