By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"I am very happy," Truong says. "When the judge decided I have right to hang flag and picture back, that not mean I win them. That’s opportunity to communicate with Vietnamese community about what is the law in the United States and what is truth in Vietnam right now." The law in the United States is freedom of expression, Truong Van Tran says. And the truth in Vietnam right now is that it is just another country, with good points and bad points. Just another country in need of guidance from expatriates who must find the power to forgive.
Truong Van Tran’s naive demeanor, however, disguises an eccentric character. This is not the first time the smalltime merchant and unlikely bomb thrower has provoked the ire of his fellow Ă©migrĂ©s. In 1994, 14 years after his arrival in the U.S., he and his wife rented a flatbed truck and a bullhorn and trumpeted their controversial views along Bolsa Avenue. They also distributed handmade, photocopied pamphlets, one of which declared Truong "the new God" and "the new king of Vietnam," claims he now says were in jest. Truong was for a time known throughout the community as the leader of an esoteric Buddhist sect that believed in human magnetism and hypnosis. By his own estimation, Truong’s following peaked at about 2,000 members; according to some accounts, his acolytes began to leave after he demanded that they show their loyalty to him by crawling through his spread-eagled legs.
The impression that emerges in the course of a half-hour interview is that Truong orchestrated the whole chain of events like a master strategist, using the First Amendment, powerful symbols and his own meek visage to overpower a wealthy, well-organized archconservative majority. And while he demurs that he is "scared, very scared, upset, and my mind is in trouble," there is also a strong odor of calculation in it all. His goal, he says, is to become a leader of the overseas Vietnamese community. Until now, nobody would listen to him and his ideas, so he had to grab attention any way he could. The prodigious Vietnamese-language media in this community, he says, are closed to him and anyone else who dares to stray from the staunch anti-communist line. "I don’t have the opportunity to talk announcement on television, radio or newspaper. I only have fax machine, I only have the flag," Truong says, glancing behind him at the flag of communist Vietnam with its single yellow star bright in a field of red.
As the demonstration continues to rage outside Truong’s abandoned store, Thuy-Linh Quach looks on from the pharmacy she runs across the driveway from Truong’s Hi Tek video. A graduate of USC and UC Irvine whose father owns the two-story strip mall, Thuy-Linh says the decision to seek a restraining order to bar the portrait of Ho and the yellow-star flag, and later to serve Truong with a 30-day eviction notice, was based on business rather than political considerations. The hundreds of surly demonstrators who had descended on Hi Tek video, and remained there until the judge issued her initial restraining order five days later, impeded the flow of traffic and created an atmosphere in which other shop owners could not conduct business. So the demonstrators, rather than Truong, were disrupting business, a reporter suggests. "Yes," she says. "But the demonstrators were acting legally" — and pausing — "but he broke a code of conduct in this community. There are some things you just don’t do. You don’t walk through a Jewish neighborhood with a picture of Hitler."
The Jewish analogy gets bandied about quite a bit, and while it’s a bit of a stretch, it’s not without foundation. By most estimates there are as many as 300,000 Vietnamese living in Southern California, and more than half of them live in Orange County within the immediate sphere of Little Saigon. A great percentage of the older residents among them are survivors of a communist regime and a war that, if not equal to the Nazi Holocaust, still warrants a chapter in the annals of modern barbarism. Thang Ngoc Tran, director of the influential nonprofit corporation Vietnamese Community of Southern California (VCOSC), says that 90 percent of his members are alumni of the North Vietnamese re-education camps. "They call them re-education camps, but it sounds too nice," he says. "Most of our members were kept in these communist prisons for 10 or 15 years. They still have the scars on their wrists and their ankles from the handcuffs and chains." Thang Ngoc Tran tells how many of the prisoners died: stuffed in small metal boxes and left in the hot tropical sun like drying fish.
The VCOSC’s members are from the older generation of immigrants. They were soldiers and officers in the South Vietnamese army, and many were influential members of the government before it collapsed under the communist insurgence. The lucky ones escaped to the U.S. in or before 1975, when Saigon fell to the Northern army, but the less fortunate suffered indescribable cruelty in the camps. "When they came to America, they were starving, broken," Thang Ngoc Tran says.