Man in black suit standing in front of the Vietnamese Heritage Community Garden
Vincent Pham, whose father helped organize the annual "Thank You, America" event, said statues planned for the Viet Heritage Garden will help memorialize the Vietnamese American community's unique struggles. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

A long delayed monument to fallen Vietnam War fighters will finally be unveiled at San Jose’s Vietnamese Heritage Garden, a planned cultural gathering space waylaid by community divide.

The life-size statue of two armed soldiers — one American and one South Vietnamese — could be ready for public viewing this month or early July. It would mark a major milestone for turning the garden at Kelley Park into a communal oasis and tribute to San Jose’s Vietnamese enclave, the largest of any city outside Vietnam. The concept spawned close to 40 years ago, but has since passed through different eras of leadership, stalling multiple times due to shaky funding and disputes over who was in charge. Meanwhile, the statue was a separate effort. Now both are coming together in one place through a combination of city and county funding.

The challenge of unifying people under a single vision became a source of both hope and friction within San Jose’s Vietnamese community.

“The fact that we’re finally getting to something, that we’re moving forward, is because we’ve reached the point of recognizing that if we want something, we have to stop quibbling with each other over where it should be and what it should look like,” Huy Tran, executive director for the Services Immigrant Rights and Education Network, told San José Spotlight. “We get more progress working together than we do just trying to fight each other.”

Vincent Pham said the statues will memorialize the unique struggle of Vietnamese refugees. Pham is the son of Vietnamese-American community leader Nam Pham, who helped host an annual event named “Thank You, America” to express gratitude for the United States for providing refugees with a new home. He said he hopes to uphold his father’s legacy of community organizing and service.

“We bring with us the trauma of war and other horrors that dealt with the refugee experience through our parents, our grandparents, our family, but it’s up to us to navigate and it’s up to us to continue that story,” he told San José Spotlight.

An imperial gate leading to a Vietnamese heritage garden in San Jose
There are plans to soon unveil a war monument in the Vietnamese Heritage Garden in San Jose’s Kelley Park. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

A statue of two soldiers

The statue idea came before the city about 20 years ago, aiming to honor American and South Vietnamese soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War that ended in 1975. Over the years, residents became frustrated with the lack of progress and broken promises.

While Councilmember Bien Doan — who represents the area — and other San Jose officials shoveled dirt at the project’s groundbreaking in May, Tran said he won’t believe it until he sees it.

“There’s just been delay after delay and repeat promises,” he told San José Spotlight. “I almost don’t want to get too celebratory.”

In spring 2019, San Jose secured a $210,000 grant for the monument from Santa Clara County with the help of Supervisor Cindy Chavez. But plans unraveled during the pandemic. In early 2020, Maya Esparza, the area’s councilmember at the time, pivoted to respond to COVID needs.

But the effort dates back to state Sen. Dave Cortese, who served on the San Jose City Council from 2001 and 2008. He was the first city official to push for the statue.

As a councilmember, Cortese helped secure an initial location for the monument on Tully Road. Developments like Little Saigon and the garden weren’t considered because they hadn’t been developed yet. The project was then passed on to Madison Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American elected to the San Jose City Council. But the project got shelved as Nguyen faced fierce backlash over the naming of Little Saigon in 2008.

Some residents formed a committee and advocated for the monument to be placed at McEntee Plaza. That proposal died in 2015 following protest from others who said it’s not appropriate to have a war monument next to a plaza honoring Jim McEntee, a peace advocate.

The Vietnamese Heritage Garden has been a work in process for decades. The heritage society could only finish the first phase of the project, which includes the imperial gate and three flagpoles. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Garden stuck in limbo

Meanwhile, plans for the garden moved in fits and starts during the same period.

Following her historic win in 2005 as the first Vietnamese American councilmember in San Jose, Nguyen started pushing for the heritage garden project in City Hall. But it wasn’t until she became vice mayor six years later that the project took off.

“The unveiling of the monument signifies a milestone for the Vietnamese American community, as well as the city of San Jose,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “It is the culmination of hard work, patience and solidarity within the Vietnamese American community for over 20 years. I am excited to witness history in the making right here in our community.”

As part of the garden, visionaries put forward a number of ideas for mini-replicas of Vietnamese historic structures, such as the One Pillar Pagoda, Hùng Temple, Pagoda of the Celestial Lady and Tomb of Lê Văn Duyệt. Similar to the Japanese Friendship Garden located on the other end of Kelley Park, at one point the garden envisioned a reflection pond filled with lotus, an iconic water flower in Vietnam.

The vision of the garden changed over the years, but support never waivered. While advocates rallied the city for funding, the Vietnamese Heritage Society, a local nonprofit, took charge of designing and building the garden.

Between 2006 and 2012, the project received more than $2 million in funding from the city, county and state. The heritage society also raised more than $1 million from residents to bring the garden to life.

The garden broke ground in 2011, but construction halted after the city claimed improper management by the Vietnamese Heritage Society, an allegation the nonprofit disputed. But delays proved expensive as construction costs rose. The heritage society could only finish the first phase of the project, which included the imperial gate, a parking lot and three flagpoles.

In 2016, the city cut ties with the heritage society and took over the project, saying the site was a health and safety hazard, according to a city memo. In total, more than $3.5 million had been spent but the project remained unfinished.

The Vietnamese Heritage Garden in San Jose’s Kelley Park has a working vegetable garden for the community. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Little has been done since, beyond the garden getting several dozen new community garden plots in 2021 for residents to farm their vegetables. But after the community disagreed over the location of the soldier monuments, the garden emerged as the ideal choice.

“This was all achieved through that old school network of refugees who wanted to build a monument to leave their legacy,” Tran said.

The heritage garden represents both the potential for the Vietnamese community, as well as its obstacles over the years, Lam Nguyen, chief of staff for San Jose Councilmember David Cohen, said.

“Although we are now getting closer to its completion, it serves both as a reminder of those shortcomings as well as a need to come together as a community,” he told San José Spotlight.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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