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Last week, Truong Van Tran, 39, began serving a 90-day sentence following his 1999 conviction on charges that he illegally duplicated and rented or sold videos at his store, Hi-Tek Video. But even as Tran finishes his first week behind bars at the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana, video piracy appears to be alive and well in Little Saigon. On a recent afternoon, we checked out five Little Saigon video-rental stores within a three-block radius of Bolsa Avenue and Westminster Boulevard. Four of those stores appeared to offer only pirated material. Just one, Paris by Night video on Bolsa Avenue, sold exclusively legitimate videos and DVDs.
Tran, in case you've forgotten, is the Vietnamese-American store owner whose display of a Vietnamese flag and a photo of Ho Chi Minh sparked massive boycotts of his business by tens of thousands of Vietnamese-Americans. In the course of the raucous March 1999 demonstrations, Tran called police to investigate a break-in at his store. There, police discovered hundreds of VCRs looped together in Tran's attic and a stash of pirated Asian soap operas.
During two years of court battles, Tran's lawyers unsuccessfully argued that his prosecution was part of a campaign to deny Tran his freedom of speech. The obvious motive: Tran's refusal to lower the red flag led to months of angry—and costly—demonstrations that embarrassed Westminster officials, including its police. City officials may have been delighted to learn that Tran, however passionate an admirer of Ho Chi Minh, was also a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist video pirate who could be arrested. No more protests; problem solved.
It's hard to believe Tran's prosecution isn't political. The evidence can be found at just about any video store in Little Saigon. Look for the stores doing lots of business. Walk in and examine the hundreds of generic-looking black videocassettes bundled together with rubber bands, with computer-printed labels in place of the missing slipcovers.
Every spare inch of space in these stores is covered with promotional posters for the same Asian soap operas Tran was accused of pirating. We failed to discover any legitimate videos or DVDs anywhere in these stores. (Note to shoppers: you may want to consider signing up; for modest fees of just $5 or $10 per month, store members can rent up to 20 videos at a time.)
Westminster police officials admit the problem was widespread but seem to believe it has disappeared. "We did a case back in 1996 where we raided eight stores," said Sergeant Marcus Frank, supervisor of the department's special-investigations unit. "We seized more than 1,000 VCRs and spent five full days with every detective packing [store] contents and hauling boxes. It was a tremendous expense of manpower. We needed four oceangoing cargo containers to put evidence in. We just didn't have room for all the evidence that was seized."
And they were jailed, right? Like Tran?
"Basically what happened is that almost everyone got off with fines," Frank continued. "I don't recall anyone getting jail time. But it sent a message because things settled down and [video piracy] moved to surrounding cities. Every now and again, we see them start to creep back in."
A Little Saigon resident who asked not to be identified said the Weekly's investigation confirmed her suspicions. "In Little Saigon, there's video piracy everywhere," she said. "And not just videos. They pirate everything from DVDs and laser discs to CDs and videos. There's so many of them, and it's so out in the open that it's not even funny."
Nor is it funny that Truong Van Tran, who had no previous criminal record, is behind bars for a crime that seems standard practice in Little Saigon.