One of seven signal boxes in Little Saigon covered with art by siblings Justin and Caitlin Truong. This piece is from series The Children of Small Business Owners. Photo by Chetanya Robinson.

As Vietnamese Americans, how do we offer agency to the many invisibilized peoples within our communities? How can we maintain and further cultivate Vietnamese diasporic spaces? And how do we reconcile our fragmented histories via artmaking? Artists and siblings Justin and Caitlin Truong negotiate these challenges while also looking toward another horizon for Little Saigon. 

With support from Friends of Little Sài Gòn and the Seattle Department of Transportation, Justin and Caitlin Truong recently installed their collaborative works The Children of Small Business Owners and Glimpse into Vietnam onto seven signal boxes spread across Little Saigon. Both works feature scenes and locales familiar to many Vietnamese Americans and serve as sites of remembrance, acknowledgments of those rendered invisible, and bridges between the past and present. 

When drafting concepts for these public art pieces, the two initially drew from their upbringing and involvement in Little Saigon. During their childhoods, Justin and Caitlin helped their parents run Hop Thanh, a mom-and-pop grocery store based in Little Saigon. The siblings were able to befriend customers, meet other children who supported their parents’ businesses, and engage with the community more intimately. Justin describes Little Saigon as formative for him and his sister saying “As children of the CID, [the neighborhood] became more like a second home.” Despite Hop Thanh’s closure in 2010, the two sustained their connection with the neighborhood by supporting other local businesses and attending CID cleanup events. 

Glimpse into Vietnam at 378 14th Avenue South. Photo by Kevin Truong.

Later, Justin and Caitlin expanded on their personal experiences to address the present realities facing the neighborhood’s community members. Throughout the process, Justin and Caitlin worked directly with the community their designs addressed. Out of the twenty-five designs they drew up, they surveyed the Little Saigon community and with the help of the local businesses, the artists and community members voted on The Children of Small Business Owners and Glimpse into Vietnam designs for the signal boxes to adorn. Following these initial discussions with the community, Friends of Little Sài Gòn met with the artists to review and finalize the designs. 

Glimpse into Vietnam around 12th Avenue and Jackson St. Photo by Chetanya Robinson.

The Children of Small Business Owners foregrounds the children of immigrant family’s businesses. While the work is heavily inspired by the pair’s own experience working at their family-owned market, their narrative is not singular. Across the United States, Vietnamese refugees and immigrants are relegated to positions of devalued and racialized labor. Consequently, many resort to opening their own businesses, necessitating excess investment of Vietnamese parents’ and even children’s time and labor.

The Children of Small Business Owners, around 10th and Jackson St.Photo by Chetanya Robinson.

The Children of Small Business Owners recognizes these hardships but also illuminates the connections and relations fostered between family members and the larger Little Saigon community. 

The artists carefully curated which signal box would house what design. On their Instagram, the siblings detail the signal box located at 12th and Jackson. In the heart of Little Saigon underscores children as “the heart of their family’s business” wrote Justin and Caitlin. These boxes embody the hardships and limitations of Vietnamese American life while simultaneously gesturing toward the power and resilience of the Little Saigon community. 

Glimpse into Vietnam also thoughtfully responds to the community’s needs by exploring and synthesizing Vietnam’s notable regions. Not all Vietnamese immigrants are afforded the opportunity to return to Vietnam due to varying financial, political, or physical barriers. Justin and Caitlin offer Glimpse into Vietnam as a compromise and consider such underserved populations. With this piece, Caitlin explains the two wanted to “depict scenes of [their] home country” and hope “[community members] are teleported back home” when engaging with the art. 

Glimpse into Vietnam around 12th Avenue and Jackson St. Photo by Chetanya Robinson.

Though the two designs are markedly different in visuals and intentionality, they each bear two stamps: one depicting a map of Little Saigon and the other showcasing the Mai flower. The stamps act as tools to convey the artists’ messages to the Little Saigon population. In their Instagram post, Justin and Caitlin expand on their intentions with the imagery. Symbolically, the stamps also communicate the story of Mai, “a young warrior who sacrificed her life to save her father from a serpent,” furthering the relationships and connections that Little Saigon harbors. 

There’s obvious care and thoughtfulness shown in Justin and Caitlin Truong’s public art pieces that speak to the importance of the neighborhood in their lives. These artists are giving voices to historically silenced groups and imagine a revitalization of Little Saigon. Works like The Children of Small Business Owners and Glimpse into Vietnam interact with our present to serve as reminders of our histories and galvanize us to fight for the spaces we need.

The Children of Small Business Owners can be viewed at 422 10th Avenue South, 399 12th Avenue South, and 416 Rainier Avenue South; Glimpse into Vietnam can be viewed at 1231 South Jackson Street, 378 14th Avenue South, 1201 South King Street, and 601 Rainier Avenue South. 

Justin and Caitlin Truong can be found @_justxcait on Instagram and more of their works can be viewed on the Seattle Public Art Artist Roster.

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