[People] The Persisting Cold War : Phạm ngọc hân & Quan Kế Huy

Immediately after the news of the Oscar was announced, the BBC published a controversial article entitled "Why Vietnam doesn't want to claim Ke Huy Quan". Such debates could arise from the perspectives of Britain and the United States. Like Korea? Foreign views on Hanni seem to be similar.


Author : JUNG Hojai, K-pop columnist

Date : 2023.MAR

When I have to describe Korea as a third world country, I have often used my experience of attending the "Unification Festival" organized by the South Korean Federation of University Student Councils (한총련) and held at Kyungbook National University in 1995 as the subject of my article. I remember that Daegu at that time was heated with the gathering of 50,000 university students from all over the country during the summer vacation to strengthen the reunification movement. The South Korean Federation of University Student Councils was led by the National Liberation (NL) faction, which made reunification issues the focus of the festival. During the event, there were video calls from pro-North Korean organizations in the United States, probably from figures associated with the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea or the Pan-National Alliance for Reunification, delivering congratulatory messages.

Even in the early 1990s, the "reunification of the country" was still the main theme of the student movement. At that time some underground organizations were secretly studying the Juche idea, and it was not a big secret even though most ordinary students despised it. Of course, the majority of students scoffed at it as "meaningless," but it was not easy to openly criticize the grand discourse of nation and reunification at that time because the student councils were led by seniors who had faced the atrocities of the military regimes.

Pro-North Korean activists, mainly based in the United States and Japan, probably conveyed their fervor through "video calls" at the Daegu event, a technology that was very difficult to use at that time. However, looking at the video call, I could sense that despite their fervor, there was a feeling of a lonely and difficult life. Of course, such activities declined rapidly after the democratic government came to power and almost disappeared after 1997, leaving only traces behind.

Ke Huy-Quan or Quan Kế Huy?

Ke Huy-Quan (born in 1971), who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2023, is a nostalgic figure for Korea's X generation. He left a lasting impression as the adorable little Chinese kid in movies like and Seeing him as Michelle Yeoh's husband in the award-winning film "Everything Everywhere All at Once" was quite surprising. Watching the adorable child actor from the past grow up and take on the role of an immigrant father was a moment that demonstrated the passage of time.

His English name is Jonathan Ke Quan, but Korean media introduce him as "Ke Huy-Quan," which is his Vietnamese name. However, when his name is written in the Asian style with the surname first, it becomes Quan Ke Huy, and his actual Chinese name is 關繼威 (Guan Ji Wei). If you want to call him in the Asian style, 'Quan Ke Huy' would be more appropriate.

He had quite an eventful life. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he and his entire family fled Vietnam by boat in 1975 and arrived in Hong Kong. After four years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, they were finally able to move to the United States. He made his film debut in 1983, a remarkable feat considering he learned English and martial arts in a short period of time. Truly remarkable. He is the son of the Cold War in Asia, especially lied in Vietnam-America modern history.

Pham Ngoc Han (Hanni)

Those internationally known as "Vietnamese movie or pop stars" are usually from the southern region previously ruled by French imperialism. Recently introduced figures such as Linh Dan Pham from the 1992 film and Tran Nu Yen Khe are no exception. These two stars, who debuted in the 1990s, were actually raised in France.

At the time, the elite in South Vietnam could quickly hop on a plane to France or the United States. Catholic, liberal-minded middle-class families, however, had no choice but to flee in haste on ramshackle boats. Because of their strong ties to the South Vietnamese regime, they sensed the danger to their families if the Communist Party took over. This situation parallels the circumstances of North Korean officials during the Korean War in 1951.

Among such families were the grandparents of Pham Ngoc Han (范玉欣), a member of the popular South Korean idol group <NewJeans.> Hanni Pham was born in 2004 in Melbourne, Australia, a place known for its significant Vietnamese population, even boasting a "Saigon Street. It is estimated that the fall of Saigon in 1975 resulted in nearly 2 million boat people, of whom about 60,000 settled in Melbourne.

Veto from Vietnam?

News that the K-pop girl group's "Hanni" is of Vietnamese descent quickly spread throughout Asia, and many Vietnamese K-pop fans and media outlets seemed to be tracking her family background. However, upon closer examination, it seems that Vietnamese Wikipedia or online personal profiles do not explicitly emphasize Hanni's connection to Australia. They do not seem to focus on her nationality and pride of origin.

Instead, several negative rumors have circulated. One of them claims that Hanni's grandfather, who runs a martial arts-related academy in Melbourne, displayed a flag associated with South Vietnam on the related Facebook page. Criticism has also surfaced that Hanni's maternal family posts commemorations of ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) Day every April 25. Australian troops also participated in the Vietnam War alongside U.S. troops in the 1960s, and Hanni's family in Australia also commemorates the day to remember the wartime sacrifices.

So when Vietnamese K-pop fans checked the social media accounts of the Vietnamese girl's family in Australia, they discovered that the family has some connections to organizations related to South Vietnam. This has led to rumors that the current Vietnamese government and state media are uncomfortable with "Hanni," the new star of K-pop. In retrospect, this scenario somewhat parallels the 2016 incident involving Tzuyu of , who at the age of 18 had to navigate tensions between mainland China and Taiwan. It seems that she, too, is in a situation guided by the previous sad history in Asia.

Government in Exile

The boat people would be individuals associated with "South Vietnam," and most of them flowed to market-oriented countries. It is similar to ethnic Chinese in Korea retaining their Republic of China citizenship. Come to think of it, up until the 1980s, there was significant activity by the South Vietnamese government in exile (?) or anti-government forces, mainly composed of Vietnamese Americans, working to overthrow the communist government. Organizations such as the NUFL, VPAVN, and MRVN conjured up formidable entities just by hearing their names as they quickly emerged, raised funds, and assembled armies. By the 1990s, the organizations had scattered in different directions.

It must have been an inevitable phenomenon. Even though more than two million boat people emerged in a short period of time, Vietnam's reform and opening policy in the 1990s may have influenced many boat people to choose to return to their home countries. Organizing revolutionary organizations overseas was not an easy task. Most were preoccupied with adapting to and living in the societies in which they settled.

Moreover, political issues are not easily resolved across geographical distances. In a way, the Vietnamese immigrants who preserved their culture while living in various advanced countries could be a form of "independence movement.

Persistent Cold War

Immediately after the news of the Oscar was announced, the BBC published a controversial article entitled "Why Vietnam doesn't want to claim Ke Huy Quan". Such debates could arise from the perspectives of Britain and the United States. Like Korea? Foreign views on Hanni seem to be similar.

Is this really a question of "Vietnamese society"? It is not really. From the Vietnamese point of view, it is difficult to find compelling reasons to officially "celebrate" his Oscar. It is true that he was born in Saigon and lived there for four years, but the Oscars have no clear connection to Vietnam's cultural competence.

Not that there have been any criticisms or attacks against Quan. After all, the creation of more than two million boat people is an unavoidable historical process and is not the sole responsibility of anyone. In fact, Quan visited Vietnam 20 years ago to shoot a movie, so it does not seem to be an uncomfortable relationship. From what I have heard, it is relatively easy for the descendants of boat people to visit Vietnam or reclaim their citizenship.

Perhaps people in the free world tend to exaggerate minor conflicts from a "China-Taiwan, South-North Korea" perspective. But this does not mean that we should hold a parade. What kind of relationship will the second and third generations of boat people have with Vietnam in the future? It is definitely better now than before. However, this is the still problem would not be easily solved until more confidence of local people get and global power stacked on Asia.


  1. The framework of the Cold War has long persisted in Asia, as can be seen in issues such as Japan-Korea relations. To go beyond this would be the spirit of K culture.
  2. Hanni in Newjeans is not even in its second year. Hanni is very popular all over the world, and even Vietnamese friends like her. However, it seems that Vietnamese state media lacks sincerity in entertainment articles, perhaps due to its conservative nature, and this has fueled the controversy.
  3. It is natural for the descendants of boat people to express anti-communist sentiments in the places where they now live (and vice versa). Nothing could be more archaic than to make a controversial issue out of the remnants of the Cold War.

Author JUNG Hojai is in SNU Asia Center as a visiting scholar