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Little Saigon's Own Edition of the Front Page : Viet Refugee Keeps Community Paper's Presses Rolling

CALIFORNIANS: Another in an occasional series.

August 18, 1986|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

WESTMINSTER — Thirty-three years ago in Saigon, a skinny Do Ngoc Yen scurried around his junior high school campus, distributing underground newsletters he and his friends wrote to oppose French attempts to control Vietnam.

Last week, no longer skinny, and with his name Anglicized to Yen Do, the same person stood in a cavernous, 5,000-square-foot converted vehicle-undercoating factory in Westminster. With a father's pride he waved his right hand toward six cluttered desks jammed so close together a pencil wouldn't slip between them. "This," he said, "is the editorial department."

Nearby stood the sloping layout boards of the advertising department. Beyond a partition lay a giant table for conferences, lunch and, on busy days, dinner too; across another partition sprawled the circulation area. In a nearby room, computer operators busily tapped stories into their machines.

A sense of urgency pervades the place, a tension that makes the room seem ready to spring to life.

This is the Nguoi Viet Daily News, one of this country's largest and most successful Vietnamese newspapers.

Yen Do, now a U.S. citizen, is editor of Nguoi Viet. He has seen the paper through its difficult birth and tenuous infancy since Dec. 6, 1978, when the first edition's banner headline screamed in Vietnamese "100,000 Boat People Will Be Airlifted to U.S." Today Nguoi Viet is a healthy, bilingual publication with a circulation of about 9,000. The Vietnamese population of Orange County is about 90,000, Do said.

Do has traveled a tortuous path on his odyssey from publishing a political newsletter in Saigon at age 12 to publishing a newspaper in Orange County at age 45. He has made stops along the way as a prisoner, poet, dishwasher, war correspondent, teacher's aide, political organizer, wallpaper hanger, refugee camp intern and in enough other positions to fill several resumes.

Nguoi Viet translates to mean Vietnamese people. As the name hints, Do's paper is intended to do more than disseminate news. "We try to help our small society to get along with the mainstream," Do said, watching intently from behind thick glasses to be sure the significance of his journalistic mission was understood. "We try to help Vietnamese to get along in society. If not, we have no future here. And we try to help our people get along with themselves."

Mission in Life

Do has had a mission in life since his pre-teen leafleting days. The son of shopkeeper parents has always been fiercely nationalistic.

When the French left Vietnam in 1954, 14-year-old Do found his Saigon home crowded with relatives fleeing the communist-dominated North. Their stories of communist oppression fueled Do's nationalistic zeal.

He helped publish "secret leaflets, just for high school boys to keep nationalist solidarity." Then, in 1957 when he was 16, Do learned to his chagrin that he had been working for communists who he said infiltrated student organizations, even the Boy Scouts.

Do's abrupt realization that he was working for communists resulted from a meeting of provincial high school student leaders, over which he had presided. After the meeting, secret police arrested many participants.

Do escaped arrest, but many of his friends were jailed. "I went to the police and accepted responsibility," he said. "My friends were released, but I was put in jail.

"They were looking for political details," Do said, explaining that questions asked and information given by the secret police tipped him off that he had been working for communist organizers in the student movement.

After two weeks of daily questioning, Do was released.

For the next year, Do said, his friends were afraid to be seen near him. A lonely Yen Do took refuge in reading and writing poetry and essays. His parents supported him, mainly from the proceeds of artificial flowers his mother made and sold in their shop.

Then, about a year after his release from jail, Do and about 10 other youths were called before a judge, who charged them with undermining the Vietnamese government.

Barred From School

Do was sentenced to two years in prison, but the judge immediately suspended the sentence "because it would have created an unnecessary political crisis," Do said. Do left the courtroom and bicycled to school. Within the hour, two teachers escorted him off campus and told him never to come back.

They said he had written "politics between the lines" in a school publication he edited, and "school administrators didn't want political activism at school, so they threw me out."

For the next four years, Do wandered throughout South Vietnam, "spending most of my time in libraries reading, mostly politics and history."

Do's family continued to support him while he read, wrote occasional pieces for newspapers, reviewed books and translated French articles for Vietnamese publications.

Having passed a high school equivalency test, Do entered the University of Saigon in the fall of 1963. He quickly became a leader of the anti-communist Saigon Student Union.

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