Emerald Voices: Chú Tuân

by Sharon H Chang

CHÚ TUÂN, 81, bicycles to my home the day before our interview just to verify the address. He says a brief hello, confirms, leaves. Then, the day of our interview he arrives earlier than I expect. He’s very prepared, I realize, dressed neatly and professionally. In his hand he clasps several newspaper clippings. I thank him profusely and respectfully for his time. He smiles politely and strides in through the door.

You might remember Tuan Nguyen, or Chú (Uncle) Tuân, from last month’s public forum for Tommy Le, the young Vietnamese American man fatally shot by King County police in June. Tuân was the Vietnamese elder who galvanized the room when he took the mic, introduced himself as a former police officer of the South Vietnamese army, then let the panel of King County elected officials know exactly what he thought about militarization of U.S. police today.

And he knows an awful lot about policing and war. Chú Tuân blew the room away with wisdom he has drawn from a lifetime of experience.

Photo by Sharon H. Chang

Tuân was born and raised in Huệ city, central Vietnam, the fifth of nine children. Tuân’s father was a landowner who worked in farming and later suffered during land reform just before the country was divided in two. Tuân, upon finishing school, joined the South Vietnam (aka Republic of Vietnam) police force eventually becoming a police instructor and trainer. Promoted to captain in 1972, he served for almost fifteen years, before, during and through the Vietnam War.

He talks to me about the war; the messy politics and murders; the United States selling Vietnam old weapons it didn’t want; the coup d’état and assassination of South Vietnam president Ngô Đình Diệm. After the war, the Communist government imprisoned up to 300,000 former military officers, government workers, and supporters of the former government of South Vietnam in “reeducation camps.” Tuân’s house was confiscated and he was sent to one of these camps where he was held for eight years. In these prisons, which were used for revenge and also indoctrination, thousands were tortured, starved and abused.

Tuân was able to arrange for his children, a daughter and son, to flee to the United States as refugees. But Tuân, imprisoned, had to wait. The father would at last follow his children when President Reagan came to an agreement with the Hanoi government allowing political prisoners like Tuân to attain asylum. Tuân migrated to Seattle where he has lived ever since. Both of Tuân’s children are now grown and he also has four U.S.-born grandchildren.

As is always the case when I have the honor to receive the story of a war survivor, I am in awe at this elder’s capacity to survive and sit before me in this moment.

I ask Chú Tuân if he will show me the newspaper clippings he has brought. They are articles from Vietnamese papers. One is about Tommy Le’s forum featuring a formidable picture of Tuân himself. Another is about excessive use of force by police in Mississippi. A third is by a writer of color admonishing what she sees as the Vietnamese American community’s unwillingness to speak out about police brutality.

Photo by Sharon H. Chang

Tuân chides a bit at this last article. He agrees his Vietnamese American community often does not seem to pay attention to the controversial issue of over-policing in the U.S. But, he says, it’s more complicated than not caring. His community keeps their heads down, he points out, for survival. “I’m not criticizing this lady,” Tuân tries to be respectful to the writer, “but I think she not understand us.”

What most Americans probably know about Tuân’s homeland begins at the point when the U.S. entered the Vietnam War in 1967. But, Tuân reminds me, Vietnam had actually been in conflict long before that. “One thousand years we were conquered by the Northern China, one hundred years colonized from the French,” he expounds. “And thirty years we burden inside the house, fight together, North and South Vietnam.” After so many years of being conquered and colonized, of being at war, Tuân says it makes sense that now his people “work very hard,” “are very frugal,” and act “mild” to lead others to believe they are harmless.

“They need to survive for themself first before they can pay attention around.”

That said, Tuân points out there are still members of the Vietnamese American community who care about over-policing and have something to say about it—it’s just that their voices are seldom heard. Like himself. Tuân is obviously quite critical of policing in the United States, particularly as a former police officer, war survivor and political prisoner. Reflecting upon the tragic death of Tommy Le, whom King County police killed after mistaking a pen the young man was holding for a knife, it is clear the experienced elder is unimpressed and not afraid to say so.

Tuân does not personally know the Le family. But he has observed police violence in the Vietnamese American community before and is concerned. He has questions, for instance, about whether U.S. police are being appropriately trained and how well they know their communities. He has questions about whether police in the United States are equipped to de-escalate, confidently observe and evaluate whether or not a person is “dangerous.” And he has questions about police using weapons to kill people.

Photo by Sharon H. Chang

Our interview is coming to a close and Chú Tuân has been sitting forward in his chair for some time now. He gestures emphatically with his hands and points with his forefinger exactly as he did when calling out King County officials last month. Justice, he says, is for the people. And the police, “We work for them.” Tuân wishes he could have spoken more the night of Tommy Le’s forum and regrets there wasn’t time.

“If people have a knife or a pen,” he says, referring to Tommy Le, “the police don’t need to use a gun.” Plus, adds Tuân, repeating something he underscored at the forum–the reverberations of a shooting reach very far. “The family of the victim cry and the family of the police cry too,” he forewarns. “Both sides will suffer.” To me, this seems a chilling advisory (and one we would do well to heed) from a person who has lived through a war which saw hundreds of thousands of deaths on all sides. 

And yet, while Tuân would love to collaborate with police here, he knows he will likely never get the chance. Especially because of language barriers. Tuân speaks Vietnamese and needs an interpreter for English. “After my own experience I want to talk to the people who train the police,” he says, “but I don’t know who can help me.”

Our time is up. I think on the newspaper clipping he has brought with him in which its writer scolds the Vietnamese American community for their silence. I think back to watching Chú Tuân capture the room at Tommy Le’s forum with the wisdom of his lived life. I recall earlier in our interview Chú Tuân demonstrating how difficult it is for his people to speak. I hear him say now, “Let people like me come and share their experience.”

And it occurs to me Chú Tuân’s words seem wiser and possibly more important than ever.

This interview was given through interpreter Nhôn Ong, former Vietnamese professor at the University of Washington. Prior to the Vietnam War, Ong was part of the secret service protecting the president of Vietnam. He is currently an interpreter for Swedish Medical Center.

Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer and award-winning writer. She is author of the acclaimed book Raising Mixed Race (2016) and is currently working on her second book looking at Asian American women and gendered racism.