- Parodying the Nation: Cross-Dressing and Vietnamese American Comedy
On 30 April 1975 the Việt Nam War ended with the Communist takeover of Sài Gòn, the capital city in South Việt Nam. In the decades following the “fall” of Sài Gòn, countless southern Vietnamese, many of whom were former US allies, fled to countries like the United States, France, and Australia and formed the beginnings of the Vietnamese diaspora.1 In the United States, California became the state where the largest Vietnamese community outside of Việt Nam chose to resettle. Fittingly, California is also now the “birthplace” of the cultural phenomenon that is the Vietnamese American variety show.2 Originating twenty-seven years ago, variety shows like Paris by Night, Asia, and Vân So̕n are part of a major cultural industry produced for and by the Vietnamese diaspora. Extravagantly produced and lavishly financed, these shows feature dancing and singing that rival as well as borrow from the kinds of spectacles seen in Bollywood and Hollywood. Catering to their diasporic audience and history, the shows’ producers often pay homage to the politics of southern Vietnamese culture and are censured if these tributes are not performed properly. As these shows and their popularity demonstrate, for the Vietnamese diaspora, the popular is highly political, the confluence of which recently ignited a controversial event within the Vietnamese American community.
In 2010, during a summer concert for Vietnamese singer Đàm Vĩnh Hu̕ng in San Jose, California, Vietnamese American dissident Lý Tống dressed up as a woman, approached the singer onstage, and sprayed mace in the singer’s face.3 Lý Tống’s act of political theater was aimed at “Mr. Đàm” (as the gay singer is known to his fans) because the pop singer is understood by an anti-Communist Vietnamese American community to be a member of the Communist Party in Việt Nam. Thirty-five years after the war ended, many Vietnamese Americans still resist and protest against any recognition of the Vietnamese state as the official body of the country. Tống’s assault was therefore directed against the state for disseminating what he and others feel is Communist propaganda within the United States. Regarded as a hero to some in the diasporic Vietnamese community, Tống and those like him regularly demonstrate against the flow of capital and culture that abounds between the United States and Việt Nam. This is especially the case after a US–Việt Nam rapprochement was brokered in 1994 and fortified thereafter with a series of trade agreements.4 Given these new global alignments, former naval officer Tống styles himself as a prophylactic against Communist infiltration and pleaded “not guilty” during his arraignment, arguing that the attack against the singer was a case of “self-defense.”5 While Tống’s exploits are often strange and plentiful and involve some form of masquerade, since he sees his missions as James Bond–like in combating Communism, what piques my curiosity about his latest escapade is the act of cross-dressing that marks it.6
In the online accounts of Lý Tống’s stunt that describe Tống as ngu̕ò̕i anh hùng (hero) or ngu̕ò̕i anh khùng (crazy man) to support or criticize him, none speak of the reason why cross-dressing was so essential to his exploits.7 Writing in Vietnamese, commentators and posters presume that his act of cross-dressing was merely part of the spectacle underpinning the political protest or that being in women’s clothing only proved that he is crazy.8 There is little discussion of the way in which men dressing up in women’s clothes routinely features in Vietnamese and Vietnamese American performances, both live and cinematic, both past and present.9 This lack of commentary perhaps points to how female impersonation in Vietnamese and diasporic Vietnamese [End Page 47] cultures is a common trope for male performers because of its connotations of transgression. Bound to notions of spectacle and theatricality, dressing as a woman remains a masculinist prerogative for showmen like Tống. In this case, T...