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Oasis for L.A.'s Viet Buddhists

October 20, 1987|DAVID DEVOSS

Two miles west of Downtown Los Angeles, in an ethnically mixed neighborhood on the edge of Koreatown, stands an old apartment building whose prosaic exterior belies its religious significance to thousands of Vietnamese refugees.

It is the Chua Viet-Nam, a Buddhist temple and the main center of Vietnamese culture for the half of the 170,000 Vietnamese living in Los Angeles and Orange counties who are Buddhist.

In 1977, while working on educational material for refugee children, Don Farber was invited to spend a Sunday afternoon inside the temple. The visit would become the first of hundreds of weekly trips he made to the corner of 9th and Berendo.

"I had never been to Vietnam and knew the Vietnamese only as they had been portrayed during the war--as guerrillas, napalm victims or body counts," says Farber, now 36 and a commercial photographer. "But inside the temple I found a cultural oasis where Vietnamese, here less than two years and still confused by the assimilation process, were attempting to re-create the spiritual atmosphere they once enjoyed back home.

"From that first day I was determined to reveal the richness of their culture and the real human qualities of the people."

For 10 years he would photograph Sunday morning worship ceremonies and special banquets for the resident monks. In the afternoons he observed classes of the Long Hoa, a Buddhist youth group formed by parents anxious that their children not forget their native language.

The result of his efforts is "Taking Refuge in L.A." (Aperture), which chronicles the people and events in temple life.

Though the 20 monks now living at the temple are spiritually secure, none is free from the secular pressures outside. Most, look for other ways to survive--studying electrical engineering, computer programming or working as gardeners.

"But on Sunday there is no feeling of alienation among young Vietnamese, most of whom have been born in the U.S.," he says. "For the children the temple is a beautiful mix of American and Vietnamese culture."

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