Politics & Government

With a bonsai, former Vietnamese refugee thanks governor who welcomed him in 1975

VIDEO: Vietnamese refugee gives bonsai tree to Gov. Dan Evans

Vuong Nguyen of Olympia appreciates Gov. Evans welcoming Vietnamese refugees in the 1970's by giving a bonsai tree.
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Vuong Nguyen of Olympia appreciates Gov. Evans welcoming Vietnamese refugees in the 1970's by giving a bonsai tree.

Vuong Nguyen has spent the past 40 years feeling indebted to former Washington Gov. Dan Evans.

This year, the former Vietnamese refugee finally found a way to express his thanks: by giving the former Republican governor a bonsai tree landscape.

Nguyen was one of the first Vietnamese refugees that Evans welcomed to the state in 1975. After Saigon fell that year, some Americans — including California Gov. Jerry Brown, and protesters at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas — said they didn’t want Vietnamese refugees coming to their states.

Not Evans. He sent his staff to California to tell hundreds of Vietnamese hunkered down at Camp Pendleton that they would be welcome in Washington.

Among those refugees was Nguyen, then 35 years old. After settling in Washington, Nguyen became a translator, and later an auditor and consultant for the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Nguyen is also a skilled bonsai artist and maintains about 40 of the plants at his home in Olympia. He said the 40th anniversary of the Vietnamese refugee resettlement program this year got him thinking about a way to thank the former governor.

I told my wife, ‘we are very lucky, because they opened up their arms to help us.’

Vuong Nguyen, who came to Washington state as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975

“I told my wife, ‘We are very lucky, because they opened up their arms to help us,’ ” Nguyen, 75, said of coming to Washington 40 years ago.

Evans, however, wasn’t sure he could care adequately for a bonsai tree. Bonsai require careful pruning and watering; maintaining the miniature trees and landscapes is an art that the Japanese perfected over centuries. (Versions of the art are also practiced in China and Vietnam.)

So the former governor, who is 90, suggested an alternative plan: that he and Nguyen together donate the long-lasting specimen to the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, where it can grow and thrive for years to come.

The two men met with museum officials to hand over the Penjing-style bonsai in a ceremony Thursday.

“I want just to express my gratitude to Dan, and I want my children to thank people who help them in their life,” Nguyen said. “Without him, who knows where I might have ended up?”

Evans, who also served in the U.S. Senate, said he has been thanked before by former Vietnamese refugees who found new lives in Washington state — but never with a bonsai.

That’s how we grew over the centuries, was through immigrants. Virtually all of us except Native Americans are immigrants.

Dan Evans, former Washington state governor who welcomed Vietnamese refugees in 1975

He said he viewed the Vietnamese refugees in 1975 as no different from other generations of Americans who immigrated here in the past.

“That’s how we grew over the centuries, was through immigrants,” Evans said. “Virtually all of us except Native Americans are immigrants.”

While current Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has compared the plight of Syrian refugees with the Vietnamese that Evans welcomed 40 years ago, Evans said he sees some differences — mainly, the modern threat of terrorism that he said didn’t exist in 1975.

Evans said that while he thinks U.S. states should welcome Syrian refugees, he also thinks more thorough screenings are needed today than were used when resettling the Vietnamese 40 years ago.

“But I think that can be done, and when it is done we ought to welcome the people in the same way we did during the Vietnamese crisis,” Evans said.

Nguyen said the bonsai he gave Evans — in which plants grow out of a landscape made of volcanic rock — is symbol of longevity.

“That’s what we wish him: a long and healthy life,” Nguyen said.

Evans said he hopes the bonsai will serve as a testament to the partnership formed between Washington state and its now-thriving Vietnamese community.

“I can’t think of anything that would be more gratifying, as far as I’m concerned, than a living gift of that nature, which will live for centuries if it’s well taken care of,” Evans said. “It has a permanence — and because it will be housed at the museum, it is one that will be enjoyed for many centuries to come.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1