Beyond  /  Comment

The South Vietnamese Flag and Shifting Representations of the Vietnamese American Experience

The sight of the flag on January 6, 2021 has aroused curiosity and criticism. Missing, however, is the multiplicity of its symbolism to Vietnamese Americans.

The Republic of Vietnam (RVN) ceased to exist forty-six years ago, yet its flag still flutters in American cities and many other locales among the Vietnamese diaspora. The main reason for its visibility in the United States is the fact that the majority of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants had political, military, educational, and historical roots to the extinct state. It is therefore tempting to think that this flag stands for nostalgia for the RVN. This notion, however, is misleading if not also mistaken. Among the diaspora and even people in Vietnam, there has been nostalgia for many things such as the culture, politics, and society in South Vietnam, especially republican Saigon. Evidence, however, indicates that the symbolism of the RVN flag has shifted over the four-and-a-half decades of postwar Vietnamese presence in the United States.

One reason for this shift had to do with the differences between the initial waves of refugees on the one hand, and the subsequent waves of immigrants, on the other. The refugees, especially those who came to the United States in 1975, carried fresh memories of South Vietnam. Early diasporic production of literature and music, for instance, included countless references to the land and life now lost to the communists. This experience, however, became more complicated as boat people began to arrive to American shores. The boat people lived through some of the harshest experiences of their lives: in Vietnam, at sea, even in refugee camps. Like the 1975 refugees, they longed for a return to Vietnam someday, but they also knew that life in postwar Vietnam was still extremely difficult. By the time that Vietnamese migrated legally en masse to America—in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s—they carried with them their experience of poverty, incarceration, and other personal and collective upheavals.

It is undeniable that the visual symbolism of the RVN flag is forever tied to the name of the South Vietnamese state. At the same time, however, it behooves the historian to be attentive to the shifting symbolism of this flag as a reflection of the postwar experience. It is especially easy to overlook the shifting symbolism after the appearance of this flag at the rally-turned-riot in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. Carried by Vietnamese American supporters of Donald Trump, the flag has been interpreted to be, again, nostalgia of a certain kind. This view, however, misses out the long and complex history about the place of the flag in the Vietnamese diaspora, especially in the United States. In the hope for a more historically informed perspective, I wish to offer a sketch about the two main waves of Vietnamese immigration alongside the history of the flag’s presence in American society.


January 6th

Here, one of the flags carried by participants in the Jan. 6 riot serves as an entry point into a discussion about the shifting nature of Vietnamese immigration to the U.S. since the end of the Vietnam War.