Tales of Two Flags

Mai Khôi performs Please Sir in California. (Turn on CC for English subtitles).

by Duc Nguyen

In recent days, there was a heated outburst online about an artist from Vietnam name Mai Khôi. Well, actually it was about what she did or didn’t do and about what she said while interacting with the Vietnamese American community. A little bit about Mai-Khôi first. According to her YOUTUBE page: “Mai Khôi is a Vietnamese celebrity, singer, songwriter, musician and social activist. She has been playing music since she was 12 when she was the pianist in a wedding band with her father, a music teacher, in the coastal city of Nha Trang.” In 2016, she got a chance to meet President Obama in Vietnam when he came to visit. Again from her YOUTUBE page: “After nominating herself for the National Assembly and being unfairly rejected in 2016, she met with President Obama and spoke to him for an hour about freedom of speech and artistic expression and protecting the right to peaceful protest.”

I got a chance to meet Mai Khôi when she performed at a friend’s private home. I have never heard of her. I asked her what type of music does she play. She told me to wait until she performed then I can decide for myself. Fair enough. I stayed and listened to her music. Her style was definitely different, a bit folksy, a bit of protest, more experimental. One thing that grabbed me was that she is a storyteller. Below is her song: “Please, Sir.” It's a song about the corruption and abuse of power by the authority in Vietnam. And it is about the oppression of democracy.

After the performance I asked her about the challenges of singing about these controversial topics in Vietnam. She said that as long as she expressed herself through her art which is music, the authority would leave her alone. I then asked her if she would like to meet some of the members of Viêt Tân (a pro-democracy group that was labeled as terrorist in Vietnam). She flatly refused and explained that it could bring her problems when she returns to Vietnam if she was caught seen with VT or the former South Vietnamese flag (yellow in color with 3 red stripes). I respected her wishes and left it at that.

At the beginning of 2017, online posts about what happened in Washington DC with Mai Khôi’s performance caused a big stir in the Vietnamese community overseas. While entering the location where she would perform, Mai-Khôi saw a former South Vietnam flag and an American flag stood in front of the auditorium. She refused to perform until the organizer removed the flags. In her Facebook page she wrote: (translated from Vietnamese) “I don't like the yellow flag (former South Vietnamese flag), I don't like the red flag (current official flag of Vietnam), if I could choose, I like a pink flag- the color of love. That is the superficial side of it. On ideals, I cannot like the yellow flag because the government of that flag was so weak they lost their country, causing our young generation to be trapped in a condition where we couldn't go anywhere, we had to endure the consequences with lack of freedom…” Well there was more. But these words really got many Vietnamese overseas mad. And there were a storm of harsh words shot at Mai-Khôi. Here is the video of what happened in Washington DC.

Since then Mai Khôi did offer an apology and took down her original post. I wrote a comment on a friend’s facebook post about the controversy: “I’m sad that an opportunity to further her cause was lost because of her choice for words. I’m sad to see that an artist like Mai Khoi put too much effort on self expression and forget about the larger cause. I’d like to use a quote from Adam Curtis, a British journalist, to point out about today’s problem on social movements: “The way to question power is to stand up against it. And to do that, you have to go into the woods at night together. You have to be powerful and confident as a group. And you have to do this thing that I think a lot of modern artists and modern people in general would find very difficult to do: give yourself up to something that is bigger than yourself.” Good luck with your battles Mai Khoi.”

But for me this is an ongoing debate about our Vietnamese American identity. So, I set out to get some thoughts about the flags. The video below is a short interview with Phillip Nguyen, a student from California.

This is an ongoing multimedia series about Vietnamese American identity. Stay tuned as we will feature more stories about who we are. (to be continued)



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