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Photo by Jeanne RiceTime was when Truong Van Tran could draw crowds of 15,000 people. All he had to do was show up at Hi-Tek Video, the now-defunct Westminster video rental store where he enraged seemingly the entire population of Little Saigon by hanging a Vietnamese flag and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh on his wall.
That was four years ago. The massive protests that erupted when Tran refused to remove the offending items ended when police arrested him for video piracy after discovering in his attic about 60 VCRs looped together, busily recording Asian soap operas. Tran received a sentence of 90 days in jail and three years' probation.
The tens of thousands of Vietnamese Americans who protested against him have moved on, but not Tran. In fact, he plans to devote the next 10 years of his life—he's very specific about this number—to speaking about freedom on behalf of "Vietnamese people in every country and in Vietnam."
Tran kicked off his new career as a public speaker on July 26 and 27, when he stood for several hours outside his former store, which is now a Catholic-themed gift shop. His plan: ignite an impromptu discussion on the "meanings of freedom" and "the violation of his rights as an American citizen." Tran sent out media alerts to every newspaper, radio and television station in Little Saigon, but no one came.
"I sit on the corner from nine in the morning to 12 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday," Tran said. "I don't talk to any people. They come and look and go away. So the second time, I take my bike so I can travel around the area. I went to my friend's restaurant and told him I am very poor, so he gave me some food. I don't have a business. I want to speak about freedom. But I need money because I pay for advertisements in radio, newspaper and TV. I want to share with the Vietnamese community why I did what I did."
Tran says he decided to become a public speaker during a trip to Vietnam last year. He spent three months traveling around the country, visiting temples and meeting with Buddhist leaders and Communist Party officials. During the trip, he penned two op-ed pieces, "Use Your Pen to Serve Your Country" and "No One Loves Vietnamese More Than Vietnamese Themselves" in the national daily newspaper Cong An.
He says the trip confirmed his belief that while life for average Vietnamese has improved since he left the country in 1980, there's still a lot of room for improvement and that it's still far from what you'd call good. "I travel alone, by bus and by walking," Tran recalled. "Nobody knows I am American citizen because I don't have any money. They think I am a poor Vietnamese. I talk to many people to understand the conditions in Vietnam. In my opinion, they need to change a lot. There's no political freedom there."
According to Tran, the Vietnamese government allowed him to travel freely around the country, but when he tried to give speeches in the countryside, local police were afraid that anti-communist spies might try to kill him. "In the villages, the Vietnamese authorities do not understand my politics. They don't want trouble. They know I hang the Ho Chi Minh picture and think if I come, other people will come to kill me. The anti-communists have spies in Vietnam."
Tran says there are also communist spies in Little Saigon. He says they make anonymous phone calls to radio shows and criticize local anti-communist leaders and express outrage over Westminster's Freedom Park, which features a statue of a U.S. and South Vietnamese soldier. "The spies want to divide the Vietnamese community," he said.
Of course, Tran realizes that many Vietnamese Americans consider him a communist spy. "I am not a spy and I am not a communist," he insisted. "I am a good citizen. I am not for South Vietnam and I am not for North Vietnam, I am for Vietnam and America. If the communists do a bad thing, I criticize them. And if anti-communists do bad things, I say, 'Don't do that.'"
As an example of the bad things anti-communists do, Tran recalled his recent appearance at a local party held by the host of a Vietnamese-language radio show. Tran, who was invited to attend, showed up with his wife and two young children. But he didn't stay long. "When I go there, the anti-communists yell at my wife and children, so I just leave," he said. "That's not good. That's not freedom. If you want to be freedom, you should act like freedom."
Journalists in Little Saigon say Tran is crazy if he thinks the Vietnamese community is going to forgive him or listen to what he has to say.
"The Vietnamese community will not listen to him because we do not like communism," said Cong H. Nguyen, Little Saigon Radio's programming manager. "If he has the right to [hang] a communist flag, we also have the right to object to it. His actions were equivalent to raising a Nazi flag in a Jewish community. What happened to the Jews, in a way, also happened to us. The flag brings up bad memories."
"Tran Truong has lost all credit," said Le Thuy, a staff writer with Nguoi Viet Daily News. "There is no way he will be listened to. He is not normal. No one even cares. He is nothing here. If he were to try to speak, someone would beat him up."Vuonganh Ngo contributed to this story.