Performance artist Alex Luu remembers fall of Saigon

When I first met Alex Luu, I would not have guessed he was a first generation US citizen, leaving his home country when he was about eight. His English is filled with slang. Yet later, as I watched him develop his one-man shows, I learned that he once called Saigon home. As the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon loomed, I asked him about the Oscar-nominated “Last Days in Vietnam” which is currently streaming on the PBS website and what films he felt best represented his views of Vietnam.

Luu is a performance artist and workshop facilitator whose next performance is this Friday (May 8) in downtown LA. The day before, his My Own Story workshop’s final performance will be presented at Julian Nava Learning Academy where he is facilitating and teaching as resident Teaching Artist for East West Players. He is also a Teaching Artist for the LA Arts Commission and the Ford Theatre Foundation.

At the time of our phone conversation, he hadn’t had a chance to see Rory Kennedy’s documentary, so I waited until he had and his email reply reminded me of “Our Town.” It’s those ordinary days that are filled with missed opportunities or tender memories.

Of “Last Days in Vietnam,” he wrote, “I found it incredibly moving, especially the footage of the daily life and goings on in South Vietnam of the calm before the storm that was to come that last month of April. Watching those ‘normal’ scenes of everyone going about their daily lives actually kinda triggered something in me… And it immediately brought me back to my own daily life (going to school, riding in the cyclo, being picked up by my uncle everyday after school, him cooking afternoon meals for me and my sister, etc.) in Vietnam before escaping. Somehow those calm scenes affected me the most and it actually made me cry.”

For an American, those scenes would seem ominous, but Luu had grown up seeing a military presence. The Vietnam War began before he was born.

“I also thought that the film as a whole was much more penetrating and was responsible in showing more of the behind-the-scenes (as experienced by both American and South Vietnamese sides) of the politics and maneuverings between USA’s efforts and South Vietnam. The most telling part was the role of the American ambassador. I actually did not know that part of it.

The interviews with some of the South Vietnamese survivors (military and non-military) were also significant because not much of that has been done in previous Vietnam war docs. And of course the footage of the final days, even though I’ve seen most of it, is still visceral and harrowing because it always reminds me how bizarre/surreal it is to watch and know that I was in that crowd somewhere in some of that footage.”

Of his own experience, Luu recounts, “So crazy that come this April 30th it will be the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon! And I was there on that day running for my life (along with my parents and sister), literally, to get on the last chopper out of Saigon under enemy firie.”

Luu’s family wasn’t originally from Vietnam. “My dad was born in Canton, China, when later as a teenager, my dad and his parents needed to leave because of the Japanese (Imperial Army). They ended up in Vietnam. I’m not exactly sure why. I think there was a business opportunity for my grandfather in Vietnam.”

Luu’s mother was Chinese Vietnamese, meaning Chinese but in Vietnam, but later, Luu would be shocked to learn that she was Chinese-Vietnamese—half Chinese and half Vietnamese. Luu recalls, “In 1974 there are late night talks by candle light about we have to leave Vietnam. It got really bad. Two years after I was born there was the Tet Offensive in 1968. I remember my mom, she would hold me when they had bombings.”

At the end of 1974 and into 1975, he recalls “having more and more relatives over. They would talk into the wee hours of the night about how will we leave.”

Luu’s family felt there was little choice. “My mom was a professional nurse. My dad was a business man who co-managed a store selling stereos. But my mother worked for an American company, ITT. We had to leave because technically, my mom worked for the Americans—not for the American military, but for an American company.” They were sure that the North Vietnamese would treat the family members harshly because of that connection.

“I saw my mom and dad literally burning every single family photo we had, especially at the ITT place or at the hospital with the American nurses and the American doctors. I literally don’t know what I looked like as a baby.” The earliest photo he has of himself is him at three.

“We had to get rid of the evidence that my mom worked for ITT,” yet they also needed to “get on whatever list they had for my mom and my immediate family.” On the day of 30 April, “it didn’t matter if you were on one of those lists or not. We ran. “If one of us fell or whatever, we would have been left behind. It was full on craziness. It was almost like a riot—not an orderly evacuation.”

The four of the—Luu, his father and mother and sister, but none of the extended family members got on a helicopter. “It was pretty harrowing. I remember it just like yesterday…The helicopter can’t get everybody. I remember looking outside of the hold. We were squished next to each other. Some that just couldn’t fit in, mostly men, some women, were just literally grabbing on to the door and the helicopter was taking off. They were still trying to grab on and throw their kids in. A soldier, I know he didn’t enjoy it, had to pry their hands off of that door. I can hear the screams and see the people falling off.”

The helicopter wasn’t quite safe yet because there was a chance the helicopter would be shot down. Only after they cleared Vietnam airspace, did the soldiers begin laughing and celebrating. “They fed us. It was my first taste of a hamburger—no lettuce no vegetables.” The helicopter went to the USS Hancock where Luu and his family stayed for over a week.”  Some day, Luu would like to find the soldiers on that carrier. The soldiers gave him a sticker. The refugees slept in the huge cargo space on military cots. “Many nights it was pitch dark. I would sneak out and I would walk around. I remember standing there and seeing the dark ocean. That was kind of fun. I met this little Vietnamese girl. I guess she was sneaking out, too.”

From there, Luu’s family ended up in Guam. The refugee camp “looked like ‘MASH.’” We slept in tents. there were wooden shower stalls—one for women, one for men. It was not a lot of fun and there were a lot of mosquitoes. It was like a little village.”

One of his mother’s co-workers helped sponsor Luu’s family. They went to Arkansas before they flew to California.

Alex Luu’s list of movies:

1. “Green Eyes” (1977): TV movie about a Vietnam vet (Paul Winfield) returning to Vietnam in search of the son he left behind.

2. “Three Seasons” (1999): Is about several different characters whose paths cross, including an American searching for the daughter he fathered during the war, a cycle driver who falls in love with a call girl, a woman who harvest lotuses for a man with leprosy.

3. “The Killing Fields” (1984): First-time actor Haing S. Ngor as a photographer trapped in Cambodia during the Pol Pot cleansing campaign.

4. “Oh, Saigon” (2007): Documentary that won’t the Best Documentary Feature Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Filmmaker/writer Doan Hoang escaped Saigon on 30 April 1975, but her older sister did not. Doan returned to find out what happened to her sister and learns she had two uncles her father never told her about—one a North Vietnamese Communist and another who was an anti-war South Vietnamese army deserter.

5. “Heaven & Earth” (1993): The true story of a Vietnamese village girl and her life during and after the Vietnam War. she ultimately marries a marine and moves to the US where her husband suffers from PTSD.

6. “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990): A Vietnam vet (Tim Robbins) suffers from psychological problems after the death of his child. Luu said this movie is about what American vets faced when the come back and that American soldiers were “somewhat experimented on.”

7. “We Were Soldiers” (2002): About the first battle of Vietnam and the soldiers on both sides.

8. “Daughter From Danang” (2002): A documentary about the reunion of a girl adopted to an American family as a part of the Operation Baby Lift and her search for her birth mother.

9. “Regret To Inform” (1998): This documentary took a decade to make. Filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn is a war widow; her husband died in Vietnam. She and fellow war widow Xuan Ngoc Nguyen who was her translator interviewed Vietnamese and American widows to examine the legacy of the war. Nominated for an Academy Award.

10. “Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam” (2009): A documentary about the 2,500 Vietnamese orphans who were airlifted out of Vietnam and the challenges they face.

On other films, he liked parts of “The Deer Hunter,” but the most harrowing scene never happened. That’s the central piece of the movie, but it never happened. He likes “Apocalypse Now” but feels it’s not really about the Vietnam War and more about  updating the 1899 Joseph Conrad novel, “Heart of Darkness.” He also likes “Born on the Fourth of July.”

Luu felt that “Bat*21” was jingoistic. However the really bad movies are the Chuck Norris (although he likes Norris) and the Rambo movies.

Luu’s next performance, “Toytown USA,”  is this Friday (May 8) in downtown LA at the Royale (2619 Wilshire Blvd., 7 p.m.). The day before, his My Own Story workshop’s final performance will be presented at Julian Nava Learning Academy where he is facilitating and teaching as resident Teaching Artist for East West Players.

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