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THE BIG MIX : Video : So Many Video Stores, So Many Languages. . . : Little Saigon's Video Kicks

The articles on these pages, plus those to follow in daily Calendar, explore the multicultural spheres of Homeland Video.

February 05, 1989|MARK CHALON SMITH

Danh Pham is a tiny man with the slightly sour look of a hard-working businessman who doesn't have time for nosy strangers. Arms crossed, he listens as Tony Lam, restaurateur and man-about-town in Orange County's Little Saigon, asks him to enlighten a reporter about his small video rental business.

After much talk in Vietnamese, Pham remains noncommittal, even suspicious, behind the counter of Danh's Video, his shop in a mini-mall off Garden Grove's Bolsa Avenue. Lam is emphatic, but Pham just watches his customers, who listen bemusedly to the negotiations. Only when a Vietnamese-American teen-ager with a pomaded horn of hair breaks into the conversation does Pham loosen a bit.

The young man all but shouts: "Kung fu movies, they are the best!" Pham, along 5with everybody else, laughs.

Pham adds in thickly accented but precise English, "Yes, kung fu is very popular, very. Many of the young men come in for the fighting (movies), they go for the action. Not like the girls, who all the time want romance. . . ."

With that, Lam shakes Pham's hand, and turns to the reporter: "He will help you now. He is willing to trust you." The exchange is reflective of the Vietnamese community and its wariness of the media and outsiders; it also underlines how something as seemingly innocuous as video-rental preferences can open a little window on that community's identity.

Pham now moves casually up the aisles, pointing to a crowded row of movies starring a mix of Vietnamese, Chinese and Taiwanese actors. All are filmed in Taiwan or China, usually in Chinese and later dubbed into Vietnamese. On the opposite wall is a stack of major English-language releases. The shop's interior is covered with posters, most touting the Vietnamese tapes. They are common for the genre--romantic melodramas with a beguiling hint of soft sex or sword-fighting adventures featuring a hero rising up against evil.

Pham says video is important to many Vietnamese-Americans for the same reason it is important to everybody--easily accessible and inexpensive entertainment to be enjoyed at home. But he also points out that their interest can be more complex than most.

The dubbed tapes provide older Vietnamese with a nostalgic link to their homeland, a catalyst for inspiring joyful and painful memories of a country thousands were forced to flee more than 10 years ago. They are reminded of what they were, and that helps to keep the old culture intact.

The English-language videos, especially American releases, tend to be most attractive to the new generation--for different reasons. Eager to assimilate and already fluent in English, hip Southeast Asian youngsters wearing the trendiest Western clothes find in these videos the world they know better. The other tapes are for their parents, their grandparents.

"They come (and rent) for different reasons, many reasons," Pham says. "Some remember and feel woe, others just want to enjoy (them) like anybody else. There are many different choices here for many people."

Sitting in front of an animated restaurant in Little Saigon, Jane Serna and her 66-year-old mother, Muoi Pham, are like opposite bookends in a library of changing cultural attitudes.

Serna, 32, crosses her legs under a black leather mini-skirt that is less high-school sexy than Vogue fashionable. She announces that she is ready to speak and does so in crisp English. Her mother, who speaks little English, is friendly but a bit uncomfortable with the reporter's questions.

At first, the daughter is interpreter for the mother. "She says (she feels) sad when she rents a (Vietnamese) video. She feels a heaviness from remembering her life there. She doesn't watch them often because of that heaviness; she'd rather watch nature (programs) or comedies on (American) TV. She has trouble (with the language), but she still understands.

"But most of her friends, who are her age, get the dubbed movies; they want to have an (emotional) experience; they want to remember what has happened to them, what Vietnam is like."

But Serna, with a surprising staunchness, says she only watches big-release English-language movies, whether in theaters or on video ("Die Hard" and "The Last Emperor" are two of her recent favorites). She stresses that she has embraced American ways and has found a happy life in Westminster; assimilation has not been easy, but it has been valuable.

Inside the restaurant, Harold Nguyen, a 54-year-old insurance adjuster, is merrily eating a large bowl of noodles crowned with pigs' feet. He agrees that the younger generation tends to avoid most of the Vietnamese-language movies, with one exception.

"Everybody goes for the kung fu, even my children," says Nguyen, who has a young son and daughter. "They, of course, like all the action, which really doesn't have anything to do with the language.

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