This is the season of statues, monuments and symbolism, both near and far. Violence in Virginia, and at least some virulent words here in Orange County.
A national tempest has been stirred up by the notion of removing displays honoring the Confederate army and its leaders. Locally, some folks have taken exception to the renaming of a street in a Little Saigon area of Garden Grove after Emperor Quang Trung, a Vietnamese folk hero.
The city council on Tuesday night voted 7-0 to approve a change from Business Center Drive to a new name honoring a man who led forces repelling Siamese and Chinese invaders back in the 18th century. The new name will be accompanied by a statue and a small park.
While only four people spoke on the matter at the meeting – two in favor and two in opposition – it’s been the subject of additional conversation in social media and over coffee.
Symbols are important to people. However cynical we may become about politics, we nevertheless often react with emotion to things and images, which touch our sentiments. Flags, statues, monuments and, yes, street names are among those things.
Quang Trung may not be a household name to most of us, but it carries considerable weight in the Vietnamese culture. The veneration of ancestors is a widespread theme in Asian societies, and Trung might be considered a kind of “father of his country” because of the life he led.
He was a refugee, an experience that resonates with many who fled Vietnam after the communist victory there in 1975. He supported the peasants over the rich landlords. He defended the nation against invasion. He died young at age 40.
But, according to some historians, he was also a ruthless leader who was responsible for the death of many members of the Nguyen clans. Like many historical figures, his record was mixed when judged by 21st century ethics.
Some people in town resent the idea, feeling that naming a street after a long-dead Asian emperor means a refusal of immigrants to embrace Americanization; a desire to recreate a kind of pocket Vietnam here in the U.S.
There’s probably some truth to that, but there’s likely an even bigger, very American impulse behind it. As my (distant) relatives in La Cosa Nostra have been known to say –in movies, anyway – it’s not personal, it’s just business.
A monument and museum honoring Trung is a major tourist attraction in Vietnam. The area is ringed by high-rise hotels that market themselves by their proximity to that historic location in Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City). The commercial appeal of the name is not limited to that side of the Pacific Ocean.
There are quite a few eateries and such bearing that name. There’s the Pho Quang Trung in Westminster and Garden Grove and the Quang Trung Restaurant in Huntington Beach.
Modern Vietnam is a communist nation politically, but quite capitalistic in its economy. Like China, it’s embraced free enterprise while leaving personal freedom on the shelf. If, as Councilman Phat Bui suggested, this street name change will help inspire young people to work to accomplish great things, so much the better.
But if the only result is to encourage tourism, well, that’s not so bad either. For many people, making more money is “the pursuit of happiness,” and what could be be more American than that?
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears each Wednesday. He, personally, would like a statue erected to honor the inventor of pizza, if we can ever figure out who that was.