by Michael Anklin
photography by Ryan Sones
Looks can be deceiving. Van Lim, the owner of La Verne’s Top Hour Photo, does not look like Indiana Jones, Rambo or John Wayne. Yet, he has been through more than any of those heroes could handle.
He is the silent hero who gave humanity a chance, through his photographs, to share his personal grief with the world.
Lim was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At the early age of 7, he saw his mother pass away. When Lim was 12, his father died, and he moved to Saigon to live with his grandmother. Until the age of 16, Lim attended French schools in Phnom Penh and Saigon.
At 17, he became a photographer. Referring to his early start, Lim admits, “I never thought I’d become a photographer because my education was nothing.” But as is often the case, his prestigious career was set off by a chain of rather unusual events.
The first stop on his remarkable journey took place in 1965, when he visited a temple outside Saigon. South Vietnamese government troops and communist guerrillas of the Vietcong were fighting in the area. “Accidentally, I got stuck in the middle of the battle,” Lim recalls. “I saw old people and children die. Children dying, people fighting-even the dogs went crazy,” he recaptures.
“For me, that was the first time I saw war,” Lim says. “The village died, the trees died; and then it was all quiet. Both sides retreated. You could see families rescuing each other, fathers looking for their sons, sons looking for their fathers. One man held his girl into the air and yelled, ‘My daughter is still alive,'” Lim remembers, “Those who saw their family dying cried.”
“When I saw that, I sat down and cried and talked to God,” Lim says. “That night, I saw a shooting star. I said, ‘Oh God, make me become a photographer or reporter so I can let the world know what happened to my citizens, how bad war is,'” he says.
Today, the Vietnamese have moved on. Nearly 70 percent of the population is under 25 years of age. A large population of children welcomes visitors with a smile. One can only try to imagine the grief Lim must have felt when he saw the smiles of some of those children diminish forever.
Lim is a friendly, soft-spoken man. He doesn’t get too emotional when he recalls those horrible scenes. Only a tiny spark in his eyes and a slight change in his voice — which passes almost unnoticed — reveal that he has faced the grim reaper who has devastated his home country, up close and personal. “When you see all of this, you forget yourself,” he says. “I wanted to help them all, but you can’t.”
About a year after the fateful incident at the temple, a photojournalist, Ly P. Le, who knew that Lim was looking for a job, called him up and asked him to be his assistant. “I worked for him for one week,” Lim recalls, “and then I knew I wanted to become a journalist. I knew him for six months; he never taught me anything. I watched what he was doing, I learned it that way.”
The same year, Lim got into a car accident. He was ejected out of the vehicle but survived. His employer, who was driving, was less lucky. With his death, Lim says he thought, “God won’t help me anymore to become a journalist.”
Nevertheless, Lim was lucky again and gained a job as a Kodak photographer. It took another six months, however, for him to be in the right place at the right time again.
The Saigon bureau of United Press International happened to be right across the street from Lim’s work place. One day, the UPI bureau chief and a photographer walked into the Kodak office looking for “Paper No. 4,” a high contrast black and white photographic paper used to make pictures. Lim’s older colleagues had to disappoint the journalists; they said they didn’t have any of the paper left, which was very difficult to get at that time in Saigon.
When they were about to leave, Lim recognized the photographer, Kyochi Sawada. He called his name and told two to wait. He brought it to his boss’ attention that there was, indeed, some of that paper left in the dark room. “They were important to me,” Lim says. “They were journalists.” At first, his boss was reluctant to give up some of the precious paper. Eventually, he gave in to Lim’s request.
Lim’s assistance to UPI would soon pay off. Two days later, he had lunch with the two UPI reporters and was hired.
At this point, one might wonder how Lim, having gone to a French school, communicated with a Japanese photographer. “I learned English by myself, with a book and a tape recorder,” he says with a hint of pride.
“I still remember my first assignment,” Lim says, now speaking of his career as a professional photo journalist. “It was in 1967. I had to follow the Korean White Horse Division-an ally of the American troops-which was stationed in central Vietnam.
During the war, Lim met a colorful pattern of journalists and military officials. “The general [of the White Horse Brigade] wanted to adopt me,” he recollects with a laugh.
He didn’t limit his work to being a UPI photographer, though. Soon, with UPI’s permission, he was working for ABC and especially for NBC News. According to Lim, he was the first freelance journalist ever working for NBC in Vietnam. “I sold news to anybody,” he remembers. “The more pictures I had, the happier I was. I wanted to get it out, to let people know.”
In the heat of battle, Lim sometimes found himself carrying four to six camera bodies, a multitude of lens, a tape recorder and a 16 mm TV camera, all at the same time.
A man who had to go through the same ordeal was Nick Ut, who today remains one of Lim’s closest friends. Ut is an Associated Press photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner — his award-winning picture of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack is one of the icon pictures of the Vietnam War.
Although there was competition between UPI and AP, Lim and Ut traveled together most of the time. “Nobody knew,” Lim smiles. “We knew that if a bullet hit you it was over,” he says more seriously. “So we tried to stick together. Only for special assignments we would go separate.” When Ut took the picture of the naked girl, Lim was there with him. “I was right where the Napalm bomb exploded,” he remembers.
Farmland close to the city of Da Nang was the site of another of Lim’s fateful encounters with the war. In 1965, the harbor city of Da Nang was an American stronghold-serving both as the military staging and recreation area for U.S. soldiers and sailors. Close to this city, Lim and Ut escaped death once again. They had to race off the street and into a rice patty to escape a heat-seeking missile.
“That’s the trip we’ll never forget,” Lim remarks. “We called [such incidents] playing with danger. The Vietnamese meaning is ‘playing with hell,'” he says with the grin of a man who had to use this kind of grim humor more than once to stay sane. Not everybody was lucky in this game though. “The Vietnam War has created a lot of good photographers and reporters; it has also destroyed a lot of them,” Lim says. Despite the everyday destruction, he had to remain focused on his job. “When you are a reporter, you can’t take sides,” he says. His neutral position didn’t prevent him from helping victims, however.
Many innocent victims were killed at the infamous massacre at My Lai in 1968. Lim was in this particular area before the horrific event. Today, many foreigners visiting the memorial site feel like they are walking through a former Nazi concentration camp. The ground seems polluted with negative energy, and only the innocent children playing, unknowingly, on the once blood soaked ground, eases the tension a shocked visitor may feel.
Lim has a different view on the massacre, however. Although he won’t deny the horrible outcome, to an observer like him, it was the result of misunderstood orders, exhausted and frustrated Americans and confusion on both sides.
Even if the journalists didn’t support either of those sides, Lim admits that his reports inevitably had to be one-sided. Reports from behind the Communist lines were missing. “Nobody can write a [balanced] story,” he says. “You need at least 10 journalists. You need one from AP, one from UPI, one from the Pentagon, one from the White House and also journalists form the other side and Red China, and then you can write a complete story.”
It was White House photographer David Hume Kennerly who saved Lim’s life, or at least warned him in time. Three months before the fall of Saigon, Kennerly called Lim and told him to get out of there. He remembers his friend saying, “They’re going to kill you. You worked for the Americans.” Despite the warning, Lim refused to leave.
Only five days before the communist tanks rolled into Saigon, his friend finally convinced Lim that it was time to look for safer ground. Lim had been told long ago by his friends in high military places that the war was going to be lost. He feels that the determination of the North Vietnamese soldiers was one of the reasons for their victory. “That’s why we lost the war,” Lim says. “They don’t give up.”
One can only admire Lim’s dedication to his job. The gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon didn’t stand a chance against the massive communist tanks. One of the tanks is still there, in what is now called the Reunification Palace. The gates have been re-erected but a glance out of the windows of the palace can only give one a slight idea of the panic people must have felt when it was time to evacuate. “Listen, this is your last chance,” Lim remembers Kennerly pleading, calling him from the Oval Office.
With stops in the Philippines and Guam, Lim headed for the Promised Land. After a stop in California, he went more or less straight to the White House, where he met with President Gerald Ford and his family. “I was in the White House every day for half a month,” Lim says.
It wouldn’t last long, however. Soon he was back on the job and working for UPI in Hong Kong. Bored with reporting city politics, he traveled to Bangkok to report on the war refugees. Soon he lost interest in that too.
When Lim went back to Hong Kong, his apartment burned down. Unfortunately, many of his pictures were destroyed. Frustrated with his situation, he quit his job. His colleagues couldn’t understand why. “Don’t worry about me,” he remembers telling them. “I have done what I had to do, what a human being has to do.”
Back in the United Sates, Lim started working for the Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment (P.A.C.E.) where he helped refugees from the Pacific Rim find jobs. After three months, his Agency was No. 1 in California.
He quit, however, to work for Catholic Charity, which co-operated with World Vision International and the Department of Job Development. During the two years Lim was working for the charity, he turned it into a success, making it No. 1 in all 50 states with its $2 million in funding contributions.
Making money was not his only objective, though. In 1977, Lim contacted several agencies in Hollywood and asked whether they needed manpower for movies about Asia. Lim was referred to a producer who wanted to make a movie about Vietnam. The idea appealed to Lim since he had a great deal of experience with taking pictures and handling movie cameras.
He ended up participating in seven movies, four of them about Vietnam — as an actor, technical adviser and talent coordinator. He cooperated with the producers and directors and helped them with the extras in the Vietnam movies. He was the only one in the crew who knew what it really was like, which was a valuable contribution to the authenticity of the movies. Many of the producers noted that Lim’s real life would make for a good movie in itself. Lim is proud of having worked with such famous people as Michael Caine, Burtland Custer, and Clint Eastwood. Lim, personally, was in a movie called “Fire Fox” with Eastwood. “I was the bad guy,” Lim laughs. One might wonder why Lim, having seen real bad guys in the war, wanted to portray one of them to entertain people. To him, however, it was another way to inform people. “I saw [war] everyday, but you can’t convey that to an [ordinary] citizen,” he says. “The people in the United States would not believe that people [acted] like animals. In the movie you show only 40 percent of the real [war]. More is not possible,” Lim says.
In 1986, he stopped making movies because of his devotion to the refugees. “I was busy with my work. [But even then], I tried to help them,” he stresses. That same year, he was hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District to help refugees find jobs.
In 1989, he moved to La Verne, and, in 1992, he went back to his original profession and founded Top Hour Photo. It was hard the first year, he admits. “I didn’t do any [real] business at the beginning; I had some problems with the equipment,” he remembers. “It improved every year. Everybody knows me now.”
Lim, who is still considered a resident alien, says, “The Fire Department, City Hall; they all know me.” When people began to recognize his commitment to quality, his business went “Boom!” as he puts it. His customers know that they can expect high standards at a reasonable price and, most of all, in a short amount of time. Lim’s main principles are service and personality. He wants to make the customer happy. He will tell a customer why something is wrong with a picture and how to make it right. He will advise what kind of film and camera one should use. If someone wants an old, small picture enlarged, he will do that, too.
Lim runs the shop along with his two sons, Paul David Lim and Roger David Lim. His wife, Suzy owns a manicure shop next door. “Every day we have to learn,” he says. “We have to improve. We have to buy the new equipment. We can’t stay in the same place; we have to move.”
His philosophy on his work is simple: “If you can see it with your eyes, you can do it.”