Behind one of the world’s largest museum collections devoted to Vietnamese refugees lies the dream of a San José man who wants their stories to stay alive.
Tucked into a corner of San Jose Historic Park, a historic yellow Victorian house houses the Museum of the Boat People and the Republic of Vietnam, where founder and executive director Loc Vu dedicated his life to preserving refugee history Vietnamese.
Along the walls are artifacts, hundreds of photos, maps and commissioned artwork of Vietnamese refugees and their flight from the homeland after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The museum, also known as Viet Museum, opened in 2007 and welcomed tens of thousands of visitors a year before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vu, a former Army Colonel from South Vietnam who came to the United States with his family in 1976, spent more than 20 years collecting and purchasing handwritten letters, photos, guns, uniforms, medals and even a real boat for the collection.
“We started working on the museum in 1990,” Vu told San Jose Spotlight in Vietnamese. “It took time and a lot of money, all of which came from donations from around the world.”
The museum, located more than two miles from downtown San Jose, is among the few cultural landmarks in Silicon Valley that honor Vietnamese boat people and their descendants. San Jose is home to over 140,000 Vietnamese residents, making it the city with the largest Vietnamese population in the United States.
Bringing the stories of the boat people to life
On a sunny March morning, Vu, sporting a faded bucket hat and a light jacket over his brown polo shirt, helped volunteers clean up the museum’s backyard. His eyes shine on every corner of the historic home that displays his life’s work.
Each artifact has a story about how it got to the museum, Vu said. He also runs the nonprofit Immigrant Resettlement and Cultural Center, which helps Vietnamese refugees in the United States.
One of his favorite pieces is a bronze map, prominently displayed at the entrance to the museum. It depicts a world without borders where boat people who set out to sea in search of freedom could find a new home.
“If we don’t collect them and create new art about them now, the history and experience of millions of people will disappear,” Vu said. “It will all be gone.”
San Jose and Santa Clara County were not interested in funding the museum when Vu began working on the project, he said. To turn his vision into reality, Vu rallied the Vietnamese community, as well as politicians – including former US President Jimmy Carter – to support the project.
The museum dedicates a wall to all major donors, including Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, and former Congressman Mike Honda, among others.
Lofgren, who has known Vu since law school, said the Viet Museum is the pride and joy of Silicon Valley.
“I have meaningful memories of when I helped the very first refugees who arrived after the fall of Saigon, set up language, health and education services in the Supervisory Board, volunteered with the Cross- Rouge and worked together to create the Viet Museum,” Lofgren told San Jose Spotlight. “The Viet Museum has done vital work documenting and teaching future generations the experiences of the more than one million Vietnamese who resettled in the United States and the many contributions the Vietnamese-American community made to South Bay. .”
During the recent Tet celebration at San Jose Historical Park, Santa Clara County officials honored Vu for his years of service to the museum.
“Loc Vu’s preservation of Vietnamese refugee history is in itself a lifelong commitment to the defense of human rights,” Chavez, who represents the region, told San Jose Spotlight. “The Viet Museum honors the experience of so many who have lost so much and serves as a call to action not to let history repeat itself.”
Vu, who many also call “Uncle”, often spends his days at the museum. The former colonel, who is now over 80, had considered retiring but struggled to find a replacement to take care of the museum until recently.
The work requires dedication and passion, but it doesn’t pay off, Vu said.
Hong Cao, a longtime San Jose resident who recently retired from his job as mayor, said it was an honor to be handed Vu’s torch.
“Uncle Loc was looking for someone to take over,” Cao told San Jose Spotlight. “I’m fairly new to organizing in our community, but I’ll do my best to keep the museum running.”
Cao hopes to start digitizing museum artifacts and creating listening tours for visitors.
Outside the museum, Manpreet Dhindsa and her 3-year-old son, Prawaan, said they had been there several times. Dhindsa says he learns new things with each visit.
“It’s been a great experience to learn about the history of our community,” he told San Jose Spotlight. “The museum is truly a window into the past.”
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Copyright © 2022 by Bay City News, Inc. Republication, redistribution, or other reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.