Homespun to Hard-news

Homespun to Hard-news

As the longest-running Vietnamese newspaper in the United States, the Nguoi Viet Daily News keeps immigrants connected to their native country and serves as a guide to American life.

By Lydia Lum

During his career as the publisher of a Vietnamese newspaper, Yen Do would frequently buy articles from writers even if he never intended to use them. Why? Because he knew how badly they needed the income. For that reason, Yen would sometimes pay a triple fee to freelance writers. And for the same reason, he typically wouldn’t fire the occasional incompetent employee.

Yet today, more than a quarter century after Do founded his newspaper, it continues to thrive. In fact, it is growing at a time when many national mainstream newspapers are bemoaning declining subscription numbers. With a daily circulation of more than 17,000, the California-based Nguoi Viet Daily News is the longest-running Vietnamese newspaper in the country. Nguoi Viet has a staff of 50 and is distributed as far as Australia, France and Russia.

Nguoi Viet, which means “Vietnamese people,” offers primarily political and economic news out of Vietnam and Asia. The 60-page paper also includes news from various villages in Vietnam, written by a network of correspondents groomed by Yen and others. Like its ethnic press counterparts, Nguoi Viet offers news not provided by mainstream media outlets. It also includes a section in English once a week, edited by his 39-year-old daughter Anh Do. The section is aimed at a generation that is largely American-born or, like Anh, immigrated when they were young. Loan Do, Yen’s wife, oversees classified advertising.

A war correspondent in Vietnam for U.S. dailies, Yen fled the country with his wife and children close to the April 1975 fall of Saigon.
In an oral history published in 2003, Yen described his life’s work as
“a calling.”

“We have no guidebooks to help us survive,” he told interviewer Jeffrey H. Brody, a California State University-Fullerton professor. “I only knew that the refugees had to work together and tolerate each other. I knew that we needed a newspaper. It wasn’t easy, but we had no choice.”

Yen retired from Nguoi Viet last year. Now 65, he is battling diabetes and kidney disease.

“His whole orientation has been to keep folks informed and help them become good citizens,” says Dr. Rick Pullen, dean of the College of Communications at CSU-Fullerton. Pullen has known the Do family for more than a decade. “He has a great appreciation for education, and his impact on Vietnamese Americans is profound.” 
 
Bringing a Community Together
During Yen’s first three years in the United States, he held 10 different jobs in California and Texas to support his young family. At one point, he hung wallpaper; at another, he was a social worker.

When U.S. officials began allowing tens of thousands of Vietnamese to settle in the country, Yen decided to use his journalism experience to help his countrymen start a new life in America. So in 1978, he began writing and publishing a four-page weekly leaflet in his native language. It featured such how-to’s as applying for a driver’s license, shopping at the grocery store and buying a house. In the process, Yen taught newcomers about complexities nonexistent in Vietnam, such as escrow. He even wrote about parent-teacher conferences he’d attended.

At first, Yen commuted 115 miles from his home in San Diego to sell his latest issue on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. There, he reconnected with friends he’d known in Vietnam. They became his
first distributors, standing at the doors of Vietnamese churches and pagodas on weekends with Yen’s papers attached to the front and back of their clothes.

Yen soon realized that Orange County, which was between his home and L.A., was fast becoming the “Little Saigon” for Vietnamese arrivals. So he uprooted his family again and moved there. At first, Yen and his family were among 16 people sharing a two-bedroom apartment. When he eventually rented a house for his family, the garage became the publishing office. There, he manually inked the Vietnamese accent marks after preparing his articles with an IBM Selectric typewriter.

When China invaded Vietnam in 1979 and war erupted, Yen published daily leaflets based on news accounts he translated from English-language dailies. Vietnamese Americans hungered for news from overseas, and Yen’s leaflets were like the newspaper “extras” mainstream dailies published during times of war, disaster or major events. This sparked Nguoi Viet’s evolution from a homespun tip sheet into a hard-news publication.

Meanwhile, Anh, the oldest of four children, was getting early lessons in newspaper distribution by helping bundle the Nguoi Viet subscriptions mailed out of town and affixing stamps to them. She grew up wanting to follow in her father’s professional footsteps “for as long as I can remember,” she says. Anh recalls a love of reading that began in Vietnam, when tales of Babar the fictional elephant were among her childhood favorites. At the University of Southern California, Anh double-majored in journalism and English literature. She has since held reporting jobs at the Seattle Times and the Dallas Morning News.

While Anh was learning about writing and reporting in school,
Yen was learning the basics of U.S. journalism on the job. Public safety reporters, he quickly discovered, weren’t privy to everything police officers knew about a crime. Nor was he supposed to venture across
the unfamiliar “yellow ribbons” at a crime scene. At the same time,
he taught his readers about freedom of the press, a concept that
didn’t exist in their native country. Because some of the reporters
in Vietnam were bought off by political factions or wealthy,
influential people, some of the Vietnamese arrivals mistakenly assumed the U.S. press operated similarly.

By the early 1980s, Yen and his staff began hosting meetings with politicians, activists and cultural leaders to discuss topics affecting Vietnamese Americans. This helped them cultivate news sources and story ideas, a form of community-based journalism that preceded similar efforts among many mainstream dailies.

Over the years, Nguoi Viet modernized its production and technology. Its advertising revenue, page count and physical facility grew alongside the Vietnamese American population, which the 2000 Census numbered at more than 135,000 in Orange County.

The city of Westminster, Calif., where Nguoi Viet is now located, is 30 percent Vietnamese.

A look at Nguoi Viet’s English section reveals some of the current interests and concerns among Vietnamese Americans. Recent feature stories vary from personality profiles of Vietnamese athletes and authors to the reasons Vietnamese American women are five times more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than their White counterparts. And Anh often publishes first-person pieces from second-generation Vietnamese Americans on topics such as their experiences working in rural Africa and the costs and benefits of Anglicizing their birth names.

Nguoi Viet currently has a “content partnership” with the Orange County Register, where Anh is a columnist. While the papers have separate news-gathering operations, Nguoi Viet occasionally re-uses Register content, translated into Vietnamese. In return, the Vietnamese paper regularly shares news tips, sources and information with Register staffers.

“The hope is that there can be some joint reporting of news features between both papers, down the line,” Anh says.

Anh credits her family upbringing with instilling in her the importance of keeping the content of Nguoi Viet relevant and practical for its readers. “While my father was pursuing his passion,” she says, “I watched my mother hold the family together, raise four kids and pay the bills. She didn’t have time to get information just for the sake of information.”

In 2001, the Asian American Journalists Association honored Yen with a lifetime achievement award. A proposal to honor him in Westminster fell through though, when city officials earlier this year decided not to re-name a street after him, saying it would lead to a barrage of similar proposals, according to published reports.

However, Yen’s influence is apparent in many spheres.

Last year, Nguoi Viet officials pledged $30,000 in newspaper funds to CSU-Fullerton to finance scholarly research benefiting Southern California’s Vietnamese and Southeast Asian populations. So far, two $5,000 faculty grants have been awarded. One grant funded a study of the relatively low Vietnamese American voting rates and reasons behind the lack of participation. The other financed work on Yen’s biography, a project begun before the newspaper’s gift to the university.  

At the Nguoi Viet facility, its 275-seat community room is booked most weekends for events such as book signings or art shows. The room is an outgrowth of Yen’s longtime support of artists, Anh says.

Julian Do, the Southern California director of New America Media, says Yen has set an example for Orange County’s other Vietnamese newspapers and magazines, several of which dedicate space in their buildings for community events as well. New America Media is a national collaboration of ethnic news organizations.

“The promotion of culture, the engaging of artists,” says Do, no relation, “those are part of Yen Do’s very rich legacy.”



© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com