Red Scare in Little Saigon

Le Vu's Viet Weekly newspaper endures OC's latest anti-communist witch-hunt

Hoang Kiem Nam, a former South Vietnamese war correspondent who writes a political column for Viet Weekly, chafes at the charge that the newspaper supports communism. "I think it's complete nonsense," he says. "We love freedom, and we have to use freedom to defeat tyranny. Any regime that is oppressing people, we should go against them, but we shouldn't use their means by creating a division in the community. A lot of newspapers [in Little Saigon] are involved. It's a conflict of interest."

Nguoi Viet's Hao-Nhien Vu denies that his newspaper is stirring up opposition to Viet Weekly, although he acknowledges it has printed many stories critical of the newspaper. He says he sympathizes with Viet Weekly's claim that it is being attacked for airing controversial views with which it doesn't necessarily agree. "I try to make that argument with people, but most people I talk to don't buy it," he says. "I don't get the sense that they are agents sent by the Communist Party to infiltrate the community."

Like Le Vu, Hao-Nhien Vu has been accused of being a communist—in his case for daring to travel to Vietnam as a journalist. "I get people calling me names all the time," he says. "But in the case of Viet Weekly, it seems to be much more deep-seated."

Le Vu (center) and staff take over Main Street. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Le Vu (center) and staff take over Main Street. Photo by John Gilhooley.

Le Vu insists that the fact he's not a communist is beside the point. "The communism I experienced after the war is something I wouldn't wish on anyone, even my worst enemy," he says. "But what I'm doing has nothing to do with my political beliefs. Being called a communist in this town is just a tactic. It happens all the time. That's why I don't take this too seriously. There is no freedom of speech in Vietnam. We have it here, but look at the level of press freedom in Little Saigon, the capital of the Vietnamese community in America. The Viet Weeklyis the only voice trying to break this boundary and provide voices outside the mainstream. We will fight to the end because there is no free speech in Vietnam. Here, there is, but we don't use it—and we cannot afford to lose this fight."

Just before noon on July 26, five days after the Main Street protest, 20 copies of Viet Weekly are stacked in a neat pile on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store in a mini-mall at the intersection of Bolsa Avenue and Magnolia Street in Westminster. The liquor store used to sell the newspaper for 50 cents per copy, but the owner says she's tired of being yelled at by anti-communist activists. "No sell," she says in English before walking away.

Five minutes earlier, an elderly woman who was selling the paper on the sidewalk out of a shopping cart had been chased away when she complained about the fact that they were telling people not to buy Viet Weekly. A newspaper employee who witnessed the event called police, who have just arrived, along with Le Vu. The two cops quickly determine that no papers were stolen. "I have no problem with you selling the paper," one of them tells Vu. "But if they're telling people not to buy the paper, that's freedom of speech. There's nothing we can do."

Standing next to Vu is Chuoi Ly, who has worked as a distributor for the newspaper since it was founded four years ago. "Every store I go to today says they can't sell this paper," he says. "Every place that advertises, they're scared. I'm scared, too. They say, don't deliver this paper, but I need money."

Although the protesters' call for a boycott of Viet Weekly is taking an obvious toll on advertising sales and the distribution network, the 20 copies of the newspaper are all that's left of the 300 Ly brought to the corner just a few hours ago. One customer, Quan Hua, says he drove from El Toro to buy his copy. "I'm a supporter of Viet Weekly," he says. "I've bought this paper for many years. I went to a few other places to look for it, but there's nobody selling this paper."

"Why do you like this paper?" interrupts "Peter," an employee of a laundromat next door to the liquor store, who didn't want to give his last name. "I don't like this paper. I heard a lot of people say they support communism. People here don't read it."

"Freedom of speech," Hua answers, waving his hand in the air.

"Put the hand down," Peter says.

"We have an argument—we both talk," Hua continues. "Freedom of speech."

"Put the hand down," Peter says.

While they're arguing, a woman walks onto the sidewalk from the parking lot, grabs a copy of Viet Weekly, and drops 50 cents into a jar. Two more customers stop to purchase the newspaper. All 300 copies have now disappeared.

Le Vu walks up to Peter and asks why he's angry.

"They support communism," Peter says.

"No they don't," Vu insists.

"People don't buy this paper," Peter says. "Just ask them!" He stalks off.

Vu takes a deep breath. "These people are actually nice people who just don't like communism," he says. "And they're being used."

For more on this story, see a slideshow here.

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