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December 21, 2012

A Tale of Two Immigrant Filmmakers

by Ray Kouguell

One of the key parts of the immigrant experience is the journey itself. For two Asian-American filmmakers, moving to the United States provided them both opportunity - but under very different circumstances. 
 
Mingh Nguyen, a 40-year old filmmaker based in Los Angeles, arrived in the US  from Vietnam in 1982 when he was nine years old. His travels began a year earlier as one of the Vietnamese boat people. Nguyen’s parents lost their business and home after the fall of Saigon. The decision was made to flee and done in secret. 
 
“Somebody would get a boat, and would calculate how many people would be on it, and at night you kind of sneak out and get on that boat,” Nguyen said. “You get out to sea and you try to reach one of the refugee camps in Thailand, the Philippines or Malaysia. We actually got to Thailand.”
 
It took Nguyen five attempts before finally getting away. “We tried to go all as a family and then we got caught,” he said. “My dad was in jail for eight nine months. The women and kids, like me, were in the jail for about two weeks before we were let out.”
 
Nguyen remembers living conditions in the refugee camp were crowded, and families split up. Men worked in the field while the women and children performed other jobs. 
 
“My mom was doing cooking duties and things like that. We all had to sleep together in this really huge barracks like a warehouse - like hundreds of people,” Nguyen explained.
 
After spending a year in a refugee camp off the coast of Thailand, Nguyen received sponsorship from a Catholic group in the United States. He was later flown to San Francisco and settled in San Jose, California. 
 
Transition to a new American way of life was difficult. Nguyen started fourth grade and was scared.
 
“I went to school and I didn’t speak or write English very well. So for the first few months the teacher just put me in a corner until I was able to get caught up with English and was able to join the other students,” Nguyen said.  He admitted being frightened, but said watching television helped him learn English.
 
Nguyen went to the University of California-Berkeley where he received a degree in molecular biology degree, and followed that with a job at the U-S Department of Agriculture. But Nguyen said he was bored.
 
He recalls writing short stories at night and later taking creative writing courses.  “I remember I was enjoying watching movies and going to see plays, so I tried writing fiction and that really opened the world for me,” Nguyen said. Several of his short stories were published in literary journals.
 
He attended film school and ultimately switched careers. His feature-length directorial debut is the movie “Touch” - a romantic-drama about an unlikely friendship between a shy Vietnamese-American manicurist and an auto mechanic who is trying to keep his crumbling marriage alive. The film has won a number of awards on the independent film circuit.

Looking back on his life and professional path, Nguyen advised: “With hard work you can follow your dream.”
 
A CHINESE AMERICAN JOURNEY

For Chinese-American filmmaker Leo Chiang, coming to America was also a parental decision. The 42-year-old San Francisco-based director was 15 when he left Taiwan.
 
“My parents had decided to send me and my two siblings to the U.S. to get educated, basically.  I think that for the rest of the world at that time, American universities were seen as the best,” Chiang said.
 
Chiang traveled to San Jose, California where family members were there to help him.  Chiang admitted it was not always easy to adjust to his new environment. 
 
“Initially it was difficult to blend in.  Not speaking the language very well and not knowing the culture very well was a bit difficult,” Chiang said. “I definitely had to go through the English as a second language classes.”
 
Chiang succeeded and received a degree in electrical engineering at the University of California.  It led to a job with Apple Computers. But like Nyguen, he had his doubts. 
 
“I just really couldn’t see myself doing that for a long time. And I was always interested in film, I was a cinephile,”  Chiang said.  He applied to the University of Southern California’s graduate program in film production “as a fluke” and was admitted. 

Chiang quit his job with Apple and became a documentary filmmaker. 
 
The career change was preceded by risks and foresight - initiated, he said, by his life as an immigrant.  “I think it would be foolish of people to kind of dive in and come over here without preparation,” Chaing said.
 
“I think that for folks who are interested in coming to the U.S., they really need to find out about American culture and about the places they plan to move to, what it's like, what the surrounding is like, what the environment is like,” Chiang said.
 
The award-winning filmmaker’s current documentary, “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington” is the true story about the first Vietnamese-American elected to the U-S Congress.  Critics call the film a fascinating character study of New Orleans Congressman Joseph Cao. 

"Mr Cao Goes to Washington" will air in January on PBS, the non-profit American public broadcasting service.