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A Vietnam veteran who served four tours of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps—three of which were cut short by combat injuries—Ray Welch isn't exactly a big fan of communism. But these days, he reserves his deepest enmity for the anti-communist demonstrators who keep returning to his block to protest the Viet Weekly, a local Vietnamese-language newspaper that is being boycotted by right-wing residents of Orange County's Little Saigon, the largest population of Vietnamese exiles in the world. Welch owns a building on Garden Grove's Historic Main Street.
At a Main Street protest on Aug. 16, Welch glared at demonstrators. In between puffs of an endless supply of cigarettes, he said he wished they'd just go away. "This is absolutely ridiculous," he said. "They don't care who they inconvenience. The first week they came, it was a novelty. The second week, it was a nuisance. Now, it's purely ridiculous."
Each week for the past month, demonstrators have shut down Main Street to accuse Viet Weekly of glorifying Ho Chi Minh and the 9/11 terrorist attacks (see "Red Scare in Little Saigon," Aug. 16). On Thursday, 200 protesters hurled insults at the newspaper and, with loudspeakers, unsuccessfully urged local property owners to join their cause. In an attempt to drown out the protest, Elvis tunes blared from the Azteca restaurant 100 feet down the street.
At the nearby Main Street Barber Shop, Carmine Cicero stood in front of his empty business, next to a sign that read, "I'm Tired of Losing Business." A boombox at the store's entrance sat on a stool with the radio turned up full-volume. "This is going too far," Cicero complained. "I'd have customers right now, but they can't find a place to park. These [protesters] have made their point. If you don't like the paper, don't buy it."
As Welch chain-smoked, he theorized that the boycott is the work of powerful Vietnamese-American politicians such as Republican California Assemblyman Van Thai Tran who are seeking revenge against Viet Weekly for its muckraking journalism. "The Viet Weekly broke the story on Tran's wife," Welch said, referring to a March 2006 story revealing that Tran's wife, Cindy Nguyen, had been convicted of medical-insurance fraud. "They're breaking through the glass ceiling, airing dirty laundry in the community, and some people don't like it."
Welch pointed out that on July 21, a week before the first major protest against Viet Weekly,Tran spoke to protest organizers at the Westminster Civic Center, telling the crowd that in 2003—the same year Viet Weekly began publishing and when Tran was still a Garden Grove city councilmember—he'd met with three FBI officials.
"And they said very clearly . . . that the campaign for the plan of communists to infiltrate our community had been happening and is still happening, especially with the newspapers, radio and media industry," Tran had declared. "And they can infiltrate [the media] rather easily. Therefore the Vietnamese-Americans, according to the advice of the FBI officers, should be highly aware of this effort."
In an interview last Friday, Tran denied he was involved in the boycott against Viet Weekly. "I was not [at the civic center] at the invitation of the organizers because of the Viet Weekly issue," he said. "I was there to give a briefing on my lobbying in Washington, D.C. . . . on the issue of human rights [in Vietnam]." Tran also insisted his comments about the FBI weren't mean to imply that Viet Weekly or its employees were agents of Hanoi. "Only they would know that," he said. "I don't want to speculate. I don't read their newspaper."
But Tran added that Viet Weekly is helping to "divide and confuse" the Vietnamese-American community, which is a primary goal of the Vietnamese government. "Viet Weekly has authored a series of articles over the years that have been upsetting to the Vietnamese community," he said. "They are selling to the wrong audience at the wrong time with the wrong message."
So far, protesters have failed to convince Main Street merchants to pressure Viet Weekly to leave town. The newspaper's landlord, Scott Weimer, calls the newspaper's publisher, Le Vu, a "stand-up guy" and added that he has no plans to evict his tenant. Meanwhile, Viet Weekly, despite receiving two e-mails threatening to burn down the newspaper's office in the past two months, has weathered the boycott, each week printing updates on the protests, which have now broadened to target any local businesses or events perceived as pro-communist. "They realize they cannot win against Viet Weekly, so they need easier targets," Vu says.
One of those targets was a July 29 variety show at the OC Pavilion in Garden Grove, which included performers from Vietnam like Tommy Ngo, who demonstrators accused of being a communist because he appeared in posters for the event wearing a Macy's belt buckle shaped like the word "Love." Because the inside circle of the letter "O" had been replaced with a five-pointed star—familiar to Americans as part of the Macy's logo—activists accused Ngo of subliminally broadcasting support for the Vietnamese government, whose flag also includes a star. Roughly 150 protesters gathered outside the performance with placards and flags and accused anyone who entered the building of being a communist.
Event organizer Trinh Hoi, a refugee lawyer and concert promoter—he happens to be the son-in-law of former South Vietnamese vice president Nguyen Cao Ky and a law-school friend of Van Thai Tran—says the protest reflected anger over his participation in a similar event in Australia earlier this year that also included performers from Vietnam. "People were not only discouraged from going [to the OC Pavilion], but were really blasted with bad names," he said. "They were calling people prostitutes, communist shits, really bad things. Most people, when they see that, they won't go inside."
Last week, Hoi wrote an editorial that aired on the BBC and appeared in the pages of Little Saigon's Nguoi Viet Daily News saying that while he didn't agree with everything Viet Weekly had written, the newspaper was being treated unfairly for exercising free speech. "We might not agree with Viet Weekly's views and how they approach things, but at the same time, it doesn't mean that we ought to kill them," he said. Since writing that editorial, Hoi added, he's been routinely labeled a communist traitor in the Vietnamese-American press.
Protesters have repeatedly picketed Orange County-based Lee Sandwiches—most recently on Aug. 19—because the chain's owner, Le Van Huong, met with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet during his June visit to OC.
Another target is the Aug. 26 premiere of Saigon Love Story, Vietnam's first vaudevillian movie musical, at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheater. In the past few weeks, right-wing websites have called for a protest of the screening because the film was made in Vietnam. The chatter apparently began when activists noticed a poster for the premiere that called it a "red carpet" event.
"This film has no political slant whatsoever," said director Ringo Le, 29, who grew up in San Jose. "It's about love. There's a very anti-Vietnam sentiment right now, and they're just using every scapegoat imaginable. It's becoming like a Salem witchhunt."