Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 11.11
Vietnamese American experience on PBS in May
Tony Nguyen, director of Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory, winner of CAAMFest 2015’s Loni Ding Award for Social Issue Documentary, will play on PBS stations in May – check local listings. Superfan Ravi Chandra sat down with Nguyen to discuss his films and more. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation between Chandra, who is a producer of the film, and director Nguyen.
Ravi: Hello, this is Ravi Chandra, your CAAM Superfan. I’m here at Room 389 Cafe on Grand Avenue in Oakland with filmmaker and my friend, Tony Nguyen. We’re here because his film, Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory, is going to play on PBS in the month of May, and I’m here to talk to him about his film. And just a full disclosure, I was a producer on the film, so I’m definitely biased for the message and the artistry of this film, and I hope everyone watches it. So Tony, why don’t you first start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got into filmmaking?
Tony: Okay. So yeah, like you said, Ravi, thanks for this opportunity. My name is Tony Nguyen. I live and work in Oakland, California. My background is actually not in filmmaking. I got my start in filmmaking actually from doing community work primarily in the Asian American community here in Oakland and learning about stories of local residents and people that live in the Bay Area. And I got interested in one particular story of a Vietnamese community worker in the Tenderloin district, who was murdered in the early ’80s. His name is Lam Duong. Lam’s story basically started my interest in filmmaking, and that’s where I basically started pursuing making movies and such.
Ravi: Okay, yeah. And that was a feature-length documentary.
Ravi: And you wanna mention the title of it?
Tony: Sure. That film is called Enforcing the Silence. It came out several years ago. I considered it kind of like an amateur documentary, but I stand behind that particular movie because I put a lot of my own heart and energy into making it. There was a PBS FRONTLINE piece called Terror in Little Saigon that came out just this past November of 2015 that my film, “Enforcing the Silence,” informed, in terms of research and the topic.
Ravi: So you’ve been interested in Vietnamese American/Asian American identity and cultural issues for a long time. Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory is a more personal story. So maybe you can tell us about how you got into this topic.
Tony: So actually several years ago, my mother came and visited me in Oakland. And it was during the summer, and I took her to a farmer’s market here in Oakland. And basically, it was kind of the hip farmer’s market. And there was one particular stand, where you ate your pastries or lunch or whatever on ironing boards. And my mother ran up to the ironing boards and was inspecting it and looking underneath it and such. And I walked over to her, and she looked up at me and was like, “This is what I make at work.” It was a big shock for me because I didn’t know that. I knew she worked at a factory, but I didn’t know that she made ironing boards for a living. And that same trip, she told me she was retiring from the factory…I just felt like, “Oh, I’d love to document her last day on the ironing board assembly line.”
And initially, I was thinking it was just gonna be like for my family and friends, maybe share it with you, Ravi, and just family. But I showed a home video version of my mom’s last day at the ironing board factory to my mentor Steven Okazaki, who’s a longtime documentary filmmaker. And he basically encouraged me to work more on the project and actually make it into like a movie, like a movie-movie, and he came on board to produce the film. Yeah, he played a principle role in making me work on that project and also encouraging me to just look at my past. The cool thing about my mom’s movie is that it has become the first of hopefully a trilogy. It’s part one of a trilogy about me and my issues and whatnot. Not only my issues, but just the Asian American experience.
Ravi: Yeah. Well, Luke Skywalker had his trilogy, and you’re gonna have yours! It’s great. This film, it’s about your mom, for sure, but it’s also about you and your experience growing up in Indiana and about your relationship. I mean, there’s so much packed into this short film, and I hope everyone sees it. But maybe you can kind of walk us through a little bit of your themes or messages.
Tony: Okay. I don’t know if it was mentioned earlier, but I’m Vietnamese American. And my mother is a refugee from Vietnam, and she fled Vietnam in 1975 right after the Vietnam War ended. And so that’s kind of basically where the film begins is in April 1975 when a large number of refugees or Vietnamese fled the country by boat, airplanes, helicopters, so forth. And it was a traumatic experience for a lot of the Vietnamese that left at the end of the war and into the ’80s, and so my mother came here. She was actually pregnant with me when she left the country, and we were resettled into a small town in Indiana called Seymour, and she went directly to work at a factory. One of our main sponsors that helped us resettle in Indiana basically told her that one of the best ways to fit in in America was to work. And so he got her a job on an assembly line, and that’s what she ended up doing until she retired.
I was born and raised in Seymour, this small town in Indiana. And so the film looks at my childhood there. Seymour, at the time, when I was growing up, was, it still is, a predominantly white town of about 20,000 residents. Probably 95% of the population is white, and so the film looks at what it’s like to grow up as Vietnamese in that kind of environment, issues between my mother and me and lack of communication, just my childhood.
And so yeah, you’re right, Ravi. It has a big part. The movie is a big part about Tony, me, and my relationship with my mother and my relationship to Indiana. And I was fortunate enough to film my mother’s last day at the ironing board factory. I’m gonna go off on a little tangent here, but it’s related. When Steven came on board to produce the film and encouraged me to make it into a movie, I started researching the factory where my mother worked. And in that process, I found out that it was the last remaining ironing board factory in the United States, which made me even more interested in trying to capture what it’s like in the factory and how ironing boards are made in the United States.
Ravi: Yeah, yeah.
Tony: So yeah, the film is all about that. It’s about my mother, our relationship, the refugee experience, the Vietnam War, and ironing boards.
Ravi: It definitely covers a lot of territory. I think this really brings the messages home for the viewer in a very personal and touching way. And one of the things we said earlier… And we’ve talked about this, and we always talk about issues like this when we get together. But we were just talking about how going back to Seymour actually to show your film brought a little reminder of what it was like (growing up). I don’t know how much you want to detail about that. But in the film you say you didn’t feel like you belonged in Indiana.
Tony: Right, right.
Ravi: What is it like for you as an Asian American to be there as a person of color and the kind of feelings that you get, you pick up on.
Tony: Yeah. So like you mentioned, I was just in Indiana in late March of 2016 a week ago. I actually showed my mom’s movie, Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory, in Bloomington, Indiana, the university town.
Ravi: It’s a fairly liberal town.
Tony: Yeah, it’s probably the most liberal town in Indiana. But while I was there, I also went to Seymour, where I grew up, which is about, I don’t know, 45 minutes away from Bloomington. And some of the things that I felt as a kid, it was interesting because I’m like 40 years old now. I felt like being there with my family and so forth and going out in public in Seymour, some of those same kind of feelings of not feeling like I belonged there surfaced, out at restaurants and just out in the public there. I think to a certain extent, that in these places like Seymour, Indiana, like these small towns of America, there’s still this sense of these towns being predominantly one color and one race, that when someone doesn’t fit that immediate kind of description, it makes for…
Ravi: You said the eyes of the restaurant were on you.
Tony: Right, right, yeah. Yeah, you’re going directly…
Ravi: They were kind of inspecting you or something.
Tony: I mean, out of the line of the movie, whereas people would look at me like, “What are you doing here?” Unfriendly eyes to a certain extent. And it felt like in 2016, some of those eyes are still there amongst, not everybody. This look, it goes beyond curiosity. It’s almost as if, I don’t know, they feel safe to just be able to stare at you and make you, at least for myself, feel a little bit uncomfortable and so forth.
Ravi: Well, yeah. I think that moment in your film (where you talk about not feeling like you belonged) definitely can speak to a lot of people. I think there are people of color living in these environments, where they’re still the minority, and diversity isn’t really as much of a felt experience like it is or can be in the Bay Area, often, in San Francisco and Oakland. So I think it could speak to them as well, but I think it could also speak to some of those white people, who are in the majority. And some of them may not fit in as well in their environments, or maybe some of them really haven’t seen what it’s like to live in a minority person’s shoes.
You mentioned one friend, a friend from back then, who saw your movie, said, “Wow. I wish we’d known each other better back then, and maybe we could’ve created…” I’m paraphrasing here, “but kind of created an island of like common experience or something.”
Tony: That was a white friend.
Ravi: Yeah, that was a white friend, yeah. You’ve showed this film in Indiana a few times, now, right?
Tony: Right, right.
Ravi: And so what has been the reaction of white people in Indiana?
Tony: One reaction I’ve received is, “Have you found the place where you feel like you belong?” The white people or whoever that come to see the movie, some of them see the film and parts of the film through their lens. And so, for example, when I screened it in Bloomington just a couple of weeks ago, a white person in the audience said that, “Oh…” Because in the movie I have a line where I say, “Indiana must have felt very safe given that my family lived through war.” There’s a little scene of like the destruction of war on the land of Vietnam and so forth. And I have a line, saying, “Indiana must have felt very safe.” And it seemed like this person, that’s what she took away is like, “Well, wasn’t it good that Indiana was there to…”
Ravi: Welcome you.
Tony: Yeah, and so forth. And so it was interesting to hear that perspective.
Ravi: “Aren’t you grateful…”
Tony: Well it was interesting to hear that. I will say this. Another person also mentioned that my film should be a part of an archive for Seymour of the experience of local residents. She didn’t voice it in terms of like the refugee or immigrant experience, but that she thought it was important to include in some kind of a history of Seymour. I think my family was the first Asian family to settle in Seymour, definitely first Vietnamese refugee family.
Ravi: Yeah. I think that your film definitely sounds like it can spark ideas for people to expand their visions of what their communities could be and what their communities should be, in terms of welcoming to people who are not just the standard, stereotypical, white American.
Tony: Can I add something?
Ravi: Yeah, yeah.
Tony: So you mentioned that I had a friend that…like a childhood, a person that attended the screening recently in Bloomington. One of the things that she lifted up to me, because the film is primarily about the refugee experience, but it’s also about the mother and child relationship and things that are sad and things that aren’t sad, and things that are secrets, and things that people don’t want to talk about. And so I think on that level, I think viewers, regardless of their race or ethnicity, may be able to connect to some of those topics or themes. My friend that came up to me, she’s like, “Oh, I totally related with you, in terms of that’s what my mother used to also say to me as a kid, too, when I would ask questions about my father or so forth.” So yeah.
Ravi: Okay. So there are a lot of ways people connect to your story. Yeah, I guess that brings up one of the most touching lines in the movie. In the voice over, it was during the party for your mom.
Tony: Yeah, yeah.
Ravi: And you say something like, “And then I realized I was really making this movie to get closer to my mom,” or something like that. Is that what happened during the course of this movie?
Tony: That’s one of the questions that comes up a lot during the question and answer part when I screen the film, is “am I closer to my mother?” And what I think is that I definitely have a greater appreciation of my mother through this process. I’ve learned a lot more about her life and the actual process of being there with her on her last day of work. I’m very grateful that I did that. It’s like one of those things where it’s still done in schools around the country, where it’s like go to work with your parent kind of thing. But I never had that as a kid. Or even a part of me probably was ashamed if I had an opportunity to do something like that, to go to work with my parent. But I’m glad that I did 30 plus years later, to get to see her working on the assembly line, and to find out more about what she did, and what her life was like in Vietnam. There’s definitely things that her and I can continue to work on, in terms of aspects of our relationship. I like to believe we are closer through this process, and maybe in that way it’s a selfish kind of project. (laughing)
Ravi: No, no. No, I don’t view it that way at all. I think your film is a document and a testament to the importance of relationship and the hardships that happen when we fail relationship in big ways, from war, to community misunderstanding and racism, to the very important bond between parent and child, and how important it is, and how many issues come up when we don’t meet each other in that way. So I think it’s important. It’s not selfish at all.
Tony: Well, thanks. (Both laughing) Well, we’ll see if part two becomes selfish!
Ravi: (Laughing) Thank you, Tony.
Tony: All right. You’re welcome.
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Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger, now available for free download. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.