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Little Saigon's never-ending war

Are protests in Orange County the last gasp of the anti-communist generation?

September 06, 2007|Nick Schou | Nick Schou is news and investigations editor of the OC Weekly.

Thirty-two years after the fall of Saigon, the war against communism rages on in Orange County's Little Saigon, the largest concentration of Vietnamese exiles in the world. Years ago, being called a communist there could get you killed -- between 1987 and 1990, a right-wing death squad claimed responsibility for the murders of five Vietnamese American journalists, including Tap Van Pham, editor of the Westminster-based weekly Mai.

But after more than a decade of free trade, restored diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam and the emergence of a new voting-age generation of Vietnamese Americans too young to remember the war, Little Saigon's extreme anti-communist bloc is finally losing its political monopoly. Though not without a fight.

The same folks who in 1999 hounded a video store owner by the tens of thousands for hanging a poster of Ho Chi Minh above his counter are now waging what seems like a last, desperate offensive against the commies.

The initial target of their ever-expanding boycott was Viet Weekly, a Vietnamese-language newspaper based in Garden Grove. Beginning July 21, hundreds of demonstrators, many wearing camouflage fatigues and waving South Vietnamese and American flags, have surrounded the newspaper's office once a week on Garden Grove's historic Main Street to accuse Viet Weekly of supporting communism and terrorism. The evidence? In early May, just after the 32nd anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, the paper printed two Op-Ed articles debating the war's meaning.

The first, by University of Michigan professor and Vietnam War veteran Keith Taylor, defended the U.S. role in the war and celebrated South Vietnamese soldiers as heroes. The more controversial article, by ex-Viet Cong soldier Ha Van Thuy, attacked Taylor's essay and referred to Ho Chi Minh as a "world-recognized cultural leader and great personality." Thuy added that "the 9/11 attacks were an appropriate price for America to pay for the things it did to the world."

Although Viet Weekly Publisher Le Vu insists that Thuy's piece, which he reprinted from a Vietnamese-language website, doesn't reflect his own opinion, it was the last straw for Vu's critics, including Republican Assemblyman Van Thai Tran of Garden Grove, the most powerful Vietnamese American elected official in the country. A week before the boycott began, Tran attended an organizing meeting at the Westminster Civic Center and told the crowd that in 2003 -- the same year Viet Weekly began publishing, back when Tran was still a Garden Grove City Council member -- he'd met with three FBI officials who told him that communist agents had infiltrated Little Saigon's media.

Tran denies that he was involved in the boycott against Viet Weekly and insists that his comments about the FBI weren't meant to imply that the newspaper's employees are agents of Hanoi. "Only they would know that," he told me. "I don't want to speculate. I don't read their newspaper." Still, the paper does help "divide and confuse" the Vietnamese American community, which is the primary goal of the Vietnamese government, Tran alleged.

So far, Viet Weekly has persevered despite losing numerous advertisers and distributors and receiving e-mails threatening to burn down its office. Each week the paper prints updates on the protests, which have now broadened to target any local business or event perceived as pro-communist. "They realize they cannot win against Viet Weekly, so they need easier targets," Vu said.

One of those targets was a July 29 variety show at the OC Pavilion in Garden Grove featuring performers from Vietnam, such as Tommy Ngo, who demonstrators accused of being a communist because he appeared in posters for the event wearing a Macy's belt buckle shaped like the word "Love." Because the inside circle of the letter "O" had been replaced with a five-pointed star -- familiar to Americans as part of the Macy's logo -- activists accused Ngo of subliminally broadcasting support for the Vietnamese government, whose flag also includes a star.

About 150 protesters gathered outside the performance with placards and flags and accused anyone who entered of being a communist. Trinh Hoi, a refugee lawyer and the evening's master of ceremonies -- he is also the son-in-law of former South Vietnam Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky and a friend of Van Thai Tran -- says the protest reflected anger over Hoi's participation in a similar event in Australia this year.

Also boycotted was the Aug. 26 premiere of "Saigon Love Story," Vietnam's first vaudevillian movie musical, at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheater. Right-wing Vietnamese-language websites called for a protest of the screening because the film was made in Vietnam. The chatter apparently began when activists noticed a poster for the premiere that called it a "red carpet" event.

"This film has no political slant whatsoever," said director Ringo Le, 29, who grew up in San Jose. "It's about love. There's a very anti-Vietnam sentiment right now, and they're just using every scapegoat imaginable. It's becoming like a Salem witch hunt."

As a boat person whose family fled communist-ruled Vietnam in 1979, Viet Weekly's Vu understands why first-generation residents tend to be touchy about the war. Still, he says, "Being called a communist in this town is just a tactic. Even some of the people criticizing us have been accused of being communist. But if we are successful in putting up a fight, they will lose their magic power."

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