Wherever there was an event of importance to the Vietnamese community in Washington, Kim Pham was there, standing at the back of the room wearing his signature no-frills Sony camera around his neck.
Pham was passionate about his work reporting for and about his community as the founder and publisher of Người Việt Tây Bắc, or Northwest Vietnamese News — the first privately funded and longest-running Vietnamese newspaper in Washington.
He started the paper in 1986, when social media did not exist, publishing in both Vietnamese and English. It was the eyes and ears of the Vietnamese refugee community in the state, covering local events where the community connected, satiating its desire for news from back home in Vietnam, and serving as something of guide to living in the U.S. as a refugee.
Pham died on March 30, a few months after doctors discovered an inoperable aneurysm in his stomach. He was 71.
The region’s Vietnamese community deeply feels his loss, particularly after recently losing several other significant figures in the community, among them Khoa Pham, the co-owner of restaurant Phở Bắc. Kim Pham honored each of them in the pages of his newspaper before he died.
To some Pham was the ubiquitous and essential presence at Vietnamese community events. To others he was “chú Kim,” an uncle figure who encouraged and supported them. To still others he was the storyteller who helped bring their stories to light.
To Washington state Sen. Joe Nguyen, Pham played all of these roles at different points in his life. When Nguyen first heard about Pham’s death, it took him a minute to realize who it was because he always referred to Pham as “chú Kim.”
Nguyen first met Pham at a forum that he’d organized for Tommy Le, a Vietnamese American student who was 20 years old when he was shot and killed by King County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Cesar Molina. As always, Pham was there with his camera.
Pham was passionate about Le’s case. He followed the story from the day of the shooting four years ago until the news broke, just one week before Pham died, that the Sheriff’s Office would pay a $5 million settlement to Le’s family.
That was the last story Pham covered, according to his daughter Julie Pham.
“He took great pride in telling the stories of people in the Vietnamese community but what he took even more pride in was assuring that future generations also were being uplifted,” said Nguyen.
“He was one of the first people and one of the few elders in the Vietnamese community that encouraged me [to run for Washington state Senate]. He’d go to all of my events. He’d have his camera, and just the look on his face, you could tell that he was proud to see a Vietnamese person basically fulfilling the potential and the reason for why they left Vietnam in the first place.”
Establishing a paper for the Vietnamese community was no easy task in the ’80s, when many refugees arriving in the Pacific Northwest feared that they or their families back in Vietnam could be retaliated against or even killed if they spoke out.
A former press officer with the South Vietnamese Navy who endured three years of imprisonment in a Communist government “reeducation camp,” Pham personally understood the fears and losses of other Vietnamese refugees and immigrants in the community.
“This is a refugee community that feels it had to flee Vietnam by boat, by air, by land and went through incredible hardship and unspeakable trauma … Người Việt Tây Bắc understood that,” said Seattle-based journalist and consultant Thanh Tan. “We’ve lost an institution in a way because he was the heart and soul behind that paper.”
When Tan helped found Việt Kiểm Tin or Viet Fact Check — a national project that combats disinformation campaigns targeting Vietnamese communities in the U.S. by posting fact-checked stories in English and Vietnamese — before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Pham and Người Việt Tây Bắc were the first to report on the project.
Eventually all of the national outlets picked up the story, but when one Viet Fact Check volunteer wanted to show off his work to his parents, it was Người Việt Tây Bắc that he brought them. Printed in English and Vietnamese and found in every Vietnamese community center, restaurant and bar in Seattle, Người Việt Tây Bắc is how his parents understood the impact of their son’s work.
Pham’s impact extended beyond the Vietnamese community.
Mohamud Yussuf, a longtime friend of the Pham family and the founder and publisher of Runta News, a bilingual Somali and English news magazine based in Seattle, considers Pham a mentor. When Yussuf first arrived in Seattle as a refugee from Somalia, Pham took him under his wing as a fellow immigrant and storyteller. For a time, Runta News and Người Việt Tây Bắc even shared a printing date and delivery service.
Yussuf always admired how Pham encouraged his family to be involved with Người Việt Tây Bắc, and it inspired him to involve his own daughter in Runta News more.
Sharing a profession helped the two publishers to connect, and they bonded as fellow storytellers, but Yussuf soon came to consider the Pham family as part of his own family.
“He showed me many ways to be an immigrant and have a voice for your community,” said Yussuf. “We come from different cultures and different continents, but I learned later that it doesn’t matter which continent and which culture you come from, we are all human beings who can connect.”
Người Việt Tây Bắc has adapted to the needs of the community as the community itself has changed and grown and faced new and altered challenges.
Anti-Asian discrimination has a long history in the United States, but the legacy of Pham’s work continues to make an impact as the U.S. sees a new surge in anti-Asian, racist violence.
“A way to combat [anti-Asian hate] is by authentically telling our story. That’s what he did. That’s what he was passionate about. He didn’t just do it as a job. You saw it in his face at events. He was proud. It was clearly pride on his face … We need to tell ourselves sometimes that it’s OK to be proud,” said state Sen. Nguyen. “Having that publication made us understand that we weren’t alone in our society but also that we belong here and we’re important enough to be covered.”
Người Việt Tây Bắc will live on as well through the work Pham’s own children and the staff that he brought into the business and led by his wife and co-founder Hằng Nga Phạm.
Despite being ill amid a pandemic and at a time marked by a rise in hate crimes and political division, Pham was happy at the end of his life, his daughter says. He was surrounded by family in the end, with all of his children living at home and helping to operate the newspaper. He lived to see the Tommy Le case resolved in a settlement, and he spent his life lifting up the voices of his community.
Julie Pham described one morning shortly before her father died. He woke up on the couch one morning, she said, and the first words he spoke were simple: “So happy.”