Lisa Ling is on a mission to shine a long-overdue spotlight on the lives and cultural contributions of the people behind America's Asian restaurants. She’s doing that through “Take Out with Lisa Ling” the six-part docu-series that premiered on January 27 on HBO Max.
Yes, there are the expected scenes showing kitchens while meals are being prepared and of course, plenty of appreciative diners. But more than that, the show presents the dynamics of Asian Americans of different generations — sharing a more personal take on history.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the show… of my colleagues. This is the most Asian people I’ve ever worked with,” Lisa told The View hosts in an interview, adding that the show’s executive producer, Helen Cho, specifically hired Asian Americans for the crew.
In each episode, Lisa takes on different cuisines that Asian immigrants brought to the US. The pilot episode featured Filipinos in Louisiana, who were largely responsible for the thriving shrimp industry of the state. For episode two, Lisa visited the Chinese restaurant once owned by her grandparents in Northern California.
Vietnam is featured in the third episode, when Lisa visited California’s Orange County, specifically Little Saigon and other locations in the state. She met with Vietnamese Americans who have found a home in the New World. In the next episodes, she traveled to New York for Bangladeshi food, to Los Angeles for Japanese food, and to Fairfax County, Virginia, with her husband to pay tribute to his Korean roots.
“For a show like mine, it really highlights the Asian American experience and things that Asian people actually did, the ways that Asian Americans actually have contributed to the fabric of this country. Those are stories that need to be known right now,” Lisa revealed in the same interview with The View. “It’s just been incredible to be on the receiving end of the response to the series. It’s been so overwhelming to me, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be able to do a show like that, that would celebrate Asian American culture.”
To her, the most powerful response has been the messages from the Asian diaspora expressing gratitude.
“On so many levels, this show has been a breakthrough,” she said. “It’s a show that my kids love, my kids feel proud of, their friends are proud of. It’s really awesome; never thought that I’d see this day.”
‘Little Saigon’ episode
In her visit to Westminster in Orange County, California, Lisa referred to Little Saigon as “one of the most patriotic communities” she’s ever visited in America. In the 1970s and 80s, a large number of Vietnamese refugees settled in this region, which today has the largest Vietnamese population living outside of Vietnam.
The episode, directed by Bao Nguyen, an award-winning Vietnamese American filmmaker, highlighted the Vietnamese American enclave of its restaurants and rich cultural history.
The episode began with the very reason millions of Vietnamese had to leave their home country — the war. To understand Vietnamese culture and history, Lisa believes “there’s no better way to tell the story of a culture or a community than through something that is so universal… and Asian food is now universally beloved in America.”
Of course, when talking about Vietnamese food, pho always goes first. Lisa met Diep Tran, a chef, worker’s rights advocate, and niece of the owners of Pho 79. Pho 79 is one of the very first places that introduced Americans to the national dish of Vietnam. And it offered Vietnamese Americans something priceless, “a taste of home.”
This was our Little Saigon crew. Hope we get to do more episodes soon and these next few days and week matter in terms of the network looking at numbers etc so please watch on @HBOMax and help spread the word so we can continue to tell more stories. TYSM! #TakeOutwithLisaLing pic.twitter.com/gVu5uTgL8C— 𝔥𝔢𝔩𝔢𝔫 𝔠𝔥𝔬 (@HelenCho) January 29, 2022
Diep shared how her grandmother used to talk about the decades of war. “The first Vietnamese refugees who came here, they thought they had lost Vietnam,” Diep said. “That’s why there were naming restaurants after things they remember or at least alluding to them.
The immigrants created Little Saigon, she said, “because they thought they had lost something. And so to have a place like that, you’re conjuring up community again and you’re reaffirming that you exist, too.”
Lisa also met entrepreneur Frank Jao, who was part of the wave of refugees in the ‘70s and owns a third of the land in Little Saigon, including the Asian Garden Mall. Frank faced racism when applying for a job in real estate development in the past. But he moved on and built his empire instead.
“A dream is something that people always hope and wanted to see happen, but sometimes, the reality becomes better than our dreams, and that’s what it is,” Frank told Lisa. He said he never imagined he’d be able to establish a shopping center like the Asian Garden Mall, because “where we came from, in Asia, only the privileged class, the rich class, can do something like this. This is really an American dream.”
The Vietnam War is considered one of the greatest disasters in the history of American foreign policy yet many Vietnamese still believe in the American dream. In fact, among the Asian-American population, the Vietnamese are more likely to naturalize to become US citizens. As of 2019, 76% of Vietnamese immigrants were US citizens, compared to 52% of the total foreign-born population, according to Migration Policy Institute.
In Los Angeles, Lisa dined with immigration lawyer Kim Luu Ng over thịt kho (braised pork and eggs). Kim arrived in the US as a refugee, together with her whole family. She believes the reason why Vietnamese immigrants are more likely to naturalize “speaks to the love that they have for this country, in allowing the resettlement of refugees.”
While some refugees had to leave family members behind, Kim said her father refused to flee alone. So they left with her father, mother, elderly grandmother, and Kim’s 3-month-old sister.
According to the United Nations, between 200,000 to 400,000 Vietnamese refugees died at sea following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Kim’s family almost didn’t make the journey. “I don’t remember the voyage, and in many ways, I feel truly blessed,” she said. “But I’ve lived with everything else and that will forever live with me.”
Reestablishing their life in a strange country, Kim witnessed how her parents struggled. They cleaned houses for the rich and famous in Beverly Hills and Malibu. “As a kid, I used to go with them; I saw how they were verbally abused.” Kim vowed she would lift her family out of that condition, she said. And true to her promise, she dedicated her life to helping Vietnamese and other immigrants.
Over the course of the show, Lisa spoke with four other Vietnamese Americans including Uyen Le, Tam Nguyen, Thomas Dam, and Dr. Thuy Vo Dang.
Towards the end of the episode, Dr. Thuy took Lisa to one of her favorite Vietnamese restaurants, Song Long in Westminster City. She is a curator at the Southeast Asian Archive and the project director for the Vietnamese American Oral History Project.
Our Tet visit to my parents involved watching #TakeOutWithLisaLing 3 generations sitting together. My dad might not follow all the English, but he sees so many things he knows. 😭 pic.twitter.com/Wpe5u07fCi— Dr. Thuy Vo Dang (@thuyvodang) January 30, 2022
Over cha ca thang long (fish dish), Dr. Thuy said she grew up in a tenement crowded with Vietnamese refugees. “I do remember smelling fish sauce and hearing my language spoken and that really helped with the adjustment.”
Dr. Thuy said many of their neighbors initially had been relocated by the government to other parts of the country. “But then they elected to come and reunite here in California, where you have the weather that’s much more similar to the climate in Vietnam.”
At the time, there was a lot of animus towards Vietnamese people. “I remember being taunted. I remember walking home from school and being called derogatory names that were kind of generic aimed at all Asians,” she said. “Being told to go back to where I came from.” But as a child, she was wondering, “Where is that? I don’t have any memories of where I come from.”
Through the Vietnamese American Oral History Project, Dr. Thuy and her team have collected over 450 untold stories from Vietnamese refugees who have been through the war and resettlement.
“Because of the highly televised war, we were often cast as objects in need of rescue, people who are facing severe trauma,” she said. “But we are also culture producers.”