Dat Luu and Hanh Phung

Dat Luu and Hanh Phung were the owners and proprietors of the Ambrosia Café at 211 King Street in Alexandria, Virginia. They were originally from Michigan, where they had settled some time in the early 1980s, before moving to Alexandria with their family and opening a restaurant.  Reportedly, they were educated in French schools in Saigon, and Luu had earned a PhD in French while Phung had a master’s degree in education.  Neither of them used their degrees in the United States, however, and both of them went into the restaurant industry.  Their restaurant, perhaps tied to their own backgrounds, served a combination of French and Vietnamese dishes to a majority non-Vietnamese population in Alexandria.[1]

After reading a review of their restaurant, I wanted to learn more about them.  Searching both individuals in the Washington Post database at the library, the couple appears in the Washington Post several times. Hanh Phung did not appear in any Washington Post newspaper coverage aside from the 1989 review of Ambrosia Café by Joan Horwitt. However, while looking into Dat Luu and the Ambrosia Café, I found information in an interesting spot. Luu came up three separate times under announcements for Architectural Review Board meetings.

Figure 1: “Alexandria Neighborhood Report: Architectural Review Board Actions,” The Washington Post April 27, 1989, sec. VIRGINIA.

Luu’s first appearance in the section on the Architectural Review Board–a group of appointed officials who approve alterations to historic buildings or to buildings located in the historic district–was his petition to add a sign, “20-by-30 inch, wood sign that [would have] read ‘Ambrosia Café” to the front of his building.[2] The restaurant was located in the historic district known as Old Town, so any changes, even as small as adding a sign, had to be passed through the Board. Luu’s request was approved in April 1989.

In September of the same year, Luu had yet another approval of a new sign to be placed in front of the business. This time in was “an 18-by-24 inch aluminum sign reading ‘Saigon Restaurant’.”[3] It is likely that Luu changed the name in an attempt to attract more customers, appealing or at least making people quickly recognize that it was a Vietnamese restaurant.

1989 sept

Figure 2: “Alexandria Neighborhood Report: Crime Watch,” The Washington Post September 14, 1989, sec. Virginia.

Luu’s restaurant went through yet another sign in November 1990. Both made of wood and very similar in size, but it now said ‘Saigon Restaurant, Today’s Specials.’”[4]

1990 nov

Figure 3: “Architectural Review Board Agenda,” The Washington Post November 29, 1990, sec. Alexandria Neighborhood Report.

From the Washington Post articles about Dat Luu’s restaurant’s signs, we can determine changes in the family’s business. The biggest factor was that the name changed. However, it is unclear of why. More then likely this name change happened in an effort to more strongly define the restaurant as Vietnamese, and attract more customers.

Interestingly, the space that once held Dat Luu and Hanh Phung’s restaurant in the early 1990s is now a Japanese sushi restaurant, continuing the trend of Asian restaurants inside the space.

211 now

Figure 4: Photograph of 211 King Street today.








[1] Joan Horwitt, “Virginia Dining: Ambrosia Cafe,” The Washington Post May 18, 1889, LVA8.

[2] “Alexandria Neighborhood Report: Architectural Review Board Actions,” The Washington Post April 27, 1989, sec. VIRGINIA.

[3] “Alexandria Neighborhood Report: Crime Watch,” The Washington Post September 14, 1989, sec. Virginia.

[4] “Architectural Review Board Agenda,” The Washington Post November 29, 1990, sec. Alexandria Neighborhood Report.

Vietnamese Americans in the Nail Care Industry

The nail care industry in the United States is uniquely dominated by female Vietnamese immigrants. Alexandria, Virginia is no exception. The appearance of Vietnamese American manicurists began in California in the 1970s, resulting from the humanitarian efforts of film actress Tippi Hedren.[1] Hedren used her personal manicurist to train Vietnamese women living in the refugee camp in which she volunteered.[2] Following the boom on the West Coast, more and more Vietnamese American women (as well as men to a lesser extent) turned to nail-care as a way to establish themselves in their new homes.

Illustration 1: Tippi Hedren

Immigrants interested in nail care used training schools to both pursue employment and ease their transition into American society. A 1994 article from the Washington Post describes the student body of The Potomac Academy of Hair Design, a cosmetology school in Falls Church, Virginia.  While some of the women were native born Americans, the vast majority were immigrants, mostly from Ethiopia and Vietnam.  The high demand for manicurists, as well as additional programs, such as English language lessons offered by beauty schools, made nail care attractive for immigrant women.[3] Thanh-Tuyen Thai, a student at the school, stated that while she and her sisters were trained for other occupations in their home country, their mother urged them to learn nail-care, seeing it as a marketable and reliable skill.[4]

Such was also the case for Binh “Gene” Nguyen, who established a popular nail salon/academy in Alexandria in 1988[5]. Nguyen’s family first became involved in nail care when they first immigrated to California in 1983.[6]  After arriving as refugees, they were able to quickly find jobs as manicurists and begin to acclimate to their new surroundings. Vietnamese Americans like the Nguyens, who settled initially in California, continued the trend begun by Hedren and spread it eastward. Vietnamese Americans now make up eighty percent of the licensed manicurists in California.[7]

Nail school

Illustration 2: Hieu Thai, Student at Potomac Academy of Hair Design, 1994.

The increase in Vietnamese American manicurists outside of California was facilitated by Vietnamese American business owners as well as networks within immigrant communities. Vietnamese Americans who resettled on the East Coast and established their own salons and training schools attracted newly arrived immigrants looking for a reliable source of employment.[8] It became a commonly held belief among Vietnamese Americans that nail care was stable and beneficial, leading to networks of family and friends encouraging immigrants to enter the industry. While Hedren was largely responsible for the Vietnamese American nail care boom in California, the exceptionally high numbers of Vietnamese American manicurists in cities such as Alexandria, Virginia can be attributed to entrepreneurs within the immigrant community.



[1] Karen Grigsby Bates, “Nailing the American Dream, With Polish”, accessed October 28, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2012/06/14/154852394/with-polish-vietnamese-immigrant-community-thrives

[2] Ibid.

[3] Megan Rosenfeld, “At the Head of the Class: Beauty School Offers Some a Permanent Place”. The Washington Post, October 7, 1994.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Luz Lazo, “In Northern Virginia, a Leader Among Vietnamese Immigrants.” The Washinton Post, July 9, 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bates, “Nailing the American Dream.”

[8] Rosenfeld, “Head of the Class.”

The Reviews of East Wind and How one Vietnamese Restaurant Spread

Until the opening of Ambrosia Café in 1989, East Wind and Nam’s River were the only two Vietnamese restaurants in Alexandria, Virginia.[1] East Wind was a staple in Alexandria; the restaurant offered food that was familiar to Vietnamese refugees in the area and as an exotic but delectable choice for the non-Vietnamese. The reviews of East Wind in the Washington Post in the early 1980s offer insight into how the restaurant was seen by the non-Vietnamese diners. It is unclear when exactly East Wind opened at 809 King Street, but since the first Vietnamese restaurant in the area opened in 1973 it is not hard to imagine that East Wind opened sometime between 1973 and 1980.[2]

The language in the reviews reveals how Vietnamese refugees were viewed in the Alexandria area. The reviews of East Wind were not written by a Vietnamese culinary expert, but instead by local white food critic. Vietnamese people and food were considered exotic to the residents of Alexandria. The reviews for East Wind and other Vietnamese restaurants were written by people who had never experienced this type of food and therefore did not know how it was supposed to taste. Comments such as “[s]hrimp on sugar cane is well executed, but to us intrinsically bland and untextured” must be recognized as written by someone unfamiliar with how shrimp on sugar cane is to be cooked and such comments are meant for a certain audience.[3] As the Washington Post was not read by most Vietnamese refugees because of the language; instead, white and African American residents of the region were the mainstay of its readership in the early 1980s. It stands to argue that Vietnamese who went to East Wind went because they had heard about the restaurant through the Vietnamese American community, and were going for the familiar food. Native-born Americans, however, were relying on the reviews to give them a description of the food that they were unfamiliar with and how someone else–who was like them– experienced the dishes.

The authors of these reviews may be unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine, but so were their audiences. Those reading the Washington Post Magazine were not the thousands fleeing Vietnam who settled in the DC metro area. Instead, they were the newspaper’s readership who were looking for “special evenings out” at a restaurant they saw as new and exciting because it was “ethnic.”[4] The description of dishes did not include their Vietnamese names (with few exceptions), but instead as “Vietnamese soups [that] show the contrast of sweet and tart with a fiery kick, soft noodles and crisp shreds of nearly raw vegetables, long-simmered broths with the last-minute addition of raw beef or fish.”[5] The author could have simply said Pho instead of giving a long description of the soup’s ingredients, but this long description gave the non-Vietnamese audience an idea what they were eating at East Wind.

Comments about the appearance and price of East Wind were a part of a larger discussion of the view of Vietnamese by native-born residents in Alexandria. Describing the Vietnamese dishes served at East Wind as demonstrating the “subtle intricacy that captures the best of its French and Chinese inheritance” dismissed their Vietnamese heritage and instead highlighted the region’s connections to France and China, which readers would be more knowledgeable about. However, the reviewers did not largely pursue this pro-French attitude, and they advertised that East Wind was the place to go “to understand the mystique of Vietnamese cooking.”[6] The praise of the Vietnamese dishes recognized them as new and different to the Alexandria area and brought in more customers to the restaurant thus growing the business as Vietnamese food was no longer seen as odd or “unexpected.”[7]

East Wind’s early praise in the 1980s clearly continued into the 1990s and the 2000s. East Wind expanded their reach with the opening of the Bethesda, Maryland restaurant, Windows of the East in 1989. As Phyllis Richman said “[East Wind] keeps multiplying and dividing.”[8] The success of the Alexandria East Wind enabled the owner to open a second branch, bringing Vietnamese dishes to a new environment. East Wind also helped other Vietnamese in the area learn the restaurant business. Two managers of the East Wind, brothers Tin and Chi Quang, took what they learned at the business and opened their own restaurant, Saigonnais, in Adams-Morgan. The multiple locations and expansion of Vietnamese restaurants in the DC area prove how the differentness of Vietnamese cuisine may not have been initially accepted, but it soon became some of the most popular dining places around. The region’s cuisine was becoming “more international than American.”[9]

East Wind would end up being owned by Vietnamese refugee Dong Dong who fled Vietnam in 1979 and started at the Alexandria East Wind as a busboy.[10] Dong moved the business to Fairfax City where he hoped to “replicate his success” with this new location.[11] The Alexandria East Wind is no longer open, but Dong’s restaurant in Fairfax is thriving today. The new Eastwind still offers “authentic Vietnamese cuisine at affordable prices.”[12] Eastwind now hosts parties, receptions, and other events to the people of Fairfax with most business coming by word of mouth, but with the same delicious dishes as the East Wind of Alexandria had, such as spicy lemongrass beef, crispy spring roll with vermicelli, and pho.[13] The 809 King Street location in Alexandria reopened in 2003 as another restaurant, King Street’s Asian Bistro, offering Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Vietnamese inspired dishes.[14]

[1] Joan Horwitt, “Virginia Dining: Ambrosia Café,” The Washington Post, May 18, 1989.

[2] Phyllis C. Richman, “DINING: Nam’s River: A Glorious Confluence of Cultures,” The Washington Post, April 24, 1988, 1.

[3] “East Wind,” The Washington Post Magazine, September 26, 1982.

[4] “East Wind,” The Washington Post Magazine, April 19, 1981.

[5] Phyllis C. Richman, “East Wind,” The Washington Post Magazine, September 27, 1981.

[6] “East Wind,” April 19, 1981.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Phyllis C. Richman, “Alexandria’s Eastern Clones,” The Washington Post, May 26, 1989.

[9] Phyllis C. Richman, “Waiters Were the Fly in Our Coup” The Washington Post, January 1, 1988.

[10] Whitney Rhodes, “Eastwind Owner Works Hard to Bring Vietnamese Cuisine Downtown,” Fairfax City Patch, February 25, 2013, http://patch.com/virginia/fairfaxcity/eastwind-owner-works-hard-to-bring-vietnamese-cuisine-downtown, Accessed October 29, 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Domenica Marchetti, “King Street’s Asian Bistro Offers the Best of Eastern Flavors,” The Washington Post, September 4, 2003.

Jackie Bong Wright and Welcome House: A Short Biography

One of the newspaper articles that we looked at, “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty,” in the Washington Post mentioned an organization called Welcome House. Welcome House sought to help Vietnamese refugees settle into life in the U.S. by helping them help themselves. The woman who was a key player in the organization, Jackie Bong Wright, was herself of Vietnamese descent and she has had a very interesting life in the United States. `

After escaping from Vietnam in April 1975 (right before the fall of Saigon), Bong-Wright spent time in various refugee camps before ending up in Camp Pendleton in California. She spent about a month in Pendleton before hearing from Sandy McDonnell, whom she had met in Saigon. McDonnell was the Chairman of the McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Corporation, and he sponsored her and her three children to live with his family in St. Louis, Missouri. However, life in St. Louis did not sit well for Bong-Wright and her children, and the trauma of their escape from Vietnam haunted them.[1]

Life took an unexpected turn when Bong-Wright was invited by her friend, Barbara Clay, who was associated with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Saigon, to live in Old Town, Alexandria. Bong-Wright later described her observations of the United States as being “enormous” in terms of people, buildings, and even highways. Feeling overwhelmed by the adjustment to life in the U.S., Bong-Wright felt a need to help other refugees from Southeast Asia adjust to life in the U.S. Bong-Wright volunteered at the Indochinese Reception Center in Washington, D.C., which focused on providing information and job assistance for refugees in the region. However, after meeting and marrying Lacy Wright, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, Bong-Wright and her children again relocated, this time to Milan, Italy, where Lacy was stationed. While in Italy, Bong-Wright realized that ever since she had fled Vietnam, she had not allowed herself time to grieve for the loss of her family and loved ones who were left behind in Vietnam. [2]

Bong-Wright and her family eventually returned to the Washington metro area by 1978 and remained there for the next seven years. These seven years gave Bong-Wright and her children the stability that they needed to recover from their experiences in Vietnam and to become familiar with American customs. After arriving back in the United States, she worked to help other Vietnamese refugees in the Washington area. On her website, Bong-Wright described the struggles that “boat people” experienced in obtaining health care, jobs, housing, and adjusting to American culture. Bong-Wright noted the “boat people” as being “completely different” from the “educated, urban” refugees who came to U.S. following the fall of Saigon.[3]



Fig. 1 C.N. Trueman, “Vietnamese Boat People”, The History Learning Site, 27 Mar 2015. Accessed 5 Nov 2015, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/vietnam-war/vietnamese-boat-people/.

Bong-Wright was contacted by a group of Southeast Asian refugees (who were interestingly sponsored by churches in Alexandria, VA) who were requesting her help in finding services. In response to these requests, Bong-Wright, along with some of her American-born friends, formed a committee and an organization: IRSS (Indochinese Refugees Social Services, Inc). Bong-Wright also created Welcome House, which provided temporary and emergency housing for refugees. Welcome House, by October of 1979, had helped thirty refugee families from Southeast Asia settle in the Washington area. Welcome House’s purpose, Bong-Wright stated in an interview with the Washington Post, was to “help them find a place to live, enroll them in English classes, help them get jobs and put them in contact with the proper social agencies.” Bong-Wright’s approach to helping Indochinese refugees through teaching them self-sufficiency impressed the federal volunteer program ACTION and its deputy director Mary E. King, who stated that Welcome House was “just the sort of work ACTION likes to see: People helping people.” [4]

Both IRSS and Welcome House provided social services for Southeast Asian refugees. Welcome Bong-Wright tells of an incident where she took a family (the article did not specify where the family was from, but they were probably from Southeast Asia) to a doctor and subsequently to a hospital. The child was sick with skin and stomach infections, and the hospital required that the child be separated from the mother for treatment. Bong-Wright recalled that both the mother and child were extremely upset and that she had to convince the mother to let the child be taken away. This article concluded with a quote from Jackie regarding the problems faced not only by this particular family but by other refugees: “[w]hat we are also talking about here are cultural problems.” [5]

Jackie is currently the president of the Vietnamese-American Voters Association, an organization providing civic, social, cultural, and health services to Vietnamese Americans. She also focuses her energy on registering Vietnamese Americans to vote. [6]


1. Jackie Bong-Wright, “Author” Jackie Bong Wright, accessed October 29, 2015, www.jackiebongwright.com/about-jackie/author. The father of Bong-Wrights children was her first husband, Nguyen Van Bong (head of the National Institute of Administration in South Vietnam). At the time of his death, President Nguyen Van Thieu had asked Bong to become Prime Minister of South Vietnam. He was assassinated in 1971. Bong-Wright recounts on her website her husband’s assassination.

2. Ibid.  Bong-Wright later utilized her experiences with volunteering at the Indochinese Reception Center in the founding of Welcome House.

3. Ibid.


4. Kerry Dougherty Washington, “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty,” The Washington Post, February 14, 1980, pg. VA8; Jackie Bong-Wright, “Author” Jackie Bong Wright.

5. Washington, “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty;” Jackie Bong-Wright, “Author” Jackie Bong Wright; .Janis Johnson, “Virginia Officials Worry Over Rise in Refugee Health Costs,” The Washington Post, July 10, 1980, Virginia Weekly, Va. 2.

6. Jackie Bong- Wright, “About Jackie” Jackie Bong Wright, accessed October 29, 2015, http://jackiebongwright.com/about-jackie/.


Eastwind, Ambrosia Café and Nam’s River

In the 1970s and 1980s, Vietnamese refugees had to take jobs that did not correlate to their previous qualifications or education in Vietnam. This meant that, instead of working as doctors and lawyer in the United States, many refugees turned to the food industry and other job sectors that did not require English language fluency and certain credentials.

This situation also led to the establishment of the Washington Metropolitan region’s first Vietnamese restaurants.  Most native-born Americans did not understand Vietnamese cuisine, or had limited knowledge because of their military service in Southeast Asia.  Restaurant reviewers, especially in the Washington Post, struggled to understand the cuisine.  As a result, reviews of Vietnamese restaurants were both positive and negative in ways that play to native-born tastes.

For example, reporters commented on the décor of the restaurant and how it was not a “typical” style for an Asian (meaning Chinese) restaurant.

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In Alexandria, East Wind reviews contained language that highlighted the exoticism of Vietnamese food traditions. It is described as, a “place to discover the unexpected.”[i] Also in 1981, The Washington Post review focused on the atmosphere of East Wind, almost as if to prepare customers that they would be experiencing something completely foreign. Reviewers prepared diners to expect different types of foods and designated quality of it. Out of all of the Vietnamese restaurants in Alexandria during the 1980s, East Wind had to most critical reviews and was only recommended because it had such a diverse menu of food.

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This review for the Ambrosia Café written in 1989, carried an overall condescending tone. Joan Horwitt called the Ambrosia Café “diminutive,” but reminded diners that there were also French dishes to balance it out. Many native-born Americans did not want Vietnamese food, and instead wanted upscale French or Chinese cuisine.  Reviewers also emphasized the connection between Vietnamese food ways and those of China and France.[ii]

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Nam’s River was one of the more expensive Vietnamese restaurants and served mostly French style, Vietnamese dishes.[iii] The common trend for reviews of a Vietnamese restaurant was to explain how the food was different than what the average American ate. Phyliss Richman, food critic of the Washington Post, wrote “[a]nd since no bread is served (The style is, after all, Asian).” It was as if people had to be prepared to enjoy food from other countries.

Where Nam’s River once was located is now The Lighthorse, an American restaurant. East Wind is the only restaurant where its location has maintained connection to Asian cuisine. Where East Wind was located, there now stands an Asian Bistro.[iv] The Ambrosia Café also no longer exists on King Street and instead, multiple shops reside in its previous location.

[i] Phyllis C. Richman, “East Wind,” The Washington Post ,April 19, 1981, sec. Magazine.

[ii] Joan Horwitt, “VIRGINIA DINING: Ambrosia Cafe,” The Washington Post, May 18, 1989, sec. VIRGINIA.

[iii] Richman, “East Wind.”

[iv] Richman, “East Wind;” Domenica Marchetti, “King Street’s Asian Bistro Offers the Best of Eastern Flavors,” Washington Post, The, accessed October 30, 2015.



Jackie Bong- Wright

The facility that was created in Alexandria to help refugees adjust to their new lives stuck out to me while we were discussing newspaper articles on Vietnamese refugees.  I especially wanted to learn more about the article, “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty.” [1]

This article talked about a “temporary shelter for refugees in Alexandria” called the Welcome House.[2] Although the facility was interesting, I also wanted to find more information on the person who ran it–Jackie Bong-Wright. Today, Bong-Wright has an official website where many of her writings are published as well as a small biography. In her personal writings, Bong-Wright explores the experiences of Vietnamese refugees, before and after the Fall of Saigon.  Vietnamese who came to the United States faced many hurdles. She states: “South Vietnam has never been described as a real country, with a university system, a corps of civil servants, and normal middle-class people struggling to make successes of their lives in the midst of chaos and upheaval.”[3]

Bong-Wright discusses the hardships that her family went through too. She explains the difficulties of a divided family.  Some members of her family supported the Viet Cong and others opposed them.[4] Bong-Wright was the youngest of 10 children. She attended French schools in Vietnam and the University of Bordeaux in France. She met her first husband, Bong, in Paris. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by Viet Cong terrorists. In 1972, Bong-Wright worked as the Director of Cultural Activities of the Vietnamese-American Association, “a center sponsored by the U.S. information Service.”[5] It makes sense that Bong-Wright would be involved in helping Vietnamese refugees adjust to their lives in America, when she also tried to bridge these relations when she lived in Vietnam. In addition, Bong-Wright was very well respected by the American government.  With help from friends at the American embassy, Bong-Wright was able to flee Vietnam with her children, days before the fall of Saigon. For two months, Bong-Wright’s family was in three different refugee camps. Once they found their way to the Washington Metropolitan area, she met her second husband, Lacy Wright, who was an American diplomat. Bong-Wright went on to work with Vietnamese “boat people” and into the field of foreign social services.

Jackie continues to help the Vietnamese community today.

Video 1: “Vietnamese American Youth Leadership Conference (VAYLC) 2012 – YouTube,” accessed November 6, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvyKhYXWsT8.

It is clear that it was difficult for Bong-Wright to write about her past. I feel as though the pain can be felt through the words. It is a testament to the strength she has. I still am fascinated about the Welcome House and how it was able to help other refugees find this strength. I have contacted Jackie in order to gain more insight about the Welcome House and ask her questions.  For example, how long did Welcome House run for? What were the main goals of the place? What programs were available for the refugees? Were the refugees who came able to speak English?  I hope to understand more about the people who came to Alexandria and what is was like for them when trying to start their lives over.

[1][1]  Kerry Dougherty, “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty,” The Washington Post, February 14, 1980.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jackie Bong Wright, “About Jackie,” Jackie Bong Wright, last modified 2015, accessed October 30, 2015, http://jackiebongwright.com/about-jackie/author/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Vietnamese Refugees’ Struggle to Adapt to American Society

As Vietnamese refugees entered into the United States starting in the mid- 1970’s, they had to go through refugee camps in order to be integrated into American culture.[1] There were four camps throughout America that temporarily housed refugees, Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.[2]

In these camps, refugees were taught how to fit into American society while waiting for a sponsor. They learned skills that the American government thought would best help refugees’ function in their new environment. These skills consisted of cooking “American” meals and taking classes on American history and government, gender norms, and English.[3]

Vietnamese 2

Figure 1: Camp Pendleton Vietnamese Refugee Camp, Camp Pendleton Archives, California

Even as refugee’s left the federal camps, many were still not prepared for changes required to navigate American society. Numerous refugees who once held professional jobs in Vietnam were forced to work unskilled jobs when they entered the United States.[4]  Shown below is an excerpt of an article from the Washington Post describing Vietnamese refugee’s job situation:[5]

Viet 1

Figure 2: Excerpt from Sandra Broadman, “Vietnamese Finds Life Tough in Virginia,” Washington Post, December 19, 1977

While the majority of these refugees were used to a certain lifestyle in Vietnam, that is not what they found in America. To go from a successful life in your home country to basically nothing in your new country was extremely discouraging.Because some refugees were unable to find work or only found low-paying jobs, they turned to federally funded organizations that were set up to help refugees navigate their new lives. One such organization, Welcome House, was used to do this. Welcome House, and other similar organizations, was created to help Vietnamese refugees who were struggling to adapt to American society. They gave refugees a place to learn the skills they needed to get jobs they wanted.[6] In a Washington Post article “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty,” the creator of Welcome House, Jackie Bong-Wright, gives an interview. She is quoted saying ‘[w]e help them find a place to live, enroll them in English classes, help them get jobs and put them in contact with the proper social agencies.”[7]

People such as Jackie Bong-Wright began to establish organizations such as Welcome House in order to help refugees. The book, Covert Capital, and numerous newspaper articles from the Washington Post describe the problems Vietnamese refugees had with living in a new country. These refugees came from professional jobs in Vietnam, but in America they could only find work in menial jobs. Organizations like Welcome House taught refugees how to best assimilate into their new culture.[8] This was necessary because one of the only ways in which Vietnamese refugees could succeed in America was by integrating as best as possible into American society.

[1] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 175.

[2] Ibid, 175.

[3] Ibid, 176.

[4] Ibid, 179.

[5] Sandra Broadman, “Vietnamese Finds Life Tough in Virginia,” Washington Post, December 19, 1977.

[6] Friedman, 181.

[7] Kerry Dougherty, “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty,” Washington Post, February 14, 1980.

[8] Friedman, 180-182.

Vietnamese Refugees and Assimilation through Education

From our readings and discussions this week, I noticed a particular theme when it came to Vietnam and Vietnamese refugees: education was seen as the key to success. In Covert Capital, there were various ways that this education took place. Before the evacuations, Vietnamese recruited into the South Vietnamese Special Forces were trained and educated by American CIA agents. They were taught American songs with the words slightly altered to praise American triumph over Communism, and trained in combat. They were taught the idea that siding with America guaranteed victory; America was their key to success. After the fall of Saigon, refugees were taken to different camps set up across the United States where they were taught American culture and its practices. Once gaining sponsorship, Vietnamese left the camps, but the emphasis on education did not end there.[1]

The main purpose of these educational experiences for Vietnamese refugees was “assimilation.” The idea itself is much more complicated, however, since no one truly assimilates. Vietnamese refugees still held on to their own culture by opening Vietnamese restaurants, speaking Vietnamese at home, and participating in multicultural festivals. What actually happens with “assimilation” attempts is the blending of the two cultures. The children of Vietnamese refugees consider themselves to be Vietnamese American, existing within a culture that is both Vietnamese and American. They adopt certain aspects of American culture while still maintaining their Vietnamese roots, creating a dual identity for these children. Binh “Gene” Nguyen, for example, came to America as a refugee with his family, and the success of his nail salons and school is credited by Gene’s ability to “assimilate.” To Americans he was called Gene, but among the Vietnamese he was still Binh, speaking to the duality of Vietnamese American identity. Although he Americanized his name and business, he will not forget that he is also Vietnamese, an identity is he equally proud of. [2]

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 1.56.37 PMThe Alexandria Public School system became a very important element of this process through its educating of refugee children. One of the most important goals of assimilation was teaching the English language, and it was done through a variety of ways. Children attending Alexandria Public Schools were taught English through English as a Second Language (ESL) programs (now called ELL). By teaching children English, the hope was that they would take the language home and it would spread to adults. In my research, I found a Washington Post article that spoke to the issues of the language barrier between the Alexandria Public School system and these parents. The article talks about plans to translate basic school document and general school information into other languages to accommodate refugee parents. They were also considering developing a school-based outreach program for children and adults to help “make the social and cultural transition.”[3] I found the article to be interesting because seemed to be a step back from assimilation by translating school documents for these parents, and they emphasize the fact that these accommodations for refugee parents are not a temporary thing. As long as refugees continued coming to the area, the more necessary it was for them to take these steps to help these families transition.

Education and assimilation was seen as a determining factor in the success stories covered by the media. They all played on the idea of the “American Dream,” and how the few success stories that came Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 2.00.12 PMfrom the Vietnamese American community meant that the dream was still achievable and possible for immigrants in America. I think this dream might have been alive for immigrants willing to assimilate into American culture. The Dinh family is regarded as successful because all six of their children went to the University of
Virginia. Their parents took whatever jobs were available, worked hard, and their children worked just as hard in school. [4]

Not all were this successful.  There were still many barriers, like the menial jobs available to these refugees, the culture shock, and the emotional turmoil of leaving Vietnam and the war itself that kept many Vietnamese refugees from achieving the dream.[5]

[1] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Berkley: University of California Press, 2013), 123 – 220.

[2] Luz Lazo, “In Northern Virginia, A Leader Among Vietnamese Immigrants” Washington Post, July 9, 2012.

[3] Lena H. Sun, “Alexandria Schools Climbing a Language Barrier to Parents,” Washington Post, June 21, 1984.

[4] Marylou Tousignant, “A Family Succeeds by Degrees; All Six Children of Vietnamese Immigrants Graduate from U-Va,” Washington Post, May 17, 1996.

[5] Sandra Broadman, “Vietnamese Finds Life Tough in VA.; Vietnamese Refugees Finding Life Hard,” Washington Post, December 19, 1977.

Jackie Bong-Wright: A Lifetime of Service

Photograph of Jackie Bong-Wright from David Ngo’s The Queen from Virginia: The Jackie Bong-Wright Story. Published by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association. Accessed November 3, 2015, http://www.vaala.org/david-ngo.html.


When Vietnamese refugees, as well as those from Laos and Cambodia, began to flow into Northern Virginia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they dealt with numerous challenges. One of the greatest challenges these new immigrants had to overcome was adjusting to cultural and social life in the United States. Meeting these refugees’ needs, oftentimes the moment they stepped off the plane, was Jackie Bong-Wright.

Bong-Wright herself is a Vietnamese refugee, and came to the U.S. three days before the fall of Saigon to Communist forces in the spring of 1975.[1] Before being forced to flee her home, Bong-Wright had earned her Bachelor’s degrees from the Universities of Bordeaux and Saigon.[2] While in Vietnam, Bong-Wright held numerous important jobs such as “teaching French history and literature to high school students, and French language to adults at the French Institute in Vietnam” as well as serving as the “Director of Cultural Activities at Saigon’s Vietnamese American Association, where she organized workshops, lectures, concerts, conferences, art exhibits, and social activities.”[3] Her interest in social work and helping others adjust to life in a new country sprang from her own migration experience in which she was forced to flee Saigon posing as the wife of an American businessman after her own husband had been previously killed by Communist forces.[4]

When Bong-Wright arrived in the region, she quickly became involved with Northern Virginia Family Services, from which she landed a job as a case manager for the Fairfax County Department of Social Services.[5] Beginning in 1980, Bong-Wright founded a social services company known as Indochinese Refugee Social Services. This organization quickly faced a tough challenge in dealing with refugees who had made their way out of Vietnam by boat. When describing this period in her professional career of social service, Bong-Wright explains:

The plight of the refugees seemed to reach its most acute point in the early 1980s.     That year, a group of Indochinese refugees sponsored by churches in Alexandria, Virginia, asked for help. There were no agencies providing services for them. Some of my American friends were asking what they could do. We formed a committee of   Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and Americans, and incorporated as a nonprofit             organization — IRSS, or Indochinese Refugees Social Services, Inc. We provided             temporary and emergency housing at a home we called the Welcome House. We received grant money and expanded our services to include an employment service that found jobs for refugees and trained them in job skills—professional cleaning, gardening and house painting, etc. These jobs enabled people who did not speak English to quickly become self-sufficient. For the children, we organized a tutoring program; for their parents, classes in English and vocational training.[6]

Welcome House which, in the first 5 months it was open, “helped 30 refugees get started on their new lives” by assisting them in finding housing, enrolling in English language classes, and helping them find jobs, was a major help to these refugees.[7] Alongside numerous other social services programs, such as those provided by Catholic Charities, Bong-Wright’s Welcome House served as a highly effective system at helping refugees adjust to their new home. Bong-Wright and Welcome House earned high praise from the deputy director of ACTION, a branch of the Peace Corps, when she attested that “Welcome House is just the sort of work ACTION likes to see: people helping people” and by stating directly that the major goal of ACTION “is to teach people how to take responsibility for their own lives through programs like the one at Welcome House.”[8]

Later in life, Bong-Wright has not slowed down in her efforts to help others. She has devoted considerable time to a career in the media, whether that be her role as a reporter for the newspaper, Asian Fortune, or producing local Washington metropolitan area television shows, such as “Women Issues” and “Congressional News.”[9] Throughout this prolific media career, Bong-Wright has advocated for the rights of those involved in human trafficking in Asia and helped other Vietnamese Americans by “providing them with civic, social, cultural, and health services” through her organization Vietnamese-American Voters Association. [10] Clearly, Jackie Bong-Wright has been a champion for the rights and well-being of Vietnamese refugees and should be acknowledged for her service to this community.

[1] Ronald D. White and Jane Freundel, “Indochinese Survivors Of Boat Trip Get A Helping Hand,” Washington Post, August 16, 1979.

[2] Jackie Bong Wright, “About Jackie,” Jackie Bong Wright, last modified 2015, accessed October 29, 2015, http://jackiebongwright.com/about-jackie/.

[3] Ibid

[4] White and Freundel, “Indochinese Survivors OF Boat Trip Get A Helping Hand.”

[5] Jackie Bong Wright, “About Jackie”.

[6] Jackie Bong Wright, “About Jackie: Autumn Cloud’s Summary”, last modified 2015, accessed November 3, 2015, http://jackiebongwright.com/about-jackie/author/

[7] Kerry Dougherty, “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty,” Washington Post, February 14, 1980.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jackie Bong Wright, “About Jackie.”

[10] Ibid.