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Photo by Johan VogelWith great fanfare, Kevin Khoa Nguyen on April 29 tried to pull off a Little Saigon boycott of "all propaganda materials" from Vietnam. In his designer sunglasses and white turtleneck, the lanky, 26-year-old USC graduate stood on a podium opposite Asian Garden Mall in Westminster and implored several dozen compatriots to reject any literature from Vietnam that he and others from the Vietnamese Community of Southern California (VCSC)—a local group that ostensibly represents Little Saigon (there have been "elections" that have resulted in different presidential candidates claiming to have won)—said were "infiltrating" their community. The crowd, which had gathered to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, responded with chants of "Da Dao Cong San!" ("Down with the Communists!").
Despite all the hoopla, it was largely a show of farce. Written and recorded material from Vietnam remains readily available in Little Saigon. And thanks to the Internet and cable television, programming from Ho Chi Minh City may very well be beaming into local living rooms as you read this.
Nguyen's plea "to throw all materials, all communist propaganda . . . books, magazines, newspapers, everything that the communists have done in Vietnam" into a trash can was a downsized version of a flashier—and symbolically scarier—event he had hoped to host. The VCSC originally planned a book burning; Westminster police decided that would be illegal without the necessary permit for setting an "open fire."
So Nguyen's group resorted to tearing up and stomping on CDs, videotapes, and assorted books and magazines purportedly from Vietnam, preceded by the playing of "America the Beautiful" and the South Vietnamese national anthem. Although politicians had shown up for other "Black April" programs, none appeared for the book banning, no doubt skittish about endorsing such an event linked in most minds to fascism.
Included in the collective trashing were weekly news magazines from Vietnam as well as at least one language textbook that a speaker complained had "infiltrated" Vietnamese schools in Little Saigon. Titles trashed included the June 5, 1999, issue of the glossy economics magazine Kinhte Saigon; Tuoi Tre, a youth daily; and a children's video, Hong Dam Dan. Ironically, nothing thrown into the can appeared to be explicitly "political": there were no books on Ho Chi Minh, even though a Vietnamese flag with his image crossed out on it was ripped apart at the start of the event.
Despite Nguyen's call to destroy everything from his homeland and boycott such materials in the future, he asserted to a Fox TV reporter that "here in America, we live in a democratic country. . . . All ideas, different sides should be presented. This is the other side."
When I challenged Nguyen on how he could then justify such tactics in a democracy, he backed away a bit from what he had just called others to do.
"People have to make up their own minds, right?" he said. "But we made up our minds that these things are not reflecting the truth, so we throw them out. . . . I'm speaking for myself. Personally, when I read something, I know it's trash. . . . I don't want to see it anymore."
He claimed he was "not advocating for anything. . . . You are responsible for what you read and see. If it reflects the truth, yes, well, then tell them. If it doesn't, tell other people, too. . . . Living in a democracy, we have to look at different viewpoints and consider what is the best course. And certainly the best course is not to use communist propaganda because it's lies. Lies are not good—never good."
Much as he tries to be an arbiter of the exiled Vietnamese community's political tastes, it seems apparent that few if any of Nguyen's compatriots are heeding his advice. Tu Luc—the Garden Grove bookstore that prides itself on its Web presence (www.tuluc.com) and has a physical location just blocks from the book-stomping site—stocks language and travel books, CDs, and videos from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. The mark-up is steep: a two-volume, Vietnamese-Chinese-English phrasebook set was selling for $8 per volume. I had picked up volume two in Saigon for 20,000 Dong—about $1.40.
There has been "no trouble" with the stocking of Vietnam-published titles, the cashier told us. She explained that the family-owned store, in existence for almost a decade and a half, does not deal directly with book dealers in Vietnam, but rather depends on individual travelers bringing back assorted titles to sell. If there is any trouble, it is from Vietnam customs officials who sometimes block the export of the titles. The store did not stock any current news magazines from Vietnam.
The call for a boycott runs counter to the Clinton administration's efforts to move toward full trade with Vietnam. The de facto situation here is that foodstuff from Vietnam is readily available along Bolsa Avenue, and you can find Vietnamese-origin news publications in Little Saigon. However, a reference librarian at the county-run Westminster Public Library said no materials from Vietnam are carried there.
But with the recent announcement that Vietnamese television will be broadcasting via satellite, this cordon sanitaire envisioned by Kevin Khoa Nguyen seems likely to be breached. Even now, Web surfers can easily reach the Vietnam News Agency website (www.vnagency.com.vn), as well as that of Nhan Dan, the Vietnamese Communist Party organ (www.nhandan.org.vn).