Ke Huy Quan, Sinophobia, and the Controversy Surrounding His Vietnamese Cultural Identity

Ke Huy Quan, Sinophobia, and the Controversy Surrounding His Vietnamese Cultural Identity
Ke Huy Quan. Photo: Kevin Winter/ Getty Images.

Ke Huy Quan has become a household name in most parts of Asia, if not the world.

The 51-year-old Asian celebrity won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 95th Academy Awards for his role in the genre-bending movie “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” [1]

Being only the second actor of Asian descent to win in this category and the first person born in Vietnam to be awarded an Oscar, it is no surprise Ke Huy Quan has generated massive attention.

However, unlike other ethnic Vietnamese living overseas, whose achievements often solicit the nationalistic pride of many of their compatriots at home, the case of Ke Huy Quan has sparked fierce debate.

While the foreign press has no trouble shoehorning the Vietnam factor into the actor’s profile, with some even referring to him as “Vietnamese-American,” [2] most newspapers in Vietnam choose to describe the man as “Vietnamese-born” instead of the fancy headline “Vietnamese descent” (gốc Việt) often employed in similar cases. [3]

Many social media users quickly pointed out that Ke Huy Quan’s parents are both of Chinese descent and that his family left the country when Quan was just seven years old. They argue that this makes him far more Chinese than Vietnamese. Some even dismiss the “Vietnamese descent” label and refer to the actor as “just Chinese.”

This sentiment reflects the underlying but not-so-secret rift between contemporary Vietnamese and anything related to China.

Just over three decades ago, the two countries were still at war. In 1979, China invaded northern Vietnam in what would be called the Sino-Vietnamese Border War, which lasted for 10 years and resulted in tens of thousands of casualties on both sides, primarily Vietnamese civilians. [4] During the time of this conflict, a large exodus of refugees, most of them of Chinese descent, escaped Vietnam and increased the number of Vietnamese in what would later become the boat people crisis. [5] Anti-Chinese sentiments were rampant at this time.

After the Border War, though the tension between the two countries has subsided, the anti-China sentiment in Vietnam remains unabated.

On the one hand, there is a thousand-year history of Vietnam being colonized by ancient Chinese dynasties. [6] On the other hand, there are ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China claims sovereignty over most of the area. [7]

Conflicts are just one part of the problem. After all, Vietnam fought brutal wars against the French and the Americans just a few generations ago. Yet, these days, the Vietnamese public hardly has any hostility against these Western countries.

What has kept fueling anti-China sentiments in the country is arguably, and ironically, the cover-up and manipulation by the Vietnamese government.

After the border war, Hanoi suppressed and censored all discussions that associated “war” with “China” in an effort to restore and maintain economic and political ties with Beijing. The border war was erased from history textbooks. The police have often shut down Memorial activities by civilians. [8]

However, the Vietnamese government also often exploited public anger towards China to amass political support. [9] Whenever Beijing acts provocatively in disputed areas in the South China Sea, Hanoi will fuel rage through state media and tolerate a few protests before quickly repressing these movements before the public turns on the Vietnamese government.

The Vietnamese government has treated public trauma with a whip and a leash.

Sinophobia is not only a problem in Vietnam. After all, the Chinese-Vietnamese community locally referred to as the Hoa people, is one of the largest minority groups in the country. However, many Vietnamese people have become obsessed with distinguishing “pure Vietnamese” from anything related to China.

The rejection by some Vietnamese associates with Ke Huy Quan results from such an obsession, despite the unmistakably Vietnamese name of the actor. His name also manifests a common experience of many Chinese-Vietnamese: misspelling their names when translating from Chinese to Vietnamese; the actor’s Chinese name 關繼威 should be correctly translated as “Ke Uy Quan” or “Quan Ke Uy.”

But while some Vietnamese only want to distance themselves from the actor in their search for identity, the Vietnamese government wants to cover up a core part of who Ke Huy Quan is: a refugee who escaped Vietnam by boat to seek freedom following the end of the war in 1975. As a result, state media censored any mention of the words “boat” and “refugee camps” from the actor’s Oscar acceptance speech. [10]

Half a century after the boat people crisis, this mass exodus of 800,000 Vietnamese between 1975 and 1995 remains largely unknown to most young Vietnamese.

By constantly burying inconvenient truths, the Communist regime has perpetuated a public trauma that could tear Vietnamese society apart.

As the saying goes, truth is the first casualty in any war. In this instance, while the battles ended long ago, the state’s persistent suppression of the truth has left all parties, perpetual victims.


  1. B. I.Youngs (March 13, 2023). Ke Huy Quan: From forgotten child star of Indiana Jones and The Goonies to Oscars hero. BBC News.
  2. A. de Souza (January 20, 2023). Making it in Hollywood: Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan on why they didn’t give up on their dream. The Straits Times.
  3. BBC News Tiếng Việt. (2023, March 15). Tranh cãi Quan Kế Huy “gốc Việt”, “gốc Hoa” hay “gốc Á” nói lên điều gì?
  4. J. Nguyen, J. (February 17, 2022). February 17, 1979: The Start of the Sino-Vietnamese Border War. The Vietnamese Magazine.
  5. The Chinese/Vietnamese Diaspora: Revisiting the boat people. (February 14, 2014). Routledge & CRC Press.
  6. Vietnam | History, Population, Map, Flag, Government, & Facts. (March 8, 2023). Encyclopedia Britannica.
  7. Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea | Global Conflict Tracker. (n.d.). Global Conflict Tracker.
  8. T. Phương (February 17, 2016). Tưởng niệm chiến tranh biên giới Việt –Trung 1979 tại Hà Nội và Sài Gòn. RFI.
  9. How Vietnam is leveraging anti-China sentiments online. (October 19, 2020). ThinkChina - Big Reads, Opinion & Columns on China.
  10. Ibid, [3].

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