Less than a month ago Anh Joseph Cao was hardly a household name. Then the freshman congressman from Louisiana broke with his party to become the only Republican in the House to vote in favor of the health care reform bill.
In addition to his party-defying vote, Cao’s personal story also helped propel him into the national spotlight. He is the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. He’s also a Republican who represents an overwhelmingly Democatic district with a majority African-American population. “How did he do it?” a lot of people wondered.
A new documentary film helps provide some answers. Cao appears only briefly at the very end of “A Village Called Versailles,” which tells the story of the political awakening of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East following Hurricane Katrina. Virtually the entire film was shot well before the 2008 election in which Cao won an upset victory over veteran Democratic Representative William J. Jefferson, who was indicted, and subsequently convicted, on corruption charges.
The documentary is a kind of prequel to Cao’s story. It shows how in the year following Hurricane Katrina, Vietnamese residents of the Versailles neighborhood rebuilt their homes, businesses and churches only to have their safety threatened by a landfill created nearby to receive tons of hurricane debris, much of it toxic. The community, which had mostly avoided politics up to that point, successfully organized and forced the city to close the landfill.
The Vietnamese refugees who settled in Versailles had already been displaced from their homes twice. During the Vietnam War they were forced to flee their villages in North Vietnam and move to South Vietnam. When the South fell, they were forced to leave the country entirely. “A Village Called Versailles” tells the story of how they refused to be displaced a third time, from their new home in the U.S.
“A Village Called Versailles” was made by S. Leo Chiang, 39, a Taiwanese-American filmmaker who lives in California. Feet in Two Worlds spoke to Chiang about his new film which is being shown around the country, and will be broadcast on public television next May.
FI2W: How did this project begin?
Chiang: It was actually kind of an accident that I came across this story. I was out of the country for most of the period around Hurricane Katrina. After I got back I was having a conversation with a friend who was doing a study that tracked the recovery among different communities of color, and she started telling me about the Vietnamese-American community down there and how they were fighting this landfill. I had no idea there was a Vietnamese-American community down there. I was fascinated, mostly because I feel like as an immigrant I really understand what they were doing to fight for their new home and, sort of, claim their American identity.
FI2W: So it was the immigrant aspect of the story that was particularly compelling to you?
Chiang: It was a couple of things. The parallel between the two exiles, the fact that they were refugees, that they were forced to travel through water to leave their homeland, and then Katrina once again was a similar situation where they were forced to leave their homes, but this time they had the option to come back. And just the parallel between the two was really fascinating. It was an angle on Katrina that no other community had experienced. The other thing that really interested me was this whole idea of second homeland and connection to the land, and how as an immigrant for a long time you feel like a guest in the new country that you moved to. In order to claim that identity (as part of the new country) there are a couple of fundamental attitudes that need to be adjusted. To me, the Vietnamese community didn’t decide to do that until Hurricane Katrina happened, and it made them realize they don’t really have another home to go back to. Now they can see where they are, and New Orleans is actually their home, and in order to not loose their home again they have to step up and fight.
FI2W: At the very end of the film we see Joseph Cao being sworn in as a U.S. congressman. Obviously this happened after you shot the film. But the film seems like the backstory of how Cao won the election.
Chiang: I feel like its definitely related. I wouldn’t say that its the only backstory, but I think it was hugely influential in the result of the election. The district that Joseph Cao represents is 60 per cent African-American Democrat (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated this figure as 70 to 80 per cent), and he is a Vietnamese-American Republican. For him to have been elected there was a combination of events. Because the Vietnamese-American community was so energized they really got behind this man, and came out to vote and held voter registration drives. And I think it was also an indication of the good will non-Vietnamese New Orlineans felt toward the Vietnamese-American community. Folks in other parts of New Orleans did really admire what the community had achieved. I’m not saying there was no backlash. There was and there still is. There is this, ‘why did those guys come back, and how did they get so far ahead, and why didn’t we get so far ahead?’ But I felt there was enough good will towards this community that this guy became a representative of the community.
FI2W: What do you hope people who see the film will come away with?
Chiang: I feel that there are not enough images and stories about Asian-Americans, and especially Asian-American immigrants, engaging in civic activities and the democratic process and speaking out politically. I really want this to motivate the immigrant community to see that this is a choice. You don’t have to stay quiet and not rock the boat and, sort of, be the model minority. There are ways to self-determine. I really wish that the film can be a motivating force for people to take action, that’s what I hope the most for it. From a more passive perspective I would just like to share the story of this community which is very little known, even now.
FI2W: There appears to be an ascendancy of Asian-American politicians around the country. John Liu recently became the first Asian elected to city-wide office in New York City. The governor of Louisiana is Indian-American. So how much of that passivity that you talk about is still a reality?
Chiang: Well the fact is in a lot of these Asian-American communities, and Versailles is one of them, the people that hold the power are still the first-generation immigrants that do have these attitudes of not rocking the boat. They also are not training the next generation to speak up because of the cultural tradition of the kids should be seen but not heard. There’s not that encouragement for the youth to engage and take charge and to take leadership roles. Yes, there is definitely a tradition of improvement of Asian-Americans being more politically prominent. But I feel that because of what is traditionally taught and how things are traditionally structured in Asian-American households the next generation will probably have to overcome that in order to speak out and step up. I feel like the second-generation of folks just need to be encouraged. If you’re not going to get the encouragement from the traditional community structure …
FI2W: … they’ll get it from you instead.
Chiang: Maybe. I don’t know. At least that’s the hope.