Local Vietnamese-Americans share their stories in documentary

By Joanne Bailey-Boorsma



After the fall of Saigon in 1975, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured out of their native Vietnam, fleeing persecution, imprisonment, torture, execution, poverty, and alienation. Those who settled in the United States number 1.8 million, almost half of the 4 million members of the Vietnamese diaspora.


Greater Grand Rapids is home to the fourth largest Vietnamese community in the Midwest. With such numbers of ethnic Vietnamese in the area, the West Michigan Asian American Association undertook a special documentary project.


“Newcomer Legacy: A Vietnamese-American Story” focuses on nine individuals from the West Michigan area, ranging from ages 30 to 70, said Alan Headbloom, who was the project manager.


From a recent screening at Grand Valley State University

“What united the communist party was to get the foreigners (in the 1950s, it was the French Colonists and then later, the Americans) out of the country,” Headbloom said. “They talk about moving their families from the north to the south because they couldn’t live with the communists and then fleeing the country all together when Saigon fell in 1975.”


The nine interviewees share their personal stories of how they came to the United States, restarting in a new country, and what now makes West Michigan home.


The last two public screens of the documentary are Thursday, May 4, at 5:30 p.m. at Grand Rapids Community Center’s Calkins Science Center Auditorium 348, 226 Bostwick Ave. NE., and Thursday, May 11, for the City of Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission at 5:30 p.m. at LINC UP Gallery, 341 Hall Street. Each screening includes a panel with an opportunity for a Q&A session.


Headbloom noted that the first four presentations – which have been at Davenport University, Herrick Library, Grand Valley State University’s and the Vietnamese community’s Black April event in remembrance of those who fought and died when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975 – have been very positive. From the documentary’s website, Karen Nelson wrote “I am very glad I had the chance to hear these stories. I was touched by the accounts of hard work and strong family ties. I only wish it were longer!” and Project Administrator Elizabeth MacLaughlan wrote “Today’s film and panel presentation was excellent. Such powerful stories from our West Michigan Vietnamese community that everyone should hear. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of such an important project.”


“What we didn’t anticipate were the comments from students – we have screed this at Davenport University and Grand Valley State University just last week – who said they really had no idea and found the movie incredibly local as these are people who they may have worked with or driven past everyday,” Headbloom said.


Under sponsorship of the Michigan Heritage Council, the project will be made free of charge to area teachers who wish to include it in their history lessons. For more information, on this, contact Headbloom at alan@headbloom.com.


The documentary also will be shown on WKTV and made available to other local stations.


The project sponsor is the Michigan Humanities Council 2016-2017 Heritage Grant Program and the underwriter is the Kellogg Foundation. Local liaison is the West Michigan Asian American Association with project advisers being Connie Dang, Kim McKee, Phillip Nguyen, and Anh Tran.


For more about “Newcomer Legacy: A Vietnamese-American Story,” visit the Facebook page Facebook.com/newcomerlegacy.