By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Across the street, James Du, a Pasadena resident with long, curly hair and big forearms, is the only person carrying a sign defending "Viet Weekly's Right to Free Speech." He's surrounded by cops. People marching to join the protest yell at him in Vietnamese, but Du insists that many Vietnamese motorists who have driven past the corner have honked their horns in support of his sign.
"When I first got here today, [protesters] tried to grab my banner and hit me," he says. "They try to drive people like me with a different opinion out of town. But most Vietnamese are not fanatics like them. They drive by and give me the thumbs-up, but they dare not show up and support me. But I know you have to fight for your rights." Du adds that he isn't intimidated by the death threats he's received. "When I believe in something, I do it," he declares. "I believe in my cause."
Wearing a white linen shirt and sipping a chai latte, Le Vu seems remarkably relaxed for a man considered a communist by thousands of people who live within just a few miles of his newspaper's offices. Four days after the protest, Vu fields phone calls from worried advertisers and harried employees from his seat in a Main Street café. Tomorrow, his newspaper goes to print, but for the first time in Viet Weekly's four-year history, he's having problems finding places willing to display the newspaper. Several of his employees have received threatening calls since Vu interviewed Vietnamese president and former Viet Cong guerrilla Nguyen Minh Triet. A day after that June interview, Vu says, he received an anonymous e-mail threatening to burn down his office.
"I didn't save the e-mail," he says. "When I first started this paper four years ago, I got threats, and the police just took a report."
Vu concedes that his family worries about his safety. "Most Vietnamese who lived through war and a lot of conflict adopt a very cautious attitude. My family is like that, too. They see many things turned around and people getting killed by their own people. They just want to go about their business and not take a stand—like Americans would—for what they think is right."
Vu is more worried about the 20 or so advertisers who have dropped their accounts and a growing handful of local stores that will no longer carry his newspaper. "In the past few weeks, I checked with my accountant, and we have lost four or five advertisers," he says. "We're trying to get new ads, but it's hard. We're hoping to weather this quickly."
He believes the protests are the work of his competitors in the Vietnamese-language press. "A lot of people are still anti-communist," he says. "They truly think that we are communists, not because they read our newspaper, but because of this manipulation. They print tons of articles against us and none defending us. Even some of the people criticizing us have been accused of being communist. But if we are successful in putting up a fight, this minority will lose their magic power."
It wasn't too long ago that being called a communist in Little Saigon could get you killed. Early in the morning of Aug. 9, 1987, Tap Van Pham, then-editor of the Vietnamese-language entertainment magazine Mai and better known under his byline, Hoai Diep Tu, was sleeping in his Westminster office when it caught fire. Pham died of smoke inhalation, and police determined that someone had started the blaze with gasoline. The next day, a note arrived at the headquarters of Nguoi Viet Daily News taking responsibility for the murder on behalf of a shadowy death squad, Viet Nam Diet Cong Hung Quoc Dang, or the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation (VOECRN).
According to a December 1994 report by the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Pham's murder prompted the FBI to list VOECRN as a terrorist organization that year. The clandestine organization had first turned up six years earlier, however, in connection with the San Francisco murder of journalist Lam Trang Duong. On July 21, 1981, a gunman shot Duong, a left-wing activist who had immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and opposed the Vietnam War, as he walked down the street. Although police at first suspected common criminals, VOECRN took responsibility for Duong's death a week later in telephone calls to local Vietnamese-language newspapers.
Besides Pham and Duong, VOECRN killed three other journalists between 1980 and 1991: editor Nguyen Dam Phong of Houston and layout designer Nhan Trong Do and editor Triet Le, both of whom worked for a Vietnamese-language magazine in Fairfax County, Va. All five journalists had angered the right-wing exile community by printing what were viewed as pro-communist editorials, investigative stories exposing alleged fraud by extremist Vietnamese exile groups, or, in Pham's case, simply running advertisements for Canadian businesses that promoted travel services and currency exchanges with Vietnam.
In 1990, Yen Ngoc Do, then-editor of the Westminster-based Nguoi Viet Daily News, produced a segment for a Little Saigon-based television show, which included footage shot in Vietnam. For a brief moment, the Vietnamese flag appeared in the background of a wide-angle shot. For that, Do's name turned up on a hit list taped to telephone poles in Little Saigon. Just a year earlier, someone had burned a Nguoi Viet delivery truck in front of the newspaper's office. On the wall of the building nearby, someone wrote the following message: "Nguoi Viet, if you are VC, we kill."