Sunday, February 8, 2009

Asian Americans & The Vietnam War: 4 Films

Josh Paul | photographer
Don Lau, a combat correspondent during the Vietnam War and a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

5/24/08 Northwest Asian Weekly: “‘The Battle for Hearts and Minds’ goes on for Asian American veterans,”
By Ann-Marie Stillion
Tony Chan’s DVD collection of four related documentaries concentrates on personal stories to tell the tale of war and the impact of racism.
“Asians in the West” begins with Don Lau, who served as an army journalist, turns to the combat experiences of Cole Lew, and ends with the story of combat nurse Lily Lee Adams, who returned to the U.S. to become a veterans advocate.
Although not explicitly stated in the work itself, all three have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not clear how the interviewees were chosen for the story, but it is clear that each one experienced not only the battles in war, but the racism of fellow soldiers and the system they found themselves in, along with a lack of understanding from their peers at home and in everyday life. In the end, whether due to lack of services or an indifferent society, each was forced to come to terms with the demons left behind.
In training, Lau was used as a stand-in for the enemy, dressed in a coulee hat and pajamas because he was Asian American. Authorities, attempting to train soldiers unfamiliar with Asians, pointed to him and said, “This is what the enemy looks like.”
Now, decades later, Lau — who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his photography of Patty Hearst while working for the San Francisco Examiner — twists in his chair as if restrained by an invisible tether as he speaks. “If I ever see that guy again — ” his voice trails off.
Lau describes the terror of walking the streets with the constant threat of being detained as the enemy or worse. In the interview, the decades-old pain is palpable.
Lau says that even though he was a journalist, the intensity of his memories have remained despite the fact that he did not fight.
In another interview, Lew, who eventually received his doctorate from the University of Hawaii , talks about the value for him of being close to other soldiers. He says he went into the army to find out who he was.
“If you talk to Vietnam veterans, this was the first time they ever became close, you talk about intimacy, having friends you could call buddies in a short period of time … it was beautiful in that way, it was nice … now in civilian life, nobody is that close anymore.”
Along with the others, he relived war memories for a long time, refusing to sit with his back to the door, suddenly believing that the enemy was nearby. Trained as a psychologist and working with vets now, he says that many Asian Americans don’t even know they have PTSD.
Issues of shame complicated their seeking help. They had to face the possibility of shaming the family, and at the same time, getting help from the Veterans Administration was inadequate as Asian Americans were frequently not viewed as Americans, Cole says. “What are you doing here?” some administrators said.
Producer/director Tony Chan, who also teaches at the University of
Washington , began the series with “American Nurse” in 1992 and finished that last one, “Lily Goes Home”, in 2007.
The two other stories, “Sweet Heat,” 1998, and “The Insanity of It All,” 2002, cover the interviews with Lau and Lew.
For Adams , nursing was one of the logical choices of a career for women in that era. Inspired by Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech, she decided to serve in Vietnam .
The young combat nurse came to hate what she was doing in Vietnam . “When I first saw war injuries, I couldn’t move,” she recalls. Stationed in the southern part of Vietnam near the border of Cambodia , she gradually came to see the face of racism in the war, that the people America was fighting were her cousins.
“Although most of our lives, we were told that we were inferior to men, by the time we hit Vietnam , we had realized that we were very strong emotionally,” Lee said.
Produced independently on a shoestring budget, these spare DVDs with nothing more than gunfire at times for a sound track are full of human treasure, of lives examined in the light of personal insight and history.
What rings true are the sounds, sights and smells of an era, and the shape of the lives left behind in the wake of the war.
“American Nurse” aired on KCTS Seattle in 1993 and received an award at the Hiroshima Film Festival on Peace. “American Nurse” and “Sweet Heat” were screened at the Vietnamese Film Festival in Toronto .
Documentaries are available separately from distributors Video Out,, and Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre,

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