“I’ve always thought Vietnam was beautiful, and the people there are so friendly.” There’s a pause, as my high school teacher waited for validation or some sort of engagement of the topic.
As a Vietnamese American, I often attract the attention of Vietnam vets. This type of scenario has been repeated throughout my life in various ways, sometimes out of the blue, but also around specific days such as April 30, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, or Veterans Day.
The interactions might be awkward, but are generally positive and warm. These are not the people who toss out slurs like “gook” or “Me love you long time.” There’s no point in that casual aggression; we already share suffering. Instead, they’re complimentary or wistful, seeking a way to articulate an experience that cannot be understood by anyone who doesn’t have a direct connection with that impoverished yet resilient country.
It’s been over 40 years since America lost the conflict in Vietnam, but the effects of the war – it’s massive death toll, how it divided Americans, and the corruption in the White House – are still reverberating. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” does an impressive job of approximating the war’s impact, but it doesn’t necessarily make up for the silence resulting from the lived trauma or lack of communication between each subsequent generation. To this day, it’s a difficult subject to broach because people still don’t know what they’re supposed to feel about the war or those connected to it.
What does this have to do with “Watchmen”? The HBO series takes an entirely new and surprisingly effective approach to puzzling out this fraught history. And yes, it’s a topic that is still finding fertile ground on TV. Recent storylines include one soldier’s experience during the war (“This Is Us”) and different takes on the immigrants who settled in America (“Young Sheldon,” “Queen Sugar,” “BoJack Horseman”). All of these are based in our reality.
HBO’s “Watchmen,” however, is set in an alternate timeline, and its fantastical nature allows us to contrast events with our own reality and therefore see them with fresh eyes. In the original graphic novel by Alan Moore, America has won the Vietnam War, and as a result, the communists have been defeated and Vietnam becomes the 51st state in America. The TV series by Damon Lindelof continues that storyline and shows an America that has integrated Vietnam into the everyday.
This is not mere window-dressing, such as how Chinese was used in Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” for creative cursing and cool fashions. Sure, there are some chopsticks wielded and puns deployed, but the other Vietnamese touches go far deeper on “Watchmen.” Naturally, since this is an alternate version of our world, everything is just a little bit skewed. Add to that the dubious reliability of the history presented, and the resulting feeling of uncertainty about who to support and where they belong is a good approximation of the ambivalence toward Vietnam today in the real world.
Below, I dig into some of the most intriguing Vietnamese aspects on “Watchmen” up through the fourth episode that aired Sunday, in which two distinct Americans of Vietnamese background meet.
Angela Abar, the Vietnamese-inflected masked cop
In the first scene that introduces Angela Abar (Regina King), it’s revealed that she was born and raised in Vietnam, which makes her . . . Vietnamese? Is that moniker the equivalent of Texan or New Yorker? This must have been what it was like in the early 1960s right after Hawaii became a state. And like, Hawaii, Vietnam would have an Asian American plurality.
As such, I identify with Angela because despite where she was raised, no matter how well she speaks the language or can cook its foods, her appearance codes as foreign. Therefore, she must not have been truly embraced as a Vietnamese person, but treated as an Other. This is my everyday existence in the U.S. and demonstrates how much identity can be a construct of society.
I enjoyed seeing what a good Vietnamese person Angela is. She serves what looks like phở at home – although the pot should’ve remained on the stove, and pairing it with red wine? Blech! – and can sling insults in Vietnamese. (King succeeds better than some other Western actors at tackling the tonal language. Not everyone can be John Cena.) It’s also amusing to me that she also utters, “Đụ má mày,” which translates to “F**k your mother,” the first Vietnamese phrase that non-Vietnamese kids learned on the playground when I was growing up in Houston.
It’s still not clear what led Angela to move to the mainland, but that also must have been confusing for her sense of identity. Sure, she found others who look like her, but they have different cultural touchstones and possibly values. And only recently, she discovered a long-lost ancestor, but that also came with the knowledge that her family was targeted for racial cleansing. Even though Angela has endured her own brush with death, large-scale violent and traumatic events like the Greenwood Massacre – or the Vietnam War – are passed down with how each generation is raised, even if we’re not explicitly aware of it happening.
Angela’s confusing bakery signage
I am a fan of a well-considered pun, and Angela naming her bakery Milk & Hanoi is such a clever Vietnamese play on “the land of milk and honey,” aka the Promised Land. And if this is mere cheekiness to attract customers, then well done. I’d check it out.
When speaking of the Vietnam conflict, though, the names of cities are important. Angela was raised in Saigon, which in this alternate history is the current capital of Vietnam. In real life, Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam that was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war, and the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi was promoted to become the country’s capital. Therefore later, when Angela’s bakery answering machine says, “where we let Saigons be Saigons” (wordplay on “let bygones by bygones”), this feels like a deliberate observation on how in this timeline, Saigon was allowed to keep its name.
But if Angela was raised in Saigon, why use Hanoi for her bakery, especially since it’s the capital for the losing side? I realize this could be reading too much into “Watchmen.” Perhaps it would have been too neat if Hanoi also lost its identity and was given the name of some other leader – maybe Nixon, who in the “Watchmen” timeline, never faced the Watergate scandal and subsequent impeachment process.
I’m willing to ignore those oddities, but the strangest indicator that something isn’t quite right or at least, not what we’ve been led to believe, is the logo for Milk & Hanoi. On a field of red, we see a golden star in the upper left quadrant, embraced in the arc of a golden croissant. The visual humor is apparent; it’s either mimicking the hammer and sickle from the Soviet flag or the star configuration on the Chinese flag. The croissant is also a cheeky nod to the French, who occupied Vietnam and influenced its culture – ranging from its written language to its cuisine. And the real-world flag of Hanoi, one central golden star on a field of red, matches with the bakery’s name.
That would all gibe except this is entirely the wrong flag to mimic. In the “Watchmen” timeline, America won the war in Vietnam and beat back communism. So none of that imagery makes sense. In fact, it should be the South Vietnamese flag’s design – a field of yellow with three red stripes across the center – that should be the official flag of Vietnam on the show. This is the flag seen waving in celebration when the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan helped to win the war in the original “Watchmen” film adaptation.
It’s also the flag seen on the insignias for Vietnam veterans in real life. It’s the flag that most refugees who fled Vietnam still honor in the U.S. Most Vietnamese households will have some form of the flag hanging on their walls or around the house. My mother has worn the flag as a scarf. My father owned a yellow Gremlin that he wanted to add three red racing stripes to for the full effect. It took me until adulthood when I finally visited Vietnam and saw the red flag with sole star to understand that the one I knew wasn’t recognized by the world flag anymore. And that’s what makes its absence and erasure from the show feel so conspicuous.
Could this all just be a mistake in production or ignorance of the yellow flag’s significance? I doubt it seeing as how Lindelof made “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” both shows that are rich in detail and Easter eggs. He’s even consulted with “The Good Place” creator Mike Schurr on the proper way to create an ongoing mystery with a proper payoff. Lindelof doesn’t do accidental.
But if the Hanoi name and communist colors (including a red tracksuit-wearing cop played by Jim Beaver who also claims he’s a communist) are deliberate, what does that mean for the story “Watchmen” has told about America winning the war in Vietnam? And what does that mean for Angela, who was raised there? More importantly, what happened to the Cold War ceasefire after Ozymandias’ space squid hoax?
Lady Trieu, powerful trillionaire with a mysterious agenda
Episode 4 finally introduces Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese woman who had been alluded to in the previous week by Agent Petey (Dustin Ingram). Although the series pronounces her name as “Lady True,” that is anglicized from Lady Trieu, a name that actually holds rich meaning to our world’s Vietnamese people. In the third century, legend has it that Lady Trieu was a fierce warrior who led rebels in an uprising against the invading Chinese. She and the Trung Sisters 200 years before uphold a strong tradition of rebellion and women fighting in the military in Vietnam.
This may have nothing to do with the “Watchmen” Lady Trieu, but that context may give hints about her true intentions, which are currently murky. Besides, the legendary warrior is often shown riding a white elephant, the same animal’s head that adorns the elaborate hourglass Lady Trieu whips out on the show. This is a theatrical lady.
Here, Lady Trieu is a trillionaire. This is the ultimate outcome for a citizen of a country that was impoverished and still recovering from the ravages of war only about 40 years ago. It appears that freedom (and capitalism) allowed Lady Trieu a ridiculous amount of success, and the way she’s revered in America is unlike the reception that most Asian Americans are given today (well, except for maybe Keanu Reeves.).
Lady Trieu got rich making advanced pharma and biomedical tech, and she clearly commands all the latest technology. The orbital array that Agent Blake (Jean Smart) uses to contact Dr. Manhattan bears the name Trieu on it. Coincidence? Unlikely. Lady Trieu also has the wherewithal to genetically engineer a baby for a childless couple, offer them $5 million on top of that, and oh yeah – buy the company once belonging to Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), aka Ozymandias.
What is her connection with Veidt? It’s uncertain, but she quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”) at an important groundbreaking and has a statue erected in his honor that makes him look his age since her people honors their “elders.” His current location, which looks like an English country castle, is unknown (although Petey heard a rumor that Veidt got plastic surgery and is wandering around Tulsa incognito). She also has a domed vivarium that mimics the climate and surroundings of Vietnam, even in Tulsa. She’s not a stranger in America; she’s made America into a little Vietnam. This echoes the vivarium in the Antarctic that Veidt had in the graphic novel. It was maintained by three Viet Cong refugees whom he later killed.
Lady Trieu is still a large question mark. She had worked with Angela’s grandfather Will (Louis Gossett Jr.), who had killed the Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). She is also building something that resembles a giant scepter that people call a clock, but she claims is far more powerful and interesting than a clock, although it does tell time.
Lady Trieu’s clothes offer few clues about her identity or purpose. The first time we meet her, she’s wearing white head to toe (a color usually reserved for mourning in Vietnam). It’s vaguely reminiscent of the áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese garment that consists of a high neck, long and fitted tunic that splits over the legs, and loose trousers. This version is far more elaborate and even includes white straps that flap from her wrists. It feels more like a costume than everyday wear, but eccentricities are expected of the mind-bogglingly rich. Later, in her vivarium, her ensemble is much simpler and toned down, far more similar to the áo dài.
Is she a good guy or bad guy? It’s too early to tell, but those sorts of designations are too simplistic on “Watchmen,” where that binary is laughable. But we remain intrigued by her and even her daughter, which takes us to …
Bian, the trillionaire’s dutiful daughter
We actually meet Lady Trieu’s daughter Bian (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) long before meeting the lady herself. In an earlier episode, the young woman is seen purchasing a stack of newspapers and other reading material from a newsstand, insisting that “she” – most likely her mother – reads everything. Seen in oversized glasses and a braid most of the time, in one scene, Bian is wearing a green beret and a matching green high-necked tunic with dyed-to-match frog fastenings over tan trousers. It’s as if she got the memo to dress military, “but make it fashion.”
Bian seems harmless enough, but there are a few intriguing details that have set off red flags. For one, she doesn’t seem to be a typical teenager or young adult, and is instead more of a lackey or assistant to her mother. But then again, she could just be playing apprentice in the family business, ready to take it over whenever her mother decides to retire or finally dies.
But that takes us to the comment that Lady Trieu made earlier in the episode: “Legacy isn’t in land; it’s in blood, passed to us by our ancestors and by us to our children. You two have no children, so when you die you’ll be extinct.”
Sure, she’s trying to manipulate the Clarks to get what she wants, but Lady Trieu might also be revealing her own mindset. Is Bian the key to Lady Trieu not becoming extinct or erased? Could she also be born of biotechnology?
And finally, there’s a clue in Bian’s name, which means “secretive” or “hidden” in Vietnamese. The girl is either hiding something or her very existence could hold a secret.
While “Watchmen” still has five more episodes to unlock these mysteries, I’m also braced for Lindelof to choose not to (yes, I’ve seen “The Leftovers”). Episode 7 will dig a bit more into Angela’s past but it may not provide the type of illumination that we want. The various Vietnamese women on the show are all seeking something, but they’re not necessarily all aligned. All I can hope for are maybe some insights and a few more stray puzzle pieces. And that’s okay. When it comes to the question of Vietnam and its confusing aftermath, that’s an ongoing, living reality. I’m just glad others are still paying attention instead of burying it in the past.
”Watchmen” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.