Collateral Damage 

Vietnamese leader whipsawed by Orange County backlash

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999

With events in Little Saigon intensifying almost daily, Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam has found himself on perilous ground: fending off attacks from Vietnamese protesters while trying to stick to the political positions that have dropped him in this position. Accustomed to the placid role of community leader, Lam is now seeking to navigate a political firestorm.

In recent weeks, rumors have circulated that Lam, the first Vietnamese-born official to hold elected office in America, supports local businessman Truong Van Tran, who has incited massive demonstrations since January by adorning his Bolsa Street video shop with a Vietnamese flag and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh. A Vietnamese radio program repeated unsubstantiated reports that Lam personally escorted Truong back to his store to replace the flag and portrait after Truong was awarded the right to do so by the Orange County Superior Court.

"This is ridiculous," Lam said. "At the time the police were escorting him back to hang up the flag, I was in San Jose for a prearranged appearance for the Tet Festival."

Related Stories

  • Dueling Sterlings and Vietnam Conflicts: Readers React

    Our Man in Los Angeles Readers loved Gendy Alimurung's profile of Nick Ut, who as a young man shot the definitive photo of the Vietnam War — and who continues to work for the Associated Press as a photojournalist in L.A. today ("The Shot of a Lifetime," July 18). Writes...
  • Nick Ut: The Shot of a Lifetime 2

    It was a lucky shot, some say of Nick Ut's famous Vietnam War photo The Terror of War, or Napalm Girl, as it is more commonly known. Less lucky, of course, was the little girl in the photo, Kim Phuc. She was running down the street, naked, after a napalm...
  • Proposition 41 Housing for Poor Veterans Wins Big 3

    Looks like California voters like the idea of helping out troubled vets with special new housing, as early returns show a strong 65.8 percent in favor of the Veterans Housing & Homeless Bond Act of 2014, with 34.2 percent of voters opposed. The proposition is being closely watched by angry...
  • A Vietnamese Cookbook

    An emphasis on freshness isn't the sole domain of Vietnamese cuisine, but you could be persuaded that it's made quite the art of market-to-table cooking as you thumb through Luke Nguyen's The Food of Vietnam (Hardie Grant Books). It's a compendium of regional recipes across the Southeast Asian country in...
  • Where to Eat Indonesian Food Like a Dutch Colonist in L.A.

    If you want it, there are plenty of options to get Indonesian or Malaysian food in L.A. these days. Indo Café, which was widely regarded as the best place to get Indonesian on the Westside, closed a couple of years ago, but there’s still Simpang Asia across the street, which...

A litany of charges — what Lam calls "innuendo" and "baloney" — have buffeted Lam in recent weeks, as have old animosities arising from Lam’s support of trade with Vietnam.

Now, Lam is being forced to choose between his City Council obligations — the city attorney advised against taking a stand on the Truong controversy — and his own sympathies; between his hard-line constituents and his own more nuanced political thinking. Caught in limbo, he’s seen his stature eroded in his own community — Lam has even been hit with a recall effort led by community activist Ky Ngo, one of the primary organizers of the ongoing vigil in Little Saigon. And small protests have been carried out in front of Lam’s restaurant Vien Dong.

In an interview Saturday afternoon that followed the biggest demonstration yet in front of Truong Van Tran’s video shop — an estimated 15,000 protesters, according to police — Lam said he wished to set the record straight. Lam, 62, grew emotional several times and expressed in stark terms his growing frustration and the incendiary atmosphere that has overtaken Little Saigon.

"I’m the first and only Vietnamese-American ever elected to office, and they try to crucify me. If I didn’t care for the majority, for the people that cared to vote for me, then to hell with it," Lam said. "I’d just give it up and enjoy my own personal life and be a selfish bastard. That’s how I feel. I’m so bitter, I’m telling you."

Lam made clear that he has no affinity for Truong, whom he accuses of grandstanding for personal gain. "This nut — I call him this nut — he should not provoke this whole community and open up old wounds," Lam said, emphasizing that many of the demonstrators suffered deeply under the communist regime. Asked if he would participate in the demonstration were he not a city councilman, Lam replied emphatically, "Definitely, definitely. If I was not an elected official, I would come and show my support."

But many of the demonstrators, Lam said, don’t seem to understand that the pain of their memories does not cancel Truong’s right to express himself. "He stands on the First Amendment, and nobody can beat the First Amendment. It’s the most sacred weapon for civil rights," Lam said.

Moreover, Lam reiterated his unpopular pro-trade stance. "I’d like to see [the trade relationship] be relaxed now so we can turn Vietnam into a market economy," Lam explained. "I am in favor of punishing the politburo — the communist regime — but I’m not in favor of punishing the 76 million people."

Among the approximately 200,000 Vietnamese-Americans in Orange County, such topics are highly sensitive. Pressed to elaborate on his stance toward Vietnam, particularly the question of granting most-favored-nation trading status, Lam asked to change the subject. "There’s no way I can really dwell on this issue, because there’s no way to change the position of one side or the other," Lam said.

As with so many in this refugee community, Lam’s road to success in America was strewn with hardship. He and his family fled Vietnam in 1975 during the frenzied evacuation of Saigon, first to refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam, then to Florida, and finally to Huntington Beach. Lam had been a very prominent industrialist in Vietnam. He and his brother owned three large factories, with millions of dollars in U.S. Defense Department contracts, according to Lam. By the time he, his wife and six young children arrived in California, he was reduced to pumping gas at a service station, while his wife was packing boxes at a mail-order company. In 1984, Lam opened the first of four restaurants.

Contrasting his situation with that of last year’s Republican senatorial candidate Matt Fong, who garnered broad support across political lines from his fellow Chinese-Americans, Lam described himself as "a target of personal attacks and personal jealousy"from members of the Vietnamese community who resent his success.

At a City Council meeting two weeks ago, Lam nearly broke down while defending his official neutrality in the ongoing demonstrations, remarking that his wife of 39 years had even threatened to divorce him if he stayed in politics.

"I wish like hell someone could just take over my council seat, then I could make a lot of money on a private life instead of living on a stipend of $500 a month and working my butt off at my restaurant," Lam said. Asked if he would resign his seat, Lam answered, "I’m not known as a quitter."

Related Content

Now Trending

  • Foster the People's Downtown L.A. Mural Is Coming Down

    The controversial Foster the People mural downtown is coming down, the office of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced today. Despite claims by the pop band that it had necessary permits and that the artwork was legitimately produced, the mayor's office states what we reported previously: The piece is on a...
  • U.S. Reps Call For Federal Intervention in Dodger TV Blackout

    A group of local U.S. representatives wants the Federal Communications Commission to help end Time Warner Cable's blackout of Dodger games for competing cable and satellite providers. Negotiations to bring the team's games to AT&T U-verse, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, DirecTV, Dish Network, Mediacom, Suddenlink Communications and Verizon FIOS have gotten...
  • Dodgers Keep the Kids, Come Up Empty at Trade Deadline

    Twenty-six years is a long time between pennants. Unacceptably long; the longest period without a World Series appearance in Dodgers franchise history. That’s L.A. and Brooklyn. Of course, 1988 was glorious, but there is a large and growing continent of L.A. fans who just cannot look at the brake lights...
Los Angeles Concert Tickets


  • Street League Skateboarding Super Crown World Championship
    On Sunday, Street League Skateboarding touched down in the Galen Center at USC as part of a four-stop tour for SLS's Super Crown World Championship. The L.A. stop determined the roster for Super Crown, airing August 24th on FOX Sports 1. The final eight are Nyjah Huston, Luan Oliveira, Torey Pudwill, Shane O'Neill, Paul Rodriguez, Chaz Ortiz, Matt Berger and Ishod Wair. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Comic-Con's "Celebrity" Autograph Area
    A sometimes overlooked (but still incredibly unique) aspect of San Diego Comic-Con are the celebs available to sign autographs, as well as the autograph seekers themselves. If you've ever wanted to meet the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld or the guy who played Michelangelo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, chances are, as you wander the Autograph Area, you'll be able to connect with someone you didn't even realize you were waiting your whole life to meet! All photos by Rob Inderrieden.
  • Real Madrid Soccer Practice at UCLA
    Fans came out to greet world champion soccer team Real Madrid as they practice at UCLA. This is the first time that soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has practiced with the team this year. All photos by Jeff Cowan.