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"Sacred Willow" Bows to the Past

Beth Hughes, Special to the Examiner

July 21, 1999


Vietnamese family memoir sheds light on troubled time

My family owes its good fortune to a mysterious man.

Duong Van Mai Elliott's magnificent saga, "The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family" (Oxford University Press) begins with this signal that Elliott's tale will follow twists of fate, along a road laid out by traditional practices and beliefs but mined with the volatile facts of modern history.

The story could not be more compelling if it were fiction, as Elliott's relations, divided by ideology, war and finally peace, demonstrate the unyielding strength of their familial bonds, ties that still bind despite one sister's allegiance to a communist regime that stripped them of land and status, "re-educated" a younger brother and propelled many into exile.

"It is a book I've wanted to write for a long time, even when I was living in Saigon as a teenager," said Elliott, interviewed at her home in Claremont, Los Angeles County, where she is working on a novel. Born and raised in Vietnam, she attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University from 1960 to 1963 on a scholarship awarded to promising Vietnamese students by the United States under its Leadership Training Program.

"We all wanted independence, we all wanted reunification, we just disagreed on under what kind of regime," said Elliott of her relatives, who accepted the dominant role of family in Vietnamese culture. "We were split along ideological lines, but my sister is still a sister, she's still a daughter, and that helped us transcend some very deep divisions."

Sitting at her family's cramped dining table, listening to her father recall his father and grandfather, and the stories they told him, Elliott could not have known then that her epic would encapsulate the postwar history of Vietnam.

By presenting the turbulent events of the past 150 years as experienced by her well-educated, middle-class family, Elliott offers an ideal vehicle for the exploration of modern Vietnamese history by revealing the options that faced each generation. Only temporarily did the choices split her family, and thousands like them, under French, then American domination.

"Nobody in my family, that I heard of, was mad at my sister for joining the Viet Minh," said Elliott. "We never felt that she should not be part of the family again." By illuminating these stories behind the headlines, Elliott helps us understand that America's tragic involvement in her homeland caused as great a social upheaval there as it did here.

Thus, Elliott voices a perspective until now missing from the English-language body of work on the Vietnam conflict — that of the educated Vietnamese middle class that U.S. policy attempted to bolster, but ultimately deserted.

Part of that failure stemmed from America's inability to understand Vietnam's fiery brand of chauvinism. Perhaps alone among Asian nations colonized by the Western powers, Vietnam never needed such subjugation to forge nationalism.

Long before Western voyages of "discovery," Vietnam was recording its history of bloodshed, as it defended itself against all comers. Under the leadership of the mythic Trung sisters, the scrappy little country came out swinging to dispatch Chinese invaders in the first century A.D. No matter that the Chinese returned. By the 15th century, Vietnam barely acknowledged China's suzerainty with infrequent, desultory tribute missions.

Two hundred years later, the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French began trading with Annam (China's name for Vietnam), a country that, when seen on a map, often is likened to a cobra readying to strike. The French emerged as the dominant force, exploiting existing political tensions.

Finally, in 1859, after a bloody fight, Saigon fell to the French, who took Hanoi in 1873 and consolidated their hold throughout the three regions a decade later. Although sporadic resistance continued until 1913, the futility of further military struggles was apparent to most Vietnamese.

Among them was Duong Lam, Elliott's paternal great-grandfather. He rose from poverty to become an influential mandarin, as ensured by the "mysterious man" — a monk still venerated by some of Elliott's relatives. To repay the dirt-poor family for kindness to him, the monk selected an auspicious grave site for patriarch Duc Thang, great-grandfather of Duong Lam.

A nationalist and a strict Confucian, Duong Lam passed the imperial exams in 1878 to achieve the coveted cu nhan degree. In a country that revered learning, his success meant instant fame. In a country buckling before the French, his success meant a mandarin's life plagued by unanswerable questions. Trained to serve his country, should he collaborate with the French? Could he be loyal to the people of Vietnam and their interests, while serving France?

Duong Lam refused to learn French, and when his colonial masters knighted him as a "Dragon of Annam" he displayed the medal in his pigsty. Elliott's grandfather never wavered from his traditions as he watched the French attempt to transform Vietnam's culture to something of their own making.

Elliot's father, Duong Thieu Chi, served as governor of the Haiphong region under the French and Emperor Bao Dai. A nationalist who favored independence, he reviled the Communists, though at the time they appeared to be the political faction most likely to drive the French from Vietnam, having launched early efforts in the 1930s.

His eldest daughter, Elliott's sister Thang, believed Marxism could liberate Vietnam from French domination. She married an agricultural expert and, with their 6-month-old son, melted into the jungles to endure years of desperate deprivation as part of Ho Chi Minh's force of dedicated Communists who eventually whipped unbelieving French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Most of Elliott's family then fled from the north, arriving destitute in a corrupt and politically complicated Saigon. Her father faced setbacks in his career, although his anti-communism never faltered. Family members who remained in the north suffered horribly under the land-reform movement, which penalized them for pasts as mandarins and landlords. (Thrang, despite model performances at war and as a worker, never will achieve membership in the Communist Party because of her class background.)

Elliott, with an American husband, returned home to work in various U.S.-funded, war-related programs before finally landing a position as an interviewer for a Rand Corp. study of communist prisoners. The U.S. Department of Defense wanted to know what drove the fiercely dedicated, and increasingly victorious, Viet Cong.

"I thought I knew," writes Elliott, recalling preparation for her first encounter with the enemy, "but my knowledge was really just an amalgam of prejudices," as she immediately discovered. Persuaded by the passion and eloquence of her first subject, a man without much formal education, Elliott accepted the Viet Cong as patriotic, self-sacrificing, determined and courageous people, moved by a "just cause . . . driving out the Americans, healing the gash that cut the fatherland in two."

The Viet Cong, who offered the poor hope for a better future, channeled the people's sympathy into support, and thus Elliott realized ". . . I could not blame those that fought on the other side for our own failure to offer a more attractive alternative."

Such objectivity marks Elliott's book and makes it the best kind of history, which we may escape repeating by reading of this remarkable family, strengthened for future generations by its past.