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Collateral Damage 

Vietnamese leader whipsawed by Orange County backlash

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
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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."

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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."

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