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Community Engagement Is Underway for a New Vietnam War Memorial in Dorchester

Artist Ngọc-Trân Vũ is leading a project that will honor the perspectives of local Fields Corner residents.

Feature by Shira Laucharoen

Two screens display the year "1975" while audience members sit at tables, observing the event.

An Intergenerational Cultural Commemoration event held at VietAID Community Center on April 20, 2024. Photo by Lee-Daniel Tran.

In Fields Corner in Dorchester, members of the neighborhood’s vibrant Vietnamese community have long wanted a Vietnam War memorial to call their own.  A tribute already exists on Morrissey Boulevard, commemorating seventy-nine fallen American soldiers who lived in the area before the war. But according to artist Ngọc-Trân Vũ, this monument conveys a narrative about American veterans, not the Vietnamese families impacted by the conflict, whose stories have gone untold. To fill the void, Vũ has been working with residents to create a new memorial, one that aims to capture a plethora of human experiences that emerged from the war.

“This work has been a long time coming,” said Vũ. “As someone who grew up locally here in the Dorchester community, the seeds have been planted for a really long time. There’s really no permanent marker for the Vietnamese diaspora community.”

While Vũ started to conceptualize a project in 2021, she began organizing a team and officially got “1975: A Vietnamese Diaspora Commemoration Initiative” off the ground last summer, when she applied for large grants. Her idea has two components: a memorial that will serve as a public, physical site for healing and memory, and a collection of oral stories that will be integrated into that piece. The year 2025 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and Vũ hopes that a temporary installation will be completed by then, followed by a permanent creation. Currently, the 1975 team is working to secure a space for the installation, ideally the Town Field park, and this summer, they aim to unveil a 3D model.

The 1975 organizers have heavily involved the local Dorchester community in the process of planning the memorial. On April 20, the team held an intergenerational cultural commemoration event at the VietAID Community Center on Charles Street in honor of Black April, or the fall of Sài Gòn (now Ho Chi Minh City). The gathering drew together both individuals who have contributed to the project’s planning and those who wanted to learn more, while creating a space to reflect on the past, understand the present, and look to the future. Speakers like Massachusetts state representative Tram Nguyen and the City of Boston’s Vietnamese cultural liaison, Kevin Tran, addressed the resiliency of families and survivors involved in the war, and celebratory music, dance, and other performances took the stage. But prior to this event, the project’s organizers held three community dialogue nights where members of the public contributed ideas of what they’d like to see the memorial represent. Vũ emphasized that intergenerational views are important to her work, and the meetings were loosely organized to focus on three different age groups: elders, baby boomers, and millennials and younger individuals.

“People [would] come in and sit down,” she said. “There would be materials they could use with their hands; they could draw, and they could use clay. We would lay out a program, introducing ourselves and what our goals are. We’d play slides, all bilingual.” She added, “We’d build in time for reflection and [the] posing of questions, [asking], what is your vision of a dream memorial?”

Three women stand in front of a screen projecting words, the middle figure smiling.

Ngọc-Trân Vũ is the lead artist behind the Vietnamese Diaspora Memorial project. Photo by Lee-Daniel Tran.

The answers that the planners heard were diverse. Some were interested in images from Vietnamese folklore, like figures evoking the elephant-riding Trưng sisters who led a revolt against colonization nearly two millennia ago. Others wanted to acknowledge the South Vietnamese army and flag, though Vũ emphasized that she would like the memorial to look beyond militaristic representations. Water, an important symbol in Vietnamese culture, was brought up, while community members also proposed the formation of a bench where families could rest. Vũ said that the installation might include bronze, a traditional Vietnamese material, or bamboo, if it could withstand the weather.

The Vietnam War is a subject that reaches Dorchester residents across generational divides, Vũ said. Millennials may experience psychological impacts passed down from their parents and older relatives but find that they face barriers when trying to talk to elders about the trauma of the conflict. Community dialogue sessions have opened up a space for those conversations, said the 1975 team’s outreach specialist, Linh-Phương Vũ (no relation to Ngọc-Trân Vũ), bringing to light the different ways that generations understand the war. She said that she has heard stories from boat refugees fleeing Vietnam and facing the waters, veterans entering reeducation camps, and mothers and wives staying home, fearing for the safety of their sons at war. Linh-Phương Vũ explained that she has observed younger individuals expressing a desire to learn more.

“There’s a younger generation affinity to be in these commemoration spaces,” she said. “At certain times in our lives, we become more wanting and desiring to learn about ourselves, about our families, more open to it. Perhaps when we were younger, we were having these questions but didn’t have the cognitive capacity to make these connections.… Once we get to a certain age, particularly college age, [we ask], who am I, as a Vietnamese?”

She added that older individuals appreciate the knowledge that their stories will make it into an archive. She explained that they often think, “This is a way for me to tell my grandson, my granddaughter, my daughter, my son, or my niece and nephew, what I went through, my story, my lived experiences.”

A group of people sit around a table, while one woman writes on materials posted on a wall.

A community dialogue night held as part of the “1975: A Vietnamese Diaspora Commemoration Initiative” project. Photo by Tommy Lam Media.

The City of Boston is a funding partner with the 1975 team, and the organizers of the project have predicted that they will need $500,000 to create the memorial. The community-engagement aspect, included in that value, will demand around $100,000. As of now, they have received $75,000 from the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture and $30,000 from a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts. They have launched a crowdfunding Give Butter campaign, through which they hope to raise $100,000. Funds will go to design and planning, construction and materials, and administration, which includes project management and insurance. Other local partners include Boston Little Saigon, VietAID, Asian American Resource Workshop, and the Fields Corner Public Library.

Professor Peter Kiang, director of the Asian American Studies program at UMass Boston, has supported the project by offering archival materials as resources. Art plays an important role in communities recovering from the impact of war, he said.

“In my opinion, the most powerful memorial in the United States, in terms of healing, has been the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, Maya Lin’s memorial, the wall,” said Kiang. “That approach is an artistic vision that was not in the tradition of the heroic, male warrior. The creation of space through light, form, and material in the artistic design really showed that public art has a healing role, a therapeutic role.” The 1975 project will likely fulfill that objective, he added. “I think in this case, the commitment for that purpose is very strong.”

Shira Laucharoen

Contributor

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