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Tinh, Tien, Tu, Toi, Thu--Love, Money, Prison, Sin, Revenge : An Immigrant Unravels a Myth-Fueled Dream That Ended Violently and Reflects on How a Good Son of One Country Becomes the Errant Child of Another

March 13, 1994|Andrew Lamm | Andrew Lam is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and was a Rockefeller fellow at UCLA last year. His work has appeared in the New York Times and the Nation

On the afternoon of April 4, 1991, 15 years, 11 months and 27 days after the end of the Vietnam War, four Vietnamese youths armed with semiautomatic pistols stormed into a Good Guys electronic store on Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento and held 41 people hostage. Speaking heavily accented and broken English, they issued what the Sacramento Bee described as "a series of bizarre demands." They wanted a helicopter to fly to Thailand and fight the Viet Cong, $4 million, four bulletproof vests and 40 pieces of 1,000-year-old ginseng roots.

While a crowd gathered across the street, some enthusiasts equipped with their own camcorders, TV reporters informed viewers that three of the gunmen were brothers--Loi Khac Nguyen, 21, Pham Khac Nguyen, 19, and Long Khac Nguyen, 17--and the last, Cuong Tran, 16, was Long Nguyen's best friend. The Nguyen brothers had come from a poor Vietnamese Catholic family headed by an ex-sergeant of the South Vietnamese army. All four were altar boys. Three of the youths had dropped out of school or had been expelled. None had been able to find a steady job.

The gunmen could be seen on live television behind the store's glass doors, strolling back and forth with their firearms, their hostages bound at their feet. Sacramento County Sheriff Glen Craig, who had implanted listening devices in the store, reported that the gunmen were jubilant at seeing themselves and hearing their names on TV--"Oh, ah, we're going to be movie stars!" The sheriff had also told reporters that the gunmen belonged to a loosely knit gang called Oriental Boys--an error, as it turned out, since police couldn't prove membership in any gang.

As the siege wore on, negotiations between the gunmen and the taut-faced, gray-haired sheriff reached a stalemate. The gunmen, for their part, had grown increasingly edgy and refused to negotiate after authorities met only part of one demand--providing them with a single bulletproof jacket. Sheriff Craig, on the other hand, later told reporters that the four would not "focus on any single demand. They were attempting to gain notoriety, attention and, perhaps, some transportation out of the country."

Eight-and-a-half hours later, after the gunmen wounded two of the hostages, a SWAT team raided the store on live television. Three of the young men were killed immediately, but not before one of them sprayed the hostages with bullets, killing two employees--John Lee Fritz and Kris Sohne--and a customer--Fernando Gutierrez--and wounding eight more. Loi Nguyen, the oldest, and the one who wore the bulletproof jacket, was seriously wounded. His trial on 49 felony counts and three counts of murder is set for July 11. He is pleading not guilty.

As I watched this tragedy unfold on my TV set that night, I remember being overwhelmed by an irrational fear. It was the fear that the Vietnam War had somehow been renewed by those gunmen and by those helicopters hovering over the store. And though I was on the safe side of the TV screen now and judging their barbaric acts, I was not without this singular sense of foreboding: Six years ago I could have been one of them.

If the story of the Good Guys ended in carnage on the linoleum floor of an electronics store, it began an ocean and an epic journey away, nourished by numerous subterranean streams. It is those streams I am foundering in. I am at once too close and too far from their story. Though an American journalist now, I came to this country as a Vietnamese refugee, the son of a South Vietnamese army officer. The young men and I, through our fathers, are veterans of a civil war we never actually fought. In their demands, I hear the thematic echo of vengeance, which forms and shapes all Vietnamese youths who grow up in America. Perhaps all this binds me to the Good Guys hostage-takers nearly two decades after the last U.S. helicopter hovered over a burning Saigon before heading toward the South China Sea.

WHEN I ASKED FOR DIRECTIONS, THE blond kid on Stockton Boulevard rattled off names of generic American landmarks in an amiable tone: Midas . . . Shakey's pizza . . . Carl's Jr. . . . man, you can't miss it. . . . Turn left at the House of Fabrics. Next to it, you'll see the Good Guys.

Inside, the first thing you noticed was yourself. Walk through the glass door and a dozen camcorders gave you back your reflections on the various TV sets. For as little as $549, you could be (oh, ah) your own movie star.

I saw but tried not to look at my own faces on those TV screens. The faces, my faces, appeared expressionless, the thick brows slightly raised, touched perhaps by a tinge of skepticism. I do not believe in instant fame, had always thought Andy Warhol's prediction an odd American curse.

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