By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was 1986, and Kim Pham was a new University of Washington grad, though not a typical one. He was 36 years old, a husband, the father to three young children, and a Vietnamese refugee. To support his family post-graduation, he worked at Tacoma Boatbuilding Co., a now-defunct shipyard and marine architecture firm, but what was once the largest private employer in Tacoma.
The 1980s saw an influx of Vietnamese refugees flooding the Seattle area, a result of American withdrawal from Vietnam and the victory of the North Vietnamese government over the American-backed South in the 1970s. The changing demographics of the Seattle area fostered racial tensions — these new immigrants felt the weight of scrutiny and the lingering loss of their home. In the midst of this, Pham saw a need, and he sought a different path, an alternative. He had a dream.
While he would continue to plug away at Tacoma Boatbuilding Co. for many more years to financially support his family, in 1986, Pham and his wife, Hang Nga Pham, founded Nguoi Viet Tay Bac, or Northwest Vietnamese News, a Vietnamese-language newspaper — the first private Vietnamese-language newspaper in Seattle and also the longest-running Vietnamese-language private newspaper.
This year, Northwest Vietnamese News celebrated its 30th anniversary. And on Dec. 1, Pham, as the paper’s publisher and cofounder, will be honored by Northwest Asian Weekly as a Top Contributor to the Asian Community in its annual Top Contributors Awards Dinner held at House of Hong Restaurant in Chinatown.
Pham was born in 1950, when Vietnam was embroiled in the First Indochina War, one in which a communist and nationalist liberation movement arose from nearly a century of colonization by France. In 1954, when Pham was only 4 years old, the French were defeated by Viet Minh nationalists, the war ended, and Vietnam was partitioned — only for war to start again anew.
Pham was the middle child in his family, artistically inclined. He used to paint, but naturally, did not see that as a viable means to make an income, so he set his sights on law school, where he met his future wife.
In 1972, at age 22, Pham was drafted into war. His plans to study law got dropped.
He served in the Republic of Vietnam Navy (the naval branch of the South Vietnamese military) as a press officer for three years, until the end of the war in 1975.
“I think being drafted was the first thing that made him think that it was possible to do more than just a nine-to-five,” said Julie, his daughter.
After the South fell and Vietnam was unified under the Communist Party, Pham and up to 300,000 others like him were sent to reeducation camps — essentially prison camps where they incarcerated were abused, tortured, and made to perform labor for years.
Pham was released from the reeducation camp in 1978, at age 28. Fearing that he’d get sent back to the camps, Pham, his wife, Hang Nga, took Julie, then only 2 months old, and boarded a boat illegally heading to a refugee camp in Malaysia — risking death by drowning or by murder at the hands of pirates over remaining in a country that had become aggressively hostile to its own people. Pham was not yet 30, but by this time, he had already lost nearly a decade of his life to war.
It’s this context that Pham carried with him through the years, as he started his paper, as he built his paper, and as he grew the legacy of his paper.
“We need to have a voice,” Pham said in Vietnamese. “That’s the importance of this work, not just in linking different Asian communities and linking Asian communities to the mainstream, but also in making ourselves more visible. People need to see us and to hear us — because we will be ignored if we don’t broadcast ourselves.”
“And,” Pham added, “many voices, unified, is stronger than just one voice.”
After landing in a refugee camp, Vietnamese refugees typically had to wait to be processed — sometimes for months, sometimes for years — often getting shuffled around to other camps in Southeast Asia as they await news on where they’d ultimately end up. Pham and his family were sponsored by a Floridian and they landed there, after a stopover in Seattle, the first port.
“He wandered around for a weekend down there,” said Julie. “And he knew he couldn’t live in Florida, so he borrowed money to come back to Seattle.”
Pham started life in the United States delivering pizzas and newspapers to maintain cash flow, while he and Hang Nga attended college. (Hang Nga later had to drop out to raise Julie and her two siblings, Andy and Don.) The lingering dream of owning and running a newspaper for the Vietnamese diaspora continued to become more and more tangible.
“He wanted to do something that had an impact, something that meant something beyond working for a big corporation,” said Julie. “So he started the newspaper.”
In Northwest Vietnamese News’ early life, Pham would work at the paper’s Rainier Valley office (the paper is still headquartered in the Valley today) until midnight before he headed home to get a few hours of sleep, then getting up for a 6 a.m. start time at the shipyard.
Today, Pham is also his paper’s editor in chief, its guiding editorial voice, and he has been the Vietnamese correspondent for Voice of America, a U.S. government-funded multimedia news source with international reach for the last 30 years.
He grew Northwest Vietnamese News enough to be able to quit his job at Tacoma Boatbuilding Co. Northwest Vietnamese News became the business that paid for the college educations of his three kids. More broadly though, Northwest Vietnamese News — with more than 100 pages spread out over two editions a week, with television broadcast association (Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, a 24-hour Vietnamese programming network based in the United States) and media partnership with The Seattle Times — has become a vehicle for empowerment for Vietnamese Americans.
“We’ve extensively covered Sound Transit, the Seattle’s First Hill Streetcar, the proposed development of Little Saigon,” said Pham, in Vietnamese. “Because Vietnamese and Asian people will be displaced with these construction projects, whether due to road changes or closures or because existing small businesses cannot afford to keep their stores open after shopping centers have been ‘upgraded’ from one-story mom and pop storefronts to eight-story complexes.”
“Similar things have happened historically — like how Chinatown residents were pushed out and displaced with the construction of the Kingdome (1979),” he added. “I want to raise awareness so that people know that they don’t have to stay quiet as they get pushed out of their homes and businesses. I want people to have a place in their city and a voice. And I feel a strong responsibility to build cultural awareness, to keep our community unified and strong — undiluted.”
The person behind the camera
Pham’s a quiet and soft-spoken man with a camera always in hand — sometimes covering his face. He is still very much a workaholic. Beyond his regular duties writing, editing, and managing the newspaper, he is a constant fixture at events, forums, meetings — anything warranting news coverage — yet, according to Julie, he hates networking.
“So that he doesn’t have to mix and mingle, he looks for a story to cover, for a person to photograph or interview,” said Julie. “That’s just like him — to promote others and never himself.”
Nearly every bit of his awake hours are devoted to the paper. And even though Northwest Vietnamese News is a Vietnamese-language paper, Pham spends much of his time interfacing with non-Vietnamese community and political leaders.
“I talk to people about the paper, and I give them a copy,” said Pham. “Even if they can’t read it, they know that this community is involved and is concerned with certain issues. When they see my face — the Vietnamese voice becomes more tangible to them. When they see me with this paper, it’s not like they’re just seeing me as Kim Pham, but they are seeing the Vietnamese people.”
Civic-mindedness is a prominent concern of Pham’s — it’s what he wants to talk about the most and what he keeps visiting and revisiting when he was interviewed. He kept softening certain declarations — stating that political alignments and the conflicts that can arise from disagreements aren’t important, nor are they productive. He kept repeating that collaboration between disparate communities and people is very important, and he kept advocating positive action over complacency.
And — as is a common tendency among first generation Vietnamese Americans who have lost a lot in their lives — he often veers into the darker side of things automatically, unconsciously. Along with bragging about his kids and the successes of his community, he will also touch on regrets.
“It’s been 30 years,” he said. “I thought we would leave something very strong for our children — but sometimes it’s hard. Vietnamese people in Seattle — we don’t have a senator or a councilmember or someone high up in political office to voice this community’s concerns. Sometimes there are things we face that are insurmountable. Sometimes despite our best efforts, we become dispersed anyway. And I don’t want to pass the buck onto the younger generation — so we just have to keep on pushing for more.”
“My two wishes are that we have a strong voice, so that people know that we are here, that we are devoted to this country. This place is our home. My other wish is that Vietnamese will broaden their vision for themselves. Parents need to teach their kids the importance of having a voice and of civic involvement — there’s more to life than just being a doctor or software engineer or just chasing jobs that bring in financial success. That kind of financial success can foster a private, insular life.”
“We have people with the talent and endurance to be community and political leaders,” added Pham. “We need to encourage them because when we teach people to just allow life to just happen to them — it’s a loss and a waste. We need more representation.”
Kim Pham will be honored on Dec. 2 at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s annual Top Contributors Awards Dinner, held at the House of Hong Restaurant in Chinatown.
For more information on Northwest Vietnamese News, visit nvnorthwest.com/en.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.