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When Diane Vo left Vietnam for Orange County in 1975 as a 21-year-old refugee, she thought her exile days were over. But now Vo—the feisty Little Saigon radio personality who successfully sued Garden Grove two years ago over its burdensome cybercafé regulations—finds herself in that Borax with all-you-can-eat shrimp known as Las Vegas, far from the chaos that earned her fame and an ulcer.
She continues to visit Orange County to broadcast a public-affairs show every Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Westminster-based KXMX-AM 1190. But Vo's former business, her family-run Vietnamese Internet Center cybercafé, is now shut down, sold off earlier this spring by Vo along with her home. Once spic-'n'-span, the cybercafé is now as derelict as its fellow neighbors in a Brookhurst Street strip mall. The marquee that once announced Vo's name in bright-green letters is stripped and shattered. The inside of the former Vietnamese Internet Center is bereft of the 30 computers that once buzzed with the excited shouts of video-game-playing kids. Graffiti etches are blooming on the glass door.
Visiting the county recently, Vo lamented the demise of the Vietnamese Internet Center. "I have never been a quitter," Vo remarked in an interview with the Weekly. Her makeup and business suit were impeccable despite her just having driven nonstop from Las Vegas. "When my husband suffered an aneurysm and couldn't work anymore, I supported our family. When I wanted to start the cybercafé but didn't have the money, I took out the loans and repaid them. I did everything possible to stay in business. But they drove me out."
"They" are the Garden Grove City Council, which continually hounded Vo and her fellow cybercafé owners two years ago by imposing unfeasibly strict regulations such as mandatory security cameras, hiring of guards and an across-the-board 10 p.m. curfew. The council claimed they were merely looking out for the safety of juveniles. Cybercafé owners meekly complied—except Vo, who filed a lawsuit alleging that the city ordinances were unconstitutional. Orange County Superior Court Judge Dennis S. Choate agreed and ordered Garden Grove to abandon its plans. On Feb. 2 of this year, however, a state appellate court overruled Choate and upheld Garden Grove's draconian regulations.
City officials immediately implemented their cybercafé codes, but by then, such tactics were superfluous. Thanks to a PR war waged by Mayor Bruce Broadwater and City Councilman Van Tran, who described cybercafés as modern-day opium dens two years ago, people began avoiding the once-popular hangouts. Now, the city has maybe 10 cybercafés, and they're struggling.
Vo estimates she lost about $200,000 while simultaneously trying to keep her business afloat and amassing huge legal bills. She says the ensuing stress and depression also caused a stomach ulcer from which she's still recovering. "I've lived on Maalox every day since I began dealing with the Garden Grove City Council," Vo cracked.
But Vo is now happy. In December, a friend suggested she buy up real estate in Vegas, a city where Vo had spent many a gambling weekend. Vo visited Vegas, bought a couple of properties and quickly sold them for a profit. She's now a real-estate broker in the city, courting its rapidly expanding Asian community, and she hopes to open a cybercafé there someday.
Vo remains bitter about her experience with the Garden Grove City Council, a body dominated by staunch Republicans and faux-Democrat Broadwater who preach the virtues of capitalism while simultaneously squashing entrepreneurs. "They don't know how to deal with business," Vo says. "You have a man like Broadwater, who didn't know what a megabyte was. It's all Greek to them. They thought [cybercafés were] another arcade and just attracted crime. It made me lose faith in this country's government."
Vo contrasts that to her new home in Vegas, where the cybercafés—like the rest of the city—never close.
"Las Vegas is known as a city of sin," Vo smiles. "There are nudes everywhere! Prostitution is legal. But as long as you run your business properly, the government lets you run it. When I approached city planners with a cybercafé proposal and told them about my problems with Garden Grove, they laughed. 'We want your business—what do you need?' they told me."
Vo admits that there was one bright development out of her Garden Grove nightmare. "I became a more vocal person. I became stronger. I took my freedom for granted [in the United States], honestly. But when I fought against Garden Grove, I learned I wouldn't be intimidated. I sued them, and they did not execute me. This is something I tell my listeners on radio. This is something Vietnamese immigrants need to know."
Vo hopes to return to Orange County one day and run for office. Her Garden Grove business days are over, but the activism remains. "If someone doesn't have a voice," Vo concluded with a forceful, almost messianic intonation, "I'll lend them mine."