In the months after Hurricane Katrina one of the many incredible stories of survival and resilience to emerge from New Orleans was that of the city’s Vietnamese-American community. Largely based in the city’s Versailles district, the Vietnamese-Americans saw much of their community torn apart and its social fabric threatened by the displacement and destruction caused by the hurricane.
Leo Chiang’s “A Village Called Versailles” tells the inspiring story of how members of this community, who came to the US as refugees and were again forced from their homes after Katrina, rebuilt their homes and social structures despite the enormous odds facing them. This moving, award-winning documentary is available this month on Cinema Asian America, presented on XFINITY On-Demand.
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Much of the discussion about post-Katrina New Orleans has focused on the city’s black and white communities. Why was it important for you to explore the experiences of Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans?
I was drawn to the story of the New Orleans Vietnamese-Americans precisely because they were largely left out of the mainstream media coverage around Katrina. This is a group, like so many immigrant/refugee groups, that had traditionally been marginalized. As an immigrant and an Asian-American myself, I wanted to do my part to get the Versailles community’s incredibly moving story out there so people could learn about their struggles and triumphs. As a filmmaker and storyteller, the Versailles story was just too compelling for me to pass up.
How did the activism and efforts of the New Orleans’ Vietnamese-American community complicate the discussion around Katrina, and contribute to the city’s rebuilding?
People outside of the South tend to oversimplify the issues of race and class in the South. The story of the Vietnamese Americans definitely demonstrates the complexity beyond the stereotypical black vs. white paradigm in New Orleans. In the Versailles community’s effort to shut down a toxic landfill after Katrina, the Vietnamese-Americans worked alongside an African-American city councilwoman, a white attorney, and many Asian-American activists from around the country. I think the success of this multiracial coalition really made an impression on the rest of New Orleans to show how communities that rarely interacted before Katrina can come together and really make a big difference in the city’s recovery efforts.
As we near the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, can you comment on how the Asian-American and specifically, Vietnamese-American communities in Louisiana have changed since September, 2005? Can we point to that event as a turning point in the community?
Many Vietnamese-American leaders in New Orleans do see Hurricane Katrina as a turning point for their community. Katrina became a catalyst for these folks, who started their lives in the US as reluctant immigrants, to rethink their relationship to the land, to the city of New Orleans, and to this country. Katrina pushed them to redefine their identity as Vietnamese-Americans. The community is certainly now more politically engaged than pre-Katrina. In 2008, New Orleans elected the first Vietnamese-American US Congressman, who happens to be from the Versailles community.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing up a new documentary, “Mr. Cao Goes to Watching”, about Anh “Joseph” Cao, the aforementioned first Vietnamese-American member of US Congress. It is the story of a political neophyte who must balance his political ambition with his idealism in order to overcome strict partisanship and racial division. It is commissioned by Center for Asian American Media for PBS. Please look for it in 2012.