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The War at Home 

Orange County’s Little Saigon confronts the ghost of Ho Chi Minh

Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
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Photo AP/Wide World

If the Cold War ended for most of us when the Berlin Wall came down, there are still places where that wall remains solid as ever — perhaps nowhere more so than Westminster, California. Here, along Bolsa Avenue, the wide strip-mall-lined corridor at the heart of Little Saigon, it is 1968 all over again. For more than a month since a peculiar man named Truong Van Tran displayed the flag of communist Vietnam and a soft-focus portrait of Ho Chi Minh on the back wall of his video shop, Westminster, an Orange County suburb less than an hour from downtown Los Angeles, has literally been under siege. Demonstrators, sometimes thousands of them, have clogged the alley in front of Truong’s shop, resulting in more than 30 arrests and several violent confrontations.

It is a conflict from another era, from another frame of reference. Communism is in retreat across the globe, and consequently anti-communism has lost its motivating power. But for this extraordinary refugee community, the Cold War is not history, and in a real sense, neither is the Vietnam War. But this battle for hearts and minds is inverted: In this case the "silent majority" cowers under the fervor of McCarthyite truth brigades determined to unearth communist agents and sympathizers.

Whatever mystery surrounds Truong Van Tran, one thing that is fairly clear is that he did not intend for his protest to go unnoticed. Choosing a launch date of January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Truong decorated his shop with the symbols of the despised Vietnamese communists and then faxed an acid-tongued letter to three leaders of Little Saigon’s anti-communist establishment, challenging them to come do something about it if they had the guts. "Here I dare all of you," read Truong’s fax. "If you all think you are great then go ahead, come over to clear me out." The crowds began to gather the following day, turning the commercial district into a seething political hot pot. The media swarmed in when a Superior Court judge ordered Truong to remove the icons from his shop.

If publicity was his goal, he had succeeded supremely. Truong’s challenge to the community was sublime guerrilla theater. When neo-Nazis paraded the swastika through heavily Jewish Skokie, Illinois, there were hundreds of them; they marched in and they marched out. In Westminster, Truong is one man alone, loudly honoring a war general that his neighbors equate with Hitler. But while the buzz on Bolsa Avenue centers on Truong’s secret agenda, his opponents’ sometimes ugly behavior during and after his First Amendment trial have directed a harsh light on an American community that in many ways seems left behind in a darker political age.

 

Since beginning his protest, Truong has twice come face to face with the surly mob that has kept 24-hour vigil in front of his abandoned video shop. In the first confrontation, caught on videotape by local Vietnamese journalists, a skinny, agitated Truong Van Tran is seen locking his shop door from the outside, the shielding hand of a police officer on his shoulder. The mob is screaming at him in English and his native Vietnamese. Truong is hustled toward the camera, and the cameraman is knocked out of the way. When it refocuses, Truong is seen holding one hand over his left temple for several seconds, with a rather exaggerated expression of shock on his face. There is a time gap where the cameraman apparently stopped rolling, and then Truong is lying facedown on the concrete, covering his head with both hands, his body trembling slightly. It’s not clear who hit him.

He was taken away by ambulance to the hospital and then went into hiding. Neighbors and acquaintances offered theories that he was under police protection or was being tutored by professional propagandists of the Vietnamese consul general. At any rate, the CD-shop worker next door said, "He won’t be back here again. Too many people want to kick his ass." He would indeed be back, less than one month later, this time victorious in court, but once again he would find himself facedown on the pavement, encircled by more than 100 protesters yelling, "Die! Die like Ho Chi Minh!"

It is February 10, and for the first time since going incommunicado, Truong Van Tran, his wife, Kim Nguyen, 41, and two children, 3 and 5 years old, are receiving visitors in a conference room in Ron Talmo’s 11th-floor office suite in downtown Santa Ana. It is 2 p.m., and three hours earlier, Talmo had represented Truong at the Superior Court where Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann dismissed her own restraining order, freeing Truong to return to his video shop and display Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese flag to his heart’s content.

Although, at 37, Truong has undergone heart surgery twice, he could easily pass for a man 10 years younger. He is wearing a loose-fitting tan suit with a crisp white shirt and no tie, and his hair betrays only a whisper of gray. Set among his sharp, impish features, his eyes reveal a childlike alertness. He has a tendency to get ahead of himself with his English, throwing out nouns and verbs without regard to syntax and then willing them into place with hand gestures and earnest facial expressions, like a boy trying to keep a set of marbles from rolling off a table. This man, whom a whole community has denounced as a vile monster, a communist propagandist and an agent provocateur, resembles no one so much as Andy Kaufman’s comic creation Latka Gravas.

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