More Than Just Race: Vietnamese in CZ

“A state within a state,” “the biggest national ghetto,” and “Little Hanoi” are some among many names Czech media have given SAPA, the Vietnamese wholesale market in Libuš near the outskirts of Prague. Some labels are less culturally sensitive than others, but all stereotypes have some truth in them. 

The 350,000 square meter market is owned exclusively by a few powerful reputable Vietnamese businessmen. SAPA belongs to the Vietnamese for the Vietnamese. It provides a number of services such as banking, translation, insurance, tourism, dentistry to Vietnamese immigrants to make their lives easier in the CR and to speed up the integration process. Paradoxically, the more services SAPA offers to the Vietnamese immigrants, the more it isolates these people from the rest of the Czech society. Realizing their own shortcomings and limitations, the first-generation Vietnamese encourage their Czech-born children to step out of the “comfort market zone” and try out other professions.  

Wishing to show different faces of the second-generation Vietnamese in the CR, Viet Up started a project called “Humans of Bananas” on their Facebook page, interviewing Vietnamese Czechs from a variety of industries. A prominent example is Jackie Tran, owner of Cafefin situated at Jiřího z Poděbrad square, one of the most sought-out cafes in the city. His parents, who run the famous Vietnamese bistro chain “Pho Vietnam Tuan & Lan,” had already opened three restaurants in Prague when Jackie opened his cafe. He oversees the visual design of all branches. Cafefin’s interior design combines modern architecture with traditional Vietnamese furniture from the 80s. Jackie takes pride in his craft, whether it’s photography, graphic design, programming or making coffee. The cafe’s Instagram account @cafefinvpraze has 21,700 followers with each photo attracts around 1,000 likes. His products translate his appreciation of his cultural heritage. 

Another Vietnamese cafe in Prague with a similar design concept is AntHill situated near Namesti Miru owned by six Vietnamese-Czechs with a goal to create a safe space for second-generation Vietnamese to relax and escape the world of pressure and expectations from the previous generation. Almost every day, cultural or social events take place at AntHill.  

Other “banana children” take advantage of their education, experience and language skills to help integrate other Vietnamese to the Czech society. Tran Van Sang, founder of integration center Sangu.eu, teaches his fellow Vietnamese the Czech language, and educates them about Czech laws, policies, culture and history. Now, he is running for a seat in the European parliament. 

Having been in the CR since he was ten years old, like many of his “banana” generation, Sang was the family’s translator, accompanying his father to governmental offices to do paperwork. After graduating from college, Sang worked for over five organizations in Prague focusing on translation, interpretation and consultancy, during which time he saw a number of problems his countrymen encounter during their arrival in the CR, such as the language barrier, a lack of knowledge of basic immigration laws, and unreliable sources of information. He started his project “Sangu.eu” in 2015 to provide solutions to these issues. Since then, he has become a bridge between the Czechs and the Vietnamese. 

Campaigning his way into the European Parliament, Sangu wrote a long post in the Facebook community group “Potraviny Union” which has 43,000 members, all Vietnamese. He began with his father’s story of coming to the CR in 1969 on a labor exchange program, leaving behind everything in hope of building a better future for his children. He compares this with the current situation where hundreds of thousands of Czechs are leaving their country for better paid jobs elsewhere in the world, indicating that the next generation of Vietnamese Czechs might not stay with their parents but travel abroad for better opportunities just as their parents once did.  

“We, Czech and Vietnamese alike, all care about the future of the CR,” Sang writes. The post gained 1,500 likes and hundreds of comments in a few hours. “The EU parliament is the basis of the EU; therefore, having a representative in the EU parliament will be an advantage for the [Vietnamese] community as well as the CR. […] In this race, you don’t need to support me financially, but I would love some spiritual support from the community!” 

Support he received. Only a few days after Sangu’s announcement to lobby into the European parliament, 500 Vietnamese stores across the CR have volunteered to put up banners advocating for him.   

While Sang use his platform to share positive sides of the Vietnamese community to the Czech society, some Vietnamese Czechs use their platform to discuss the “dark side” of the Vietnamese culture. Ha Thanh Špetlíkova, a Vietnamese-Czech actress and entrepreneur, has always been the “black sheep” of her generation. When most were attending grammar school following their parents’ wishes, Ha Thanh was the one who signed up for fashion design at Secondary School of Applied Arts. Her parents hoped for a long time that after secondary school, she would choose a more serious major. But she continued to go against the current and pursued stage design at DAMU, a decision that attracted considerable criticism at the time. 

“It is a shame that our [Vietnamese] community is still very small; we all have common friends, so people develop a bourgeois mindset,” said Ha Thanh in an interview with iDnes in 2018. “It’s a world in which everyone compares and competes in hypocritical issues like what kind of car you use, or which brand your clothes are from.”

The noise died down in 2012 once Ha Thanh earned a small role as a nurse in the TV series on TV Nova “Surgery Clinic in the Rose Garden” only to gain momentum again when “Miss Hanoi,” the drama in which she plays the lead character, was released six years later.   

When the trailer of “Miss Hanoi” with Vietnamese subtitles was released on Facebook in 2018, it attracted thousands of views within hours. It was the first time a Vietnamese woman played a main character in a Czech movie. Ha Thanh herself took part in editing the script, providing the director Zdenek Viktora with insights into life of the Vietnamese minority in the CR: racial tension, financial struggle, generational conflicts, social hierarchy, corruption, criminal networks, etc. Movie screenings with Vietnamese subtitles exclusively for Vietnamese audiences were organized in Prague, Brno and Ostrava, making this the first time Vietnamese people could go to the theater in the CR and watch movies in their mother tongue. The support was overwhelming. People celebrated as they saw their representation on screen, especially that of a strong courageous female role model.

“This movie reflects reality,” said Trinh Tan, President of the Vietnamese Union in Ostrava Northern Moravia, at the movie screening at Luna Cinema in Ostrava on Sept. 23, 2018. “In many cases, [Vietnamese] parents are often worried for their children, but the children grow up building their own career. This is a classic example. [The lead character] changed her private life to enter a different profession, not doing business [like her parents], but integrating into the Czech society to be a police officer. This is a tough job, but she has fought for justice and righteousness!”

“I hope that over time, there will be more Vietnamese actors,” Ha Thanh says. “Most importantly, I hope they don’t have to always play the role of marijuana growers or shopkeepers.”

Ha Thanh has almost always been given roles designed specifically for Asian actresses such as the quiet shy nurse in the TV series “Surgery Clinic in the Rose Garden” (2012) or a no-name receptionist at a casino in Poupata (2011). Her interviews also revolve around her ethnicity to such a degree that in an interview with iDnes in 2018 about her movie “Miss Hanoi,” Ha Thanh had to stop the journalist from asking further about her Vietnamese background to ask if they were going to talk about the movie.  

Luu Anh Nhat, member of the non-profit Viet Up, expresses the same frustration. She thinks there is still a long way to go until the Vietnamese Czechs are recognized for their talents and abilities and not just their exoticness. Anh-Nhat mentions the case of Do Thu Trang, who was listed in “Forbes 30 under 30” in 2017 for her blog Asijat.ka which discusses both Vietnamese and Czech cultures from a viewpoint of a person who grew up both worlds. Trang’s achievement was a great opportunity for the Czech population to learn more about the young generation of Vietnamese in the CR. In her interviews, Trang shares her take on Vietnamese culture, religion, lifestyle, language, but Anh-Nhat thinks that journalists treat Trang unfairly by focusing solely on her race. Anh-Nhat’s argument is based on the fact that Trang has a diverse career in public relations, copy writing and IT besides writing blogs about the Vietnam. She used to be a Happy Manager at IBM, one of the world’s top IT company. Now she works in the Communication Department of Spaceti, the world’s number one property technology start-up. “It’s so boring, and she has so much more to offer than ‘I’m Vietnamese.’” Anh-Nhat exclaims. “She’s actually very talented and well-grounded and has great wisdom for her age. They should have asked her about that!” 

Trang, on the other hand, is not offended when asked about her cultural background because it is the center of her successful blog. “I think [my ethnicity] is part of me,” says Trang, who was born in Vietnam but moved to the CR at the age of five. “I will never ever consider it as an offence. But I will really appreciate next time that the interviews would ask me questions about being a young person and finding some work-life balance, because it’s not always about success, it’s also about how to balance and integrate work into life, and I think being the Happiness Manager at IBM gave me an overview, so I think I have a few things to share with the young generation, so when being asked about my career, I quite enjoy.”

While Trang takes pride in her cultural heritage and builds her career on it, some second-generation Vietnamese would like to be defined solely based on their merits. Many follow their parents’ path and expand it. Others travel back to Vietnam to discover their roots and find ways to contribute. Living in two cultures has made them flexible, adaptive and open-minded. Whatever they do, most of them show high level of integration and confidence.  

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