The Voice of Vietnamese Americans’ Past: Chau Thuy’s Impressionsitic Calligraphy

On the abundantly sunny weekend of January 31, 2009, the streets of the Little Saigon district of Garden Grove, California were sprawling with hundreds of people excitedly scrambling to walk in the gates of Garden Grove Park where the annual Tet Festival was being held. The Tet Festival celebrates the Vietnamese New Year and is held in Little Saigon—the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. The animated, bustling Tet Festival crowd enjoyed a day of authentic Vietnamese food, activities, and celebration while they visited booths that ranged from a renowned display of professional photography to children lining up to participate in a spelling bee. Among these booths was Chau Thuy’s impressionistic calligraphy display. Walking past the display, one might assume that Thuy’s booth’s purpose was simply for him to sit at his table and draw a festival attendee’s name in his fanciful style that was so eloquently displayed on the walls of his booth. However, Thuy’s booth was much more than artwork on demand; it was a symbol that spoke volumes about the Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese American’s adverse past.

Chau Thuy fled Vietnam to escape communist control in 1980 on a boat that was only three or four yards long. Thuy and his fellow refugees did not eat or drink for three days. After these three days finally passed, the boat landed in Thailand where Thuy stayed for a while, but is unsure of the precise time frame. Thuy and a couple dozen other “boatpeople” left Thailand and landed in America later in 1980. Immediately upon his coming to America, Thuy was confined to living in a refugee camp. After he was finally released, he remembers finally feeling free, but also felt somewhat constricted because he was not yet accustomed to the overbearing and dominant American culture. Thuy had to learn quickly how to do things that Americans did in their everyday lives, such as drive cars and acquire health and auto insurance.

Thuy overcame this feeling by studying moving to the American South for a few years to study at University of Louisiana where he first became interested in art. After he graduated, he moved back to California to Little Saigon and became an engineer. Thuy remembers seeing Vietnamese calligraphy first in Little Saigon and was immediately captivated by the intrigue it offered. Thuy found himself bored during his leisure time, and began drawing to relieve his boredom. His drawings mostly consisted of Vietnam symbols fluidly expressed in the art of calligraphy. Thuy visited Vietnam soon after he took up calligraphy, and noticed that his homeland used the art of calligraphy as a form of symbolism and expression. Vietnamese artists depicted their history and beliefs through impressionistic calligraphy. Thuy was deeply inspired and affected by this notion, and soon after his return to America, he no longer drew to fulfill his leisure time; calligraphy was now his way of life and a means to inspire others.

Thuy quit his job as an engineer and opened a calligraphy school in Orange County in 2003. Since then, Thuy’s work has been on display at various museums in Southern California, including California State University, Fullerton’s art museum. His work consists of calligraphy symbols that represent stories about Vietnamese Americans’ history and of philosophic aphorisms. For example, one of Thuy’s most popular pieces is “Boat People.” At first glance, it looks like a canoe-shaped boat with almost a dozen people aboard. However, once studied more meticulously, it can be inferred that the two lines that make up the boat symbolize ideals such as the transition between confinement and freedom, and life and death. The boat is also in the shape of a tear, suggesting that many tears were shed during Thuy’s flee from Vietnam. Another of his most popular pieces is known as, “Mother’s Love.” This piece is in the shape of a rose budding from a long stem. The leaves of the rose look like the silhouette of a mother holding her child, and the rose itself represents unconditional love. Many of Thuy’s pieces are universal, like “Mother’s Love.” However, his piece, “Independence” is perhaps more significant to those who were a part of Vietnam’s history, as it tells the story of Vietnam’s declaration of independence. This piece is composed of dozens of tiny lines in the shape of Vietnam. These tiny lines represent the thousands of tears dropped and blood that was shed during the fall of Saigon to communist rule.

Although Thuy is grateful for his success, he is even more thankful that his work is viewed by people of all ethnic backgrounds. This is because he hopes his works will have a profound effect on his viewers so that multiracial barriers can be broken. Thuy’s goal is to have his works provoke and offer an explanation to existence, life, and the present. Based on the success of sales of Thuy’s work, many would agree that he has met this goal. At 21, Chau Thuy started out in America as a refugee and immigrant who was determined to be successful in American society. At age 50, Thuy has more than achieved his dream by not only becoming a self-made man, but by using his brilliant talent to fuel a movement towards cultural change to break down barriers and allow an unyielding and infectious motive for racial tolerance to spread across American society.

(Click image to enlarge)

Chau Thuy
"Boat People"

Chau Thuy
"Mother's Love"

Chau Thuy
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