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.
“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 émigrés. 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.
“You want to know why they have such hatred of communists?” Thang Noc Tran says. “Their freedom was taken away, and they love freedom. When they see a Vietnamese flag, they remember this pain.” Daniel Pham, one of the hundreds of thousands of “boat people”who fled Vietnam in the 1980s on small, unseaworthy boats and rafts, echoes this sentiment. “Why must I see this bloody flag? Why must I see this hateful picture of the murderer Ho Chi Minh?” Pham asks. A federal judge in the former South Vietnam, Pham spent seven years in a re-education camp. The French accent he acquired decades ago as a student in Paris surfaces, and his voice trembles, “When I see these things I have nightmares. I remember my suffering in the jungle prison.”
It’s hard to find anyone here who believes Truong Van Tran was right to affront these veterans the way he did — whatever his constitutional rights are as an American citizen. But the “code of conduct” that residents say should have prevented him from raising the Vietnamese flag suppresses more than such inflammatory acts of provocation. Many here say political discussion about Vietnam is strictly limited to unyielding condemnation of the communist government. Younger Vietnamese — those born in America as well as the so-called “1.5 generation,” who were born in Vietnam but immigrated here at a young age and were raised as Americans — feel compelled by respect toward their elders not to offend them with controversial political talk. And those who do raise their voices have frequently been harassed and intimidated into silence by the anti-communists in groups such as the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, the Committee for the Preservation of Just Cause, and secret societies far to their right, such as the mysterious Khang Chien, which means “resistance fighters.” Through the years, political discussion has occasionally been cut short by a bomb ripping through an office building or the sudden death of someone who dared break ranks with the anti-communist majority.
If you ask anyone in Little Saigon to introduce you to another Vietnamese émigré besides Truong Van Tran who supports unrestricted relations with Vietnam, they will tell you to call Dr. Co Pham. There are plenty of others, they confide — a “silent majority,” even — but while local businessmen fit the bill, only Pham agreed to talk for the record. Pham’s notoriety began in 1994, when he stunned the local community with the announcement that he planned to lead a delegation of businessmen on an eight-day tour of his homeland to scout out potential business opportunities.
Pham’s medical center was picketed daily for a year by demonstrators denouncing him as a communist, a conspirator and an opportunist who wished to become a high official in the Vietnamese government. In those dark days, he says, he received numerous death threats, his office was evacuated in a bomb hoax, and his wife and son received crank telephone calls notifying them that he had been killed or critically injured.
At that time the Clinton administration was reinstating diplomatic relations with Vietnam and lifting the trade embargo that for 19 years had kept the nation poor and isolated. Pham was and is a very successful doctor, president of the Orange County Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and a major fund-raiser for the Orange County Republican Party. In the five years since Clinton overhauled U.S.-Vietnam relations, Pham has remained a controversial figure in the community, even if Truong Van Tram has recently replaced him as — in the words of one critic — Little Saigon’s “public enemy number one.”
Taking a moment from treating patients at his frenetic Bolsa Medical Center, a bright-pink complex in Little Saigon, Pham settles into a chair in his cramped, windowless office. Photographs of the boyish obstetrician exchanging handshakes with Pete Wilson, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and George Bush cover the office walls and testify to the doctor’s generosity as a GOP contributor.
“Some people have funny ideas,” Pham says. “They call me a communist. I am not a communist.”
Pham says he came to the conclusion in the early 1990s that the aggressive isolation of Vietnam was strengthening, rather than debilitating, the communist government. At the time, Russia and Eastern European countries that had been run into the ground by incompetent socialist dictatorships were being transformed in the freewheeling image of Western capitalist democracies. But in Vietnam, where Americans were prohibited from doing business and American tourists could not spread the gospel of the greenback, there was no change at all. Meanwhile, the people of Vietnam were going hungry. The annual per capita income in Vietnam was around $250, one of the lowest in Asia. “I changed my mind and realized that we have to create economic opportunity for the people before we can hope to change the government,” Pham says.
This argument that political and human rights would follow economic progress was nothing novel. Indeed, as the Cold War mentality waned, such thinking was beginning to harden into foreign-policy orthodoxy. There were the so-called “rogue states,” which were deemed too intransigent to deal with. And vestigial Reaganite cold warriors intersected with human-rights advocates in an odd united front to protest trade with the “Tian An Men Butchers” of China. But for the most part, containment was on the way out and engagement was very much in. Yet Dr. Pham was way out of step with the ferociously anti-communist local leaders who argued that trade with Vietnam only benefits the so-called “Red Mafia” — the corrupt elite of the Communist Party.
Today, the argument continues over whether Vietnam should be granted Most Favored Nation trade status, the same low-tariff status accorded to other acknowledged human-rights violators such as China and Indonesia. That argument takes place at high levels of the State Department in Washington, D.C., but it does not take place openly in Little Saigon.
In fact, Truong Van Tran is correct when he insists that the Vietnamese-language media — Radio Saigon, Vietnamese television, and the many newspapers and magazines that serve this highly literate community — are closed to anyone who even hints at an oppositional viewpoint. Although thousands of Vietnamese-Americans have invested or are doing business in Vietnam, whoever dares to suggest that wide-ranging association with Vietnam is good for both countries is almost certain to meet a similar fate to that of Dr. Co Pham and Truong Van Tran. They will be labeled as communists and their views denounced as propaganda, spoken in exchange for favorable treatment from their puppet masters in Hanoi.
The methods by which the anti-communists have exerted pressure in the media run from violence to the kinds of economic coercion that compel self-censorship. Twelve years ago, Tap Van Pham, a publisher in the neighboring community of Garden Grove, was murdered in a firebombing of his office after his magazine, Mai, had run an ad for a company associated with Vietnam. That murder remains unsolved. According to a 1994 report by the New York–based Committee To Protect Journalists, eight of the 10 immigrant journalists killed since 1981 for the way they covered the news in their community were Vietnamese writers in California, Texas and Virginia. More recently, Westminster’s Yen Do, the former editor of the largest daily Vietnamese-language newspaper outside of Vietnam, was forced to resign his post when militant groups applied massive pressure on his paper after he mildly criticized the closed nature of politics in Little Saigon. He has retained his position as publisher of Nguoi Viet, but he says that he now has to keep out of the public eye. “Actually,” Yen Do says, “you can say there is zero tolerance of different views from the media in Little Saigon and the Vietnamese community.”
One student activist at UC Irvine, who uses the nom de plume Ao Vai, which means cotton shirt — a reference to a group of anti-French writers in the 1920s — decries the bullying of the extremist group Khang Chien. According to Ao Vai, this secretive group is funded through a chain of popular noodle shops. “You don’t know who they are, but you know them when you see them at demonstrations,” he says. “They are the ones who are always wearing army fatigues. The group is made up of soldiers for the South Vietnamese army, and for them the war has never ended.”
The irony of the situation, says Ao Vai, is that the extremists who claim to be fighting for democracy and political freedoms have become the main oppressors. “When are those anti-communist protesters ever going to realize that the real enemy here, the direct threat to liberty, is them?” Ao Vai wrote in a fax.
Thang Ngoc Tran denies that his group, the Vietnamese Communities of Southern California, or any other anti-communist organizations suppress free expression in Little Saigon. “We are refugees from suppression,” he says. The anti-communist majority has “the power of discipline,” he explains, meaning that if they exert pressure they do it within the law. “Mr. Truong parked his car in front of his store, and no one touched his car even though they knew it was his. No one crashed into his door. That is the power of discipline — not violence. So if someone says they’re afraid of violence, that’s not true.”
Hardliners argue that even to discuss improving relations with Vietnam is to abet the communist rulers, who have a knack for turning divisions among expatriates into useful propaganda. Hanoi, they say, hears every word that is said in Little Saigon. The place is crawling with spies, they say. VCOSC’s Thang Ngoc Tran estimates that as many as 20,000 communist spies are living in Southern California alone, conducting espionage under the guise of being political refugees. When a South Vietnamese soldier dies in prison, Thang explains, a spy assumes his identity and “escapes” to the U.S. Many of the boat people were communist spies as well, Thang says.
The man at the heart of this storm, Truong Van Tran, has all along insisted that he is not a communist. To advocate a different policy toward Vietnam does not automatically make you a communist, he reasons. His goal, Truong says, is to give courage to the many other Vietnamese-Americans who feel as he does but are too intimidated to speak up. When asked how many such people there are in the region, he answers 10,000 or 20,000, the same number Thang Ngoc Tran gave when asked how many spies there were. “Maybe it will take six months, maybe a year,” Truong says, but he plans to lead the Vietnamese community toward a better future.
After giving the interview for this article, Truong, his wife and his two children, dressed with the red scarves around their necks that were worn by Uncle Ho’s Communist Youth, climbed into their blue Hyundai and returned to Hi Tek video to once again confront the mob. The car was stopped in the driveway by a throng, which had been waiting since shortly after the verdict. Truong stepped out of the car and was faced by 26-year-old Giang Ho, a diminutive but tough-looking protester with the demeanor and exaggeratedly upright posture of an army drill sergeant. Giang Ho continued to bellow at Truong for several minutes as the crowd closed in on Truong and television cameras captured the drama. Suddenly, a spit-smeared hand reached out from the crowd, making an audible slapping sound across Truong’s face. A few moments later, Truong partially collapsed up against his car, his mouth once again agape in a kind of melodramatic horror. It took several seconds before he slumped to the tarmac, where Giang Ho blanketed him with the yellow-and-red-striped flag of the former South Vietnam. After the ambulances took Truong away again, journalists and police viewed the tape in a local news station’s microwave van and realized that it had been quite a parting performance. Little Saigon’s last best hope for free speech had lived to fight another day.
When this shadow play is over, Little Saigon will be left wondering, who has gained and who has lost? The ACLU calls Truong’s court triumph a victory for free speech. But some in Little Saigon have quietly expressed the viewpoint that real free speech is still unknown in Little Saigon. Rather than raising the level of discourse, they say, Truong’s inflammatory behavior and flaunting of painful symbols has reawakened deep hurts just as they were beginning to heal. The only winners, they say, are the extremists on both sides who have gobbled up camera time. Ao Vai is not sure if he agrees. “This has been quite an ugly spectacle,” he says, “but maybe this is just what we needed to shake things up.”