On a December night in 1996, “Hey Arnold!” fans tuned in to the beloved Nickelodeon kids show for what was a particularly heavy, emotion-driven episode. It depicted the 1975 fall of Saigon, in Vietnam, and the forced separation of a young Vietnamese girl, Mai, from her father, Mr. Hyunh, a Vietnamese refugee who lived in the same boarding house as main character Arnold.
The episode, entitled “Arnold’s Christmas,” was the first in-depth look into the world of Mr. Hyunh, a recurring character on the show. It also served, for many Asian American kids in the 1990s, as one of the only times a piece of their history was recognized in mainstream pop culture. To this day, it remains a compelling television moment for a community whose stories have long been distorted, overlooked or flattened.
For the 25th anniversary of the pilot of “Hey Arnold!” on Saturday, show creator Craig Bartlett talked to NBC Asian America about the storyline that a generation of Asian Americans considers ahead of its time.
Bartlett said since there was no social media reaction at the time, it wasn’t until many of the show’s Asian American fans grew up and talked about their emotions about it that he learned of the episode’s impact.
“It's so gratifying that it's received as such a positive,” Bartlett said.
In the episode, the show’s very first Christmas special, Mr. Hyunh tells Arnold about his past. He revealed how the war in his home country had forced him to find a way to flee his city. While atop the U.S. Embassy, Mr. Hyunh, with his infant daughter, Mai, in his arms, made the decision to leave her with a soldier, knowing it would be the only way to ensure her safety.
“As the helicopter left, the soldier called out the name of a city. This city. He said he would bring her here,” Mr. Hyunh said in the episode. “It took me 20 years before I could finally get out of the country. That’s why I came to this city.”
Bartlett said the storyline is the brainchild of late writer Steve Viksten, who was known for coming up with edgier ideas for the show. He pitched the idea of exploring Mr. Hyunh’s backstory through the classic Christmas game Secret Santa. While Bartlett was already on board, he brought the idea to voice actor Baoan Coleman, himself a Vietnamese refugee, during a recording session.
“And he said, ‘You know what, I was there,’” Bartlett said. “That made a big difference. I was like, ‘Wow, we really have to tell this story. This is going to be so resonant and so cool.’ And from there, I had that conviction.”
Such firm faith in the pitch was necessary, as the process to get the episode approved was “an uphill battle,” the creator recalled.
“The anguish of Mr. Hyunh having to give up his infant daughter sounded so heavy to the network execs, and also even calling up a specific war,” Bartlett said. “You'll notice, he says, ‘There was a war in my country,’ and so we don't even say ‘Vietnam War.’”
Due to the sensitive nature of the material, Bartlett said he included Coleman in the process, showing him the first draft of the episode, talking through the script prior to the first recording session. While the exact historical event was never mentioned by name, Bartlett said the team was committed to alluding to the war in a “poetic” way through an illustrative animation sequence that was accompanied by a dramatic guitar in the background, composed by Jim Lang.
“That one session, we had Baoan do his whole monologue about giving up Mai,” Bartlett said. “I just remember kind of huddling down and getting smaller and shutting my eyes and listening to it. And, we cried and cried. … Man, I was a wreck.”
There were, of course, Christmas aspects to the episode. Arnold enlists his best friend Gerald’s help in finding Mai and successfully orchestrates a reunion with Mr. Hyunh by the end. While not much is shown about how Arnold manages to pull it off, Bartlett said the series of coincidences that occur are an ode to Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
"Magic happens constantly, and at the end Gerald just says, 'Hey man, it’s a miracle. Deal with it,'" Bartlett laughed.
Bao Nguyen, a Vietnamese American director who remembers feeling emotional about the episode as a kid, explained that too often, stories of the Vietnam War are told through the lens of a “loss of American innocence.”
“It's always, ‘What did America lose?’” he said. "Vietnam, for half the country, they lost their homeland. And it's never told in that perspective. It turns into a sort of American mythology, the demise of American exceptionalism."
For years, the standard for Vietnam War depictions was Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket,” which did little to show the Vietnamese experience aside from fetishize its women, said Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.”
The special, however, marked a sharp departure from the narratives that Americans were so accustomed to seeing regarding the war, Nguyen said. What’s more, the character felt as though he was on the same level as the others in the cast.
“This was really the first time where I felt like the Vietnam War story was completely centered around the Vietnamese perspective. It wasn't diluted in a way to cater for a white audience. It was unapologetically the Vietnam perspective,” Nguyen said.
Among the most poignant aspects of the episode, and Mr. Hyunh’s character in general, was his accent. Many have remarked on how authentic Mr. Hyunh’s accent and manner of speaking was, which was due to Coleman's similar background to the character. Bartlett revealed that in the recording process, he would rewrite any lines that felt uncomfortable for Coleman to say, editing them on the spot if there were any that the voice actor felt were difficult.
At the time, most of the Asian accents on television served as punchlines, and many animated characters were voiced by white actors, like the Indian character Apu from “The Simpsons,” who was voiced by Hank Azaria, Yuen said. Azaria has since apologized and stepped down from the role.
Many accents were also imprecise and inauthentic, Yuen added.
“There were some in ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ but that was different because they had Asian American source material, an Asian American director and Asian American actors,” Yuen said. “‘Hey Arnold!’ is pretty special, because they did have that. They didn't necessarily have all the creators and source material; the director had to create that. And the fact that he did decide to do things more authentically is actually ahead of time.”
Even more compelling was that Mr. Hyunh had the agency to tell his own story, Nguyen said. To do so in an authentic accent spoke to a strength that the refugee and many others like him have.
“There's a softness and tenderness in someone speaking about their trauma in a language that isn't their native language,” Nguyen said. “There's courage in that.”
Yuen said she felt the show was effective in showing children some truths about the Vietnam War and those it impacted while keeping the subject matter appropriate for its audiences.
“They didn't talk about the violence. They didn’t talk about the politics. But they humanized the Vietnamese American character,” she said. “In my study of television, the characters that the audiences relate to — the regulars that are the most complex — have to have familial relationships or romantic relationships.”
Yuen said familial relationships immediately humanize characters, as they’re given development beyond a two-dimensional laundromat worker or nail salon trope.
“It wasn't just showing him, that he had a daughter. It was showing this very gripping story of him having to be separated from his daughter because of the Vietnam War,” Yuen said. “I think it would cause maybe children to ask questions, and certainly it would make them feel like, ‘Oh, he has a daughter and that daughter looks just like me,’ or, ‘The daughter could have been me. What would it feel like for me to be separated from my dad?’”
For kids in immigrant households in particular, the separation aspect of the storyline is universal, and Yuen said it likely looked familiar to many Asian Americans.
“Being able to see that through ‘Hey Arnold!’ even if we're not actually refugees who had that experience, it still resonates,” Yuen said. “Because coming to this country means some sort of separation from the people you love.”
As heavy as the Christmas special was, the episode was still part of the show’s brand. Over the years, “Hey Arnold!” — which explored complicated family dynamics, the immigrant experience and the struggles of the working class, among other controversial topics at the time — has been lauded for exposing children to bits of a harsh world in a way they could understand while also preserving the beauty and wonder that came with being a kid.
Bartlett said his work was largely inspired by “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which came out when he was Arnold’s age.
“It was really emotional and it was melancholy. It was about ‘Christmas is here, and I'm depressed.’ And that seemed really revolutionary,” he said. “When I got the chance to make ‘Hey Arnold!’ I wanted to do that. I was like, ‘Let's do stuff that's about how childhood is sad and kind of messed up and as a child you don't have any power and you’re just kind of trying your best.’”
“You can't fix things,” he said, “but we make them a little bit better.”