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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.

February 28, 1999|DON LEE and 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.

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