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From Vietnam to Palestine

A Conversation with Richard Lai, Lynn Ta, and Promise Li

May 3, 2024

Introduction

The Palestinians’ resistance to Israel’s ongoing genocidal attacks has energized the largest mass antiwar movement in years, drawing out organizers among different communities and campaigns. In Los Angeles Chinatown, tenant leaders and organizers have been mobilizing to connect their immediate campaigns against gentrification and displacement to solidarity with Palestine against Israeli settler colonialism. This conversation features Richard Lai and Lynn Ta—two LA Chinatown organizers and Hoa refugees from the Vietnam War—who discuss the influence of their background on their solidarity with Palestinian struggle alongside fellow organizer Promise Li. Lai, originally from northern Vietnam, is a key tenant leader and a member of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association. Ta is a housing justice organizer and refugee from southern Vietnam. Lai and Ta recount their experiences during the Vietnam War, their journeys to the United States, and their views on the current resistance in Palestine against the backdrop of their own personal experiences with war and colonialism. Li, Lai, and Ta are all members of Chinatown Community for Equitable Development. This conversation prompts us to consider the lessons of Vietnam that can aid in building a left politics that centers solidarity with global decolonial struggles.

The conversation with Lai was conducted primarily in Cantonese and was transcribed and translated to English by Li.

Lai and Ta shared aspects of this conversation as a teach-in to student leaders on the first day of Occidental College’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment earlier this week.

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Promise: What was your experience of the Vietnam War like?

Richard: I was born in 1957. I was seven when the United States entered the war in 1964 and began bombing North Vietnam, where I lived. When the sirens started and the bombing began, people would tell us to go into the bunkers. The bunkers had been around since the war against the French, and they gave us some protection from the bombings, but if a bomb directly hit your bunker, you’d probably still be wiped out. One time, my parents had just left a bunker that later got hit and everyone in it died. I remember seeing someone pull out the corpses of elderly people from under the rubble around my neighborhood. I was too young to understand what was going on, but I remembered feeling shock. We were bombed every day, and we’d know when the bombs started because the sirens would come on. Sometimes they would bomb the oil depots and the city would be on fire for days. This is oil for things like lamps, not like fuel for cars. North Vietnam was very poor at the time. We watched them bomb as we fled. At first, the United States said that they were just targeting military targets, but they were bombing everything, including civilian buildings—just like what they are doing to Gaza now.

The bombings forced me and my siblings—my two older brothers and my sister—to evacuate to the rural countryside with our school. There was less bombing in the rural areas. We continued our education there for a few years. My parents had to stay behind to continue working to provide for us. Conditions were rough in the countryside. We were only able to use rainwater, and we often had to use the same water for washing and cooking. I was angry when I learned that Israel is cutting off the water supply and that Palestinians did not have clean water to use. During the Vietnam War, it was especially bad whenever the bombs hit our water depots. We had to line up to get whatever water was left. We were so poor then, just as Palestine is now.

We later heard that negotiations were happening in Paris. We thought that peace was coming soon, but the negotiations kept falling through. It was back and forth like this, and we would visit the city when we thought things were getting safer. But the United States intensified its bombing in 1972 and our brief joys soon turned into fear. The United States even talked about exterminating us and flattening our city. We heard US officials like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger even entertaining the idea of using nuclear weapons. US planes would fly low and use spotlights to look for targets. Eventually, they flattened the whole street where we lived with B-52s and carpet bombing. We were able to escape just in time with my whole family. It was pretty bad in Haiphong, but we heard that it was even worse in Hanoi. The bombings followed a strict schedule: three times a day—in the morning, afternoon, and evening.

Our whole family left around midnight one day on a wagon—my second time evacuating—to the countryside. And this time, we had no destination. The Northern Vietnamese government had ordered rural citizens to open their doors to refugees from the cities. Eventually, we knocked on doors in the countryside and some villagers took us in. As we got to the countryside, I saw rockets and other weapons, many of which were donated to our government by the Soviets. The Vietnamese people still stubbornly resisted the US forces. They bombed a lot of the cities, but we had a lot of our own weapons in the countryside.

We were overjoyed when the United States finally exited the war. They promised us in Paris that there would be reparations, but of course, these were just lies. We never got a single dollar from the United States!

By the late 1970s, there were growing tensions between Vietnam and China. And so there was increasing discrimination and hostility toward Hoa people like me by the Vietnamese government. I was born and raised in Vietnam, but they didn’t recognize us. So many of us had to leave, triggering a massive refugee wave. My siblings all went to China, but I stayed in Haiphong at first to take care of our parents. My parents were initially from China and came to Vietnam because of the war and didn’t want to go back.

Soon we heard that Hong Kong was accepting refugees from Vietnam. My siblings fled the countryside to take a boat to Hong Kong. In Haiphong, my parents and I also heard about the opportunity to go to Hong Kong. Some neighbors and I organized to save up money for a wooden boat to Hong Kong. Our boat carried almost ninety people—it was so heavy that I could wash my hands right next to me throughout the trip. How dangerous is that! We followed the Chinese border and when the waves hit during the night we couldn’t see anything, including the boat next to us. Holes started appearing on the ship, so we had to keep putting water out throughout the night. We got to the beach in Hong Kong just as the boat was starting to sink and we had to swim the last few yards. Our family reunited at the Kai Tak airport refugee camp—except for one of my brothers, who went to Macau instead, so we missed each other until we got to the United States. My older brother was able to get a sponsor from a distant relative to go straight to the United States, so we had thought that we wouldn’t see each other until the rest of us found our way there. We had to go through the Philippines for a year before we got to the United States, where we learned some English. It turned out that, despite the sponsorship, my older brother had to detour to the Philippines too. We all reunited there again. My brother in Macau was sponsored by a church to go to, so we didn’t see him until we all eventually arrived in Los Angeles Chinatown in 1980.

Lynn: My grandparents also came from China to Vietnam to escape the Second World War. They settled in Saigon, in South Vietnam. My dad taught himself English when he was growing up. When the US troops arrived, the South Vietnamese government kept trying to draft him, so he changed his name and birthdate multiple times to avoid conscription. Eventually, he couldn’t dodge them anymore and was enlisted, but he was able to work as an interpreter because of his language skills, which meant that he didn’t have to be on the frontlines or in other dangerous areas as much.

 

Seeing how Palestinians have to pull the corpses of loved ones from under the rubble reminds me of when I saw and did the same during the U.S. bombing of Haiphong. I remember the fear my relatives and I felt when we heard the sirens and experienced the bombings in Vietnam. I know this fear very well. I hope for peace in Gaza soon.

After the war ended, my family was left in a precarious position because my father had assisted US troops. I wasn’t born until after the war ended, but I knew my father was always in hiding. The now-Communist government sent soldiers to search houses for any extra money or valuables, and food was rationed. My mom recalled trembling in fear when they tried to search our house and we waited in line for food. We knew we had to escape at some point. My grandfather was a small shop owner and had some money to secure spots for us on a boat to leave.

The boat voyage was also treacherous. Family friends had a daughter who died on one of the boats and her body had to be thrown out into the sea. They eventually became our neighbors in Los Angeles and her loss was always a deep, deep sadness and grief that hung over them.

When we left Vietnam, we went to Malaysia first but they denied us entry, so we ended up in a refugee camp on an island in Indonesia for a year and a half, and then Singapore for a month or two, where we applied for asylum to the United States. When we arrived in the United States, we lived in North Carolina at first, but ended up moving to Los Angeles, which is where I grew up.

Promise: How do your experiences in Vietnam inform the way you view Israel’s genocidal war on Palestinians today?

Richard: When I see Gaza destroyed and Palestinians’ houses flattened, I remember that these leaders have no humanity and that they don’t see Palestinians as human. Israel controls Palestinian lives; not only does Israel not give Palestinians anything, it bombs them. Seeing how Palestinians have to pull the corpses of loved ones from under the rubble reminds me of when I saw and did the same during the U.S. bombing of Haiphong. I remember the fear my relatives and I felt when we heard the sirens and experienced the bombings in Vietnam. I know this fear very well. I hope for peace in Gaza soon. What growing up in Vietnam taught me is that if the United States and its allies wants to bomb you, they can do whatever they want. Even as the world protests, the United States can ignore them. The United Nations seems useless, as it and other states can’t stop the bombing. And the United States keeps funneling money to Israel, while Palestinians barely have much to help themselves resist. I’m heartbroken every day seeing Palestinians suffer.

The United States could and should stop the war before Palestinians are fully ethnically cleansed. It uses Hamas as a justification to kill no matter what the world says and who is on the ground. But the United States only has its “reason” because it has more power and arms, while others have nothing.

When the United States attacks others, it says that it acts in the name of justice. But when people fight back, the United States calls them terrorists. They can use words like terrorism however they want, as long as it suits their interests. The United States makes up things like the axis of evil to label countries like North Korea, even when they are the ones bombing others.

I remember in 1968, Northern Vietnam coordinated a sudden onslaught against US bases and embassies (the Tet Offensive). And I remember that the United States also called us terrorists at the time. When oppressed people fight to liberate our nation, we are labeled terrorists—how does this make sense?

Lynn: There are many parallels between Vietnam and Palestine; both have been sites of interest for larger colonial powers and each has resisted multiple colonizers. There were a lot of comparisons made between Vietnam and Afghanistan as well, especially when the United States withdrew troops from Afghanistan in 2021.

I think that revolutionary struggles for independence are often intertwined, drawing support and inspiration from each other as they fight against colonial domination. As the world continues to witness Israel’s genocidal bombardment of Gaza, the Palestinian resistance has galvanized a global movement of solidarity against Western imperialism and, in the process, has spotlighted other ongoing struggles in Sudan, Congo, and Tigray. This international uproar has also sparked historical comparisons to Vietnam and its decolonial resistance in the 1960s that led to unprecedented and widespread protests in the United States. In the global outcries against Israeli atrocities in Palestine, the antiwar protests of Vietnam reverberate.

At one point in this history, both of these anticolonial struggles ran in parallel, forging an enduring lineage of Palestine-Vietnam solidarity. In the mid-1960s, Yasser Arafat and Khalil al-Wazir, co-founders of Fatah, visited Vietnam, and in subsequent years the Palestine Liberation Organization sent Palestinian soldiers to Vietnam for training in guerilla warfare. Arafat went on to visit Vietnam at least ten times and, in 1969, declared that Palestinians were fighting for “the freedom of peoples who are fighting for their liberty and existence, the freedom of the people of Vietnam who are suffering like the people of Palestine, the freedom of all humanity from oppression, discrimination and exploitation.” Ho Chi Minh, in turn, affirmed that same year that the Vietnamese people “fully support the Palestinian people’s liberation movement and the struggle of the Arab people for the liberation of territories occupied by Israeli forces.”

At the heart of these liberation movements is the common struggle against global systems of domination: the hegemony of US imperialism, militarized capitalism, settler colonialism, and criminalized migration. Inevitably, imperialism abroad not only produces direct consequences at home—increased immigration, contractions in the labor economy, proliferation of criminal surveillance apparatuses—it also reproduces the logic of the imperialist project: the violence of capitalism abroad in an unceasing feedback loop with the violence of capitalism at home.

I think Richard’s observation about the Tet Offensive is astute, because just as it was in Vietnam, Palestine, and Afghanistan, the United States will degrade, demean, and dehumanize its enemies to control the narrative and justify its wars. But Tet was a huge blow to the US narrative that it was winning the war. And it demonstrated that, like all these other struggles, Western counterinsurgency tactics cannot extinguish the resistance of oppressed people. So, there is definitely hope for Palestine. Richard, do you think there is hope for Palestinians to win liberation?

Richard: I don’t know, it seems so dire on the ground. I read that Israel is even flooding tunnels with water in Gaza. I see that they are doing carpet bombing just like the ones I lived through in Vietnam. At the time, major countries like the USSR and China were helping us. But Palestine now? Most major powers aren’t helping! I read about Yemen’s blockade and hopefully other Arab regimes can help too. Israel’s containment of Palestinian resistance didn’t start today. They are killing Palestinians and reducing their land more and more every year. In 1948, the United Nations granted Israel’s right to a state—but Palestinians don’t get to have one? Every day they are occupying Palestinian lands more and more, reducing them to almost nothing. This is why the Palestinian resistance is having to fight to the end now. Israel won its previous wars only because of US support.

We live in the heart of empire—we can think about what we can do here. As Richard mentioned, Nixon wanted to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, but he didn’t, in part because there was a massive antiwar movement. Palestinian liberation will ultimately be achieved through the Palestinian people, but there are ways that everyday people, including those of us living in the metropole, can contribute through protest, divestment, and other resistance efforts.

Promise: But there is resistance in Palestine still. Mainstream media isn’t showing it, but Israel is actually not as well trained for street combat. Palestinian militants are pushing back on the ground and we can get more information straight from the people through social media. This is why Israel has relied on airstrikes; they know that they are weak on the ground.

Lynn: We live in the heart of empire—we can think about what we can do here. As Richard mentioned, Nixon wanted to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, but he didn’t, in part because there was a massive antiwar movement. Palestinian liberation will ultimately be achieved through the Palestinian people, but there are ways that everyday people, including those of us living in the metropole, can contribute through protest, divestment, and other resistance efforts.

Richard: Yes, we need to keep rallying and loudly pressuring the United States to stop the genocide in Palestine. We need to strongly pressure the United States for a ceasefire. There are more than twenty thousand dead already. They are even using chemical weapons like white phosphorus to suffocate Palestinians. Every month, every week, we need to go out on the streets, without rest, demanding a ceasefire. If we keep waiting for the United Nations, everyone will be dead! I saw that there was a vote for a ceasefire at the United Nations, but the United States vetoed it. US and Israeli politicians are even talking about what to do with Gaza after the war now. The United Nations can’t control these people. The United States is very despotic.

Lynn: It’s like a horrific déjà vu when you see the images online. Napalm in Vietnam, white phosphorus in Gaza. Airstrikes, tunnels, refugees escaping on flimsy boats. The United States always has a hand in these proxy wars. They used Vietnam to solidify their imperialist control in Southeast Asia, just as they used Israel to control the Middle East. Lyndon B. Johnson called Vietnam a “raggedy-ass, little fourth-rate country,” but that fourth-rate country still defeated the United States. I believe in the will of the people to achieve independence and liberation from colonialism, even when they are outnumbered and outgunned.

Richard: Yes, and Palestinians need their own nation. You can’t protect your family and have self-determination without a nation. Israel separated Gaza and the West Bank and has consistently prevented Palestinians from having their own state. It’s been seventy years of futile negotiations, while Palestinians and their homes continue to be displaced by settlers.

Promise: Thinking more about what we can do, I also want to acknowledge the challenges of anti-imperialist organizing here. Many of the South Vietnamese diaspora—like the Hong Kong diaspora I’m a part of and along with others who have fled communist rule back home—strongly espouse anticommunist and right-wing politics. Lynn, how can we make sense of this and rebuild anti-imperialist politics among our communities?

Lynn: In the diasporic imaginary, many South Vietnamese see themselves as freedom-seeking victims of communism, and so position themselves within a nationalist discourse that can be assimilationist and deeply embedded in the tenets of liberalism. I know this was true for my father, who used to email my sisters and me on the anniversary of our arrival in the United States to remind us of our “liberation.” But it is hard for me to be critical of this. He lived in a postwar Vietnam under a communist regime that was very repressive, especially toward the ethnic Chinese minority, or Hoa, whom the government targeted, in part because of our relative economic prosperity during partition and because of Vietnam’s deteriorating relationship with China at the time. My father’s escape was very much one of persecution and exile, but he was also deeply loyal to China and lionized Mao, so these politics can be complicated. And of course, there are always the perils of mythologizing a left regime while overlooking its repression and brutality.

For the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, particularly among the South Vietnamese, anticommunism will endure as an almost existential rubric for their political engagement. For those of us on the left, the task of challenging these reactionary politics is to channel our efforts into building a global base that resists genocide, war, and displacement as tools and byproducts of capitalism and imperialism, and not as fragmented, insular moments of conflict. This was a salient lesson of Vietnam: the problem was not Hanoi or Beijing, the problem was the history of colonialism and military intervention that had pervaded the country for decades, and this history shares a lineage with Palestine and other global struggles targeted by Western empire-building. As a movement, we can stitch these struggles together to create greater international solidarity against Western hegemony and to resist reactionary factions that cannot see beyond an anticommunist smoke screen.

Promise: Yes, and our experience as tenant organizers in Los Angeles Chinatown has allowed us to help bridge new forms of solidarity between diaspora communities with different politics on the ground. Both of you are also centrally involved in one of Los Angeles Chinatown’s key tenant struggles in Hillside Villa. Can you say more about how the Palestinian resistance has influenced your local organizing work in Hillside Villa, and in Chinatown more broadly?

Richard: I want the government to actually provide for us and solve the pressing issues in Chinatown. There isn’t enough affordable housing and people can’t afford to stay in their homes, and the United States is not caring for its own; it’s fighting unnecessary wars and murdering Palestinians instead. There are many unhoused people around and not enough housing that they can access. We need to pressure the government to use money to solve domestic problems, like providing more affordable housing, instead. And we need to protest and pressure elected officials for them to actually serve their constituents.

Many Hillside tenants and I have lived in our building for decades and we are now being threatened with 200 percent rent increases and evictions. Mayor Karen Bass promised that she will help amplify our demand for the city to use eminent domain to purchase our building from the landlord during her campaign last year. But now that she has won, she is failing to deliver. I demand that the US government use public funds to serve us, instead of giving billions to Israel. Right now, they are using our money to do whatever they want to do!

The struggle in Palestine also compels me to keep confronting something that we have grappled with in our organizing: how to bridge our local campaign to a larger political struggle for working-class power against imperialism. While organizers may discuss global politics more with some of the tenants, as we have with Richard, it is not at the fore of our day-to-day work. In fact, a big challenge of organizing is situating the tenants’ fight within larger national and global movements.

So we need to keep going out on the streets, like I did last time for the Genocide to Gentrification action. I’ll bring my “Chinatown Is Not for Sale” sign to the next Palestine protest too. Israel’s genocide affects all of us here too. The same amount of money the United States is giving to Israel could be used to save so many of us from displacement here in neighborhoods like Chinatown.

Lynn: Richard’s point is an important one: that the United States spends billions of dollars on wars overseas but refuses to invest in the welfare state at home. And this imperialism is not purely colonialism abroad. These processes have created what has become known as border imperialism, which in broad terms is the uprooting of large populations overseas, usually in the global South, as a result of war, capitalist encroachment, and even climate change. At the same time that these upheavals are happening, Western countries contract their borders against new waves of migrants. As of this interview, Congress is still debating conditioning aid to the war in Ukraine on funding for tighter border controls. This is an example of how the US war machine contributes to the displacement of populations overseas, many of whom will end up at our border and denied entry. This renders the border not just a physical site of contestation, but an entire regime of policing, criminalizing, and commodifying migrant bodies, forcing them to exist in impoverished conditions and to take on different forms of precarious, low-wage, and oftentimes illicit labor that only furthers capitalism.

When I think of Chinatown, the second poorest neighborhood in Los Angeles, I think of it as a repository for this type of migration. Migration that has been subjected to colonial upheaval, immigration controls, and targeted policing. Labor that is exploited, undercompensated, and preyed upon. But it is also a site of extreme resilience and recalcitrance. It was formed as an ethnic enclave to resist racist violence and, today, it continues to resist the violence of gentrification. In the last decade, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development has been able to stall the construction of a 725-unit apartment building at College Station off the Metro Gold Line. This building has no designated affordable housing units and would serve gentrifiers who can pay market-rate rents. Through protests, organizing, and a lawsuit, we have been able to delay the project for years. As a community, we have developed intergenerational, interethnic, and cross racial solidarity to fight back against the encroachment of developers and landlords looking to evict tenants. Like its global origins, the struggle in Chinatown is very much the struggle of land and displacement.

The struggle in Palestine also compels me to keep confronting something that we have grappled with in our organizing: how to bridge our local campaign to a larger political struggle for working-class power against imperialism. While organizers may discuss global politics more with some of the tenants, as we have with Richard, it is not at the fore of our day-to-day work. In fact, a big challenge of organizing is situating the tenants’ fight within larger national and global movements. We often get caught up with the immediate material exigencies of rent increases or unlawful detainer notices—and I’m not saying tending to these urgencies isn’t important—but it is not how we are going to build power effectively. Vladimir Lenin cautioned against staying in the realm of everyday economic struggles without connecting to a broader political struggle against the whole capitalist system, and daily organizing can sometimes feel this way: depoliticized and disconnected. There is also the very real tension that some tenants want to keep politics out of the fight, insisting instead that we focus on more immediate demands, but not recognizing that building power requires political agitation. This doesn’t mean our organizing is completely devoid of political, internationalist resistance. In December, many members of the All Chinatown Tenants Union signed a letter to the Asian-American caucus in Congress, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, delivery of humanitarian aid, and the end of military funding to Israel. Last December, several Hillside Villa tenants and organizers, including Richard and me, took to the streets with other tenant associations across Los Angeles to protest the housing crisis in the city. This action was framed very much as the struggle of land and displacement, from Los Angeles to Palestine. The tenants vociferously called for a free Palestine, understanding that our struggles are all connected.

But there are also more explicit, concrete connections between our fight at Hillside Villa and the struggle in Palestine. As Richard mentioned previously, elected leaders in Los Angeles—notably liberal and progressive politicians—have done little to support Hillside Villa and, in many instances, have actively worked against our cause. For example, Hillside Villa won a historic city council vote two years ago to authorize the process of eminent domain, where the city would expropriate the building and make it permanently affordable. But rather than take swift and bold action to effectuate eminent domain, the city has stalled the process and, in the meantime, the head of the housing department began backroom negotiations with the owner of the building, completely cutting tenants out of decisions about their own housing. These same politicians recently passed a motion asking the city attorney and Los Angeles Police Department to report on whether the mass dissemination of flyers critical of Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people should be a criminal misdemeanor constituting so-called antisemitic hate speech, essentially conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. And the police force tasked to enforce this is the same one that trains with the Israeli Occupation Forces and imports Israeli military tactics and strategies to use in the urban policing of Black, brown, poor, and unhoused communities in Los Angeles. This “deadly exchange” highlights how repression is internationalized, but also how it is all the more urgent for local movements to be thinking toward more anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, internationalist politics.

I am reluctant to analogize gentrification to settler colonialism, but both are different symptoms of the same imperialist machine. In Palestine, these dynamics are scaled up—an entire country occupied and its people displaced, decades of resisting racist violence, and now a genocide underway. Our organizing must account for all the ways in which the violence of displacement happens, both locally and globally.

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