New York Times
February 11, 1999
Passions of Vietnam War Revived in Little Saigon
By DON TERRYWESTMINSTER, Calif. -- The passions, protests and restless ghosts of the Vietnam War came back to life Wednesday in a normally sleepy Orange County strip mall here, because a Vietnamese immigrant put up a poster of Ho Chi Minh in his electronics store and dared his fellow immigrants to take it down.
Those passions boiled over when the owner, Truong Van Tran, was knocked to the ground by an angry crowd that confronted him outside his store after a judge affirmed his right to display the poster.
The judge first had ordered him to take down the poster last month when demonstrators besieged his shop for five days. But Wednesday afternoon, as he returned to his shop to put it back up, his car was surrounded by protesters chanting "down with communism" and "go back to Vietnam."
Tran, 37, got out of his car and was confronted by a man who thrust a burning cigarette within an inch of his nose. Then another protester slapped Tran in the face with a hand covered with spit.
Tran fell to the pavement as his wife and two small children watched from a locked car. As Tran lay on the pavement, another man in the crowd draped the yellow, red-striped flag of South Vietnam over Tran and shouted, "Down with communism."
A woman in the crowd shouted, "I hope you die."
The police arrived about five minutes later and Tran was taken to a hospital by ambulance, complaining of chest pains.
Lt. Bill Lewis of the Westminster Police Department said police had asked Tran repeatedly to tell them if he was going to return to the shop so they could protect him. "But he just showed up," Lewis said.
The trouble began last month when Tran refused to take down the poster and a Vietnamese flag from his shop. The strip mall is in an area known as Little Saigon, which is home to about 300,000 Vietnamese immigrants.
For five days last month, as many as 400 immigrants rallied in front of Tran's small store, chanting "No to communism" and demanding that the display be removed.
Tran refused, saying that the First Amendment of his new country gave him the right to put up any poster or flag he wanted. The tension and the passions grew hotter.
One day, as Tran left the store, Hi-Tek, someone struck him in the back of the head and he fell to the sidewalk. He was treated at a hospital and released.
The mall's landlord took Tran to court to remove the display, contending that he was violating his lease by creating a public nuisance. The protest, the landlord said, was disrupting the other businesses in the mall, which is dominated by the signs and sounds of Vietnam, from food to videos to travel agencies.
Judge Barbara Tam Nomoto Schumann of Orange County Superior Court issued a preliminary injunction last month ordering Tran to remove the display.
But Wednesday, as more than 200 Vietnamese immigrants lined the courthouse hallway, many wearing stickers reading "No Vietnam communist," the judge dissolved her order. Though the "display is undisputedly offensive," she said, the poster and flag are symbols of free speech, "accorded the highest degree of First Amendment protection."
Then a team of beefy court officers escorted Tran and his family away through a back door. "It's a ringing victory for free speech," said one of Tran's lawyers, Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"I have a right to hang whatever picture I like in my store," Tran said in an interview Wednesday. "I know the law in this country."
Tran, who came to the United States in 1980, said he developed an appreciation for the former North Vietnamese president after visiting Ho Chi Minh City in November.
But a lawyer representing the protesters, Stuart Parker, said Tran's display was not protected because the flag and the poster were "fighting words" for a people still haunted by the memories of a country many of them fled when the war ended in 1975.
"I don't see it as a victory for free speech," Parker said. "I see it as a victory for inflaming free speech. It's a gray line."
Parker said many Vietnamese immigrants believed Tran was paid by the communists to provoke his countrymen. Tran has denied being a communist and the protesters at the courthouse Wednesday admitted that they had no proof that he was. But whether he is or he is not, does not matter when it comes to his freedom of speech, said Ronald Talmo, another lawyer for Tran.
Talmo said Tran was not trying to provoke but to communicate with his fellow immigrants, to help heal his and their wounds and hearts. Tran's motivation, Talmo said, "is the more exposure Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese flag have, the greater the chance of dialogue between the competing factions and the better the chance for understanding."
Understanding has sometimes been hard to come by in Little Saigon. The area is rabidly anti-communist and during the 1980s protests occasionally turned to violence and arson. Even those who dared speak in support normalized relations between the United States and Vietnam could be branded communists. But in recent years, the passions had cooled considerably.
Tran said his poster and flag had been up for months. For the most part, Talmo said, no one seemed to care. But a couple of months ago, someone complained to his nephew who was working in the store and Tran fired off a fax to an anti-communist group of Vietnamese immigrants, challenging them "to come over and clear me out."
Tran said he thought they would come to talk to him. Instead, he said, they came "to hit me."
Some of the protesters, he said, go to temple every day. "What does Buddha say?" Tran asked. "He says forgive."
New York Times
February 16, 1999
Vietnamese Immigrants Protest Hanging of Ho Chi Minh Poster
By DON TERRY
WESTMINSTER, Calif. -- In an increasingly tense standoff here between the First Amendment and memories of war, hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants on Monday blocked the entrance of a video store where the owner wanted to re-hang a poster of Ho Chi Minh.
Dozens of police officers, wearing riot helmets and carrying batons and plastic shields, stood in a long line of silence as the protesters, saying they would rather die than allow the poster to go up, shouted "Democracy" and "Freedom." Fearing that the demonstration might turn violent, the police persuaded the shop owner, Troung Van Tran, 37, who is also a Vietnamese immigrant, into staying away from the store Monday. But Tran's wife, Kim, said in a brief telephone interview, "we're going to do it another day."
Last week, Tran's First Amendment right to hang the poster of the former North Vietnamese president and a Vietnamese flag was affirmed by an Orange County Superior Court judge, who last month ordered the items taken down, pending a hearing.
Tran, who came to the United States from his native Vietnam in 1980, put up the poster and the flag on Jan. 18, to, he says, generate dialogue and healing within the Vietnamese immigrant community. But as word quickly spread that he had put the poster up in his tiny video shop in a strip mall here, hundreds of his former countrymen and their families rallied in front of his store, Hi-Tek, demanding that the picture be taken down.
Monday, as many as 600 demonstrators, many waving tiny orange and yellow flags of South Vietnam, began gathering at the store well before 9 a.m. Tran had said he would reopen his shop at 10 a.m., but he never showed up.
Donny Tran, who is not related to the shop owner, arrived the night before and slept in a homemade replica of a cage used to hold prisoners of war in Vietnam. "We forgot about the communist," Tran said, "then he put up his flag and I remember my nightmare, I remember how my father die."
At Hi-Tek's entrance, a group of about 20 women and small children sat on the ground, waving flags and vowing not to move. "These ladies," one of them said, "say they will die here if they have to. They risked their lives to be here in this country, so this is nothing."
Police Lt. Bill Lewis said the authorities were negotiating with the protesters and with Tran about how to proceed in the coming days since both sides say they will not give up. "The bottom line is," Lewis said, "that we have to maintain the peace and Mr. Tran's First Amendment rights."
Several protesters said they cherished freedom of speech, but that Tran was abusing it. "He doesn't know how to use his rights wisely," a speaker bellowed through a public address system, "so he doesn't deserve to have any rights at all."
February 20-26, 1999
L O S A N G E L E S
IN THE suburban neighbourhood of Orange County known as Little Saigon, this
year’s Tet—the lunar new year celebrated by the area’s 200,000
Vietnamese—has been disrupted by the arrival of an unlikely guest: none other
than Ho Chi Minh himself. The dead Vietnamese communist leader was invited
to greet the Year of the Cat by a local merchant, Truong Van Tran, who tacked
up a portrait of Ho on January 19th on the wall of his shop, Hi-Tek Video. The
trouble is that most of the local Vietnamese regard Ho as no hero, more an
amalgam of Genghis Khan, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot.
In the month since the picture went up, accompanied by the flag of Vietnam’s
communist government, Hi-Tek Video has been surrounded by a cordon of
hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters, enraged that this symbol of the
communism they fled from has reappeared in the heart of their community.
Placards this week, when Tet formally began, argued: “Ho Chi Minh = Hitler”.
First ordered to take down the portrait by an Orange County judge, Mr Tran
then had his right to display it affirmed by a higher court. His one attempt to enter
the shop since then, however, ended in a trip to hospital after a tussle with
boisterous demonstrators. The police have now asked him to stay away. A
shocked Mr Tran claims that he just wanted to start a dialogue within the
Vietnamese-American community. This was ambitious: Little Saigon has long
been a dangerous place to express approval of Vietnam’s current government.
Even so, until the flare-up in front of Hi-Tek Video, anti-communist feeling had
seemed to be on the wane. A new generation of Vietnamese-Americans has
grown up, with no direct memories of the Vietnam war but a vague admiration
for a small country that held out against a big one. The protests against Mr Tran’s
display broke out in the week when a young Vietnamese-American, Tony Bui,
took the top honour at the Sundance Film Festival for “Three Seasons”, a
nuanced and not unsympathetic look at today’s Vietnam.
But there were only a few youthful faces in the crowd at Hi-Tek Video. Most of
the demonstrators were deep into middle age, some of them wearing faded
military uniforms of the defeated South Vietnamese army. It did not help that the
Vietnamese government weighed in with a statement from its Los Angeles
consulate asking protesters and the local authorities to respect Mr Tran’s right to
free expression under the American constitution.
Mr Tran appears to suffer from a bit of a martyr complex. When he first erected
his display, he sent letters to local anti-communist organisations informing them of
his plans. And he seems to be willing to run his business into the ground to make
his political point. Since the portrait of Ho first went up, his shop has been either
blockaded by protesters or shuttered by riot-fearing policemen. In response to
other tenants’ complaints about the mayhem, landlords have filed papers to evict
Hi-Tek Video (Mr Tran’s lawyers are contesting this). Perhaps, like Ho himself,
Mr Tran looks to history for his vindication. It could be a long wait.
Los Angeles Times
February 24, 1999
Being Free in America Means Letting Other People Speak Out
Culture: Vietnamese refugees fled their homeland for the very right they now wish to silence in Little Saigon.
By LE LY HAYSLIP
W hen I was a young girl growing up in my little village in Vietnam during the civil war between North and South Vietnam, at different times, soldiers from both sides appeared and ordered all the villagers to come out and protest against the other side. And they said that anyone who didn't would be shot on the spot.
Like most villages then, ours had no electricity. So it was always very dark and frightening when we would stumble out and follow orders to march up and down, shouting slogans against the other side. But between life and death we did what we were told, without the freedom to think and decide which side we belonged to. Such villagers were victims who could not read, write and decide, but only take orders from whichever side brings the guns. And don't forget that by the end of the war, more than 2 million Vietnamese had been killed.
Like so many others around the world, many of my fellow Vietnamese tried hard to get out of that country and find freedom in the U.S., where some have lived now almost 30 years. With the Vietnam War over for almost 25 years, I thought I had found freedom here in the U.S. But for the past 10 years, I have been protested against by my fellow Vietnamese in the U.S.--sometimes in large, organized demonstrations--because they keep insisting I am a Communist. This is because I have often said the struggle should be over, that the suffering should end, that I would like to see reconciliation among all Vietnamese.
In the meantime, some of the sons and daughters of the protesters and those like them often have worked hard for me to come to their colleges and universities to give lectures about these issues. How sad it is that on some of those campuses, organized protesters from the Vietnamese community were demonstrating against me outside the lecture hall while inside their sons and daughters had gathered to listen and learn. This younger generation of Vietnamese Americans has been educated about American culture and American freedom of speech. Most of them understand that I have the right to tell my experiences and my thoughts, and that when their parents threaten me and disrupt my lectures, they are actually destroying the very freedom they sought when they came to the United States.
There is no freedom among us Vietnamese in the U.S. when these things happen. Why bother to come to the country of freedom if some Vietnamese have no right to put up pictures in their homes and shops, or to speak out their ideas, including ideas that are unpopular.
What is happening in Little Saigon now--the attacks on the owner of the video store who displays the Communist Vietnamese flag and a portrait of the late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in his window--shows that some members of the older generation of Vietnamese still don't understand about the freedom of the U.S., the country that gives equal rights of free speech to even those who say the most obnoxious or unpopular things. To seek that freedom for their families was why hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled, many even drowning in the sea as boat people in that attempt.
In the kind of Vietnamese village where I grew up, there was no education or free newspapers for Vietnamese to learn about their rights or express them. But here in America, we have those things. So everyone who comes to America should learn about freedom of speech in the U.S.? I have never met the shop owner, Truong Van Tran, but I see that he understands about his freedom of speech. I hope there are other Vietnamese living here who also understand and who will let every one among us live out the freedom we struggled so hard to find without being hurt or threatened.
- - -
Le Ly Hayslip Is the Author of Two Books, Including "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places," on Which a Movie by Oliver Stone Was Based
Los Angeles TimesSunday, February 28, 1999
Little Saigon Rallies Unify Community
Protests: A shop owner's display is seen as a watershed for Vietnamese refugees, but opinions about future are divided.
By DON LEE, TINI TRAN, Times Staff Writers
It was an electric moment: A roar rumbled through the crowds surging into an anti-Communist rally in Little Saigon last week as political rivals Thang Ngoc Tran and Duc Trong Do clasped hands.
"Fighting communism is the No. 1 goal," Tran would later say. "I shook Duc's hand at that time because we need to unite, put aside our disagreements and fight communism together."
As anachronistic as the movement may seem to mainstream America, the protest rallies over recent days have made history, drawing unprecedented numbers and healing--at least temporarily--bitter rifts in the notoriously fragmented Vietnamese American enclave in Orange County.
Though sparked by something as simple as shopkeeper Truong Van Tran's decision to display the Vietnamese flag and a portrait of late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, the event has become a watershed, observers inside and outside the community agree. They call it a turning point for a people who fought side by side with Americans in their homeland and then scattered around the world in a retreat from tyranny.
Where community leaders, Vietnamese Americans elsewhere and historians disagree is over the future: Is this a renaissance for the former nation of South Vietnam or a rite of passage for refugees on the verge of assimilation?
Protest organizers see a bright future of political action built on their newly ignited anti-Communist unity.
"With this crisis, we're turning a new page in advocating for human rights and democracy in Vietnam," said activist and attorney Van Thai Tran. "There's tremendous momentum coming out of this."
But others point to quieter signs that suggest the protest movement is one last stand before the painful memories of war fade and the maturing Vietnamese community--like previous immigrant groups--slowly discards the vestiges of homeland politics.
"This has been the history of the Chinese Americans, Korean Americans and Filipino Americans," said historian L. Ling-Chi Wang of UC Berkeley, referring to how each group faced pressure to extend its political allegiances and prejudices into the second generation. "I think it is a rite of passage," he said.
Most scholars agreed that the Little Saigon protests mark a significant moment for many of the 1-million-plus Vietnamese Americans in the United States. But they expressed doubts about whether these events would further fragment the nation's largest Vietnamese community or lead to broader political participation.
"People now understand more about the law and policy in this country," said Minh-Hoa Ta, associate director of the Vietnamese American Studies Center at San Francisco State University and herself a refugee.
A decade ago, she and others said, the video store owner who became the catalyst for the protests might well have been assassinated, as several advocates of normalization were in the 1970s and 1980s.
Trang Nguyen, a former anchor of Little Saigon TV, recalled the death threats she got several years ago after airing a BBC interview with senior Vietnamese government officials.
"They know better now than to firebomb the place," said Nguyen, who recently left for a television job in New Jersey. "The fact that they're going out there and demonstrating peacefully, it shows the community has matured."
But others were not so sure. Instead, they saw in the protests parallels to other refugee groups in the U.S., from Asia and Cuba, that put relentless pressure on compatriots to be loyal to their homeland political causes.
"In the '70s, the Korean community in Los Angeles was very similar," said Edward Chang, professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside. Chang said the context was different, though, because South Korea and Communist North Korea then and today exist side by side, but there is no longer a South Vietnam.
Chang said the regime in South Korea came down hard on Koreans in Los Angeles, trying to influence and often suppress their voices. "With [certain] recent immigrants and refugees, the anti-Communist ideology supersedes everything else. But as the generation changes, they will not share that collective memory."
Some years ago, Chang said, a bookstore opened in Koreatown selling North Korean books and items. "Initially there was some protest, but it's no longer an issue," he said.
Little Saigon, of course, is different in that it is a community mostly of refugees who have adopted the two-square-mile area in Westminster as the last outpost of South Vietnam.
Unlike other Vietnamese communities in Houston and San Jose, Little Saigon is not only larger--200,000 Vietnamese live in Orange County--but it is also home to many former officers of the South Vietnamese military and more recent political detainees. Memories of wartime atrocities are fresh.
That area is a "hotbed of conservatism," said Chung Chuong, who directs the Vietnamese American Studies Center at San Francisco State. Chuong said he believes the anti-Communist protests reflect a reaction by conservative elements in Little Saigon who were caught off guard by the swift pace of the restoration of U.S.-Vietnamese ties.
To Chuong, it's not clear that the protests reflect unity. "It may be a sign of continuous divisiveness and a lingering legacy of the war," he said. "It may be a key turning point," he added. "But we have to see whether the lessons of democracy will be learned."
The protests have already appeared to help unify various factions in the local Vietnamese community--most dramatically illustrated by the handshake between Tran and Do. Both men are strongly anti-Communist and share similar ideologies, but they have recently competed to lead an influential community group.
Now, both men say they've put their rivalry aside to unify Little Saigon in the anti-Communist protests.
There is little disagreement that no matter how strongly anti-Communist forces protest, more and more Vietnamese in the United States will return home to visit loved ones. Cultural and trade exchanges with Vietnam have accelerated since U.S. sanctions were lifted in 1994.
Even as thousands were marching in Little Saigon this month, many more were celebrating Tet--the lunar New Year's--in Vietnam. And in markets on Bolsa Avenue, it is not hard to find food and other products imported from the Communist land. Dr. Co Pham, president of Orange County's Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, says he was a target of protests when he led a trade delegation to Vietnam a few years ago.
"I wish that people may forgive," he said. "Maybe this will be the last stand."
Organizers and other supporters of the protests, however, say the recent events had little to do with travel and trade with Vietnam, or the coming of age of the Americanized second generation. Instead, they describe the rallies as an organized yet powerfully spontaneous reaction from extremists and moderates alike.
"I've never gone to a protest before," said Lan Khai, 51. "But this time I felt it was something I had to do. It's been more than 20 years. We've tried so hard to forget and move on with our lives, but he's [the shopkeeper] made all the memories come back."
"The big majority has kept silent and waited for some turning point," said Yen Do, publisher of Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese daily in the country, which was strongly in favor of the protests. "Then this happened and it came so fast."
Los Angeles TimesSunday, February 28, 1999
Searching for Tran
By ROBERT A. JONES
Where was Tran?
Nowhere, it seemed. I cruised the Westminster mini-mall, looking for the man with a photo of Ho Chi Minh taped to the wall of his video store. By this time, late in the week, Tran had grown infamous for his Ho fixation and I figured he wouldn't be hard to find.
But no Tran. No store, even. I looked and looked. I even had the name of the store, "Hi Tec TV and VCR," scrawled on the back of an envelope. No good. Couldn't find it.
On the other hand, the people who hated Tran were easy to find. A dense crowd of Vietnamese war veterans filled the sidewalks and parking lot, chanting, waving paper flags of the old Republic of South Vietnam. Every few minutes, protest organizers would rise from a collection of tables to lead chants and play military music. Behind them, an enormous flag of Vietnam was taped onto the mini-mall wall.
So I knew Tran was close. But where? Finally I asked an old gentleman in Army fatigues. He brightened.
"There!" he said, and pointed to the huge flag.
"No, no," I said. I wanted to find Tran, not the flag. The old man merely pointed again.
"Yes! There!" he said.
I looked again and, sure enough, I could see the outline of a storefront behind the huge flag. The paper flag had been taped directly over the windows and door of the store. Its very purpose, I now realized, was to render Tran's establishment invisible and unreachable. To get inside, you would have to rip the flag asunder.
But even if inclined to rip, you would not succeed. The sidewalk on either side of Hi Tec TV was blocked by the protest tables and other barriers. No one could even approach the store, and no one did.
Whether or not Tran huddled inside Hi Tec TV, I couldn't tell. Most likely, though, he was gone. What was he supposed to do in that dark, empty space? Watch one of his own video rentals, maybe "Forrest Gump"?
So Tran, like Elvis, almost certainly had left the building. Still, this result did not satisfy the protesters. They knew the Ho poster continued to hang on the wall inside the store, whether or not they could see it. And they were determined to remain, demonizing Tran, until he was officially expelled from the mini-mall and sent packing to God knows where.
And thus has Westminster, a.k.a. "Little Saigon," replayed a drama out of the American '50s. And with gusto, mind you. The free speech rights of Truong Van Tran matter about as much in Westminster today as did the rights of the Hollywood 10 after they were blacklisted by the studios in the midst of the Cold War. In both cases the dominant culture simply wanted the political heretics gone, disappeared.
But we have a lingering irony here, no? Because, even as the social extermination of Tran proceeds in Westminster, Hollywood is trying to salve its own wounds from the real Cold War half a century ago.
The director Elia Kazan, who famously ratted on friends before the House Un-American Activities Committee and became the symbol of personal betrayal, will be honored at this spring's Oscars with an award for lifetime achievement. The award will represent the first recognition of Kazan in decades.
In years past, Hollywood institutions such as the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the American Film Institute have been urged, quietly, to honor the man who directed such movies as "On the Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." All such entreaties have been turned back.
Finally breaking the taboo on Kazan was bound to incite the ire of blacklisted screenwriters and, sure enough, they are organizing a staid protest, asking attendees to "sit on their hands" when Kazan walks down to accept his award.
"I don't think it will be an unpleasant protest," says Frank Tarloff, a once-blacklisted screenwriter. "It will be designed to make a point that this man turned in his closest friends and no one should forget that. He may be a great artist, he is not a great man.
"At this point, there are not many of the blacklisted people left. Of the ones I know, all support the idea that some protest should be made when Kazan walks down the aisle at the Oscars."
All of which is understandable. But I predict the sense of reconciliation will overwhelm the protest at the Oscars. I predict the television cameras will roam the audience when the award is announced and find very few people sitting on their hands.
That's because, for Hollywood, and for most Americans old enough to remember, the Cold War truly has ended. And the sigh you hear is a sigh of relief. Continuing to fight the Commies now seems quaint, like the middle-aged man who obsessively replays his high school football games.
We're over it, left only with ambivalence. No one will cheer Kazan with complete enthusiasm or condemn him with the old rage.
But in Westminster, no one is "over it." The Cold War rages on. The political memories in Westminster have nothing to do with blacklisted screenwriters but rather with lost brothers, tortured mothers and ruined lives at the hands of Uncle Ho and his still-thriving Communist regime in Vietnam.
So they are willing to hound Tran and his measly Ho picture out of existence, and feel very little guilt about it. The hell with the 1st Amendment. They will send him packing and never lose a night's sleep, even as an older generation of Americans tries to make amends for similar acts more than 50 years ago.
Cold War betrayal may have lost its power in Hollywood. Here, in Westminster, it still draws a crowd.