Trần Đình Thắng loves maps and Vietnam. That may put him in the eye of a storm.

In 1995 Trần Đình Thắng invited an expert on traditional Vietnamese music to give a talk at the University of Connecticut (UConn).

That summer, the distinguished Trần Văn Khê, who taught at the Sorbone University in Paris, visited the UConn campus.

Trần Đình Thắng holds a new map of Việt Nam and China in the collection room of his home in West Hartford, Conn.

His talk became part of UConn history.

It drew an audience of more than 300, but one-third of them were protesters against Việt Nam’s communist government.

“They thought I invited a figure from Việt Nam to propagandize communism,” recalls Mr. Thắng, who then was a third-year mechanical engineering student and served as chairman of the Vietnamese Student Association.

The situation calmed down only when the school confirmed that the Vietnamese professor lived in Paris, not Việt Nam, and that his talk was about music, not communism.

The incident didn’t discourage Thắng.

Instead, he realized meeting with a Vietnamese cultural icon had aroused his love for his home country.

“[Professor Khê’s] talks gave me inner strength to pursue cultural exchanges,” says Thắng, who’s gone on to host talks on Việt Nam at other Connecticut universities, found a Vietnamese magazine, and help Vietnamese students come to the United States to study.

Now his passion for all things Vietnamese has combined with another passion:

Collecting old maps.

Together they have placed him at the center of a territorial dispute between Việt Nam and China.

Thắng, who is single, lives with his parents in the West Hartford, Conn., house they moved into after coming to the US.

He works at Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace manufacturer.

Last summer, Thắng expanded his passion for Vietnamese antiquities into a new area.

It drew little interest from fellow collectors, but it made headlines in Việt Nam.

Thắng has collected 150 ancient Chinese maps and three ancient atlases that indicate that the Paracel and Spratly Island in the Việt Nam’s East Sea have never been part of China, as it has long claimed, but instead belong to Việt Nam.

The Paracel and SpratlyIslands (known as Xisha and Nansha in Chinese, and Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa in Vietnamese) are now at the center of a diplomatic row between the two Asian neighbors; both have claimed the potentially oil-rich region.

Experts on the Việt Nam’s East Sea say that if the dispute over the islands were taken to the International Court of Justice, Thắng’s map collection might be used as historical evidence to disprove China’s claim.

“As a Vietnamese, I have the obligation to preserve my country,” says Thắng, who adds that he often finds his inspirations turning into actions “no matter day or night.”

Thắng arrived in America with his parents in 1991 under a humanitarian program established between Hà Nội and Washington that allowed former Vietnamese political detainees to immigrate to the US.

After settling in West Hartford, Thắng continued his studies in mechanical engineering at UConn.

He received a second degree in management and engineering before working first for Electric Boar and then Pratt & Whitney.

One evening last July, Thắng checked the news from Việt Nam.

His eyes landed on a headline that read “Ancient map proves Việt Nam’s sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Islands.”

He devoured the story.

An idea flashed through his mind.

He turned to eBay and typed in terms such as “Chinese maps,” “Indies maps,” and “Hainan Island”.

“The story that a researcher in Việt Nam found and donated a 1904 Chinese map drawn by the Chinese under the Qing regime from the 18th to 19th century inspired me to search for Chinese maps published by Western countries,” Thắng says.

“Western people’s works are often based on scientific grounds, so I think ancient maps they depicted could be scientific evidence to prove Việt Nam’s sovereignty.”

Since that summer evening, Thắng has continued his online search, called historians, and consulted Việt Nam’s East Sea experts from the US to Việt Nam.

His collection eventually grew to total 150 maps and three atlases.

They were published in England, the US, France, Germany, Canada, Scotland, Australia, India and China from 1626 to 1980.

“Some 80 maps and three atlases indicate the frontier of southern China is Hainan Island, and 50 maps indicate the Paracel and Spratly Islands belong to Việt Nam,” Thắng says.

“Thắng’s findings provide us with more scientific and historical evidence to prove Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa, and refute China’s groundless claim over these two islands,” says Dr. Trần Đức Anh Sơn, deputy head of the Đà Nẵng Institute for Socio-Economic Development, a think tank on the Paracel and Spratly Islands in Việt Nam.

Thắng’s collection shows contradictions to China’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands, adds Carl Thayer, a professor emeritus at the Unniversity of New South Wales in Australia and an expert on the Việt Nam’s East Sea.

Thắng’s map project sets a capstone on his years of effort to foster cross-cultural awareness between the US and Việt Nam.

Together with friends in 1996 he started a Vietnamese magazine to promote awareness of Việt Nam’s culture called Nhịp Sống (Rhythm of Life).

The 124-page annual features Vietnamese history, society, literature, and art, and draws on the expertise of many Vietnamese scholars and artists in the US, Việt Nam, and elsewhere.

By taking a neutral position on Việt Nam’s communist government, which has established friendly relations with the US in recent years, Thắng’s magazine reaches out to Vietnamese-Americans of all political positions.

In 2000 Thắng brought his cultural exchanges to a new level.

Backed by several high-profile overseas Vietnamese scholars, including Khê, he founded the Institute for Vietnamese Culture & Education (IVCE).

Besides presenting cultural programs, his nonprofit group travels to Việt Nam to offer workshops on how to participate in student exchanges in the US and assistance with exchange program applications.

“We believe students who have the opportunity to study abroad will bring back with them ideas and concepts from American universities that can contribute to the development of Việt Nam,” says Thắng, who still serves as president of IVCE.

For the past 12 years, Thắng has shuttled between the US and Việt Nam, holding about 60 summer workshops on “studying in America” with help from hundreds of Vietnamese-Americans, who offer guidance based on their firsthand experiences.

Dozens of Vietnamese and US universities have now partnered with IVCE to exchange delegations and establish cooperative programs.

At the same time, IVCE has presented 44 events across the US, introducing audiences to Vietnamese classical music, folk art, painting, literature, documentaries, and feature films.

Over time, those who once opposed Thắng’s work as propaganda for a communist government have changed their minds.

“They love me now,” says Thắng while on his way to Washington to prepare for a screening of five short documentaries by young Vietnamese filmmakers.

Thắng appreciates his life in the US and the career opportunities it has afforded.

“America is my second country,” he says.

By MAI NGỌC CHÂU

Source: The Christian Science Monitor 8/2/2013

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